Hangin’ With Havel

Hangin’ with Havel

For Monday June 5th

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

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** Packer City Antiques

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** Los Banditos

Los Banditos is a cozy cantina serving California-Mexican fare plus margaritas, tequila and beer. Steve “Swobey” and kitchen manager Jason run a clean, customer-friendly business. Open Monday-Saturday 11-9 and for “To Go” orders only Sunday 3-8 p.m. Call Los Banditos as (920) 494-4505.

Brewers top Reds 5-1

as Monasterio delivers

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – When David Stearns stepped down as the Brewers’ GM in October to take an advisory role through 2023 there was a palpable sense of concern.

Matt Arnold, his right-hand man, was promoted to run the show.

Together, Stearns and Arnold accomplished great things in Milwaukee.

But how would Arnold fare when the day-to-day decisions are coming across his desk fast and furious in a grueling 162-game schedule?

So far, Arnold has been exceptional given the circumstances.

The Brewers’ 5-1 victory over the Reds Sunday at Great America Ballpark is an excellent example. So was their 10-8 victory Saturday.

On Sunday, the red-hot Andruw Monasterio belted his first career home run, a three-run shot in the first after a pair of walks. Victor Caratini also homered as the Brewers won for the fourth time in five games.

Monasterio, 26, has played in parts of nine minor-league seasons but is still a relatively young prospect. His impact has been a revelation – especially with his bat.

On Saturday, slugging first baseman Jon Singleton went 1-for-4 and scored a run in his first big-league game since 2015. Singleton signed a $10 million contract with Houston but his career was derailed by chronic marijuana use and multiple suspensions for using a drug of abuse.

Outfielder Blake Perkins, who was recalled from Triple-A Nashville on Saturday, didn’t waste time getting into the swing of things either. Perkins’ first home run with the Brewers was a grand slam. He finished 2-for-4 with two runs scored and five RBIs.

The Brewers have 14 players on the injured list, and every position player on the 40-man roster is either active in the Majors or on the IL.

Injuries to Darin Ruf, Tyrone Taylor, Willy Adames, Jesse Winker and Luis Urias all opened the door of opportunity. Monasterio, Singleton and Perkins were eager to step through and step up.

“It’s been a long journey,” said Singleton, who batted sixth on Saturday. “Right now, I really can’t even describe my emotions, my feelings. I’m definitely grateful.”

On Sunday, Adrian Houser started and pitched seven strong innings for the Brewers. The right-hander’s sinking two-seam fastball was devastating as the Reds hit into one groundball out after another.

Houser (2-1) scattered six hits, including Jake Fraley’s seventh home run in the seventh, but struck out two and didn’t walk a batter.

“It was the command,” Houser said. “That’s where everything starts. That’s how we were able to hide stuff and be able to disguise some other pitches. Just hitting spots and attacking early. Getting those early strikes is a big thing for me.”

Monasterio has been a big hit for the Brewers since his arrival.

The career minor-leaguer has proven to be a slick-fielding second baseman, which was expected, but he’s also hit well, too. Monasterio is 7-for-17 (.412) since he was called up.

Brewers’ manager Craig Counsell admitted Monasterio’s 400-foot home run Sunday caught him off guard.

“What he’s done offensively has been just impressive, really,” Counsell said. “It’s not soft contact. It’s not just throwing hits in there. It’s been very hard-hit balls. I didn’t know he had a home run to center field in him, honestly. That’s a good blast. That was impressive.”

Houser also had praise for Monasterio.

“He’s stepped in and he’s playing great,” Houser said. “He’s putting great ABs out there and hitting the ball hard and making some great plays, too. We couldn’t ask any more out of him.”

Monasterio is trying to take it all in stride and relish the moment.

Milwaukee (32-27) holds a half-game lead over Pittsburgh (31-27) in the NL Central. Only 7 ½ games separate the Brewers and last-place St. Louis (25-35) in a division that is a collective 14 games below .500.

When the Brewers score four or more runs they are 28-4. They are 9-3 in one-run games and 3-0 in extra-inning games. They also are 9-11 against left-handed starters which is a marked improvement from last season.

Rookie outfielder Joey Wiemer has been especially tough on left-handed pitchers. Wiemer is hitting just .206 with nine doubles, six home runs and 17 RBI on the season.

However, Wiemer is hitting .292 with four home runs and 30 total bases in 48 at-bats versus left-handed pitchers. He has just 32 total bases in 122 at-bats against right-handed pitchers.

For his part, Monasterio is happy to contribute however possible.

“I’m just seeing this like a game, having fun, like I’ve been saying to you guys,” he said to the media. “I’m enjoying every moment.”

The Brewers will be getting injured players back in the next week.

Adames, who was hit with a foul ball last week, belted a home run and a double in his rehab assignment with the Class A Timber Rattlers Sunday. Urias also is beginning his rehab assignment this week, so they should be back with the Brewers by mid-June at the latest.

The Brewers will try to win the extended weekend series against the Reds with a victory Monday night. Julio Teheran (1-1, 0.82 ERA) will start for the Brewers against Reds’ left-hander Andrew Abbott, who will be making his first start of the season.

After Monday’s game the Brewers return home for six straight at American Family Field. They face the Orioles Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday before hosting the Athletics in a three-game weekend series. They travel to Minnesota for a two-game set against the Twins after that.

Counsell optioned right-hander Jake Cousins to Triple-A Nashville and recalled lefty Bennett Sousa.

“With this big string of games ahead of us, we just want to make sure the guys are pitching in the spots we want them to pitch,” Counsell said. “We’ve still got nine games left in this stretch here, seven (actually six) home games, so it’s challenging. We’ve just got to make sure we’re dividing the innings the right way properly so we can make sure everyone’s got a share of the wealth.”

Packers hosting 2025 NFL draft ‘amazing’

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – In the fast-paced, ever-evolving world of pro sports, and in particular the NFL’s unrelenting 24-7, 365-days-a-year news cycle, a 10-day getaway seems like a lifetime.

While I was recharging a lot went down …

** The NFL selected Green Bay, Wisconsin – aka Title Town, USA – and its 13-time World Champion Packers to host the 2025 NFL draft.

It is an extraordinary achievement for the NFL’s smallest city.

In fact, it is nothing short of amazing.

While Green Bay and its surrounding cities don’t have the infrastructure to host a Super Bowl – that’s code for “they don’t have a dome” – the Packers did summon the wherewithal to host the next-best event.

The NFL draft has risen to mythical proportions through the years.

What once seemed an offseason afterthought – drafting college players in late January by relaying the pick via telephone from the GM’s office at Lambeau Field to the team representative in New York City – has grown into a TV ratings monster and “must see” event for fans.

Now, it has become a “must attend” event, which is why 300,000 fans descended upon Kansas City in late April for the 2023 edition.

While 300,000 seems like an unwieldly crowd to manage in Green Bay, I suspect many of those attending in Kansas City came from places such as Wichita, Topeka, Lawrence and Huntsville.

It will be the same with Packers and/or NFL fans from the Fox Cities, Milwaukee, Madison, La Crosse and the rest.

