Hangin’ With Havel!

Hangin’ with Havel

For Friday, September 17th

Chris Havel’s sports columns appear during the week on The FAN’s website. The columns are brought to you by these fine advertisers (click on hyperlink to go to their website/Facebook)

 

** Chrysler World

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** Packer City Antiques

Twenty-six years in business, owner Mike Worachek features rare Packers and sports memorabilia at 2208 S. Ridge Rd., Green Bay. Card and coin also buys gold and silver at www.titletownnostalgia.com.

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** Patriot Golf Club

Dennis and Synthia Kaminski do a tremendous job with this beautiful 18-hole public course in Abrams, 20 minutes north of Green Bay on Hwy. 41. For a great challenge for all skill levels call Patriot for a tee time at (920) 826-7770.

Rodgers’ Week 1 take:

‘We need to be better’

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – In the wake of Green Bay’s humbling loss to New Orleans in Week 1, the Packers are trying to strike the proper balance between playing with a sense of urgency and not freaking out.

Aaron Rodgers is doing his part to see that it happens.

“If we’re starting to freak out after one week,” he said Thursday, “we’re in big trouble.”

The Packers (0-1) take on the Lions (0-1) on Monday Night Football with kickoff set for 7:25 at Lambeau Field. San Francisco defeated the Lions 41-33 in Detroit’s season opener.

But after the Packers’ Week 1 performance no one at 1265 Lombardi Avenue should be taking anything for granted, especially when facing an NFC North rival. Division games are too important to take lightly, and with the curious eyes of an entire league watching this is a big game.

The Packers are 11-point favorites over Detroit, an indication that the Las Vegas odds-makers and fans think Green Bay will bounce back big.

Rodgers’ low-key response to the Packers’ 38-3 loss had some callers to Sports Line this week wondering how he could be so coolly analytical after such a poor performance. A few suggested he has checked out.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

“Now, I wasn’t trying to be inspiring,” Rodgers said of Sunday’s comment. “I was trying to put the loss in the context where it deserves to be put. And that is, it’s not acceptable, but it’s just one game and we’re not gonna be held prisoner mentally by that poor performance.”

The Packers’ mantra has been “living in the moment.”

Don’t fret over what’s happened in the past. Don’t look too far ahead. Just be present and accountable in the moment.

It seems sensible enough.

If “the moment” isn’t what you are striving to make it – in this case executing, communicating and ultimately dominating – the best response is to work smarter and harder to change “the moment.”

Wallowing in self-pity isn’t going to fix the situation.

Clearly, the Packers were overconfident going into their season-opener. They mistakenly thought winning battles in practice – scripted and against teammates – was the same as being adequately prepared to tackle a fairly talented, extremely well-coached Saints squad.

Now they know different.

If the Packers truly are a Super Bowl contender they’ll see Week 1 as both a season-opener and an eye-opener: They need to play better.

They may have to do it while shuffling the offensive line.

Center Josh Myers was listed on the injury report with a finger problem, but he still practiced this week. Lucas Patrick is in the concussion protocol, which means Jon Runyan Jr. might start at left guard.

The injury list also includes: Josiah Deguara (concussion protocol), Darnell Savage (shoulder, limited), Vernon Scott (hamstring, limited), Tyler Lancaster (back/ankle, limited) and Za’Darius Smith (back, DNP).

Savage practiced and should be ok. Lancaster’s challenges could lead to more snaps for T.J. Slaton and Jack Heflin’s game-day activation.

Defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery reportedly tested positive for COVID-19. Montgomery is fully vaccinated and if he has consecutive negative tests should be ready to coach Monday night.

The Packers’ defense will be tested by a Lions’ offense that featured tight end T.J. Hockenson and ex-Packers running back Jamaal Williams. Hockenson caught eight passes (11 targets) for 97 yards, one touchdown and two big plays (plus 20 yards). Williams rushed nine times for 54 yards (a 6-yard average) and caught eight passes for 56 yards.

Jared Goff was 38 of 57 for 338 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. He was sacked three times by the 49ers.

The Packers failed to get a sack against New Orleans and it appears Za’Darius Smith’s back problems will limit him for now. He played 15 snaps against the Saints, but didn’t practice this week.

For his part, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur’s teams have been excellent following a bad beat-down. The Packers’ loss at Jacksonville was the third defeat of 25 points or more. After each blowout loss, Rodgers responded by throwing four touchdown passes.

It may happen again Monday night. What the season-opener reminded everyone that it isn’t going to happen just because the Packers show up.

LaFleur didn’t dance around the Packers’ Week 1 failings. When asked what his team needed to do to improve, he didn’t mince words.

“Where do I start?” he said. “It’s our responsibility as coaches to make sure our guys are in the right position and they’re executing their assignments. I feel like that was one of the games where we had as many mental mistakes as we’ve had in a long time.

“So we obviously didn’t do a very good job as coaches getting our guys (to the point of) knowing the plan inside and out, knowing the details.”

The plan is to play smart, crisp football and take it to the Lions.

After a season spent dealing with COVID-19 and not being able to attend Packers’ home games in full force, fans will be ready and roaring to go come Monday night.

We’ll see if LaFleur’s team has the same mindset.

Saints ‘embarrass’

Packers in 38-3 rout

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Matt LaFleur took a novel and likely one-time approach to the preseason. He didn’t play many of his starters, whether they needed it or not, in deference to the notion that practice can replace “live action.”

It turns out most of the Packers’ starters needed the work, practice can’t replicate “live action” and the final score doesn’t lie.

The Saints’ 38-3 rout of Green Bay on Sunday at Jacksonville’s TIAA Bank Field proved to be a major Week 1 reality check.

It brought into question LaFleur’s preparation, his team’s execution and his quarterback’s mindset after a historically awful performance.

After an offseason of acrimony, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers did nothing to quell that storyline. Rodgers completed 15 of 28 passes for 133 yards, two interceptions and a 36.8 passer rating.

It was the first time in Rodgers’ career that his passer rating was lower than his age. He did post an identical 36.8 rating in Week 14 of his rookie season, back when he wore a much younger QB’s uniform.

At times, it appeared as if Rodgers’ “give a damn” was busted.

He threw back-to-back interceptions to kill the Packers’ first two drives of the second half. Green Bay’s defense stepped up after the first pick, but caved after the second and allowed a touchdown to make it 24-3.

Game over.

It’s rare when the Packers have as many turnovers as points. It’s even rarer when Rodgers is forced to admit what everyone saw: He was bad.

The Packers’ 35-point loss was the worst in a season opener by a team that played in the AFC or NFC Championship the previous season.

LaFleur credited the Saints and head coach Sean Payton.

“They came ready to play; absolutely embarrassed us today,” said LaFleur, who added that the loss was humbling.

Rodgers had a different response.

“I’ll let him use those words and I’ll use, ‘it’s just one game,’ ” he said. “We played bad. I played bad. Offensively we didn’t execute very well. (It’s) one game. We’ve got 16 to go.”

Perish the thought.

In the aftermath of this debacle, let’s dispense with the nonsense.

Rodgers isn’t Michael Jordan, the Packers aren’t the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls and this isn’t The Last Dance.

More like a grade-school dance.

It was clumsy, awkward and embarrassing.

If a Packers’ fan had somehow missed the game and new nothing but the final score, they’d be apt to say, “Thirty-eight to three? That sounds about right. So how many TD passes did Rodgers end up with?”

That would be zero.

After consecutive NFC title berths and 13-3 seasons, the Packers were outplayed in almost every way.

The Packers were 1 of 10 on third down conversions.

They were 0-for-2 in the red zone.

They rushed for just 43 yards, allowed a whopping 171 yards rushing, committed three turnovers and yielded five touchdown passes. The Saints didn’t punt in the first half.

Before the game, LaFleur was asked about the team’s new punter, Corey Bojorquez. The coach sang the punter’s praises, divulged that they call him “Bo Jo” and said, “I hope he holds more than he punts.”

It was a clever line before the game, but fairly telling afterwards.

Bo Jo punted four times for a 44-yard average and one inside the 20, but he only held for a placement once, that for Mason Crosby’s 39-yard field goal. At least that went off without a hitch.

Then there’s the Packers’ defense and its underwhelming stat line: No sacks, three QB hits and zero forced turnovers.

New defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s unit may have brought energy, but most fans would settle for competence. When defenders weren’t tripping over each other, they were out of position or simply beaten.

Jameis Winston completed 14 of 20 passes for 148 yards and the five touchdowns. He wasn’t sacked and pressured just three times. His passer rating was a gaudy 130.8.

Even if LaFleur was right to rest his offensive stars, it’s obvious to even a novice observer that the Packers’ defense looked out of sorts.

To top it off, the Packers came into the game a bit fat-headed and sassy.

“I think there’s probably some of that,” Rodgers admitted. “We probably felt like we were gonna go up and down the field on whoever they had out there and that obviously wasn’t the case today.

“I give (Saints defensive coordinator) Dennis Allen a lot of credit. I think I’ve always thought he’s a really good defensive mind. They had a good plan. It was to play a lot of two-shell and slow us down with the front. They did a good job of that.”

The Packers’ response should’ve been to effectively run the football.

For the most part, LaFleur didn’t even try.

“We didn’t run the ball; we didn’t even attempt to run the ball enough,” he said afterward. “So that’s my fault.”

Apology, and blame placement, both accepted.

In some ways, the Packers’ loss was as much about attitude as it was any perceived lack of preparation. It’s not as if the Saints had it easy. They were uprooted by Hurricane Ida, they lost their practice facility, their third preseason game was a scratch and their true regular-season home opener wiped out due to the devastation.

No matter.

The Saints persevered and prevailed.

Green Bay didn’t have a sack and managed just one pass breakup, that by rookie cornerback Eric Stokes, their first-round draft pick. Stokes only played eight snaps, compared with Kevin King’s 56. I would expect Stokes’ snaps to grow, and King’s to evaporate, sooner than later.

Before the game, LaFleur was asked to comment about his new punter, Corey Bojorquez, also known as “Bo Jo.” After singing Bo Jo’s praises, LaFleur added, “I hope he holds (on placements) more than he punts.”

That didn’t happen.

Boroquez punted four times for a 44-yard average with one being downed inside the 20. He was asked to hold just once, that on Mason Crosby’s 39-yard field goal.

Meantime, the Saints hammered out consecutive 15-play touchdown drives in the first half to suck the wind out of Green Bay’s defense. The Packers’ defense had three QB hits, no sacks and no forced fumbles.

Alvin Kamara, the Saints’ All-Pro running back, rushed for 83 yards and hauled in a 3-yard touchdown pass. Converted tight end-to-receiver Juwan Johnson caught three passes for 21 yards, including two touchdowns.

New Orleans was 4-for-4 in the red zone; Green Bay went 0-for-2.

The Saints (1-0) did this without future Hall of Fame QB Drew Brees, and they did it for their fans.

“That was for the city,” Winston said. “We did that for them. We knew how much it would mean to get a great victory for that region. They’ve been through so much … Hats off to them for their resilience, because they motivated us. They inspired us to come there and ball.”

Hopefully, whatever inspired the Packers to lay an egg is gone.

“This is a good kick in the ‘you-know-where,’ ” Rodgers said. “We felt like we were going to go up and down the field on whomever they have and that obviously wasn’t the case.”

Obviously it wasn’t.

“Every team has a game like this,” said Packers running back Aaron Jones, who rushed five times for 9 yards. “It’s better to get it out now.”

On the bright side, the Packers (0-1) still have 16 games to play and second-year QB Jordan Love looked promising in limited play.

There’s also a long way to go regardless of how this journey ends.

A year ago, eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay lost to the Saints, 38-3, in Week 9. They didn’t lose again.

Tampa Bay had the right stuff.

Now we’ll find out what Rodgers and these Packers are made of.

Packers-Saints opener an intriguing matchup

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Packers fans understandably filter games through their green-and-gold lenses. It is borne out of a sense of unwavering devotion, to be sure, and the habits of a lifetime.

The Packers’ viewpoint, like that of their fans, has been the same for forever, and right now the view is spectacular.

Green Bay has a terrific head coach, a legendary quarterback and enough weaponry to make a well-stocked armory blush with envy. They also feature the NFL’s best trio at receiver, running back and tight end.

Now, pause for a just a second to consider Sunday’s Packers-Saints season opener at TIAA Bank Field from the viewpoint of Saints fans.

Their team faces Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in Jacksonville’s withering heat without the benefit of a Brees – namely Drew Brees – for the first time in 15 years.

The Saints also will be without All-Pro receiver Michael Thomas, Pro Bowl placekicker Will Lutz and starting cornerback Brian Poole.

What they do have is a banged up secondary, a scattershot quarterback and a logistic nightmare that included no third preseason game, no place to practice (they moved to TCU in Dallas) and a makeshift home opener.

Las Vegas odds-makers designated TIAA Bank Field a neutral site, as if it was beige or taupe, when everyone knows it will be green-and-gold come Sunday thanks to the relocated Packers fans/snowbirds in Florida.

Perhaps all of Jameis Winston’s fans from his days at Tampa Bay will make the trek to Jacksonville, so that’s got to be at least a dozen or so, but only if you include family and friends.

Brees, a surefire, first-ballot, Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback, has retired to the creature comforts of an air-conditioned broadcast booth.

Rodgers, also a shoo-in Hall of Famer, has other plans for this season.

If all goes well in Green Bay, starting with a convincing road win against Sean Payton’s Saints, Rodgers’ win-loss record in NFC title games will improve to … wait for it … 2-5.

It may be the only negative statistic tied to Rodgers, but it’s a biggie, and it’s one he’d like to improve upon before he departs for good. After an offseason of acrimony, Rodgers has returned and performed like a true pro, consciously trying to be everything a great leader needs to be.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur likes what he sees.

“He’s playing at a really high level,” Lafleur said of Rodgers, the NFL’s reigning MVP. “He’s in a really good mindset and has the right mentality. He’s done a really good job of leading these younger players.”

When LaFleur said Rodgers is “playing at a really high level” some might shake their heads as if to say, “He didn’t even play in the preseason, so how can he be playing at a really high level?”

The answer is that Rodgers has done so during practice.

That’s more meaningful than ever because LaFleur sincerely believes he fairly replicated the benefits of live action during practice this summer. That speaks to the high level of trust the coach has in his veterans, many of whom didn’t play a single snap in the preseason.

It will be interesting to see how LaFleur’s methods translate on Sunday.

Frankly, it would be silly to second-guess him after back-to-back 13-3 seasons that spawned consecutive berths in the NFC championship game. Furthermore, the Packers are the healthiest they’ve been in my recollection to enter a season.

So what are Green Bay’s greatest challenges this week?

It begins with Jacksonville’s oppressive heat and humidity. The forecast calls for a high of 88 degrees with 71-percent humidity and the obligatory Florida tagline: A chance of showers.

There’s always a chance of showers in Florida.

It’s like saying there’s a chance that Rodgers will rain touchdown passes. It will happen, the only question being the volume.

“You can’t replicate those (hot and humid) conditions in Wisconsin,” LaFleur said. “I guess we could go inside and crank up the heat, but I don’t want our guys practicing on turf all week long.”

In other words, LaFleur doesn’t want his players to leave it all on the practice field inside the Hutson Center. If he works them too hard, for too long, they may be reduced to dishrags come kickoff.

LaFleur is too smart for that.

Another adjustment is planning for the level of crowd noise.

“Every time you go into New Orleans you know it’s going to be rocking and you know you’re going to have to have a silent count and hand signals in critical situations like third down, red zone and two minute,” LaFleur said. “We might alter our process in that regard depending on how loud it is in Jacksonville.”

The takeaway: They’re preparing for a hostile crowd just in case. Better to have practiced the silent count and all of that, and then scrap it on Sunday because it’s unnecessary, rather than showing up ill-prepared.

Offensively, it will be interesting to see how LaFleur rolls.

Will he bang away with Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon early on in an effort to soften up the Saints’ defense, and to set it up for a barrage of play-action passes?

Will he simply deploy Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Randall Cobb, Robert Tonyan and Jones and throw it all over the joint?

Will he mix and match in an attempt to keep the Saints’ top defenders such as edge rushers Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport, and linebackers Kwon Alexander and Demario Davis, guessing and back on their cleats?

LaFleur has the QB, and the weapons, to keep the Saints off-balance.

It also will be interesting to see how the Packers’ offensive line holds up. Green Bay is starting a pair of rookies – center Josh Myers and right guard Royce Newman – in the heart of the line.

Obviously, Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen is going to try to attack the Packers’ interior in hopes of generating pressure off the edge.

Look for stunts on the edges and blitzes up the middle.

Getting to Rodgers may be the Saints’ best chance to win, but it won’t be easy.

LaFleur’s scheme and play-calling, coupled with Rodgers ability to read and react, could add up to a Hurricane Ida-like flood of Packers points.

Defensively, Green Bay features a new coordinator in Joe Barry, who replaced the fired Mike Pettine.

Barry inherits a deeper, more talented unit than the one Pettine mismanaged.

It features a core of talented veterans such as Kenny Clark, Za’Darius Smith, Jaire Alexander and Darnell Savage, a key newcomer in inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, and a group of intriguing rookies such as Eric Stokes and T.J. Slaton.

The talent is obvious. How it all comes together is a mystery.

Winston, the Saints’ starting QB, beat out Taysom Hill for the job.

He can make all the throws, and he’s got Alvin Kamara to bail him out, but he still tends to be streaky. When he’s hot, he’s apt to make Saints fans say, “Thank god.” When he’s not, those same fans may be saying, “Good god.”

Payton has his quarterback’s back. What choice does he have?

“He’s done a great job and he’s earned that spot,” Payton said of Winston. “I know I’ve seen growth and someone who has extremely vested in this process and is excited about the start of the season.”

Kamara, a sensational back, can singlehandedly destroy a defense. His ability to break big plays on screens, sweeps and draws will be crucial to the Saints’ success.

So how will this matchup of NFC contenders play out?

The Packers are favored by four points – presumably getting the three points that typically comes with playing at home – in what odds-makers believe will be a high-scoring affair. The over/under total is 50.

Based on that, I see the Packers beating the Saints, 34-16, in a blowout.

The challenge for Packers fans will be staying hydrated, keeping their urine clear (always a good way to go) and deciding whether to take the over or the under.

To them I say give the points, take the under and relish the moment. This may be the first step in their march to Super Bowl LVI, and the last go-round for Rodgers.

Enjoy.

Brewers stop Cards; Badgers drop opener

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Forgive the Brewers the rare 12-0 blowout loss given the vast majority of joy they offer during their 162-game quest.

The Brewers’ 12-0 setback to Philadelphia on Labor Day didn’t diminish the satisfaction wrought by their 2-1 weekend series win over NL Central rival St. Louis at American Family Field.

Milwaukee (84-55) captured two of three from St. Louis (69-67) in the most improbable and exciting fashion. The only way this gets better is if Tony La Russa were still managing the Cardinals.

The Brewers’ Adrian Houser threw a three-hit, complete-game shutout against St. Louis in Saturday’s 4-0 victory in Game 2. That came on the heels of the Cardinals’ 15-4 victory in Friday night’s series opener.

Talk about bouncing back in a big way.

Houser (8-6) erased any thoughts of a St. Louis series sweep with the first complete-game shutout of his career. It speaks volumes about the Brewers’ incredible starting pitching when the No. 4 starter is that good against a lineup that powerful.

There’s no easy way to tap-dance around Nolan Arenado, Tyler O’Neill, Yadier Molina and the rest. If you don’t have it, they’re going to hit it. It’s just that simple.

Houser had other thoughts. He also had his A-plus stuff.

He bewitched the Cardinals with a hypnotic mix of cut fastballs and tantalizing changeups that scarcely caressed the strike zone.

Houser struck out seven and didn’t issue a walk.

The diminutive Luis Urias handled shortstop in very Willy Adames-like fashion by playing strong defense while belting a home run and driving in a pair of runs. Urias’ strong play while Adames’ quadriceps heals is just another example of the Brewers’ quality and depth.

That set the stage for Saturday’s heroics from a rediscovered source: Slugger Daniel Vogelbach. The six-foot, 270-pound pinch-hitter stepped to the plate and delivered a walk-off grand slam in the ninth inning.

It erased a 5-2 deficit and keyed the Brewers’ 6-5 win.

Pandemonium ensued as an elated Vogelbach circled the bases and was greeted by a dugout full of fist-pumping, back-slapping teammates.

It’s a reminder that the Brewers can win with pitching, hitting and defense. The thing is no one’s ever quite certain who’s going to be the star of that day’s game.

If the question was, “Guess which Brewers starter will throw a three-hit, complete-game shutout at St. Louis?” the correct answer would be uttered, but probably not before Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta, Brett Anderson, Eric Lauer and perhaps Aaron Ashby.

It turns out to be Houser to the rescue.

Who knew? Brewers’ fans, that’s who, because it’s been that way all season long. If one player struggles, or is out with an injury, another is sure to step up and deliver for the team.

It’s why they have a league-best 34 come-from-behind victories.

Ever since Vogelbach’s hamstring injury and Rowdy Tellez’s arrival via a trade, the new first baseman quickly made many forget about his predecessor. Chants of “Rowdy!” reverberated around Am Fam Field.

 

 

Then Vogelbach got healthy, feasted on Class AAA pitching, and manager Craig Counsell brought him back up and put him to work. The big fella responded by delivering the knockout punch against St. Louis. That’s no surprise given the way Counsell has kept his entire roster engaged, always resisting any temptation to only play a chosen few.

Counsell plays his roster like a shark handles all 52 cards, only the Brewers’ manager is working with 60-something players and counting. The roster has been a turnstile, but Counsell remains unshakeable.

Just like his team.

** Badgers fall to Penn State 16-10 in opener

This one hurts.

The Badgers’ first season-opening home loss in forever came 16-10 at the hands of Penn State, although much of Wisconsin’s damage was self-inflicted in Saturday’s 16-10 setback at Camp Randall Stadium.

After a scoreless first half in which Penn State’s offense was stuck in reverse, the Badgers held a 10-7 lead until Noah Cain’s 2-yard touchdown run with 9:17 put the Nittany Lions ahead.

Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz was 22 of 37 for 185 yards and a touchdown, but interceptions on consecutive late drives sealed the loss.

The Badgers’ Chez Mellusi rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries, but it wasn’t enough to overcome three drive-killing turnovers. Penn State’s Sean Clifford completed 18 of 33 passes for 247 yards and a touchdown after an awful first half.

Now we’ll see if the Badgers can rebound after this disappointing loss.

In an unrelated (wink, wink) story, former Badgers quarterback Jack Coan led Notre Dame to a 41-38 victory at Florida State Sunday night.

Coan, who transferred after it was clear Mertz was Wisconsin’s quarterback of the future, set the Fighting Irish record for a first-time starting quarterback with 366 yards on 26 of 35 passing.

Good for Coan.

Will Wisconsin’s loss be Notre Dame’s gain? It’s too early to count out Mertz, but it’s also time for him to step up and play to his talent. Then again, the same could be said for the Badgers’ entire squad.

History suggests they’ll bounce back. It’s just disappointing that history gets the chance to repeat itself for at least another season.

Packers whittle to 53;

Brewers stop S.F. 6-2

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Harry Sydney tells of how Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh would greet his 49ers on the day after the final roster cuts.

“Bill would start by saying, ‘Congratulations on making the team, men,’” Sydney said. “And then, after a pause, he would add, ‘Not all of you are going to be here for the entire season.’ ”

It was Walsh’s way of reminding them that their journey wasn’t ending. It was just beginning, and it’s subject to change.

The hard truth for most NFL players is this: While making the 53-man roster is an incredible feat, staying on it is even more amazing.

Former Packers punter J.K. Scott knows this to be true.

The Packers sent a 2023 seventh-round draft pick to the Rams Tuesday in exchange for punter Corey Bojorquez. The corresponding move will be the release of the inconsistent Scott, a fifth-round pick in 2018.

Bojorquez, who received All-Pro consideration while punting in Buffalo last season, wasn’t resigned by the Bills and subsequently signed with the Rams but lost out to veteran Johnny Hekker.

One door closes. Another door opens.

The 2021 Packers’ roster is exceptional in that there were few glaring holes going into training camp. In fact, there were few surprise cuts, with Scott’s impending cut being the most notable.

The Packers’ other key move didn’t involve cutting a player, but rather taking steps to save All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari from himself.

The Packers placed Bakhtiari on the PUP list, which means the earliest he can return to the active roster would be six weeks. That removes any temptation to push himself to return too soon from his knee injury.

Otherwise the Packers’ roster played out as expected.

Aaron Rodgers and Jordan Love will be the quarterbacks, with Kurt Benkert likely to be signed to the 16-man practice squad.

Aaron Jones, A.J. Dillon and seventh-rounder Kylin Hill are the backs.

They kept six receivers: Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb, Amari Rodgers and Malik Taylor.

The tight ends are Robert Tonyan, Marcedes Lewis, Josiah Deguara and Dominique Dafney.

The offensive line will be (left to right): Elgton Jenkins, Jon Runyan, Josh Myers, Royce Newman and Billy Turner. When Bahktiari returns Jenkins slides to left guard and Runyan returns to a reserve role.

The other offensive linemen are tackles Dennis Kelly and Yosh Nijman as well as guard/center Lucas Patrick and center Jake Hanson.

Defensively, edge rusher Chauncey Rivers and cornerback Isaac Yiadom are mild surprises. Rivers’ presence may be an insurance policy due to Za’Darius Smith’s ongoing back issues, while Yiadom was acquired in a mid-preseason trade that sent Josh Jackson to the Giants.

Mason Crosby will be the kicker and Hunter Bradley the long snapper.

Tight end Jace Sternberger is on the suspended list (four games) for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

** Brewers win first two in San Francisco

In a late-season series replete with post-season atmosphere, the Brewers are steadily climbing toward the National League’s top seed.

Milwaukee starting pitcher Brandon Woodruff picked up where Corbin Burnes left off by dominating Giants hitters in a 6-2 win Tuesday night at San Francisco. It came a day after Burnes mowed down the Giants in a 3-1 Brewers’ victory in the opener of their four-game series.

Milwaukee (81-52) now trails San Francisco (84-48) by just 3 ½ games for the National League’s top seed. The Brewers also own a fat 10-game lead over Cincinnati (71-62) in the NL Central.

San Francisco manager Gabe Kapler – the former Brewer – on Monday called Burnes “one of the top two or three starting pitchers in baseball

“The bottom line is they just shut us down,” he said. “We weren’t able to get anything going.”

Offensively, the Brewers got an RBI single from Omar Narvaez in the first after Christian Yelich doubled. They tacked on two more to close it out behind relievers Brad Boxberger, Devin Williams and Josh Hader.

On Tuesday, Lorenzo Cain homered, singled and drove in two runs as the Brewers jumped on the Giants early on their way to the 6-2 win. Giants’ right-hander Johnny Cueto, who was scratched from Monday’s game with an illness, got lit up by the Brewers a day later.

Willy Adames, Yelich and Narvaez had consecutive singles to drive in the first run, and Avi Garcia drove in another with an infield groundout to put the Brewers up 2-0.

Woodruff’s second straight strong start was backed by a bullpen that saw Brent Suter and Jake Cousins combine for seven strikeouts during three innings of one-run relief.

The Giants are clinging to a half-game lead over the Dodgers (84-49) in the NL West. The NL’s top seed plays the wild-card winner, meaning the Giants or Dodgers could end up meeting in the NL Division Series.

The Brewers will start lefty Brett Anderson tonight against Giants’ right-hander Kevin Gausman. Milwaukee will send left-hander Eric Lauer against Giants’ right-hander Logan Webb in Thursday’s getaway game.

Brewers widen gap in

NL Central vs. Reds;

Packers-Bills 3 things

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Milwaukee Brewers’ likely plan for September is to get healthy, rest up and keep playing winning baseball as they prepare for post-season play.

It is imperative that key players such as Willy Adames (quad strain), Eduardo Escobar (hamstring) and pitcher Freddy Peralta (right shoulder discomfort) are ready to roll leading into October.

It’s a good bet Brewers manager Craig Counsell will have his pitching rotation in order, and his position players sharp, as the playoffs beckon.

It’s what Counsell does.

At this point, my greatest concern is that the Brewers win too many games down the stretch and leapfrog San Francisco for the National League’s No. 1 seed.

Currently, the Giants (83-44) lead the Brewers (78-50) by 5 ½ games.

If it stays that way the top-seeded Giants would play the wild-card winner in a “win or go home” game between the Los Angeles Dodgers (81-47) and Cincinnati (70-59) in their half of the NLDS.

Meantime, the Brewers would get Atlanta (68-58) in their bracket.

Bravado may suggest it doesn’t matter who Milwaukee plays. If you’re going to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best, and all of that.

Let’s be honest.

The road to the World Series is much more difficult if the Brewers have to knock out the Dodgers AND the Giants in consecutive 7-game series.

Clearly, Milwaukee doesn’t fear any opponent, nor should it.

On the other hand, the Giants and Dodgers are loaded with talent and own the National League’s top two win-loss records for good reason.

The Brewers are 1-2 against San Francisco this season. They won 2-1 in 10 innings, lost 9-6 in 11 innings and lost 5-4 to close out their 3-game series at Milwaukee earlier this month.

On April 29-May 2 the Brewers won three of four against the Dodgers at Milwaukee. They won 2-1, 3-1 and 6-5 in 11 innings before losing the finale, 16-4, in blowout fashion.

After the three-game weekend series at Minnesota, the Brewers wrap up their current road trip with four games at San Francisco next week. If they’re still trailing the Giants by series’ end it will be OK with me.

The Brewers lead the Reds by 8 ½ games and own an outstanding 42-21 road record, the best in the big leagues. One of Milwaukee’s few negative stats is its 4-8 record in interleague play.

The Brewers will start Eric Laurer (4-4, 3.59 ERA) against Twins left-hander Andrew Albers (0-0, 2.25) on Friday night. Adrian Houser (7-5, 3.44) gets the nod Saturday against another Twins lefty, Charlie Barnes (0-3, 6.56). Counsell hasn’t named a starter for Sunday’s series finale. The Twins are expected to start righty Griffin Jax (3-2, 6.29).

Packers-Bills preseason finale: 3 Things to Watch

** No. 1: To play or not to play?

Bills coach Sean McDermott said Thursday that he expects to play some of his starters, including quarterback Josh Allen, in Saturday’s preseason finale against Green Bay at Buffalo.

“Some of the starters won’t play, some will play, a majority will play anywhere from … one play, and this is not a cop out, I’m just trying to give you my mindset right now, one play to coming out of the locker room at half after halftime there in the third quarter.

“Where that falls for each and every individual? I think that we’d get choppy and this would be a 30-minute press conference here,” he added.

McDermott did specifically mention Allen as one of the players who is suiting up against the Packers.

Green Bay head coach Matt LaFleur hasn’t indicated how many of his starters will be playing at Buffalo, though it’s clear that Aaron Rodgers will be sitting out the preseason finale.

** No. 2: What about Jordan Love?

LaFleur said Love has made good strides this week after being limited with shoulder discomfort after the Texans game. If Love is up to the task he could play the entire first half and into the second half, with Kurt Benkert playing the balance.

Clearly the Packers, and their fans, would like to see Love play – and play well – in extended action before the regular season arrives.

** No. 3: What about the Packers’ defensive secondary?

The Packers have been retooling their roster – especially the defensive secondary – throughout training camp and the preseason.

There are eight cornerbacks currently on the Packers’ roster. Jaire Alexander, Kevin King, Eric Stokes and Chandon Sullivan are locks. That leaves rookie Shemar Jean-Charles, Kabion Ento and Stephen Denmark to battle for one or perhaps two spots.

Ento may be the best pure corner of the three, but is he good enough to step in and play meaningful snaps if there’s an injury to a starter?

I’m not sure.

Denmark is a 6-2, 220-pound freakish athlete who may be able to contribute immediately on special teams.

Jean-Charles has looked good at camp and is considered a capable special teams’ player. And lord knows the Packers’ special teams can use all the help it can get, especially with veteran Will Redmond being placed on season-ending IR.

Saturday’s game may decide which of the three will be on the 53-man roster.

Observations through

Packers’ 2 exhibitions

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Two preseason games is a limited sample size, but that and training camp practices are all there is to judge the Packers’ preparedness for their Sept. 12 season opener at New Orleans.

Here are some observations to this point:

** Offensive line’s response to criticism was strong

The Packers’ coaching staff called out the offensive line for its ineffectual performance against Houston. In particular, ghastly run blocking drew plenty of heat.

The offensive line’s response was a resounding “we hear you!”

The Packers rushed for a much-improved 135 yards on 32 carries in their 23-14 loss to the Jets Saturday at Lambeau Field. A.J. Dillon set the tone with four carries for 28 yards in Green Bay’s eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on its first possession.

Kylin Hill ran seven times for 29 yards, and Patrick Taylor added 48 yards in eight carries behind a focused offensive line.

Clearly, the players heard the criticism of Packers’ head coach Matt LaFleur, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and offensive line coach Adam Stenavich and they responded like pros.

That bodes well for the Packers in terms of the coaches and players effectively communicating in a way that produces results.

** Speaking of coaching … the quarterbacks are in great hands

Kurt Benkert’s solid performance in the first half of the Packers’ game against the Jets says volumes about his preparedness. That is a direct reflection of the exceptional coaching Benkert is receiving from LaFleur, Hackett, etc. on a daily basis.

Benkert was 18 of 25 for 151 yards with one touchdown and an interception for an 83.9 passer rating. He was especially sharp in a pair of first-half touchdown drives – the second an 18-play, 81-yard drive that consumed 10 minutes, 19 seconds – longer than any drive in 2020.

Clearly, Benkert is being coached up, and not just by the coaches but Aaron Rodgers as well. Rodgers’ level of involvement and interaction along the sidelines brings a positive vibe that does much to keep the offseason in the past, and the present as the focus.

A highlight was the Rodgers-LaFleur fist bump while sharing a really good laugh during the game. The chemistry looks good.

** Speaking of looking good … Kylin Hill keeps killing it

Hill rushed for 29 yards on seven carries and caught two passes for 11 yards in his second strong preseason performance. Hill is all but a lock to be the No. 3 back behind Aaron Jones and Dillon.

Hill is a gamer.

He has enough athleticism and quicks, but his game is from the neck up. His awareness was displayed by his heady fumble recovery. He also seems locked into his role in the offense. He catches the football with ease and runs crisp, decisive routes.

He also is a capable kick returner. It’s quite a deal for a seventh-round pick to burst upon the scene, but on a team with few holes, Hill showed the ability to fill one of them.

** T.J. Slaton has everyone’s attention

T.J. Slaton has registered back-to-back quality performances in preseason games, capped by his first professional sack. He laughed and acknowledged it was “a preseason game” but added, “It was my first in the NFL, so it was pretty exciting.”

Slaton, at 6-4, 330, has been productive in two games.

He had four tackles (three solo) and his first NFL sack. He teamed with undrafted free agent Jack Heflin to create havoc against the Jets. Heflin had four tackles and was active and impactful when he was on the field.

It’s apparent that Slaton and Heflin have cracked the Packers’ defensive tackle rotation. It qualifies as a significant upgrade at the position that features Kenny Clark, an inconsistent Kingsley Keke, a solid Dean Lowry and a journeyman in Tyler Lancaster.

Slaton and Heflin should make an impact as early as the season opener.

** Eric Stokes flashed and it brought a smile

Cornerback Eric Stokes, the Packers’ first-round pick, stepped in front of the Jets’ Corey Davis to swat away an “out” route on Saturday. He came within a whisper of swooping in for a “pick six.”

It was only one play, but that and his apparent willingness to tackle and ask for help from teammates is especially encouraging.

Stokes looks like a player.

** Malik Taylor is doing his best to earn a roster spot

Malik Taylor caught four passes for 66 yards (a 16.5 average) on five targets against the Jets. Taylor “high-pointed” a sideline catch that was nothing short of sensational.

He also is one of the team’s core special teams’ players, which is important considering how woeful their teams’ play has been with him.

The receiver position consists of Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb, Amari Rodgers and Taylor.

I thought Devin Funchess was fabulous against the Texans, but he needs to show more to make the 53-man roster. I’m not sure he can help them on special teams, and injuries notwithstanding, I don’t see him being targeted within the offense.

** Four tight ends sounds about right

The Packers’ tight end group is among the NFL’s finest top to bottom. Robert Tonyan looks even better than he did during last year’s breakout season. He’s going to be a key weapon for Rodgers.

Marcedes Lewis is a strong veteran and integral blocker in the run game, while Josiah Deguara is a more-than-capable blocker and was drafted specifically to fit this offense. The fourth tight end looks like Dominique Dafney, an athletic route runner who has excellent hands.

** So far, so good

The Packers aren’t without their shortcomings.

The offensive line is a bit unsettled, and it remains a challenge to play at a high level despite the absence of All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari. Royce Newman appears to have won the right guard job, while Josh Myers has been solid as the starting center.

Elgton Jenkins is an All-Pro left guard who may have to line up at left tackle until Bakhtiari returns. Veteran Dennis Kelly has been a bit of a disappointment thus far, while Lucas Patrick has gone from being the starting right guard to playing backup center to earn a roster spot.

The special teams’ play has been shoddy and needs to improve in a hurry under first-year coordinator Maurice Drayton. Perhaps the teams’ play will improve once the roster is settled. It happens that way sometimes. Then again, there’s no reason to think anything is fixed from last year’s disaster, so we’ll see.

The most important takeaway is that the Packers’ injuries have been limited. One question is pass rusher Za’Darius Smith and his sore back. The fact that his status is in jeopardy for the season opener is a concern.

Fortunately, the Packers have three weeks to tie up any training camp and preseason game loose ends. And frankly, there aren’t many.

Brewers’ 8-2 road trip fattens division lead;

Packers-Jets Saturday

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – It turns out Milwaukee isn’t invincible after all.

While Brewers ace Brandon Woodruff was being hammered in the fifth inning Thursday night at St. Louis, I decided it was time to stifle my disappointment and take a reality check.

The Brewers (74-48) aren’t going to win them all.

It just feels like they’re going to.

The Cardinals (62-58) had other ideas – like avoiding being swept by the Brewers in their three-game series – and their bats delivered.

Tyler O’Neill’s three-run home run powered the Cardinals to an 8-4 victory at Busch Stadium. St. Louis moved to within 3 ½ games of the San Diego Padres for the National League’s second wild-card spot.

Nolan Arenado contributed with two RBI and the Cardinals’ bullpen pitched shutout baseball after starter Jon Lester was chased after 4 1/3 innings. Junior Fernandez (1-0) picked up the win for St. Louis.

Milwaukee won the series opener, 2-0, and followed it up with an exciting 6-4 win in 10 innings Wednesday night.

The Brewers erased a 1-0 deficit Thursday night with a four-run fourth inning, highlighted by Kolten Wong’s two RBI, and it appeared Milwaukee was on its way to its 18th win in the past 20 road games.

But St. Louis countered with a five-run fifth to retake the lead for good.

Milwaukee holds an 8 ½ game lead over Cincinnati in the NL Central. The Brewers are up 11 games on St. Louis. Milwaukee’s 42-21 road record is the best in baseball.

The Brewers didn’t come away unscathed, however.

Right-hander Freddy Peralta exited Wednesday night’s game with shoulder discomfort and was placed on the 10-day disabled list. The Brewers said there is no structural damage and Peralta will be ok.

It’s less clear why Woodruff (7-7) has struggled in his past two starts. He lasted just three innings in his previous start, and couldn’t get through the fifth at St. Louis.

Woodruff’s command was off, but his velocity was fine so there’s no reason to think it’s anything other than a bump in the road.

“There’s no question it was a good road trip – we played well,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “Three road series and you win all three series and throw a sweep in there – a good result, all in all, so it’s on to the next challenge.”

The next challenge is a Washington Nationals team that is 4-13 since July 30, which coincides with its unloading of All-Stars Max Scherzer and Trea Turner before the trade deadline.

Washington (52-68) will start left-hander Patrick Corbin (6-12, 6.04 ERA) against the Brewers’ Brett Anderson (4-6, 4.09) on Friday night.

Eric Lauer (4-4, 3.44) will start Saturday and Adrian Houser (7-5, 3.55) is slated to start Sunday’s series finale. The Nationals haven’t named their starting pitchers for either game.

** Jets-Packers set for Preseason Game #2

Some have suggested the Packers’ second preseason game isn’t particularly interesting with second-year quarterback Jordan Love sitting out with a sore right shoulder.

On the contrary, there is plenty to consider with keen interest.

The Jets plan to play rookie quarterback Zach Wilson extensively during Saturday’s game, which is set to kick off at 3:25 at Lambeau Field.

Wilson should provide an interesting test for a Packers’ defense with new coordinator Joe Barry running the show.

Last week, the Jets managed just 12 points on offense against the Giants. Wilson was 6 of 9 for 63 yards with no sacks or turnovers while leading two drives that resulted in three points. Jets head coach Robert Saleh said Wilson likely will play the entire first half Saturday afternoon.

The Packers will counter with Kurt Benkert at quarterback.

Benkert, 26, has one preseason start under his belt, that in 2018 when he was with the Atlanta Falcons.

The Jets notched five sacks against the Giants, but will be without linebacker Carl Lawson, their top pass rusher, who was lost for the season to a ruptured Achilles tendon during Thursday’s joint practice.

Benkert was 8 of 12 with an interception and a lost fumble in the Packers’ 26-7 loss to Houston last week.

The Packers didn’t dress 30 players last week, so it is likely head coach Matt LaFleur will continue along those lines this week.

The Packers will be looking to unleash a running attack with backups Kylin Hill, Patrick Taylor and Dexter Williams sharing the load. Green Bay managed just 2.3 yards per carry on 21 attempts against the Texans.

Look for a low-scoring game in which the Packers’ defense should get a decent test from Wilson and the Jets’ offense.

Packers’ Love solid, Funchess stands out;

Brewers-Cards next

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – All eyes were on Jordan Love Saturday night.

After more than 18 months spent waiting and wondering to see the Packers’ 2020 first-round pick, the Utah State product didn’t disappoint.

Love, 22, did more good than bad in his much-anticipated NFL debut.

Love completed 12 of 17 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown for a 110.4 passer rating. He was sacked once and fumbled on the play when his right hand and shoulder were jarred as he tried to release the football.

The play resulted in the turnover, but more important Love’s right shoulder was sore but there was no structural damage. Disaster averted.

The Packers fell 26-7 to the Texans in both teams’ preseason opener, but the final score mattered little compared to the big picture, which was evaluating talent, teamwork and fundamentals.

Love passed his first test with an above-average grade.

The significant gap between games left considerable rust, but Love was able to turn in an impressive if uneven performance in his debut.

The takeaway that matters most is this: Love showed a quick release, decent accuracy and eye-popping arm strength. When NFL scouts deemed Love’s right arm high first-round caliber they were right.

Love also was impressive in his ability to keep his eyes downfield even as defenders were flying past or clawing at his cleats.

Now, there is evidence that Love can play NFL quarterback. It’s only in the preseason, but it’s all we’ve got, and it’s better than nothing.

