TOP

Taking Stock Of The Chicago Bulls

The Chicago Bulls are going to be in the national spotlight this week, with all three of their games on national television. It starts with a big test at Golden State tonight (10:30 PM ET, NBA-TV), and then moves on to the Thursday night TNT stage at the Los Angeles Lakers (10:30 PM ET) and concludes with another 10:30 PM ET tip on Friday, this one against the Phoenix Suns on ESPN.

So it’s time to take stock of this Chicago Bulls team, to see if they can meet preseason expectations and at least reach the conference finals and perhaps finally make the NBA Finals for the first time since the Michael Jordan era ended.

Chicago BullsChicago is 29-17 and in fourth in the Eastern Conference. They are part of a group of three teams jousting between the 2-4 spots, including the Toronto Raptors and Washington, so the Bulls are closer to moving up two spots then they are to moving down one. But the team in the rearview mirror is the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James’ team has gotten a roll recently, so there’s not a lot of room for error for Chicago.

The success for the Bulls starts with Jimmy Butler, the two-guard that’s averaging 20 ppg and become the big-time scorer that this team has so often lacked in recent seasons in the playoffs, especially with Derrick Rose injured. And speaking of Rose, he’s quietly played 35 games and is averaging 18 points/5 rebounds and 3 assists per game.

Top Seller – Autographed Michael Jordan Basketball at SportsMemorabilia.com!

We only hear of Rose when he comes out of a game early or sits down, so it’s worth pointing out that he’s playing and producing. Whether he can stay healthy enough for that continue will be a subject of reasonable doubt until he makes it through a full regular season and postseason again, but for now everything is fine with the man who has to ultimately eclipse Butler as the biggest star on the team if Chicago is going to reach the NBA Finals.

Thursday night will be when Pau Gasol returns to his old stomping grounds in Los Angeles, where he helped the Lakers win championships in 2009 and 2010. The Lakers felt Gasol was done at age 34. The Bulls thought otherwise. The Bulls were right—18 points/12 rebounds/2 blocks per game and another offensive threat that Chicago is not used to having.

The Bulls rank eighth in the NBA in offensive efficiency, thanks to the emergence of Butler, the availability of Rose and the acquisition of Gasol. What’s surprising is that it’s the defense that’s under some scrutiny.

Chicago is still a good defensive team, ranking 12th in the league in efficiency. But we’re used to seeing the Bulls of head coach Tom Thibodeau rank among the NBA elite on defense. For all the offensive improvements, they’re going to need to be a great defensive team to get by the other contenders in the East.

It’s been speculated that perhaps this veteran team—Gasol, Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy are all 34-years-old, and Rose has to pace himself as well—will turn up the intensity as the season gets closer to April. That’s well possible and certainly not without precedent in the NBA. I’m giving Chicago the benefit of the doubt until March or so. That’s when I want to see Joakim Noah in the post and the rest of this team play the kind of smothering defense that we’ve become used to seeing.

Chicago is a 10-1 shot to win the NBA title, ranking behind only four other teams, including Cleveland. On its face, the odds sound reasonable, although I don’t know that the Bulls are that much better than Washington, who is a 35-1 shot. What it boils down to is that oddsmakers still believe in the Bulls and with the national stage this week, Chicago can demonstrate that the confidence is not misplaced.

Read More
TOP

Will This Year’s Duke Basketball Team Add To Coach K’s Legacy?

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski took another step into college basketball history yesterday when he won his 1,000th career game against St. John’s. Coach K is already the all-time wins leader and just keeps expanding his lead with this unprecedented milestone.

The question we’re going to ask here today is in the “rain on the parade” category a little bit, and it’s this—can this edition of Duke basketball be the one that will reverse what’s been a modest decline in recent seasons. With this week’s schedule showing road trips to Notre Dame on Wednesday (7:30 PM ET, ESPN2) and Virginia on Saturday (7 PM ET, ESPN) there’s no time for victory parties or historical reflection in Durham.

Coach K has set some almost impossible-to-hit standards, so even just churning out really good teams, as he continues to do, can still short of this program’s expectations, which are defined by championships. Here’s the rundown on Duke’s current droughts…

*They have not won the ACC regular season title outright since 2006, when J.J. Redick was leading the way. Coach K has won ten outright ACC crowns and shared two others in his tenure, and it’s shocking to realize it’s been nearly a decade since they won their league.