It gives some fans chill bumps just to think that college football’s top 25 or so players will come to Green Bay for a life-changing moment.

The planning for this event has been nearly a decade in the making. Packers’ president Mark Murphy first revealed that the Packers and Green Bay tourism began working on this in 2016.

The three-day draft will feature activities in and around Lambeau Field and the Titletown District including the NFL Draft Experience.

“This is an incredible day for the Packers, Greater Green Bay and the entire state of Wisconsin as we are excited and honored to be selected to host the 2025 NFL Draft,” Murphy said in a statement. “The Packers have a rich and proud history that goes back to the early days of the NFL and are the only community owned team. That connection to our league’s heritage combined with the great passion Packers’ fans will bring make the draft a memorable event for those in attendance and NFL fans watching from around the world.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell also weighed in.

“The draft has become a prominent offseason event hosted in different cities (since 2015) with spectacular locations across the country, and we are excited to work with the Packers and Discover Green Bay to bring the 2025 NFL draft to Green Bay and iconic Lambeau Field,” he said.

“With the help of numerous local partners on the ground, our prospects and fans will be treated to an incredible week-long experience that shows off the city of Green Bay and the state of Wisconsin.”

Diehard fans, autograph collectors and the curious will be on hand to attend the event, to cheer what it means for Green Bay’s economy and perhaps most of all to go wild when the Packers are on the clock.

In the words of ex-Ravens linebacker Bart Scott: “Can’t wait!”

Elsewhere while I was away the Milwaukee Brewers’ injuries and losses continue to pile up at an alarming but not surprising rate.

The starting rotation has been gutted with injuries to Brandon Woodruff, Wade Miley, Eric Lauer

** Brandon Woodruff (60-day IL)

Woodruff experienced shoulder tightness after his April 7 start against St. Louis and an April 12 MRI discovered a sub-scapular muscle strain. He is expected to return after the All-Star break.

** Eric Lauer (15-day IL)

Lauer suffered an impingement in his throwing shoulder and is expected to return in late June. He could begin throwing with a minor league affiliate following the Brewers’ current road trip.

** Wade Miley (15-day IL)

Miley underwent an MRI May 17 one day after departing in the second inning of his start at St. Louis. Miley has an anterior serratus injury in his left shoulder. He could return in July but that’s only a best guess.

That isn’t all.

Left-handed starter Aaron Ashby endured a shoulder injury and was placed on the IL before the season. The earliest expected return for Ashby is September.

Furthermore, right-hander Matt Bush also is on the IL with arm fatigue. His velocity mysteriously dropped to the point where the Brewers’ team doctors, after thorough examination, opted for rest as the best medicine.

Bush is expected to return in late June.

Beyond that Willy Adames is still out after being beaned by a foul ball. He is expected to return in early June.

Jesse Winker was placed on the 10-day IL with a cervical strain that appears to have sapped his power at the plate. The Brewers described the move as being “cautious” but this is a lingering issue from the past, so it’s uncertain if Winker will return, let alone when.

Luke Voit, the alleged right-handed power hitter, was nothing of the sort in Milwaukee. He had a 3-for-33 stretch and was designated for assignment. Winker and Voit were the Brewers’ two big bats that were acquired in the offseason. Brewers GM Matt Arnold went 0-for-2 here.

Milwaukee (28-26) holds a one-game lead over Pittsburgh (27-27) in the NL Central following a 7-2 loss at Toronto on Monday night.

The only highlight was William Contreras’ two-run home run in the first inning. The Brewers’ bats went silent after that.

On Wednesday, the Brewers will send right-hander Julio Teheren (0-1, 1.80 ERA) against the Blue Jays’ Alek Manoah (1-5, 5.53 ERA).

Packers’ offense may

‘look different’ in ‘23

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers have labeled this a “transition year” due to the organization and Aaron Rodgers parting after 18 seasons.

Nowhere is that transition more evident than on offense.

The prevailing notion is that the Packers’ attack will take a step back under first-year starting quarterback Jordan Love.

How could it be otherwise? Rodgers is a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer. Love is a first-time starter with three seasons and limited experience under his helmet.

Well, here’s how it doesn’t have to take a step back:

The Packers and offensive coordinator Adam Stenavich get creative. They identify Love’s strengths – after three seasons this shouldn’t be an unsolved mystery – and they use the available weaponry to get head coach Matt LaFleur’s offense back on track.

That’s right: Back on track.

The most consistent aspect of the Packers’ offense has been its decline.

Somewhere along the way between 2020 and 2022 the Packers’ offense lost 10 points per game. That’s a touchdown and a field goal gone poof! They somehow vanished into the cold, thin air of Lambeau Field.

In 2020 the Packers’ 31.8 points per game was No. 1 in the NFL.

In 2021 it slipped to 26.5 points per game (10th).

In 2022 it dropped to 21.8 points per game (14th).

And that was WITH Rodgers calling the shots. How important were those 10 points per game? They equated to exactly FIVE more wins, or losses, depending on whether you’re adding or subtracting. In 2020, the Packers (13-3) would’ve been 8-8 without the extra 10 spot. In 2022, the Packers (8-9) would’ve been 13-4 with it.

So what will 2023 bring? Will it be a return to the Top 10 or a continued descent into the league’s lower third?

It feels like the Packers’ offense is at a crossroads.

After the season LaFleur said the team was going to analyze its entire operation in terms of deciphering the latest, cutting-edge trends.

Last year, I thought the short- to intermediate passing game and the running attack would combine to compensate for Davante Adams’ exit.

Instead, Rodgers routinely checked out of run plays with eight or more defenders in the box and went to their built-in solutions. Often, these included high difficulty, low percentage pass attempts. The problems were compounded by inexperienced and/or over-the-hill receivers.

If it wasn’t Sammy Watkins or Robert Tonyan being unable to get open, it was Romeo Doubs or Christian Watson running wrong routes.

Meantime, the running game was an afterthought.

Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon were underused weapons. Speaking of …

Where was the pre-snap movement and misdirection? Where was the allusion of complexity? Where was the jet sweep? Where was the wildcat? Where was the no-huddle, hurry-up offense?

Where was the use of the “12” personnel (two tight ends)?

The Packers utilized most or all of this to a bare minimum.

Adam Stenavich, the Packers’ offensive coordinator, met with the media earlier this week to discuss the upcoming season.

Stenavich was asked if the offense will look different.

“It might, yeah, it might,” Stenavich replied. “I think it might. And it’s not just because of not having Aaron Rodgers. It might just be these other pieces that we’ve added as well. So, again, it’s OTAs right now so we’re just going to kind of see how it all fits and once we figure out kind of how we’re going to attack defenses, then we’ll roll from there.

“But I think it might.”

If the Packers hope to contend for more than higher draft picks it better.

It isn’t all negative moving on from Rodgers.

Love is more mobile. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that he will gain more first downs with his legs than the 34 Rodgers managed in 2022.

Love also is going to have the advantage of being with the core of his weaponry right from the outset. He won’t be discussing vague hand signals that he used back at Utah State as a frame of reference.

Love, Doubs, Watson, Jones and Dillon have been together a while now. They have a clean slate, so to speak, as does the head coach.