Rodgers was impressed with his backup’s performance.

The two were seen talking along the sideline during the game. Afterward, Rodgers said it wasn’t advice so much as analysis that was the thrust of their conversations.

“I wouldn’t tell him a whole lot; I just like looking at the pictures and seeing if there’s anything we might have missed on the pictures,” Rodgers said on the Packers’ television broadcast.

“I thought Jordan did a really nice job. He was efficient throwing the ball, he took was there. The key for him and any young quarterback is footwork. And if you watched him tonight on many of the plays where he threw the ball really efficiently, he was throwing on the right hitch or no hitch, and that’s when quarterbacks get in a rhythm.

“That looked good to me.”

Then there is Devin Funchess, who looked good to everyone.

Funchess played like a WR2 with six catches (eight targets) for 70 yards and an 11.7 average. He made all the catches, including an acrobatic crossing route in which Love led him a hair too much.

Funchess, a sixth-year pro with Super Bowl experience, made the adjustment and then a sensational diving catch. That grab came in the midst of Love’s nine-play, 88-yard touchdown drive. It was capped by a 22-yard catch-and-score by rookie Kylin Hill on a beautiful screen play.

To get there, Love:

** Hit Jace Sternberger with a 34-yard laser;

** Found Funchess for 8 yards on a hitch;

** Connected with Funchess for 15 more on the crossing route;

Then the Packers hit for six on the screen to Hill.

Before and after, however, Love’s play was choppy at best.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said Love just needs to relax.

“If there’s one thing to just encourage him to continue to do is just, ‘Hey man, you got to let that sucker rip,’ ” LaFleur said.

“When you see it, trust what you see. Don’t worry about being perfect. Don’t worry about throwing a perfect on-target pass. When you do that, you’re not as accurate. You’ve got to let the ball go, but by and large, I think he did a really nice job.”

For Love’s part, he was his typical even-keel self.

“I think it just gives us something to go back and look at and learn from it,” he said. “See what little mistakes we made here and there and obviously what things we did well and be able to build from it going to next week and do it again.”

Love’s debut featured enough “damn, that was pretty good” moments to see no reason to think he’s on the right path. Both he and Kurt Benkert (8 of 12 for 88 yards, an interception) played like they’re well-coached.

The Packers played just three starters: center Josh Myers, right guard Lucas Patrick and inside linebacker Krys Barnes. Thirty players were inactive. Clearly, Packers GM Brian Gutekunst and LaFleur feel those 30 roster spots are apparent locks.

Cornerbacks Shemar Jean-Charles and Kabion Ento played well enough to be firmly in the conversation for jobs in the secondary. In addition, safeties Henry Black and Vernon Scott also showed their athleticism and versatility in what appears to be a much-improved Packers’ secondary.

The special teams’ play under new coach Mo Drayton wasn’t good. Aside from Hill and Amari Rodgers as promising return men, and Mason Crosby being himself, the coverage units played poorly.

LaFleur said he plans to go “live” in practice to work on punt and kick coverage, as well as on the punt team.

On defense, the eternally disappointing Oren Burks played faster than ever, which suggests Burks is finally getting it, coordinator Joe Barry’s scheme is reaching players, or both.

Burks was in on seven tackles with a sack and two tackles for loss.

One of the most significant developments was rookie T.J. Slaton’s sustained effectiveness in the heart of the defensive line.

Slaton (6-4, 330) had five tackles (three solo) while losing some battles but winning plenty of others against the Texans’ interior offensive line.

Slaton, a fifth-round pick out of Florida, is expected to spell All-Pro Kenny Clark early in the season. Then, as his game grows, he’d likely be paired inside with Clark later in the season.

So far, there’s reason to think Slaton is the real deal at defensive tackle.

All in all, it was a good start.

** Brewers-Cardinals begin series tonight

The St. Louis Cardinals are trying to mount an August run to the finish.

The Brewers would like nothing more than to douse those ideas.

Milwaukee (72-47) will try to continue its NL Central dominance when it takes on St. Louis (61-56) tonight at Busch Stadium in the first game of a three-game series.

The Cardinals have scored four-plus runs in 11 straight games.

The Brewers are looking for Corbin Burnes (7-4, 2.23 ERA) to slow down the St. Louis bats. Burnes has allowed either one run or no runs in seven of his last eight starts.

The Cardinals send right-hander Adam Wainwright (11-6, 3.27 ERA) to the mound against Milwaukee. Wainwright is 18-11 with a 2.48 ERA against the Brewers in 45 career appearances.

The Brewers are 6-1 on their current 10-game road trip.

Brewers own Cubs;

Packers’ preseason

kicks off Saturday

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – In the words of the Chicago Cubs’ Hall of Fame shortstop, Ernie Banks: “Let’s play two!”

The Brewers and Cubs did just that in a marathon Tuesday twin-bill at Wrigley Field. The split doubleheader began at 1:10 p.m. with Justin Steele’s first pitch and ended 10 ½ hours later when Brent Suter recorded the final out.

In between, Milwaukee continued to play winning if not perfect baseball to claim a sweep in the rain-interrupted split doubleheader.

The Brewers won the opener 4-2 behind Freddy Peralta’s strong start and home runs by Avisail Garcia, Lorenzo Cain and Willy Adames.

Then, after the teams regrouped in their respective clubhouses for a three-hour respite, Chicago’s oppressive heat gave way to a good old-fashioned Midwest thunderstorm that produced high winds, lightning and buckets of rain.

Milwaukee (68-46) rolled with it and also prevailed in the nightcap, 6-3, on the strength of a six-run fifth inning in which Luis Urias recorded two hits. It was approaching midnight when the Brewers struck in the fateful fifth. Trailing 1-0, the NL Central leaders broke out the bats to bury the Cubs.

“It was a long day, for sure,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “It was kind of a mental test as well as a physical test. It was a great way to end the night.”

Milwaukee pushed its division lead to 7 games over second-place Cincinnati, which lost at Atlanta, 3-2, earlier in the day. The Brewers own the best road record (36-19) in Major League Baseball.

Milwaukee is also a fantastic 33-15 in day games, which is MLB’s top day-time record, ahead of Tampa Bay (31-14) and San Francisco (29-13).

The Brewers needed seven pitchers to stop the Cubs in Game 2. It was most notable that Hunter Strickland and Jake Cousins were dazzling in their debuts after being benched by COVID-19 protocols.

Strickland struck out all three hitters he faced in the third inning, and Cousins nearly matched him by striking out two of the three he faced in the fifth.

The return of Strickland and Cousins provides much-needed relief – no pun intended – for a Brewers’ bullpen hit hard by COVID-19.

Adrian Houser, Eric Lauer, Josh Hader and Jandel Gustave remain on the list. Here are their expected return dates: Houser (TBD, Hader (within a week), Lauer (late next week) and Gustave (TBD).

Right-hander John Curtiss also had to exit Tuesday’s nightcap after 15 pitches with right elbow soreness.

“He felt some tightness so we got him out of there and we’ll see what it leads to,” Counsell said after the game.

Tonight, the Cubs will send Jake Arrieta (5-10, 6.35 ERA) against the Brewers’ Corbin Burnes (6-4, 2.39). Arrieta is 0-4 with a 9.62 ERA in his last seven starts.

** PACKERS NEWS

The Packers plan to play backup quarterback Jordan Love extensively throughout the three-game preseason, according to head coach Matt LaFleur.

It also is unlikely Aaron Rodgers will get any snaps. Rodgers hasn’t played in each of the past two preseasons, so it isn’t unprecedented. Furthermore, Love needs all the work he can get, whether it’s to be better-prepared for next season or (football gods forbid) the next snap.

Meantime, the Packers’ Family Night Scrimmage was a huge success Saturday night at Lambeau Field.

No one drowned.

That isn’t to say some of the first- and second-year players’ heads weren’t swimming with assignments to execute, inclement weather to navigate and 34,835 fans to impress.

It’s a tall order in a single, weather-shortened evening, but players such as Kabion Ento, Krys Barnes and even veteran Devin Funchess managed to make enough plays to be noticed for the right reasons.

Beyond that the fans were amazing.

A little rainfall – ok, a lot of rainfall – couldn’t dampen their enthusiasm for Packers football. After the pandemic limited last year’s scrimmage to a small gathering of fans, they weren’t going to miss this one.

“What a great experience to have fans back in the stands, man,” LaFleur said. “They brought a lot of juice, a lot of energy. I think that you don’t truly appreciate how much more joy and just how much more fun the whole experience is to have that many people in less-than-ideal conditions to show up for practice.

“That was pretty cool.”

There were no injuries, according to LaFleur, so the only casualty was the post-practice fireworks display, which had to be canceled.

LaFleur noted that he also had to forego several periods, including red zone, because the start was delayed by lightning. When practice did start LaFleur was told he had maybe an hour before they’d get washed out.

“Heck, we could still be out there,” LaFleur said at his post-practice news conference. “I got some bad information, but we did get to go ‘live’ (tackling) as promised, and we got a lot accomplished tonight.”

Once practice unfolded it appeared the defense outplayed the offense.

Ento made nice plays to defend two passes, although he whiffed trying to tackle receiver DeAndre Thompkins on a play that went for big yards.

Safety Darnell Savage, Jr., made a juggling interception after Davante Adams bobbled a pass from Rodgers.

For his part, Rodgers’ accuracy, arm strength and swagger were on display. He routinely threw the football into a waste-basket sized net from 25 yards, and also did so twice from 45-plus yards.

Rodgers looked in mid-season form.

Funchess drew notice with two nifty catches from Love. He hauled in a 25-yard grab along the boundary and also did a clever toe-tap along the sideline.

Funchess has missed the past two seasons – he sat out 2019 with an injury and opted out in 2020 due to the pandemic – so he’s anxious to get back to playing football and having fun.

“I got to have fun again,” Funchess said. “I’ve got to have fun with the guys and just put on a show for the crowd that was here.”

Funchess undoubtedly is in a roster battle, especially with Randall Cobb in the house, but he’s confident he’ll catch on. As a rookie, he caught two passes for 40 yards in Carolina’s Super Bowl L loss to Denver. In that 2016 season he caught 31 passes for 473 yards and five TDs.

Funchess appears to be in terrific shape, too.

It’ll be interesting to see how the receiver position shakes out.

** Charles Woodson inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame

Former Packers’ cornerback Charles Woodson gave an emotional, family-oriented speech Saturday night as part of his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Woodson spent seven of his 18 NFL seasons in Green Bay, where he earned NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2009 and won a Super Bowl in 2010.

In seven seasons with the Packers, Woodson racked up 38 interceptions, 15 forced fumbles, 99 passes defended, 11 ½ sacks and nine “Pick 6’s.”

Rodgers kept J-Lo

‘in the loop’ during

tumultuous offseason

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Aaron Rodgers gets an A-plus for empathy.

The NFL’s reigning MVP said Wednesday that he tried putting himself in Jordan Love’s cleats to imagine what the young quarterback was feeling during Rodgers’ tumultuous offseason.

Rodgers went through a similar situation in 2007 when Brett Favre vacillated between playing and retiring. He described it as “an important time of growth” in his own career. It was then that he decided to get in touch with Love.

“And then I just reached out; I reached out a number of times (to) check on him (and) see how he’s doing,” Rodgers said. “I didn’t hold things from him. I let him know where I was at mentally and what I was thinking about. And hopefully he appreciated that. I just felt that’s what I would want in that situation – just to hear from the guy. And also, there’s a love and an appreciation and a friendship there, just like it was with me and Brett.

“So I wanted to make sure I checked in with him and let him know I was thinking about him.”

It’s what good teammates do. It’s what great leaders do.

Rodgers was able to put aside his own unhappiness long enough to consider the situation’s potential impact on those he cares about. That included Love, or J-Lo, as Rodgers affectionately refers to his backup quarterback.

Logic dictates that it wasn’t Love’s fault the Packers traded up to draft him. What’s he supposed to do? Decline being selected in an attempt to play somewhere else behind a less-gifted starter?

Love was caught in the crossfire.

“I have a lot of respect and love for Jordan, and I understand it’s got to be tough what he went through,” Rodgers said. “I went through it for two years in the offseason, going in ’06 and ’07, I was the guy the entire offseason, going through quarterback school, going through most of the OTAs, taking all the reps, and then here comes Favrey coming back – and obviously I’m back on the bench.

“Thankfully I went through that, and I can understand a little bit about what he’s going through, so I just try to keep that in mind the entire time.”

It’s understandable that Packers’ fans were disappointed when reports came out this offseason claiming Rodgers no longer wanted to play in Green Bay.

However, as Rodgers divulges more information, it’s clear that he continued to be a leader in that locker room even while he was expressing his displeasure with the front office, the GM, the culture and all the rest.

The fact that he cared enough about Love to call him – and that he trusted Love enough to be totally honest with him – says a lot about their relationship.

It would have been easy for Rodgers to undermine Love, perhaps by rallying the team’s fans against the second-year quarterback by suggesting it’s his fault.

Instead, Rodgers kept Love in the loop.

I’m guessing Rodgers’ concern for Love made it easier for the young quarterback to relax and focus on the job at hand: Maximizing each and every rep this past offseason.

Clearly, Rodgers is an incredible talent with copious amounts of arrogance sprinkled throughout. But he also has empathy for his teammates.

It’s like Packers president Mark Murphy said a while back.

Rodgers is a complicated fella.

In time, Packers’ fans are apt to realize Rodgers is neither the villain some thought this offseason, nor the saint they’d placed high atop that Packers’ pedestal.

He’s simply a man with thoughts, feelings and desires like the rest of us. The difference is he’s also blessed with an amazing right arm, the intellect to run an NFL offense with incredible precision and – perhaps just as important – the ability to step out of his own self-centeredness long enough to show others he cares.

Some day if/when Love becomes a top-flight NFL quarterback, it’s likely he’ll credit Rodgers for showing him how to be a good teammate and great leader.

BREWERS NEWS

The Milwaukee Brewers get a day off today after winning two of three against Pittsburgh to maintain a 7 ½ game lead over Cincinnati in the NL Central.

The Brewers (65-44) capped the series with a 4-2 victory Wednesday afternoon behind two terrific at-bats by Luis Urias and Rowdy Tellez in the seventh inning.

Trailing 2-1 with two outs and nobody on base, Urias fell behind 0-2 in the count but managed to work Kyle Keller for a walk. Manny Pina followed it up with a ground ball single off the glove of third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes.

The Pirates brought in left-hander Chasen Shreve out of the bullpen to face the pinch-hitting Tellez, who promptly fell behind 0-2 in the count. Left-handed batters had been hitting .137 against Shreve this season.

No matter.

Tellez evened the count at 2-2 before delivering a 423-foot blast to the second deck in right-center at American Family Field.

The Brewers’ bullpen combined on three shutout innings to secure the win.

Freddy Peralta started and went six strong innings in which he allowed two runs and two walks while striking out nine. Peralta gave way to Brent Suter (10-5), Brad Boxberger (15th hold) and Devin Williams (first save) to close it out.

Tellez’s heroics have endeared him to Brewers’ fans, who chanted “Rowdy!” both before and after his game-winning shot.

“I think the hardest thing to do is remaining composed when you’re pinch-hitting, especially in a big situation like that,” Tellez said.

Tellez called the trade to Milwaukee “a blessing.”

“I’ve always wanted to be somewhere … everybody wants to be somewhere they can hear their name chanted and be wanted,” he said. “It’s just great. The fans are awesome here. They’re loyal. I couldn’t ask for a better environment to be in.”

The statistics back it up, and he isn’t the only one loving life in Milwaukee.

Tellez is batting .340 (18 of 53) with five home runs and 16 RBI in 21 games with the Brewers. He was hitting .209 with four home runs and eight RBI in 50 games with Toronto.

It’s not unlike Willy Adames, whom the Brewers acquired from Tampa Bay on May 22. The Brewers’ shortstop was hitting .197 with five home runs in 41 games with the Rays. Since his arrival, the Brewers are 23 games over .500 with Adames hitting .295 with 19 doubles, 14 home runs and 43 RBIs.

If the bats continue to sizzle, and the pitching staff holds the fort until Eric Lauer, Hunter Strickland, Jake Cousins, Miguel Gustave and Josh Hader return from the COVID-19 protocol list, the Brewers are going to be a force the rest of the way.

As it stands, Milwaukee is an incredible 55-9 when it scores four or more runs.

The Brewers host San Francisco (68-40) in a three-game weekend series featuring the teams with the best records in the National League (the Dodgers are 65-44).

The Giants will send Logan Webb, Anthony DeSclafani and Johnny Cueto to the mound, while Milwaukee counters with Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Brett Anderson during the weekend series.

Rodgers ‘all in’ as

Packers return to

football, normalcy

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The Fan

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers’ offseason has been part mini-series, docudrama and sitcom all rolled into one, with football as the backdrop.

Who needs HBO’s Hard Knocks when you’ve got this type of dysfunction? And it was real. It didn’t have to be ginned up.

Thankfully, for the time being, that is in the past.

Perhaps with Aaron Rodgers’ return and the start of training camp, the Packers can get back to normalcy and the business of football.

Rodgers, who skipped the Packers’ entire offseason program and enjoyed doing so, met with media last week to tell his side of the story.

In a 31-minute news conference reminiscent of the Seinfeld episode “The Strike” which is better known as “Festivus, for the rest of us,” Rodgers cut loose during his airing of grievances.

He sounded more like a lawyer presenting his opening argument in the court of public opinion than he did the NFL’s reigning MVP.

He criticized the Packers for failing to use him as a resource regarding the team’s personnel decisions. He also ripped his employer for trying to “throw money at him” rather than working to fix perceived problems.

We common folk could only wish our employers tried that resolution.

“I just expressed my desire to be more involved in conversations directly affecting my job,” Rodgers said.

Then he listed Charles Woodson, Jordy Nelson, Julius Peppers, Clay Matthews, Randall Cobb, James Jones, John Kuhn, Brett Goode, T.J. Lang, Bryan Bulaga, Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde as “guys who were exceptional players for us but (also) great in the locker room.”

Rodgers believes the Packers either released those players too soon, mistreated them in the process, or both.

Of the 12 players cited by Rodgers, a strong case can be made that the Packers should’ve retained Woodson, Peppers, Hayward and Hyde. The rest were released because it’s part of doing business in the NFL.

Clearly, Rodgers is a much better quarterback than GM.

Rodgers didn’t cast aspersions toward GM Brian Gutekunst, though.

That’s because he didn’t have to.

When asked about his relationship status with the Packers’ GM, Rodgers responded with a chilly, “It’s professional.”

This is where the irony gets rich.

While many fans are disappointed with Rodgers’ actions, the truth is they wanted the Packers to retain many of those same players. And the notion that Rodgers wouldn’t come back – according to sources – unless the GM was fired might be interesting if it weren’t so ridiculous.

The reason Rodgers returned – in his words – is because of this team and its tremendous potential to compete for and win a Super Bowl.

Who does Rodgers think built this team?

Oh, that’s right, it was the GM.

Gutekunst did appease Rodgers to a degree by trading for Cobb.

Rodgers and Cobb are close friends. So are their significant others.

“To get Randall back is really special,” Rodgers said. “It’s something that I talked about back in February, wanting to bring in a true slot receiver. I thought it would make our offense more dynamic. I think Randall’s a dynamic player — he has been when he’s been healthy.”

Cobb has been very good – when he’s been healthy – which is the point. He hasn’t been healthy the past couple of seasons.

That’s why GM’s control rosters and players play.

Apparently, Rodgers asked Gutekunst to bring in a true “slot receiver” and specifically mentioned Cobb in his post-season exit interview. Gutekunst complied by drafting highly regarded Clemson slot receiver Amari Rodgers in the third round of the NFL draft.

Nevertheless, Rodgers wanted Cobb, so now he’s got two slot receivers.

It could get dicey if Cobb underperforms in training camp while a Juwann Winfrey or Devin Funchess is playing lights out.

Who do the Packers cut in that case?

Does Gutekunst do the right thing and cut Cobb or risk all-out war with Rodgers as the regular season approaches?

It will be interesting to see what happens if it becomes an issue.

Rodgers’ comments about Green Bay “not being a vacation destination” and that players come here to “play with me” didn’t sit well with fans.

Again, Rodgers said the quiet part out loud.

He’s the reigning MVP. He can say whatever he wants.

But does that make it right?

To his credit, Rodgers did arrive at the start of training camp.

He also professed his undying love for his team and its fans.

When asked if he wants to be here, he didn’t mince words.

“I love my teammates. I love the city. I love my coaches. It is a lot of fun to be back here and like I said, ‘I’m competitive and I realize the type of team that’s in place here. It’s a team that has a lot of talent on it. It’s been close the last couple years, so I’m definitely excited about this season.’ I’ve had a lot of great conversations over, I’d say, the last two weeks with various teammates past and present and that’s definitely refueled the fire to go out and lead and perform at my best.”

Rodgers didn’t dwell on what may happen next season.

He’s here now, he’s “all-in” and he’s ready to win games.

“That’s why I just have to focus on this season,” he said. “I love this team, I love the organization, the fans, and the opportunity to play on Lambeau Field has been a dream come true.

“To be in my 17th season is special. I don’t take that for granted. I’m not a victim here at all. I just want to reiterate that. I’ve been paid a ton of money by this organization. I’m so thankful to be a starter here for my 14th season. Not many guys have the opportunity to do that. So I don’t feel like anything has been done to me here. It’s a business. It’s an incredible opportunity to play this game. But it’s a tough business, too.”

It’s a tough business under the best of circumstances. The fact that Rodgers and the Packers’ front office didn’t work to build a relationship in the past came back to haunt them in the present.

Now we’ll see what unfolds going forward.

In that regard, little has changed.

Much of the Packers’ success hinges on Rodgers’ ability to stay healthy, the defense’s ability to improve under new coordinator Joe Barry, and head coach Matt LaFleur’s steady hand at the rudder.

For his part, Rodgers didn’t downplay what it means to be the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback.

“It’s still an honor,” he said. “It’s still something I’m very proud of. You know I did see something about Favrey (Brett Favre) and Bart (Starr) playing 16 years here, and this is obviously No. 17 (for Rodgers). So there’s something special about that.”

White Sox-Brewers a World Series preview?

It’s not a crazy notion

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The starting pitching was as good as billed.

And after watching Milwaukee’s Freddy Peralta, Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff stifle one of the American League’s top teams it is easy to see why White Sox vs. Brewers may be a World Series matchup.

The White Sox’ Lance Lynn handcuffed the Brewers in a 3-1 victory Sunday night as Chicago avoided being swept by Milwaukee.

The Brewers (58-42) captured the first two games of the series with Friday night’s 7-1 win and Saturday’s 6-1 decision.

The White Sox (59-40) had other ideas Sunday.

Lynn (10-3) scattered six hits, struck out six and didn’t issue a walk. He outpitched Woodruff in a matchup of All-Star right-handers and aces. Lynn, who like Woodruff can swing a bat, added a key hit in the third.

“He’s tough to score against,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said of Lynn after the game. “We had limited opportunities, a couple of small opportunities and we just didn’t get the next hit.”

The hard-luck Woodruff (7-5) gave up three runs on five hits in seven innings. He struck out nine, walked two and saw his NL-best earned-run average climb from 2.04 to 2.14, which trails Burnes’ 2.12 ERA.

White Sox manager Tony La Russa was impressed by Milwaukee.

“They’re a very good club, the Milwaukee Brewers,” he said. “We had our hands full. We lost two out of three, but we won one. This is a big-time win by our club. A lot of guys stepped up. But, enjoy it for the moment, and then it’s what’s next. Accumulate more wins.”

The Brewers closed to within 2-1 in the fifth inning Sunday when Tyrone Taylor tripled and scored on Jackie Bradley Jr.’s ringing double in right-center field. But Lynn struck out Woodruff and Kolten Wong to end the threat.

Milwaukee leads Cincinnati (51-48) by 6 ½ games in the NL Central. The Cardinals (50-50) are eight games back. In the AL Central, the White Sox lead Cleveland by nine games.

The Brewers are off Monday before traveling to Pittsburgh for a three-game series against the last-place Pirates. Left-hander Brett Anderson (2-5, 4.26 ERA) is scheduled to start Tuesday versus Pirates’ lefty Tyler Anderson (5-8, 4.35).

The Brewers received good news from Triple-A Nashville where Lorenzo Cain has completed his rehab and is expected to join the big club in Pittsburgh. Cain was recovering from a right hamstring strain. He was hitting .240 in eight games at Nashville before being recalled.

Perhaps Cain can help unlock the Brewers’ offense.

Milwaukee is hitting .223 as a team through 100 games. The team has hit better than .248 in each of the past five seasons, so there is reason to believe the Brewers’ team BA will continue to climb.

Avisail Garcia is hitting .253 with 17 home runs and 58 runs batted in to lead the team. Luis Urias is batting .236 with 16 doubles, 13 home runs and a team second-best 45 RBI.

Willy Adames has 11 home runs and is hitting .294 since his May 22 trade from Tampa Bay. Newcomer Rowdy Tellez belted two home runs to key Saturday’s win and is batting .333 (8 for 24) since he arrived to fill the left-handed hitting void left by the injured Daniel Vogelbach.

Wong’s return adds pop to the top of the order. Wong is hitting .292 with eight home runs this season. He and Cain should be a formidable duo at the top of Counsell’s order down the stretch.

All-Star catcher Omar Narvaez is hitting .286 with eight home runs while handling the pitching staff and playing superb defense.

Christian Yelich remains a bit of a mystery. The former MVP is scuffling along at .235 with six home runs and 28 RBI in 67 games. Yelich’s bat is one of the missing key ingredients in the Brewers’ chances to create a World Series contender.

If he doesn’t heat up, it will be interesting to see how long Counsell continues to bat him second or third in the lineup. Frankly, Counsell has time to make the call because no other bats have heated up.

The pitching remains the team’s strength through 100 games.

The starters are borderline obscene, the middle relief is steady and the closer – Josh Hader – remains fresh and ready to roll.

The Brewers appear poised to post a mid-90s win season. That should be enough to capture the NL Central and go into the playoffs on a mission.

 

Bucks capture first NBA title in 50 years

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 50 points – one for each year since the Bucks’ last NBA championship – and made good on his promise to bring another NBA title to Milwaukee.

Giannis and the Bucks did exactly that Tuesday night with a thrilling 105-98 victory over Phoenix in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to close out the series 4-2. The Bucks did it in front of 20,000 delirious fans inside Fiserv Forum and another 65,000 that stood elbow-to-elbow to cheer them on in the Deer District just outside the arena.

Antetokounmpo, the unanimous Finals MVP, had 14 rebounds and five blocks to go with his 50 points. It was the third game of the series in which he posted at least 40 points and 10 rebounds, a performance so dominant it ranks among the greatest in NBA Finals history.

Antetokounmpo already had signature moments in two wins in the series. There was “The Block” of the Suns’ Deandre Ayton to secure Game 4, and there was “The Valley-Oop” slam dunk on a nifty pass from Jrue Holiday to nail down Game 5.

How could he possibly top either of those?

That’s easy. He made his free throws.

Antetokounmpo hit 17 of 19 free throws after being jeered by Suns fans and shooting just 55.6% from the line in the playoffs. He also hit 16 of 25 shots from the floor in a highly efficient display of dominance.

“People told me I can’t make free throws and I made them tonight,” he said. “And I’m a freaking champion.”

The Bucks became just the fifth team to win the NBA Finals after trailing 2-0 in the series.

Khris Middleton scored 17 points, including several key baskets late to stave off the pesky Suns. Bobby Portis came off the bench to score 16 points in 23 minutes, while Holiday made up for an off shooting night (12 points on 4-of-19 shooting) by dishing out 11 assists and grabbing nine rebounds. Holiday also played superb defense throughout and had four steals and while committing just three turnovers in 46 minutes.

Brook Lopez added 10 points and eight rebounds, while P.J. Tucker played tenacious defense for 36 minutes on the Suns’ Devin Booker, who finished with 19 points on 8-of-22 shooting. Booker missed all seven of his 3-point attempts, while future Hall of Fame guard Chris Paul scored 16 points to lead the Suns.

The Bucks led 29-16 after one quarter, but the Suns roared back to outscore Milwaukee 31-13 in the second quarter and grab a 47-42 halftime lead. It was reminiscent of the Bucks’ response to trailing 16 points at Phoenix after one quarter in Game 5.

Only the Bucks didn’t wilt like the Suns. They kept playing hard and chipping away to eventually tie it at 77 going into the fourth quarter.

After that it was all over but the celebrating.

Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer was cheered wildly by fans as he began to comment during the post-game awards ceremony. Clearly, it was an emotional moment for Budenholzer, who was widely believed to be fired if the Bucks didn’t win a title.

“I think it’s just a credit to the players,” he said modestly. “We’ve been pushing. We’ve been trying to get better. The players embrace everything. They’re amazingly coachable. They take it, soak it in and make the best of it.”

Just like their gritty head coach has done all season.

Not once did Budenholzer express any anger or resentment when asked to comment on rumors that his job was in jeopardy. He responded by working harder, staying in the moment and leading his team.

Budenholzer got his hard-earned reward Tuesday night.

So did the players, fans and an entire state.

Game 6 was keenly contested and tied at 77 through three quarters. But Antetokounmpo wasn’t about to let this one slip away. He scored 13 points in the fourth quarter to sew up the win and seal the Suns’ fate.

It’s been an incredible ride for “The Greek Freak.”

The Bucks drafted Antetokounmpo with the 15th overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft, and then proceeded to win just 15 games that season. The Bucks acquired Middleton (a second-round pick of the Pistons) in a trade with Detroit that summer.

Eight seasons later, Antetokounmpo and Middleton are superstars and NBA champions, and not just Milwaukee but the entire state of Wisconsin is bursting with pride.

“I want to thank Milwaukee for believing in me,” Antetokounmpo said to cheers from his adoring fans. “I wanted to do it here in this city. I wanted to do it with these guys.”

Bucks outlast Suns

109-103 to pull even

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Khris Middleton’s nickname is “Cash Money.”

At times in this Bucks’ postseason joyride, it looked like “Cash Money” was trying to pass counterfeit Benjamins. His erratic 3-point shooting threatened a nickname reboot to “Khris Miss.”

Middleton silenced his critics in the Bucks’ 109-103 victory over Phoenix in Game 4 of the NBA Finals Wednesday night at a raucous Fiserv Forum and Deer District.

He did it by tickling the twine, as they say, on his way to a playoff career-high 40 points. Now we’ll find out if Middleton gets the last laugh as Milwaukee has pulled even at 2-2 in this best-of-seven series.

The modest, soft-spoken Middleton downplayed his monster game.

“Late in the fourth quarter, we just ran sets that enabled me to get to my spots,” he said. “After that I’ve just got to make reads. Thankfully, I hit some shots.”

Middleton scored 10 straight points as the Bucks erased a nine-point second-half deficit to capture the win. The Finals is now a best-of-three starting Saturday at Phoenix with Milwaukee owning the momentum.

Middleton’s offensive heroics offset Devin Booker’s 42-point night. It was the ninth times in these playoffs that Booker has scored 30-plus points. He did so despite being saddled with second-half foul trouble and missing out on opportunities because of the Suns’ 17 turnovers.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said Booker had to earn it.

“He’s hitting contested, tough shots,” Budenholzer said. “I think we’ve just got to keep making him work for everything. Maybe we’re able to get a couple of stops late. Bounce-back game, exactly what we expected (from Booker).”

Giannis Antetokounmpo also had a strong night for the Bucks. He finished with 26 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists, three steals and two blocks.

Giannis’ final block was among the game’s biggest plays.

The Suns’ Deandre Ayton appeared to have a layup that would’ve sliced Milwaukee’s lead to two points with 1:15 to play. Instead, Giannis seemingly rose up out of nowhere and swatted away the attempt.

Then, he went down to the other side, posted up low and scored to give Milwaukee a six-point lead with less than a minute to play.

“Just a hustle play,” Giannis said. “Going down the stretch – do whatever it takes to win the game. I saw the play coming. I was there in time, and was able to get a good block and go down and get two points.”

A Chris Paul turnover (one of five on the night) led to a breakaway layup for Middleton to ice the victory. Paul had 10 points, seven assists and five turnovers. Ayton had six points and 17 rebounds for Phoenix.

Suns coach Monty Williams isn’t surprised the series is close.

“We’re two good teams. We’re 2-2,” he said. “That’s the deal. We put ourselves in this position. We’ve got home-court advantage.”

The Suns do indeed have home-court advantage.

They also have Booker, who is unstoppable at times, and the steadying hand of a future Hall of Famer in Paul.

But the Bucks have Giannis, “Cash Money” and Jrue Holiday all playing at a championship level.

Milwaukee outscored Phoenix 48-40 in the paint. It’s not a great disparity until you consider fast-break points. The Bucks had 15, while the Suns didn’t score a single fast-break point.

Holiday finished with 13 points, but it was his seven assists and seven rebounds that were crucial. Pat Connaughton added 11 points and nine rebounds in a strong game off the bench.

“You can’t just bank on the fact that you’ve got home court, you have to go out there and play the game,” Paul said. “You still have to execute. We tend to respond well. We know what we have to do. Be better.”

The Bucks have been better in each of the past two games: Better than they played the game before, and better than the Suns, period.

Bucks aim to get even; Brewers in 1st at break

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Bucks are back in business, and it’s not just because they’re back in Milwaukee and playing in front of a delirious Fiserv Forum crowd.

They’re in business because they have solved the Suns’ riddle.

The Bucks’ 120-100 victory in Game 3 Sunday night at Milwaukee wasn’t wrought from intangibles going their way. This win wasn’t about the Suns’ ineptitude, or an off shooting night, or the Bucks being incredibly hot from the floor or getting every call and bounce.

Not in the least.

This was about the Bucks’ ceaseless attack on both ends.

Milwaukee’s offense did a terrific job of spacing the floor, sharing the ball and getting it to Giannis Antetokounmpo when he was on the move and in the lane, where he inflicted great damage.

Giannis finished with 41 points, 13 rebounds and six assists. It marked his second straight game with 40-plus points, the only time he has done so in his career.

Last week, I wrote that Bucks’ coach Mike Budenholzer needed to give Bobby Portis more minutes and a chance to make an impact. Apparently, Budenholzer listened to common sense, if not me, and made it happen.

Portis had 11 points and eight rebounds (second on the team) in 18 highly productive minutes. Portis’ tenacity and physical presence only increases Milwaukee’s advantage in the paint.

Giannis’ 41 points (free throws aside) all came within five feet of the basket. He was 0-for-2 from beyond the arc. Clearly, the Bucks have figured it out: Giannis needs to be in position to do the most damage. That’s in and around the paint.

Khris Middleton rebounded – literally and figuratively – from an awful performance. He had 18 points, seven rebounds and six assists. The key to Middleton’s performance was that he started strong to set a tone, and then he scored at critical junctures to keep the Suns at bay.

Jrue Holiday played one of his best games this postseason.

Holiday had 21 points, five rebounds and nine assists while playing tenacious defense on Suns’ guard Chris Paul. I suspect Paul slept well after being hounded and harassed constantly by Holiday.

Like Middleton, Holiday also had a sense of the moment. He also hit some key shots when the Bucks’ offense began to stagnate.

Defensively, the Bucks reduced Devin Booker to a non-factor. The wonderfully talented scorer had 10 points on 3 of 14 shooting, including a dreadful 1-of-7 from 3-point range.

Jamming up Booker is the key to slowing the Suns’ offense.

By game’s end, Booker appeared worn out. He looked like someone in search of the nearest mattress. He was beaten and beat up.

Suns coach Monty Williams said Booker has been here before. He credited the Bucks’ defensive aggressiveness, but stressed the point that Booker will be back in a big way.

“Their aggression, their defense, they keyed on him,” Williams said. “He missed some shots. So that’s going to happen. He’s been in this situation before, as you guys alluded to. When you get to the Finals, it means you’ve been in a number of situations. So this is nothing new to us anymore. He’ll bounce back.”

Perhaps, but the Bucks have no intention of aiding and abetting. Expect them to continue to have Brook Lopez switch out high on screens at the top of the key. That does one of two things: It forces Booker to take an even deeper 3-pointer, while negating his ability to drive to the basket by cutting off the angle. It gives teammates time to give help, and it also gives Holiday time to recover and relocate Booker.

The Bucks could try to neutralize Paul, but that’s nearly impossible.

If Paul is double-teamed he finds the open man. If he’s closed out on the perimeter he’ll dribble by the defender and nail an 18-footer. He welcomes traps and double-teams. He feeds off of it.

Double-team Paul and it’s an invitation to disaster. Double-team Booker and it’s a way to force the Suns to go a different direction on offense. Certainly, Deandre Ayton has skills, but he’s not prolific. Either or both members of Team Cameron (Johnson and Payne) can go off at any time, but neither is Booker.

Overarching all of it is Giannis’ back-to-back epic performances.

The Greek Freak credited his entire team for getting better with every playoff series.

“We got better,” he said. “We got better Game 1 to Game 2. We got better Game 2 to Game 3. For right now – we got better. I feel like it in every series (in the playoffs), that’s what we did. That’s our goal.”

Holiday’s play, in particular, caught Giannis’ attention.

“He’s a great player, he’s a leader, he’s our point guard,” Giannis said. “He’s going to keep making great plays for us.”

Last week, in addition to pleading for additional minutes for Portis, I beseeched Budenholzer to play Holiday as a true point guard. It’s what Holiday does. It’s who he is. It also gets the ball out of Giannis’ hands on the perimeter, which limits his 3-point possibilities and turnovers.

Just because Giannis can handle the ball and occasionally nail a 3-pointer doesn’t qualify him to play NBA point guard. He’s more Shaquille O’Neal than Magic Johnson, but the comparison is on point while making the point.

When Giannis plays closer to the basket, and without the ball in his hands, it’s better for the Bucks’ offense.

“I think that’s when we are at our best, when Giannis is at his best, it’s a little bit of both,” Budenholzer said. “He’s a great playmaker, screener, passer and he does so many great things. I think when he’s conscious of doing a little bit of everything, he’s very capable and that’s when he’s at his best.”

Meantime, the Milwaukee Brewers staggered into the All-Star break.

Visiting Cincinnati took three-of-four from Milwaukee to wrap up the season’s first half within four games of the first-place Brewers in the NL Central Division.

Milwaukee (53-39) won the series’ opener, but found runs difficult to come by while losing three straight.

The red-hot Reds (48-42) host the Brewers in a three-game series coming out of the All-Star break. It should make for great theater, just like the All-Star game itself.

The Brewers landed five players, including four pitchers, on the National League All-Star squad. Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta and Josh Hader were joined by catcher Omar Narvaez to create a truly all-Milwaukee All-Star battery.

Hader has been scored upon three times in his last four appearances, that after only being scored upon twice in his previous 33 outings.

The Brewers are counting on Hader to bounce back, and to go into Cincinnati after the break well-rested and ready to re-establish their dominance in the NL Central.

Suns up 2-0 on Bucks;

Brewers stay ‘red’ hot

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The healthy return of Giannis Antetokounmpo increased the Bucks’ hopes of defeating Phoenix in the NBA Finals. The sudden disappearance of Khris Middleton dashed them just as quickly.

The 2021 NBA Finals is far from over despite the Suns’ 2-0 lead.

Phoenix’s 118-108 victory Thursday night in the Valley of the Sun was further evidence that the Bucks – with Giannis – can win this series. What they can’t have are the point-blank misses, the one awful quarter and the off-key play by their second fiddle.

Middleton played 41 minutes in Game 2 Thursday night. He labored to score 11 points on 5 of 16 shooting. He didn’t grab a single offensive rebound. Apparently not even ONE lucky carom went his way.

Middleton didn’t attempt a single free throw, either. If forensics scientists dusted his body for Suns’ fingerprints they’d find none. His contact was limited to his butt hitting the bench when he sat down during timeouts or while catching a breather.

That might be tolerable if he hadn’t gone 1-for-6 from behind the arc.

Middleton’s lackluster performance offset Giannis’ dominant display. Antetokounmpo finished with 42 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in a gritty 40-plus minute effort.

“When he’s got it rolling like that and he sees a crowd, we’ve got to be able to help him out,” Middleton told reporters after the game.

Did he say ‘we’ need to help him out? Does Middleton have a mouse in his pocket? Who’s the “we” that HE is referring to?

This was about Middleton being thoroughly outplayed by the Suns’ Devin Booker, who rolled for 31 points on 12 of 25 shooting. Booker was 7 of 12 on 3-point shots to help the Suns shoot an amazing 50 percent (20 of 40) from 3-point range.

The Bucks dominated in the paint (54 to 28) but couldn’t stop the Suns’ half-court offense. Chris Paul had 23 points and eight assists, but he also committed six turnovers with Jrue Holiday in his face.

Holiday’s terrific defense was mitigated by a horrendous 7-for-21 shooting night in which he managed just 17 points and seven assists. The Bucks need to use Holiday in a more traditional point guard role. The offense is smoother and runs better when he’s calling the shots.

“I think we had a lot of open shots that we didn’t make,” Holiday told reporters. “I know me personally there were a couple of layups that I usually make that kind of rimmed in and out. I had some good looks.”

It is true Holiday needs to be better, just like it’s true that Middleton can’t get much worse. Speaking of “worse” – where was P.J. Tucker after that initial 7-point barrage he laid on the Suns? He disappeared into the same abyss that engulfed Middleton. Bobby Portis played a productive 4:39 – at least as productive as can be expected in a cameo.

Portis needs to get more playing time or the Bucks don’t win the series.

MEANTIME, the Brewers won their second straight Thursday night by defeating Cincinnati 5-3 at American Family Field.

Avisail Garcia slammed a two-run home run in the eighth to break a 3-3 tie. Then Josh Hader entered in the ninth to record his first save since he blew his first save opportunity against the Mets Wednesday afternoon.

Garcia’s team-leading 16th home run was timely.

“I’ve just got to be focused and ready, don’t try to do too much,” Garcia said. “I’m just trying to think, middle-middle, put a good swing on it and see what happens.”

Brewers’ manager Craig Counsell praised Garcia’s consistency.

“(Garcia) has been very consistent this year and that’s important,” Counsell said. “That consistency has been really helpful. He’s having a really nice power season.”

And the Brewers are having a really nice season, period.

Milwaukee (53-36) holds a seven-game lead over the Reds (45-42) in the NL Central. The teams complete this four-game series going into the All-Star break, and then play a three-game set at Cincinnati coming out.

The oddity of seven straight games is magnified because the Reds have been able to ride their hitting to second place in the division. This is a tremendous opportunity for Milwaukee to tighten its stranglehold.

Ex-Brewers pitcher Wade Miley (6-4, 3.06) will pitch for Cincinnati while left-hander Eric Lauer (3-3, 4.11) will start for Milwaukee. Miley, a tough veteran lefty, has pitched six-plus innings in each of his previous five starts. He threw a no-hitter against Cleveland on May 7.

Lauer has been sharp in his last two starts, shutting out the Rockies over six innings and holding the Pirates to a run in 6 1/3 innings.

