Oakland is hot. Green Bay is not. Simple. Momentum is a pendulum that knows no records.
After Indianapolis fell in Super Bowl 41.5 to New England, they barely sidestepped this cycle the next week against a 4-5 Kansas City team. Peyton Manning made just enough plays in a 13-10 win. Ugly? Oh, yeah ... to plastic-surgery-gone-wrong proportions. But it built character. Earning a win with the injury bug's teeth clenched into your jugular is the foreshadowing of a champion.
Now it is Green Bay's turn.
The Packers have had ten days to wear off their Dallas hangover. It's crucial for the injury-riddled Packers to rebound against an inferior opponent.
Adversity hasn't confronted Green Bay often this season. A loss at home to last season's laughingstock would not only slice the Packers' edge on Seattle and Tampa Bay for a first round bye to one game (assuming the latter two win), it could be a major psychological blow. Green Bay has survived week-in and week-out by playing with nothing to lose. For one week Tony Romo played Dr. Evil and stole the Packers' mojo. Two straight losses would seriously challenge this swingin' mentality.
Yes, Green Bay's remaining opponents have a combined record of 18-31. Superfluous. December is all about recapturing that rare sense of invincibility. Here is one change that could get Green Bay peaking at the right time:
Healthy Rouse needs to be utilized
It was his first chance to finally hit somebody and Aaron Rouse took full advantage.
On Family Night. Against his own team.
"Any chance I have to lay a guy out, I'm going to take it," smiled Rouse after the Aug. 5 intra-squad scrimmage.
Rouse's big-hit mentality is no secret. His size alone (6-4, 223) fits the Sean Taylor-mold. Yet it's also a hindrance. In three starts Rouse has over-run plays and missed sure tackles after going for the kill shot.
Overachieving can be tamed with more reps. Rouse's shortcomings pale in comparison to the funk Nick Collins and Atari Bigby's are currently in. Last week, a minor problem turned major as Collins and Bigby were painfully exposed in pass coverage.
While the risk-taking Bigby far too often violates the "deeper than the deepest" safety code of law, Collins hasn't developed the ball-hawking mindset needed at free safety. In three seasons (41 starts) Collins has four interceptions and 27 pass breakups. Maybe Darren Sharper was occasionally lax in coverage (see: Terrell Owens '98 and Freddie Mitchell '03) and maybe the Sharper Shake is more obnoxious than Merton Hanks' Funky Chicken. Sharper could change a game with an interception. In one three-year span with the Packers, he had 22 picks and 44 breakups, as he currently has eight touchdowns in his career.
Every champion makes late-season adjustments to elevate themselves to the next level. When Ken Ruettguers retired in mid-November of 1996 due to chronic knee problems, rookie John Michels became the starter. But after five games it was clear Brett Favre's blindside wasn't safe, so Mike Holmgren plugged Bruce Wilkerson in Week 17. Wilkerson excelled and potential danger was averted.
So why stick with inconsistent mediocrity this season?
With Rouse ready to return from a knee injury, Mike McCarthy should re-insert the Virginia Tech third round pick into the starting lineup. In only three starts, Rouse deflected four passes and caught two interceptions. In 21 starts this year, Collins and Bigby have combined for one pick. Rouse's nose for the ball more than makes up for his raw run support.
In the first quarter at Detroit two weeks ago, Rouse badly bit inside on Kevin Jones and the elder Hokie gained the corner for a 23-yard gain. On Detroit's next offensive possession Rouse completely reversed the momentum of the game. Jon Kitna's play action fake didn't fool the rookie. Rouse stepped in front of Calvin Johnson for an interception and returned it to Detroit's 11-yard line. And the pendulum swung. The next play Brett Favre hit Greg Jennings for a touchdown and Green Bay went on a 34-6 run.
Knowledge of the system isn't working against Rouse, either. His interception of Vinny Testaverde showed veteran instincts. He lined man-up on Keary Colbert in the slot. Rouse hung with him for a split-second to trick Testaverde into thinking that tight end Jeff King had one-on-one coverage with A.J. Hawk on a drag. Rouse shoved Colbert aside, stepped inside of King and gave Brett Favre possession at Carolina's 31-yard line.
Defensive statistics are frequently misleading. Errant throws often allow for big plays. But in three starts, Rouse also displayed sound field positioning in coverage. He doesn't put himself in a position to clutch or grab- Bigby's biggest downfall. Despite his lanky basketball build, Rouse's 4.58 speed allows him to maneuver and close easily in deep center, with his headhunter mentality.
Rouse is a game-changer - something the Packers' have sorely lacked at free safety for the past three years. McCarthy is starting Collins and Bigby against Oakland Sunday, but both should have short leashes. It's never too late to make a lineup change. Swapping Junius Coston for Daryn Colledge at guard could have a Wilkerson-effect on offense.
A defensive adjustment may be on the way.
Tyler Dunne is a student at Syracuse University and frequent contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.