I’d be thrilled to see LaFleur revamp his offense by getting back to what he does best: Running an attack more similar to the 49ers’ offense than the Chiefs’ in which it revolves around the run game, not the QB1.

Brock Purdy helped the 49ers get to the playoffs.

Purdy is a decent QB. Love is better.

The 49ers’ roster is more talented than Green Bay’s, and head coach Kyle Shanahan is among the Top 5 coaches in the entire league. But it isn’t like LaFleur has never directed the NFL’s best offense.

Now he’ll have to get back to his old ways with a new quarterback.

Stenavich said the entire playbook is in play for Love.

“Obviously he doesn’t have the playing experience that Aaron had, but from a playbook standpoint, I think pretty much all of it’s on the table,” he said. “He’s been around for three years and has really attacked it. Even last year, you could see him come into his own, felt a lot more comfortable, so this year he’s really hitting it on all cylinders so I’m really excited to see what he’s going to bring.”

There’s no reason Love shouldn’t rank among the Top 15 QBs in 2023.

He has first-round arm talent and ample time to prepare.

He also has an offensive line that the Packers’ GM and coach liked so much they didn’t feel the need to draft a single player at that position.

David Bakhtiari, Elgton Jenkins, Josh Myers, Jon Runyan and Zach Tom would be a formidable offensive line. That still leaves Yosh Nijman, Sean Rhyan, Royce Newman, Rasheed Walker, Jake Hansen and Caleb Jones to compete for the other five or so roster spots.

Jones and Dillon are among the NFL’s best running back duos.

They are able to make explosive plays. They are good with ball security. They get at least what is blocked and more. They are proficient in pass protection. They catch it just fine out of the backfield.

Watson is an explosive weapon and Doubs is capable of developing into a reliable, high-volume pass catcher and chain mover. He also has the body control, agility and strong hands to be a red zone weapon.

The trio of rookies also is intriguing.

Jayden Reed may be the answer to the nagging slot receiver problem. The tight end tandem of Luke Musgrave and Tucker Kraft bring prototypical size, strength, speed and pass-catching ability.

Now it needs to be nurtured and developed.

To that end, Love has been a full go participant in the offseason program which began in mid-April. He also will be playing in the preseason games – something Rodgers didn’t do in recent years – which should help foster a semblance of cohesion going into the opener at Chicago.

“We’re starting on Step 1 instead of starting at Step 8, where you can start with Aaron Rodgers,” Stenavich said. “So you’re going to take a step back and you’re just going to keep working ahead. I can’t really look at the end result right now. We’re just going to look at one day at a time and just go from there. But (Love’s) ready, he’s excited.

“I think all the guys, you can feel good vibes, good energy around the locker room. So it’s going to be fun.”

It’ll be incredibly fun, especially if they can locate the missing 10 points.

Hot Yelich hitting like it’s 2018 all over again

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – A Brewers’ rookie class featuring Joey Wiemer and Brice Turang made headlines at the season’s outset.

Wiemer and Turang are still going strong as Memorial Day weekend draws near, but lately they’ve been getting help with the heavy lifting.

Christian Yelich is on a hitting tear like it is 2018/19 all over again.

Lately, the National League’s two-time MVP has been a blast from the past. In the past six games he is 8-for-20 (.400) with three home runs, five runs scored and nine RBI. He also has three stolen bases and a handful of outstanding defensive plays to his credit in that span.

Yelich, 31, keyed the Brewers’ 9-6 win against Kansas City on Sunday at American Family Field. The Brewers’ left-fielder was 2-for-4 with two RBI and a home run, one of three homers on the day for Milwaukee. He also stole a base to raise his season total to nine.

Lately, Yelich has displayed the combination of power and speed that earned him MVP honors. It’s probably unwise to believe he’ll somehow recapture the form that produced a .326 batting average, 34 doubles, 36 home runs and 110 RBI in 2018.

Then again, what if?

Yelich said he’s constantly working to improve his swing.

 “I’m just making adjustments and just trying to find ways to contribute,” Yelich told reporters Sunday. “You’re constantly tinkering with things and trying to be the best version of yourself, whatever that is, each day. For me, each day is a new day.”

This month certainly has been a new month.

In April, Yelich hit .228 with three home runs and 11 RBI.

In May, he is raking to the tune of .348 (16-for-46) with four home runs and 12 RBI. He homered twice on Saturday and followed that up with another blast Sunday.

Turang added a three-run home run and Mike Brosseau walloped a pinch-hit solo home run to back Yelich’s big day.

Milwaukee (23-17) swept the three-game weekend series and currently sits 1 ½ games ahead of Pittsburgh (22-19) in the NL Central. The Brewers finished 4-2 on their recently completed home stand.

Now, the Brewers are off to St. Louis (15-25) to take on the last-place Cardinals in a three-game series at Busch Stadium. Right-hander Freddy Peralta (4-2, 3.32) will start for Milwaukee against Cardinals right-hander Jack Flaherty (2-4, 6.18) in the 6:45 p.m. contest.

On Sunday, the Brewers trailed 4-1 before putting together a seven-run third inning. It began with Yelich’s RBI single that put runners at the corners. Yelich stole second and went to third on a throwing error that allowed Wiemer to score from third. Yelich executed a pop-up slide at second and went to third on the error before scoring as the baseball rolled between third baseman Hunter Dozier’s legs and caromed off Brewers third base coach Jason Lane.

The play illustrated Yelich’s speed and base-running skill.

It is all but impossible for Brewers’ fans not to indulge in daydreaming about a Yelich return to MVP form. Wouldn’t it be amazing if his wondrous stroke returned as mystifyingly as it vanished?

Brewers’ fans don’t have to imagine what it would be like. They saw it two straight seasons in which games like Sunday’s 2-for-4 performance with a home run and two RBI was just another day at the ballpark.

Royals’ starting pitcher Jordan Lyles (0-7) surrendered seven runs – all earned – in a dreadful 2 1/3 innings. Lyles, a former Brewers’ pitcher, owns a 7.14 ERA in his first season with Kansas City.

Milwaukee starter Colin Rea was chased after 3 2/3 innings trailing 4-1. He allowed six hits and four earned runs while walking two and striking out three. Rea saw his ERA balloon to 5.12 since being called up to replace the injured Brandon Woodruff in the rotation.

Eric Lauer relieved Rea and was simply outstanding.

Lauer (4-4) struck out six in 5 1/3 innings in his first relief appearance in two seasons. Lauer didn’t allow a hit until Hunter Dozier and Bobby Witt Jr. belted home runs off him in the ninth inning.

Lauer was pleased with his performance. He lost his last three starts.

“Overall it was a good job of kind of what I wanted to go out there and feel as far as just getting on the mound, competing and just kind of letting it loose and not worrying about how long I’m going to be in there and how many pitches I’m going to have to throw,” he said. “It’s that bullpen kind of mentality that I have to have.

“It was a good flip-switch for me.”

It also was a good re-set for the Brewers, who turned a 1-2 start into a successful 4-2 home stand while retaking first place in the NL Central.