Bucks aim to close out Hawks; Brewers roll

Milwaukee’s backups, reserves and bench-warmers have risen to occasion

 

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – This is for all the bench-warmers, backups, reserves and afterthoughts in professional sports. This is for the second-tier starters who are expected not to miss a beat when their incredibly paid counterparts are indisposed for whatever reason.

This isn’t for the huddled masses. In fact, these folks seldom get to huddle. They are the outsiders, the outliers and those called upon when everything else is going belly-up.

They are the Bucks’ and Brewers’ players who have stepped up when called upon to continue to win. In fact, they have represented their city well to this point.

Milwaukee’s known as a blue-collar, working-class population that rolls up its sleeves and digs deep when necessary, and it expects the same of its sports teams.

Thus far in the post-pandemic sports landscape, the Bucks and Brewers are emulating the fan base they represent in stunning fashion.

The Bucks hold a 3-2 edge over the Hawks in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals going into tonight’s Game 6 at Atlanta. Milwaukee will be without Giannis Antetokounmpo in this elimination game, but it will be coming off a great night by the supporting cast.

Milwaukee’s 123-112 victory over Atlanta without Giannis proved the Bucks’ ability to adjust, regroup and focus on their strengths. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday were the best two players still standing (with Giannis and Trae Young out) on the court.

The Bucks should’ve won Game 5. What’s impressive is the way they got it done. Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer broke it down into its simplest terms: We’re bigger and stronger. Let’s pound it inside.

Guess what? Milwaukee racked up 28 points in the paint in the first quarter. They came out and established their physical advantage while racing to a 30-10 lead nine minutes into the game.

The Hawks never recovered from that opening assault.

It was led by Middleton and Holiday, which was to be expected. Thhe encouraging development was top-notch performances by Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis. Lopez went for 33 a career playoff high 33 points.

“They were more physical. They hit us in the mouth and we just did not recover from that,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. “They were the more physical, more aggressive team from start to finish tonight.”

The Bucks need more of that if they hope to end the series tonight.

The Hawks’ Young remains questionable with a bone bruise in his right ankle. If he returns, it’ll be interesting to see how effective he can play. Meantime, the Bucks realize Giannis won’t be back any time soon.

They need to focus on the job at hand.

In the Bucks’ Game 5 win, they came at Atlanta from all directions.

“I thought we just did a great job of playing together,” Lopez said. “Khris, Jrue did their normal job of making plays for everyone. When everyone is scoring, everyone is doing their thing, that’s tough for a defense. It’s tough for them to make a decision and a commitment.”

Holiday scored 25 points and added 13 assists, while Middleton finished with 26 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists.

“We had to figure out a way to give ourselves a chance and (getting) Brook into the paint, Brook scoring there was good,” Budenholzer said. “He’s done it really his whole career and just a credit to him … We have to get ready to do it again now.”

Portis had 22 points in his first career playoff start. P.J. Tucker added 11 rebounds.

While the Bucks have been carrying on without Giannis, the Brewers have been stream-rolling everything in their path.

Milwaukee has won 10 straight games and is playing terrific baseball.

The Brewers defeated the Pirates 7-2 Friday night to keep their streak alive.

“It’s not dangerous, it’s fun,” shortstop Willy Adames said.

Adames hit a first-inning home run and celebrated by sliding down the dugout railing.

“I’m rolling with Willy, man,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “He seems to have the right answer for a lot of things right now.”

The Brewers are 28-10 since Adames arrived May 22. They are the hottest team in baseball and showing no signs of slowing up. They have been ravaged by injuries, but their depth has been amazing.

So has the front office, which pulled the trigger on the Drew Rasmussen-J.P. Feyerheisen to Tampa trade for Adames.

Jace Peterson, once a highly touted draft pick, has been red-hot at the plate while playing strong defense of late. Peterson belted a 450-foot home run off the batting eye in dead-center field.

Jackie Bradley Jr. added a 410-foot shot as the Brewers stayed hot.

Milwaukee is a season-best 17-games over .500 at 50-33.

“That’s why I got traded here, to try to help the team to win more games and thank God that’s been working and we’ve been winning a lot of games,” Adames said. “I’m happy about that.”

So are the Brewers.

Adrian Houser was the most recent starting pitcher to dazzle, handcuffing the Pirates in Friday night’s win.

On Saturday, left-hander Eric Lauer will make the start for Milwaukee. On Sunday, Freddy Peralta will try to keep the Brewers rolling.

Giannis down, Bucks in danger vs. Hawks

Giannis’ hyperextended knee leaves Bucks’ playoff hopes in serious doubt

 

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – With Giannis Antetokounmpo down, and presumably out for the balance of the NBA playoffs, is it safe to believe the Bucks will lose what amounts to a best-of-3 series versus Atlanta?

The Bucks still have home-court advantage despite an ugly 110-88 loss Tuesday in which Giannis hyper-extended his left knee in the third quarter. He didn’t return and the Bucks never got close after that.

While there’s hope Giannis will return, if not for the Hawks series, perhaps the NBA Finals should Milwaukee advance, it seems unlikely.

The good news Wednesday is that Giannis’ knee didn’t have any structural damage according to an MRI. Still, it seems like a longshot to think Giannis will return in the Hawks’ series.

That leaves Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez, Pat Connaughton, P.J. Tucker, Bobby Portis and the rest to forge ahead as best they can without the Greek Freak.

The Hawks didn’t have Trae Young in their Game 4 victory, but they didn’t miss him with “Sweet” Lou Williams stepping in and stepping up to score 21 points while dishing out eight assists. He also grabbed five rebounds – several times in the midst of tall timber.

Now, it’s not Milwaukee vs. Atlanta so much as a battle between the non-max contract all-stars.

LeBron James’ assertion/prediction that the NBA’s disregard for its players’ health in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing quick turnaround from to 2020-21 to 2021-22.

It feels like superstars have been getting injured throughout the season and especially in the playoffs. It’s difficult to quantify whether the time-frame and wear-and-tear is contributing to the injuries, but the suggestion gains merit with each injured star, the latest being Giannis.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer saw Giannis’ injury as accidental.

“It just looked like their legs got tangled up,” Budenholzer said of Giannis and Clint Capela. “They both landed awkwardly. That’s what I saw live. I haven’t seen anything else.”

Giannis was in obvious pain while clutching his left knee. He was expected to undergo an MRI Wednesday to determine the extent of the injury. A hyper-extended knee could shelve him for the postseason.

Giannis finished with 14 points and eight rebounds in the disaster. He played 24 minutes before exiting with the injury.

“We’ll see what happens with Giannis,” Middleton said. “It would be great if he plays, but if not, we still have a team capable of going out there and winning.”

Giannis’ injury is merely the most recent calamity to hit the Bucks. They’ve had the NBA’s best regular-season record, but been unable to reach the NBA Finals, much less capture a title.

A championship was the end game – plain and simple – when Giannis received his max-contract and re-upped in Milwaukee. Ever since then the Bucks have been very good, but not great, with maddening stretches of inconsistency.

Giannis isn’t the problem, but he can’t be the sole solution.

When Middleton and Co. play up to their potential – and the eternally reliable Giannis does his thing – the Bucks typically win. When the supporting cast blows a gasket it isn’t pretty.

That was about to happen in the Bucks’ disastrous third quarter when Giannis tried to push even harder. He ended up falling awkwardly while trying to defend an alley-oop pass that really didn’t require defending.

Now, the Bucks have to figure out how to press forward.

Rest assured, Atlanta is feeling no sympathy for Milwaukee. The Hawks believe they can beat the Bucks and advance to the Finals. Clearly, with Giannis sidelined, the Hawks have a tremendous opportunity.

I’d like to believe the Bucks will rebound and win the series. But even with Young sidelined the Hawks appear to want it more. They’re dominating on hustle plays, they’re more focused, and they had a plan and executed it with their star sidelined.

What have the Bucks done? They played with a collective attention deficit disorder while falling behind by 15 early on. Milwaukee seemed inconvenienced by Game 4 and it showed in the way they played.

Lackadaisical only begins to describe it.

Then Giannis went down clutching his left knee.

Milwaukee’s season probably has gone down with it. If the Bucks prove me wrong, I’ll joyously eat my words. Until then, I’ll stand by them.

Meantime, Milwaukee’s “other” team – the might Brewers – continue to be Major League Baseball’s hottest squad. Milwaukee (48-33) holds a six-game lead over Chicago (42-39) following a 15-7 victory in the series finale Wednesday afternoon at American Family Field.

The Brewers’ three-game sweep of the Cubs featured a 10-run eighth inning to capture a 14-4 victory on Monday. On Tuesday, the Brewers rode right-hander Brandon Woodruff to a 2-1 victory despite getting only two hits. Then they blew out the Cubs for the sweep.

The Brewers started 23-year-old left-hander Aaron Ashby, whose credentials include an upper 90s fastball and a 94 mph slider. That didn’t keep the Cubs from jumping all over Ashby in the first inning.

Chicago erupted for seven runs on five hits and three walks to take a commanding 7-0 after a half-inning.

The Brewers were undaunted.

Milwaukee answered with a modest run in the bottom of the first inning, and they left the bases loaded against Cubs’ right-hander Jake Arrieta.

No matter.

The Brewers stayed with it and plated five runs in a wild second inning to close it to 7-6 after two innings. That set the stage for an 8-run fourth inning after the Brewers chased Arrieta.

The Cubs came into the game with the MLB’s lowest bullpen ERA of 2.91, but the Brewers pounded them like free beer.

Willy Adames hit the Brewers’ first grand slam of the season to go to a season-high 15 games over .500. The Brewers improved to 27-10 since they traded for Adames.

The Brewers are 9-3 against the Cubs in their season series, and increased their run differential to plus 30. Milwaukee is 20-13 against NL Central teams this season.

Hawks soar past

Bucks in Game 1

Atlanta’s Trae Young goes for 48 points while Middleton is 0-for-9 on 3-pointers

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Remember the old adage about an NBA playoff series not beginning until the road team wins?

Well that didn’t take long.

The upstart Atlanta Hawks downed Milwaukee 116-113 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday night at Fiserv Forum.

Whereas the Bucks needed four games plus overtime to get past the Nets at Barclays Center in the semifinals, Atlanta needed just 48 minutes and as many points from Trae Young to swing the series in its favor.

Young’s 48 points was just two points shy of his career high. He was terrific from everywhere, including 4 of 13 from “Trae-point land.”

“Ever since I was in middle school, when I was going on the road in middle school, I always loved playing on the road,” said Young. “I loved playing against an opposing crowd, an opposing team. It feels like you’re really with your team, and it’s just them in the building. I think that really brings our group together.”

While Young was dynamite, the Bucks’ Khris Middleton looked like a man trying to light a fuse in a hurricane.

Middleton managed just 15 points and was a dreadful 0-for-9 from beyond the arc. It mirrored the Bucks’ abysmal effort from 3-point range, where they were 8 of 36 (22 percent) on the night.

The Bucks looked like they needed an ophthalmologist, or a psychologist, or both.

“I’ve just got to be better,” Middleton said. “It’s as simple as that.”

That goes for his teammates, too.

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 34 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists, while Jrue Holiday added 33 points and 10 assists. If Milwaukee gets anything at all from Middleton it wins going away.

In a closely contested game, Giannis scored the first six points in a 9-0 run that turned a 98-96 deficit into a 105-98 advantage with 4:18 to play. The Bucks had a chance to close out the game from there, but the pesky Hawks refused to go away by scoring the next five points.

Clint Capela, who scored the go-ahead basket on a put-back with 29.8 seconds to play, racked up 19 rebounds. He reminded everyone why he led the league in rebounding: Pure, unadulterated hustle.

John Collins added 23 points and 15 rebounds, while Capela added 12 points to go with his massive rebound total.

Middleton missed a pull-up jumper with the Bucks ahead 111-110, and Young missed on the other end, but Capela followed with his put-back that gave the Hawks the lead for good.

Pat Connaughton had an open 3-pointer with 17.3 seconds left but shot an air-ball. Young sank two free throws after that to seal it.

It was the Hawks’ first win in the Eastern Conference finals since moving from St. Louis to Atlanta in 1968.

Giannis had nothing but praise for Young after the game.

“He’s a great player,” he said. “We’ve got to make it as tough as possible for him, be physical with him. We don’t want to send him to the free-throw line. We just got to make it, from the first minute to the last minute, tough.”

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer could only scratch his head trying to figure out ways to stop – or at least slow down – Young and the Hawks.

“We’re going to have to get a lot better in Game 2,” he said. “We talked about changing up the look. I think we’ll do more. Young is a great player. He had a great night, give him credit. We feel we can play better.”

If the Bucks don’t they’re at risk of going down 0-2 in the series.

Game 2 is Friday night in Milwaukee.

Bucks battle upstart Hawks in East final

Milwaukee, Atlanta haven’t reached

NBA Finals in what seems forever

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Milwaukee Bucks outlasted the Nets, dubious officiating and the substandard broadcast duo of Grant Hill and Marv Albert to advance to the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals.

It wasn’t easy, but it was extremely satisfying.

In fact, the Bucks’ 115-111 overtime victory in Game 7 Saturday night at Barclays Center was all the sweeter because of the long odds.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 40 points, including the tying basket in overtime, and Khris Middleton nailed the go-ahead shot with 40.7 seconds left as the Bucks knocked out the Nets.

After a first half watching Kevin Durant and James Harden flailing into Bucks’ defenders and begging for calls – many of which they got – the exhilaration of the achievement couldn’t have been greater.

While Brooklyn’s boisterous fans proved how smart they are by successfully (most of the time) counting to 10, Giannis and the Bucks proved who was the better team.

Now, the Bucks face Atlanta in the Eastern Conference finals, which begin Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at Fiserv Forum.

It’s an intriguing matchup between the upstart Hawks (41-31, 8-4) and the rejuvenated Bucks (46-26, 8-3).

Milwaukee hasn’t reached the NBA Finals since 1974. Atlanta hasn’t gotten there since 1961. Either way, a lengthy drought is going to end.

The Bucks proved their mettle against Brooklyn and its irritating but awesome duo of Durant and James Harden. Now they’ll get to face the feisty Hawks, who feature Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter and Bogdan Bogdanovic in an attack that features 3-pointers and fast-breaks.

Young’s range is limitless, while Huerter poured in 27 points in Game 7 at Philadelphia. One of the key matchups is going to be Young and Jrue Holiday, who was acquired with this kind of matchup in mind.

Few defenders can stop Young, but Holiday is equipped to slow him down a bit. Furthermore, Holiday’s offense should see a boost in this series thanks to Atlanta’s somewhat sporadic defense.

The other 5-Star matchup is the Hawks’ John Collins and Giannis. Collins is talented, but he’s no Giannis. Then again, few are.

The Hawks likely will rotate Collins, Clint Capela and perhaps Solomon Hill on Giannis in an attempt to neutralize the Greek Freak. It’s not happening. Giannis should be in store to post a series for the ages.

Middleton also has been on fire.

The Bucks are 7-0 in the playoffs when Middleton shoots higher than 40 percent from the floor, and just 1-3 when he doesn’t. However, Middleton is playing his best basketball of the season, as if right on cue.

Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan has done a terrific job, and undoubtedly will have his team ready. For Milwaukee, head coach Mike Budenholzer went from the hot seat to a courtside seat for the Eastern Conference Finals.

Budenholzer’s job won’t be secure until the Bucks reach the NBA Finals, but that seems like a very do-able prospect.

Brook Lopez, P.J. Tucker and Pat Connaughton all played key roles in Milwaukee’s upset of the Nets. Look for that to continue, with perhaps an expanded role for Bobby Portis.

The Hawks are 5-2 on the road in the playoffs. Make no mistake: Atlanta is a dangerous team that loves proving its detractors wrong.

With Giannis standing in the way, that’s a tall order, literally and figuratively.

Prediction: Bucks in 5.

Bucks cut down Nets

to force huge Game 7

Milwaukee’s Middleton pours in 38,

Giannis leads transition offense

 

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – There’s an NBA adage that asserts a seven-game playoff series doesn’t truly begin until the visiting team wins.

The Bucks have one final chance to do so Saturday night in Brooklyn, where it’s win-or-go-home for Milwaukee.

Khris Middleton, who poured in a career playoff-high 38 points in the Bucks’ 104-89 victory in Game 6, is excited by the challenge of Saturday night’s elimination game at Barclays Center.

The pressure of the moment doesn’t weigh on him.

“We don’t think about any type of pressure at all,” Middleton said. “It’s a basketball game. It’s as simple as that. I know it’s (a) lose-or-go-home, but at the same time, it’s just basketball. You’ve got to have fun with it. Those moments are fun, you know, when the game’s on the line.”

Middleton’s sharpshooting was the difference Thursday night.

The marksman was 5-of-8 from 3-point range, compared with a horrific 2-of-25 for the rest of his team. Without Middleton’s career night the Bucks very well could be preparing for a long, tumultuous offseason.

Instead, they’ve got one more shot at redemption.

Middleton was deadly from mid- and long-range. Every time the Bucks’ offense began to lull, he stepped up and delivered a key basket, or he would draw a foul and make free throws.

“You know in those moments, he’s going to make the right play,” said Giannis Antetokounmpo. “We know that when he feels good, we’ve got to give him the ball.”

Nets superstar Kevin Durant acknowledged Middleton’s impact.

“He’s a shot maker,” Durant said. “You see the shot go through the basket, you get more confidence. He made timely shots for them.”

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer should build off that sentiment.

Instead of getting the ball to Middleton when he’s feeling it, the Bucks need to make sure they shake him loose and get good looks so he can get in a groove. Middleton was 11 of 16 from the floor and 11 of 12 from the free-throw line. He also had 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals. Giannis was 12 of 20 from the floor with 17 rebounds, while Jrue Holiday had one of his better playoff games with 21 points.

The Bucks out-rebounded the Nets 51-39 and outscored them 26-4 on fast-break points. Kyrie Irving’s absence was felt mightily in transition.

“It definitely hurt us,” Nets coach Steve Nash said of the disparity in fast-break points. “That’s where they’re really strong. I thought we had some problems getting back in transition.”

The Bucks’ mental toughness was encouraging. They bounced back after a gut-wrenching 114-108 loss in Game 5 after blowing a 17-point lead. Durant dominated during the Nets’ comeback and finished with 49 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists.

Durant donned his Superman cape for Game 6, but the Bucks neutralized him with their own brand of kryptonite: Defense.

It wasn’t just P.J. Tucker harassing him, or Jrue Holiday trying to stay in front of him. It was Giannis and/or Brook Lopez coming over to help. Durant still made his share of shots when double-teamed, but he had to work immensely harder to get it done.

Durant still scored 32 points and added 11 rebounds, but each time the Nets’ superstar went on a run and tried to alter the course of the game, Milwaukee was able to answer.

A hobbled James Harden added 16 points for Brooklyn, but clearly isn’t anywhere near full strength while he deals with a hamstring injury.

Harden isn’t dissuaded by the defeat.

“I’m out there to do whatever it takes to win,” Harden said. “I’ve got to be better on both ends of the court, which I will be in Game 7.”

The Bucks’ mission in Game 7 is clear.

They need to defend, clear the boards and get out on the break. The Bucks’ best offense is in transition. Their next-best offense is finding the open man on the secondary break.

If Giannis and Middleton outplay Durant and Harden, the Bucks win. The absence of Irving still tilts the scales in favor of Milwaukee, whether the game is at Barclays Center or Fiserv Forum.

Giannis likes the Bucks’ odds to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they would face the winner of the Hawks-76ers series.

“As I’ve said all year long, we’re built for this moment, simple as that,” Giannis said. “Nobody says it’s going to be easy. It might be hard. But we’re capable of doing it.”

Bucks-Nets all even;

1st-place Brewers fall

Milwaukee’s Bucks look to go up 3-2,

Brewers look to bounce back vs. Reds

 

 By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Kyrie Irving was in the locker room with a sprained ankle, James Harden was in street clothes with a pulled hamstring and Kevin Durant was on the bench with a look of disgust.

The Nets’ big three were battered and beaten as the Bucks’ defense wore down Brooklyn in Milwaukee’s 107-96 victory Sunday at Fiserv Forum.

Tonight, the Bucks will look to take a 3-2 lead in this best-of-seven playoff series. Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m. at Barclays Center.

“We’re very happy, but we’ve got to keep getting better, keep playing together and hopefully we can go into Brooklyn and take one,” Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo told reporters after the win Sunday.

Giannis had 34 points and plenty of help in the Game 4 win.

Khris Middleton scored 19 points, Jrue Holiday had 14, P.J. Tucker netted 13 and Bryn Forbes added 10 to provide the Bucks balance.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer’s lineup features two first-team all-NBA defensive players (Giannis and Holiday), but it was Tucker’s hardnosed “D” that irritated and frustrated Durant.

Nets coach Steve Nash suggested Tucker’s defense was borderline in terms of what should be allowed. Budenholzer strongly disagreed.

“(Tucker) is playing extremely physical and made it difficult,” Nash said. “That’s his role. I thought it was borderline physical non-basketball at times, but that’s the playoffs. You have to adapt and adjust.”

Budenholzer said: “He’s just guarding (Durant). If that’s not basketball, I don’t know what is.”

Just when the Bucks appeared dead in the series, they discovered the fortitude to grind out an 86-83 victory in Game 3.

Now they have a terrific chance to take control tonight and set up a scenario where they can eliminate the Nets in Game 6 at Fiserv.

“At this stage, it’s whatever it takes to win the game,” Budenholzer said. “It certainly helps to get more guys contributing, making shots. P.J. Tucker was phenomenal on both ends of the court.”

Tucker’s presence is paying dividends in the playoffs. In recent years, the Bucks would steamroll everyone in their path during the regular season. Then, they would take their gaudy record into the playoffs and get bounced because they didn’t have the half-court game at either end.

That changed this season, when the Bucks used the regular season to prepare for postseason success. Key role players such as Tucker, Forbes and Bobby Portis have been the difference.

Furthermore, Brook Lopez continues to defend the rim and rebound, which has further complicated Durant’s attempts to score.

Irving and Harden already have been ruled out for tonight’s game.

Durant, arguably the NBA’s finest player, has to be worn down from the burden of carrying the Nets on his back. Durant had 28 points and 13 rebounds on Sunday, but he can’t do it alone.

“Now it’s a three-game series,” Nash said. “We’ve got to get home, rest up and get our minds and bodies ready. Stay positive.”

The Nets scored 13 straight points to take a 34-23 lead early Sunday, but Milwaukee countered with a 21-4 run and never trailed after that.

Across town, the Brewers (38-28) capped off a sweep of the Pirates with a tidy 5-2 win Sunday afternoon. Avisail Garcia’s two-run home run and Christian Yelich’s pinch-hit sac fly helped Milwaukee secure the sweep.

It was Milwaukee’s 14th win in 16 games, including seven straight at home. That streak ended Monday night when surging Cincinnati shellacked the Brewers 10-2 in a blowout.

Eric Lauer started for Milwaukee and was abysmal. He walked four while allowing five hits and four runs in his five innings to take the loss.

The Brewers missed an opportunity to take sole possession of first place in the NL Central because the streaking Mets stopped the Cubs 5-2 Monday night. It ended the Cubs’ five-game winning streak, while the Mets have now won 12 of their last 14.

Right-hander Luis Castillo will start for the Reds tonight, while Milwaukee will counter with left-hander Brett Anderson.

Brewers’ bullpen,

bench delivers again

Milwaukee’s contributions range from Suter, Boxberger to Urias, Robertson

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The red-hot Brewers captured wins in two of three at Cincinnati to stay on a roll going into a weekend series against the NL Central’s last-place Pirates at American Family Field.

Milwaukee (35-27) sits atop the division tied with Chicago, who hosts third-place St. Louis (32-30) at Wrigley Field during the weekend. When the Cubs and Cardinals play each other it’s a “can’t lose” situation for Milwaukee.

To this point of the season the Brewers have few complaints, but plenty of work still ahead.

The loss of Travis Shaw (dislocated left shoulder) on Wednesday night requires the team’s front office to acquire a third-base version of shortstop Willy Adames. The Brewers traded with Tampa Bay to secure Adames, who is merely playing slick defense and hitting .308 since his arrival. He’s also had a pair of four-hit games.

It won’t be easy to find another Adames, but GM David Stearns has been right a lot more than he’s been wrong, so despite Shaw’s injury the outlook remains bright. And as well-liked as Shaw is in the clubhouse, his slumping bat was hurting the team by stranding way too many baserunners in scoring position.

Perhaps the answer lies in the farm system, or maybe the Brewers will continue juggling the versatile Luis Urias between second and third. Urias’ bat has been much better since Adames’ arrival, and I suspect it’s because the pressure of being the everyday shortstop was lifted.

Jace Peterson, who drove in three runs in the Brewers’ 7-2 victory Thursday, also is in the infield mix. It’s the same with Daniel Robertson, who can play third, second or short and has been decent at the plate.

Beefy Daniel Vogelbach – the original Brewers’ beer keg logo come to life – has been hitting the cover off the ball lately. Vogelbach has homered in two straight games while playing a fairly nimble first base.

Vogelbach (6-0, 270) provides power from the left side and figures to hold down the first-base job so long as he keeps hitting. His emergence helps take some pressure off in the wake of Shaw’s injury.

Of course, the Brewers’ starting pitching has been excellent, but the bullpen also has made huge contributions. Milwaukee has won 11 of 13 games going into the weekend, and its bullish bullpen is one reason why.

Brent Suter, Eric Lauer and Brad Boxberger have been able to deliver both before and especially after the Brewers traded pitchers J.P. Feyerheisen and Drew Rasmussen to the Rays.

Their success has made the Adames trade look even better.

It’s a pleasure to watch Suter work.

He definitely realizes he doesn’t get paid by the hour, or by the pitch, but rather by how effectively he coaxes opponents to make outs.

The right-handed Boxberger couldn’t be more of a contrast to the left-handed Suter. Boxberger is rather deliberate, comes straight over the top and has mid- to upper- 90s velocity.

Devin Williams and Josh Hader make most games a 7-inning affair. That’s how good they are when the Brewers have a lead going into the eighth inning this season.

Compare the Brewers’ bullpen to Cincinnati’s pen. The Reds dropped two of three games to Milwaukee due in large part to its MLB-worst bullpen. When Sonny Gray left with a groin pull after three innings Tuesday night, it was only a matter of time before the Brewers pounced.

It was much the same on Thursday. Once Reds starter Luis Castillo was pulled with two outs in the sixth, the Brewers’ bats came to life.

It will be interesting to see if Stearns believes he has enough quality arms in the organization to pull off a trade for a third baseman. Lefty Hoby Milner and right Trevor Richards have been good in short stints.

Brandon Woodruff (4-2, 1.42 ERA) will start for Milwaukee against Pirates’ right-hander Chase De Jong (0-0, 5.40 ERA). The first pitch is scheduled for 7:10 p.m.

On Saturday, it’ll be the Pirates’ Chad Kuhl (0-3, 5.61 ERA) taking on the Brewers’ Corbin Burnes (3-4, 1.97 ERA). Right-hander Adrian Houser (4-5, 3.66) will start on Sunday for the Brewers.

First-place Brewers MLB’s hottest team

Milwaukee has won 9 of 10 with great starting pitching and home-run binge

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Brewers celebrated the Seventies during their four-game weekend series against Arizona at American Family Field. The festivities included a near-no hitter, a barrage of home runs and Corbin Burnes’ 2-0 shutout Sunday to clinch a four-game sweep.

Stories of old County Stadium and the great Brewers of the past were capped off by Hank Aaron Bobble-head Day on Sunday.

Rest assured “The Hammer” would’ve nodded his approval.

Burnes struck out a career-high 13 Diamondbacks in seven innings, and Daniel Robertson and Tyrone Taylor homered to key the 2-0 victory. It was Arizona’s 17th straight road loss, while red-hot Milwaukee has now won nine of its last 10 games.

The Brewers (33-26) and Cubs are tied for first place in the NL Central, while St. Louis (31-29) sits 2 ½ games behind both.

Milwaukee has Monday off before embarking on a brief three-game road trip to Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park.

The Brewers’ success has been spearheaded by its starting pitching.

Brandon Woodruff, Freddy Peralta, Adrian Houser, Brett Anderson and Burnes have been outstanding. Consider the stats of the “Big Three”:

** Woodruff (4-2) has posted 10 of 12 quality starts. In 76 innings, Woodruff has allowed just 39 hits, 12 runs, 17 walks and 92 strikeouts. He has a minuscule 1.42 ERA.

** Peralta (6-1) has yielded just 29 hits in 64 innings while walking 27 and striking out 92. He has a 2.25 ERA.

** Burnes (3-4) has seven quality starts in 10 games. In 59 1/3 innings, Burnes has surrendered 35 hits and seven walks while striking out 94. He boasts a 1.97 ERA.

Setup man Devin Williams has struggled, at least in part, because he’s tended to fall in love with his changeup. On Sunday, Williams went back to getting ahead with his 96 mph fastball, getting hitters off-balance with the changeup, and then finishing them off with the fastball.

Josh Hader (3-0) is as good as it gets among MLB closers.

Hader has given up 10 hits in 23 2/3 innings while walking eight and allowing just two runs. He has 14 saves and a 0.76 ERA to go with it.

Brent Suter and Brad Boxberger have been solid in their middle- and late- relief roles, respectively.

The Brewers’ bats also continue to inflict damage.

Milwaukee blasted 11 home runs in the four-game sweep, including Christian Yelich’s home run Saturday to break a 5-5 tie in the eighth. Omar Narvaez added another solo home run to make it a 7-5 victory.

Yelich’s return to form is critical to the Brewers’ success. With him hitting third and raking, cleanup hitter Avi Garcia and Narvaez (who’s been hitting fifth) have a terrific chance to drive in runs.

Craig Counsell’s adept handling of injuries has been a credit to his managerial skill and the Brewers’ depth at Triple-A Nashville.

The Brewers are without Kolten Wong (oblique) and Lorenzo Cain (hamstring), but their replacements have been admirable.

The acquisition of shortstop Willy Adames – who has helped solidify the infield – has enabled Luis Urias to relax and revel in his role as a true utility infielder. Urias is an exceptional second baseman and has done a nice job of filling in for Wong.

Robertson also has been solid while platooning at third base with the slumping Travis Shaw.

Keston Hiura shows signs of life at the plate, and Daniel Vogelbach has been a good alternative against right-handed starting pitchers.

In the outfield, Taylor has been a godsend both defensively and at the plate. He and Jackie Bradley Jr. are plus defenders who provide a lefty-righty combination and power at the plate.

There is no reason to think the Brewers’ bats will suddenly falter after they’ve finally heated up. And when Wong and Cain return, the Brewers’ lineup, depth and defense will be that much stronger.

Milwaukee will have its work cut out at Cincinnati, where it faces a first-rate right-hander in Sonny Gray (1-4, 3.64) to open the series.

The Brewers will counter with Houser (3-5, 3.86) on the mound.

Great American Ball Park is known to be a launching pad.

Fortunately for Milwaukee its bats have come to life.

Let the good times roll.

Brewers’ bats awaken during current streak

Milwaukee has won six of seven while Craig Counsell searches for balance

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Win, lose or extra-innings the Milwaukee Brewers have provided an incredible amount of entertainment thus far.

The Brewers (30-26) are four games above .500 despite having to constantly bring up, send down or trade for players to help the cause. The front office looks better with every move, and manager Craig Counsell and his coaches have been adept at dealing with disruption.

Through it all, Milwaukee trails the red-hot Chicago Cubs by just two games and the ever-present St. Louis Cardinals by a half-game.

The Brewers’ pitching has been beyond belief.

Tonight’s starter, Freddy Peralta, is one-third of the terrific trio that includes Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes. Milwaukee’s “big three” starters are as good – and perhaps better – than any in baseball.

The Brewers’ bats appear to have awakened during their recent run of six wins in seven games. The Brewers have hit 10 home runs this week, including Christian Yelich’s blast in Thursday’s 7-4 win over Arizona.

Yelich’s glove has been fantastic lately, but it’s his bat that elevates him to MVP status. Slowly but surely he has been making better swings and racking up quality at-bats.

Now, it appears he’s getting close to being his old self at the plate.

It’s interesting that observers wonder if he’ll ever be more than an average hitter going forward. The reality is that once he gets back in a groove, there’s every reason to believe he’ll be a .300-plus hitter again.

Meantime, Avi Garcia, Omar Narvaez and Luis Urias have been red-hot. In addition, recent re-call Tyrone Taylor authored a two-home run return to the lineup in the Brewers’ 10-7 loss against Detroit.

Taylor appears intent on staying with the big club.

Jackie Bradley Jr. broke a 6-for-73 slump with a 387-foot home run in the third Thursday night. And Garcia continues to pummel everything that’s thrown near the strike zone.

Left Brent Suter (6-3) provided quality relief to get the victory while Josh Hader notched his 13th save.

Imagine the possibilities if the hitting begins to match the pitching?

The Brewers are in one of baseball’s best divisions. They’re going to have to get Yelich back to form, plus more from Keston Hiura’s bat, to keep pace with the Cubs and Cardinals.

It’s possible.

What were Brewers’ fans expectations going into the season? Most believed Narvaez and Garcia to be sub-standard acquisitions because of their poor performances at the plate last season. They also weren’t sure what Peralta and Burnes would be on the mound. Most had more faith in Woodruff, but he was coming off an injury and nothing was for sure.

The back end of the bullpen has been amazing, while Counsell continues to search for the right mix in middle-relief.

Kolten Wong, who is out with a nagging oblique strain, has been the MVP among position players. Hopefully he’s not going to miss extensive time. Lorenzo Cain has been terrific when available, but at 35 he also has been bitten by the injury bug and remains on the DL.

However, Manny Pina continues to be outstanding behind Narvaez, and newcomer Willy Adames has been a godsend on the infield. Adames has played strong shortstop while being a strong bat in the lineup at the start.

Milwaukee’s starting pitching and excellent late relievers give the Brewers a chance to go on long winning streaks. Whatever they get from the offense is a bonus, especially if the defense remains solid.

Then again, the Brewers have belted nine home runs in their past two games, so maybe Counsell will get the balance he is searching for.

Packers’ offensive line takes shape at OTAs

Versatile Elgton Jenkins at left tackle, rookie Myers at center during drill work

 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – It’s not entirely accurate to place Elgton Jenkins among the Green Bay Packers’ draft-and-develop success stories.

He came ready to play.

When the Packers drafted the 6-foot-5, 313-pound offensive lineman out of Mississippi State in 2019, they got a steal with the 44th overall pick. Jenkins can play each of the five positions with aplomb, and routinely grades out among the NFL’s top players at his position(s).

With Pro Bowl left tackle David Bakhtiari rehabbing from ACL surgery, the Packers opened Tuesday’s voluntary OTA’s with Jenkins at left tackle, which is a departure from his typical left guard spot.

The line, left to right, was Jenkins at left tackle, Jon Runyan, Jr. at left guard, rookie Josh Myers at center, Lucas Patrick at right guard and Billy Turner at right tackle.

That’s a line – and more precisely an alignment – made possible by Jenkins’ talent, versatility and open-mindedness to change. He doesn’t fear “looking bad” because he’s not playing his primary position. He just steps up and delivers an A-plus performance in whatever he’s asked.

Obviously, offensive line/run game coordinator Adam Stenavich and offensive line assistant Luke Butkus play a key role in this. The Packers’ o-linemen have been versatile but not at the expense of effectiveness.

The Packers’ addition of Myers, Royce Newman and Cole Van Lanen in the draft presumably covered the loss of center Corey Linsley in free agency, while adding starting-caliber ability (all three draft picks – in my opinion – have the ability to develop into a starter).

While Bakhtiari mends, the Packers should be able to protect whoever is taking the snaps at quarterback, in addition to giving the running game great looks in practice.

It has been reported – without any comment by Aaron Rodgers – that the disgruntled quarterback wants the Packers to fire GM Brian Gutekunst. There’s no evidence that truly is Rodgers’ sentiment, although the AWOL All-Pro QB hasn’t refuted it, either.

He also hasn’t shown up to the voluntary OTA’s.

Still, there is a season to prepare for, and head coach Matt LaFleur appears to be doing a decent job of forging ahead despite the drama. It should be noted that LaFleur’s job has been made incredibly more doable because of Gutekunst’s competence and decision-making.

I disagree with those who say Gutekunst failed to develop a relationship with his star quarterback, and therefore he’s to blame for the current rift. In fact, I place that blame with Packers president Mark Murphy, who should’ve accepted that role when he decided to oversee football operations. He didn’t. Apparently, he didn’t instruct Gutekunst to do it, either. Remember, Gutekunst’s responsibility is identifying and securing talented football players. He’s not in charge of hiring and firing the head coach, nor does he have any singular say in terms of free-agent signings.

Nevertheless, Gutekunst has drawn the majority of blame.

In fact, Gutekunst’s personnel moves – including the decision to draft Elgton Jenkins – has enabled Green Bay to reach the NFC championship game in successive seasons WITH a rookie head coach.

Re-signing defensive tackle Kenny Clark, running back Aaron Jones and Bakhtiari was instrumental in securing the Packers’ future. That continues with Gutekunst just today restructuring defensive lineman Dean Lowry’s contract to create salary cap space.

The Packers’ outlook is strong to a large degree because of Gutekunst, not in spite of him. It’s time fans recognize and appreciate what they have in Ted Thompson’s successor. Frankly, I’m baffled that Murphy hasn’t relinquished football control to Gutekunst, who currently has a great deal of the responsibility but minimal authority.

Murphy needs to make that adjustment, and announcement, before the Rodgers drama plays out. By then, it would be too late to command the desired effect, which is to affirm that Gutekunst is in charge.

So while Rodgers continues globe-hopping, Gutekunst and LaFleur do their thing, which their level best to maintain excellence in Green Bay. Rodgers said the Packers’ culture and philosophy don’t jibe with his, while subtly pointing an accusatory finger at the front office.

If he’s got a problem he should voice it.

Packers’ fans deserve that much.

They aren’t victims. They’re the heartbeat of the franchise and the reason for its amazing existence to this day. They have earned the right to know what’s eating Aaron.

Fortunately, they are wise enough to appreciate the job Gutekunst and LaFleur are doing despite the long shadows cast by Rodgers’ disappearing act.

Prime-time darlings: Packers are national

NFL betting Green Bay is incredibly interesting story entering season

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Aaron Rodgers’ parting gift, should he fail to play for the Packers this season, is a tough-as-nails first-place schedule with the fourth-highest degree of difficulty in the league.

Packers fans knew the opponents before the NFL released its 2021 schedule earlier this month, which merely solidified times and dates. What most fans didn’t know until the day of the NFL draft was that Rodgers reportedly didn’t want to play in Green Bay.

Seeing as how the Packers weren’t about to move the franchise to Rodgers’ desired location, the current standstill ensued. While Rodgers and the Packers try to “iron some things out” as Davante Adams puts it, coach Matt LaFleur is left to proceed in alternate universes.

There is the universe with Rodgers under center in Green Bay, which is as it should be, and the one where Jordan Love calls signals and prays to the football gods that the defense takes for the play-action fake. The third option, of course, is Blake Bortles as the starting quarterback.

At any rate, it’s a demanding and interesting 2021 schedule.

The Packers have five prime-time games despite the uncertainty involving Rodgers’ future.

LaFleur is Ok with the high-profile exposure because of what it implies.

“That’s a good thing for us,” he said on the Packers’ website. “That means we’re doing some good things. We just have to make sure we’re doing everything in our power from all off-season into training camp, making sure we’re ready to play come Week 1.”

The Packers, coming off consecutive 13-3 seasons, were viewed by Las Vegas odds-makers as a Super Bowl favorite. Las Vegas set Green Bay’s over/under for total wins at 10 ½.

The Packers reaching 11 wins seemed like easy money until news broke regarding Rodgers’ discontent with the team’s front office. Las Vegas odds-makers have since taken the wager off the board.

Meantime, I’ll take up the annual task of predicting the W’s and L’s (wisely in pencil, typically in English, and always praying that the W’s and the L’s add up to 16 … uh, I mean 17).

So until Rodgers ends the intrigue during his exclusive interview with ESPN’s Kenny Mayne at 10 p.m. Monday, here goes:

** Sunday, September 12, 3:25 p.m.: Packers at Saints

The road to 11 wins begins in The Big Easy with a Week 1 nationally televised matchup between the Packers and the Saints. New Orleans is embarking on its ever-after (happily or otherwise) following Drew Brees’ retirement.

Alvin Kamara scores five touchdowns, but Green Bay counters with a heavy dose of Rodgers-to-Rodgers (Aaron to Amari) and the other Aaron (Jones) to notch the season-opening win. The Packers’ Mason Crosby clinches the victory with a 57-yard field goal at the final gun.

Final: Packers 38, Saints 35

** Monday, September 20, 7:15 p.m.: Lions at Packers

Monday Night Football comes to Lambeau Field with an old Black-and-Blue Division matchup featuring the new-look Lions with Jared Goff against Green Bay’s defense. Eric Stokes’ first career “pick six” sends Detroit to defeat, and a star is born, or at the least Jaire Alexander’s bookend.

Final: Packers 24, Lions 14

** Sunday, September 26, 7:20 p.m.: Packers at 49ers

Wildly successful defensive coordinator Robert Saleh left the Bay Area to become the Jets’ head coach, but the 49ers’ defense is going to remain a tough nut to crack.

Final: 49ers 31, Packers 17

** Sunday, October 3, 3:25 p.m.: Steelers at Packers

Ben Roethlisberger is fighting a losing battle against Father Time. The Steelers’ quarterback will wilt in the face of a swarming, surging Packers’ defense.

Final: Packers 23, Steelers 19

** Sunday, October 10, Noon: Packers at Bengals

With Bengals’ QB Joe Burrow coming off a knee injury, it’s better to play Cincinnati sooner than later. Week 5 will do.

Final: Packers 27, Bengals 13

** Sunday, October 17, Noon: Packers at Bears

Who has greater problems: The Packers, because Justin Fields is the Bears’ quarterback? Or Fields, because he’s the Bears’ quarterback? I say Fields, with one of the few exceptions being this game. Call it a hunch. Call it a field-goal battle, decided by a 2-point try.

Final: Bears 22, Packers 19

** Sunday, October 24, Noon: Washington at Packers

Washington features a terrific, quarterback-crunching defense that will cause fits for LaFleur’s offense the entire game. Nevertheless, Adams comes up with a fabulous TD catch, and Aaron Jones hits a seam and goes 80 yards for what proves to be the game-winning score.

Final: Packers 24, Washington 16

** Thursday, October 28, 7:20 p.m.: Packers at Cardinals

The Cardinals are a difficult team to figure. It appears quarterback Kyler Murray is ready to take the next step and become an equally sensational, but more consistent player. The Packers will have their hands full (of thin air trying to tackle Murray).

Final: Cardinals 39, Packers 31

** Sunday, November 7, 3:25 p.m.: Packers at Chiefs

This is a great coaching matchup featuring LaFleur (the rising star) versus Andy Reid (the future HOFer) in what’s called “the 17th game.” The Packers are game against Patrick Mahomes, Tyreke Hill and the rest, but they can’t keep pace with Kansas City’s electric attack.

