Butler: Packers Must Keep Rising


It's still far from official, but after that awesome fourth quarter against the San Diego Chargers, I'm not so much worried about whether the Green Bay Packers can make the playoffs.

What I am wondering is whether the Packers can win the division and host a game at Lambeau Field.

A lot of Packers fans who jumped off the bandwagon in recent weeks are rushing to get back on after Sunday's 38-21 win, but none of us -- including me -- should start looking into January just yet.

The Packers made a lot of great plays against the Chargers last weekend, but the fact remains that they trailed early in the fourth quarter. And, while the Packers are certainly capable of doing so, they have yet to win three straight games all season.

So there are still things to prove going into Monday night's game against the Oakland Raiders and through the final regular season game against the Denver Broncos.

As encouraging as parts of the San Diego game were, some aspects of the game had me scratching my head.

On defense, the Packers had a couple communication and coverage breakdowns that led to some big plays by the Chargers.

The Packers did a great job of shutting down LaDainian Tomlinson in the running game, but I'm very concerned with the damage he made as a receiver. I said going into the game that Tomlinson was dangerous, but 11 catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns is just too much to give up.

Likewise, the defense made some crucial stops, but it worries me that Drew Brees can come on the field after being on the sideline for a few weeks and throw for 363 yards.

Offensively, I'm worried whenever Ahman Green fails to get 100 yards rushing, and even though he should be commended for breaking Jim Taylor's single-season rushing record (congrats also to record-breakers Brett Favre and Mr. Automatic Ryan Longwell), the Packers need to get Green back on track.

That's three straight times Green has been held below the century mark, and even though teams are stacking the box and selling out to stop the run, the Packers must find a way to bang out more yardage on the ground than they have of late.

The offense also has to be concerned about its performance in the third quarter, when they failed to pick up a single first down.

But after falling down, you have to admire the way the Packers responded to the Chargers' comeback with a comeback performance of their own.

I know that the TV stations don't plant a camera on him all game long, but GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman is very effective in firing up his troops and getting great performances out of his players when they are needed most.

The win over San Diego will probably be remembered by fans for the three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, but the game was actually won on defense, where the Packers continued to force crucial turnovers in key situations.

Darren Sharper made an outstanding interception late in the second quarter that not only put out a fire by ending San Diego's scoring chances, but lit a fire under the Packers offense, sparking them to another touchdown.

And after Robert Ferguson's 40-yard touchdown reception gave the Packers the lead in the fourth quarter, Grady Jackson provided a big sack and forced fumble near the end zone that essentially clinched the win.

What a great midseason pickup Jackson has been for Sherman and the Packers! Can you imagine how good the Packers D-line might be right now if those guys had the preseason to work together?

Jackson is causing problems for opposing O-lines that make his teammates all the more effective. As a result, the Packers are stopping the run better, putting more pressure on the quarterback and thus creating more turnovers.

Turnovers are the key to winning on the road and winning in the winter elements, which always come into play in the postseason.

Offensively, an interception by Favre was the only major mistake, other than a few three-and-outs.

Overall, Favre had one of his better games of the season. He was sharp on short passes, deep passes, sideline passes and passes down the middle. And he showed a lot of leadership, not letting the comeback by San Diego do anything to alter his cool and confidence.

If teams continue to sell out to stop the run, I've got a secret for you: Favre will keep tearing teams up all season long.

And to think that even Packers fans have doubted this guy in recent weeks!

Sure, his interceptions are up this year and some of his turnovers -- including fumbles -- have come at times when the Packers couldn't afford them.

But Favre's 27 touchdowns are second only to Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning's 28, and by the end of the season Favre will have thrown for 3,000 yards despite having only one game with a receiver over the 100-yard mark.

So for all you people who have been down on Favre, look at the numbers and quit complaining. The guy is still one of the best playmakers in the game, and if you can't see that, you probably should be keeping your opinions to yourself.

Getting back to that 100-yard receiving mark, Donald Driver showed he can be just as dangerous as he was in his Pro Bowl season of 2002 with his eight-catch, 112-yard performance, which included a touchdown.

He was as go-to as a receiver can be, and yet Favre still completed passes to eight other guys!

Ferguson made just two catches for the game, but both of them were for scores. And I'm telling you right now, there isn't a corner in the league who can keep this guy jammed at the line of scrimmage. Ferguson is just too tough.

Will guys like Driver and Ferguson make the Pro Bowl this season? Unfortunately, probably not. Not because they aren't good players, but because the Packers have been a running team this season.

But when the Pro Bowl teams are announced Thursday there are a handful of players I'd like to see make it. I won't name them all, but I'm really hoping that fullback William Henderson, center Mike Flanagan and guard Mike Wahle make their first trips to Hawaii.

Those guys come to play every day and leave it all on the field. They're as deserving as any of the greats in the league right now.

Speaking of playing great, how about Najeh Davenport on kickoff returns? His addition, along with Ferguson, has brought an element of toughness to that kickoff return unit.

Davenport just can't be brought down by one man: he's like a bowling ball knocking down pins. His 45-yard return was crucial to giving the Packers the momentum they needed to rally from behind against San Diego.

So what do the Packers do from here?

First of all they need to get healthy. Mike McKenzie has turf toe and the Packers need him in the secondary opposite Al Harris.

Usually teams with the healthiest corners go farthest in the playoffs. But no matter who lines up in the secondary, the Packers can't afford breakdowns like they had on Tomlinson's 68-yard touchdown catch.

On that play, the Packers blitzed and got burned because of some miscommunication on coverage in the secondary.

The Packers defense is better than that.

In recent weeks they keep coming up with big defensive stops whenever one is needed. And they're going to need quite a few more stops down the stretch.

Up next are the 4-10 Oakland Raiders, who are coming off a win over the Baltimore Ravens.

Don't let that record fool you. I'm scared to death of these teams with nothing to lose, because they throw out all the stops and take all kinds of risks trying to play the role of spoiler.

The Packers always get the best effort of each team they play. It happened against the Chicago Bears. It happened against the San Diego Chargers.

The key is to withstand those spirited runs.

Sometimes it takes a few plays. Sometimes it takes a few games. But in the NFL, eventually the cream will rise to the top.

Let's hope the Packers keep rising.

*LeRoy Butler played 12 seasons for the Green Bay Packers, helping them to two Super Bowls and earning NFL All-Decade Honors for the 1990s, before retiring in July 2002. This season Butler is providing exclusive analysis to Packers.com with a breakdown of the upcoming game on Saturdays and a column and Q&A session on Tuesdays.

Butler's autobiography, 'The LeRoy Butler Story ... From Wheelchair to the Lambeau Leap,' is available on his website, leroybutler36.com.*

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