By Jason Keidel
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The ice is melting around Don Shula’s champagne.
The iconic coach, with more wins than any coach in NFL history, engages in a charming ritual every year, popping a bottle of bubbly when the final team loses a game, thus preserving his place as the only steward of an undefeated squad: the 1972 Dolphins (17-0).
But the Green Bay Packers (11-0) are making Shula shiver as they stampede through the league. Yesterday was one of those “trap games” every pundit loves to pick. The Detroit Lions, restoring the roar to a formerly forlorn team and a town, were supposed to stir the ghosts of Alex Karras and Bobby Layne yesterday, and pummel the Packers much the way the ’62 Lions handled the undefeated, Lombardi Machine.
Maybe you were equally surprised at halftime. The Detroit Lions had the ball nearly 21 minutes and were losing. The Green Bay Packers had it barely above 9 minutes and were winning. It was only 7-0, of course, but didn’t you have the sense that the game was over?
When the world agrees that Aaron Rodgers had a subpar game, while completing 66 percent of his passes for 307 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, and a paltry 116.6 QB rating, yet his team was still up three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, Shula has cause for concern. Rodgers stood awkwardly after the game, chatting with Troy Aikman while clutching one of those corny, concocted thanksgiving awards, a Galloping Gobbler or whatever, trivializing his undeniable (if not historic) brilliance.
Dan Marino is the best pure passer I’ve ever seen – at least until this year. Rodgers is putting up Playstation numbers, stuff you see in a college QB hub like Houston, where every hurler is good for four touchdowns per game against soft secondaries.
But Green Bay’s Galactus (Rodgers) is doing it in the NFL. This isn’t a typo: Rodgers has completed 72 percent of his passes for 3,475 yards, 33 TD and 4 – four! –interceptions. He goes through his progressions, checks down his receivers, the way we’d scan cereal at Stop & Shop. It’s not uncommon for Rodgers to not only shred your defense, but to also pass the pigskin to six or so receivers in the process. If this continues, Rodgers will have the best season in NFL history, perhaps tugging a perfect team through his widening wake.
Perhaps this is an undue burden on Big Blue, but it says here that he Giants are the last legitimate roadblock in the Packers’ pursuit of perfection. The game, on December 4, is at the Meadowlands. The Giants will be playing not for playoff position, but for survival, particularly if they lose at New Orleans on Monday.
The Packers won’t care that it’s cold in New Jersey, but they will care that the Giants have more incentive and will have the kind of front-four that can flatten Rodgers every time he drops back before he goes RoboCop on the secondary. Like the Giants showed the previously perfect Patriots in 2008, every quarterback can be shaken and stirred.
Three of the Packers’ final four games are at Lambeau Field, where they should run the table. Sure, the final two games are against the Bears and Lions, both of whom will have more to play for and payback scrawled across the blackboard. But the Packers don’t need incentive to smash a division rival. And there’s that whole Rodgers thing going for them.
Winning builds its own momentum. It becomes so rehearsed that you don’t even ponder the possibility of losing. And if the Giants don’t beat Green Bay, the ritual of winning will only intensify. Coach Mike McCarthy could sit Rodgers for the final game, but the Packers will be tempted to taste perfection – a possibility that only floats through every few decades.
Just ask Don Shula, who’s sitting a little uneasily somewhere, gripping a warming bottle of bubbly somewhere in South Florida.
Feel free to email me: Keidel.Jason@gmail.com