Final: Chiefs 41, Packers 31

Sunday, November 14, 3:25 p.m.: Seahawks at Packers

Russell Wilson isn’t happy in Seattle, according to reports, and it’s likewise for Rodgers in Green Bay, again according to reports. Let’s see if I’ve got this straight. Wilson and Rodgers are wealthy, handsome and among the NFL’s finest quarterbacks. Wilson is married to Ciara and Rodgers is engaged to Shailene Woodley.

One question: Why so unhappy?

Final: Packers 38, Seahawks 35

** Sunday, November 21, Noon: Packers at Vikings

Whether it’s Rodgers or Love for the Packers, that’s still Kirk Cousins pulling the trigger for the Vikings, so … wouldn’t Stokes’ second career “pick six” be extra-special at U.S. Bank Stadium? I think so.

Final: Packers 28, Vikings 24

** Sunday, November 28, 3:25 p.m.: Rams at Packers

This is where the Packers’ season begins to feel really long. The Rams’ defense is apt to be top-notch again with Aaron Donald and Co., while Matthew Stafford’s renaissance seems a safe bet.

Final: Rams 17, Packers 14

** Sunday, December 5: BYE (as always, it comes at a good time)

** Sunday, December 12, 7:20 p.m.: Bears at Packers

The Packers, fresh off their bye, absolutely annihilate Chicago. Fields feels the wrath of Za’Darius Smith, Rashan Gary and Kenny Clark on a four-interception day at windswept Soldier Field.

Final: Packers 28, Bears 14

** Sunday, December 19, Noon: Packers at Ravens

On the surface, Green Bay versus Baltimore feels like a defensive struggle, but in this modern age of offensive football it spirals into a shootout. In fact, I’m predicting one of the league’s all-time shootouts featuring Lamar Jackson’s legs, Rodgers’ arm and invisible defense.

Final: Ravens 48, Packers 45

** Saturday, December 25, 3:30: Browns at Packers

This isn’t Baker Mayfield’s home. It’s Lambeau Field. Mayfield’s awful day against an angry Packers’ defense sends the Browns packing on Christmas Day.

Final: Packers 34, Browns 19

** Sunday, January 2, 7:20 p.m.: Vikings at Packers

This game could decide the NFC North championship. Then again, it might be flexed out for a more meaningful matchup, but I doubt it. Picture idyllic Lambeau Field on a snowy winter’s night as Packers fans serenade a downcast Kirk Cousins as he freezes to the visitor’s bench. It’s downright Rockwellian.

Final: Packers 31, Vikings 21

** Sunday, January 9, Noon: Packers at Lions

The 17th game proves to be little more than a formality as the Packers, who would finish 11-6, have already clinched the NFC North title. Aaron Rodgers sits out the finale in preparation for a playoff run, while Love does enough to eke out the road victory.

Final: Packers 23, Lions 21

Brewers host Cards in NL Central showdown

St. Louis holds 2-game lead in division entering its 3-game set at Milwaukee

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – It’s time for the Brewers’ bats to awaken.

They will need every run they can muster against red-hot St. Louis in a three-game series that opens tonight at 6:40 at American Family Field.

The Cardinals (21-14) swept Colorado during this past weekend and haven’t dropped a series since an April 21 loss against the Nationals. They feature a diverse, hard-hitting lineup loaded with players often described as “Brewers killers.”

Second-baseman Tommy Edman (.289, 4 stolen bases) and right-fielder Dylan Carlson (.303, 3 HRs) – a pair of switch-hitters – will try to get things started against Brewers right-hander Freddy Peralta (3-1, 3.38).

Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and Paul DeJong are a terrific trio in the heart of St. Louis’ lineup. Arenado is hitting .281 with six home runs and a team-high 23 RBI to go with his Gold Glove play at third base. Goldschmidt, the power-hitting first baseman, is off to a slow start. He’s hitting .246 but has five home runs and 20 RBI.

Shortstop Paul DeJong is scuffling at .186 but he has a team-high seven HRs to go with 17 RBI.

That leads up to catcher Yadier Molina (.329, 5 HRs) who has been able to turn back the clock this season. Molina is hitting and playing defense as if he were 28 rather than 38.

All of this means Milwaukee (19-16) better start hitting if they hope to keep pace with St. Louis in the NL Central.

Tonight, the Brewers will face lefty Kwang Hyun Kim (1-0, 3.06) following a much-needed day off after a grueling stretch of 17 games in as many days.

Kim has pitched 17 2/3 innings while allowing 19 hits and one home run. He has struck out 18 versus four walks.

The Brewers are 9-6 in the division and 2-1 against St. Louis, having won two of three at Busch Stadium earlier this season.

John Gant (2-3) will pitch Game 2 for St. Louis, with ace Jack Flaherty (6-0) taking the mound in Game 3 on Thursday. Gant has a nifty 2.15 ERA while allowing 26 hits over 29 1/3 innings. His problem has been a lack of control. He’s issued 24 walks while striking out 25.

Flaherty has yielded 28 hits in 41 1/3 innings while striking out 42 with just 11 walks.

Thursday’s series finale could feature a Flaherty versus Corbin Burnes matchup, as that is Burnes’ typical spot in the rotation. He threw a bullpen session Monday and appears to be ready to start.

Travis Shaw, an incredible reclamation project, has been smooth at third base while leading the Brewers with five home runs and 20 RBI. Thank goodness Milwaukee’s front office saw fit to give him another shot.

Avisail Garcia leads the Brewers with a .273 batting average that includes several timely hits.

Right now, though, any hit could be considered timely for the Brewers.

Is there any chance Ryan Braun might consider un-retiring? That’s unlikely, of course, but Milwaukee does need better offensive production from its outfield. Then again, Billy McKinney and Tyrone Taylor have done yeoman’s work while Christian Yelich continues to be sidelined with back problems.

It would be nice to see the Brewers win 2 of 3 against St. Louis and go into the weekend trailing by just one thin game in the NL Central.

Packers fans stunned Rodgers wants out

Green Bay’s draft overshadowed by

quarterback’s desire to get out of town

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Welcome to Purgatory, heretofore known as Titletown, USA, a place where revenge is indeed a dish best served cold, and Packers fans are left to languish as the blame game usurps the game.

Aaron Rodgers’ premeditated hijacking of the NFL draft confirms the notion that hell hath no fury like that of a scorned quarterback. As the calendar flips from April to dis-May, the tundra has never felt so frozen.

While news spread Thursday that Rodgers is unhappy in Green Bay and no longer wants to play here, blindsided fans were left to choose sides in a game few relish playing.

Some fault the Packers for poisoning the relationship by trading up to select Jordan Love in the first round of last year’s draft. Others direct their ire at Rodgers for pulling what they regard as an unseemly stunt.

Isn’t Rodgers bigger than this? Isn’t he better than this?

Apparently no, he’s not.

Reports indicate Rodgers wants GM Brian Gutekunst fired and that he has zero regard for the Packers’ front office. When there’s a dispute between labor and management – unless labor withholds services – history is very clear about who wins that battle.

Perhaps Rodgers didn’t “deserve” to be treated with what he viewed as the Packers’ disrespect by drafting Love and not consulting with him.

Then again, does he really think the organization is going to fire its general manager because a player didn’t like a particular personnel move? If he does, he’s not nearly as smart as he’d like everyone to think.

At least Rodgers has David Bakhtiari (for now) to protect his blind side.

Where do fans turn when disaster crashes their party?

Now, their disappointment litters the Lambeau Field parking lot like so many discarded wrappers and empty cups after a heart-wrenching loss.

Their Packers entered the 2021 NFL draft as a Super Bowl favorite in search of a player or two to get their team over the top.

They left it wondering how to pick up the pieces after the bombshell. That, and why the Packers selected a cornerback in the first round who many draft-nicks rated the second-best corner on his own college team?

Georgia’s Eric Stokes, a talented corner and nice addition, was reduced to an afterthought even before the Packers took him with the 29th pick. Welcome to Purgatory, kid, and may fortune smile upon you.

Stokes (6-0, 194) received attention by blazing a 4.25 40-yard dash at his pro day to go with his terrific length and athleticism. He is raw with ample coaching required, but he was too good a prospect to pass on.

With cornerback Kevin King re-signed for the upcoming season, the Packers can work Stokes into the slot cover position while assessing how quickly he will become a starting-caliber corner.

Josh Myers, the former Ohio State center, fills a definitely need in the wake of Corey Linsley’s departure in free agency. Myers (6-5, 31) looks as much like a tackle as a center with great flexibility, good feet and a strong punch.

With Purdue’s Rondale Moore (49th to Arizona) and Western Michigan’s D’Wayne Eskridge (56th to Seattle) the Packers selected the next-best option in Clemson’s Amari Rodgers.

Rodgers (5-10, 212) isn’t a speed burner, but he is incredibly shifty, quick and stronger than he looks. He also has terrific hands and is versed in the passing game. He will be the “jet sweep” guy and slot receiver.

Royce Newman, the offensive tackle from Ole Miss, infuses youth and talent, which is what the draft’s all about.

Defensive tackle Tedarrell Slaton of Florida was the first of two fifth-round selections, along with Appalachian State corner Shemar Jean-Charles. The Packers also got a linebacker (Isaiah McDuffie) out of Boston College in the sixth.

The Packers’ other sixth-round pick is hometown favorite Cole Van Lanen, who played at Bay Port and Wisconsin. Unlike Aaron Rodgers, Van Lanen is thrilled to be in Green Bay playing in front of his family, friends and fans.

Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill had major production in college in the best conference in the country. Hill will compete for the No. 3 running back job (and win it).

Now back to the disgruntled quarterback.

Rodgers, at 37, is the NFL’s MVP and one of its top quarterbacks along with the Bucs’ Tom Brady and the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes.

He also is a self-absorbed, self-entitled prima donna.

That shouldn’t come as a newsflash to his fans. They have given their unconditional support in good times and in bad. They have marveled at his greatness and tolerated his peevishness.

Just as a parent knows their child, they know their quarterback … or so they thought.

The shocker was the lengths Rodgers would go – the lengths “their guy” would go – to upstage and undermine “their team” merely to exact vengeance for a real or imagined year-old slight.

The Packers’ response was marginally unambiguous.

“We are not going to trade Aaron Rodgers,” Packers GM Brian Gutekunst said Thursday night after the draft’s first round.

That is subject to change, of course, with reports continuing into the weekend that Rodgers will be traded to Denver or wherever.

Nevertheless, Gutekunst forged ahead with GM-speak.

“I’m not going to speak for Aaron, but I think obviously we have a really good team and I do think he’ll play for us again,” Gutekunst continued. “Like I said, we’re going to work toward that and we’ve been working toward that on a number of different fronts.

“The value that he adds to our football team is really immeasurable, you know what I mean? He brings so much to the table not only as a player but as a leader. He’s so important to his teammates, to his coaches, so yeah, that’s the goal.”

ESPN reported that the Packers have offered to restructure his contract and that CEO Mark Murphy, Gutekunst and head coach Matt LaFleur all met with Rodgers and/or his agent in an attempt to placate him.

Apparently Rodgers isn’t interested in being placated.

He wants to be traded.

Rodgers’ leverage was at its greatest going into the draft.

Unless the Packers trade him – and it’s still a distinct possibility – his options are to hold out, retire or become the fulltime host of Jeopardy! That is unless the TV game show’s producers select CNN’s Anderson Cooper instead, which might really throw Rodgers into a tizzy.

I can hear Rodgers’ reaction now: “You can’t replace me with Anderson Cooper. I haven’t been officially hired yet!”

Rodgers’ lovefest with the 49ers is intriguing.

Why would the king of slight wish to play for the team that disrespected him by choosing Alex Smith all those years ago?

Speaking of the 49ers, one has to hand it to their front office, which shrewdly put itself in a win-win situation by leaking the news that they called the Packers to inquire about Rodgers’ availability.

At best, it might’ve led to the 49ers acquiring the superstar. At worst, it inflicted major damage on an NFC rival’s ability to heal whatever perceived wounds Rodgers is feeling and move forward.

Frankly, it is difficult to imagine Rodgers playing for the Packers again.

Fortunately, it is equally difficult to imagine the Packers trading their MVP quarterback – a player their coaching staff helped resurrect – to a team of his choosing.

If they have tried in vain to give him what he wants to stay, it’s doubtful they’ll give him what he wants to leave.

Following the Packers’ 31-26 loss to Tampa Bay in the NFC championship, Rodgers referred to his future as a “beautiful mystery.”

It’s a mystery alright, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and this looks like the ugliness that is an ungrateful athlete wanting what he wants or else.

If Rodgers is the righteous man he professes to be he should take to social media and explain to his fans exactly why he is angry and what he wants to make it right. Until then, fans are left to twist in the wind while their fate flutters between football hell and Super Bowl salvation.

Welcome to Purgatory.

 

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN         

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Brian Gutekunst’s decision to trade up for quarterback Jordan Love in the 2020 NFL draft may prove to be one of the shrewdest investments in Green Bay’s draft history.

That can happen one of two ways.

The most obvious way is for Love to become a Pro Bowl quarterback and continue the Brett Favre-to-Aaron Rodgers chain of excellence.

The other way is for Gutekunst to trade Love during tonight’s first round of the 2021 NFL draft. Then, the Packers could parlay the additional draft capital into a defensive stud and a dynamic receiver.

It would further thrust Green Bay into serious Super Bowl contention and is not out of the realm of reasonability.

In fact, it has merit and makes sense. In a draft with unprecedented uncertainty and risk due to COVID-19 – especially in the mid- to late-rounds – the lack of thorough medical information and eyes-on evaluation puts known entities at a premium.

The Packers made an investment in both their present and future when they selected Love with the 26th pick in 2020.

A year later, if the circumstances demand it, they can make it pay off.

It is true the Packers haven’t seen the former Utah State star take a single snap in the preseason, let alone in a regular-season game, but they have had him in their system for a year.

Today, they have a much greater handle on his physical skills (arm strength, accuracy and mobility) and his mental acumen (grasping the scheme, assimilating information and taking it from the classroom to the practice field) than they did a year ago.

By now, I’m sure the Packers have a fair idea as to what they have in Love. Perhaps he has reinforced the notion that he can be their future at quarterback. If that’s the case Gutekunst won’t trade him.

Then again, Love may have shown himself not to be the player they thought they were getting last spring.

While he has flashed tremendous arm strength, one source indicated the Packers aren’t thrilled with his footwork and accuracy. He needs a lot of work to become a bona fide starter, which is more a fact than a surprise.

Even Gutekunst described Love as “a talented developmental player.”

Regardless of the Packers’ true feelings, they wouldn’t be quick to act on Rodgers’ contract. To redo his deal before the draft would effectively undercut Love’s trade value and their leverage in the process.

Why has Rodgers been so quiet regarding his contract status?

Perhaps he has an inkling of what’s in the air. Remember, the future Hall of Fame quarterback also has been around Love for a year. Surely he has an opinion regarding the quarterback’s potential to be special.

What matters most is what the Packers think.

If they believe Love has limitations that may be difficult to overcome it makes sense for Green Bay to move on without tipping their hand.

One logical trade partner would be New England, which has the 15th pick but no assurances that a top-tier quarterback will be available. Love could be that quarterback and the Patriots wouldn’t have to sell the farm to acquire him.

The Patriots had an opportunity to draft Love in 2020 but elected to trade the 23rd pick to the Chargers in return for the 37th and 71st picks. By doing so New England filled a 64-pick gap (23 to 87) without a single selection.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick used the ammo from the Chargers, at least in part, to select safety Kyle Dugger and edge rushers Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings.

Perhaps Belichick wasn’t that thrilled with Love to begin with.

Then again, he may have really liked Love but felt there was a greater need to add more picks and fill out a seriously depleted defense.

Either way, if Belichick calls the Packers most assuredly will answer.

Green Bay could trade Love, the 62nd pick and the 92nd pick to the Patriots in return for the 15th pick, the 96th pick and the 120th pick.

The draft value chart adds up in that scenario.

It would give the Packers the 15th, 29th, 96th and 120th picks. That would be enough ammo to select a top-tier defender at 15 and a play-making receiver at 29.

It could reap first-round rewards in the form of Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II and Minnesota receiver Rashod Bateman. If the Packers stand pat there’s a chance they may not get either.

The Washington Football Team is another possible trade partner.

The WFT has the 19th overall pick.

They also have Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback, so the need there is real.

Green Bay could send Love, the 62nd pick and the 92nd pick to the WFT for the 19th pick, the 74th pick and the 124th pick.

Again, the draft trade value chart checks out.

With pick numbers 19, 29 and 74 the Packers would be in position to land a two impact defenders and a top receiver.

That would be considered a wildly successful weekend in Green Bay.

If the Packers can’t swing a deal and stay put at 29, I see them taking the best defensive player on the board. They also could trade down and roll the 29th pick into an additional player they have similarly rated.

All of this educated speculation is what makes the NFL draft so maddening … and so incredibly interesting.

Brewers take 2 of 3 at Wrigley over weekend

Packers’ best options Thursday in draft:

Offensive line, top corner or trade back

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN        

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Brewers opened their three-game weekend series at Chicago’s Wrigley Field on Friday with a whimper.

On Sunday, they closed it with a bang.

Milwaukee bounced back from a 15-2 blowout loss Friday afternoon to win two straight against the National League Central rival Cubs. They rallied to edge the Cubs 4-3 on Saturday and got more excellent pitching to claim a 6-0 shutout win on Sunday.

The Brewers (13-8) hold a two-game lead over St. Louis (11-9) in the division. They have won all three April series versus the Cubs, so it’s nine down and 10 to go against Chicago for the season.

Manny Pina’s pinch-hit two-run home run in the seventh inning Saturday erased a 3-2 deficit. Brent Suter (2-1) pitched two scoreless innings in relief of starter Freddy Peralta, and Josh Hader got the final three outs for his fourth save.

The victory was a big boost after a deflating loss in the opener.

“Yesterday had already passed and we came here this morning (Saturday) to keep fighting,” Pina said. “Sometimes the manager (Craig Counsell) doesn’t want to use the backup catcher in that situation. But that was good for him today to think Manny was the right guy to change the game.”

Keston Hiura had three hits and Kolten Wong – fresh off the Injury List – added two hits.

Wong’s return made a huge impact.

The All-Star second baseman played great defense and provided a lift at the plate. Wong went 2-for-5 with two runs scored and a two-run double. Wong highlighted a five-run Brewers’ ninth to seal the win.

The Brewers led 1-0 when Travis Shaw drew a bases-loaded walk in the top half of the first. After that it was a one-run game until the Brewers’ big ninth.

Right-hander Brandon Woodruff (2-0) allowed just two hits while striking out eight and walking two to get the victory. It was Woodruff’s first career win over the Cubs, and his third start against them this year.

“There’s the familiarity there of just facing the guys,” Woodruff said. “Obviously they’ve seen me a lot. I’ve seen them. I think the biggest thing it just comes down to is executing pitches.”

The Cubs managed just four hits in the shutout loss.

Chicago’s Jake Arrieta pitched well in defeat.

The Brewers open a three-game series at home tonight against the Miami Marlins.

History making right-hander Corbin Burnes (2-1) will start for Milwaukee against Marlins left-hander Trevor Rogers (2-1, 1.64 ERA).

Burnes has a microscopic 0.37 ERA through four starts. He also has set the MLB record for a starting pitcher by striking out 40 without issuing a walk thus far in 24 1/3 innings.

“I think it makes it sweeter this year having some fans in the stands,” Burnes told reporters. “It’s nice having fans there to enjoy it with us.”

The Brewers have won five of six behind the strength of their pitching. The team’s ERA jumped from 2.71 to 3.36 after the Cubs’ 15-run onslaught. But it has crept back down to 3.19 after Sunday’s shutout.

Burnes, 26, changed his pitch menu going into the season. Instead of relying on his four-seam fastball, he has gone to a two-seam sinking fastball and a cut fastball to get ahead in the count. Then he works in a slider or curve to record strikeouts.

His walks-per-nine innings was 3.6 last year. This year it’s zero.

His strikeouts-per-nine innings has jumped from 8.3 as a rookie to his current dazzling average of 14.8.

Rogers, the Marlins’ rookie lefty, is off to a strong start this season. In four starts, Rogers has 31 strikeouts to just 10 walks in 22 innings.

Note: The Brewers placed pitchers Brett Anderson (right leg) and Josh Lindblom (right knee) on the 10-day Injury List. They recalled outfielder Corey Ray and right-hander Phil Bickford from their alternate site.

** PACKERS’ DRAFT PREDICTION COMING THURSDAY

The speculation is non-stop and the anticipation is off the charts as the Packers are less than a week away from the 2021 NFL draft, which begins Thursday night.

Green Bay has the 29th overall pick, but there’s strong sentiment that GM Brian Gutekunst will be wheeling and dealing on opening night.

The Packers’ options seem fairly obvious.

** No. 1 – They could trade up for an impact defensive player, and in particular a cornerback such as Northwestern’s Greg Newsome or Virgina Tech’s Caleb Farley.

** No. 2 – They could stand pat and select an offensive lineman or the best available defender with the 29th pick. Cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. might be the pick if they execute the 29th selection.

** No. 3 – They could trade back and acquire a draft pick or two in the process, and still select Samuel Jr. or an offensive lineman.

The FAN will have pick-to-pick coverage throughout the weekend beginning at 6 p.m. Thursday. Stay tuned.

Brewers-Cubs series highlights weekend

Packers’ best options with the 29th pick:

Offensive line or top defender on board

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN        

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Brewers and Cubs resume their NL Central rivalry today when they open a three-game series at Wrigley Field.

Both teams come in after series sweeps of the Padres and Mets, respectively, with the Brewers owning a two-game lead in the division.

Milwaukee (11-7) brings to bear one of the NL’s top pitching rotations, while the Cubs (9-9) are beginning to figure it out at the plate.

The Brewers open today’s 1:20 p.m. game with left-hander Brett Anderson (2-1, 2.65 ERA) on the mound. Chicago will counter with right-hander Kyle Hendricks (0-2, 6.92 ERA) on the hill.

Hendricks is 9-6 with a 2.72 ERA in 24 career starts against the Brewers. Anderson, who spent part of the 2017 season with the Cubs, is 1-2 with a respectable 3.55 ERA in five starts against Chicago.

The Brewers’ sweep of the Padres was capped with 4-2 win Wednesday in which San Diego stranded an incredible 25 baserunners while striking out 13 times.

Brent Suter, Devin Williams, Brad Boxberger, J.P. Feyereisen and Josh Hader combined to blank the Padres over the game’s final 4.1 innings. Adrian Houser started and pitched well despite not getting the decision.

Feyereisen and Hader haven’t allowed an earned run this season, while Suter and Williams, who is coming off an arm injury, appear to be in mid-season form.

“I think you win series like this because you get contributions from a lot of people,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said after Wednesday’s win. “We got big contributions from our two big pitchers, Woody and Corbin, but a lot of other guys did really good things in the series.”

Outfielders Jackie Bradley Jr. and Billy McKinney (.278, 2 HR) have carried the load while Christian Yelich (back) and Lorenzo Cain (quad) continue to sit out with injuries. Avi Garcia (.222, 11 runs, 3 HR) also has been strong in the outfield while contributing with key at-bats.

Utility player Jace Peterson popped a pair of home runs in San Diego, while Daniel Robertson has been solid while shortstop Luis Urias deals with a calf injury.

The Brewers should get Kolten Wong back from an oblique injury, which likely means Wong will start at second and Daniel Vogelbach at first base while a slumping Keston Hiura (.118) tries to figure it out.

Travis Shaw’s play at third and timely hitting also has been a boost.

Clearly, though, it’s the Brewers’ pitching that has led the way.

The Cubs enter the game on a bit of a roll themselves. After struggling mightily at the plate they exploded for a 16-4 rout of the Mets Wednesday. They capped the sweep with a 6-5 win in 10 innings.

“That’s a character win,” Cubs manager David Ross told reporters Thursday night. “It says a lot about this group – continue to fight. Hopefully the momentum can carry forward after a nice win on the back side of a series.”

On Saturday, Freddy Peralta (2-0, 2.00 ERA) will start for Milwaukee. Peralta has allowed four earned runs in 18 innings pitched while walking 12 and striking out 31.

Woodruff (1-0) will pitch Sunday against the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta.

 

** PACKERS DRAFT LESS THAN A WEEK AWAY

The speculation is non-stop and the anticipation is off the charts as the Packers are less than a week away from the 2021 NFL draft, which begins Thursday night.

Green Bay has the 29th overall pick, but there’s strong sentiment that GM Brian Gutekunst will be wheeling and dealing on opening night.

The Packers’ options seem fairly obvious.

** No. 1 – They could trade up for an impact defensive player, and in particular a cornerback such as Northwestern’s Greg Newsome or Virgina Tech’s Caleb Farley.

** No. 2 – They could stand pat and select an offensive lineman or the best available defender with the 29th pick. Cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. might be the pick if they execute the 29th selection.

** No. 3 – They could trade back and acquire a draft pick or two in the process, and still select Samuel Jr. or an offensive lineman.

The FAN will have pick-to-pick coverage throughout the weekend beginning at 6 p.m. Thursday. Stay tuned.

Brewers’ Woodruff outduels Padres’ ace

Solo home runs by Urias, McKinney and Taylor enough in 3-1 victory

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN        

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Brewers are armed and dangerous.

That much is apparent after 16 games and a trio of turns through their dominant starting rotation. The problem is the hitting, or a lack thereof, which can be explained by injuries and/or slumps involving key players.

Kolten Wong (oblique), Christian Yelich (back) and Lorenzo Cain (quad) have missed significant playing time. To complicate matters, Keston Hiura (.116) has missed just about everything he’s swung at.

The Brewers (9-7) have combated a would-be crisis with a tried-and-true baseball formula: Great pitching, good defense and timely hitting.

Milwaukee got all three in a 3-1 victory over San Diego and ace Joe Musgrove to open a three-game series Monday night at Petco Park.

Solo home runs by Luis Urias, Billy McKinney and Tyrone Taylor provided enough offense to back the Brewers’ dazzling two-hit pitching.

Woodruff (1-0) pitched six innings of one-hit, one-run baseball while walking three and striking out seven. The big right-hander lowered his earned-run average to a minuscule 1.96 through four starts.

Woodruff retired 18 of the final 20 batters he faced before turning it over to the Brewers’ bullpen.

Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s J.P. Feyereisen walked a hitter in the seventh, Brent Suter allowed a hit in the eighth, and Josh Hader closed it out in the ninth for his second save.

It was an extra-special night for both Urias and Taylor.

Urias, who exited with a calf cramp in the fourth, was making his return to Petco Park after being traded by San Diego. Taylor, a Los Angeles native, belted his pinch-hit homer in front of family and friends. Brewers’ manager Craig Counsell acknowledged their motivation.

“Maybe that was one of the first times (Taylor’s family) has gotten to see him play in person,” Counsell said. “For both of those guys it’s always a great spot. When you get traded from a team you want to say, ‘You made a mistake.’ I think that’s natural. It’s what you should feel as a player. Even if you say you don’t, there’s still a little bit of that in there. Happy for Luis and then for Tyrone, in front of some family on a big hit, that’s pretty cool.”

Urias and McKinney homered off Musgrove, who was making his first home start since throwing the first no-hitter in Padres’ history on April 9 at Texas. Musgrove (2-2) struck out a career-high 13 hitters in the loss.

“My stuff felt pretty sharp,” Musgrove told reporters after the game. “I’m more impressed with Woodruff’s performance. I knew what I was getting into going into this outing. Those guys have been on a tear as a starting rotation.”

Corbin Burnes (1-1, 0.49 ERA) is scheduled to start tonight’s 9:10 game against Padres’ right-hander Chris Paddack (1-1, 4.15).

Burnes has been almost unhittable this season.

Through three starts he has 30 strikeouts and zero walks.

According to Elias Sports Bureau, the strikeouts-walks record for a starting pitcher is held by St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright, who in 2013 struck out 35 hitters before issuing his first walk.

After the Brewers’ 7-0 victory over the Cubs on Saturday, a game in which Milwaukee opened a 2-0 lead in the top of the first inning, third baseman Travis Shaw put it in perspective.

“You don’t need much – especially when Corbin’s pitching,” Shaw told reporters. “When we got two in the first it felt like the game was over.”

Counsell echoed that sentiment.

“Someone just told me the ‘no walks and 30 strikeouts,’” he said after the win Saturday. “That’s an incredible stat … that stat right there says everything, I think.”

The Brewers got some additional good news after Monday’s win.

It appears Wong could be ready to play in the upcoming three-game weekend series at Wrigley Field against the Cubs. It may afford the Brewers an opportunity to sit Hiura while he figures it out and play left-handed slugger Daniel Vogelbach at first base.

The six-foot, 270-pound Vogelbach has three home runs in limited action. If he and McKinney can keep hitting until Wong, Yelich and Cain return the Brewers will find themselves in a good place.

Packers need to draft

impact D-back at 29

 

After that it’s defensive tackle, ILB/offensive line in Rds. 2-3

 

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN        

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers didn’t bring back Kevin King so they could remove “cornerback” from their list of needs in the draft.

 

It’s quite the opposite.

 

King’s return merely guarantees a starting-caliber place holder opposite Jaire Alexander until the Packers can draft, develop and deploy a better, more-talented option at right cornerback.

 

In addition, King’s presence reduces the pressure a rookie corner – especially a first-round pick – might feel to play and produce early on.

 

The “draft” phase of this acquisition needs to occur in two weeks on opening night of the NFL draft. That’s just plain old common sense. How else are the Packers going to acquire a top talent at cornerback? That isn’t going to happen in free agency, and it’s less likely to happen in the draft with every passing round.

 

At linebacker and defensive tackle there are some strong options into the second and third rounds. It isn’t nearly as deep at cornerback.

 

The Packers have the 29th pick overall and 10 picks total.

 

That’s plenty of ammunition to acquire a high-end talent at cornerback – or an impactful “hybrid” safety – to elevate the defense’s talent, speed and play-making ability around an already decent nucleus.

 

My only exceptions to selecting a defensive back at 29 are these:

 

** If Alabama defensive tackle Christian Barmore somehow slides into the 20s, thus enticing the Packers to trade up. However it’s more likely Barmore will be long gone by then. This could be the first draft since 1998 in which only ONE defensive tackle is selected in the first round. Barmore is going to go in the first round. The only question is when.

 

(Here is a recap of Barmore’s college career)

 

** Alabama defensive lineman Christian Barmore (6-4, 310).

At least two defensive tackles have been selected in the first round of every draft since 1998. The 2021 edition might be the second, with many mock drafts having Barmore as the lone first-round pick.

If he falls within earshot of the Packers they should consider trading up. In a draft lacking quality interior defenders, Barmore would be a godsend.

Barmore is a prototypical Crimson Tide defensive lineman. That is to say he’s a beast. The College Football Playoff defensive MVP had five tackles, two for loss, and a sack to help Alabama win the national title.

In fact, Barmore had eight sacks in 11 games for Alabama as an interior rusher. He also had three pass breakups and three forced fumbles.

Scouts describe Barmore’s hands as heavy, powerful, quick and efficient. He knows how to shed would-be blockers. He also is a disruptive presence up and down the line of scrimmage with high effort.

Packers’ fans will be thrilled if they get to see Barmore playing next to all-pro Kenny Clark in Green Bay.

Barmore is a stud and a difference-maker at a critical position of need.

He is the classic read-and-react Alabama defender who should start as a rookie.

 

** If the Packers don’t have a strong consensus on a particular cornerback at 29, but they absolutely agree on a player such as Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins, I’d suggest they go with the linebacker.

 

It reduces the risk of wasting a first-round pick on a bust.

 

Cornerbacks can be tricky to evaluate. The “hybrid” safety position is less risky because the player’s skillset generally is unique to that role. The off-ball linebacker – even to a greater degree than the “hybrid” safety – relies on a specific skillset that’s quite likely to translate.

 

If Collins, at 6-4, 260, is dynamic and dominant in terms of reading, reacting and running at the college level (with pass cover skills to boot) he’d have to receive serious consideration at 29.

 

(Here is a recap of Collins’ college career)

 

** Linebacker Zaven Collins (6-5, 259) out of Tulsa.

The Packers haven’t had an impact, sideline-to-sideline off-ball linebacker in forever. They also haven’t had a linebacker with the physical gifts that Collins brings to the field.

In short, Green Bay’s defense doesn’t have a player with his skillset.

Not many NFL teams do.

Collins was a quarterback at Hominy High in Oklahoma, where he led his team to a Class A state championship his senior season. He played scout-team tight end as a redshirt freshman at Tulsa. The next season injuries at linebacker forced him into action.

Collins merely went on to become a starter while garnering Freshman All-American honors (85 tackles, 9 ½ for loss, 1 ½ sacks, one interception and three passes defended.

Today, he is one of the elite linebackers in the draft after capturing the Nagurski and Bednarik awards as the nation’s top defender.

Collins possesses a rare combination of size and athleticism. He’s rangy with the ability to plug gaps, track down ball carriers from the back side and play effectively in pass coverage.

Scouts compare him to Patriots’ perennial All-Pro Dont’a Hightower.

While Collins has room to grow in terms of reading and reacting, his athleticism and “want to” suggest he’ll be a starter as a rookie.

Some say, “Why draft Collins when Kamal Martin and Krys Barnes played so well as rookies?”

My response: “Exactly.”

Collins’ natural ability dwarfs that of Martin and Barnes. If they can be productive as rookies, imagine what impact Collins would have.

As much as Collins would represent at upgrade to the defense, a cornerback still makes more sense.

 

A cornerback such as Caleb Farley, who possesses Top 10 talent but has slid due to injury concerns, would be a terrific addition in Green Bay.

 

(Here’s a recap of Farley’s college career)

** Cornerback Caleb Farley (6-2, 197) out of Virginia Tech.

Scouts have labeled Farley as a Top 20 talent in the draft. The only thing preventing him from being selected that high could be an injury history. He underwent a minor back procedure in March and has been cleared to play. Still, it almost certainly will give some teams pause.

The Packers have to strongly consider taking a minimal risk by drafting Farley in return for the tremendous upside. Cornerbacks with Farley’s skillset typically are long gone before the 29th pick is on the clock.

However, Farley’s injury history and a draft rich in quarterbacks, receivers and offensive linemen could push him down in the first round.

Scouts say Farley might require patience from fans of whichever team selects him, but that the eventual reward will be worth it.

He has rare size and speed at the position, plus his ball skills as a former quarterback are truly exceptional. He also has a considerable attitude.

Farley declared that he will make teams wish they’d drafted him.

After a terrific 2019 season in which he was named first-team All-ACC with 20 tackles and four interceptions in 11 games, he opted out of the 2020 campaign citing COVID-19 concerns.

Cornerbacks Patrick Surtain and Jaycee Horn should go early in the draft, with Northwestern’s Greg Newsome another strong option for the Packers if he slides into the mid-20s.

However, Farley would be graded as high as any of them if not for past injuries and a lack of experience at the position. One scout noted that Farley is indeed raw, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it’s exciting to think what he will become with NFL coaching.

The Packers’ defense needs a corner to pair with Alexander. If they draft Farley it would solve a problem while representing a significant upgrade.

Brewers’ pitchers KO

Cards as bats heat up

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN        

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Brewers’ pitching staff came into the season with great expectations. Through nine games, from Brandon Woodruff to Josh Hader, their performance has matched the hype.

The greater surprise is the Brewers’ bats.

Milwaukee (5-4) slugged out 9-5 and 9-3 victories over St. Louis (5-4) during the weekend at Busch Stadium. That came after a season-opening stretch of mostly futile plate appearances.

The suddenly awakened Brewers’ bats backed strong pitching by Adrian Houser and Brett Anderson to win two of three at St. Louis.

Avisail Garcia and Travis Shaw led the parade at the plate.

A slimmed down Garcia homered and drove in five runs in Saturday’s victory and backed it with another home run in Sunday’s win. It was the first time Garcia homered in back-to-back games since May 22-23, 2019, when he played for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Shaw chipped in Sunday with an early home run that helped Milwaukee build a commanding 7-0 lead through two innings.

Shaw, the Brewers’ reclamation project at third base, has been hitting like he did in 2017 and 2018. He is hitting .308 with two home runs and 10 runs batted in while playing exceptional defense.

Shaw appreciated the way the Brewers jumped on St. Louis starters Carlos Martinez and Daniel Ponce de Leon early in games.

“Any time you score that many in the top of the first, it kind of settles everybody into the game,” Shaw told reporters. “We poured some more on in the second. The pitching held on, so it was a good day.”

The Brewers’ catchers have been a potent one-two punch behind the plate and in the batter’s box.

Omar Narvaez (.455) and Manny Pina (.300) are hitting a combined .406 for the season with three home runs and eight runs batted in. Defensively, both have been efficient and effective game managers.

That has enabled the starting pitching to relax and get in a groove.

Through Sunday’s game Milwaukee’s starting pitching has been historically good, according to MLB.com.

Beginning with Freddy Peralta at Wrigley Field on Tuesday through Anderson’s start on Sunday – with Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Houser in between – Brewers starters pitched 28 innings and allowed two runs (one earned) on 14 hits (10 singles) with 10 walks and 29 strikeouts.

That adds up to a 0.32 ERA through the rotation’s full turn. According to Elias Sports Bureau, it’s the first time in franchise history that the Brewers had five straight starts of five-plus innings with a combined one or no earned runs allowed.

“It’s a strength of the team,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “And they’ve delivered thus far this season. They’ve all done their job and each time out given us a chance to win.”

The Brewers have won four of their last five games as they prepare to host the Chicago Cubs in a three-game series set to begin tonight at 6:40 p.m. at American Family Field.

Peralta (1-0) will start for the Brewers tonight against Cubs right-hander Adbert Alzolay (0-1). Woodruff and Burnes are slated to start Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon, respectively.

Injuries to Kolten Wong, Christian Yelich and Shaw may be the Brewers’ greatest concern right now. Wong is on the 10-day injury list with a strained oblique. Yelich exited Sunday’s game early with what was described as back soreness. Shaw left early after fouling a ball off his shin. Both are listed as day-to-day so it’s not serious at this point.

With Wong and possibly Yelich sidelined for a bit, Shaw’s presence from the left side of the plate has been critical to the team’s success.

“It’s a little sore (the shin) but I should be good to go (Monday),” Shaw said. “Overall, it’s not terrible.”

Brewers edge Twins;

Zags eyeing perfection

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN        

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Opening Day can’t get much better than this.

The Brewers relied on a blast from the past – a two-out double by Travis Shaw in the ninth inning – to rally for a 6-5 victory over Minnesota in 10 innings Thursday at American Family Field.

Lorenzo Cain, who opened the bottom of the 10th at second base, moved to third on Omar Narvaez’s base hit to right. Orlando Arcia followed with a chopper to the right side of the infield, and Cain beat the throw home to score the winning run.

A COVID-19 limited crowd of 11,740 fans roared its approval.

An appreciative Shaw was thrilled to be back in Milwaukee after playing in Toronto last season. Shaw played well for the Brewers from 2017-19 before falling into a dreadful slump that led to his release.

Shaw’s second go-round in Milwaukee got off to a promising start.

“It just wasn’t the same last year,” he said of playing games without fans because of COVID-19. “For me personally, after a tough ending my first time here, it was nice to hear the roar again.”

Shaw is the Brewers’ starting third baseman until further notice, while Luis Urias started at shortstop with Arcia backing up both positions.

All three contributed to the Opening Day victory: Shaw hit the huge two-run double, Urias flashed tremendous defense and Arcia delivered the infield choice groundout to plate the winning run.

Shaw’s success is critical to the Brewers’ fortunes.

“He’s an important player for us,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “He’s a guy that’s obviously capable of big things.”

Josh Hader struck out the side to notch the win.

“When you get these fans and especially at AmFam, man, we get loud,” Hader said. “I think that’s a big adrenaline push for us.”

Hader hit 100 mph on the radar gun.

Brandon Woodruff, the Brewers’ Opening Day starter, was impressed.

“This is the most electric Josh Hader I think I’ve ever seen, including playoffs,” Woodruff said. “He was throwing some BBs in there. They were missiles.”

Woodruff allowed three runs while lasting just four innings.

It isn’t cause for concern given the Twins’ potent lineup and the fact that Woodruff’s stuff was unhittable at times. His command wasn’t what he wanted it to be, but he looked every bit the part of staff ace.

Six Brewers’ pitchers combined for 17 strikeouts, with Freddy Peralta providing strong middle relief with six K’s in two innings of work.

Defensively, the Brewers didn’t commit an error while turning in several gems.

Offensively, manager Craig Counsell went with a lineup that featured newly acquired Kolten Wong leading off and playing second base. The left-handed hitter was atop a lefty-righty lineup top to bottom.

The Brewers (1-0) take on the Twins (0-1) on Saturday with the first pitch set for 6:10 p.m. at American Family Field.

Right-hander Corbin Burnes faces the Twins’ Jose Berrios in Game 2.

** NCAA TOURNAMENT: THE FINAL FOUR

Houston (28-3) versus Baylor (26-2)

4:14 p.m. Saturday on The FAN

This all-Texas national semifinal features teams whose calling cards are playing suffocating defense augmented by balanced, patient offense.

Baylor is led by a terrific trio of guards.

Jared Butler averages 16.5 points and 4.8 assists while MaCio Teague averages 15.9 and 4.1 rebounds, and Davion Mitchell averages 14.1 points and 5.3 assists.

Baylor leads the nation in 3-point field goal percentage (41.8) and captured its first conference title since 1950, which was the last time the Bears advanced to the Final Four.

Houston has won 11 straight games coming in.

Senior guard DeJon Jarreau (10.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists) is a clever player with 3-point range who doubles as a defensive ace.

Senior forward Justin Gorham (8.5 points, 8.7 rebounds) has a team-high eight double-doubles and loves to get on the offensive glass.

Quentin Grimes averages 18 points and 5.8 rebounds for an offense that doesn’t put up big numbers but does make big plays in big moments.

Prediction: Houston 69, Baylor 67

GAME TWO

UCLA (22-9) versus Gonzaga (30-0)

8:24 p.m. Saturday on The FAN

UCLA had better remember to bring its sling to this David vs. Goliath national semifinal matchup Saturday night. While UCLA has fashioned itself a well-earned reputation as a giant beater with wins over Alabama and Michigan, it’s going to be put to the test by unbeaten Gonzaga.

The Zags are in a class by themselves while looking to become the NCAA Tournament’s first undefeated champion since Indiana in 1976.

Gonzaga is a two-touchdown favorite – that’s right, 14 points – to the underdog Bruins.

Zags coach Mark Few prefers to talk about what is rather than what could be.

“Everyone wants us to keep moving forward, but that’s not how we roll,” Few told reporters. “This (advancing to the Final Four) is a heck of an accomplishment. We’re going to take it and savor it for what it is. That doesn’t lessen our desire to win this game, the next game or win two more games. We’re wise enough to know these are really, really special times. These are great accomplishments, and they need to be celebrated. That’s how we’re approaching it right now.”