*Duke has not won the ACC Tournament since 2011. A less alarming trend, but people in ACC country live to win this event and for the conference’s pre-eminent program—who has won it 13 times under Coach K– to go three straight years without a title—at a time when North Carolina has also been down a bit—raises some eyebrows

*And the stage that college basketball fans care the most about, March Madness, has not been kind to the Dookies since Coach K won his fourth national title back in 2010.  There were a couple modestly respectable runs to the regional weekend in 2011 and 2013, but both ended in decisive losses, to San Diego State and Louisville respectively. More important, there were two stunning first-round exits, to Lehigh in 2012 and Mercer in 2014.

Duke is essentially the New England Patriots of college basketball. There’s no denying their greatness in the big picture and not even any denying their excellence in recent seasons. But the numbers above for Duke are a little bit like considering the Pats haven’t won the Super Bowl in a decade. So what do prospects look like for this year’s Duke team?

The Blue Devils are currently 17-2, with both losses in ACC play. They trail Virginia by two games in the conference, and are one back of Notre Dame. Duke is tied in the loss column with Louisville, Syracuse and Miami. But Duke has quality non-conference wins over Michigan State and at Wisconsin, and consequently are projected as a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi in an updated bracket released today.

Jahlil Okafor, the outstanding 6’11” freshman center has gotten most of the attention and he deserves it. Okafor gives Duke an imposing presence in the middle, something they have often lacked. He’s averaging 19 points/9 rebounds per game, along with 1.5 blocks. He gets help on the glass from Amile Jefferson, a 6’9” junior who gets eight boards a night.

Okafor is just one of three freshmen playing a huge role for this year’s Duke team. Tyus Jones is an important element in the backcourt, leading the team in assists and Justice Winslow is a key wing player and double-digit scorer. The lineup is rounded out with senior Quinn Cook, good for 14 ppg a night and the main three-point shooter.

Normally good inside play has been the key to determining how far Duke will go. They won their 2010 title when Brian Zoubek consistently grabbed 9-10 rebounds a night. That was a case of role player stepping up. The best Duke teams—those that won back-to-back national titles in 1991 and 1992 had a great college player in Christian Laettner. With Okafor and Jefferson on this year’s team, the Blue Devils would seem to have both a star and a grinder in place.

The problem is, the defense has not always been there, and team rebounding has been up and down, even if Okafor individually has not been. Duke was significantly outrebounded by Michigan State, but won because they shot 54 percent. The Blue Devils shot the lights out in Wisconsin, hitting 65 percent of their shots.

In the recent two-game losing streak in ACC play, Duke first failed to hit their shots against N.C. State, and lost by 12 in spite of Okafor going for 23/12 and Jefferson getting eight rebounds. Duke lost at home to Miami because they allowed 52 percent shooting. In the two games combined, Duke gave up 177 points.

It’s that lack of defensive focus that’s difficult to understand, given the presence of good interior personnel. Duke is 50th in the country in defensive efficiency, a stat that adjusts points allowed for tempo so faster teams aren’t penalized. That’s not terrible, but it’s not the stuff of a great team either. By contrast, the offense ranks 5th.

What this suggests is that Duke will look really good when the shots are falling, but be unable to grind out ugly wins. And you need ugly wins to win conference championships and make Final Four runs in March.

Of course the other side to this is that it’s still January, and this freshman-laden team is still learning to play together defensively. Some of the previous Duke teams that came up short simply didn’t have good talent in the post and that became exposed. This year’s team does, so perhaps it’s just a question of letting Coach K continue to mold this group and see if their defense improves.

There’s no better time to start than this week. You need your defense to win on the road and if Duke is serious about that first outright ACC championship since 2006—or first shared title since 2010—then trips to Notre Dame and Virginia are the place to get it going.

Read More
TOP

The Worst Blowouts In NFL Conference Championship Game History

In the aftermath of Championship Sunday in the NFL last week, the focus, from a historical perspective has been how the Green Bay Packers gut-wrenching loss in Seattle ranks in heartbreak lore. But let’s not allow the Indianapolis Colts to feel neglected. After being trashed 45-7 in New England, it’s time to look at the other end of the spectrum—what are the worst blowouts in NFL conference championship game history?

