Report card entering playoffs

Packers get high marks across the board after 13-3 season

PASSING OFFENSE: A -- League MVP runner-up Brett Favre is back in the postseason after a two-year absence riding the momentum of a record-breaking regular season.

Favre and his predominantly young receiving corps carried the offense for nearly the first half of the season with no running game to speak of. Favre bought into head coach Mike McCarthy's low-risk, quick-strike passing attack, and those on the receiving end were exceptionally elusive in amassing a league-high 2,294 yards after the catch.

Still, the No. 2-ranked passing dimension wasn't overly impressive down the stretch, aside from Favre's engineering touchdown drives in the first three series of the regular-season finale before departing the meaningless game. Seven of his 15 interceptions came in the last five games. Donald Driver had a quiet Pro Bowl season with only two touchdown receptions, which paled in comparison to non-Pro Bowler Greg Jennings' 12.

The line play has been generally solid. Favre was sacked only 15 times, just twice in the final eight contests.

RUSHING OFFENSE: B -- Ryan Grant, who opened the season as an afterthought by being fourth on the depth chart, came on in Week 8 to become a godsend for a unit mired in mediocrity.

The Packers finished 21st in the league with an average of 99.8 rushing yards per game, but the end results would have been much worse if not for Grant. The former New York Giant, acquired for a sixth-round draft pick, flourished in the zone-blocking system with a hard-charging, one-cut-and-go mentality. He had five 100-yard games in the last 10 and would have remarkably finished the season with 1,000 yards if not for a stinger that knocked him out of the last contest.

Grant will be healthy for the playoffs and will need to continue to produce, as will a gradually improving offensive line that remains unsettled at the two guard positions because of injuries.

PASS DEFENSE: B-minus -- The team's postseason fortunes could hinge on the play of standout cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson. Harris was selected to his first Pro Bowl and will be in the spotlight this week for his heroic interception and touchdown return in overtime against Seattle at Lambeau Field in a wild-card matchup in the 2003 season.

It could be argued Woodson was Green Bay's defensive MVP during the regular season and that he should have been a Pro Bowl choice as well. However, he's been nursing a toe injury for more than a month, and his effectiveness in bump-and-run coverage could be an issue.

Meanwhile, the nickel-back role is in flux, with Jarrett Bush's losing his handle on the job late in the season and replacement Will Blackmon's aggravating a foot injury in the last game. The pass rush needs a revival, after the team had no sacks in four of the final five games.

RUSH DEFENSE: C-plus -- If the Packers have an Achilles' heel going into the playoffs, their second-half inconsistencies against the run would be it. Five of their last seven opponents eclipsed the 100-yard mark, including St. Louis, which rolled up 173 behind a beleaguered offensive line in Week 15.

It's probably no coincidence that the line, a position of strength for most of the season, is short-handed after losing run-stuffing tackles Johnny Jolly and Colin Cole to season-ending injuries in late November. Nose tackle Ryan Pickett was held out of the last two games because of a groin injury, though he'll be ready for Saturday.

It will be incumbent on middle linebacker Nick Barnett, who's had a stellar season tracking the football, to make up for some of the deficiencies up front.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus -- Other than punter Jon Ryan's wind-caused nightmare at Chicago in Week 16, the play of the special teams has been a 180-degree turnaround from the previous two seasons, when the club ranked last in the league. A corps of young players was opportunistic from the first game of the season and scored four touchdowns, including punt returns by Tramon Williams and Blackmon.

The likes of Jason Hunter (team-high 25 tackles), Desmond Bishop and Korey Hall excelled in coverage to ease the absence of ace Tracy White for portions of the second half of the season because of an ankle injury.

Rookie Mason Crosby will be under the microscope kicking at Lambeau Field in January after enduring some late-season lapses in oppressive conditions. Crosby, though, led the league with 141 points, a franchise scoring record for kickers.

COACHING: A -- Any other season, when New England's Bill Belichick isn't overseeing the league's first 16-0 team, McCarthy is NFL Coach of the Year for molding the league's youngest team into a formidable 13-3, division-winning squad after going 8-8 in his debut season.

More often than not, McCarthy and his aides have been right on with their in-week preparations and decisions made on game day. McCarthy has been shrewd with his play-calling on offense, introducing a five-receiver set early in the season to offset the absence of a running game.

Generally conservative defensive coordinator Bob Sanders has been liberal with blitzing the last month and will probably have to continue doing so to try to revive the pass rush.

Not having the players sufficiently prepared to play in the frigid, blustery conditions at Chicago in the penultimate game, which resulted in a defeat that denied the Packers a shot at home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, could come back to haunt them.


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