The Bulldogs have won a Division-1 record 27 straight games by double digits. It would be a monumental upset should UCLA pull it off.

UCLA’s Johnny Juzang, a transfer from Kentucky, poured in 28 points in the 51-49 upset of Michigan.

“It’s such a beautiful thing, the way that we have come together for this postseason,” Juzang said. “It’s just a feeling of everybody’s just so unified. It’s like one unit, and we’re just all sharing in each other and rooting for each other. I think that’s why we’re at this point.”

UCLA is going to have its hands full trying to slow down Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs and Drew Timme. Gonzaga’s defense is underrated, but that’s mostly because its offense is so dynamic.

Prediction: Gonzaga 82, UCLA 69

Packers’ Jones has ‘unfinished business’

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN        

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers’ wants are many, their needs are few.

They need an offensive tackle to bridge the gap until David Bakhtiari returns from a knee injury. They need a third running back behind Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon. They need a speedy “slot” receiver.

That’s it for the NFL’s top-rated offense last season.

Jones’ return on a four-year, $48 million contract makes it so. With him, the Packers have a realistic chance to take the offense to another level. Without him, well, that would have been a longshot at best.

Jones is excited to rejoin Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams and the rest to help transform the two-time NFC runners-up into world champions.

He told the media in a Zoom call Friday that he didn’t want his final gasp in Green Bay to be the 31-26 loss to eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay in the NFC championship at Lambeau Field.

“Walking off the field the last game with my head down and not the way I wanted it to end and going through my mind, I’m like, ‘Man, this is the way my career’s going to end in Green Bay and in Lambeau?’” he said. “I definitely didn’t want to finish my career like that here, and I’m just blessed to be able to come back and suit back up here.”

Jones’ presence brings the Packers’ play-action passing game to life.

Defenses must decide whether to bite on the handoff or get after Rodgers. If they don’t bite and Jones has the football it’s likely they’ll be looking at the back of his jersey while he breezes for a big gain. But if they go for a fake, it gives Rodgers just enough time to do his thing.

It’s a beautiful dynamic.

The Packers have their top three weapons – Rodgers, Adams and Jones – complementing each other with their unique skill sets. They’re able to read defenses pre-snap at the line. They’re assignment sure with Adams’ ability to run routes, Jones’ pass protection and pass receiving, capped by Rodgers’ ability to get the offense into the best play possible.

Jones said he feels he has “unfinished business” in terms of the playoffs.

He called Green Bay “the right fit.”

Jones rushed for 1,104 yards last season to finish fourth in the league despite missing two games with a calf injury. It was Jones’ second straight 1,000-yard plus season. He rushed for 1,084 yards and a league-best 19 touchdowns in 2019, plus four more touchdowns in the playoffs.

Here’s the scary part: Jones believes his best days are ahead of him.

I agree.

“I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface to enter my prime yet,” he said. “I feel like I’ve still got a lot of growing to do, and I think it’s going to be scary for a lot of people and just continue to grind and work and I’ll be right where I want to be.”

Packers’ fans should be thrilled he’ll be doing it in Green Bay.

** KEVIN KING RETURNS

There are Packers’ fans who believe it was a mistake to re-sign oft-injured cornerback Kevin King. They point to his inability to stay healthy and his inconsistent play when he is on the field.

That’s true, of course, but so is this: The Packers were thin at corner. King’s return buys them time to develop a high draft pick at the position while maintaining at least a modicum of proficiency.

King’s return keeps the Packers’ starting defensive secondary intact.

Jaire Alexander, an All-Pro talent, is King’s counterpart, while Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage Jr. will line up at safety.

Beyond Chandon Sullivan it’s pretty bare.

If King can stay healthy – and that’s a big if – this move could pay off. If King fails, again, it’s a small price to pay to see his hole card.

It’s almost a certainty that Green Bay will draft a cornerback in the first three rounds. In fact, the Packers should enter this draft with the mentality that their first question before every pick is this: Who’s the best defensive player on our board?

If there’s an offensive tackle they believe can help bridge the Bakhtiari gap they’re almost obliged to select him. If there’s a dynamic play-making receiver on the board they’d have to consider it.

Ultimately, they need to add a cornerback, a safety “hybrid” and a defensive tackle. They also need a linebacker, but that probably won’t happen until the mid- to late-rounds.

Their wants are many, but their needs are few.

Given GM Brian Gutekunst’s handling of the roster, and head coach Matt LaFleur’s talent for making it work, it’s difficult not to be confident that Green Bay will have the horses to win the race.

Badgers rip Tar Heels,

No. 1 seed Baylor next

 

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN        

GREEN BAY, Wis. – After all these years, Wisconsin’s Brad Davison and D’Mitrik Trice accomplished an amazing feat. They had ecstatic Badgers’ fans asking themselves, “Who are these guys?”

They are the guys that left North Carolina wondering what hit it.

The Badgers’ guards combined for 50 points and 11 rebounds while committing just two turnovers in 73 minutes. Their stellar play, coupled with a 37-34 edge on the boards, was enough to lead Wisconsin to a convincing 85-62 victory over the Tar Heels on Friday night.

It was a terrific win for Wisconsin, who showed its mettle in the NCAA Tournament’s first round after a grueling Big Ten schedule.

Fellow Big Ten teams Ohio State and Purdue weren’t so fortunate. Both the Buckeyes and Boilermakers suffered upset losses in overtime.

The 2nd-seeded Buckeyes were edged by No. 15 seed Oral Roberts 75-72 and 4th-seeded Purdue lost to North Texas 78-69.

Meantime, the UW defense smothered UNC much like its feisty fans drowned out the Carolina contingent at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind.

Davison scored 29 points and Trice added 21 as the Badgers’ guards drilled 8 of 15 3-point shots to negate the Tar Heels’ size advantage.

“For us, we’re here to make an impact and make a run in this tournament,” Davison said. “What you go through in the regular season – all the ups and downs and the hills and valleys – it’s what meshes you together and binds you together and prepares you for these moments. This is why you come to Wisconsin, for these moments right here.”

Badgers head coach Greg Gard had his team ready.

The game was tied at 16 before the Badgers went on a run to open a commanding 40-24 lead at halftime. The Tar Heels never got closer than 12 points the rest of the night.

Nate Reuvers and Micah Potter challenged North Carolina inside and gave as much grief as they got. Reuvers had seven points – including a big 3-point midway through the second half – along with five rebounds and four blocks. Potter had nine points, four rebounds and three blocks.

Gard played Reuvers and Potter together at times, which is something he had rarely done during the season. The Badgers played as if all they worked on in preparation for UNC was defensive rebounding drills.

Williams was impressed with the Badgers’ ability to battle inside.

“Not many people have done that, so their coaching staff got them to be more in tune and in focus with going after rebounds,” he said.

Armando Bacot led the Tar Heels with 15 points after a sluggish first half. Garrison Brooks and Caleb Love added 10 points each.

This was UNC coach Roy Williams’ first loss in an opening-round NCAA Tournament game in 30 tries. He was impressed with Wisconsin.

“I thought (Wisconsin) played very well and Roy Williams didn’t coach very well,” Williams told reporters.

The Badgers (18-12) had lost four of five coming into the game. But Gard pulled his team together to totally outplay North Carolina.

“Obviously, our league has been phenomenal and it was such a grind to go through, specifically the schedule we had down the stretch,” Gard said. “The schedule maker must not like me or us. But it prepared us and it tested us as we came down the stretch of the Big Ten, and thankfully it prepared us for this, and being ready to take steps forward at the end of the year.”

The Badgers looked incredibly comfortable at Mackey Arena, home of fellow Big Ten foe Purdue, despite their 4-42 all-time record there. Wisconsin shot 51 percent from the floor and 48 percent beyond the arc.

The Badgers hope they didn’t save their best for next-to-last.

They face the South Region’s top seed, Baylor, on Sunday.

Baylor rolled over No. 16 Hartford 79-55 on Friday with mostly reserves on the court for the final minutes. The Bears shot just 33.3 percent from 3-point range against Hartford, but their season average is 41.8 percent.

Baylor (23-2) has a dynamic, veteran backcourt and features the No. 3-ranked offense in the nation. The Bears are 6-point favorites over Wisconsin in a game scheduled to tip off Sunday at 1:40.

Badgers edge Penn St.,

brace for Iowa tonight

 

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN        

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Be careful what you wish for.

The Wisconsin men’s basketball team said it wanted another shot at Iowa after a bitter, four-point loss Sunday at Hawkeye-Carver Arena.

The Badgers earned a chance to back up their talk with a 75-74 victory over Penn State Thursday night in the Big Ten Tournament’s second round at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium.

Sixth-seeded Wisconsin (17-11) now faces the nation’s fifth-ranked Hawkeyes (20-7) in a Friday night quarterfinal match-up set to tip off at approximately 8 p.m.

The Badgers fell 77-73 at Iowa last Sunday after Brad Davison was whistled for a flagrant-1 hook-and-hold. The call proved to be an incorrect application of the rule and effectively ended the game.

Afterward, UW head coach Greg Gard berated the Big Ten officials for what he called targeting Davison. The post-game rant appeared to have revved up the players, who praised the coach for having their backs.

Perhaps the bounce from Gard’s strongly-worded defense of Davison, and the desire for payback, will propel the Badgers against Iowa.

On Thursday night, Aleem Ford led the Badgers with a season-high 17 points, while Davison added 15 and Nate Reuvers showed signs of life.

Wisconsin pushed a 10-point halftime – keyed by Reuvers’ rediscovered 3-point range – to as many as 18 points in the second half.

Reuvers’ two 3-point shots late in the first half helped him snap a cold streak in which he missed all nine of his 3-point attempts during the final four regular-season games.

Ford also heated up by hitting 5 of 6 3-point shots on the night.

Despite trailing big, Penn State (11-14) rallied to close to within 75-74 on Sam Sessoms’ layup with 46 seconds to play.

After Jonathan Davis’ missed shot, the Nittany Lions had the basketball and a chance to win at the end. Sessoms drove to the right baseline and tried to steer a pass to John Harrar, but Reuvers swatted it away.

Davison grabbed it and wisely called “timeout” as he fell out-of-bounds. The officials granted the timeout with 3-tenths of a second to play and Wisconsin successfully inbounded to seal the win.

The Badgers won despite being outscored 17-2 in the final 4:58.

Wisconsin is 0-8 against teams that finished ahead of it in the Big Ten this season. Obviously that will change if the Badgers can find a way to ride the momentum of Thursday night’s victory.

It won’t be easy.

Iowa is among the nation’s top offensive teams. The Hawkeyes are led by Big Ten “Player of the Year” Luka Garza and a strong supporting cast that includes sharp-shooter Joe Wieskamp.

Wisconsin will need to be sharp from 3-point range again. The Badgers drilled 12 of 23 3-pointers against Penn State, which represents a vast improvement over what they’ve been shooting lately.

Davis scored 10 points in 29 minutes, while Tyler Wahl added eight points and four rebounds. D’Mitrik Trice finished with nine assists.

The Badgers will need to tighten up their defense. The Nittany Lions shot 48 percent against Wisconsin. If Iowa shoots at that clip, given the up-tempo team’s average possessions per game, it might eclipse 100 against the Badgers.

Penn State also out-rebounded Wisconsin 34-25 and still lost.

Not that the Badgers are apologizing to anyone for any win.

The Badgers wanted another crack at Iowa.

Now we’ll see if the third time is the charm.

** BUCKS 134, KNICKS 101

The Bucks stayed hot after the NBA All-Star break with Giannis Antetokounmpo – the game’s MVP – leading the way.

Giannis had 24 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists to key the Bucks’ 134-101 rout of the New York Knicks Thursday night at Fiserv Forum.

Giannis hit 8 of 12 shots and made all seven free throw attempts after dominating Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game. Bryn Forbes drilled all seven of his 3-point shots to finish with 21, while Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez added 14 points each.

The Bucks have won seven of eight and are playing more like the team that dominated the NBA’s Eastern Conference prior to COVID-19.

Watt picks Arizona;

Badgers, Bucks lose

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN        

GREEN BAY, Wis. – J.J. Watt got the two things he wanted most.

The future Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end fled the struggling Texans to join the mediocre Arizona Cardinals for more money.

Watt, 31, signed a two-year, $31 million contract that includes $23 million guaranteed with Arizona. He was set to earn $17.1 million with the Texans in the final year of his contract.

The majority of Packers’ fans wish him well, especially those savvy enough to realize Green Bay wasn’t going to pay that much for him.

Now, Packers’ fans can focus on who their team is going to acquire.

Defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s introductory news conference Tuesday made it clear what’s expected in Green Bay. Barry intends to play an aggressive brand of defense that’s an amalgamation of concepts featured by Tony Dungy, Vic Fangio and Brandon Staley, among others.

“This defense is my vision,” Barry said.

He also addressed past “failures” such as the Lions’ 0-16 season in which he was their coordinator. He said the scars make a person stronger if they learn from it. He also said he’s proud of what came before, and that he feels fortunate to have this terrific opportunity in Green Bay.

When asked if he and head coach Matt LaFleur discussed personnel during the interview process, Barry replied, “Absolutely.”

Barry can create this defense in his own image for two reasons:

** The salary cap casualties are going to include some pretty salty veteran defensive players, perhaps a handful who might forego a few bucks in pursuit of a Super Bowl.

** While the defense needs an influx of talent, it already has All-Pros in Kenny Clark and Za’Darius Smith, as well as a top cornerback in Jaire Alexander and ascending players in Darnell Savage and Rashan Gary.

Now, it’ll be interesting to see how Barry puts the pieces together.

** Purdue 73, Wisconsin 69

The Boilermakers’ youngsters outlasted the Badgers’ veterans in a hotly contested Big Ten battle Tuesday night in West Lafayette, Ind.

Zach Edey, the 7-4 freshman center, scored a career high 21 points and fellow freshman Jaden Ivey added 18 points to get No. 23 Purdue past No. 25 Wisconsin 73-69 Tuesday night.

The Badgers pulled to within 63-62 on Brad Davison’s 3-point jumper with 3:21 to play, but Eric Hunter Jr.’s layup and Trevion Williams’ dunk pushed the Boilermakers’ lead to five.

D’Mitrik Trice drilled a 3-pointer to close it to 69-67 but the Badgers never really threatened after that.

Wisconsin (16-10, 10-9) wraps regular-season play Sunday at Iowa.

Fortunately for the Badgers, the NCAA Tournament bracket will seem much more doable than the Big Ten Conference Tournament.

** Nuggets 128, Bucks 97

Nikola Jokic notched his 50th career triple-double with 37 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds to lead Denver to a rout of the Bucks.

Jokic is averaging a triple-double for every eight games he plays. He is the ninth player in NBA history to get 50-plus triple-doubles. Jokic joins Oscar Robertson (181), Russell Westbrook (156), Magic Johnson (138), Jason Kidd (177), LeBron James (97), Wilt Chamberlain (78), Larry Bird (59) and James Harden (53).

That’s great company to keep.

The Bucks’ up-and-down season continues to roll along.

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 27 points, eight rebounds and three assists for the Bucks, who saw their five-game winning streak snapped.

The Nuggets’ zone defense stifled the Bucks’ 3-point shooters. Milwaukee shot just 27.5 percent from 3-point range (11 of 40) and also was outscored 56-32 in the paint.

It was ugly for Bucks’ fans to watch.

The good news is Jrue Holiday played 18 minutes after missing 10 games due to the league’s health and safety protocols. He finished with four points, but the Bucks need him to round into shape ASAP.

Bucks throttle Kings,

Badgers KO Wildcats

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN        

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Packers fans are pleased to oblige J.J. Watt’s humorous plea for patience while he chooses a new team and city – so long as Green Bay is the city and the Packers are the team.

So from them, through me, to J.J. Watt: We’re willing to wait as long as it takes for you to decide Green Bay as the perfect final destination.

Meantime, Bucks and Badgers fans’ patience has been a lot thinner.

Losing streaks – five and two, respectively – have caused concern in Milwaukee and Madison, although strong showings by both Sunday night should quell their frustration.

Let’s start by dissecting the Bucks’ play.

Milwaukee (18-13) is third in the NBA’s Eastern Conference behind the surprising 76ers (20-11) and the loaded Nets (20-12).

The Bucks’ five-game losing streak coincided with Jrue Holiday’s current eight-game absence due to health and safety protocols, but it wasn’t a coincidence.

Holiday’s acquisition was based on two things: His ability to defend and distribute. When Holiday returns, Milwaukee’s defense will get a major boost. Equally important, it will free up Giannis from ball-handling duties so he can focus on moving effectively without the basketball.

The great Charles Barkley recently echoed what I’ve been saying for years: The Bucks’ offense is better when Giannis can work the baseline and post up, cut to the wing or flash to the free throw line extended.

Giannis without the ball also allows him to come off screens, which forces defenders to switch or play through it. Either way, Giannis has the advantage because the defenders aren’t able to get set.

When Giannis dribbles it up to start the offense it’s one-on-five. Obviously, Giannis is going to beat his man. The problem is the mega-congestion created by the double- and triple-teams.

So what does Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer do? He inserts guard D.J. Augustine into the starting lineup. The Bucks are 2-0 since then. Again, it’s no coincidence.

In Milwaukee’s 128-115 victory over Sacramento Sunday night at Fiserv Forum, Giannis had 38 points, 18 rebounds and four assists. Khris Middleton added 32 points, eight rebounds and six assists.

They were dynamite together. It was just like old times back in 2019.

Granted, the Kings’ defense is suspect at best. Then again, the Bucks’ offense had shown it could struggle against anyone in the losing streak.

Augustine for now, and Holiday when he returns, gives the Bucks options to allow Giannis and Middleton to create shots without the ball.

The only time Giannis should bring it up is on a fast-break opportunity. Otherwise, he needs to give it up to the guard and find ways to get open.

Giannis was 19 of 24 from the free throw line against Sacramento. The Kings were 15 of 20 as a team. Giannis’ freedom of movement allowed him to catch the ball where he could score, draw a foul or both.

Milwaukee is back on the right track.

A Tuesday night game against the struggling T-Wolves can only help.

The Bucks are going to win 50 games this season. Book it.

What matters is how they’re playing going into the post-season. They need to be accustomed to Holiday setting the tone on both ends, and Giannis and Middleton getting open and dazzling the scoreboard.

On a side note, rookie Tyrese Haliburton led the Kings with 23 points, while adding eight assists and five rebounds in Sunday night’s loss. Haliburton attended Oshkosh North High School.

Now, let’s take a look at the Badgers.

Wisconsin (16-8, 10-7) is sixth in the Big Ten and trails Purdue (10-6) by one-half game. The Badgers’ 68-51 victory at Northwestern Sunday night secured the UW’s 18th 10-win Big Ten season in the past 20.

The long-term consistency is impressive.

What Badgers’ head coach Greg Gard needs now is more consistent play from game-to-game, or perhaps half-to-half.

Micah Potter and Nate Reuvers are the keys.

Potter scored 19 points against the Wildcats off the bench. When he’s in the game his teammates need to get him the ball. Potter is a liability on defense, but he’s too good offensively to sit for long stretches.

Reuvers’ regression is a mystery, although he showed some positive signs at Northwestern. He needs to continue working in the low post, setting rugged screens out top and creating his mid-range jumper.

If Reuvers regains his touch Wisconsin will be a handful here on out.

When D’Mitrik Trice is on a roll he’s almost unstoppable. The problem is Trice also can go stretches where he couldn’t throw it in the ocean. It’s the same for Brad Davison.

Freshman Jonathan Davis is the wild-card. Davis is an extremely talented offensive player who works hard on the other end, too.

Davis, unlike most Badgers, can create his own shot. He just needs to keep growing wiser in regards to what is and isn’t a good shot.

Tyler Wahl is another promising young player whose all-out hustle and natural basketball instincts are serving him well.

With three regular-season games to play, Wisconsin has a chance to fine-tune its offense and ramp up its ‘D’.

It may require a bit more patience from fans, but what else have they got to do while awaiting J.J. Watt’s signing?

Packers tab Barry as DC; JJ Watt up next?

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN        

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers’ defensive coordinator job might be even better than newly hired Joe Barry could have imagined.

J.J. Watt requested and was granted his release from the Houston Texans on Friday. The former Badgers’ star was the 11th overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft and went on to become the greatest player in Texans history.

Watt, 31, is a free agent and can sign with any team he chooses.

The big question is this: Will Watt and the Packers strike a deal?

Packers’ fans are fairly giddy over the prospect that one of their favorite football sons may be coming home to finish his Hall of Fame career.

Comparisons to Reggie White’s arrival in 1993 already are being made.

This may be premature, but there’s reason to believe it’s possible.

Watt was wearing a Badgers’ hoodie while delivering his Houston farewell address on Twitter Friday. In fact, he began by mentioning what an amazing ride it was for a kid from Wisconsin to go to Texas and embark on what’s been a terrific NFL journey.

“I’ve been working really hard and I’m excited and looking forward to a new opportunity,” Watt said. “But I want you (fans) to know I love you and I appreciate you. Thank you, Houston. I love you.”

Make no mistake. There’s going to be stiff competition for Watt.

Keyshawn Johnson’s reaction to the news on ESPN is a good example. Johnson, to his credit, said he didn’t have a chance to scour NFL rosters to determine which team(s) might be a good fit.

Then, off the top, Johnson mentioned Washington and how great an already strong defensive line would become with Watt. He followed that with the Rams, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Kansas City and Buffalo.

Johnson didn’t mention Green Bay, but it makes a lot of sense.

The Packers play in his home state, where he still maintains a residence, and they are just a heartbeat away from a Super Bowl berth. Minutes after Super Bowl LV ended, Las Vegas odds-makers installed the Packers as the NFC’s favorite to win Super Bowl LVI in 2022.

Defensively, there’s an obvious hole that is begging to be filled.

All-Pro defensive tackle Kenny Clark needs help with the heavy lifting. Clark already has established himself as one of the NFL’s top players at his position. The addition of Watt would make for a dynamic 1-2 punch.

Furthermore, the fiscally disciplined Packers should be able to create enough room under the salary cap to make a competitive offer. This is one instance where quarterback Aaron Rodgers seriously might consider restructuring his deal to accommodate Watt’s signing.

Watt has been bedeviled by injuries the past few seasons.

Nevertheless, his leadership is unquestioned and his level of play hasn’t appreciably diminished.

Watt played in 128 games at Houston, where he totaled 503 tackles, 282 quarterback hits, 101 sacks, 25 forced fumbles, 16 fumble recoveries, two interceptions and two defensive touchdowns.

Offensively, he has four catches, with three resulting in touchdowns.

The five-time All-Pro could do a lot worse than Green Bay.

It will be interesting to see how quickly teams try to move on him. Undoubtedly he and the Packers will have a serious conversation at some point this offseason. It’s just difficult to know when with all the uncertainty surrounding the salary cap.

Perhaps Rodgers will be involved in the recruiting process.

There’s no question the Packers are among the NFL’s elite teams. If it was all about the Benjamins, as opposed to winning the Lombardi Trophy, Watt could’ve collected his $17 million in 2021 with Houston.

The Packers have the NFL’s MVP quarterback and its top-rated offense, but are lacking on defense and special teams. It is why they fired Mike Pettine and Shawn Mennenga, and hired Barry as defensive coordinator and promoted Maurice Drayton as special teams’ coordinator.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur offered the defensive coordinator job to Badgers’ D.C. Jim Leonhard, who ultimately declined.

Barry, who worked with LaFleur on the L.A. Rams’ staff in 2017, was his next choice.

Barry, 50, had been hired by new L.A. Chargers coach Brandon Staley to be the linebackers coach and passing game coordinator.

Instead, Barry will get his third shot as an NFL defensive coordinator. Barry ran the Lions’ defense in 2007-2008 and the Washington Football Team’s defense in 2015-2016.

The Lions ranked 28th and 32nd in yards allowed under Barry, while the Football Team fared a bit better, ranking 17th and 18th in points allowed.

The numbers are underwhelming.

So is the assertion in reports that Barry is a “high-energy coach” who prefers to play an “aggressive” style of defense.

No kidding.

In fact, I have never heard of any NFL team hiring a “low-energy coach” who prefers to play a “passive” brand of defense.

The truth is Barry’s hiring is all about trust and communication. There is something to be said for a head coach bringing in his own guy.

Now that LaFleur has his guy, he needs GM Brian Gutekunst and the scouting department to find the right defenders to fit Barry’s scheme, whatever it may be.

Pairing Watt and Clark up front would be a terrific start.

Furthermore, the Green Bay defense isn’t without playmakers.

Edge rushers Za’Darius Smith and Rashan Gary, inside linebackers Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin, cornerback Jaire Alexander and safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage Jr. form a talented core group.

The fact that the NFL’s salary cap is expected to decrease by $25 million also means there are going to be very good veteran free agents available in addition to Watt.

The NFC North appears to be the Packers to own again in 2021.

The Vikings’ odds to win Super Bowl LVI are 40-to-1, which puts them 17th along with the Cardinals and Raiders.

The Bears’ odds are 50-to-1, which puts them tied for 20th with the Patriots and Eagles.

And the lowly Lions’ odds are 100-to-1, which puts them in a tie for dead last with the Jets and Texans.

That’s six winnable games going into the season.

If the Packers can sign Watt and add several other an impact players via the draft and free agency, the team’s outlook becomes blindingly bright.

 

Packers’ GM, coach: ‘Rodgers is our QB’

 

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The national media is always good for a laugh.

Occasionally, the commentary is insightful. More often it’s inciting – as in inciting dismay at the foolishness it perpetuates.

Aaron Rodgers, some say, should do what Tom Brady did.

Rodgers should leave Green Bay in order to find his own little slice of “Tampa Bay” football nirvana and win a Super Bowl.

That entirely dismisses the fact that there’s only one Brady. It also ignores the obvious: Rodgers’ best chance to win a Super Bowl in the next two seasons is with the Packers and head coach Matt LaFleur.

The need for upgrades is obvious. That process already is underway with the hiring of Maurice Drayton as special teams’ coordinator and the ongoing search to replace defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.

It’s true the Packers will lose some really good players in free agency, especially with the expected $25-$30 million drop in the salary cap.

On the other hand, the Packers aren’t the only team dealing with it. In fact, Green Bay is in better position than most because of prior cap discipline and a current roster that’s really close to winning a title.

When New England and Brady defeated the Chiefs 37-31 in overtime at Kansas City in the 2019 AFC title game the takeaway was twofold:

** That Brady is immortal.

** That Patrick Mahomes is just getting started.

Nobody in their right mind believed the Chiefs were going to rip it up and start over. Instead, they defeated San Francisco to win the Super Bowl the following year, and they’re set to defend the title on Sunday.

It’s not that different than the Packers’ situation.

While it’s true that Rodgers is methuselah compared to Mahomes, what matters is that both – young and old alike – are playing like MVPs.

What LaFleur and Rodgers have done together is amazing.

Back-to-back 13-win seasons and two straight trips to the NFC championship game are serious achievements. The afterglow is tarnished by losses in four of the past seven NFC championship games, but the future remains bright.

The Packers aren’t going anywhere and neither is Rodgers.

So is Rodgers’ future in Green Bay in doubt?

“Is that a trick question?” LaFleur replied at Monday’s season-ending news conference. “Absolutely (Rodgers is the Packers’ QB). There’s no doubt about it. You’re talking about the guy that’s going to win the MVP of the league. We’re not in this position without him. I couldn’t be happier with just not only his performance but how he led our football team, all the little things he does within that locker room to ensure that everybody is locked in, focused and ready to go.

“Absolutely he will be here for a long time. I know I’ve said that before, but a long time.”

Green Bay’s MVP quarterback doesn’t need a change of venue. He merely needs Green Bay to bring the mountain to Muhammad.

There is going to be a glut of quality veterans on the free-agent market. Clearly, the contracts aren’t all going to be lucrative given the cap.

So where would three or four top free agents desire to play? If the money’s fairly equal, the potential to win is a tremendous lure. That’s especially true for teams that have a great quarterback like Rodgers.

The truth is Green Bay’s No. 1 attraction is its top player.

Build a winner and they will come.

The free-agent wish list includes a slot receiver, an explosive back to fill the role of Aaron Jones and a defensive veteran at every level. So many in the media talk about getting Rodgers the help he needs. Where are those talking about giving Kenny Clark the help HE needs?

The Rams’ Aaron Donald is tremendous, but he’s even that much more dangerous because of Michael Brockers and the rest.

Green Bay’s need for a kick-butt inside linebacker is painfully apparent. Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin are young, developing players that will have key roles. That’s great. What I’m talking about is dominance.

With the expected departure of cornerback Kevin King, Green Bay needs to add two corners – one in the draft, another in free agency.

GM Brian Gutekunst appears up to the task.

Gutekunst has been successful in free agency, and with the emergence of Rashan Gary, Darnell Savage, Elgton Jenkins and others in recent drafts it is obvious “Gutey” has a handle on the situation.

That’s especially true regarding his MVP quarterback’s future.

Gutekunst said he would “absolutely not” trade Rodgers this offseason. That was in reference to erroneous reports that the Rams had inquired as to his availability in a trade before they acquired Matthew Stafford.

“I think that he is arguably the best player that I’ve ever seen or been around,” he said. “The chances he gives us week in and week out are significant, so he’s going to be part of our future and we look forward to all the runs we’re going to try to make here over the next few years.”

SUPER BOWL LIV PREDICTION UPDATE

Tampa Bay 33, Kansas City 31

My heart says Andy Reid and the Chiefs, but my head says (groan) Brady and the Buccaneers.

Packers fall to Bucs in NFC title game 31-26

 

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The winds of change are sweeping across 1265 Lombardi Avenue as the Packers appear intent on upgrading the staff and team after 13-3 seasons ended by NFC championship game losses.

The standard has been set.

It’s high, but that’s where the Green Bay Packers are at.

Green Bay’s 31-26 loss to Tampa Bay at Lambeau Field Sunday in the NFC championship game was a shot to the stomach. Aaron Rodgers, the NFL’s MVP quarterback, said he felt like he’d been gutted.

The finality of the season was that jarring.

That doesn’t mean the Packers get a break. The reality is that expectations after back-to-back success stories are peaking despite speculation that Rodgers might be traded or whatever in the offseason.

That isn’t going to happen.

Teams don’t allow MVP quarterbacks to walk out the door.

Packers’ president and CEO Mark Murphy – when asked about the possibility of Rodgers’ departure – replied, “We’re not stupid.”

They’re not. They’ve also not been victorious in the NFC championship game in four of the past seven seasons. That’s quite a run as the launching pad for more than half of the conference’s Super Bowl teams since 2014. So many times, too many times, the Packers are close but not quite good enough to find their way into the Super Bowl.

After the disappointment wears off, Packers’ fans will be anticipating their team’s appearance in Super Bowl 56.

The expectation in Green Bay is that Rodgers returns, the new defensive coordinator (presuming Mike Pettine is fired) represents a significant upgrade. If the defense adds a playmaker or two, and Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage continue to ascend, the Packers’ defense could be dynamite. It’s not that unreasonable to think it could be the better unit.

The Packers aren’t that far away.

Losses in free agency will hurt. They always do. But it seems realistic that Green Bay GM Brian Gutekunst and head coach Matt LaFleur – even in a cap-strapped offseason – have the wherewithal to fix what ails.

Here is the Packers’ offseason in a nutshell:

(This presumes that RB Aaron Jones, RB Jamaal Williams, TE Marcedes Lewis, CB Kevin King and C Corey Linsley will leave in free agency)

** The Packers’ offense needs to add a halfback with Jones’ skillset: Breakaway speed, sure hands and the ability to share the football. It also needs to add a six-foot, 210-pound receiver/running back whose breakaway speed enables him to be used as the “jet sweep” guy, the return guy, and most of all the offense’s No. 3 receiver.

I don’t believe one player can fill both roles. By that, I don’t think a second-round pick should be asked to fill Jones’ role and the Tavon Austin-Tyler Ervin role. It’s too much to ask of a rookie. With running back availability a necessity, it requires two players to do it right.

The Packers’ receivers are set with Davante Adams, Allen Lazard and an ascending Marquez Valdes-Scantling. What it doesn’t have is the aforementioned six-foot, 210-pound breakaway threat that can challenge defenses in the slot or as the “jet sweep” option.

A running back in the third round, augmented by a cost-effective veteran free agent (perhaps even Austin or Ervin), should do the trick.

A.J. Dillon is going to be the lead dog at running back. Re-signing Williams would solve a lot of problems, but I don’t see it happening. That’s too bad.

Gutekunst has his hands full filling three “running back” positions in just this one offseason. Clearly, it’s a reminder that drafting Dillon last year – and speculation that the Packers might draft a running back fairly high again this year – isn’t just idle chatter.

The Packers also need a cornerback (first- or second-round draft pick) and a linebacker with sideline-to-sideline instincts that’s plug-and-play. Someone such as the Bears’ Roquan Smith would be a godsend. Green Bay needs to add a cornerback and linebacker in the first two rounds.

That’s a tall order for the scouting department.

It helps that Christian Kirksey settled in, Krys Barnes took control and Kamal Martin showed great potential. The development of Chandon Sullivan and Will Redmond, coupled with impending late-round draft picks, should augment the secondary.

That said the Packers need to draft a cornerback in the first two rounds.

Replacing Linsley will be pesky.

It’s possible to slide left guard Elgton Jenkins to center and plug in Jon Runyan, with David Bakhtiari at left tackle and Billy Turner at right tackle while Rick Wagner (or similar) is the back-up.

The Packers are set at safety, and Kenny Clark anchors a defensive front that played fairly well against Tampa Bay. Clark is a star and Green Bay might be tempted to draft a defensive tackle (rather than a linebacker) high in order to pair them with him.

It’s an intriguing possibility.

Gary is one of the defense’s rising stars. Za’Darius Smith continues to earn every penny and then some, while Preston Smith’s late-season surge gives hope to the prospect that he’ll return for 2021.

The Packers already have fired Shawn Mennenga and hired Maurice Drayton as its new special teams’ coordinator. Drayton worked under Mennenga, but clearly has ideas of his own.

The team’s coverage units were historically bad.

Long returns factored into an overtime loss at Indianapolis and several other setbacks. He had to go.

The decision on Pettine is forthcoming.

I can’t imagine he will return as the team’s defensive coordinator, but whether it’s Pettine or someone else, the defense’s personnel needs a significant upgrade. Or it won’t matter who is coordinating what.

Offensively, Green Bay will return in great shape.

I’ve got high confidence in Gutekunst and LaFleur to bring in a handful of key free agents – and hit on several key draft picks – to upgrade the roster. Furthermore, Rodgers’ return sets the tone for a “Super Bowl or Bust” mentality that should be stated at the outset.

Who’s fooling whom?

It’s where the Packers are at in the wake of four NFC championship game losses in the past seven seasons. It’s time to get over the hump. The sooner Murphy, Gutekunst and LaFleur forge a game plan – and bring Rodgers into the conversation – the better for all parties.

It’s especially better for the fans.

SUPER BOWL PREDICTION:

Kansas City 35, Tampa Bay 27

Go Chiefs! Go Andy Reid!

 

Packers stymie Rams,

get Bucs for NFC title

 

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers’ past, present and future converge today in a whirlwind of news as Green Bay prepares to host Tampa Bay at 2:05 p.m. Sunday in the NFC championship game at Lambeau Field.

It is with great anticipation and confidence that Packers fans await Aaron Rodgers’ first game at Lambeau Field with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake. It also is with a heavy heart that Packers’ fans remember former GM Ted Thompson and longtime sportswriter Bud Lea.

Thompson, 68, and Lea, 92, passed away within the past 24 hours.

Thompson is the man who traded Brett Favre, drafted Rodgers and wove the fabric that became the Super Bowl XLV champions.

Lea was among the greatest sportswriters of all-time, a Green Bay native and throwback to a bygone era. He was a terrific reporter and a tell-it-like-it-is columnist who had a wry wit to go with a command of the written word rivaled only by Starr’s command of Lombardi’s offense.

The loss of two Packers’ icons in such a brief span provides a sobering run-up to Green Bay’s NFC championship game on Sunday. It also provides an opportunity to celebrate the Packers’ past, both far and recent, while reveling in the moment.

The Packers’ appearance in the 2020 NFC championship game, their second straight under head coach Matt LaFleur, borders on historic. That’s especially true if Green Bay advances to the Super Bowl.

I predict it’s going to happen.

The Packers’ 34-23 victory over the Buccaneers will be the springboard to a much-anticipated match-up with Kansas City in Super Bowl LV.

The next three weeks will decide how history views the 2020 Packers. A loss to the Bucs in the NFC championship would diminish it, but that’s not going to happen.

The Packers are too good to bow out now.

Rodgers is the NFL’s clear-cut MVP and he’s playing like it.

Every touchdown pass is an affirmation of his greatness. The passing of Packers’ luminaries such as Thompson and Lea remind us to truly relish the moment. It’s important to understand it, absorb it and make it last. Moments like this week are the No. 1 reason for being a Packers’ fan.

Only Green Bay fans can transform the mourning of Thompson and Lea into a celebration of their lives, with the kickoff already scheduled.

Thompson was always a scout at heart.

He was responsible for Green Bay’s selection of so many terrific players that I won’t begin to detail them beyond Rodgers. He was that good.

The former Houston Oilers’ linebacker and special teams’ ace had a slow, Texas drawl that was at once charming and disarming. He exuded a quiet confidence while saying as little as possible.

Thompson adhered to Hall of Fame GM Ron Wolf’s philosophy of keeping everything in-house. He presided over the Packers’ decision to draft Rodgers, despite the fact that Brett Favre was in his prime.

The acrimony that ensued threatened to tear apart the Packers, but eventually the faithful moved past that moment and reconstituted around the next great quarterback: Rodgers.

Thompson strictly adhered to the “draft and develop” philosophy and was reluctant to play in free agency, or at least that’s what he contended. I always wondered why that was.

When Thompson did go the free-agent route he landed Ryan Pickett and Charles Woodson, among others, and appeared to be equally capable of correctly assessing NFL veterans versus college players.

Thompson never sought the spotlight. He was a scout at heart.

He will forever remain a great figure in Packers’ history.

In Bud Lea’s case, the length and breadth of his accomplishments are too lengthy to adequately recite here. I’ll just say I loved Bud Lea. He was Un-Bud-Lea-Vable!

Occasionally, he would sidle up to me and say, “Good column, kid-do. Way to tell it like it is.” He could do this while scarcely moving his lips, as if confidence was of the strictest importance. But when Bud had occasion to tell a story – from Lombardi to Starr to you name it – he was one of the greatest storytellers ever.

Lea’s words were as riveting in person as in print. That’s not often the case. He was one of those figures who you’d swear was cast by Hollywood to play the role of “Bud Lea, sports columnist” except there was nothing more authentic than Lea himself.

I especially recall the closeness Lea had with his colleagues, and in particular the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Tom Silverstein, a wonderful sportswriter in his own right. Their friendship was apparent to everyone on the beat, and it was a testament to Lea’s desire to teach and mentor and Silverstein’s incredible respect and admiration of a legend.

Now would be a good time to preview the Bucs-Packers game.

In simplest terms, it comes down to the Packers’ red-zone defense. If Tom Brady and the Buccaneers thrive inside the Green Bay 20 – and it’s possible with weapons like Rob Gronkowski and Mike Evans – this game likely will come down to the final possession.

The Packers’ margin of error is the difference between Tampa Bay touchdowns, field goals or stops in the red zone. If Green Bay gets enough field goals and stops, it’ll go on to a resounding victory.

If not, then it’s the Packers’ offense versus the Bucs’ defense to decide who will represent the NFC in Super Bowl LV. The Packers’ red-zone defense is more important than Rodgers being sharp. Rodgers is going to be sharp. It’s more important than Aaron Jones and the running backs being able to establish a run game to set up play-action passes. That’s because the Packers’ running game is going to be successful to a degree.

The deciding factor will be Green Bay’s ability to make big plays such as sacks, interceptions and third-down stops, to force the Bucs to settle.

When teams have to settle against Green Bay, defeat is sure to follow.

Prediction: Green Bay 34, Tampa Bay 23.

Super Bowl LV here they come!

Strength vs. strength:

Rams’ D, Packers’ O

great contrast in styles

 

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – As the Rams and Packers prepare for Saturday’s NFC Divisional playoff game an old boxing adage comes to mind: Styles make fights.

So it is with the Los Angeles Rams’ tenacious, top-ranked defense and Green Bay’s prolific, high-powered offense.

The two Aarons – Rodgers and Donald – stand front and center in determining who is going to advance to the NFC Championship. For my part, I believe the “third” Aaron – the Packers’ Jones – holds the key.

Then again, it could be Jaire Alexander’s “pick six” that sets the tone, and Za’Darius Smith’s strip-sack that seals it.

Such is the beauty of NFL playoff football, where the unexpected makes its way into stadiums even as COVID-19 limits the number of fans.

Rodgers, the NFL’s MVP in waiting, offers a frank assessment of Saturday’s 3:35 p.m. game.

“When there (are) eight teams left, every team is good, and I’d say all of them have really good defenses, too,” he said. “There’s no cakewalks … there’s no easy games … it all comes down to execution and the little things that we talk about all the time.”

It’s noteworthy that Rodgers’ claim of “every team” having a really good defense can be said with a straight face.

The Packers’ defense has been slowly ascending for weeks, so much so that it has held four of its last five opponents to 16 points or fewer. Going into December, Green Bay’s defense had managed to hold just two teams to less than 20 points.

The progress is understandable.

In general, NFL offenses were ahead of defenses at the season’s outset. The Packers’ problems were compounded by injuries to Kenny Clark, Christian Kirksey and Kamal Martin.

Nevertheless, Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine stuck with it.

By the time Clark, Kirksey and Martin got healthy, rookie linebacker Krys Barnes had proven he could handle the “MIKE” position, which requires that player to relay the calls and set the defense.

In turn, it allowed Kirksey to roam and make plays.

The 11th hour acquisition of Damon “Snacks” Harrison, a nose tackle who lives up to his nickname, should further solidify the run defense.

Along the way, the Packers’ secondary – Raven Greene excluded – managed to get healthy, stay healthy and make plays. Kevin King, Chandon Sullivan, Darnell Savage Jr., Adrian Amos and the aforementioned Alexander are playing with skill and savvy.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur is a proponent of balance.

That’s not just run vs. pass balance, but also offense vs. defense, and right now Green Bay’s defense looks more than capable.

“I really like the progress we’ve made on the defensive side of the ball the last half of the season,” LaFleur said. “There’s been a great emphasis on all 11 doing your responsibility to the best of your ability on every play. I feel like these guys have really taken that to heart and taken ownership over doing their job, just playing together, swarming. And that’s what it’s going to take.”

The Rams’ offense presents several challenges, the greatest unknown being rookie running back Cam Akers’ ability to handle the big stage. Akers is a dual-threat back who can get outside the tackles and also catch it with ease out of the backfield.

Akers is averaging 92.5 yards per game through his last six, and 116 total yards from scrimmage.