As we did in yesterday’s post about the most heartbreaking losses, TheSportsNotebook is honoring the five-year window observed by Hall of Fames, making the cutoff point in 2009. The reason is that just how bad a loss was can change—or at least our perception of it can change—by how the team responds in the immediate years after.

shareasimage (17)This five-year period, allowing a team’s legacy to form more fully, isn’t quite as relevant here as it was in the discussion of heartbreaks, but it can still apply and for simplicity’s sake, we’ll keep the rankings on the same rules. As we go through the list you can get your own sense of where the Colts’ loss in Foxboro will ultimately fit.

It should also go without saying that not all blowout losses are created equal. If it were, we could just rank the games by victory margin and leave it at that. But factors like expectations for the defeated team also have to factor in. That’s an issue that will ultimately mitigate some infamy for this year’s Indy team—a touchdown underdog going in and already having exceeded all expectations for themselves.

I also looked to avoid games that were competitive for a good while before turning ugly the reason games like Chicago’s 39-14 win over New Orleans in 2006 didn’t factor in—the Bears only led 18-14 after three quarters. The same goes for Tennessee’s 33-14 beatdown of #1 AFC seed Jacksonville in 1999. The Jags actually led the game at halftime.

We’re looking for a game like Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, where New England had an early 14-0 lead, a 17-7 halftime lead and it felt larger, the way they dominated play, before immediately scoring after the second-half kickoff and coasting home. So here we go, here’s the Notebook Nine, the nine worst blowouts in conference championship game history….

1975: Dallas 37 LA Rams 7—The Rams were playing at home against the wild-card Cowboys and the game and the Rams didn’t score until it was 37-zip. A running attack that had been a two-headed monster with Cullen Bryant and John Cappelletti was completely shut down.

1991: Buffalo 51 LA Raiders 3—By sheer victory margin, this one was the biggest rout and it was as bad as the score makes it look, right from the start. The only thing keeping the Raiders from the top spot is that at least they didn’t do this in front of their home fans. The Bills were definitely a superior team…just not this superior.

1988: San Francisco 28 Chicago 3—The Bears were the top seed in the NFC and would likely have been favored in the Super Bowl against the Cincinnati Bengals. Chicago had also manhandled the San Francisco offense early in the year, holding them to nine points. To top it off, a frigid wind, sure to favor the Midwestern home team and slow down Joe Montana, was ripping across Soldier Field. In spite of it all, Montana hit Jerry Rice with an early touchdown pass and it was never a game.

2005: Pittsburgh 34 Denver 17—This was the only time Mike Shanahan ever advanced out of the first round without John Elway as his quarterback and it ended up with the Broncos being completely overwhelmed on their homefield. The Steelers were a wild-card who had to win four in a row to make the playoffs, then win at Cincinnati and after a big upset of top-seeded Indianapolis, Pittsburgh should have been out of gas. Instead, they grabbed an early 10-0 lead, led 24-3 at half and coasted home.

2000: NY Giants 41 Minnesota 0—I could be persuaded into moving this one higher on the list. Even though the Vikings were the 2-seed and on the road in the Meadowlands, this wasn’t a Giant team that was highly respected, at least as a real powerhouse. The Vikings were actually a one-point favorite coming in.

1978: Pittsburgh 34 Houston 5—I’d like to cut the Oilers some slack here. The artificial turf at old Three Rivers Stadium was covered with a sheet of ice and Houston’s big running back Earl Campbell couldn’t get his footing. Pittsburgh was at the peak of their Steel Curtain power. But Houston did turn the ball over nine times—and managed to lose a game by 29 points in which their defense forced five turnovers.

This is a game that seems pretty comparable to this year’s Indianapolis loss—great opponent with a pedigree, and the Oilers, like the Colts, had won two playoff games and were already a success just by getting here. Even the inclimate weather similarity works. No word though, on whether Pittsburgh deflated the footballs in 1978.

1978: Dallas 28 LA Rams 0—Maybe Los Angeles should have just ran whenever they saw Dallas coming to town for a big game. This game was also in the Coliseum. I’d like to rank it number one, simply because it’s so inexcusable to allow this to happen twice in four years on your homefield to the same team. But…the score was only 7-0 after three quarters. Normally that would have absolved the ’78 Rams from being on the list, but I can’t get past the twice in four years thing.

1989: San Francisco 30 LA Rams 3—I swear, I’m not trying to pick on the Rams, but they just come up small in big moments. At least this one happened away from home, and they led 3-0 early. But by halftime it was 21-3 and the rout was on.

1991: Washington 41 Detroit 10—As a Redskins fan I really wanted to rank this team, one of the most underappreciated in NFL history, much higher. But the lead at halftime was only 17-10, so it has to settle for being the last team to make the cut.

