Gameday Notebook: Playoff Run Begins (Maybe)

Packer Report publisher Bill Huber empties his tape recorder and notebook in time for today's game. Have the Packers really turned around their season? What does Mike Singletary have to say 20 years after the Instant Replay Game? That and much, much more in his must-read pregame feature.

What a difference one week makes.

Starting with my second "Games Like These Get Coaches Fired" commentary, the question all last week was whether Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson would be fired by the end of the season.

One eye-opening victory over a strong Dallas team later, and the question I've been getting all week is whether the Packers will beat San Francisco on Sunday and make a run to the playoffs.

With this team, who knows?

But at least there is reason to believe that the victory over the Cowboys was more than just a one-week flash in the pan. The big reason is that the Packers' strengths seem set in stone while their weaknesses can be upgraded.

Strength No. 1: The Packers rank fourth in the NFL in stopping the run. Sure, a few games against bad teams factor into that figure, but they've also gone up against Matt Forte, Cedric Benson, Steven Jackson, Adrian Peterson (twice) and Marion Barber. On Sunday, it's Frank Gore. Other than Forte in a few weeks, the Packers don't face another big-time back for the rest of the season.

Weakness No. 1: Until last week against Dallas, the Packers' pass rush was borderline abysmal. But the more teams figure out they can't run the ball, the more they'll try to throw it. That's exactly what Dallas did after halftime, and it worked in the Packers' favor. "You've got to have some of those (run stops) to discourage that, and then it opens up a whole new array of things you can do," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.

Strength No. 2: The Packers don't make too many game-turning blunders. Sure, the penalty situation is troubling, but the Packers have a league-best plus-13 turnover ratio. Only Minnesota (three) has thrown fewer interceptions than the Packers (five). Amazingly, Green Bay hasn't turned it over on a running play all season. The Packers' daily ball-security drills are working.

Weakness No. 2: Is it stating the obvious to point out that the Packers have given up a league-leading 41 sacks? Thought so. But maybe there's light at the end of that tunnel. Last week's game plan against Dallas showed that coach Mike McCarthy finally is taking drastic steps to get that fixed. If — big if — left tackle Chad Clifton can stay healthy and practice often enough to get into a groove and if — big if — Mark Tauscher can solidify right tackle, the Packers might have something approximating respectable pass blocking.

Strength No. 3: The Packers are finally getting healthy. Not only does that mean getting back a playmaker like Jermichael Finley, but it means role players like Brandon Chillar, Brady Poppinga and Derrick Martin.

Weakness No. 3: The special teams was coming off a dismal stretch of games but bounced back with a decent performance against Dallas. Getting back those injured role players will help. Against Tampa Bay, for instance, the Packers were without Chillar, Martin and Korey Hall. They're all back.

Also back is the sweet taste of victory. By beating Dallas, the Packers truly believe they posted a turning-point victory after an emotional loss to Minnesota and an ugly loss to Tampa Bay.

"Winning solves a lot of things," McCarthy said on Wednesday. "Coming in to work this morning in the weight room, there's a sign up there that says, ‘The food tastes good again.' That pretty much tells it in a nutshell how important winning is for everybody. When you win, the ability to put that in the win column is important, but the ability to stack success, and there's so many things that come with that. The confidence level it gives your football team, the learning experiences that you can carry forward to winning a big game."

Iron Mike

The 20th anniversary of the Instant Replay Game was on Nov. 5, and one of the key figures that day was Chicago Bears middle linebacker Mike Singletary.

When Don Majkowski fired the winning touchdown pass to Sterling Sharpe, the crowed erupted but Majkowski was flagged for crossing the line of scrimmage. Singletary, thinking his Bears had escaped Lambeau Field with a hard-fought victory, walked over to the Packers' bench.

Mike Singletary in 1989.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
"Nice try, great effort but we'll see you next time. Good luck," Singletary said, the conversation recalled by Tom Andrews in his story on the 1989 season in the new issue of Packer Report Magazine.

Of course, replay intervened, Majkowski's touchdown pass counted and the Packers won 14-13.

"You know what? It wasn't so much whether he was past the line of scrimmage or not, it's just the fact that it was a great play," Singletary, now the 49ers' coach, said in a conference call on Wednesday when asked for his recollections of that game for an upcoming magazine feature. "I will not argue the fact of whether he was past the line of scrimmage or not. It was a game that they deserved to win. I remember that day. They played their tails off. It was a good game."

The fiery Singletary was the perfect defensive quarterback for fiery Bears coach Mike Ditka. Not surprisingly, Ditka's coaching style rubbed off on Singletary.

"If you look at me, if you see me on the sideline and all, the first part of the year, maybe the last part of last year, you'd probably say, ‘a lot,'" Singletary said. "I'm trying to do a better job at controlling myself and being relaxed and just taking care of the game. He had a lot of influence on my coaching. I can't help it. It's my personality, it was his personality, but it's not quite as strong."

Singletary's means-business coaching style was encapsulated last year when, in his first game as interim coach, he sent tight end Vernon Davis to the showers during a game.

While many insiders wonder if Singletary's fire-and-brimstone way of coaching will stand the test of time with today's modern athletes, he said he hasn't had to change his ways.

"I have not. I have not had to compromise, I have not had to adjust," he said. "I've always believed that you coach with your heart. You've just got to be honest with yourself and true to the players that you're coaching, as well as the staff. I've been able to be pretty consistent with that."

Talking 49ers

For the Packers to legitimately be playoff contenders, they absolutely, positively have to beat the 49ers.

Just like last week, when Green Bay upset Dallas with an emotional, back-against-the-wall performance, the Packers can expect the same thing from the 49ers. San Francisco comes to Lambeau Field with a 4-5 record. Lose, and Singletary and Co. can start planning for next year.

