Four Downs: Packers-49ers NFC Wild Card playoff preview
Four Downs previews the Packers-49ers NFC Wild Card playoff showdown at beautiful and balmy Lambeau Field on Sunday. Shhh don’t tell us we’re wrong about that we’re still waiting for a heat wave. ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and click here for more information about our Frozen Tundra Snow Creation contest.
1. Every play only lasts a few moments. A brief burst of energy and movement, then a small lull until the next. Those moments in Chicago in the Packers-Bears winner-take-all Week 17 meeting were so mixed with mistakes and near-misses, it appeared they’d eventually add up to a loss to a Bears team that, while showcasing its dangerousness, eventually left a few more plays on the field.
As we all know, those moments didn’t make defeat, and really, as the Packers closed the regular season just above the fault line of .500 at 8-7-1, there’s no other way it should have made sense to finish the campaign than by a only couple more good things sprinkled in to outweigh the bad. Green Bay was simply always one small step ahead of the jaws of defeat. In short, the Packers are the character who escapes when the villain decides to talk about plans and what they’re going to do rather than actually finishing the protagonist off.
No matter how close to dead they appeared on the Bears’ second-to-last offensive possession, Jay Cutler’s lofted pass to Alshon Jeffery – the kind of over-and-around-the-defender chance Jeffery so often turns into receptions – on third-and-17 fell to the ground, and the Packers coughed up another breath. Which is all Aaron Rodgers sometimes needs. But a string of nerve-wrackingly fingernail-thin conversions on two fourth downs – the throw-and-catch between Rodgers and Jordy Nelson on fourth-and-1 was one of the single most terrifying plays we’ve ever watched – and Green Bay was still out of field goal range. They kept keeping themselves alive only to face the end again.
2. All these little moments of random action. Or inaction, when Rodgers fumbled the ball split seconds before snapping off a throw. Bears linebacker James Anderson runs past the ball, only making a sort-of attempt to scoop it up. The ball just sits there. Jarrett Boykin pokes at it, then doesn’t, then does pick it up. He stands there for a few more moments before it finally clicks in on the field that he should probably run into the end zone. That was a play the Packers actually scored real legitimate points on, and in terms of straight-up weirdness, there might not be anything that describes their season better.
On fourth-and-8, John Kuhn recognized Julius Peppers had a free shot on the other side of the play to piledrive Rodgers and end the Packers’ season, then lunged over to take him out at the legs. Rodgers rolled and set, flicked a ball that tickled the top of the TV screen before cameras panned to a wide-open Randall Cobb, who had some of the longest moments of his life waiting for that pass to drop from the sky.
All the giant decisions made in tiny moments. Kuhn’s recognition and block; Bears’ safety Chris Conte chopping his feet around the first down line, which Cobb identifies almost instantly and takes off down the field; Rodgers doing Rodgers things, eluding a certain sack and putting a pass perfectly into a receiver’s arms. Then, on Chicago’s final drive, the pass defense knocking a jump ball away and intercepting Cutler’s last heave.
In terms of pure survival (another defining trait this year, along with said weirdness), this was Green Bay’s 2013 regular season. Things looked not-so-good to start, then the Packers regained their footing and began to impose their newly-balanced offense while the defense tightened up, making opponents trudge for everything they got. Then it all went to hell, just about. But even in that descent Green Bay pardoned themselves from the guillotine three times before the Week 17 showdown – the Minnesota tie we all hated and the Atlanta and Dallas squeakers – when it appeared there couldn’t be another outcome.
They couldn’t be killed. They were also given life. Their friends in the NFC North stepped in in their time of need, and if you want to properly appreciate how the Packers didn’t accept their dealt cards this season, all you have to do is look towards the Detroit Lions or, to a lesser extent, the Bears. (Chicago dealt with its own rash of injuries and, like Green Bay, at least gave themselves a shot at the end.) Battling for survival is always going to be an interesting plot device, but it’s also what we expect, to a degree, right? Never Give Up, Keep Fighting, etc., those motivational doctor’s office posters are always easily applied in sports, especially with a lack of anything else to say. In Green Bay, it was hope, and waiting, and that.