Beyond this year’s Indianapolis-New England game, there haven’t been a lot of recent candidates for inclusion on the list as the five-year window passes. We’ve been fortunate to have mostly great games in the conference championship round. But as this list shows, we’ve had our share of clunkers that were never close.

 

Read More
TOP

Ranking The Worst Losses In Conference Championship Game History

Earlier this week, I touched on where the Green Bay Packers devastating loss to the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday would rank among the annals of heartbreak in NFL conference championship game history. I put a couple other candidates out there, but wanted to give this subject more exhaustive treatment. What follows is a list of the nine most devastating losses in conference championship game history.

I’m going to begin by clarifying one important ground rule. Here at TheSportsNotebook, our extensive museum of sports history articles honors the five-year waiting period observed by Hall of Fames before writing about a team or event. In that way, the legacy can take fuller shape. I decided to adopt that same rule here, meaning our cutoff point is after the 2009 season.

The reason for this is that I realized one of the difficulties in ranking the Packers’ loss is that we don’t know what its ultimate legacy will be. If the team never wins another Super Bowl with Aaron Rodgers, this loss will sting that much more.

On the other hand, what if Green Bay comes back next year and goes on a redemptive run, a la the San Antonio Spurs in last year’s NBA playoffs? Then the pain of this year’s loss is mitigated,at least

shareasimage (17)By allowing the five-year window, we can rank teams whose legacies are mostly developed and you can start speculating on where Green Bay’s defeat—along with a few others that we’ll touch on below from recent seasons—will fit in this list. But for now, here is The Notebook Nine, the nine worst losses in a conference championship game.

1998 Minnesota Vikings: This was a juggernaut of a team. They were 15-1 and blowing people out in the process. Minnesota led the NFC Championship Game against the Atlanta Falcons 27-20 in the fourth quarter and trotted out reliable Gary Anderson for a field goal that would ice it. Anderson, obviously kicking indoors in perfect conditions, missed a makeable kick. Atlanta drives it down, ties the game and wins in overtime.

Minnesota reached one more NFC Championship Game in 2000, but never had a better shot at winning the Super Bowl then with this team. That failure—along with the fact this is a franchise that has never won the Super Bowl, nor even reached it since 1976, only adds to how bad the ’98 loss was. I still consider this the gold standard of heartbreak.

1986 Cleveland Browns: You can make a good argument for this one to be in the top spot. The Browns were the top seed in the AFC and had the Denver Broncos down 20-13 late in the fourth quarter and backed up on their own 2-yard line. Then John Elway mounts “The Drive”, including converting a 3rd-and-18 on a windy day in the Dawg Pound. Denver wins in overtime.

Cleveland has never even made a Super Bowl, much less won one. They suffered another crushing loss to Denver a year later. The only reason they rank second on the list is that the ’86 Browns weren’t quite the juggernaut the ’98 Vikings were.

1990 San Francisco 49ers: Our first two teams come from suffering cities desperate to win a Super Bowl. San Francisco certainly isn’t that, but this game still qualifies. The 49ers led the New York Giants 13-12 late in the game and were running out the clock. Roger Craig fumbled. New York drove for a winning field goal.

The nature of the loss is bad enough, but what elevates this game is that San Francisco was going for a third straight Super Bowl win. Their heartbreak in this game is akin to what the undefeated New England Patriots suffered in 2007 in the Super Bowl itself—it’s not the fans had never experienced glory, but they got “thisclose” to really making history and had it taken away from them both teams. Oddly enough, both times by the Giants.

1994 Pittsburgh Steelers: Pittsburgh was a solid favorite over the San Diego Chargers. The Steelers had a top defense and they led the Bolts 13-3 in the second half. Somehow, the Steelers gave up two long touchdown passes to the immortal Stan Humphries and found themselves down by four points. Pittsburgh drove to the three-yard line and had one last play to win it, but Neil O’Donnell’s pass fell incomplete

By this point, it had been fifteen years since the Steelers had won their last Super Bowl under Chuck Noll. They had not been back since. This was also part of a stretch where Pittsburgh head coach Bill Cowher kept finding ways to lose playoff games at home—the Steelers were eliminated at home three times from 1992-97, and lost home conference championship games in 2001 and 2004. They reached the Super Bowl in 1995, but it took until 2005 for this generation of Steeler fans to get a ring.

