The Contenders: Reviewing the Packers Competition for the Top Seed in the NFC

Could Alex Smith meet Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Championship game?

The Green Bay Packers haven’t hosted a playoff game at Lambeau Field since losing to the Giants in the NFC Championship on Jan. 20, 2008. After a 7-0 start, the Packers have some people whispering about going undefeated.

Barring injury, the Packers are more talented than any of their remaining opponents. But can they go undefeated? That’s a tall task.

The Packers toughest tests will come after the bye when they travel to San Diego, on Thanksgiving against the Lions, at the Giants and at home against the Bears and Lions.

Lets say the Packers end up 13-3. Would that be good enough for the No. 1 seed in the NFC and homefield throughout the playoffs? I think so. The Saints could give the Packers a run, but Green Bay already has the tiebreaker advantage. San Franscisco and Detroit are still…well, San Francico and Detroit. Both are improved, but not at the Packers’ level. The Giants only have two losses, but they face a brutal schedule down the stretch.

Packers fans should plan on skipping their January house payment. There’s a good chance that money would be better spent on NFC Championship game tickets at Lambeau.

Record: 5-1
Projected finish: 12-4
Even if you don’t think the 49ers are for real, they still could end up 12-4. I guess it depends how you define for real. If for real means beating the mediocre and bad teams on your schedule, the 49ers are for real. If it means rising up and winning a game or two that you’re not supposed to, I’m not sure the 49ers qualify.

Assuming the 49ers just beat the teams they’re supposed to, they’ll get wins over Cleveland, Washington, Arizona (2), St. Louis (2), and Seattle. According to my Morrison County math, that’s 12-4.

Could the 49ers get the No. 2 seed in the NFC? The Aaron Rodgers-Alex Smith-Mike McCarthy storyline would make for an intriguing NFC championship.

Record: 5-2
Projected finish: 12-4
How tough is the rest of the Saints schedule? Depends what you think of Atlanta. The Saints play them twice. How about Detroit and Tampa Bay? The Saints play both at home. Will Tennessee be any good by week 14? The Saints play the Titans on the road. The Saints also travel to St. Louis and Minnesota, host the Giants and finish with Carolina at home.



Green Bay Packers 2010 Player Evaluations — Offense — Brett Swain

1) Introduction: Brett Swain wears the underdog crown very well. A seventh round pick in 2008, Swain spent the entire season on the practice squad.  In 2009, Swain beat out Ruvell Martin for a roster spot, but played only six games  before blowing out his knee. More of a contributor on special teams than a receiver, Swain nonetheless would be more active than most teams’ #5 receivers, given the Packers’ Air McCarthy offense and the injury to Jermichael Finley.

2) Profile:

3) Expectations coming into the season for that player: While Swain was the favorite to hold on to the #5 receiver spot, there were serious doubts if he could be even be ready to start the season. He struggled with the leg injury rehab early in camp, but improved dramatically as the preseason progressed. Despite a host of undrafted receivers challenging him, Swain held on to his job, mostly due to his value on special teams. Swain would be expected to continue being steady on coverage teams,  be the emergency fill-in at receiver, and occasionally step onto the field when the Packers went to five wideouts.

4) Player’s highlights/lowlights: Swain caught the first pass of career against the Jets, filling in for an injured Donald Driver. In the Packers’ regular season loss to Atlanta,  Brett Swain saw his most extended action of the season. The Packers went into their “big five” receiver set 15 times in that game, with Swain catching two passes. One was a slant for 31 yards, which was easiest the longest reception of his career. Swain’s lowlight would easily be his drop of  what would have been a key first down on a third and 10 pass in the Super Bowl.

5) Player’s contribution to the overall team success: Swain did see action in all of the Packers’ games, mostly on special teams. Swain had a pass thrown his way in six regular season games plus the Super Bowl. He finished with 6 receptions on the year for 72 yards.  On special teams, Swain was credited with three coverage tackles during the regular season.

6) Player’s contributions during the 6-win end-of-season run: Other than the Super Bowl, Swain as a receiver over the last six games was  pretty much invisible.  After letting one pass slip through his fingers and the big third down drop, he probably wished he were.  On the other hand, Swain played well on special teams, recording 6 tackles over the Packers’ four postseason games.



Green Bay Packers 2010 Player Evaluations — Offense — Matt Flynn

1) Introduction: Matt Flynn has a BCS Championship MVP trophy sitting on his shelf. So while there is little doubt he can perform in a big spot, the question on Flynn has always been, does he have enough talent to be an NFL quarterback?

The seventh round draft choice won the Packers backup QB job as a rookie, beating out second rounder Brian Brohm. At the time, I thought Ted Thompson was crazy to not bring in a veteran backup.  Ted rolled the dice with Flynn, and fortunately, he wasn’t needed.