Complete self-sabotage, on the other hand, is the journey towards speechlessness. It can come with various degrees of expectation depending on who we’re talking about, but watching Detroit was essentially the opposite of self-preservation over the final three weeks of the season. The Lions had the division prepared for them like a beautiful meal, the spread all laid out across a long table of rich mahogany. They then decided, “Eh, you know what? This looks okay and all but I think I’ll drive through Taco Bell instead.” Their nausea was self-induced.
Everything that materialized and came together as this season can’t really be described as anything but unbelievable. The Packers got such a gift from the Lions that it warranted the end of the hot-aired, otherwise empty, tenure of Jim Schwartz, Detroit’s Talent-to-Results Ratio finally too much to bear. Green Bay, as the overall record very much indicates, as the singular results we remember reinforce, had a lot of both good and bad times in 2013. The more you distill it, though, and break it all down to the little moments of play, and the smaller moments that make those up, the Packers somehow did enough, at perfect and desperate and unthinkable times, to incredibly stay nostrils above water. That’s how a division championship is born from 8-7-1.
3. Now they’re here hosting their most recent monkey on the back, the San Francisco 49ers. Did you hear it’s going to be cold in Green Bay on Sunday? We’ll be there, and we’d be cutting open a Tauntaun to wear if we had the option. We can’t imagine San Francisco being super enthralled with leaving temperate temperatures for this block of ice of a state. Sometimes, we guess finishing 12-4 overall and winning your final six games of the season doesn’t always earn what you think it will.
We also think it’ll probably bother us, the fans, more than the players. The 49ers want to beat you repeatedly into submission over the head and torso with heavy steel, and you can do that in any weather provided you’ve got bundle of tension Jim Harbaugh ready to pop veins if you don’t. Their defense is as mean and physical as anyone else’s in the league. Offensively, while Colin Kaepernick maybe hasn’t had the season to match crazy over-the-moon expectations, all we know is that he’s been rather harmful to the Packers in two games and that’s about all that should matter here.
It’s great to have another game at Lambeau Field, and maybe the Packers should be a little more prepared for the cold, but the 49ers won here last season (albeit in September), and in general a tank is made to roll along through any terrain. We’re not saying they’re unbeatable, because we like to believe in crazier things than an armored vehicle sputtering out in frigid Wisconsin air, but all three of Green Bay’s units should be severely tested. This ain’t the NFC North anymore, is what we’re saying.
4. Deep into the evening of Nov. 30, 2013, it appeared that college football was going to be stuck with an Alabama-Ohio State National Championship game. The Crimson Tide were going to add another wall of stone around their dynasty or the Buckeyes would either force you to root for them or serve as the face of Big Ten embarrassment once again, whichever was less worse for you to fathom.
Then Auburn ended Alabama’s reign in the best possible fashion, and Michigan State elbowed and headbutted their way to a Big Ten title. Suddenly and without warning, an Auburn-Florida State championship tilt invigorated college football with excitement where there was once only stale resignation.
Alabama was a field goal, or one tackle and a possible overtime away from going to the SEC Championship game and whatever would come next. Now they’ll not only have the Iron Bowl to remember, but they enter the offseason on the heels of a shocking 45-31 shredding at the hands of Oklahoma, a team led by a freshman quarterback and ferocious defense that hounded A.J. McCarron all night in New Orleans.
We’re saying this because A) it’s truly ridiculous to think about Alabama’s almost-certain national title run dissolving down to where they’re at now and B) that’s how fast entire seasons can spin off in new and unknown directions on the hinges of one play. You never know which little moments are going to set it off, or when. Trying to see them coming is impossible; sometimes they don’t show up anyway. But when these things happen you’ll remember because they change everything.
The Packers keep living this season, and right now that still seems crazy enough. Because of that and because of football’s overall fragile sanity – it’s all the more delicate in the postseason – the only thing we absolutely know for sure is that we’re going to freeze on Sunday. We might not say this then, but right now we’re happy to do it.
(On the following scale: Ted Thompson is a tough guy to read. In an attempt to pay homage to his flat style of delivery, we will couple our pick with a 1-5 rating scale of our confidence translated into Thompson Confidence, which, we feel, is just as ultimately silly and tough to derive meaning from as choosing a score.)
Honorary Ted Thompson ‘I feel confident’ scale of confidence: SYSTEM ERROR [UNKNOWN VALUE] ‘I feel confident’-s out of 5.