Barnes and Co. need to attack and make sure he doesn’t get comfortable.

Jared Goff is coming off a down season, and it’s complicated by a post-surgically repaired right thumb. It’s difficult to know with certainty how much his thumb will be affected by temperatures in the high teens.

Common sense suggests one bad “thump” on a helmet, or a shoulder pad, could be enough to KO Goff. The largely untested John Wolford is the Rams’ other option at quarterback.

It puts Rams’ head coach Sean McVay in an interesting spot.

Should he start the quarterback that can’t get a good grip on the football? Or the quarterback who may not have a great grasp on the offense?

That’s for the Rams to figure out.

Rashan Gary, Preston and Za’Darius Smith and the rest really don’t care which is out there. If it’s Goff they’ll take into account his experience, bad thumb and all. If it’s Wolford, they’ll consider his ability to scramble and/or salvage something on a busted play.

Rams receivers Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp will draw the most attention, but the Packers better not sleep on Josh Reynolds. Interestingly, Reynolds had zero targets in 43 snaps at Seattle. I can’t imagine the Rams will ignore him a second straight week.

Tight end Tyler Higbee is more of a blocker than receiver, while backup running back Malcolm Brown is a tough, serviceable inside runner.

The Packers’ defensive focus has been stopping the run.

“First and foremost, when we can stop the run, that’s when we can have that fun in the back end and make plays,” safety Adrian Amos said. “When you limit the yardage on first and second down, you can go have fun on third down.”

Offensively, there’s little to find fault with the Packers.

Rodgers’ statistics are ridiculously good.

He completed 372 of 526 passes (70.7 percent) for 4,299 yards, 48 touchdowns and five interceptions. He was sacked 20 times and finished with an amazing 121.5 passer rating.

Meantime, the running game provided balance and explosiveness.

Jones rushed 201 times 1,104 yards, a healthy 5.5 average, with nine touchdowns and 52 first downs. He also caught 47 passes for 355 yards and two touchdowns.

If Jones has a big game Saturday, the Packers will win going away.

While much discussion has been devoted to the delicious Davante Adams versus Jalen Ramsey matchup, the Rams better account for Allen Lazard – who like Josh Reynolds has been quiet of late – and tight end Robert Tonyan, who has become Rodgers’ second-favorite target.

The Packers’ offense is considerably better than it was a year ago.

“We’re a much more efficient team,” Rodgers said. “That helps, for sure. Last year, we were just so up and down. I think that’s been the biggest difference offensively is we’re playing with a lot more confidence.”

Rodgers added, “We always talk about starting fast. We’ve done a good job at that, scoring on the first possession of many games this season, which would definitely help us on Saturday. But we know it’s going to be a game that does the distance.”

The Packers will allow 6,000 fans to attend Saturday’s game.

“We’re really excited about that,” LaFleur said. “We’re definitely going to feed off that energy, so if anybody’s coming to the game, make sure you’re nice and loud for us.”

 

DIVISIONAL PLAYOFF ROUND PREDICTIONS

AFC

Bills 28, Ravens 24

Chiefs 35, Browns 20

NFC

Bucs 31, Saints 30

Packers 27, Rams 19

NFC wild-card round

predictions; Packers’

2020 award winners

 

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN                                            

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers get to kick back, relax and watch the NFC Wild-card playoffs thanks to their first-round bye as the conference’s No. 1 seed.

It is a much-deserved rest in reward for a job well done, and a job far from finished.

The Packers (13-3) found a way to match last season’s win-loss record while improving significantly along the way. This Green Bay team is better-equipped to get to Tampa Bay and win Super Bowl LV for a number of reasons, beginning with MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers’ four touchdown passes in Green Bay’s 35-16 rout of the Bears in the regular-season finale has become routine. He finished with 48 touchdown passes to five interceptions and is the clear-cut MVP.

A storyline emerging early raises the question: Is Rodgers facing the greatest pressure of any playoff QB? It’s a fair question, I suppose, but the answer is fairly obvious. There’s pressure when you enter an arena knowing it’s a longshot due to the current state of affairs. In Rodgers’ case, there’s far less pressure than anticipation.

The Packers are good, Rodgers is great and everyone knows it.

His return to the top is a testament to Rodgers’ hard work, self-analysis and relationship with Packers head coach Matt LaFleur. It has put the Packers in position as the favorite to reach Super Bowl LV.

The real pressure is on the team(s) that must face him. Until then, this weekend’s wild-card round will decide the divisional round landscape.

While the AFC is blessed with an entire slate of compelling matchups in the first round, the NFC only makes it seem that way. The Seahawks, Bucs and Saints will prevail over the Rams, Football Team and Bears, quite likely in a big way.

Seattle is a 3 ½ point favorite over the Rams. The Seahawks were 4 ½ point favorites and then came the news that quarterback Jared Goff might play despite having surgery to repair his damaged right thumb.

To my way of thinking, the spread should’ve gone the other direction. It’s a longshot if Goff lasts four quarters. If he’s knocked out, or rather, his thumb is knocked out, it’s all over.

Even if Goff plays the entire game, it’s difficult to imagine he will be able to display any meaningful rhythm or accuracy. The Seahawks will roll 24-13 in a game that’s not that close.

The Buccaneers and Tom Brady face one of the NFL’s nastiest pass rushes in Washington. Chase Young and Montez Sweat are reliable bookend pass rushers who will cause Brady his share of trouble.

In the end, though, Bucs head coach Bruce Arians is too good of a coach and Brady too great of a quarterback, to lose at Washington. I’m calling it Bucs 28, Football Team 21.

The Saints are nearly as good as the Packers, who merely crushed the Bears twice this season. The most recent 35-16 pummeling suggests Chicago is in for a long Sunday afternoon in New Orleans. I’m seeing the Saints 38, Bears 16.

It sets up terrific matchups in the NFC’s Divisional Playoffs with the Seahawks at the Saints and Brady and the Bucs in Green Bay.

Now, for the Packers’ regular-season award winners:

** Most Improved Player: Robert Tonyan has developed as a difference-maker at tight end and is one of Rodgers’ most reliable targets. Tonyan’s numbers, highlighted by 11 TD catches, are as good as most team’s No. 2 receivers and he’s a tight end.

** Most Surprising Player: Krys Barnes came in, grabbed control of the MIKE linebacker position and hasn’t let go. Barnes, an undrafted free agent, solidified the heart of the Packers’ defense while leading the team in tackles. His presence enabled Christian Kirksey to move to the WILL linebacker and chase down plays.

** Best Offensive Player: It’s got to be Davante “the unstoppable” Adams. He put up record numbers despite missing 2 ½ games with injuries. Adams is one of the NFL’s pre-eminent receivers and the chemistry he shares with Rodgers is out of this world.

** Best Defensive Player: Jaire Alexander is a shutdown corner to the max. Alexander’s statistics are crazy. He has blanked everyone from Calvin Ridley to Justin Jefferson (twice) and makes it look easy.

MVP: It’s got to be Rodgers with a tip of the helmet to LaFleur. The Packers are in a great place because of the incredible offseason Rodgers and LaFleur put together going into 2020.

Now, Rodgers and LaFleur have a chance to put the exclamation point on what has been an amazing season.

Packers roll Titans,

aim to claim top seed

with win at Chicago

 

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN                                           

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Scheduling note to readers: The Packers’ postseason begins 3:25 p.m. Sunday at Soldier Field, that per head coach Matt LaFleur following his team’s 40-14 victory over Tennessee on a snowy Sunday night at Lambeau Field.

“That IS a playoff game,” LaFleur said of the Packers-Bears matchup in the regular-season finale.

Boy is it ever.

The Packers can clinch the NFC’s No. 1 with a victory over the Bears. Meantime, the Bears can capture the conference’s seventh seed with a win over Green Bay or a Cardinals’ loss to the Rams.

The NFC’s playoff field will be determined at the top, and bottom, by the Packers-Bears outcome. They don’t get much bigger than that. If the Packers become the top seed they will receive the only first-round bye.

If not, there’s a scenario – Football God’s forbid – whereby the Packers and Bears could meet the following week in a playoff opener.

Clearly, the Packers have a lot of motivation.

They can earn the No. 1 seed AND eliminate the Bears in the process.

Green Bay appears poised for an extended post-season stay.

While the outcome of the Packers’ game against Tennessee was of little consequence, its greater significance was twofold:

** The Packers’ offense and defense – working in concert – mauled a physical, playoff-caliber team into submission. The offense built an early 19-0 lead with its array of weaponry, while the defense ultimately held the NFL’s top rusher, Derrick Henry, to just 98 yards in 23 carries.

It wasn’t the first time Aaron Rodgers has thrown for four touchdown passes this season, but it surely was the first time the defense was solid if not spectacular against the Titans’ top-rated offense coming in.

LaFleur was suitably impressed by his defense’s performance.

“That’s a really good offense, across the board, with great skill players from the receivers to the tight ends … Derrick Henry, obviously, and (Ryan) Tannehill,” LaFleur said. “To hold a team that explosive to 14 points and 265 yards – that’s one hell of a performance by our defense.”

Packers’ defensive coordinator Mike Pettine deployed five- and six-man fronts in an effort to slow down Henry. He also dialed up blitzes from a variety of angles to thwart Titans’ quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

It worked.

While Henry was spinning his wheels and routinely being hammered to the snow-covered turf, Tannehill was out of sorts all night. The Titans’ quarterback completed 11 of 24 passes for 121 yards, two interceptions and a 40.5 passer rating.

Meantime, Rodgers was fairly brilliant while completing 21 of 25 passes for 231 yards, four touchdowns and a 128.1 passer rating.

Davante Adams also did his share and more.

Adams finished with 11 catches (on 12 targets) for 142 yards and three touchdowns. He has a league-high 17 touchdown catches despite missing two games with injuries.

Robert Tonyan and Equanimeous St. Brown also caught touchdown passes. For Tonyan it was his 11th in a breakout season. For EQ it was his first in what is an upwardly mobile career.

St. Brown was one of a handful of young players with breakout games.

A.J. Dillon dominated in what amounted to his rookie debut. The powerful back rushed 21 times for 124 yards and two touchdowns. That’s a stat line typically associated with Henry, not a “quote-unquote” third-string back, but Dillon proved his worth.

The Packers were without Jamaal Williams, who was sidelined by injury, and starter Aaron Jones was battling toe and hip injuries.

No matter.

Once Dillon got lathered up and began hammering away, the Titans’ defense began to fade away. By the end, Tennessee’s defense was tackling as if it were the Pro Bowl.

The Packers have had their share of challenges to overcome this season. The fact is they’ve handled most as adroitly as possible.

** Tyler Ervin is lost to injury, but the Packers’ GM had the foresight to sign veteran Tavon Austin. LaFleur is slowly working him in on offense as well as making him the primary punt returner.

Arguably, Austin is a step up from Ervin.

** Jamaal Williams is out versus Tennessee so Dillon steps up.

** The Packers switch Krys Barnes to the “MIKE” linebacker and Christian Kirksey to the “WILL.” It allows Barnes, a rookie wise beyond his years, to call the defense. It also enables Kirksey to be unleashed and go make plays.

** Rick Wagner goes out with an injury, so the Packers kick Billy Turner out to right tackle and insert Lucas Patrick at right guard. It could be argued the line is as good, if not better, with Patrick at right guard.

** Allen Lazard has become the clear No. 2 receiver with his hands and his blocking. It allows Marquez Valdes-Scantling to focus on making big plays designed to utilize his speed.

That’s a lot of positive energy going forward.

The Packers aren’t naïve enough to overlook the surging Bears (8-7) going into Sunday’s game. Chicago’s offense has scored 30-plus points in four straight games, which hadn’t happened since 1965 with the great Gale Sayers.

Mitchell Trubisky is playing the best football of his career. It’s tempting to insert a punchline there, except the Bears’ offense hasn’t been a joke for a month of Sundays.

It makes for a great matchup in a playoff-type atmosphere.

Prediction: The Packers handle their business and sew up the NFC’s No. 1 seed and first-round bye.

Green Bay 27, Chicago 21.

 

Packers aren’t taking

Panthers for granted

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN                                           

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Green Bay has risen to the enviable position of being the NFC’s No. 1 seed, which includes the postseason’s lone bye, on the strength of its top-rated offense.

Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams and the rest are averaging 31.5 points per game. They rank second behind only defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City in yards per game (429 to 397).

Green Bay’s first step to wrapping up the No. 1 seed is a victory over the pesky Panthers (4-9) in a rare Saturday night game at Lambeau Field. The second step is a New Orleans’ loss at Kansas City on Sunday.

If that happens, Green Bay (10-3) merely needs to win one of its final two games – at home versus Tennessee or at Chicago in the regular-season finale – in order to play at home in January.

Rodgers has played in four NFC title games – all on the road – so he’s aching to get the bye and home-field advantage throughout.

“I think it’s important for sure to get that extra week of rest,” he said. “The big thing – we’ve played in four NFC title games – all four have been on the road. To be able to have the whole thing come through Green Bay is something we’ve talked about and we’ve wanted and never had. That would definitely be in our favor with the weather.”

Last Sunday, he hit 26 of 33 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns without being sacked. He finished with a 133.6 passer rating.

It has become “cut-and-paste” with Rodgers’ game stats this season. The Packers’ offense has been especially good lately at converting third downs despite a penalty here or a missed block there.

“That’s when you’re playing downhill,” Rodgers said.

Carolina is the next team standing in the Packers’ path.

In some ways, the Panthers are like “Titans Lite” in that they have a dangerous offense that’s been beset by injuries to Christian McCaffrey and a defense that struggles to get off the field.

It should be a good tune-up for Tennessee’s Derrick Henry, the NFL’s rushing leader with 1,532 yards (a 5.2 average) and 14 touchdowns.

The Panthers’ Mike Davis is a hard-running back who will get what’s blocked and a bit more. He isn’t Henry – nobody is – but he is a legit threat especially if Carolina’s passing game springs to life.

If Green Bay’s defense can bottle up the Panthers’ running game it will be one more step in the right direction. That is especially important given the Panthers’ weapons in the passing game.

Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has been good this season.

Bridgewater has completed 70.7 percent of his passes for 3,102 yards, 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He has a passer rating of 96.1 and has been sacked 23 times.

Mike Pettine’s defense likely will attack Panthers’ left tackle Trent Scott, a third-year pro and undrafted free agent from Grambling State. Scott will be making his third start this season in place of Greg Little. Little was filling in for the injured Russell Okung.

It is likely Za’Darius Smith and occasionally Rashan Gary will line up across from Scott and take their best shots.

The defensive backs will be busy with receivers Robby Anderson and D.J. Moore, who combine to account for most of Carolina’s offense when McCaffrey is unavailable.

Anderson has 83 catches for 996 yards and two touchdowns. He has 15 explosive plays (20-plus yards) and is a deep threat. Moore, who is coming off the COVID-19 list, has been battling an ankle injury.

Panthers head coach Matt Ruhle said Moore is fully recovered.

Moore has 50 receptions for 924 yards and four touchdowns. He has 14 big plays (20-plus yards) and is especially dangerous in the screen game. Moore is a powerfully built 6-0, 210 pounds and tough to bring down.

The Packers better be ready to tackle from the outset.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur isn’t taking Carolina lightly.

“It’s never easy, it’s never perfect in this league,” LaFleur said. “We’re going to enjoy this one (the 31-24 win at Detroit) but then we’re going to get ready for Carolina. They’re getting healthier and I know they’ll be gassed up and ready to go.”

The Panthers had a three-game winning streak early before falling on hard times. Edge rusher Brian Burns and safety Jeremy Chinn are the top two playmakers on a solid Panthers’ defense.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Packers attack Carolina. I suspect we’ll see plenty of Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams on Saturday night.

Marquez Valdes-Scantling is going to try to build upon an impressive game (six catches for 86 yards and a touchdown) at Detroit.

Then there is the incomparable Davante Adams, who looks to stretch his consecutive games with a TD catch to nine.

Clearly, the Packers have plenty to improve upon.

They need more consistency from left guard Lucas Patrick. They need to defend the middle of the field in Raven Greene’s absence. They also need to cover punts and kickoffs like they’re at least remotely interested.

If that happens, the Packers should move to 11-3 and one game closer to sewing up the NFC’s top seed.

Final score: Packers 34, Panthers 21.

Packers clinch North,

grab NFC’s top seed

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN                                           

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers are poised to do something they’ve never done during Aaron Rodgers’ illustrious career.

They have the opportunity to host the NFC Championship game.

The Packers wrapped up a second straight NFC North title and leapfrogged New Orleans for the conference’s top seed with a 31-24 victory over Detroit Sunday at Ford Field.

Green Bay’s victory, coupled with New Orleans’ 24-21 loss at Philadelphia, moves the Packers (10-3) into the NFC’s top seed in a postseason where the No. 1 seed receives the only bye.

Aaron Rodgers didn’t downplay the significance of the top seed.

“I think it’s important for sure to get that extra week of rest,” he said. “The big thing – we’ve played in four NFC title games – all four have been on the road. To be able to have the whole thing come through Green Bay is something we’ve talked about and we’ve wanted and never had. That would definitely be in our favor with the weather.”

Weather is one thing. Whether they keep the No. 1 seed is another, although the prospects are promising.

The Packers own the tiebreaker over the Saints (10-3) thanks to a 37-30 victory at New Orleans earlier this season. The Saints host the AFC’s top seed, the 12-1 Chiefs, on Sunday.

By then, the Packers will have played Carolina (4-9), whom they host in a rare Saturday night game at Lambeau Field.

Green Bay overwhelmed the sub-.500 Lions (5-8) Sunday in a game spearheaded by a Packers’ offense that sucked the life out of Detroit with grinding, time-consuming touchdown drives in the second half.

“That’s when you’re playing downhill,” said Rodgers, who had another wonderfully ho-hum day. He completed 26 of 33 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns without being sacked. He finished with a 133.6 passer rating.

Davante Adams also had a big day with seven catches for 115 yards and an eye-popping 56-yard touchdown catch-and-run. It was Adams’ eighth straight game with a touchdown catch, which surpasses Hall of Fame receiver Don Hutson’s previous record of seven straight twice.

Adams’ touchdown came on a beautiful back-shoulder throw by Rodgers, who led him away from the Lions’ cornerback, which allowed him to juke back inside and sprint to the end zone.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur marveled at Adams’ brilliance.

“That just is a testament to the type of player Davante is – so explosive,” LaFleur said. “Whether there’s one guy or two guys on him, he always seems to find a way to make a great play.”

The Packers were 8 of 11 on third-down conversions for the game, and they chewed up 16 minutes while running 26 plays to the Lions’ three through the third quarter and into the fourth.

“They stayed patient,” LaFleur said. “We’re always trying to hunt for explosives, but they didn’t necessarily come to us. It takes a lot of discipline – our quarterback to take what’s there, and a couple of penalties that we overcame – but they stuck with it.

“We were able to battle and have long, consistent drives. That can be demoralizing to a defense.”

LaFleur didn’t need to remind Packers’ fans of that.

They know all the risks of trying to win despite a porous defense. They also know this: The Packers’ offense can overcome almost anything, and Green Bay’s defense is slowly but surely ascending.

It’s why the Packers’ postgame celebration Sunday at Ford Field wasn’t exactly a full-blown party. There is plenty of improvement to be made and work to be done.

The Packers’ championship hats and T-shirts read, “WON NOT DONE” for a reason. This isn’t the end. It’s scarcely the beginning of what’s been a long, strange pandemic-impacted 2020 season.

The Packers still have three regular-season games and the postseason, with a realistic shot at a berth in Super Bowl LV.

None of that prevented Rodgers from enjoying the moment.

“I just kind of leaned back in my locker, just smiled and took it all in,” Rodgers said. “With the music playing and the guys celebrating it was a special moment. You realize these are the times you’re going to miss when it’s all said and done. I’m happy for the opportunity to be part of this and I’m optimistic about what the future can hold with these guys.”

Indeed, the future is bright.

The Packers got a boost from Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who hauled in six catches in as many targets for 85 yards. His 14-yard touchdown catch with a Lions’ defensive back draped all over him was a thing of beauty.

MVS’s most recent catch going into the Detroit game was the reception that he fumbled away in Green Bay’s overtime loss at Indianapolis. Despite being targeted just three times in the next two games, he came up big against the Lions.

“I’m really proud of the way (MVS) played today, the focus that he’s shown the last few weeks not getting the football has been really admirable,” Rodgers said. “That’s how you earn the respect of your teammates, the way you conduct yourself when it may not being going as well as you’d like.”

The Packers’ defense quietly put together a strong day at Detroit.

The Lions’ Matthew Stafford completed 24 of 34 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown for a 100.6 passer rating. However, Stafford endured a beating in the process. He was sacked four times and forced to leave in the fourth quarter with sore ribs.

Stafford completed 17 of 19 targets to six different receivers, but the Packers’ defense neutralized his two most explosive weapons. Marvin Jones Jr. and T.J. Hockenson combined to make 10 catches for 91 yards and a touchdown, but it required 19 targets to net the 10 completions.

Green Bay’s defense also suffocated D’Andre Swift, who rushed seven times for an inconsequential 24 yards and a touchdown.

Rashan Gary, Dean Lowry, Kenny Clark and Darnell Savage all registered sacks and mounted consistent pressure.

Still, the Packers needed a late 57-yard field goal by Mason Crosby and a late defensive stand to hold the Lions to a field goal.

“It’s never easy. It’s never perfect in this league,” LaFleur said. “But our guys stuck together. It was a four-quarter battle. We’re going to enjoy this one. We’re going to enjoy it for one night and then we’re going to get back to work. There’s a lot out in front of us and we know the work it took to get to this point, so we’re going to take it one day at a time, one game at a time.”

Packers on verge of clinching NFC North

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN                                           

GREEN BAY, Wis. – A year ago, the Packers unveiled their “The North is not enough” T-shirts after capturing the division title two days before Christmas with a 23-10 victory at Minnesota’s U.S. Bank Stadium.

This year, the playoff gear may be out as early as Sunday at Ford Field.

The Packers (9-3) can wrap up the NFC North title with a victory at Detroit (5-7) and a Vikings’ loss at Tampa Bay, or a Cardinals’ loss at the New York Giants.

The demons that haunt Ford Field – the Packers’ house of horrors in recent seasons – should be exorcised against a weak Lions’ defense.

Green Bay’s offense has been sensational this season.

Aaron Rodgers is an MVP candidate, Davante Adams is playing the best football of his terrific career and Aaron Jones is as explosive as ever. Furthermore, Robert Tonyan has emerged as a go-to tight end and a deep, diverse offensive line may be the team’s best unit.

That should be enough to get to the NFC Championship, especially without a dominant team like the 2019 49ers standing in their path.

But what of the Packers’ defense?

Can it hold up against the Saints, Seahawks or whomever else might come its way in the postseason?

Clearly, Green Bay’s defense is trending in the right direction. While its well-documented deficiencies against the run have compromised the pass rush at times, both appear to be more in sync than ever.

A caller to Sports Line, our afternoon radio show in Green Bay, wanted to know why the Packers’ pass rush is so bad this year.

It turns out, perhaps surprisingly so, that the stats are almost identical from 2019 to this season per an ESPN report. The Packers’ defense had 163 QB pressures in 2019 and is on pace for 157 this season. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s crew also is on pace to tie its sack total of 41.

Some of it is due to this unorthodox, unprecedented season in which it seems NFL defenses have been playing catch up since September.

Some of it is due to Packers’ injuries to key run stoppers Kenny Clark, Christian Kirksey and Kamal Martin early on.

Now, the Packers’ defense is as healthy as it has been despite losing safety Raven Greene to a season-ending shoulder injury last Sunday.

Clark, Kirksey and Co. will be tested by the Lions.

Matthew Stafford is dangerous despite the rather ordinary numbers. Stafford has completed 271 of 428 passes (63.3 percent) for 21 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 94.4 passer rating.

Marvin Jones Jr. has 51 catches for 619 yards and six touchdowns, and tight end T.J. Hockenson has 52 catches and five touchdowns. Speedy ex-Badgers receiver Quintez Cephus is being used to stretch the field.

The problem for the Lions’ offense has been twofold: It can’t sustain anything in the running game and has been a sieve in pass protection.

Stafford’s turnstile offensive line has yielded 33 sacks.

Adrian Peterson is averaging a modest 3.7 yards per carry, while rookie D’Andre Swift is at 4.7 yards a carry with four touchdowns despite missing time with injuries.

Swift, who is expected to play against Green Bay, is a concern.

The common link between each of the Packers’ three losses is that each time the opponent has rushed 30-plus times and gained 140-plus yards. For Detroit to do that against Green Bay, Swift is going to have to pop several long gainers, and Stafford’s short- to intermediate- passing game is going to have to do enough to move the chains.

Za’Darius Smith, who treated last year’s division-clinching game like an early Christmas present, has been more dominant in recent games. With 24 sacks, he has the most by any Packers’ player in history in his first two seasons, and he’s still got four games to play.

Smith said he went to Pettine this week to ask to be “turned loose.”

The results were promising against the Eagles in a 30-16 victory, although Philadelphia’s injury-plagued O-line is as porous as it gets.

The Packers’ defense also may see tackle Anthony Rush on the field. Rush, at 6-4, 361 pounds, will be easy to spot. Let’s see if he can make an impact as big as his massive size.

Special teams also may get a boost with Tavon Austin’s activation. The receiver/returner is expected to fill Tyler Ervin’s role. Ervin has been beset by injuries and his latest – an ankle – may end his season.

Austin, 5-9, 180, was a first-round pick once upon a time. He has been clocked at 4.25 in the 40-yard dash. When asked how fast he is at age 30, he replied, “If I’m not 4.25 anymore I’m still a 4.3 guy.”

The Packers wouldn’t have signed him if he couldn’t run.

So what’s going to happen Sunday afternoon?

The Packers should get to 10-3 but it’s seldom easy at Ford Field. The Lions appear relieved to be rid of head coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn, who were fired after an embarrassing Thanksgiving loss.

With interim coach Darrell Bevell taking over, the Lions’ offense rallied from a two-score deficit to win 34-30 at Chicago. Bevell’s breath of fresh air has Detroit feeling frisky.

We’ll see how long that lasts against Rodgers and Green Bay’s pass rush. After hitting it on the number last week, I’m also feeling frisky (we’ll see how long that lasts) by picking Packers 31, Lions 19.

Packers punish Bears,

look to ground Eagles

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN                                           

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Once upon a time Carson Wentz was the next big thing at quarterback in the NFL.

In 2017, Eagles fans and the media heaped praise upon Wentz and for good reason. He was playing at an MVP-level before a season-ending injury left it to Nick Foles to lead Philadelphia to a Super Bowl title.

Fast-forward to today.

An embattled Wentz, whom the Eagles signed to a mega-contract, has been beset by an injury-ravaged offensive line coupled with a marginally talented, entirely underwhelming receiving corps.

Wentz has been sacked 46 times while throwing 16 touchdown passes to 15 interceptions. His passer rating of 73.4 is scarcely higher than Aaron Rodgers’ completion percentage (68.5) this season.

Surely the Packers’ defense is eager to get after the Eagles and Wentz on Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field.

The Packers (8-3) come in as 8 ½ point favorites. Amazingly, the Eagles (3-7-1) come in only a half-game out of first place in the NFC East.

The Packers should be able to KO the Eagles in roughly the time it takes to gobble down a Philly steak sandwich. They routed Chicago, 41-25, in a game that wasn’t that close.

Preston Smith showed up against the Bears with a sack, a fumble recovery and a fumble return for a touchdown. Rashan Gary also played well in an expanded role, and safety Darnell Savage Jr. had two interceptions. It’s no coincidence that Savage Jr.’s big game occurred when cornerbacks Kevin King, Jaire Alexander and Chandon Sullivan were all healthy and available.

At times Mitchell Trubisky looked like he was throwing it into a Packers’ defensive backs meeting Sunday night. Wentz also has been prone to making poor decisions and high-risk throws.

Wentz has thrown into tight coverage on 18.5% of his passes while completing just 37 percent of those ill-advised throws. The so-called “hero ball” isn’t going to cut it against Green Bay’s defense.

Green Bay also has been incredible in December home games, particularly when Rodgers is the starting quarterback. He has a 111.5 passer rating and a 19-3 win-loss record in December at Lambeau Field.

A year ago, the Packers were 5-0 at home in cold-weather games.

Furthermore, the Eagles’ defense played its hearts out in a 23-17 loss to playoff-bound Seattle on Monday night. It is possible that defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s crew exhaled its last gasp.

Will Fletcher Cox, Derek Barnett and Darius Slay be able to dig deep once again to slow the Packers’ offense and keep Philly in the game?

Perhaps, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

After Green Bay’s convincing win over the Bears, head coach Matt LaFleur was pleased with his team’s edge.

“We knew it was going to be a physical football game,” he said, “and I thought our guys did an outstanding job in every facet.”

Rodgers threw four touchdown passes against the Bears’ defense and eclipsed 50,000 passing yards for his career in the process. He has 33 touchdowns to four interceptions with five games to play.

Davante Adams will try to catch a touchdown pass in a seventh straight game, which is beginning to get ridiculous. Allen Lazard is getting healthier all the time, MVS has been more reliable and tight end Robert Tonyan is becoming a go-to target.

The Packers also signed veteran receiver/returner Tavon Austin this week. Austin, 30, will have a clear role as a return specialist and a “gadget” player on jet sweeps and quick screens in a four-receiver set.

The media asked Austin to reveal his 40-yard dash time these days. He was clocked at a head-spinning 4.2-something out of college.

“If I’m not 4.25 anymore I’m still a 4.3,” he replied.

The Packers wouldn’t have signed him if that weren’t true.

Austin’s presence enables LaFleur to use the entire playbook, rather than having to scale it back if Tyler Ervin is unavailable for whatever reason.

However the Packers go offensively, Rodgers has total confidence in LaFleur’s effectiveness as a play-caller. Here’s what he said after the Packers’ victory over the Bears:

“I thought it was a really good game plan executed to near-perfection in the first half, which is what we needed to get off to a fast start,” Rodgers said. “I think it was an expert-level way Matt (LaFleur) called it tonight and then obviously we executed the way we needed to. I’m really proud of the guys up front.”

The Eagles’ defense is just talented enough to be formidable, but it seems unlikely it will be able to slow down the Packers all afternoon.

The key on both sides may be getting the running game in gear.

If Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams can get 30-plus touches combined, and they get the Eagles’ defense on its cleats, the play-action passing game should produce multiple big plays.

Meantime, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson is likely going to give it to running back Miles Sanders repeatedly. If the Eagles can run effectively, Wentz could have enough time to throw it to his top target, tight end Dallas Goedert. Zach Ertz’s return, coupled with ex-Packer Richard Rodgers’ improvement, could lead to two- and three-tight end sets.

Pederson may try to give the Packers’ defense a heavy “run look” with the option to run it with Sanders or fake a handoff and throw it to any of his three sure-handed tight ends.

The Packers’ defense better be sharp because say what you will about Wentz’s struggles, he is still a lot more dangerous than Jake Luton and Mitchell Trubisky.

With that, I’ve got Green Bay 30, Philadelphia 16, with Rodgers throwing for three touchdowns and Raven Greene with an interception and touchdown return.

 

Packers tackle Bears

after OT loss to Colts

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN                                           

GREEN BAY, Wis. – When the Green Bay Packers win it is because Aaron Rodgers and the offense frequently carry the day.

On Sunday night, the offensively-challenged Chicago Bears will rely on their tried-and-true recipe for success: A stubborn defense, exceptional special teams and just enough points (aka field goals) to eke out a win.

It doesn’t sound like much, but it could be disastrous if the Packers’ defense and special teams don’t elevate their games.

Furthermore, the Green Bay offense has committed six turnovers in the past two games. It only committed three through eight games.

The Packers’ offense can’t take anything for granted because Chicago (5-5) deploys a defense to be reckoned with.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur sounded sufficiently concerned earlier this week.

“Our guys better be ready to play,” LaFleur cautioned, “because (the Bears’) defense is the best defensive unit we’ve played.”

The Packers worked out veteran receiver Tavon Austin, a street free agent who last played with Dallas in 2019. Austin, nicknamed “The Pocket Rocket,” received a workout in Green Bay this week. If he still has anything close to the 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash he once possessed, he might be worth a contract.

Austin, 30, would give much-needed depth behind Tyler Ervin, who has been either out or limited with a variety of injuries. Austin could provide a weapon as the jet-sweep guy, and obviously in the return game.

The Packers also signed ex-Bears defensive tackle Anthony Rush this week, while placing Montravius Adams on season-ending IR. It’s likely Adams has played his last game in a Packers’ uniform.

Good news on the Packers’ injury front included center Corey Linsley’s return to practice and it appears Davante Adams will be good to go.

A Packers’ win would go a long way toward sewing up the NFC North. A loss and it’s a one-game lead over the Bears with five games to play, including the Jan. 3 regular-season finale at Soldier Field.

The Bears received good news when All-Pro safety Eddie Jackson was cleared to return off the COVID-19 list. He is expected to play Sunday.

Jackson’s presence at least gives the Bears a chance to contain Rodgers.

Akiem Hicks, the Bears’ tough-as-nails defensive tackle, is questionable with a hamstring injury. However, Rick Camp of 670 The Score in Chicago, told Sports Line on Wednesday that he expected Hicks to play.

Pass rushers Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn haven’t been the dynamic duo the Bears envisioned, but both – especially Mack – always have the potential to dominate a game.

While linebacker Danny Trevathan hasn’t been the wrecking ball he’s been in the past, he’s still second in tackles (64) with two passes defended and a forced fumble.

Roquan Smith is a rangy, sideline-to-sideline tackling machine. Smith is playing at an All-Pro level with a team-high 96 tackles, two sacks and five passes defended.

Corner Kyle Fuller has been really good with eight passes defended and an interception. Rookie Jaylon Johnson has been exceptional with 13 passes defended.

The Packers need to get back to the running game.

Green Bay’s rushing attack ranked fourth in the NFL through four games. It has slipped to 14th since then.

Aaron Jones has six rushing touchdowns and two TD receptions, but he’s been held in check in recent weeks. Mostly, it has been a lack of touches, rather than production, that’s been the problem.

LaFleur acknowledged the offense needs to get back to balance.

“It just makes you a much more complete football team,” he said. “Obviously we know we have to run the ball better, and I’ve got to be more committed to calling some plays (with more run options) … and making sure that we have good looks to run the football into and then we have to execute better, obviously.”

The Packers need to give Jones and Jamaal Williams a minimum of 30 touches combined. The Vikings manage to get Dalvin Cook an average of 27 rushing attempts per game, so it’s do-able.

Rodgers and the passing offense have been terrific this season.

Rodgers has completed 240 of 352 passes (68.2 percent) for 2,889 yards, 29 touchdowns and four interceptions. His passer rating is a gaudy 115.8. He also has rushed 17 times for 78 yards and seven first downs.

It’s expected that Mitchell Trubisky will start for the Bears. Trubisky (shoulder) and Nick Foles (knee) both have been beat-up, so the healthier of the two gets the start.

Trubisky’s legs, perhaps more than his right arm, could give the Packers’ defense some trouble. Foles has rushed just 14 times for 3 yards this season, whereas Trubisky has carried it nine times for 90 yards, two big plays (20-plus yards) and three first downs.

The Packers’ point-spread grew from a touchdown to 8 ½ points merely on the threat of Trubisky starting Sunday night. Somehow I don’t think he will be able to quiet his detractors.

Leading rusher David Montgomery returns for the Bears after being in the concussion protocol. It will be interesting to see if he can get anything going against what has been underachieving run defense.

LaFleur said the Packers’ run defense, in addition to its run game, needs to improve.

“And then from a defensive perspective, again, I always look at run defense as, the best run defenses, there’s intent, there’s everybody doing their 1/11th in terms of being gap sound, playing with great fundamentals, and then flying to the football. The best run defenses swarm the football. And again, there were some really good moments (against the Colts). It’s just too inconsistent.”

Indeed, the Packers need to rediscover their running attack, show much more toughness on run defense, and play more consistently in all phases.

In other words, Green Bay needs to play the way it did in the first half of a 34-31 overtime loss at Indianapolis. The Packers led 28-14 at the intermission and were dominate to that point.

“I feel like, especially the first half, we were playing really complementary football in all three phases,” Rodgers said. “I think what’s been missing is that all three phases kind of firing on every cylinder.”

If that happens, look for the Packers to register a blowout win Sunday night at Lambeau Field.

Prediction: The two Aarons (Rodgers and Jones) lead the Packers to a convincing 31-13 trouncing of the Bears.

Packers 7-2 but with lots to prove vs. Colts

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN                                           

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers’ list of accomplishments is fairly impressive through nine games.

Green Bay (7-2) sits atop the NFC as the No. 1 seed.

It also holds a firm grasp on repeating as NFC North champions.

The Bears (5-5) are fading, the Vikings (4-5) remain a longshot to contend in the NFC, and the Lions (4-5) are, well, the Lions.

Green Bay has persevered through injuries and a brush with COVID-19, and it’s getting healthier with the recent return of linebacker Christian Kirksey and left tackle David Bakhtiari, as well as receiver Allen Lazard’s activation off injured reserve.

The Packers’ greatest NFC obstacle was San Francisco (4-6) but the 49ers have been decimated by injuries and COVID-19 outbreaks. New Orleans (7-2) is an unknown with Drew Brees’ injury, Tampa Bay (7-3) is inconsistent and Seattle (7-3) has a dubious defense.

The Rams (6-3) and Cardinals (6-4) are good, but Green Bay is better.

It has Aaron Rodgers and a powerful attack, and the Packers’ defense (bold statement) is going to start playing much better.

The Packers’ 24-20 win over Jacksonville (1-8) was a windy tug-of-war that proved Green Bay’s worst was better than the Jags’ best. Whatever the Packers learned in their 34-17 scrimmage at San Francisco, they didn’t seem to put to good use against Jacksonville.

However, the defense showed signs of life.

The Jaguars’ Jake Luton (18 of 35 for 169 yards and a TD) made some nice plays but ultimately looked like a rookie.

Still, Luton and the Jags had a chance to pull off the upset.

They took over at their 47 with 2:25 to play trailing by four. Luton moved them to Green Bay’s 36 before back-to-back sacks by Rashan Gary and Preston Smith set up fourth-and-long.

The Packers’ bench erupted when Luton’s fourth-down pass fell incomplete to seal the win.

Packers’ head coach Matt LaFleur appreciated his team’s response, but said they needed to show some life a lot sooner.

“I felt like that was the first time our team came alive,” he said. “You could feel it on the sidelines (with) everybody rooting for one another. We need that from the opening kick. That’s the standard. We can’t just pick and choose when we want to do that.”

In other words, it’s time to bring the juice.

That didn’t happen at windswept Lambeau Field last Sunday.

If the sound of pads popping could be heard, it was all too often the Jaguars bringing the wood.

The Jags’ James Robinson rushed 23 times for 109 yards (a 4.7 average) and controlled the line of scrimmage. The only question is why didn’t the Jaguars run it more with Robinson?

Kirksey returned to make a team-high seven tackles, while Za’Darius and Preston Smith combined for 10 tackles and two sacks.

Cornerback Chandon Sullivan had six solo tackles on a day when starting corners Kevin King (quad) and Jaire Alexander were out.

Both King and Alexander returned to practice this week, so it’s likely the defense will have its starting cornerback duo at Indianapolis.

There were some positives for the Packers against the Jags – the greatest being the outcome – but surely they must know they can’t continue to keep playing like this and winning.

Receiver Davante Adams said as much.

“We’ve definitely got some better ball in front of us,” he told reporters. “We’ve played decent. We’ve played good enough to win a decent amount of games, but we’ve got a lot left in the tank.”

They better hope so.

It could be argued that the Packers’ most difficult test in the coming weeks occurs Sunday when they face the Colts (6-3) in a 3:25 p.m. nationally televised game at Lucas Oil Stadium.

“So this is what it’s all about, right?” Colts head coach Frank Reich said. “It’s ‘good on good.’ ”

It’s the NFC’s top seed versus the AFC’s ascending Colts.

Indianapolis features a hyper-active defense that gets after it.

While the Packers’ offense ranks third in points and sixth in yards, the Colts’ defense ranks first in yards and fourth in points allowed.

Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner (2 ½ sacks) is a beast. Edge rusher Justin Houston still can bring it, and Denico Autry also can get the edge.

Linebacker Darius Leonard is one of the NFL’s finest at his position. Rodgers said Leonard is the player that makes them go.

“You can tell everybody’s on the same page and they fly around,” LaFleur said of the Colts’ defense. “It’s one of the faster units we’ll have played this year. They’re physical, they know how to attack the ball, and it’s hard to get big plays on them.”

That may get complicated with injuries.

Adams’ ankle injury remains a concern going into Sunday’s game at Indianapolis, and Tyler Ervin also is dealing with wrist and rib injuries and didn’t practice all week.

Somehow, I’m confident LaFleur will devise a winning scheme, whether it’s with a heavy dose of double- and triple-tight ends, Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams paired in the backfield, or adding an extra guard to give a “heavy” run look and then go play-action.

Defensively, the Packers’ crew needs to make some big plays. Its inability to force turnovers has been a problem all season. The Colts might provide an opportunity to correct that.

Philip Rivers is coming off a 300-yard passing day against Tennessee. He is a streaky passer who can be unstoppable if given time. It’s incumbent on Mike Pettine’s defense to get pressure on Rivers.

If that doesn’t happen, he’ll carve up the defense with Michael Pittman Jr., T.Y. Hilton and the rest. If the Packers don’t tackle well, Colts’ running backs Nyheim Hines (in the running game) and ex-Badger Jonathan Taylor (as a receiver out of the backfield) will do damage.

Meantime, Rodgers will need to stay patient.

“The Colts’ defense doesn’t make a lot of mistakes,” he said. “They kind of make you go the distance, make you earn it.”

If the Packers win Sunday, and I believe they’ll get it done 24-21, they most definitely will have earned it.

 

Packers 6-2 at break, prep for Jags Sunday

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN                                           

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers are in a good place at mid-season, which is to say, first place.

The defending NFC North champions sit firmly atop the division at 6-2.

The Vikings (3-5) and Bears (5-4) will battle it out Monday night at Soldier Field, where Minnesota has lost 10 of its last 12. The fading Lions (3-5) play host to a weak Washington (2-6) Football Team.

All that while the Packers gathered themselves following a wild week that began with a home loss to the Vikings, ended with a road win over the 49ers and included a COVID-19 outbreak in between.

Matt LaFleur (19-5) is earning his pay.

The Packers are among a handful of NFC teams – the Saints, the Bucs and the Seahawks to name a few – with the potential to make a deep playoff run despite an obvious flaw or two. The Packers’ primary weaknesses are the run defense and an inability to force takeaways.

Green Bay’s defense has two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.

That’s it through eight games.

Where is the Smith Brothers’ dynamic duo? How do players like Montravius Adams, Oren Burks and Kingsley Keke vanish for extended snaps between splash plays? When will the ball-hawks such as Jaire Alexander (in fairness teams don’t throw at him), Kevin King, Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos start pulling down some interceptions?

