The Green Bay Packers kicked off their self-inflicted playoff-to-the-playoffs run on Sunday with a 45-17 thrashing of the New York Giants at Lambeau Field.
Green Bay's performance shouldn't be downplayed just because of the Giants' meltdown-for-the-ages last week against Philadelphia. That had nothing to do with anything, as the Giants themselves showed by rallying from a quick 14-0 deficit on Sunday. The Giants, who had as much to play for as the Packers, entered the game with the powerhouse running attack and indomitable defensive line. But it was the Packers who handily won in the trenches on both sides of the ball. When the offensive line plays like that, Aaron Rodgers is unstoppable. When the defensive line plays like that, the ballhawking secondary can do its thing.
The all-around dominance sets up a Round 2 playoff game – make that a regular-season-finale showdown -- against the hated Chicago Bears next Sunday afternoon here at Lambeau. If the Packers play like they did against the Giants, they'll qualify for the playoffs for the third time in four years. No small feat considering they started a waiver-wire pickup at defensive end and their fifth choice at right outside linebacker on Sunday.
Of course, that "If the Packers play like …" line is a king-sized "if" for a team that seems to enjoy dipping its fingers in gasoline and then playing with matches. For the record, the Packers have lost games to the Dolphins (7-8), Redskins (6-9) and Lions (5-10) in mind-numbing fashion, and in excruciating fashion in the final moments to the Bears (11-4), Falcons (12-2) and Patriots (13-2).
Really, the Chicago game should be for a first-round bye rather than the Packers playing for their season again. Which is a shame, because they have as many ingredients of a Super Bowl champion as any team in the league, led by the three ingredients that are as important as flour, sugar and butter in those cookies we've all enjoyed over the last week. They've got the great quarterback in Rodgers, who showed his big-game acumen with a career-best performance against the Giants. They've got playmakers on both sides of the ball. And they've got a defense that keeps the opposition out of the end zone.
Seriously, who would be surprised to see the Packers get a rematch against the Patriots in the Super Bowl in six weeks? Then again, who would be surprised to see the Packers blow a three-point lead in the final minute next week by watching Devin Hester break a long kick return or James Jones fumble or Bryan Bulaga blow a pass protection or Charles Woodson get called for pass interference?
The Packers are like every other playoff-worthy team in the NFL: good but fatally flawed.
Too many fans just blindly point the finger at Mike McCarthy for the team's uneven play. And to be sure, the coach certainly isn't without blame. Losing to Washington or Miami or Detroit is understandable. Upsets happen every week in the NFL. Losing two of those games is bad. Losing all three is inexcusable.
But to blame McCarthy for everything but rising gas prices is to ignore the climate in today's NFL – and especially the NFC. The Giants have enough turnovers to start a chain of bakeries. The Eagles don't play much defense. The Buccaneers haven't beaten a good team. The Saints are minus-5 in turnovers. The Falcons are good but hardly invincible, as the Packers have learned. And if the Patriots are the best the AFC has to offer – they just clinched homefield advantage – then what does it say that they had to hang on for dear life against Matt Flynn?
As for the Bears, they have had trouble protecting Jay Cutler and Cutler is prone to bad decisions. Moreover, their vaunted defense has allowed a total of 70 points in December home games to Tom Brady and the Patriots and Mark Sanchez of the Jets. Why shouldn't Rodgers enjoy the same amount of success at home?
So, expect the Packers to ring in the new year with a victory. And when the real playoffs begin, the Packers will be as battle-tested as any team in the 12-team tournament.
Warts and all.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.