1981 Dallas Cowboys: Dallas was on the road in San Francisco and led the upstart 49ers 27-21 with about five minutes left. San Francisco had the ball on their own 11-yard line. Then Joe Montana led a last drive that was culminated with a fantastic leaping catch by Dwight Clark in the end zone, that would arguably become the most famous Sports Illustrated cover of all time.

This game is a classic case of why the five-year waiting period helps. At the time, it just seemed like the Big Bad Cowboys of Tom Landry had taken a tough loss and would surely just come right back for more. In fact, this was the second of three straight losses in the NFC Championship Game for Dallas, and Landry would never again reach the Super Bowl.

1995 Indianapolis Colts: By the merits of the game itself, you can make a case this one should rank higher. The Colts, with Jim Harbaugh at quarterback, were holding onto a 16-13 lead in Pittsburgh, in spite of the Steelers having gotten an officiating break when Kordell Stewart’s catch in the end zone was ruled a touchdown with replays showing his foot was out of bounds.

Indy had Pittsburgh in a 4th-and-3, but that was converted. Then a 37-yard pass to Ernie Mills put the Steelers on the doorstep and they cashed it in. Harbaugh rallied his team one more time and got them in positon to throw one last jump ball into the end zone. The ball got to receiver Aaron Bailey who appeared ready to come down with it, but he juggled it just enough for the ball to hit the ground.

Since the Colts would not become relevant again until Peyton Manning came to town more than a decade later, why isn’t this game ranked higher? Because Indianapolis was a #5 seed and the expectations just weren’t there.

2009 Minnesota Vikings: The game was tied 28-28 in spite of a myriad of Minnesota mistakes. Brett Favre had them on the move for a winning field goal and they had nudged into the range of kicker Ryan Longwell, especially playing indoors in New Orleans. Then a delay of game penalty pushed them back and forced a decision to throw.

Favre rolled to his right and there was about 10 yards of space for him to run up, step out of bounds and set up the last-play field goal. Instead, he threw it across his body into the middle of the field where Tracy Porter intercepted it. New Orleans won the coin toss in overtime and quickly got a field goal to win.

We’ve already covered the sad Viking history. This game has added on to it the fact that this was the last overtime game under the old rules, where just winning a coin toss and getting 40 or so yards to get in field goal range was sufficient. Favre never saw the ball after that fateful pass.

2006 New England Patriots: The Patriots had already won plenty by this point, with three Super Bowls in the previous five seasons. But anytime you set a record for the biggest blown lead in a conference championship game—they were up 21-3 on the road in Indianapolis, it’s going to hurt.

What makes this loss stand out more is that the winner had a virtual lock Super Bowl trophy, as the Chicago Bears were just token opposition in a year the NFC was awful. And New England has not won once since 2004. What perhaps mitigates this loss is that this was not a vintage Tom Brady/Bill Belichick team—they had serious problems at receiver and a flu bug swept the team in the week prior to the game.

1999 Tampa Bay Buccaneers: This is an underrated loss, the kind I always enjoy finding when researching stuff like this. Tampa Bay, coached by Tony Dungy, led Kurt Warner’s St. Louis Rams 6-5 in the fourth quarter. Warner threw a touchdown pass with less than five minutes left to take an 11-6 lead, but Tampa Bay drove back.

Shaun Hill threw what looked to be a completed pass to Robert Meacham inside the red zone, one that would have set up a first down situation. But it was ruled incomplete, a ruling that even with replay remains hotly disputed. In the end, the coach and team would each eventually win a Super Bowl—but only after Dungy went to Indianapolis and Jon Gruden won it in Tampa.

Those are the Notebook Nine. Honorable mention goes to the following—

*1987 Cleveland Browns—A goal-line fumble by Earnest Byner with the Browns trailing 38-31 in Denver added to the legacy of heartbreak in Cleveland. It doesn’t make the list because it would have only forced overtime and Cleveland played from behind the whole way.

*2007 Green Bay Packers—Favre’s final game as a Packer and he threw an underthrown interception in overtime that sealed his team’s fate in a game they played at home and were a solid favorite over the New York Giants. The weakness? They never got in a really great positon to win the game. It seemed like New York took over the game in both trenches and Green Bay was just hanging on.