2) Profile:

Matthew Clayton Flynn

Position: QB
Height: 6-2    Weight: 228 lbs.

Born: June 20, 1985 in Tyler, TX
College: LSU (school history)    (Flynn college stats)
Drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the 7th round (209th overall) of the 2008 NFL Draft.

3) Expectations coming into the season for that player: Coming into this season, Matt Flynn was expected to once again be nothing more than the emergency #2 QB for the Packers. But this preseason was a bit different. The Packers had Super Bowl aspirations this year. Consequentially there was an undercurrent among Packers fans wanting to know that Flynn could keep the season on track if Rodgers had to miss a few games. I frankly, didn’t have the confidence that he could and he proved me wrong against the Patriots.

4) Player’s highlights/lowlights: Matt Flynn threw more passes in the New England game than he had in his first two years in the league. And for the most part, he threw them well. Coming off the horrible loss to the Lions, most observers didn’t give Flynn or the Packers a chance against New England.  Flynn surprised them all by throwing 3 TD passes and just coming up short against the seemingly invincible Patriots.  Flynn’s lowlight came in the aforementioned loss to the Lions, where Flynn threw 2 INTs, including one in the Lions’ end zone. I don’t blame him for the loss, however, as the entire Packers’ team and coaches were just awful that day.

5) Player’s contribution to the overall team success: Well, there’s only one way to evaluate a backup quarterback’s contribution to a team’s success – how he performs when called upon. Flynn got the call twice this season with mixed results; a below-average performance against the Lions and an above-average performance against the Patriots.



Green Bay Packers 2010 Player Evaluations — Offense — Aaron Rodgers

1) Introduction: Be honest: Most of you skip straight to the grades portion of these player reviews and don’t bother reading the rest of it. I used to write for a video game review website so I know how you people operate. You skip straight to the final score/grade, then head to the comments section and argue with the author about why he was a half-grade off in his final evaluation. Many of you probably scrolled down and saw that I gave Aaron Rodgers an “A” instead of an “A+” for an overall grade and you’re mad. You’re thinking: Who is the clown that writes this stuff? Does he not realize that Rodgers may have turned into the best player in the league this season? What does it take to get an “A+” around here? It takes near perfection for an entire season to earn an “A+.” Rodgers was near perfect in the final six games. He earned his “A+” in that category. But he had moments in the season’s first half that prevented him from getting an “A+” overall. In the end, who really cares? A straight-up “A” means he was still better than just about everybody else anyway.

2) Profile:

Aaron Charles Rodgers

Position: QB
Height: 6-2    Weight: 223 lbs.

Born: December 2, 1983 in Chico, CA
College: California (school history)    (Rodgers college stats)
Drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the 1st round (24th overall) of the 2005 NFL Draft.

3) Expectations coming into the season for that player: Superstar. Rodgers played well all season, but he had moments early where he wasn’t quite living up to the superstar expectation level. He threw nine interceptions in the first seven games and only finished with a QB rating over 100 twice. Rodgers was learning to play without TE Jermichael Finley and RB Ryan Grant. It seemed like he was trying to carry the offense by taking more risks than he did in the past. During the season’s second half — with the exception of the Detroit game — those risks started paying off and Rodgers’ superstar status became official.



Green Bay Packers 2010 Player Evaluations — Offense — Donald Driver

1.)Introduction: Before the start of the 2010 season, one would have thought Green Bay Packers wide receiver Donald Driver would have grown sick and tired of playoff heartbreak.

Two years after a nauseating loss at home to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship, Driver had to feel like vomiting after Aaron Rodgers sack and subsequent fumble was returned for a touchdown in overtime of last season’s NFC Wild Card against the Arizona Cardinals.

Still, as Driver always has, he came back and made sure he wouldn’t experience that again.  A 7th round draft pick in 1999 out of Alcorn St, Driver is used to having been counted out.  As he worked his way up the depth chart, Driver’s heart and determination along with his pure class off the field has turned the late round pick into a Packers legend.

Coming into 2010, Driver knew his window of opportunity to get a Super Bowl ring was closing but he felt like this team more than others he had played on gave him the best shot of finally fulfilling that dream.

2.) Profile:

Donald Jerome Driver

Position: WR
Height: 6-0    Weight: 188 lbs.

Born: February 2, 1975 in Houston, TX
College: Alcorn State (school history)
Drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the 7th round (213th overall) of the 1999 NFL Draft.

Weighted Career AV (100-95-…): 72 (544th overall since 1950)
3-time Pro Bowler (fine print)

3.) Expectations entering 2010 season: Driver has been a model of consistency, racking up over 1,000 yard each of the past six seasons and the same was expected of him again in 2010.   With tight end Jermichael Finley emerging as the league’s next superstar tight end, the Packers were expected to have quite a three-headed receiving monster of Finley, wide receiver Greg Jennings and Driver.