Packers’ Love exudes

cool, quiet confidence

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Jordan Love projected a calm, cool confidence in his first news conference as the Green Bay Packers’ starting quarterback.

It’s anyone’s guess as to how collected he’ll remain when he’s under fire with the game’s outcome in the balance.

My guess is he’ll be fine. In fact, I’m more certain than not that his play will meet or exceed most reasonable fans’ expectations.

It is a belief based on Packers GM Brian Gutekunst’s 23 years in an organization where quarterbacks and greatness are synonymous. Gutekunst’s eye for talent has been strong in six drafts.

Why wouldn’t that extend to the quarterback position?

In those 23 seasons Gutekunst has helped lead the Packers to 16 playoff berths, 12 division titles, six NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl title (XLV).

Yeah, he knows a thing or two about great quarterbacks.

So does the head coach, Matt LaFleur, whose offense worked like a charm when he and Aaron Rodgers sincerely collaborated during those first three blissful seasons together.

Then, Rodgers wanted more control in terms of personnel, play-calling and who should or shouldn’t be in the huddle with the game on the line. His input extended far beyond, “To pass, or not to pass?”

Ultimately, Rodgers’ rigidity stifled the offense’s progress.

LaFleur knows what works. He also knows it takes having someone willing to work with him. He’s got that in waves with Love.

Gutekunst and LaFleur echoed their sentiment that Love is ready to play.

Love, 24, seems comfortable as the team’s QB1.

“No matter where you’re going to be at, it’s going to be pressure,” Love said Wednesday. “You’re an NFL quarterback. There’s only so many of you so everyone’s watching you. Everyone’s watching every move you make on the field. So it’s pressure, but that’s what comes with the position. That’s what I signed up for, that’s what I knew I was getting myself into, and it comes down to me just making the most of that.”

If he plays well early on, and he isn’t expecting anything less, it won’t be said that he is an overnight success. The Packers have had three years to set Love up for success, rather than failure, and he’s done his part.

He’s been patient. He’s been studious. He’s been able to improve his footwork, balance and delivery while learning how to protect the football with his hands, his body and his mind.

Love also views himself as a leader.

By his definition that’s being consistent, dependable and constantly striving to build his teammates’ trust in him and themselves. He also made it a point to say he didn’t want to be a negative force.

“He believes in himself, first off,” Packers running back Aaron Jones said. “That’s No. 1. You’ve got to believe in yourself, or nobody else is going to believe in you. So, he believes in himself, he cares about everybody around him, and we’ve seen him just come in consistently and just work, work, work.

“As an athlete, you want to come in and play right away, and that wasn’t Jordan’s case; he didn’t have that opportunity. And he did it the right way, he waited his time and you never heard one peep or complaint out of him. He has everyone’s respect, and he works as well, just like everybody else.”

Love shared that he and Rodgers talked after the future Hall of Fame quarterback was traded to the New York Jets.

“We talked after the trade,” Love said. “It was kind of just, ‘Wish you the best going forward.’ He wished me the best and is always there for me if I need anything, if I have any questions or anything. I’m always just grateful to be around him and for the time I had with him, to be able to learn and be behind him … It’s very grateful for me.”

Just when Love began to glimpse light at the end of the Backup QB Tunnel, Rodgers signed the three-year, $150 million extension last year.

For the first time in Green Bay, Love wasn’t sure if he was ever going to be the starting quarterback here.

“I’ll admit, I think the hardest time was when he re-signed the contract last year,” he said. “It was kind of like, ‘OK, well, where do we go from here? What do I do?’ And I think I sat back, thought to myself and just came back with the approach like, ‘Let’s just go ball out any opportunity I get. I’m gonna get preseason and who knows what happens after that, so just grow and try and become the best version of myself, and I can’t really control what happens after that, so let it play out.’ ”

The Packers’ patience in Love, and the foresight to draft a player with first-round arm talent before he was needed to start, could prove to be fortuitous.

Love has supreme confidence in his right arm.

He also likes to make big plays.

However, he quickly added that he’s made strides knowing when to cut it loose and when to live to fire another down.

One of Love’s most telling responses came when asked about quarterbacks coach Tom Clements. The former Notre Dame QB came out of retirement to return to Green Bay specifically to team up with Rodgers again. It was a strong vote of confidence in Love that Clements sought to return this season to continue working with him.

Let’s face it, if Love was a pain-in-the-butt pupil, or a so-so talent, it is doubtful Clements would’ve been as eager to come back.

For his part, Love praised Clements’ coaching acumen, citing in particular the coach’s drills that translate to game day.

When asked which has been more important to his progress – the practice reps or the precious little game action – Love responded twofold. He said the practice reps build a strong foundation in terms of being technically sound, but the game action is more important.

It’s all about the bottom line: Can you play or can’t you?

Finally, Love will get a chance to start answering that question.

It will be interesting to see the offense’s transformation under Love. His mobility and accuracy on short and intermediate throws suggests more designed runs, and pass options off that action.

Love’s willingness to split out wide may inspire LaFleur to run some wildcat offense, with Jones or A.J. Dillon taking the direct snap.

Fortunately, the run game doesn’t need to be rebuilt.

Jones and Dillon almost always get what’s blocked and more. The influx of speed on the perimeter with Christian Watson and Jayden Reed should influence defenses and create creases to run through.

The offensive line has been together multiple seasons now. They understand LaFleur’s scheme, they trust Jones and Dillon and they’ll work with the new tight ends.

Speaking of Luke Musgrave and Tucker Kraft, the rookie tight ends will afford Love two HUGE targets to choose from and grow with. They will be critical to Love’s development as they get to know each other.

It’s not just the offensive players who are looking to Love. Veteran defensive tackle Kenny Clark is eager to see what the kid can do.

“I know he’s hungry; he’s hungry to ball out,” Clark said. “I can only imagine being in the situation that he’s in, to not be able to play; he didn’t play like that for four years, to get a chance to go out and show what he’s all about. That’s what you want. He’s hungry, and like I said he’s a guy that’s going to put in the work and get it done.

“So I’m excited about it.”

Make that Clark and an entire fan base.

Brewers edge Giants, halt losing streak at 6

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Brewers avoided being swept in a weekend series at San Francisco with a 7-3 win over the Giants Sunday.

Milwaukee’s victory snapped a six-game losing streak to close out what was a dreadful 1-5 road trip.

The Brewers’ reward is a six-game home stand with a pair of three-game sets against one of baseball’s best teams (the 21-14 Dodgers) and one of its worst (the 9-26 Royals).

The Brewers (19-15) will start right-hander Freddy Peralta (3-2, 3.63) against the Dodgers’ Tony Gonsolin (0-0, 3.38) in tonight’s game, which is set to start at 6:40 at American Family Field.

Adrian Houser gave the Brewers a lift in his first start of the season. Houser suffered a groin strain in his final start of spring training and has been rehabilitating it since then.

Houser threw 87 pitches over 4 2/3 innings in his 2023 debut while allowing seven hits and two runs. He walked one and struck out five.

Hoby Milner, Joel Payamps, Peter Strzelecki and Devin Williams combined to strike out a bullpen season-high nine hitters. Payamps was especially strong while allowing one hit in 1 2/3 innings with three K’s.

