The Packers are thriving on reduced expectations as they enter the stretch run for the playoffs.
With three straight wins, not only have the Packers revived their playoff hopes. They’ve also become fun to watch again. Until the win over the Cowboys, this season was at times the football equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard. High expectations had a lot to do with that. Unfortunately, those hopes were dashed when the Packers looked overmatched in both games against the Vikings, as Brett Favre dissected their defense with ease. The loss to Tampa Bay was probably a residual effect of all that.
And then, against the Cowboys, phase two of the 2009 season began. Just like that, the offensive line stopped sucking and finally turned into the thoroughly average unit that we all knew they were capable of being. Jermichael Finley returned from his injury, which in turn caused Donald Lee to play better. Ryan Grant began to look more like the Ryan Grant of ’07. Even Greg Jennings had a good game somewhere in there. And of course the defense has hit its stride.
I wonder if having Favre and the Vikings in the rear view mirror has something to do with the improved attitude. With the second loss to the Vikings, it became evident that the Packers are a second-tier team at best, at least until further notice. They don’t have to worry about winning the division, a task that they were clearly not up to. Now all they have to do is win three out of their last five games, and they should make the playoffs. That’s a much more manageable goal.
If this had been the goal all along, the first half of the season would not have been so miserable. But we were right to expect bigger things. The coaches and players felt the same way. But in a league where only three teams (Colts, Patriots, Steelers) are good from year to year, it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen with everyone else.
The task at hand is pretty simple: find a way to win three games against Baltimore, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Arizona. Seattle is the only bad team in the bunch, and even they are more dangerous than some of the patsies the Packers have faced this year (including Tampa Bay, the patsy that beat them). The Bears are in decline, but with Lovie Smith at the helm, they are always at their best against the Packers.
I actually think that the “easiest” game to win will be the one at Arizona, in the final week, as the Cardinals quite possibly will have nothing to play for. They are three games behind the Vikings for a shot at a first-round bye and two games ahead of the 49ers in their division. The rest of the way, we should be rooting against the 49ers and cheering for the Cardinals until they play the Packers.
If the Packers can beat the Seahawks and Cardinals, they will need to find one win against the Ravens, Bears, and Steelers in order to reach the 10-6 mark. They should be able to do that. If they make the playoffs, they’ll have to play on the road, but let’s face it, Lambeau Field has given no advantage to the Packers in years anyway. Like it or not, this team seems to thrive on reduced expectations. They could prove to be a worthy wild card team. A playoff game with the Packers as underdog, in another team’s stadium, could be a lot of fun to watch. And fun is what it’s all about, isn’t it?