The answer is: The sooner the better and it better be soon.

Coordinator Mike Pettine’s crew needs to start fast beginning with Sunday’s game against Jacksonville (1-7) at Lambeau Field. The Jaguars’ Jake Luton had a terrific debut at quarterback last week. It’s time to tap him on the shoulder pads, wake him from the dream and give him a heavy dose of NFL reality.

Now, that sounds good, but the question is this: Can Za’Darius Smith and his mostly nondescript band of not-so-merry-men do the job? Preston Smith (shoulder) and Rashan Gary (ankle) are both healed up. That should provide some extra juice to the pass rush.

Alexander remains in the concussion protocol, but there is still hope he will be able to play Sunday. King (quad) is back and Kamal Martin should be ready by kickoff.

While Green Bay’s defense remains the question mark, the Packers’ offense has delivered early and often in the season’s first half.

It is tied for second in the NFL in turnovers with only three. It’s too bad the defense can’t force turnovers to make the advantage even greater.

It also ranks third in points per game (31.6) trailing only Seattle (34.3) and Kansas City (31.8). The Green Bay offense is fifth in third-down conversion and first in time of possession at a lopsided 34 to 26.

Aaron Rodgers is having one of his finest seasons.

He is on pace to throw for 4,500 yards while completing nearly 70 percent of his passes for 24 touchdowns to just two interceptions. His passer rating of 115.8 is terrific and he’s only been sacked nine times.

“To be 6-2 right now with the injuries that we’ve had and the circumstances feels really good,” Rodgers said.

In fact, the Packers’ offensive line boasts the NFL’s finest pass-block win rate as a group. That should get even better with the return of David Bakhtiari (chest) after a three-game absence.

Elgton Jenkins has started and played well at three positions: Left guard, left tackle and right tackle. He is a budding star. Corey Linsley has been strong at center, with Lucas Patrick and Jon Runyan, Jr., handling the guard spots in light of Lane Taylor’s season-ending injury.

Billy Turner is playing as well as anybody. He has been solid at right tackle, and he did the job at left tackle when Bakhtiari was out.

The offensive line’s versatility and depth is among the team’s strengths.

Davante Adams leads a receiving corps that can’t wait to get Allen Lazard back from injury. Lazard’s numbers (13 catches, a 19.5 average and two touchdowns) were accomplished in three games. His return should signal the full-speed return of the offense.

Adams has been incomparable.

He’s made big plays even when defenses are keying on him.

Aaron Jones is the other home run hitter.

Jones’ breakaway ability, in addition to his receiving skills, brings an element to the offense that takes it up another notch. When Jones, Adams and Rodgers are clicking this attack is nearly unstoppable.

Adams offered this explanation to reporters.

“The easy answer to eliminate a lot of big plays from bigger-time receivers is the shell,” Adams said. “Obviously you go 2-high (safeties), you go Cover-2 (and) that makes it a lot more difficult, it kind of slims down the options for us. But on the flip side of that, you got Cover-2, it just allows for better running lanes, and if you do that with (Jones) out there, you’re going to be in trouble. So I’d say we kind of balance each other out and keep these defenses honest.”

 

Tyler Ervin has had a decent first half while showing his value. Equanimeous St. Brown and Marquez Valdes-Scantling must find some consistency in their games.

The tight end group has been strong.

Robert Tonyan may be Rodgers’ second-most reliable weapon in the passing game. Jace Sternberger is making more plays and finally showing some confidence, while Marcedes Lewis is reliable as ever.

Mason Crosby and J.K. Scott have handled the kicking and punting duties, with a tip of the helmet to Scott for double-duty on kickoffs. The return game is solid and the coverage has been decent.

Now, the Packers need to elevate their level of play.

They haven’t played their most complete game – not by a longshot – but it’s difficult to do given circumstances such as injuries and COVID-19.

That said LaFleur and his Packers have everything in front of them.

Now they need to go out and take it.

Packers rip depleted 49ers 34-17 on TNF

By Chris Havel

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers picked up a bizarre Sunday-Thursday split to retain their NFC North lead and good standing in the conference.

Green Bay overwhelmed a depleted San Francisco squad 34-17 Thursday night at Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium four days after falling at home to marauding Minnesota 28-22 on Sunday.

The plan was to sweep, but the Packers (6-2) will settle for the split.

In this unprecedented 2020 season, Green Bay will take every win it can get regardless of the circumstances – theirs or their opponent’s.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur didn’t hide the fact that the 49ers were decimated by injuries and COVID-19 related absences. San Francisco looked at times like it was playing a preseason game.

River Cracraft caught two passes and nearly hauled in a touchdown. Jordan Willis registered his first sack. Congratulations to fans that had Cracraft and Willis on their BINGO cards.

The 49ers were recognizable only for their uniforms. It wasn’t a “who’s who” so much as a “who’s that?”

No matter.

Aaron Rodgers will take the “W” without apologies.

“There’s nothing better than winning,” he said. “They all count and they’re all special. Not having the same atmosphere here – nothing anywhere close to it – it’s still the NFL. It’s still fun to win. It’s nice being clean and not getting hit at all except the end of the first half.”

Rodgers completed 25 of 31 passes for 305 yards, four touchdowns and a 147.2 passer rating. His play was nearly flawless while utilizing the weapons at his disposal.

Aaron Jones’ return energized the offense. Merely the threat of Jones breaking a big run brought life to the play-action passing game. Jones rushed 15 times for 58 yards and caught five passes for 21 yards.

Davante Adams also came up big with 10 catches for 173 yards and a touchdown. Adams opened the scoring with a 36-yard touchdown grab on the Packers’ first series.

“He’s such a great player,” Rodgers said of Adams. “We hit him with a lot of different things tonight. Hit him on the first possession with a ‘go’ ball that he made a nice adjustment on. On the last possession we were in on (hit him) with an inside-go route. He’s so talented, he can do it all, handles himself the right way, just a joy to play with, a special guy.”

It was the eighth straight game Green Bay scored on its opening drive.

“We’ve scored on eight straight possessions to start the game,” Rodgers said. “We’ve gotten off to a good start every single week. A lot of that has been the scripting Matt (LaFleur) does, and we execute it, and we got a jolt having No. 33 back.”

Rodgers was sacked just once despite playing behind a reshuffled line.

With left tackle David Bakhtiari already out, and right tackle Rick Wagner being injured early, the Packers had to get creative up front. Elgton Jenkins started at left guard, moved to left tackle and finished up at center by game’s end. Billy Turner went from left to right tackle, and rookie Jon Runyan, Jr. was impressive for a third game this season.

LaFleur was asked to speculate as to where the team would be without such an effective, versatile offensive line.

“We’d be in rough shape,” he replied. “(The offensive line) coaches’ ability to prepare their guys is incredible. They don’t blink.”

The 49ers were in rough shape due to injuries and COVID-19 protocols.

Receiver Kendrick Bourne tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week. 49ers’ left tackle Trent Williams and receiver Brandon Aiyuk were placed on the COVID-19 reserve list related to Bourne’s test.

San Francisco already was without quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (ankle), All-Pro tight end George Kittle (foot), running back Raheem Mostert (ankle), receiver Deebo Samuel (hamstring) and defenders Nick Bosa (knee), Dee Ford (back) and Richard Sherman (calf).

The 49ers looked nothing like the team that blasted Green Bay twice last season at Levi’s Stadium.

“They’re a different team on paper for sure,” Rodgers said. “They’ve had some tough injuries to some really key players, but no one’s feeling sorry for anybody in this league. That’s the way it goes. Nobody’s feeling sorry for us. We’re dealing with injuries.”

The Packers were without running backs A.J. Dillon and Jamaal Williams and linebacker Kamal Martin due to Dillon’s positive test for COVID-19 on Monday. Their ranks were thinned further when Wagner, Jaire Alexander (concussion) and Krys Barnes (calf) left with injuries.

Packers’ defensive coordinator Mike Pettine used 22 players on defense. At times it resembled a preseason game.

Still, Green Bay’s defense held up.

While 49ers’ running back Jerick McKinnon (12 carries, 52 yards) made them look bad on several plays, the Packers’ defense stayed the course.

Oren Burks had six tackles, Ty Summers added four (including a touchdown-saving stuff at the goal-line) and Randy Ramsey had three.

Now the Packers’ defense can analyze the game film, make corrections, get healthy and move on to the season’s second half.

Za’Darius Smith came up with a strip-sack and fumble recovery. Preston Smith delivered a huge hit on 49ers’ quarterback Nick Mullens, whose errant throw was intercepted by Raven Greene. Safety Darnell Savage also dropped what should’ve been a surefire interception.

Meantime, Marquez Valdes-Scantling redeemed himself after two drops to come up with two touchdown catches. He hauled in a 52-yard bomb after beating busted coverage and corralled a 1-yarder later on.

Perhaps MVS will continue to build on this infusion of confidence.

Meantime, the Packers will try to build on this victory and regroup for the season’s second half run. They are off until Nov. 15 when they host Jacksonville. Between now and then they can rest up, heal up and gather themselves for a sprint to the finish line.

 

Packers get Vikings, 49ers in key 4-day run

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – It was the worst prediction of the NFL season.

Following the Packers’ 43-34 victory over Minnesota in the NFL season opener at U.S. Bank Stadium, I wrote with unwavering certainty that the

Vikings’ defense, in particular, would be much-improved in the teams’ Sunday, Nov. 1, rematch at Lambeau Field.

It turns out the Vikings (1-5) are worse.

That doesn’t mean Minnesota isn’t dangerous, especially with an offense that can be explosive at times, but it isn’t the threat many expected Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer’s team to be this season.

Green Bay (5-1) routed Minnesota in the opener and aside from a stumble at Tampa Bay hasn’t looked back. The Packers can put the Vikings out of their misery with a victory Sunday.

A year ago, Green Bay did exactly that with a resounding 23-10 victory last December that enabled the Packers to clinch the NFC North title. The Packers can’t sew up a division title on Sunday, but they can effectively eliminate the Vikings from playoff contention.

To do that, the Packers have to overcome several challenges.

The Packers’ greatest may be injuries to running back Aaron Jones (calf) and kicker Mason Crosby (calf) that likely will sideline both. There is a reason Packers GM Brian Gutekunst routinely works out kickers on the team’s Tuesday off-day, and this is it.

Green Bay’s offense, led by Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams, rolled up 35 points in its 35-20 victory over Houston. The Vikings’ defense has several All-Pro holdovers, including safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris, but beyond that it’s pretty sparse.

The cornerbacks are inexperienced and the defensive line hasn’t been able to consistently stop the run or generate a pass rush. Edge rusher Danielle Hunter underwent season-ending surgery to repair a herniated disc, and the team traded Yannick Ngakoue to the Ravens.

Still, Kirk Cousins has been able to find some chemistry with rookie receiver Justin Jefferson, and it appears Dalvin Cook (groin) will try to play against the Packers.

The Packers’ defense stepped up in the win at Houston.

It opened with back-to-back three-and-outs and closed by demonstratively quelling the Texans’ comeback hopes.

Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s crew registered a sack from every level (Za’Darius Smith, Krys Barnes and Adrian Amos) against the Texans’ Deshaun Watson. Cousins isn’t nearly so mobile and should provide an inviting target for the Packers’ pass rushers.

The Packers’ offense should be able to exploit the Vikings’ secondary with Davante Adams, Jamaal Williams out of the backfield and the tight ends, in particular Robert Tonyan.

Green Bay can’t afford to look past the Vikings, but it’s difficult not to with the San Francisco 49ers looming on Thursday night.

This two-game stretch could go a long way toward defining Green Bay’s season. A victory over the Vikings would eliminate Minnesota and establish the Packers as the clear-cut top team in the NFC North.

A victory over the 49ers would be a welcome departure from the embarrassing back-to-back losses at San Francisco. Furthermore, it would slow the speculation that the Packers are among the NFC’s top teams, but not quite as good as either Seattle or San Francisco.

It’s time for the Packers to assert themselves.

If this is going to be a truly special season, the fast start will become a footnote to the Packers’ dominance in late-October and early November when they KO’d the Vikings and 49ers in a four-day span.

San Francisco has had its share of injuries to deal with, but following a fairly convincing 24-16 victory over the Rams last week, it appears the 49ers are beginning to find their groove.

The 49ers (4-3) will be coming off a NFC West battle with Seattle (5-1) on Sunday afternoon.

San Francisco’s problems generating a pass rush, coupled with Green Bay’s get-the-job-done offensive line, suggest a big day for Rodgers. The Packers’ quarterback remains the difference-maker.

The Packers’ future is this week. A pair of resounding victories would leave them 7-1 at the halfway point. It would set the stage for a serious post-season run and all but lock up the NFC North title.

Packers beaten up, but upbeat for Texans

By Chris Havel                                                     

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Their loss was a resounding disappointment. Their injury list is lengthy. Their critics suggest NFL defenses – thanks to Tampa Bay – have discovered how to stop the Packers’ offense.

Aaron Rodgers isn’t having it.

“So because of one game, what is it that you’re implying?” he asked in response to a question during Wednesday’s Zoom call with media that raised the possibility that the Bucs exposed Green Bay’s attack.

The Packers’ quarterback doesn’t even care to entertain it.

“One out of five,” he said.

The Packers’ 38-10 loss at Tampa Bay Sunday was an outlier, according to Rodgers. That isn’t to say he doesn’t think they need to be better beginning with their preparation for Sunday’s game at Houston.

Everyone from Packers’ head coach Matt LaFleur to numerous players acknowledged last week’s practice and preparation wasn’t good enough.

The energy, concentration and focus were lacking last week.

It led to a disastrous defeat to the Bucs.

Rodgers said it’s important to digest it, analyze it and move on.

“By the time we watched that film on Monday, that’s in the can,” he said. “We’re on to the next opponent. The last two days, we’ve been watching Houston. We’ve been talking about Houston. We’re on to the next situation. The biggest thing that we can do is just focus on what got us here and this opponent.”

What got the Packers (4-1) to “here” is crisp, turnover-free offense interspersed with pre-snap misdirection designed to unleash Davante Adams, Aaron Jones and others to make splash plays.

The defense has had its moments, but not nearly enough of them.

Mike Pettine’s crew better be on its toes Sunday against the Texans because quarterback Deshaun Watson has been extremely sharp. He has thrown for 694 yards and seven touchdowns in his past two games.

The Texans (1-5) lost to Tennessee 42-36 in overtime last week. Watson rallied his team to two fourth-quarter leads, only to see the Houston defense allow the Titans to retake the lead twice and ultimately win.

“We always want to score touchdowns when we touch the ball,” Watson said. “That’s our idea, regardless of what the situation of the game is. You know, my idea is to get points on the board every drive, and if we don’t have that mentality, then we’re doing something wrong.”

The Texans’ defense, led by ex-Wisconsin star J.J. Watt, registered its first interception of the season and Watt added a strip-sack fumble.

Still, as interim coach Romeo Crennel said, it wasn’t enough.

The latest Las Vegas betting line has the Packers listed as a 3 ½ point favorite. What’s more interesting is that the point total (over/under) is 57, which is the highest in the NFL this week.

Clearly, the betting public’s confidence rests with Rodgers and Watson.

The Packers won’t shy away from a shootout, but it may be complicated by left tackle David Bakhtiari’s chest injury. The All-Pro hasn’t practiced this week and it seems unlikely he will play Sunday.

Rick Wagner filled in at left tackle in Bakhtiari’s absence, but LaFleur wouldn’t commit to him going forward. One possibility is kicking left guard Elgton Jenkins to left tackle, which might require Lucas Patrick to go to left guard, Billy Turner to right guard and Wagner to right tackle.

The line’s reshuffling will be tested by the Texans.

LaFleur isn’t taking anything for granted, especially Watt.

“I see a big, explosive, disruptive player that if given the opportunity will wreck the game,” LaFleur said of Watt.

Bakhtiari is one of 13 players on the injury list.

On offense, running back/return specialist Tyler Ervin (wrist) and tight end Robert Tonyan (ankle) haven’t practiced.

On defense, defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster (shoulder) and safety Darnell Savage (quad) also haven’t practiced.

With that, LaFleur shortened Wednesday’s practice while taking the opportunity to make “mental” installations of the initial game plan.

“We all got a little bit of a sour taste in our mouth from this past game,” receiver Davante Adams said. “So the attention to detail was there. I think everybody was kind of locked in, helping out one another.”

It will be interesting to see how LaFleur counters Ervin’s absence. Against the Bucs’ defense it appeared he conceded way too much of his attack even before the first snap. There weren’t many jet sweeps and the pre-snap motion was scaled way back.

Furthermore, the Packers ran one screen – to no success – but never came back to it. It was almost as if Green Bay said, “We can’t run the screen game because the Bucs’ linebackers are too fast.”

On the other hand, LaFleur acknowledged his plan was to use the wide-zone running scheme to wear out the Bucs. The problem was the Bucs’ linebackers beat the Packers’ backs to the edge and disrupted the play.

My guess is the Packers will focus on getting the ball to Adams and running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams. With Tonyan still gimpy on the bum ankle, it’s time for Jace Sternberger to earn his keep.

Defensively, Clark’s return should give Kingsley Keke and Montravius Adams ample opportunity to continue to elevate their games. Both have played well the past two weeks.

Savage’s absence in the secondary is problematic at best.

Kevin King’s healthy return should allow Chandon Sullivan to handle the slot coverage responsibilities, which in turn may cover for Savage if he isn’t able to go.

In any event, the Packers need to rebound and go get a win.

As LaFleur said, “You can’t allow one loss to become two.”

Packers’ draft makes

perfect sense over time

By Chris Havel                                                     

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Comparing the Packers and Titans is an intriguing glimpse into what two of the NFL’s unbeaten teams share in common.

It is at once considerable and eye-opening.

Matt LaFleur, the Packers’ second-year head coach, is 17-3 through 20 games. That is second only to San Francisco’s George Seifert (18-2), who inherited a Super Bowl champion from the great Bill Walsh.

LaFleur’s offense, with Aaron Rodgers running the show, is among the NFL’s most explosive attacks in recent memory.

Mike Vrabel, the Titans’ head coach, possesses one of the NFL’s brightest defensive minds. He also is a noted task-master in the style of New England’s Bill Belichick, and has managed to get a serious COVID-19 outbreak on his team under control.

Some might criticize Vrabel for “allowing it” to infect some players. I choose to applaud him for following NFL protocol, shutting it down and getting it (fingers crossed) under control.

Whether it was Vrabel’s fault, in part, for having the outbreak is debatable at best. What he did as a leader to get it right is undeniable.

The Packers (4-0) and the Titans (4-0) share strong leadership at the top.

More than that, the Titans are still running LaFleur’s offense two seasons after his departure to become the Packers’ head coach. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it is obvious LaFleur isn’t the only one that thinks his concepts are solid.

And Vrabel’s a defensive guy. Clearly he knows what offensive schemes are more difficult to attack than others. If he continues to embrace LaFleur’s offense two years removed from the architect’s departure, I’ve got to think he is all in on LaFleur’s “pre-snap misdirection” concepts.

When the Titans were putting a 42-16 beat-down on previously undefeated Buffalo (4-1) Tuesday night, I couldn’t help but picture the Packers’ offense on the field when Tennessee was attacking.

I considered the Packers’ decision to trade up and draft Utah State quarterback Jordan Love with the 26th pick. The more I watched Ryan Tannehill run the Titans’ show, the more I came to see Love operating Green Bay’s attack in similar fashion.

Love wasn’t drafted to be the next Aaron Rodgers.

Comparing the two quarterbacks is unfair to Love and insulting to Rodgers. The Packers’ No. 12 is a future, surefire Pro Football Hall of Fame player. He is one of the greatest throwers and thinkers of all time.

On the other hand, a Love-Tannehill comparison isn’t a reach too far.

Love (6-4, 219) is agile with a strong, accurate arm and a “throw first, run second” mentality. He also has the advantage of a front-row seat to one of the NFL’s all-time great quarterbacks doing his thing.

Tannehill (6-4, 207) is quite athletic with a good, accurate arm and a “throw first, run second” mentality. He runs when he has to – and because he can – but not because he doesn’t know where to throw it.

Tannehill has developed into more than an athletic QB. LaFleur’s offense seems to suit him well.

And Love doesn’t have to be Rodgers. He has to be able to run the Packers’ offense under LaFleur in the way Tannehill does in Tennessee.

Perhaps now the Packers’ decision to draft Love makes more sense to some of the naysayers. The NFL draft experts were correct about the 2020’s motherlode of great receivers. From Henry Ruggs III to Chase Claypool it’s a special group.

Then again there was only one Jordan Love at quarterback.

The same experts that were 1,000 percent correct in 2020 also note that there is going to be another abundance of terrific talent at receiver in 2021. The Packers can add an A.J. Brown in the draft next April, but it would’ve been much more difficult landing a QB with Love’s potential.

However, the Packers did draft running back A.J. Dillon in the second round in 2020. The flawed comparisons between the Titans’ Derrick Henry and Dillon have been dissected ad nauseum, so I won’t go there.

However, Dillon (6-0, 247) and Henry (6-3, 247) do share similarities that are important, even if they don’t include running style. Henry is a special back who has done it repeatedly at the highest level.

Dillon is just a puppy.

Henry’s running style, which is upright, remains at once elusive and overpowering. The Packers’ defense will get to find out all about Henry firsthand – or first miss – in late December.

Meantime, Dillon is learning his chops in Green Bay. But I’m guessing both Dillon and Love are watching as much film of Tannehill, Henry and the Titans as they are anything else.

Dillon, when he earns an expanded role, will get a chance to show off his power and 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash. He also will get a chance to display his pass-catching prowess, which despite limited information appears to be superior to Henry’s pass-catching ability.

Before getting into Packers-Bucs, here is a comparison between Tannehill and Rodgers through four games this season.

Tannehill is 91 of 132 (68.9 percent) for 1,004 yards with nine touchdowns, one interception and a 110.8 passer rating. Tannehill has been sacked three times while rushing 15 times for 77 yards.

Rodgers is 98 of 139 (70.5 percent) for 1,214 yards, 13 touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 128.4 passer rating. Rodgers has been sacked three times while rushing six times for 31 yards.

Their numbers couldn’t be closer. Neither could their win-loss records.

Interestingly, Tannehill isn’t getting nearly the love – uh, hmm – that Rodgers is getting. The fact is both deserve all the accolades they get.

When they meet Dec. 27 at Lambeau Field it won’t get the “Rodgers versus Brady” billing that Packers-Bucs is receiving. However, it just might be viewed as a Super Bowl preview.

Now wouldn’t that be something?

Meantime, the Packers have turned up the heat in the Hutson Center. They have been practicing at 80 degrees in an attempt to better-prepare for Tampa’s heat.

The Tampa forecast for Sunday is 88 degrees with a 30-percent chance of precipitation, 14 mph winds and 66-percent humidity. Obviously, temperatures in the upper 80s qualify as hot, but given the relatively low humidity and brisk winds it should be fairly comfortable.

Weather aside, the Packers’ defense will be trying to put the heat on Bucs’ quarterback Tom Brady. The Bucs’ offensive line is suspect and Brady is basically a statue at this stage, so Za’Darius and Preston Smith should have the means to go with the motive this week.

If the Bucs can’t sustain a running attack behind Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette it could be a long day for Brady. Jones II is an extremely hard runner, however, and Fournette remains a load. If the Packers’ defense isn’t ready at the outset, and Kenny Clark isn’t quite himself in his return from a groin injury, it could spell trouble.

Frankly, I can’t see Mike Pettine allowing the Bucs’ offense to beat them on the ground. It will be interesting to see Mike Evans and Jaire Alexander butt heads. Kevin King’s possible absence due to a quad injury gives Tampa Bay a slight edge in the WR-CB battle.

Ultimately, I believe the Packers move to 5-0 with a late, game-winning touchdown drive to clinch a 31-28 victory.

Packers a perfect 4-0 with Bucs, Brady next

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Aaron Rodgers is on pace to throw 52 touchdowns to zero interceptions. Za’Darius Smith has recorded five sacks to tie for the league lead. Robert Tonyan has five touchdown catches to join Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans atop the NFL in that category.

The Packers (4-0) have had great individual efforts to this point.

That includes Green Bay’s head coach, Matt LaFleur, who along with his staff has put players in position to succeed.

In the Packers’ 30-16 victory over Atlanta on Monday night, LaFleur deployed a variety of personnel groupings that at times included six offensive linemen, three tight ends and three running backs.

It was meant to offset injuries to Green Bay’s top two receivers, Davante Adams (hamstring) and Allen Lazard (core). The result was another tidy, well-played game in which Green Bay committed just three penalties for 30 yards and no turnovers for a fourth straight game.

Discipline, diversity and deception are the Packers’ hallmarks.

Rodgers has a 128.4 passer rating. The offensive line has allowed just three sacks despite being a weekly mix-and-match proposition. The elusive and explosive Aaron Jones is on pace to rush for 1,496 yards.

“We were down a couple of guys, but we had guys step up,” LaFleur said. “That’s what we want to see, because no matter who’s out there the standards never change. We expect to do well and we expect to win.

“It was a good team win.”

Rodgers was 27 of 33 for 327 yards, four touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 147.5 passer rating. He was sacked just once and completed a perfect 19 passes on 19 targets to his tight end and running backs.

Aaron Jones rushed 15 times for 71 yards (4.7 per carry) and he caught another five passes for 40 yards and a touchdown. Jamaal Williams, often on the field with Jones, caught eight passes for 95 yards.

Marquez Valdes-Scantling caught four passes for 45 yards while being used mostly as a decoy. Malik Taylor and Darrius Shepherd each had a catch while Tyler Ervin spent his night running fake jet sweeps to keep the Falcons’ emaciated defense on its heels.

The Packers are the first team in NFL history to score 150-plus points with zero turnovers through four games. They are the only remaining team without a turnover this season.

Rodgers is playing some of the best football of his illustrious career.

“He’s one of those guys that are self-motivated,” LaFleur said of Rodgers. “It doesn’t take anything other than he wants to be the best. He usually is the best every Sunday when we’re out there. We’re fortunate to have him as our leader. He’s the one driving the ship out there.”

 

Rodgers’ crew was pretty good, too.

 

Tonyan led the way with a career-high six catches for 98 yards and three touchdowns. He became the third tight end in Packers’ history to post a three-TD game, joining Keith Jackson and Jermichael Finley.

“I just had to continue to do what I’ve been doing, just keep playing well and stick to the game plan,” Tonyan said. “Like I’ve said before, when plays come to me, I’ve got to make them. Aaron (Rodgers) had a nice little look in his eye tonight, so I just was trying to roll with that.”

Indeed, Tonyan rolled with it literally and physically.

When Falcons’ safety Jamal Carter tackled Tonyan to keep him from getting open, Tonyan rolled forward, sprang to his feet and hauled in a 21-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers.

That put the Packers up 27-9 late in the third quarter.

The Falcons mustered a meaningless touchdown the rest of the way.

Green Bay got a strong night from its defense.

The Packers limited Atlanta’s Matt Ryan to just 249 yards passing and zero touchdowns. The Falcons’ offensive line came into the game with the NFL’s sixth-best sacks allowed percentage.

By the time Za’Darius Smith and Green Bay’s defense was finished, Ryan was sacked four times and the Falcons (0-4) went home winless and wondering what hit them.

Za’Darius Smith said LaFleur challenged him to be his dominant best earlier in the week. The pass rusher responded in a big way. Smith racked up eight tackles (six solo), three sacks, four tackles for loss and five quarterback hits.

Atlanta’s All-Pro receiver Julio Jones – perhaps pressed into duty because of the team’s dire circumstances – caught four passes for 32 yards before exiting just before half after re-tweaking his hamstring.

Calvin Ridley was shut out on five targets. One of those incompletions came when Packers safety Adrian Amos swooped in to knock down a would-be touchdown catch in the fourth quarter.

“That was big,” Za’Darius Smith said. “Double-A (Amos) is an impact player for us. He brought it in a clutch situation.”

Now Green Bay has the bye to heal up.

 

Kenny Clark (groin) and Christian Kirksey (shoulder) should be back sooner than later. It’s a good thing, too.

 

The Packers travel to Tampa Bay to face Tom Brady and the Bucs coming off the bye. For his part, Rodgers doesn’t want to be asked about the “Rodgers versus Brady” matchup.

 

That didn’t keep Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett from weighing in when asked.

Hackett said it will be “great entertainment … for us as coaches, as players, as fans, as reporters … and a fun thing to be a part of, but to (Rodgers and Brady) it’s just another game.”

 

It is that and more.

 

It’s a battle to join Seattle as the early leaders for NFC supremacy.

 

My prediction: It comes down to the final possession, with Green Bay eking out a 30-28 victory to go to 5-0 and prepare for Houston.

 

Packers stop Saints to

start 3-0; Falcons next

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers would like nothing more than to spare the Falcons the embarrassment of another fourth-quarter collapse.

 

They would prefer to put Atlanta out of its misery long before then.

Green Bay (3-0) has the offensive firepower to do it. They are the first team in NFL history to score at least 35 points without a turnover through three games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Atlanta (0-3) is at the other end of the spectrum. The Falcons have blown two-touchdown leads in the fourth quarter in each of their last two losses.

“These last two weeks have been nothing short of crushing,” Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn told reporters this week.

“It doesn’t get no worse than this,” defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. added. “We probably found the two worst ways you can lose a football game.”

The Falcons’ desperation could provide extra motivation to turn things around on Monday Night Football at Lambeau Field. Packers’ head coach Matt LaFleur – who coached Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan to great success – isn’t going to take Atlanta lightly.

“We’re going to have a very hungry Atlanta Falcons team coming in here that, no doubt about it should be 2-1 right now,” LaFleur said. “And they’re not, but that’s life in this league. Every game comes down to just a couple of plays here and there that can really change the outcome.”

Clearly, the Packers can’t take Atlanta for granted.

The Falcons’ offense is dangerous in its own right.

Star receiver Julio Jones appears to be back from a hamstring injury that sidelined him last week. He is one of the league’s premier playmakers and a threat to score every time he touches the football.

Hayden Hurst, the tight end, also is a talented receiver (9 catches, 111 yards, two touchdowns) who will be given a chance to exploit the heart of the Packers’ defense. That is especially true with inside linebacker Christian Kirksey still out with a shoulder injury.

It will be up to Ty Summers, Krys Barnes and either Raven Greene or Will Redmond to defend the middle of the field against the run and pass.

Todd Gurley isn’t the Pro Bowl back he once was, but he’s still got enough game to average 4 yards per carry with two touchdowns. Backup Brian Hill only has 15 carries, but he’s averaging a healthy 5.6 per carry and is quick as a hiccup.

I will be surprised if the Falcons don’t try to attack Green Bay’s defense by peppering it with rushing attempts and short-to-intermediate passes and the occasional deep shot to Jones.

The Falcons’ Calvin Ridley has been a difference maker, but he will be sidelined this week with an ankle injury.

It should be a great opportunity for Green Bay’s defense to show up.

The Falcons’ offensive line is sixth-best in the NFL in sack percentage, so it knows how to protect Ryan. Za’Darius and Preston Smith, Rashan Gary and Kingsley Keke need to put pressure on Ryan. If not, the Falcons just might find a way to hang around for four quarters.

Defensively, the Falcons’ secondary is ravaged by injuries.

Safety Ricardo Allen (elbow), cornerback A.J. Terrell (COVID-19) and cornerback Darqueze Dennard (hamstring) are out. Also, corner Kendall Sheffield (foot) is hoping to play after missing the first three games.

It helps mitigate the Packers’ loss of Allen Lazard (core) for what reportedly is going to require surgery. Lazard will be out anywhere from three to eight weeks.

The good news is that Davante Adams (hamstring) has made progress and should be a game-time decision once again.

I would expect Adams to play.

It will be interesting to see how LaFleur utilizes his weapons without Lazard and perhaps Adams. Tyler Ervin should get more touches, and unheralded Darrius Shepherd may get a chance to contribute.

Look for LaFleur to give rookie running back A.J. Dillon a slightly more expanded role, which would allow Aaron Jones to slide out to the slot. Tight end Robert Tonyan also is coming off a big game.

The Packers’ 37-30 victory at New Orleans last Sunday night showcased a 24-point second half after trailing by four points at halftime.

In fact, Green Bay has trailed in each of its games this season.

The Packers’ offensive balance has bailed them out each time.

Aaron Rodgers completed 21 of 32 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns to nine different receivers against the Saints. That is impressive considering Adams was out with the hamstring injury.

With the Saints’ defense electing to shade its coverage toward Marquez Valdes-Scantling (1 catch, 5 yards) the Packers turned their attention to Lazard, who had six catches for 146 yards and a touchdown.

Lazard’s career night featured catches of 48 and 72 yards to set up Packers’ touchdowns, and he also caught a 5-yard scoring pass. Lazard also drew a pass interference penalty that set up a fourth touchdown.

Now, Lazard is out so either MVS or perhaps Shepherd needs to step up.

“We’ve gotten in a good flow,” Rodgers said. “I feel so much more comfortable in the offense this year, and I think Matt has really settled in to the rhythm of the play calling, and it’s made my job a lot easier.”

 

One of LaFleur’s greatest strengths is seeing the game for what it is. If he senses it’s going to be a shootout he adjusts his play-calling and decision-making accordingly.

 

“I really like the timing on certain calls,” Rodgers said. “Sometimes, you’ve got to kind of dig deep at certain times and hold on to something and trust the players. I really appreciate the flow that we had (against the Saints) and the trust in us to make the plays.”

 

Monday night the Packers’ playmakers need to step up on both sides of the football. Look for Green Bay to control the football, take its shots and get after Ryan.

 

Prediction: Packers 42, Falcons 20

Season total: 6-0 versus the spread; 6-0 versus the Over/Under.

Green Bay +2, 47

Packers 30, Vikings 17 (Packers 43-34, 2-0)

Green Bay -6, 43

Packers 38, Lions 19 (Packers 42-21, 4-0)

Green Bay +3, 54

Packers 30, Saints 24 (Packers 37-30, 6-0)

Green Bay -7.5; 56.5

 

Packers maul Lions,

take aim at Saints

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers’ offense is for real.

After two wins in as many weeks, both eclipsing 40 points, it is clear that head coach Matt LaFleur and quarterback Aaron Rodgers made excellent use of the Zoom meetings last offseason.

Green Bay’s 42-21 victory over Detroit showcased a Packers’ running game that is capable of carving up opposing defenses. Lions head coach Matt Patricia’s defense is hardly special, but whose fault is that?

The Packers’ “take on prisoners” mentality on offense – especially in the running game – is beginning to become its identity.

“We’re two games into this thing, am I happy with where we are? Yeah,” LaFleur said. “I think we’ve done a lot of great things. Do I think there’s a lot to improve upon? No doubt about it. I think it was evident (against the Lions).”

It’s almost scary that the Packers’ offense has plenty of room to grow.

Jones rushed 18 times for a career-best 168 yards and two touchdowns against the Lions. He also caught four passes for another 68 yards and a touchdown.

He has become a matchup nightmare.

Jamaal Williams and A.J. Dillon chipped in to help Green Bay amass 259 yards rushing on 35 carries for a 7.4 average. Aaron Rodgers completed 18 of 30 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns. He was sacked just once and could’ve had better numbers if not for drops.

That’s another area the Packers’ offense can improve upon.

Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Jace Sternberger and the rest have struggled at times, especially with eminently catchable passes. They’re making the tough catches and dropping the easy ones.

It has to stop or it’s going to bite the Packers.

Beyond that, the Packers’ scheme has been everything one could hope for. The pre-snap motion, the fact that one play sets up another, and the versatile personnel gives Green Bay’s offense “Top 5” potential.

Furthermore, the offensive line has been ravaged by injuries, including Lane Taylor’s season-ending knee injury. Still, the line has been able to hunker down, protect the quarterback and unleash the ball carriers.

Clearly, the Packers (2-0) can’t sustain 40-plus points each week.

That’s where the defense comes in beginning Sunday night at New Orleans against Drew Brees and the 1-1 Saints. Brees has been busy fending off detractors following New Orleans’ 34-24 loss at Las Vegas last week, a circumstance that makes the 41-year-old QB dangerous.

The Packers’ defense, which surrendered five straight touchdown drives before shutting down Detroit, has got to tighten it up. Mike Pettine’s crew may get a break if receiver Michael Thomas can’t play.

The same is true for New Orleans in terms of Davante Adams.

Both could be game-day decisions.

Either way, the Saints’ Alvin Kamara and Jones are among the NFL’s most explosive running backs. What once was viewed as the Rodgers-Brees show may become the Kamara-Jones battle in a hurry.

Green Bay’s defense will be without Kenny Clark, and it certainly has to figure out how to stop the run or Brees will kill them with play-action.

Rashan Gary had his best day as a pro last week, and Chandon Sullivan burst onto the scene with a timely “Pick Six.” On Sunday night, it may be time for Za’Darius and Preston Smith to impose their will.

Jaire Alexander, Kevin King and the safeties also are anxious to square off against the Saints and Brees. Their motto: To be the best you’ve got to beat the best, and Brees is one of the best, detractors aside.

Offensively, the Packers will continue to ride Jones, Williams and Dillon until the tight ends get up to speed.

The backs are the most unique group Rodgers has played with.

“These backs that we have, it’s just a different type of combination than we’ve had around here in so long, with Jonesy being able to go the distance, with Jamaal being such a versatile every-down back,” Rodgers said. “He can do it on third down, pass blocking, route running and then also a really good runner between the tackles. And then Jonesy also making plays, splitting him out wide, I think that kind of makes the offense a little bit different. It’s my second year in the offense. I’m feeling comfortable with things, which is allowing us to definitely do more than we could do last year two games in.”

The only other team in NFL history to open a season with at least 85 points and 1,000-plus total yards in the first two games was the 1991 Buffalo Bills’ K-Gun, led by Jim Kelly, Andre Reed and James Lofton.

The Packers’ offense is evolving with each passing (and running) week.

Sunday night, it’s time for the defense to get after it. If they can find ways to pressure Brees, especially with a push up the middle, he can be forced into throwaways and check-downs. With sure tackling, and some heat from the pass rush, it could be another long night for Brees.

Prediction: Packers 30, Saints 24

Season total:

Week 1

Green Bay +2, 47

Packers 30, Vikings 17 (Packers 43-34, 2-0)

Green Bay -6, 43

Packers 38, Lions 19 (Packers 42-21, 4-0)

Packers rock Vikings,

prepare to roll Lions

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers won’t see the Minnesota Vikings again until Sunday, Nov. 1 at Lambeau Field.

Between now and then, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer is apt to find a pass rush to provide cover fire for his inexperienced secondary. Edge rusher Danielle Hunter’s expected return will provide immediate help. That is going to make the Vikings (0-1) more formidable in six weeks.

Meantime, the Packers (1-0) and Aaron Rodgers host the Lions Sunday before embarking on a four-game stretch that features the Saints there, the Falcons in Green Bay and road games against the Texans and Bucs.

A difficult stretch appears much more do-able following Green Bay’s 43-34 blowout of Minnesota Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.

The Vikings’ defense looked vastly different without Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Trae Waynes, Xavier Rhodes and Hunter.

Rodgers exploited it with impunity.

He completed 32 of 44 passes for 364 yards and four touchdowns for a 127.5 passer rating. Star receiver Davante Adams tied Don Hutson’s franchise record with 14 catches for 156 yards and two touchdowns.

It was as if Rodgers and Adams were tethered by a zip-line. Rodgers would zip it and Adams would haul it in over and around the defense.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur’s scheme showcased jet sweeps, screens and some nifty in-line blocking. Aaron Jones rushed 16 times for 66 yards and a touchdown. Tyler Ervin chipped in with three carries for 38 yards and Jamaal Williams banged away seven times for 21yards.

The threat of the run helped unleash the passing attack.

It could be more of the same against Detroit on Sunday.

The Lions (0-1) suffered an epic fourth-quarter collapse at home against the Bears and Mitchell Trubisky, who led Chicago to 21 points and a stunning 27-23 victory.

Whereas the Vikings’ secondary is inexperienced, the Lions’ defensive backfield has been gutted with injuries. Detroit was down to one cornerback in the final minutes of their loss.

So how does Lions head coach Matt Patricia stop Rodgers?

Frankly, I don’t have the answer and if I did I wouldn’t share it.

Rodgers has that gleam in his eye.

I can’t recall seeing him look more engaged, on-point and loose. It’s only one game, but it appears he’s all in on the Packers’ scheme. The Packers’ draft detractors pitied Rodgers because he didn’t get any help.

All Rodgers did was put up more points in the season opener than any Packers team in history, and brother, that’s a lot of history.

“I’ve seen that laser focus come since the beginning of the week,” Adams said. “There’s a certain type of look in his eye he has, walking around wearing his headphones. I don’t know what he’s listening to, but whatever it is, I need to listen to that as well.”

“Yeah, that’s my guy. I expect nothing less form him at this point.”

Allen Lazard had four catches for 63 yards and a terrific touchdown grab. Rodgers fired a rocket but an outstretched Lazard hauled it in and still got both feet inbounds.

Marquez Valdes-Scantling also had four catches for 96 yards and a touchdown. He also had two awful drops, but at least publicly the Packers aren’t expressing their doubts about MVS.

Rookie tight end Josiah Deguara played 34 snaps and executed several bone-jarring, effective blocks.

Defensively, the Packers limited Vikings running back Dalvin Cook to 50 yards on 12 carries with a long run of just 12 yards. Adam Thielen caught a touchdown pass, but the Vikings missed Stefon Diggs. That will continue until talented rookie Justin Jefferson gets up to speed.

The Lions and Matthew Stafford nearly beat the Packers twice last season, only to lose both games at the gun. It will be interesting to see what impact an empty Lambeau Field will have on the game.

It can only help the Lions. Then again, the Packers’ offense shouldn’t be affected so much that it won’t take advantage of the Lions’ beat-up defensive backs. Darius Slay is gone and the holdovers are limping.

Green Bay’s defense was impressive in stretches at Minnesota, but it was only on the field for 18 minutes and change, the lowest total since the NFL began keeping time of possession in 1971.

Za’Darius Smith had a sack and Jaire Alexander bested him with an interception and a sack for a safety.

On the safety, Alexander misread a run play at the Vikings’ 3-yard line, but rather than stop and retreat he kept coming and nailed Kirk Cousins in the end zone.

“Once I anticipated run, I shot my shot,” Alexander said. “I slid to the DMs, basically, and when I saw it wasn’t a run, it was too late to turn back so I just kept going.”

Alexander’s safety cut the Vikings’ lead to 7-5. His interception just before half set up a 45-yard Rodgers-to-MVS touchdown to make it Green Bay 22, Minnesota 10 at the half.

“The turnover before the half was absolutely huge,” LaFleur said. “That was big-time.”

One of the few disappointments, if you can call it that, was the Packers’ defense allowing Minnesota to put up 24 second-half points.

“When we’re up on somebody, we can’t relax, not for one second, especially in this league,” LaFleur said. “Every week around the league you see teams battle back, and once that momentum starts going one way, it’s hard to stop it.”