Meantime, Willy Adames and William Contreras each belted two-run home runs to lead Milwaukee’s 12-hit attack. It was Adames’ sixth home run of the season and the 100th of his career. He becomes only the 10th Dominican-born shortstop to hit 100-plus home runs in his career.

Brewers’ manager Craig Counsell was glad to see the bats come alive.

“We swung the bats well,” Counsell said. “I thought the bullpen guys did an excellent job today … hats off to those guys. Adrian did his job and gave us a chance. I thought he did a nice job.”

The Brewers’ seven runs on Sunday was half of what it mustered (14 runs) in its previous six games.

Now, the Brewers will try to carry that momentum into a Dodgers series that features a trio of outstanding pitching matchups. Gonsolin and Peralta will open the series on Monday. Noah Syndergaard (1-3, 6.32) will square off against Eric Lauer (3-3, 4.40) on Tuesday.

The series closes out Wednesday with future Hall of Fame pitcher Clayton Kershaw (5-2, 2.58) going against Wade Miley (3-1, 2.31).

The Brewers have completed 20 percent of their schedule.

Here’s what we have learned thus far:

** Fewer games within the division (19 to 13) may not be the best thing for the Brewers. MLB’s leaders decided to promote its stars league-wide by having teams face each other in at least one series each season.

The concept is solid.

It’s an undeniable thrill to see the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout, the Red Sox’s Rafael Devers and the Astros’ Yordan Alvarez doing their thing at American Family Field.

The downside is it mitigates a team’s ability to run roughshod over weaker division opponents on its way to a postseason run.

The NL Central went a dreadful 17-33 in its last 10 games.

None of those games was played within the division, which suggests the NL Central may give the AL Central a run for its money as the weakest of baseball’s six divisions.

Only the fourth-place Reds (14-20) mustered a .500 record going 5-5 in their last 10 games. The Brewers (19-15) were next at 4-6 while the first-place Pirates (20-15) and third-place Cubs (17-17) were 3-7.

The last-place Cardinals (11-24) stumbled along at 2-8.

The good news for Milwaukee is that despite going 4-6 it actually picked up a game on division-leading Pittsburgh.

The bad news is the Brewers missed an opportunity to regain first place and reclaim their status as the NL Central favorite.

** The Brewers’ everyday lineup has as much peach fuzz as beards.

The 2023 Brewers’ daily lineup (position players) averages 27.4 years of age. Only three teams in the franchise’s 55-year history have been younger. They were the 1971 Brewers (27.1, 69-92), the 1976 Brewers (27.1, 66-95) and the 1977 Brewers (27.2, 67-95).

The Brewers’ youth isn’t guaranteed to bring a losing season, though.

The 1978 Brewers averaged 27.4 years of age and went 93-69. The 2017 Brewers also averaged 27.4 years of age and were 86-76.

** The Brewers are on pace to hit fewer home runs and strike out more often than their 2022 counterpart, but they’re also on pace to steal more bases, hit for a higher average, score more runs and coax more walks.

Here are the breakdowns comparing last season to this season:

The Brewers are projected to hit 29 fewer home runs and strike out 76 more times. They also are projected to draw 43 more walks, steal 24 more bases (120 compared to 96), and have 94 more hits. They currently are out-hitting last year’s team .243 to .235.

Defensively, the Brewers are on pace to commit 21 fewer errors, turn 23 more double plays and have a higher fielding percentage (.989 to .984).

The Brewers’ pitching statistics are more in line with last season’s final numbers. They are projected to give up 122 more hits, five more home runs (195-190) and finish with a lower ERA (3.60 to 3.83).

The pitching totals are especially impressive considering Brandon Woodruff has been on the IL, Houser made his first start Sunday and Aaron Ashby was lost to injury before the season.

Bucks’ early exit leads to Budenholzer firing;

Brewers lose 4th in row

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Wednesday was a tough day for Milwaukee’s baseball manager and erstwhile basketball coach.

The former couldn’t get out of Denver fast enough while the latter couldn’t stick around long enough to see a sixth season.

The Colorado Rockies ruined Craig Counsell’s eighth anniversary as the Brewers’ manager by rallying for a 9-6 victory at Coors Field.

Meantime back in Milwaukee, the Bucks’ first-round playoff loss to Miami ended Mike Budenholzer’s five-year run as head coach when the team announced his firing in an afternoon news release.

For Counsell it was time to pack up the bats and head to San Francisco.

“It wasn’t a good series,” Counsell said. “We just pack up and go get ready to play a good one.”

The Brewers (18-13) have lost four straight games, a stretch that includes being swept by the NL West’s last-place Rockies (12-20).

Milwaukee scored just three runs in its most recent three games entering Wednesday’s game. A stretch of 158 consecutive at-bats without a home run ended with Christian Yelich’s leadoff shot to open the game.

Rowdy Tellez joined the party by belting his ninth home run to give the Brewers a 2-0 lead before the Rockies came to the plate.

Tyrone Taylor, who came off the injured list Tuesday, extended the Brewers’ lead to 3-0 with a blast to left to lead off the fifth. Taylor replaces centerfielder Garrett Mitchell, who underwent season-ending shoulder surgery earlier this week.

Brewers’ left-hander Wade Miley allowed three runs on six hits as he pitched in to the seventh with a 4-0 lead. However, the Rockies rallied to tie it and then lit up Brewers reliever Peter Strzelecki (2-2) in the eighth.

C.J. Cron belted a one-out single, Ryan McMahon pinch-ran for Cron and ex-Brewer Mike Moustakas doubled to put runners on second and third. Harold Castro singled to drive them in, Ezequiel Tovar was hit by a pitch and Brenton Doyle walked to load the bases. Tyson Miller came on in relief and surrendered a sac fly to Elias Diaz and Charlie Blackmon drove in two more runs with a single.

Yelich and Jesse Winker had RBI singles in the ninth.

Milwaukee trails NL Central leader Pittsburgh (20-12) by 1 ½ games while the struggling St. Louis Cardinals (10-22) reside in dead last a full 10 games out of first place.

Counsell, 52, is Major League Baseball’s third-longest tenured manager trailing only Cleveland’s Terry Francona and Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash. He replaced Ron Roenicke on May 4, 2015, after the Brewers got off to an ugly 4-17 start to open the season.

Counsell spent 16 seasons in the big leagues, including stops in his hometown Milwaukee in 2004 and again from 2007-2011. After he retired he joined the Brewers’ front office in 2012 to serve as special assistant to GM Doug Melvin.

While the NBA tends to be more volatile than MLB in terms of coaching-managerial tenures, Budenholzer’s firing wasn’t that surprising. The Bucks’ postseason disappointments have been well chronicled and with all the resources the team has brought in to go with their superstar Antetokounmpo, the fan base isn’t long on patience.

Budenholzer drew keen criticism for his late-game decisions in a pair of playoff losses to the Heat in which the Bucks blew double-digit leads.

Counsell’s place in the dugout seems secure for the foreseeable future.

Then again, Budenholzer is just two years removed from leading the Bucks to the franchise’s first NBA championship in 50 years.