*2008 Baltimore Ravens—Trailing 16-14 in Pittsburgh, the Ravens got the ball late in the fourth quarter. Joe Flacco, then a rookie, threw a Pick-6 to Troy Polamulu. It doesn’t make the list because the Ravens played from behind most of the way, were a #6 seed without expectations and ultimately won a Super Bowl with this cast of players in 2012.

*1974 Los Angeles Rams—They lost in Minnesota 14-10 and the game is remembered for a controversial illegal motion play on Tom Mack when the Rams had 1st-and-goal on the 2-yard line. Forced to throw, an interception in the end zone followed.

Had this happened late in the fourth quarter, I’d have put it in the Notebook Nine. But there was still plenty of game left, the Vikings built a 14-3 lead and the Rams never again got in a real positon to win it.

That’s the cast that this year’s Green Bay Packers and the others that have lost conference championship games since 2009 are looking to break into. If it seems like we’ve had a lot of great championship games in recent years, you aren’t imagining things. I count five teams that can break into this list after we let their legacy become a little clearer:

The 2011 and 2013 San Francisco 49ers: In ’11, they lost in overtime at home to the Giants with a fumbled punt being the difference. In ’13, they went to Seattle, blew a ten-point lead, gave up a 4th-and-13 touchdown pass and then saw their last drive stopped on an interception in the end zone.

Furthermore, with Jim Harbaugh leaving, the legacy appears to be that of missed opportunity, coupled with the Super Bowl loss of 2012. There’s a good chance at least one, if not both of these conference title game defeats make it into the Nine.

2011 Baltimore Ravens: Trailing New England 23-20, the Ravens first saw Lee Evans drop a game-winning touchdown pass in the end zone (or more accurately, have it stripped away, but it’s still a play an NFL receiver has to make). Then Billy Cundiff missed the chip-shot field goal that would have sent it to overtime.

This is another game where the five-year wait is creating a different impression than existed at the time. In the moment, I saw an old team, with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, whose window was closing. True enough, but I was a year too early. They mustered up a Super Bowl run a year later, coming right back through Foxboro on a redemptive run. This 2011 loss probably still is agonizing enough to make the list, but it lost steam as a candidate for the top spot.

2012 Atlanta Falcons: They had a 17-0 lead at home on San Francisco and blew it. Even trailing 28-24, they drove into the red zone at the end of the game, but couldn’t get it done. Head coach Mike Smith is now fired and Atlanta seems eons away from the Super Bowl, a place they’ve only been once and have never won. This is another game that looks destined for “better” things when it’s time for a formal ranking.

And finally we come to the 2014 Green Bay Packers. This one is going to make the list in five years. How high up it gets will depend a lot on what happens between now and then. Right now though, my gut instinct is to say at least third and no worse than fifth. The sheer nature of how the loss unfolded is bad enough. It’s up to the current cast of players and coaches to make it just one bad event in a plot that ultimately ends well.

Read More
TOP

Handing Out The Blame For The Green Bay Packers Loss

“Let me tell you what you don’t want: Your hotel on the cover of TIME magazine…in a twisted heap of steel and glass, you and your customers are underneath it. Headline reads, “Who’s To Blame?”That’s what you don’t want.”

–Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) speaking to casino owner Willy Bank (Al Pacino) in Oceans 13

The Packers and their fans are the ones underneath the NFL version of the collapsed hotel hypothesized about in the final installment of the great Oceans trilogy. And the question “Who’s To Blame” for the Green Bay Packers loss is most definitely on everyone’s mind.

There are three scapegoats getting the bulk of the attention and one that I think has to be on the board more than he is. Here are the men currently being photographed from the front and side, as they’re ushered into the NFL version of prison, facing the sentence of a long summer:

Brandon Bostick: The lightning rod for the defeat for misplaying the onside kick that gave Seattle a chance at the winning touchdown. The later revelation that was simply supposed to block only adds fuel to the fire.

Mike McCarthy: Green Bay’s head coach seems to be the one taking the most heat nationally for game strategies so conservative that he seemed to be positioning himself to run in a Republican primary. McCarthy opted for a field goal from inside the 1-yard line and again from the 2. He took the air out of the ball in the fourth quarter.

Underneath the McCarthy umbrella, we’re going to include the decision by safety Morgan Burnett to safely slide down after an interception with less than five minutes to go, rather than running with open field.

It’s not that McCarthy is at fault for Burnett’s decision, but they can all fall under the general category of “playing not to lose.”

Ha-Ha Clinton Dix: On Seattle’s two-point conversion that extended their lead from 20-19 to 22-19, Dix watched a pass from Russell Wilson float high in the air and across the field and then simply stood behind the receiver and let him catch the ball.