The 49ers are a team that's on the rise, and we asked about some of their top players this week.

— McCarthy, on running back Frank Gore, who is averaging 5.2 yards per carry and is the first back since 2003 with three touchdown runs of at least 60 yards. "I think Frank Gore is special. I really do. I had an opportunity to coach him as a rookie. Very instinctive, tough runner, the ability to run behind his pads. He is definitely one of the better running backs I have seen do that and that I've had the opportunity to work with. Frank does a very good job, particularly with his in-line running of getting skinny and accelerating creases and coming out the back end and finishing runs. So I think Frank Gore is going to be a huge challenge for us this week."

— Left guard Daryn Colledge, on linebacker Patrick Willis, who ranks second in the NFL in tackles: "Willis is an extremely talented player. He shows up on tape everywhere. He's a powerful guy and a physical player. He's not just speed. He's got speed to his game but he can be an extremely physical player when he wants to be."

— Defensive coordinator Dom Capers, on receiver Michael Crabtree, who is starting after a 71-day holdout: "He's a quick-twitch, quick change-of-direction guy. He can explode, plant his foot, make the quick moves and that type of thing. They've got two good young receivers. (Josh) Morgan's come along. They've got the makings of some talent at the skill positions."

— Singletary, on how Davis challenges a defense: "It's a tremendous challenge. There's a lot of things that you have to do really well. I think he's a guy that he has great speed and is developing more and more of the skill of a wideout. When you have that combination and the size that he has, it's a very unique situation for anyone who's got to cover."

What a dilemma

Vernon Davis.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
The Packers and 49ers will forever be linked to recent drafts. In 2005, the 49ers had to choose between Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers. In 2006, the Packers had to choose between A.J. Hawk and Vernon Davis. In 2009, the Packers had to choose between B.J. Raji and Michael Crabtree.

The 49ers made a disastrous decision in going with Smith over Rodgers. Smith has had two shoulder surgeries and has thrown 12 more interceptions than touchdowns in his career. Since replacing Shaun Hill for the last three-and-a-half games, Smith has completed 64.8 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and six interceptions.

"He's an athletic guy," Capers said. "He can make all the throws. If you take his first read away, he'll pull it down and run. You've got to be able to plaster-up your coverage down the field, because I've seen him make some plays by scrambling and guys uncovering down the field."

The Packers appeared to have made the right choice with Hawk over Davis. While Hawk had a subpar second half of last season, he led the Packers in tackles in two of his first three seasons. Meanwhile, in his first three seasons, Davis averaged 34 receptions and three touchdowns.

But the tables have turned this season. Hawk is a part-time player, losing the lion's share of the defensive snaps many weeks to Chillar. Davis, on the other hand, is sixth among tight ends with 45 catches and 493 yards and first with seven touchdowns. Forget about that day when Singletary and Davis got into a shouting match. Today, Singletary lauds Davis for staying after practice to hone his skills.

"Vernon Davis is maybe the fastest tight end in the league," Capers said. "He runs faster than their wide receivers."

As for April's draft, Raji has been slowed by an ankle injury and Crabtree has played in only four games because of the holdout. Both are playing better, though. Crabtree has 18 catches in four games.

Woodson's challenge

After Charles Woodson dominated his matchup against Cowboys tight end Jason Witten last week, it's a good bet that he'll be matched up against the 49ers' top receiving threat, Davis, on Sunday.

The challenge against Witten was size. Witten doesn't run well but at 6-foot-5, he had a 4-inch advantage on Woodson. The challenge against Davis is both size (6-foot-3) and speed. Most weeks, Woodson will match up against a fleet-footed receiver.

How is he able to do that?

"He's athletic and he's instinctive," Capers said. "Those guys, they understand body position. If you're going against a guy who's bigger than you, I've always said, if you're bigger, seek contact. But there's times when the guy's bigger than you that you don't want to seek contact. You want to use your athletic ability on the guy. You kind of want to do the opposite of what he's trying to do. I think Charles has a good feel for that."

After the Dallas game, Capers said Woodson's performance was one of the best he had ever seen from a defensive player. He reiterated that on Friday, and compared Woodson to Pro Football Hall of Famer Rod Woodson, who he coached in Pittsburgh for three years, including 1993, when he was defensive player of the year.

"I had known that Charles is a good football player," Capers said when asked about what he knew of Charles Woodson when taking the job. "Of course, after being around him, you don't probably appreciate his football intellect, his instincts, those kind of things, until you're with a guy for a while."

Four-point stance

— During Smith's rookie season, his offensive coordinator was McCarthy. "Oh, I had a great time with Mike. Learned a ton from Coach McCarthy," Smith said. "It was such a change for me, going from what I did in college, the system that I ran in college, to an NFL playbook and the changes that come with that, learned a tremendous amount from Mike about the quarterback position, about game management, about offense, defense, learned a ton. I probably couldn't even put into words. Had a huge impact on me."

— The 49ers caught a scheduling break, getting a few extra days to prepare because their last game was a Thursday victory over Chicago. "We had two extra days and started a direction with the tape (of the Packers) that we had, and then all of a sudden, Sunday rolls around," offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye told beat reporters this week. "They play Dallas and they look like a totally different team. They were borderline dominant in that game."

— The Packers own advantages in practically every statistical category, but the red zone is different. San Francisco ranks seventh in red-zone offense (touchdowns on 60 percent of trips inside the 20-yard line) and seventh in red-zone defense (44 percent). Green Bay is 14th in red-zone offense (55.2 percent) and a woeful 29th in red-zone defense (65.4 percent).

— Maybe the 49ers will miss their wakeup call. This will be their fourth game to kick off at 10 a.m. Pacific time. The Niners lost their first three, though they were by a combined 10 points.

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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