It was a tough day, indeed.

Brewers’ ace Corbin Burnes will try to end the slide when he starts tonight at San Francisco.

For Budenholzer the slide began when Giannis Antetokounmpo was injured in the Heat series and never regained his mojo. The No. 8 seeded Heat needed just five games to dispatch the top-seeded Bucks.

Milwaukee was just the sixth No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 8 seed in the opening round, and the only top seed to win just one game in the series.

The Bucks were 271-120 in regular-season games under Budenholzer, but only 39-26 in the postseason. The Bucks were the No. 1 seed three times under Budenholzer without being able to reach The Finals.

Bucks GM Jon Horst issued a statement.

“The decision to maket his change was very difficult,” Horst wrote. “Bud helped lead our team for five incredible seasons, to the Bucks’ first title in 50 years, and into an era of sustained success. We are grateful for the culture of winning and leadership that Bud helped create here.

“This is an opportunity for us to refocus and re-energize our efforts as we continue building toward our next championship season.”

Budenholzer’s firing comes at an especially difficult time as his brother died in a car accident leading up to Game 4 against the Heat. The Bucks elected to keep the news in-house and essentially suffer in silence until word of the tragedy was released by the family.

Ex-Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse and current Bucks’ assistant coach Charles Lee are two names being prominently mentioned to be hired as Budenholzer’s successor.

Packers’ draft sets up

major roster upgrades

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The NFL draft has forever been the lifeblood of the Green Bay Packers.

In the aftermath of the 2023 Player Selection Meeting, the Packers’ pulse is quicker and the heartbeat stronger due to an intriguing infusion of speed, vitality and the promise of a bright future.

Packers GM Brian Gutekunst tied the franchise record in the 7-round era by selecting 13 players to replenish the roster.

A year ago, Gutekunst drafted 11 players. All 11 made the team in one capacity or another (53-man active roster/practice squad/reserve list).

Together, those 24 players, in addition to the undrafted rookies, will comprise perhaps 40 percent of the 53-man roster this season. That’s nearly half a squad teeming with first- and second-year players.

It remains to be seen how their talent translates to the next level, but based upon Gutekunst’s past draft success it’s possible the 49-year-old GM’s sixth draft class may be his best.

“It’s going to create great competition,” Gutekunst said of the 2023 class. “I think we have great opportunity on our roster.”

The challenge for Gutekunst and head coach Matt LaFleur is overseeing a seamless, successful transition from future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers to the talented but untested Jordan Love.

This draft could be a catalyst.

After the Packers chose edge rusher Lukas Van Ness with the 13th pick, which was undoubtedly the right call, the storyline became, “Why didn’t Gutekunst give Love some help on offense?”

Going into Day 2 of the draft I imagine Gutey wanting to tell naysayers, “Hold my beer and watch this!”

The Packers’ GM promptly drafted two top-tier tight ends and a highly regarded receiver with legitimate big-time punt-return ability on Friday.

Gutekunst ended up with the third edge rusher off the board, the fourth and seventh tight ends and the sixth receiver.

In the process, he traded back twice before selecting Michigan State receiver Jayden Reed at 50 in order to accumulate two picks to fill the gap between the 149th and 207th picks. Gutey parlayed those picks into Virginia receiver Dontayvion Wicks (at 159) and Bowling Green defensive tackle Karl Brooks (at 179).

That was some pretty fancy draft footwork.

The Packers didn’t try to hide their excitement over landing Reed.

“Jayden is a very versatile player,” VP of player personnel Jon-Eric Sullivan said. “He can return punts, play inside in the slot, play outside the numbers … He’s fast, quick in and out of his breaks. He’s strong for his size. We like him with the ball in his hands. He’s another kid who is wired right. He’s going to bring a dog mentality to this locker room.”

The criticism of Gutekunst passing on a receiver in Round 1 was premature and the perception that Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba was the best, only option at receiver was off-base.

Smith-Njigba only played three games in 2022 due to a hamstring injury. That alone should’ve raised a first round red flag.

Reed, whom the Packers selected at 50, comes with no injury history. What Reed does bring is 4.37 speed, sure hands and fluid route-running in the slot or on the perimeter.

Reed also is an explosive punt returner. It’s a testament to his ability to run after the catch and the fact that Gutekunst and LaFleur are relying on Rich Bisaccia’s experience as a special teams’ guru in the draft process.

It was Bisaccia’s nod that led them to select Auburn placekicker Anders Carlson, who has a great opportunity to be Mason Crosby’s successor.

The receiving corps now features Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs, Reed, Samori Toure, Wicks and Charlotte’s Grant DuBose. What this group lacks in experience it makes up for in explosiveness.

All of the receivers can flat-out run.

In fact, running back Aaron Jones might be an alternate, at best, on the Packers’ 4-by-400 meter relay team. These cats are that fast.

Tight ends Luke Musgrave and Tucker Kraft are big, fast, sure-handed bookends.

Sullivan didn’t hesitate to sing Musgrave’s praises.

“Big, fast and physical tight end that can stretch the field,” he said. “Good wiring, good kid, comes from a football family … a lot of upside there. He’s got a legitimate trait where he can stretch the field and run by linebackers. If you put a safety on him, he’ll have a chance to body those guys up. We think his skill set to win as a pass-catcher was significant, and we like him as an in-line blocker as well.”

Kraft is a sturdy 6-foot-5, 250-pound athlete who relishes contact whether he’s in-line blocking or bowling over a would-be tackler.

He’s almost as athletic as Musgrave with a high upside.

“Tucker is very good with the ball in his hands after the catch,” Gutekunst said. “I think he has really good balance and strength to break tackles and to stay alive. I think (Musgrave and Kraft) can do everything you ask a tight end to do in the NFL.”

The Packers added a backup quarterback in Penn State’s Sean Clifford and a potential No. 3 running back in Central Michigan’s Lew Nichols.

It is notable that the Packers didn’t draft an offensive lineman. Apparently Gutekunst and LaFleur believe they have enough with David Bakhtiari, Elgton Jenkins, Josh Myers, Jon Runyan Jr., Zach Tom, Yosh Nijman and Sean Rhyan.

Rhyan, who was suspended for PED use, is a 6-5, 322 pound tackle whom Gutekunst deemed worthy of the 92nd overall pick in 2022. It’s likely the Packers believe he will contribute this season.

If the offensive line comes together and stays healthy, the Packers’ offense has a chance to thrive with Love under center.

Jones and A.J. Dillon are top-notch, proven running backs that can pass protect, rarely fumble and catch the ball out of the backfield. They also routinely get at least what’s blocked and more.

The receivers and tight ends are young and talented with a chance to grow together with Love.

The Packers’ commitment to their fourth-year quarterback will be cemented by Tuesday when they pick up his fifth-year option worth $20.272 million.

Defensively, I suspect the Packers believe they are much better than the prevailing sentiment among fans.

Remember the high praise the defense received last training camp? Some suggest that was misguided and unwarranted. I suggest it was based on the defense’s 2021 performance, the re-signing of key players such as De’Vondre Campbell and Rasul Douglas, and the development of young studs Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt.