Dix had played an outstanding game to that point, with two interceptions and in this regard his play is a metaphor for the team as a whole—great for 55 minutes and awful when it came time to close.

Aaron Rodgers: No one is mentioning the star quarterback. The obviously injured calf is the big reason, and McCarthy’s decision to run the ball down the stretch has absolved #12 from any blame. But whether you agree or disagree, Rodgers at least needs to be on the radar in this discussion.

His play was awful, and had it merely been mediocre Green Bay would be going to the Super Bowl. Honestly, I don’t even say that as a statement that can be reasonably disagreed with—the real debate is how much expectation can really be placed on a player who has to limp toward the first down marker, as Rodgers did in the fourth quarter on Sunday.

There’s the bill of indictment against the four particulars. Here’s how I’d hand out the blame…

Bostick: 50 percent—I hate to do this to the poor kid, and in the immediate aftermath of the game my gut reaction was to cut him a break. Even knowing he was supposed to block, I thought his instincts to get a ball heading directly for him in the chaos seemed understandable. Then I got more information and watched the play from another angle.

Bostick was supposed to block specifically for Jordy Nelson, to make sure no one on Seattle could get to the sure-handed receiver. If you look at the replay from behind the kicking team, you see Nelson in perfect position, right behind Bostick. It’s exactly like the coaching staff drew it up—hardly chaotic. All Bostick has to do is his job and Nelson almost certainly makes the play and free of duress.

This doesn’t justify the predictably hateful stuff that has poured out toward Bostick on Twitter. If you’re a praying person, say one for this kid, because lives get wrecked over plays like this. There’s obviously no reason for that. A big mistake in a big football game isn’t that big of a deal. But it doesn’t mean it’s not a big mistake in a big football game.

McCarthy: 20 percent—Maybe personal pride is getting in the way, but I thought the head coach did the right thing in taking the field goals down close. Normally I’m all for playing the percentages and going for the touchdown—leaving four points on the board over a yard or two just isn’t a good trade-off.

But this was different. It was early in the game, Rodgers had already thrown an interception in the end zone and there wasn’t any room in the running game. I felt like Green Bay simply had to get points, particularly on the first field goal. And the second field goal was from the two-yard line where the odds of converting where much less.

I also felt feeding Lacy was the right thing. Again, normally I wouldn’t say that, but Rodgers’ obvious discomfort and how well the defense was playing made it seem like the right thing to do.

So why any blame at all? Well, first off, James Starks ripped off a big run in the fourth quarter. He could have also gotten some carries along with Lacy. I would have also liked to have seen Green Bay throw some screen passes toward Seattle corner Richard Sherman. In spite of Sherman’s greatness he was obviously dealing with an arm injury. Just fling a quick screen out there and see if he can make a tackle. Green Bay didn’t. That’s on McCarthy.

Ha-Ha Clinton Dix: 20 percent—Again, this is a lot of blame to assign over one play, particularly when the rest of his game was so outstanding. But that two-point conversion was so big and Dix’s failure to go after the ball so inexplicable that he simply has to get some of the blame. It was like Dix was the only one who didn’t realize that Green Bay still had plenty of time to go get a field goal—something they obviously did—and stopping the two-point play could have allowed his team to win it in regulation.

Aaron Rodgers: 10 percent—Before Packer fans, who respond to even the mildest criticism of Rodgers as though someone insulted their spouse, get snippy, just consider this—if Rodgers would have played the kind of game he did on Sunday in perfect health, he’d get assigned about 90 percent of the blame and I don’t think anyone would disagree. Taking that share all the way down to 10 percent seems like more than a fair enough adjustment for the calf injury.

The blame comes from the interception in the end zone on the first possession, where Rodgers horribly underthrew his receiver and ended up hitting Sherman almost in stride on the inside. There were several other passes that were just off target. Rodgers inability to find a way to make even a couple plays in the fourth quarter to ice it has to count for at least a little something. And while I don’t know how much role he has in the playcalling, the failure to attack the wounded Sherman late in the game has to be a little bit on the quarterback. If nothing else, just audible to a screen.

That’s how I’d hand out the blame for the Green Bay Packers loss. A small amount to Rodgers, a little more to Dix and McCarthy and unfortunately, half of it, to a backup tight end that no one heard of before and no one will now ever forget.

Read More