The Packers’ defense suffered a blow when Kenny Clark left with a groin injury in the second quarter.

It’s unclear how long the defensive tackle might be out. I expect the Packers will sign a defensive tackle – perhaps a veteran free agent – to fill the void. Montravius Adams’ inability to stay healthy and contribute (he was inactive Sunday) continues to plague the Packers.

Tyler Lancaster and Kingsley Keke tried to fill the void, but unless Adams suddenly figures it out (unlikely) the defensive line needs help.

Christian Kirksey posted 12 tackles and Krys Barnes, who was added on Friday, chipped in with seven tackles. Kirksey looks like the real deal, and Barnes looked like he belongs.

A 2-0 start to any season – including two division wins – is welcome. It’s especially so in this COVID-19 affected season.

Look for the Packers to handle the Lions 38-19 and brace for the Saints.

Packers’ two Aarons to explode vs. Vikings

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Week 1 of the NFL season is here at last.

It has kept us waiting and wondering since April, when COVID-19 forced nation-wide shutdowns, including the NCAA Tournament, the NHL, MLB and NBA.

Meantime, the NFL benefited from having time on its side.

It watched, learned and implemented as best it could how to deal with COVID-19 while it went ahead with the draft, Zoom meetings, short training camps, no preseason games and now … the 2020 NFL season.

Still, Week 1 has managed to sneak up on me.

Training camp was little more than a whisper; practice mostly a rumor. The typical winnowing process was pared down to shaking the dice.

The best Cinderella storyline is receiver Malik Taylor’s, who played Division II football, was injured his senior season at Ferris State, signed and cut by Tampa Bay last year, and eventually signed by the Packers.

Now, Taylor’s one of five receivers on the 53-man roster.

He’s 6-2, 222 with above-average hands, good speed and heart. His ability to help on special teams played into Jake Kumerow’s release. Now Taylor has to fill the bill.

Clearly, though, it’s the veterans who will carry the load.

Aaron Rodgers is coming off what he calls a very productive offseason. He had tremendous input and ownership into the offense. He said he found inner peace by reshaping his own life, which in turn has led to him being a happier person.

Hey, whatever leads to Rodgers’ happiness and Packers’ touchdowns is fine by me.

Rodgers has a lot going for him entering the opener.

His experience should allow him to take advantage of the Vikings’ young cornerback crew. Two of the four have never played in an NFL game. Another was an undrafted free agent just a few years ago.

Veteran safety Harrison Smith will have his hands full.

Minnesota countered the loss of Everson Griffin by trading for the Jaguars’ Yannick Ngakoue, who will line up opposite Danielle Hunter. Ngakoue has Pro Bowl talent. Hunter is as explosive an edge rusher as there is in the game, but he’s been limited by an undisclosed injury. Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer has been tight-lipped about Hunter’s injury and/or availability.

It’s no different for Packers’ head coach Matt LaFleur and the unsettled right tackle position. Billy Turner hadn’t practiced as of Monday with a knee injury. Veteran Rick Wagner is dealing with an elbow injury. Wagner’s injury is troubling because you can’t have a turnstile at tackle.

Right guard Lane Taylor could move to right tackle with Lucas Patrick being inserted at right guard. The Packers worked out veteran center Justin Britt with that in mind perhaps. If they went with Patrick/Taylor on the right side, an injury to an interior lineman would be devastating. A veteran like Britt could fill the void in an emergency.

The Packers’ inside linebacker position opposite Christian Kirksey also has received attention since rookie Kamal Martin’s knee injury. Martin was on pace to be the starter, but now must sit at least three weeks.

Meantime, it’ll be interesting to see who lines up inside.

The easiest prediction is that Rodgers will have a huge day. The second-easiest is that Aaron Jones will make a handful of big plays. He rushed

for 154 yards and two second-half touchdowns in the Packers’ 23-10 victory at Minnesota last season. That win clinched the NFC North title and saw the Packers’ defense own the Vikings’ offense.

Granted, Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook didn’t play, so that’s something the Packers’ defense is going to have to figure out.

However, Green Bay allowed just seven first downs and dominated a Minnesota offense with Stefon Diggs. Rookie Justin Jefferson is a talented receiver, but he is a rookie without the benefit of preseason.

Rodgers and Jones will score and the Packers will soar.

Green Bay wins 30-17.

I figure it’ll be a game similar to the Packers’ 23-10 win at U.S. Bank Stadium last year – minus fans – with each team adding another touchdown via special teams and/or defensive breakdowns.

Packers’ reasons for

hope as camp breaks

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers wrapped up their 12th and final training camp practice Sunday at Lambeau Field.

It is four less practices than head coach Matt LaFleur held in 2019, and in a year when there were four less preseason games, too.

So how do an NFL GM and head coach hold meaningful, collaborative meetings to decide personnel with such little information to go on? These are crazy times, indeed.

Fortunately, the Packers’ Sept. 13 regular-season opener at U.S. Bank Stadium against the Vikings is less than two weeks away. To be honest, there was a time not-so-long-ago that I doubted there would be a season.

Now, thanks the league’s and individual team’s efforts in trying to contain COVID-19, at least the prospect of a full season exists. Hopefully travel – and the hotel stays that go with it – won’t lead to visiting teams’ suffering outbreaks.

Two weeks from today, I’ll be writing about the Packers’ 30-17 victory over the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium. It will be fueled by the Packers’ hellacious pass rush and the two Aarons – Rodgers and Jones.

Book it.

Meantime, the Packers’ end of camp hails in the next phase: Roster cuts. With the NFL’s expanded practice squads and more lenient restrictions, the Packers should be able to stash the “not ready for the 53” prospects.

Surely the roster cuts will reflect the pandemic-related limitations. In that regard, I suspect the Packers’ personnel decisions will lean toward players they know best and trust most. It helps that Green Bay has very few “difficult decisions” regarding cuts.

Green Bay’s roster, as befitting a 13-3 team, is fairly established.

This season it isn’t so much about who makes the roster, but rather how many of the returning players can elevate their play.

Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard, Billy Turner, Kingsley Keke, Lane Taylor, Jace Sternberger, (veteran free agent) Christian Kirksey, Rashan Gary and Chandon Sullivan are among the notables.

Thus far, MVS is making enough big plays to restore his confidence, if not entirely that of the coaches and fans. Fortunately, a handful of big plays are all it takes to wipe out a season’s worth of bad ones.

MVS’s potential is still high end. Now he needs to keep building on it.

Turner has been impressive at right tackle while free agent Rick Wagner has been dealing with injuries. Perhaps Turner’s greatest ally in his quest to play right tackle is Lane Taylor’s strong showing at right guard.

It’s looking like David Bakhtiari, Elgton Jenkins, a healthy Corey Linsley, Taylor and Turner as the starting offensive line. If Turner can’t cut it, Wagner’s always an option.

The running back group also is ahead of schedule.

Aaron Jones remains dynamic, and a little less of him might go even longer this season. With the addition of rookie A.J. Dillon, the Packers needn’t fret about what to do if Jones or Jamaal Williams is forced to miss a game or two. In fact, Dillon’s presence should allow Williams to carve out an even more defined role, while the play-caller and quarterback can rely on Jones for more big plays despite fewer snaps.

The play-action passing game could be devastating with a running game. Now, at least in a limited training camp, it appears the Packers have it.

Meantime, the tight end position is an intriguing if unspectacular group. Its strength is the sum total being greater than its parts.

LaFleur doesn’t need his tight ends to be great. He needs them to be crafty, capable run blockers and reliable receivers that can get open, catch the football and move the chains.

True, the Packers lack a high end tight end such as Travis Kelce or George Kittle. However, they also are “on the cheap” at tight end despite having youth, potential, speed, receiving ability and veteran leadership. That’s what Jace Sternberger, Robert Tonyan, Marcedes Lewis and Josiah Deguara bring to the offense. The tight end group includes two third-round picks (Sternberger and Deguara), a former first-round pick (Lewis) and the undrafted Tonyan.

There’s no superstar in the group, but it appears LaFleur has what he needs to make the offense click.

The Packers’ prospects look good with MVS on the rise, an improved offensive line, a diverse and capable tight end crew plus a quarterback who had input and ownership into revamping LaFleur’s scheme.

What’s the most surefire Packers prediction going into the season?

That’s easy. The offense will be much-improved from a year ago.

The only question is how much better.

We’ll begin to find out Sunday, Sept. 13, at Minnesota. My guess is the Packers’ fans will like what they see, and I’m not just talking about an empty U.S. Bank Stadium. The Packers’ offense will give Green Bay’s fans plenty to cheer about.

Brewers, Twins open

3-game series tonight

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Milwaukee Brewers are resilient if nothing.

On the brink of falling further into the NL Central abyss, manager Craig Counsell’s crew pulled it together to win three straight games over the division-leading Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.

Keston Hiura and Orlando Arcia each homered and Luis Urias stayed red-hot as the Brewers edged the Cubs 6-5 in Sunday’s finale to capture three of four in the weekend series.

“Doing it here at Wrigley, we were able to come back and win three consecutive games,” Hiura said. “That’s huge for us. It’s good to see the offense coming alive, breaking the potential of what this lineup can do.”

The Brewers’ bullpen has been dominant.

Eric Yardley, David Phelps and Devin Williams combined to pitch three scoreless innings before turning it over to Josh Hader. The lefty notched the final three outs to record his fifth save.

“The first 15, 16 games, we just couldn’t put anything together,” Hader said. “We’d win one, we’d lose one. We’d pitch and we couldn’t hit. Then we hit and we couldn’t pitch. So to come in and play three good games to close out this series gives us some momentum going forward.”

Brewers’ pitchers struck out Cubs’ hitters 53 times in four games.

After a day off Monday, they will try to build on that moment tonight as they open a three-game series against the Twins at Target Field.

Right-hander Corbin Burnes (0-0, 3.38 ERA) will start for the Brewers against Twins’ right-hander Kenta Maeda (3-1, 2.56). Maeda pitched well and beat the Brewers 12-2 in his last start.

Maeda may find the Brewers’ bats to be more dangerous this time.

The Nos. 8 and 9 hitters – especially Urias and Arcia – have been raking the baseball. Hiura also is trying to get back on track. He was mired in a 1-for-21 slump before blasting his 3-run home run Sunday.

Christian Yelich also appears to have shaken the early season doldrums, which makes the Brewers’ lineup look altogether different.

Combine that with a dynamite bullpen and above-average starting pitching, especially from Brandon Woodruff, Adrian Houser and now Burnes, the Brewers are positioned to be in the post-season hunt.

Last week, Brewers TV analyst Jerry Augustine predicted the hitting would come around. He also noted that the strong pitching – especially the bullpen – gives Milwaukee an opportunity to do something special.

Coming into Minnesota on a three-game winning streak – wrought at Wrigley Field, no less – is the type of momentum that can carry a team.

Let’s see how far it carries the Brewers starting tonight.

Bucks’ Giannis tossed;

Brewers stop Twins

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Milwaukee Bucks had a rather interesting occurrence on their way to what otherwise would have been a ho-hum double-digit victory over the Wizards on Tuesday evening.

Giannis Antetokounmpo – just a day removed from oral surgery – head-butted the Wizard’s Mo Wagner leading to his second-quarter ejection.

It was a bad look for Giannis. It was a worse look for whoever decided it was a good idea to have him play that close having had surgery. I’ve had teeth pulled. It isn’t pleasant. It’s far from it.

In fact, there’s often more discomfort the second day than the first.

Giannis lost his cool and there’s no justification for it.

That said I do think it was unwise to play him.

Who wouldn’t be cranky after oral surgery? I would be. Clearly Giannis was or he wouldn’t have gone off on Wagner. The Bucks still rolled to a 126-113 victory over Washington as the post-season beckons.

The big-picture fallout from this is twofold:

** It will be interesting to see the length of Giannis’ impending suspension. What would be reasonable based on the crime?

You should also factor in his history, which is close to impeccable, and the amount of physical and verbal abuse the NBA’s MVP has to digest. Giannis looked, acted and sounded mentally sick of being hammered on. He noted that the video will show the extent of opponents’ baiting, banging and belly-aching at him.

It’s worth looking at. Nevertheless Giannis should miss at least one postseason game for the head-butt. It was way out of line. If it were another player, perhaps Russell Westbrook, for instance, some NBA fans would want him to sit out the rest of the 2020 season.

Hopefully, Giannis learned his lesson and NBA referees will keep a closer eye on the abuse Milwaukee’s MVP has to absorb. It was interesting that Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer, who merely is the league’s co-coach of the year, chose to focus on the good that could come from the attention this play receives.

Sterling Brown, who had 23 points for the Bucks, said, “He was fed up. There were a lot of dirty cheap shots that come his way. And he reacted … but he gets a lot of cheap shots and garbage plays that come his way.”

Budenholzer echoed the physical abuse Giannis has to endure.

“This is nothing new,” Budenholzer said. “Giannis has been dealing with this for a long time. He is the MVP. He normally is phenomal and today was a slip-up. In some ways it could be one of the best things that happened today as a learning moment. We will all remember that we have to keep our cool – players and coaches.”

It was especially shocking given Giannis’ mild-mannered nature.

He’s such a soft-spoken, quietly motivated player that it’s jarring to see him physically get after an opponent. He acted as if he’d determined it was time to defend his turf. Perhaps the video of previous plays will give context to the head-butt.

Either way, it was wrong and it can’t happen again.

I will say this: Giannis definitely shook up the bubble, not to mention his Bucks’ teammates, if there was any chance of a lull.

** The Brewers managed to score a 6-4 victory over the Twins in Game 2 of their series at Miller Park Tuesday night. Milwaukee rode excellent relief pitching and Manny Pina’s two home runs to down Minnesota.

Josh Lindblom started and was rocked by the Twins’ hitters.

He allowed four runs in as many innings before giving way to five relievers who combined for five innings pitched, two hits, two walks and eight strikeouts while allowing no runs.

That’s putting the lid on it.

Avisail Garcia, the Brewers’ new centerfielder in light of Lorenzo Cain’s opt-out, batted leadoff and opened with a home run. It was Garcia’s first as a Brewer and it answered manager Craig Counsell’s plea for first-inning runs.

Before the game, Counsell said the Brewers – to his knowledge – hadn’t scored a first-inning run all season. Lo and behold, Garcia answered. Unfortunately, the Twins tallied two in the top of the first inning.

On Wednesday night, Eric Lauer makes his second start for the Brewers, while Garcia will bat cleanup for Counsell.

Brewers postponed;

Bucks split in restart

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – While Major League Baseball tries to get its latest COVID-19 outbreak under control, the Brewers can only sit and watch, while the Bucks opened the restart by splitting two weekend games.

Meantime, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer and Oklahoma City’s Billy Donovan tied for NBA Coach of the Year honors.

The NBA is the closest thing to “business as usual” in this pandemic despite its teams playing in a “bubble” and adhering to strict guidelines. It’s the same with the NHL, where 7,000-plus tests have come back negative for COVID-19 since it began play in a two-bubble system.

While this is great news for the NBA and the NHL, Major League Baseball’s recent outbreak involving the St. Louis Cardinals – on the heels of the Marlins’ outbreak – puts the season at risk.

The Cardinals-Brewers three-game weekend series became a Friday night postponement and Saturday double-header, followed by no Saturday double-header and no Sunday finale, either.

It curtailed the excitement of the Brewers’ modest 3-3 start, on the road no less, but the Cardinals’ rash of positive tests dampened all of that. As joyless as a fan-less season-home opener might’ve been, it would have been better than a postponed season-home opener.

More bad news ensued with centerfielder Lorenzo Cain’s announcement that he was opting out of the season. Cain is definitely entitled to his decision, and I understand it, but in terms of competitive balance it definitely was a significant hit for the Brewers.

Similarly, Eric Bledsoe’s and Pat Connaughton’s absence in the Bucks’ loss at Houston was a key factor. In the restart opener against the Celtics, the Bucks were able to outrun and outshoot Boston en route to a solid victory. However, they failed to nail down the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed – it’s a formality at this point – in the loss to the Rockets.

Milwaukee outshot and out-rebounded (65-36) Houston, but still found a way to blow a late eight-point lead. Russell Westbrook scored 31 points and the Rockets’ bench outplayed Milwaukee’s in the Bucks’ loss.

Houston tied a record for the most 3-point attempts in an NBA game with 61, while making 21 and forcing 22 turnovers.

“I think our execution, our certainty in what we wanted to do wasn’t where it needs to be and that starts with me,” Budenholzer said. “So, I think a lot of tonight’s on me.”

Giannis had 36 points, 18 rebounds and eight assists for Milwaukee, while Khris Middleton added 27 and Brook Lopez chipped in with 23.

“Usually when we’re up six with two minutes to go we usually close the game out,” Antetokounmpo said. “But we didn’t do that today, so we’ve got to learn from it and got to keep moving.”

The Bucks play Brooklyn Tuesday afternoon.

Meantime, Packers GM Brian Gutekunst and head coach Matt Lafleur held Zoom news conferences on Sunday. It was the “unofficial” start to the Packers’ 2020 training camp.

Veterans reported today.

LaFleur said the Packers will try their best to replicate action despite having no preseason games or Family Night practice at Lambeau Field.

He said they’re going to practice at Lambeau Field, and create situations where the 11-on-11s and live practices are extremely competitive.

LaFleur realizes the difficulty in evaluating talent with such limited information. On the other hand, he said every NFL team is in the same situation with identical challenges.

“There’s a lot of unknowns with the pandemic,” he said. “We’re trying to make Lambeau Field the safest place in Green Bay.”

Brewers drop 2 of 3

to Cubs at Wrigley

Hendricks, Chatwood silence Milwaukee

bats in Friday night opener, Sunday finale

 

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The only thing quieter than the Milwaukee Brewers’ bats on Friday night and Sunday afternoon were all the empty seats at Wrigley Field.

Cubs’ right-handers Kyle Hendricks and Tyler Chatwood pitched gems, respectively, to help Chicago take two of three games this weekend in the NL Central teams’ highly irregular season-opening series.

The Brewers won Saturday’s matinee 8-3 to avoid the sweep.

After Friday night’s game, Brewers starter Brandon Woodruff talked about playing major league baseball at a ballpark without fans.

“Really, it’s kind of eerie in a way,” Woodruff told reporters. “You always play here, especially Brewers and Cubs … it’s always packed, no matter what time of the day. That was the weird thing. I’m sitting there catching myself where you can actually hear yourself think, you know what I mean?”

Brewers’ manager Craig Counsell agreed.

“It’s strange,” he said. “I don’t want to tell you it’s not.”

Hendricks dazzled the Brewers in the opener by pitching a complete game shutout. It was only the third time in 50 years that the Brewers have been blanked in a season opener.

Orioles’ lefty Dave McNally shut out the Brewers in the 1973 season opener. The Angels’ Andy Messersmith blanked the Brewers 12-0 in Milwaukee’s first game at County Stadium in 1970.

Hendricks joined the list by allowing no walks, registering nine strikeouts and yielding just three singles – all to Orlando Arcia.

It’s never good when Arcia is the Brewers’ only source of offense. Christian Yelich and Keston Hiura – the heart of Milwaukee’s lineup – combined to go 2-for-25 in the series.

On Saturday, the Brewers found their stroke against the Cubs’ Yu Darvish, who allowed three runs on six hits through four innings.

Justin Smoak blasted a solo home run off the right-field scoreboard in the fifth inning, and Yelich drilled a two-run shot in the sixth. Red-hot Ben Gamel added a two-run triple for Milwaukee.

“I thought all day our offense was really good,” Counsell said. “Against Darvish, we just made him work and continued to make him work.”

Corbin Burnes started Saturday and allowed one run on two hits in 3 1/3 innings. He walked three and struck out six.

Brent Suter (1-0) pitched 2 2/3 to notch the win. The crafty lefty’s only blemish was a Kyle Schwarber home run.

It appears Counsell’s pitching strategy beyond his ace, Woodruff, is to have lefty-righty combinations in place. Burnes was relieved by Suter on Saturday, and lefty Brett Anderson’s return from the IL with a blister is set to coincide with Burnes’ scheduled start in Friday’s home opener.

Similarly, Counsell has aligned Freddy Peralta’s starts with lefty Eric Lauer ready and waiting. Lauer, recently activated from the COVID-19 related IL, struck out six while allowing one hit and a walk in 2 2/3.

Lauer is trying to stretch his arm out as he prepares to be a starter. Exactly when Lauer and/or Anderson may make their debut in the rotation remains to be seen.

“I see them all pitching a lot of innings,” Counsell said of his lefties. “You know, if Eric Lauer is stretched out, he could keep going in (Sunday’s) game and take us through the eighth inning. That’s kind of how I see that.”

Counsell doesn’t see it as “in team” competition.

“We’re going to have to pick a guy to start,” he said. “That may change from time to time, who starts the game and who comes in next. I think our strength is that we have that number (of possible starters), and if we have enough guys that are different, lefties and righties, it can help us during the course of a game and take pressure off having to cover some of those middle innings in games.”

For now, Counsell appears willing to give Burnes and Peralta the first chance to nail down spots in the rotation for the balance of the season.

Peralta required 66 pitches to record only nine outs Sunday. Burnes needed 75 pitches to notch 10 outs on Saturday.

Both need to be better if the Brewers are going to contend.

Corey Knebel, who is coming off Tommy John surgery, pitched strong on Friday night but was sketchy on Sunday.

I suspect Knebel will be up-and-down early on.

The Brewers didn’t use Josh Hader all weekend. I suspect Hader will be on the mound at some point in tonight’s game at Pittsburgh.

Right-hander Adrian Houser is starting for the Brewers, with Pittsburgh countering with left-hander Steven Brault. The Pirates have lost starting pitchers Jameson Taillon and Chris Archer for the season.

 

Packers’ best player? Not so easy to choose

The two Aarons (Rodgers and Jones) are possibilities along with Clark, Bakhtiari

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The debate was sparked by a mid-week Twitter question on Sports Line. Who is the Packers’ best player?

It was simple, open-ended and not as easy a question to answer as you might think. During the Packers’ terrific run in the mid-1990s the answer was Brett Favre, Reggie White or both.

After that it was Aaron Rodgers for more than a decade, with shades of greatness from Jordy Nelson, Clay Matthews, Greg Jennings, Charles Woodson and a handful of others.

So who is the Packers’ best player today?

The question is somewhat ambiguous. Is it the best player on their roster? The team’s MVP? Or is it the most accomplished player at his position in the league?

The quick, easy answer is Rodgers.

He ranked third on a recent ESPN list of the NFL’s Top 10 quarterbacks, trailing only Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson. That sounds about right to me, which illustrates Rodgers’ enduring greatness.

Frankly, Rodgers wasn’t the first player that came to mind.

I thought about Za’Darius Smith and all those sacks, not to mention his professionalism and leadership. Smith and his brother, Preston, set the tone for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s outfit in 2019.

That won’t change this season.

I also thought about Davante Adams – who ranked seventh among NFL receivers on ESPN’s list – and how he’s already one of the greatest receivers in Packers’ history. Adams’ season statistics and record-setting performances are replete throughout the team’s record book.

I thought the Packers’ best player is a tie between Smith and Adams.

Aaron Jones also came to mind. He had an incredible, 19-touchdown season and was merely an honorable mention on ESPN’s running backs list. Jones expressed his disappointment on the Pat McAfee Show earlier this week, but added that it will motivate him to even greater heights.

Jones is a wonderful player, but I’ll lean towards Adams on offense.

All of this said, the Packers’ best player is a tie between none of the aforementioned. Clearly, it’s David Bakhtiari, Kenny Clark or both.

Bakhtiari consistently grades out as the NFL’s finest left tackle. Pro Football Focus routinely has him among the best at his position. Bakhtiari also provides a stabilizing presence in the locker room.

He is the consummate pro.

Clark, the dominant defensive tackle, is right there with Bakhtiari. Clark is due to have a huge payday, especially given Chris Jones’ recent contract extension with Kansas City that guaranteed $50 million. Clark’s guaranteed money will exceed that by at least $5 million, perhaps more.

Clark’s going to get paid because he deserves it.

He has a chance to be a perennial All-Pro with just a little help from his friends along the defensive front. Dean Lowry, Tyler Lancaster, Kingsley Keke and Montravius Adams need to play better than last year.

The Smiths coming off the edge helps free up Clark a bit, but it would help if he didn’t have to play so many snaps each game.

That said, Clark is a dynamic player who along with Bakhtiari ties for the Packers’ best player. Then again, it might be Smith and Adams. Either way, it makes for a great debate. It also bodes well for the Packers that this isn’t such an easy question to answer.

And I didn’t even mention Jaire Alexander or Darnell Savage.

 

Five most influential

Packers in my career

Winning was HOF GM Wolf’s business, and Wolf was all business in the 1990s

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

(This article originally appeared on Event USA’s website June 22. Chris Havel writes each Monday for EUSA.com)

GREEN BAY, Wis. – What with the COVID-19 pandemic, George Floyd’s murder and a rather reflective mood permeating our nation, I thought it might be a good time to look back at my time in Green Bay.

I arrived in August of 1991 as the Press-Gazette’s Packers beat writer. Since then, so many people have had a great impact on my career, which also includes shaping my thoughts on football and life.

Last week, I discussed five Packers who don’t have a bust in Canton, but whom I regard as Hall of Famers nonetheless.

This week, I would like to discuss five men who are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and who reached their pinnacle in Green Bay.

** Ron Wolf, Packers’ general manager (1991-2001)

Wolf is one of the most intelligent, intimidating personalities I have dealt with as a sportswriter.

He was hired by the Packers to replace Tom Braatz in November, 1991, just four months after I was hired by the Press-Gazette. During the course of the next nine years, I interviewed Wolf hundreds of times, yet it almost always felt like he was interviewing (interrogating) me. I’m pretty sure he gleaned as much, or more, info than I did from those talks.

Once, I criticized the Packers’ hierarchy in print for not including the Super Bowl XXXI free agents as part of the Packers’ visit to the White House. A few weeks later, I phoned Wolf to inquire about the team’s interest in a particular free agent linebacker.

Wolf paused, and before answering the question, said, “When you wrote that the Packers should’ve invited all players from the 1996 Super Bowl team, who were you referring to?”

I had heard he was displeased with my column, so I wasn’t caught totally unaware, and I replied, “Well, that would be you.”

Wolf replied: “Huh … (eternally long pause) … hey, I’ll get back to you on that linebacker.”

Of course, he didn’t get back to me. In fact, he failed to return any of my interview requests for several weeks. Only later did he admit it was probably a mistake not to include the entire roster.

Wolf was all business.

About five years after he retired in Green Bay, I asked if he would join me for a book signing in town. I was promoting my book, “Year of Champions: The 1996 Green Bay Packers.”

It was Wolf’s greatest team.

He kindly accepted and we had a delightful day.

In between autograph seekers, Wolf would pour over the pages fondly. Clearly, he took great pride in those players and that team. After the signing, Wolf shook my hand, smiled and said, “Thanks.”

Then he left to watch the Packers’ training camp practice across the street, clutching a copy of the book in one hand while shaking fans’ hands with the other.

He didn’t seem nearly so intimidating after that.

** Bart Starr

It isn’t often that a childhood idol surpasses expectations if you’re fortunate enough to meet them, but that’s how it was with Bart Starr.

I was 10 when Starr retired in 1972.

All I’d ever heard about growing up was that Starr was the NFL’s best quarterback starring on the league’s greatest team. But when I was old enough to understand football a bit, I wondered why all the fuss?

I didn’t realize that Starr’s arm was shot, and at 38 he was only a shell of his legendary self. He also went on to coach the Packers, but the best they could do was 5-3-1 in a strike-shortened season.

Only later did I come to know – mostly through Johnnie Gray – that Starr actually had become an exceptional coach by the time he was fired.

Years later, after being fortunate enough to interview Starr numerous times, I began to understand his humility, sincerity, generosity and love of Coach Lombardi and his teammates.

Once, I called to ask if Starr would write the foreword for a book on Brett Favre. His secretary took the call and asked several questions. After a minute, I heard Bart say, “Hello Chris, this is Bart Starr.” He had been screening the call, and only after he was satisfied with the project did he intervene.

We spoke for about 45 minutes. Afterward, he said, “I think you’ve got a great understanding of how I feel. Go ahead and write it up.”

So I did. The next day, after emailing the manuscript to Starr for approval, he returned the corrected copy with only one minor change. Bart Starr had gone from being my idol to my editor in a single day.

I was thrilled that he approved of the foreword.

Through my years at the Press-Gazette I would occasionally receive “thank you” notes. Starr sent three such notes – all handwritten and complimentary – during that time. I treasure them to this day.

** Brett Favre

There are too many Favre stories to recount here.

One memorable event involved the devastation following Hurricane Katrina’s direct hit on Mississippi in late August of 2005. Katrina, a deadly Cat 5 storm, killed nearly 2,000 people and left a path of destruction in its wake.

The storm hit on a Monday. The Packers had a preseason game that Thursday. Favre flew to Hattiesburg immediately after the game to assess the damage. After filing my game column, I climbed into a cargo van filled to the brim with supplies donated by Green Bay businesses to assist hurricane ravaged Mississippians. Four friends and I drove through the night – two in the cargo van, three in an RV – to Hattiesburg. We were greeted at the Favres’ home by family and friends who had fled the coast.

The supplies, including powdered milk, diapers, bread and fuel oil, were much-needed and well-received. We were there for two days, during which I wrote several columns while my friends and a Mississippi state trooper escorted Deanna to the coast to provide assistance.

The enduring message: Whether you’re an NFL superstar or a sportswriter, we’re all in this together. The gratitude Brett and Deanna showed is one of my best memories.

** Willie Wood

It was difficult to fathom that the slight man seated next to me – the Hall of Fame safety Willie Wood – once butted helmets with Jim Brown, Gale Sayers and the rest.

Wood was in Green Bay for the Packers’ Hall of Fame weekend. He was in his mid-60s at the time, but his hips, knees and back suggested they belonged to a much older man.

Nevertheless, Wood never complained despite wincing occasionally from the pain while trying to get comfortable on the bleachers at St. Norbert College, where we met to do an interview.

Wood was kind, honest and self-deprecating.

He had a soft, melodic voice that was exceedingly pleasant. He also loved to laugh, even if it was at his own expense. He told of playing in a charity golf outing, hitting his ball in a bunker, and falling flat on his back when his hips and knees gave out.

“I’m lying in the sand looking as helpless as a turtle on its back,” he said. “I’m thinking how these people came to see a Hall of Famer and instead they get an old man that can’t climb out of a sand trap.”

Wood passed away in February.

To go from being the Pac 10’s first black quarterback to a Pro Football Hall of Fame safety was something special.

Then again, so was Wood.

** Reggie White

When White died unexpectedly of sleep apnea complications on Dec. 26, 2004, Green Bay and the entire football world mourned.

It was a Sunday morning and I heard the radio report as I was pulling into the parking lot at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church. I missed the first 15 minutes of mass hoping and praying that I’d heard wrong.

When news of White’s passing recycled I sat in disbelief. Then, I went inside and got word to the priest, who closed with a group prayer for White as the tears quickly outnumbered the parishioners 1,000 to 1.

Covering his funeral in Charlotte, N.C., might’ve been the most difficult assignment I’d ever been given. The whole thing was surreal, from the open casket visitation to the funeral.

White looked so peaceful – a stark contrast to the grown men and women who wept during the viewing. Empty boxes of tissues were piled next to wastebaskets at either end of the casket.

Outside, I spotted Ed West, the Packers’ former tight end, so I politely asked if he’d be willing to talk. West managed a smile and kindly agreed. He got through two sentences before he began crying. He apologized, though there was no need, and hugged me like a brother.

Then, he said he needed to go back inside but promised to get through the interview after the visitation ended.

West, tough as nails on the outside, was a gentle soul at heart. He squeezed my shoulder and went back inside. We both knew the interview was over. There was nothing more to be said.

White’s greatness on the field, and especially the love he felt for his fellow man, brought people together even after his death.

People like Ed West and me.

Someone asked me the other day what White would’ve thought about today’s racial and social injustice. I replied, “You don’t have to wonder. He would fight it with all his considerable might. Mostly, though, the preacher in him would call for healing, unification and love.”

It’s who Reggie White was.

Brewers to return late July, but without fans at ballpark

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN 107.5

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Major League Baseball is set to return the weekend of July 24. The NBA has agreed to a July 30 restart. The NFL is planning an on-time start for training camps in late-July.

NASCAR is rolling and the PGA is on its second tournament.

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on sports since the NCAA Tournament was canceled in mid-March.

Now, just as sports are on the brink of returning, the deadly novel coronavirus is spiking across the country.

Furthermore, medical experts at Northwestern University today revealed the grave prospect that patients who have contracted and recovered are at risk of suffering dangerous, long-term effects.

Some who have “recovered” – regardless of age – continue to struggle for weeks and in some cases months after initially contracting the virus. That has led sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards, among other experts, to pose the question: Is the return of sports essential compared to the overall health of athletes, coaches, support staff and fans?

Edwards expressed his concern Thursday on Twitter:

“Read 2 leagues’ ‘protocols’ & words of HC’s, GM’s, Mgrs, execs, players; spoken directly w/pro HC’s, GM’s, players, few owners & D1 AD’s & HC’s; I’ve read details regarding: team outbreaks & virus science and facts. My conclusion: GOOD LUCK! But GET REAL – COVID-19 DOES NOT PLAY GAMES!”

Edwards, who counseled the 49ers back in Harry Sydney’s heyday, has spent a lot of time and energy considering COVID-19 and sports.

His conclusion is sobering to say the least.

Sadly, I can’t say I disagree.

Clearly, I pray the Packers, Brewers, Badgers and Bucks all get back to business – and the sooner the better. But I also fear the unknown aspects of COVID-19. The virus first appeared in the United States in January. Consider all the devastation it has wrought in the past six months.

The Bucks’ George Hill, among others, makes a good point.

Is now the time to be returning to sports?

My love of sports, not to mention the fact that sports is my livelihood, has me stir crazy without it. Then again, I have no appetite to see a Christian Yelich incur permanently scarred lungs in order to make baseball owners wealthier while putting everyone else at risk.

There’s no easy answer.

The Brewers plan to play without fans at Miller Park. I applaud the efforts the Brewers, MLB and the other pro leagues have made to make their return as safe as possible.

I’ve heard the word “protocols” more in the past month than I had in my entire life. It’s the world we live in.

I suspect sports leagues will return, for a moment, until the positive tests start piling up and it becomes untenable to continue.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope COVID-19 is the one gasping and wheezing and finally, ultimately, mercifully put down permanently.

Hope isn’t a plan though.

If all goes well we will find out what it’s like to have a 60-game MLB season, a home run leader with 21 and a runner at second base to start every half-inning when games go into extra innings.

We’ll find out the Packers’ plan for training camp, what Jordan Love looks like in a Green Bay uniform and how Aaron Rodgers is firing footballs as he prepares for a big season.

We’ll find out whether the Bucks can capture the NBA title and if the voters see Giannis for the MVP that he is.

It’s all great stuff to look forward to watching, and then discussing with Harry and Marques on Sports Line.

Green Bay needs Ryan, Davis to be coach-player 1-2 punch

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN 107.5

GREEN BAY, Wis. – In the so-called “mid-majors” of college basketball, teams such as Green Bay know the formula to create a team capable of capturing conference titles and NCAA Tournament berths.

It’s pretty straightforward, really.

It begins with a special head coach.

The qualities include dogged determination, charisma, an atypical style of play and an apprenticeship under one of the many great coaches currently or formerly in men’s college basketball.

Will Ryan checks all the boxes.

Ryan, 41, is the son of former UW-Platteville and Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan, who merely led those programs to incredible heights.

Ryan’s determination and willingness to meet a challenge head-on – his previous Division II job in Wheeling is an example – made him the top choice for a Green Bay administration moving on from Linc Darner.

The second part of the equation is a special player.

Amari Davis fits the bill.

The 6-3, 170-pound guard returns after being the Horizon League’s top freshman a year ago. Davis, a native of Trotwood, Ohio, also was a third-team all-league pick while starting 27 of 33 games for the Phoenix.

Davis averaged 15.9 points and 4 rebounds. His 524 points eclipsed the legendary Tony Bennett’s freshman scoring record at UWGB.

Ryan inherited just five players at Division II Wheeling, but still led the school to a .500 season. He knows what he’s getting into at GB, where several players have entered the transfer portal.

Furthermore, he didn’t have a player like Davis.

“We have some nice pieces returning and newcomers so I feel confident in that regard,” Ryan said. “I’ll take it day-by-day though and see what we can do.”

Ryan characterized his preferred style of play as “strong fundamentally, unselfish – we’ll pass up a good shot for a great shot – and yes, we might play some swing (offense).”

The Phoenix might play some swing offense?

It’s going to be the staple of their scoring attack, with Davis as the catalyst and centerpiece all rolled into one. His decision to remain in Green Bay after Darner’s firing makes Ryan’s life a lot easier.

Ryan promised to play to players’ strengths, adapt to his personnel and infuse his vision of how to play. That’s a tall order, but it’s based on teaching, building and getting his players to buy in. Then, do it all again.

Ryan strikes me as earnest, honest and a quick thinker. I also believe he’s one of those quietly confident coaches aware of his surroundings and what’s expected.

In Green Bay, the expectation is to play smart, hardnosed basketball while winning and being in contention for tournament play.

It’s also a necessity to put fans in the stands.

Ryan’s life as Bo Ryan’s son has prepared him as a tactician and politician. Let’s face it. Boosters and supporters remain an integral part of any program’s success. Ryan’s familiarity with the state, and being Bo’s son, are both tremendous ice breakers. As I said, he also appears to be quick-witted and engaging, proving the basketball didn’t fall very far from the ball-rack.

Bo was asked at Will’s introductory news conference whether it helped Ryan get the job because he had a famous head coach as a father.

Bo quipped, “He’d probably have been here sooner.”

“I would never know what people are saying because it doesn’t matter,” Bo Ryan continued. “He’s got a job to do and he should be starting right now.” Then, he turned to Will and said, “You still here?”

Fortunately, Amari Davis is still here.

Together, Will Ryan and Davis have an opportunity to elevate the Phoenix men’s basketball program to heights not seen recently.

Here’s wishing them luck. If they do it right, they will tap into an excitement in this community that has been too long dormant.

Pettine owns being ‘owned’ by 49ers – but undaunted

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN 107.5

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Mike Pettine isn’t going to hide from it.

Why would he? How could he? The Green Bay Packers’ defensive coordinator wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing even if he could.

The Packers’ 37-20 loss at San Francisco in the NFC Championship stills gnaws at Pettine. He has analyzed, scrutinized and dissected every aspect of the 49ers’ 285 rushing yards in 42 attempts. He has determined the reasons behind the breakdowns.

Now, he intends to use it as a motivational, educational tool.

He also doesn’t plan to dwell on it.

“We own it,” he said recently in a virtual news conference. “We’re not running away from it. It was a tough pill to swallow. You’re always remembered by your last performance, and I hate for it to tarnish what we were able to accomplish during the year when we won 14 games.

“We’re not going to do that and let it be this dark cloud hanging over us, but at the same time it’s not going to be something we sweep under the carpet. We’ll address it, and we’ll do it again when the players are in town and it’s face to face.”

Not much went right against the 49ers at Levi’s Stadium in January. About the only thing the Packers won was the coin toss. They deferred, which proved to be unwise, as it merely hastened the inevitable.

The 49ers’ Raheem Mostert ran for 220 yards on 29 carries. He also scored four touchdowns on a day when the 49ers’ offense threw the football an amazing eight times.

Jimmy Garappolo completed six passes for 77 yards.

San Francisco didn’t throw because it didn’t have to.

The Packers’ defense was beaten because of “scheme, effort, energy and technique,” according to Pettine. Clearly, the 49ers’ polished running attack had much to do with the Packers’ dismantling.

However, Green Bay’s defense did next to nothing to help itself, which was especially disheartening with a Super Bowl berth at stake.

As Pettine said, “Worst game at the worst time.”

“It was a tough pill to swallow,” he added.

What Pettine didn’t do was blame the personnel. Obviously, the Packers’ defense had its shortcomings, in particular against the run. The 49ers’ dominance was nearly impossible to fathom.

Clearly, Pettine isn’t going to scrap his scheme.

The Packers’ 14-4 season was due in large part to the defense. The Packers pummeled the Bears in the season opener at Chicago and did likewise against the Vikings at Minnesota to clinch the division.

In the opener, they made Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky look like a third-string back-up. In the win at U.S. Bank Stadium, they made Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins look like Trubisky.

Green Bay’s defense racked up 41 sacks and 25 takeaways. It added another five sacks in the playoff win over Seattle.

Preston and Za’Darius Smith provided pass rush on the field and leadership off of it. Doubters note that the Smiths posted career years. To that I say, “Exactly, and your point is?”

The Smiths will be better in Year 2 of Pettine’s defense. They will be better because of their experience together and in the scheme. They also will be better because I believe Rashan Gary will be better.

There is nothing about Gary, at least physically, that suggests he can’t be a dynamic edge-setter against the run and an explosive pass rusher. His snap total will increase, as will his production.

Second-year safety Darnell Savage will be better, too.

He’s worked with veteran Adrian Amos for a season now. That experience will be invaluable. Furthermore, Savage’s raw talent will allow Pettine to use him in a variety of ways. I won’t be surprised if Savage lines up against slot receivers at times.

“I think the sky’s the limit for Darnell,” Pettine said. “He has big expectations of himself and those match the expectations we have for him.”

Some fans believe Christian Kirksey is injury prone.

The fact is he had bad luck. He was derailed by a hamstring injury two seasons ago, and last season he tore his labrum. Before that he was a model of consistency.

If Kirksey is good enough for ex-Browns teammate Joe Thomas, he’s good enough for me. Frankly, Pettine’s staff has had great success bringing in players it is familiar with (see the Smiths and Amos).

“The formula of the defense we played last year, we won 14 games,” he said. “That’s a really good thing so we’re not going to junk our approach over the last game. But we also know we’d be fools to ignore it.”

It will be critical for Dean Lowry, Kingsley Keke and Tyler Lancaster to elevate their level of play. Kenny Clark can’t do it all by himself.

The Packers also need either Oren Burks or Raven Green to step up. Green Bay hasn’t done a good job of defending the middle of the field. That has to change.

With Kirksey as the lone veteran addition, the Packers’ defense is going to have to improve by playing more cohesively. They need to play defense the way the 49ers played offense: Together.

“We were a game away, but that was a big step, and (the 49ers) present a big hurdle,” Pettine said. “If we want to take it, there’s a lot we need to get done between now and then.”

The “then” is Thursday, Nov. 5, when the Packers are at the 49ers on a Thursday night. It comes four days after they play the Vikings for the second time in seven games. By the NFL season’s midpoint we should know if Green Bay’s defense has taken the necessary steps.

Contrary to the naysayers, I think the answer will be a resounding yes.

One game doesn’t change this fact: The Packers’ defense was solid and occasionally dominant last season. If they take it to the next level we’ll be talking about the Packers in Miami come February.

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