Adding Van Ness and fourth-round steal Colby Wooden of Auburn to the mix should provide ample pass rush while Rashan Gary continues to mend from his ACL injury.

Wooden (6-4, 273) lined up everywhere along the line for Auburn’s defense, but the Packers project him as an edge rusher who will be asked to add weight and play as an inside pass rusher on passing downs.

“He’s a defensive tackle, big end-type player,” said Patrick Moore, the Packers’ assistant director of college scouting. “He’s an athletic, inside pass rush guy who can set the edge. He’s a good football player and he really adds a lot of versatility to our defensive line.”

For all the hype about the Packers selecting a receiver in the first round, they got comparable talent in Jayden Reed while staying at 13 and selecting one of the top pass rushers in the draft in Van Ness.

As good as the offense might become it won’t be enough if the defense isn’t up to the task. What good is a two-touchdown lead if you can’t generate a pass rush? You’ll end up sitting back with fingers crossed in hopes that the opposing team won’t rally.

That’s where Van Ness comes in.

“He’s a big man, powerful, fast and explosive,” Gutekunst said. “The physical traits are there for him to grow, so there’s no real limitation on him. But also the versatility to win outside with speed and inside with power is key. There’s so much in front of him, and that’s where his best football will be.”

The Packers’ pieces are falling into place.

It’s time to close the chapter on Rodgers and begin looking forward to seeing the Packers’ new starting quarterback and talented first- and second-year players begin working to build that bright future.

Packers’ 13th pick nets Iowa edge Van Ness

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers embarked upon the Jordan Love Era by toasting to the quarterback’s future success in true Green Bay style.

They raised their glasses, offered Love a heartfelt “Best of luck, man!” … and drafted a pass rusher.

What? No receiver to help Love? Some fans were upset while others seemed resigned to the fact that the Packers just aren’t going to spend a high draft pick on a receiver, period.

That’s the trendy notion in some NFL circles today, where Packers GM Brian Gutekunst is being rebuked NOT because he selected Iowa edge rusher Lukas Van Ness – a terrific player AND my top choice at 13 – but because he DIDN’T take Ohio State receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

Go online. Read all the bellyaching. It’s an acid reflux epidemic.

“Hey, kid, welcome to life in Green Bay as the QB1,” they’ll say while chiding Gutekunst. “Get used to seeing the defense get all the help and the offense get all the blame.”

Once fans stop spewing venom for a second and get reacquainted with reality they should come to their senses. They will see what Gutekunst sees in Van Ness: A 6-foot-5, 272-pound pass rusher who is relentless, athletic and just a pup who turns 22 on July 6.

In the best-case scenario Van Ness develops into an All-Pro cross between a couple of famous Wisconsin Watts – T.J. and J.J. – and relies on similar power, speed and versatility to become a defensive demon.

The nickname “Hercules” fits.

Van Ness was clocked at a blistering 4.58 in the 40-yard dash. He also posted a 31-inch vertical leap and bench pressed 17 reps at 225 pounds. He needs to become stronger to dominate at the next level.

Van Ness also has a 34-inch reach and an 81 ¾ inch wingspan. His length and understanding of leverage should serve him well, especially early in his career while he’s still learning to use his hands.

Oddly enough, Van Ness didn’t start a single game at Iowa.

In Green Bay, he may be called on to start Week 1 while Rashan Gary, the team’s premier pass rusher, recovers from a knee injury. Van Ness could line up opposite veteran Preston Smith to kick off the season.

Gutekunst didn’t blink when asked if Van Ness could help immediately.

“I do think he’s going to play right away and he’ll help us right away,” Gutekunst said. “There’s so much technique to that to be able to win in this league. It all takes them a little bit of time. But I would expect him to be able to help us this year.”

Van Ness lined up at edge 50 percent of his plays at Iowa. He moved inside 39 percent of the time and played the rest as a stand-up ‘backer.

Van Ness, a redshirt sophomore, recorded 14 sacks and 20 ½ tackles for loss (fourth most in the Big Ten the past two seasons).

The Packers’ pass rush will welcome the help.

Green Bay had the second-highest pressure rate in the NFL last season, 35 percent according to ESPN, but was 27th in sacks with 34. Defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s crew was the classic “close but not quite” unit.

Much of that was because of Gary’s absence. The Packers’ pressure rate was 40 percent with him but fell to 32 percent without him.

One of the most impressive attributes is Van Ness’s closing speed. Whether he beats single-blocking or redirects to find another path to the quarterback there’s almost no wasted motion.

He is decisive with an air of no-nonsense invincibility.

That will be put to the test at the next level, but Van Ness is up for it.

In fact, he has studied Preston Smith’s game in the past and told reporters that he sees parallels between how he was deployed at Iowa and how the Packers have utilized Smith’s talents in Green Bay.

He also worked out in the pre-draft process with Packers’ two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kenny Clark. He said it helped him get a feel for the football culture in Green Bay.

“I’m at a loss for words, just finally coming to the sense of my emotions,” Van Ness said. “I’m happy to see this all come to fruition. Since I decided to come out about four months ago, I put my nose to the grindstone. I couldn’t have asked for a better result.

“I’m just so happy to be a Packer and I can’t wait to get out there and wear that green.”

Van Ness’s versatility was another reason Gutekunst coveted him.

“Getting the opportunity to bump back outside this year … that’s where I feel comfortable,” Van Ness said. “That’s where I feel like I can use my tools and excel, and they bumped me outside and I feel like I was able to take what I learned playing defensive tackle and move it outside to play a physical brand of football, use my length on the edge, use my power and just really impact the game to help this team win.”

The Packers have spent 12 of their most recent 13 first-round picks to select defensive players. It’s ironic that Love is the only exception.

Gutekunst admitted it is “unusual” to draft defense early and often.

“But I do think the expectations (on defense) are high,” he said. “I sat here last year and said the same thing. I think we had really good moments last year, but the consistency has to be better. We put a lot of investment into that group and there are high expectations there.”

Gary and cornerback Eric Stokes are rehabbing from injuries, while second-year players Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt need to take it to the next level.

“We have some young players that are really coming into their own,” he said. “I think we’re all excited to see what Quay can do. De’Vondre Campbell, Ja’ (Alexander) has been playing at a premier level for a long time. They’re a good group of guys but there’s so much work to be done between now and in games. There are definitely high expectations but we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Now, Gutekunst and his staff are tasked with finding a receiver, a safety, an offensive tackle and a tight end or two in the next six rounds.

They hold the 42nd, 45th and 78th picks entering Friday night.

A glance at the “best available” list is all it takes to realize more help is on the way for the Packers and at positions of need.

My dream Day 2 picks would include the Packers drafting Syracuse offensive tackle Matthew Bergeron, an athletic 6-5, 318-pound pass blocker who has played at left and right tackle. He would compete immediately to start at right tackle, and would provide insurance if veteran David Bakhtiari continues to struggle with knee/injury issues.

I’d also be OK with the Packers selecting any of the four remaining safeties from either of these two schools: Alabama’s Brian Branch or Jordan Battle, or Illinois’ Sydney Brown or Quan Martin.