Driver did turn 35 this year but his work ethic in the weight room had many feel like his body was in the condition of someone much younger than he really was.  While injuries are always a threat, people had become accustomed to Driver answering the bell every week as he had missed only one start since 2003.

4.) Highlights/Lowlights: Driver’s entire career could basically be summed up in one single play that happened at home against the San Francisco 49ers in early December.  Driver’s 61 yard touchdown catch and run had the receiver changing directions and breaking more tackles than I could count.  His stubborn refusal to be brought down is a microcosm of his 12 year NFL career.



Green Bay Packers 2010 Player Evaluations — Offense — Chad Clifton

1) Introduction: A couple of games into the 2010 season, many of us were convinced Chad Clifton was finished. He looked old, slow, overmatched and hobbled. Replacing Clifton with rookie Bryan Bulaga seemed like a logical move to avoid getting Aaron Rodgers killed. But Mike McCarthy insisted that Clifton was banged up, and that once he got healthier (we probably will never be able to say Clifton is fully healthy), he would keep his job. That patience paid off.

2) Profile:

Jeffrey Chad Clifton

Position: T
Height: 6-5    Weight: 330 lbs.

Born: June 26, 1976 in Martin, TN
College: Tennessee (school history)
Drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the 2nd round (44th overall) of the 2000 NFL Draft.

3) Expectations coming into the season for that player: Above average. Clifton signed a three-year, $20 million contract in the offseason. Normally those types of salary figures come with high expectations, but I’m not sure that was the case with Clifton. Everyone could see Clifton was aging and breaking down, and he was resigned because he was the only other logical option (unless you were comfortable with Bulaga the rookie). Not many expected a pro bowl season out of the grizzled veteran.

4) Player’s highlights/lowlights: Clifton took on Peppers for most of the season finale and kept him away from Rodgers. He also handled Lamar Woodley and James Harrison during the Super Bowl. Lowlights included a bad first two games and giving up a costly sack late in the Redskins game.

5) Player’s contribution to the overall team success: Significant. It was a down year for left tackles in the NFC, but that shouldn’t diminish Clifton’s pro bowl selection too much. Clifton never blinked against the likes of Jared Allen and Julius Peppers. He wasn’t quite lights out in pass protection, but he was very good. Clifton struggled to run block, but he was probably just saving his energy whenever the Packers called a running play so he would be fresh to protect QB1.

6) Player’s contributions during the 6-win end-of-season run: Clifton was a big reason why Rodgers played his best football down the stretch. Clifton was left on an island against some solid pass rushers late in the season, and he delivered big time. You could sometimes see Rodgers get a little jumpy when he saw Bulaga engage his man near the line. That was never the case with Clifton.



Green Bay Packers 2010 Player Evaluations – Defense – Nick Collins

1) Introduction: When the Packers lost Darren Sharper after the 2004 season, they were in desperate need of a suitable replacement at safety. Nick Collins was their answer. Drafted in the second round of 2005, he was an instant starter and has missed only three complete games in his career. The 2008 season would be his breakout year with a career-high 7 interceptions, three of them for touchdowns. Since then, he has been a perennial Pro Bowl player and Second Team All-Pro selection. On March 12, 2010, Nick Collins finally signed a long-awaited three-year contract with the Packers, solidifying himself as a staple of the defense.

2) Profile:

Nicholas Cardell Collins

Position: DB
Height: 5-11    Weight: 206 lbs.

Born: August 16, 1983 in Gainesville, FL
College: Bethune-Cookman
Drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the 2nd round (51st overall) of the 2005 NFL Draft.

3) Expectations coming into the season: Already a two-time Pro Bowler entering the season, expectations were naturally high for Nick Collins. Over the past two years – arguably the best of his career – he made 125 tackles, defended 28 passes, caught 13 interceptions, forced one fumble, recovered four more, and had one sack. In addition, the initial uncertainties at the nickel cornerback and strong safety positions (between Burnett, Bigby, and eventually Peprah) put more of a burden on his veteran shoulders.

4) Highlights / Lowlights: What will definitely become one of the biggest highlights of Nick Collins’ career is the pick-six he made in Super Bowl XLV. Helping to secure an early lead, Collins’ interception was more of a gift-wrapped package than a dazzling display of athleticism, yet it was his effort to take it to the house that will make it part of the history reels. Though known for his ball-hawking abilities, Collins is also known for making some bad angles and whiffing tackles. His worst moment came in the NFC Championship Game, when Caleb Hanie connected with Earl Bennett for the Bears’ second touchdown. Collins was in a perfect position to make the stop, but didn’t even get a hand on him as Bennett whizzed by.