Four-Point Stance: For Better And Worse

We look back on Sunday's win over Chicago and look ahead to the playoff game at Philadelphia. On paper, last year's team was better but this team appears much more capable of competing for the championship. We break down four reasons in our weekly feature.

Last year's Green Bay Packers finished 11-5.

This year's team finished 10-6.

Last year's team had Ryan Grant providing balance and Jermichael Finley adding a big, athletic threat.

This year's team has those players among six Week 1 starers on injured reserve.

Last year's team entered the playoffs on a prodigious roll, with a second-half record of 7-1 and an explosive 30.8 points per game.

This year's team enters the playoffs having won three of its last five games but with an offense that is as great one week as it is bad the next.

Last year's team was considered a major championship threat but was stunned in overtime in the wild card round at Arizona.

This year's team? Despite the injuries and inconsistency, it might have a better shot at reaching the Super Bowl.

Consider the competition

The Packers' second-half dominance notwithstanding, the Saints and Vikings had shown themselves to be the two top dogs in the NFC throughout last season. And in the end, those teams advanced to the conference championship game, with New Orleans winning an all-time classic in overtime.

This year? Throw Seattle out of the equation, and if you put the teams on a bracket five different ways, you'd probably wind up with five different champions.

You know the Packers' flaws. But should the Packers really be scared of a return trip to Atlanta or Chicago? The Eagles give up too many points and sacks. The Saints don't take care of the ball and seemingly don't have last year's magic.

"We feel very good about our chances," coach Mike McCarthy said after the 10-3 win over Chicago. "We'll play anybody, anytime, anywhere. That's been our motto and we're well-oiled. We've been challenged and we've learned from those challenges. Trust me, we'll be ready when we get to Philadelphia."

More experienced

It's not like the 2009 team was new to the playoff scene. Just two years removed from their trip to the NFC championship game, only Finley and right guard Josh Sitton were new faces on the starting offense and only Clay Matthews and Brad Jones were new starters on the defense.

Oh, and there was a new quarterback.

Aaron Rodgers was sensational in 2009 and he was brilliant in the playoff game. However, after throwing seven interceptions in the regular season, he was picked off on the first play of the game in the loss to Arizona. Throw in old pro Donald Driver's fumble on the next series, and the Packers were neck-deep in a big hole.

It would be stunning to see a repeat of that performance this week.

"We can definitely learn from our experience in last year's playoff loss there in Arizona," McCarthy said on Monday. "It's something that I have referred to time and time again. But we're a different team, different circumstances. We're on the road, that's an experience that we can learn from. It's important for us just to play to our brand of football. You spend 16 games developing a style, the way you play — I am referring to our brand, and I think we didn't do a very good job of that out there in Arizona. We went through the season last year, we were plus-24 in turnover ratio going into the playoffs, and 5 minutes into the game we turn the ball over twice and we're down 14-0."

More tested


Collins celebrates his clinching interception.
Morry Gash/AP Images
Last year, things were almost too good for the Packers entering the postseason. They had just blasted Arizona 33-7 in a game that was meaningless for both teams, especially with a playoff rematch on tap. While they lost 37-36 at Pittsburgh in Week 15, the Packers' final five wins came by 33, 13, seven, 38 and 26 points.

This year, Green Bay had to scratch and claw to reach the postseason by winning its final two games, against the Giants in an elimination game and the rival Bears.

"I'll say this, we've been in the playoffs for two weeks now," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said after the game. "We had to win these last two games against two good football teams. So, yeah, I think you become a little battle-tested because you lose either one of these last two games, we're going home."

Considering the injuries and the slow start, this team enters the postseason as battle-ready as any in the league.

"I like our chances," cornerback Charles Woodson said. "We feel good about our team. We've had some down moments this year, we've had a lot of injuries, but if you look at this team, we just kept fightin' and now we find ourselves with a chance to get into the playoffs and make some noise. We feel good about our chances."

Infinitely better on defense

Last year's game against Pittsburgh sent off alarm bells. And sure enough, Kurt Warner destroyed the Packers' secondary in the playoffs.

This year, the secondary is arguably the best position group on the team, with rookie Sam Shields being a huge upgrade over Jarrett Bush and Brandon Underwood as the third cornerback. The Packers finished second in the league in points allowed (15.0) but excelled down the stretch with 11.6 in the final nine games. They held six opponents to seven points or less.

It's that consistent play that explains why the Packers' largest margin of defeat was merely four points.

"I think it's important for your team to be noted for great defense," McCarthy said. "That's always been the goal in my tenure here, and I think we definitely have reached that. Scoring defense, we're No. 2 in the league. I think that speaks volumes of the improvement we've made from last year to this year. Because I think defenses do win championships. Your offense and your quarterback obviously play a big part in that, and you can carry it over to special teams. You have to have all three phases. But it starts with defense. I've always looked at defense as the thermostat. When you have great defense, they keep you in games, week in and week out, and it's the responsibility of the offense to score more points than the opponent."

Time and again, the defense has delivered with its backs against the wall. On Sunday, when the Bears started at the Packers' 15 after an interception, the defense forced a holding and got an end-zone interception on third-and-long. After a kickoff return to midfield, the Bears went backward 16 yards and punted. With the Packers unable to move the ball, the defense lost 16 yards over five possessions that ended with an interception and four punts.

"I think if you can learn anything from last year, we were the hottest team in the NFL and we came out and gave up 51 points," Matthews said. "That's just not indicative of our defense. If we learned anything, it's to keep this thing rolling. We can't back off. We haven't earned a right to move forward in these playoffs. We just earned a right to be in them. Now it's about taking it to the next step and winning in Philly."


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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 packwriter2002@yahoo.com, 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.


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