That leaves wide receiver and tight end.

At tight end, Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer, Oregon’s Luke Musgrave, Georgia’s Darnell Washington, Iowa’s Sam LaPorta and South Dakota State’s Tucker Kraft are all still on the board.

Mayer is the most complete tight end and should provide immediate help for whichever team drafts him.

Musgrave is an excellent pass receiver, Washington is massive with ridiculous athletic ability and LaPorta is a solid bet to contribute wherever he goes. Kraft is an intriguing small-school talent.

At receiver, Ole Miss’ Jonathan Mingo would be a second-round steal, but I don’t see him still being available at 42. Tennessee’s Cedric Tillman is a big, fast prospect as a perimeter receiver, while Volunteers teammate Jalin Hyatt is an explosive slot receiver.

Either would be a big boost to the receiving room.

Gutekunst seemed pleased about the Packers’ Day 2 prospects.

“The board held up strong,” he said. “I feel good about tomorrow. You never know, but I feel good going into these next two days.”

Packers trade Rodgers

to Jets for a nice haul

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Brian Gutekunst has the Packers positioned to survive and ultimately thrive in the wake of Aaron Rodgers’ exit.

The Packers’ GM traded the future Hall of Fame quarterback to the New York Jets on Monday, according to multiple reports, in return for enough draft capital to keep the team competitive as Jordan Love grows.

Some such as left tackle David Bakhtiari described the upcoming season as a “rebuilding year,” which is a fair assessment when a team loses the face of its franchise who also happens to be a top 10 quarterback.

Gutekunst sees it differently. He declined to call it a rebuild. I’ll take him at his word. Then I’ll hold him to it.

If it isn’t a rebuild, and the Packers were 8-9 last season, it is reasonable to believe the GM sees a team that is at least 8-9 or better.

I tend to see that, too. In fact, I believe the Packers’ roster is better than the average Bears fan – or Lions or Vikings fan – wants to believe.

Trading Rodgers to the Jets – in addition to their 10 original picks – provides the Packers enough ammo to remain highly competitive.

And that’s with Love at the helm.

The Jets received Rodgers, the 15th pick and the 170th pick (fifth round).

The Packers received the 13th pick, the 42nd pick, the 207th pick and a 2024 conditional second-round pick that becomes a first-round pick if Rodgers plays 65 percent of the snaps in 2023.

That means the Packers have:

** The 13th (first), 42nd and 45th (second), 78th (third), 116th (fourth), 149th (fifth), 207th (sixth), 232nd, 235th, 242nd and 256th (seventh).

That’s 11 picks during the course of three days.

Gutekunst was pleased the trade was consummated before the draft.

“Once we do get it squared away it’ll be a nice feeling because we will know what we’ll have (for picks) at least until we start moving around a little bit,” Gutekunst said.

The insinuation is that the Rodgers’ trade is the first with more to come.

The Packers can go any number of directions in this draft.

These are my top three scenarios:

** No. 1 – The Packers combine the 13th pick with the 42nd pick and trade them to Las Vegas for the No. 8 pick overall.

It gives the Packers their pick of the litter.

They can select Ohio State receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Iowa edge rusher Lukas Van Ness, Northwestern offensive tackle Peter Skoronski or Clemson edge rusher Myles Murphy.

Each of those four is a top talent at a position of need. It guarantees that the Packers will be selecting one of the best players in the entire draft.

While it may seem like a lot to surrender for one player, the fact is the Packers will still have their initial allotment of picks, including the 45th, 78th and 116th, with the prospect of moving around the board.

It appears Gutekunst stopped short of demanding the “13-15 pick swap” until the final week before the draft.

Apparently, Jets GM Joe Douglas wasn’t thrilled with the notion – the Jets desperately want an offensive tackle (Ohio State’s Paris Johnson) to protect Rodgers – but ultimately he acquiesced.

Gutekunst was asked why he sought to move up two spots.

“I’ll have no idea until we’re on the clock and I know who’s still on the board … but if we were doing that (swapping from 15 to 13) we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t think it was important,” Gutekunst said.

That strongly suggests the Packers want a player they believe will be available at 13, but not 15, or they want a player they believe won’t get past the 10th pick and it provides the wherewithal to trade up.

I won’t be shocked in the least if the Packers trade up from 13.

NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks, a former NFL scout who played with the Packers, tends to be one of the most reasonable mock drafters.

But I’ve got to say Brooks’ 2023 mock draft is a head scratcher.

Brooks has the Packers selecting Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid at 13, with Smith-Njigba falling to 23 and … the Minnesota Vikings.

The mere idea of Justin Jefferson lining up wide with JSN in the slot should give Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry chronic heartburn.

That can’t happen.

Neither can the Packers drafting a tight end at 13.

In fact, I would be absolutely stunned if Gutekunst went that way.

** No. 2 – The Packers sit tight at 13 and select whichever of these three players falls to them (in this order): edge rusher Lukas Van Ness, receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba (JSN), edge rusher Myles Murphy or the best remaining offensive tackle (Skoronski/Johnson).

JSN makes the offense better on Day One.

A slot receiver with jet sweep speed, soft hands and quick-as-a-hiccup moves would be a football godsend to Jordan Love.

Van Ness is a terrific edge rusher with tremendous upside. Murphy had a ton of production at Clemson and believes he’s just getting started.

Skoronski or Johnson would be a starting lineman for years to come.

And, Gutekunst would still have enough ammo to snag a top 6 tight end, a top 5 receiver and a top 3 safety in the ensuing rounds.

** No. 3 – The Packers see their favorite edge, receiver and offensive tackle come off the board so they trade back.

I could see the Packers moving back into the late teens or early 20s, but only if they receive a king’s ransom in return.

In this scenario, the Packers would select the top remaining tight end – either Kincaid or Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer – and get busy drafting the next-best slot receiver (Tennessee’s Jalin Hyatt), edge rusher (Iowa State’s Will McDonald) or safety (Illinois’ Sydney Brown).

Gutekunst said it was imperative that Love’s opportunity came now.

“He needs to play,” the Packers’ GM said. “Having (Love) sit another year would have delayed where we’re going with him.”

Gutekunst added that he doesn’t see the team taking a step back, and that he isn’t just going to load up on offense in an effort to help Love at the risk of ignoring other critical areas.

“We’re trying to win games and that takes all three phases – we’re going to load up in all three phases – offensive skill positions will be part of it, but we’re looking at the whole thing here,” he said.

Bucks’ backs to wall;

Brewers drop 2 of 3

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Milwaukee Bucks shot the lights out from behind the arc in a record-setting Game 2 rout of the Miami Heat.

Now, after a distressing Game 3 loss, the Bucks better be careful because the Heat is threatening to turn out the lights on their season.

Miami bounced back from the blowout loss to score one of its own – a convincing 121-99 victory over the No. 1 seeded Bucks Saturday night at Miami. The Heat now holds a 2-1 lead in their Eastern Conference first-round series with Game 4 set for tonight at Miami.

The Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo is listed as questionable for tonight’s game with a sore lower back. Antetokounmpo injured his back in Game 1, and the Bucks have split two games without their star.

Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said Antetokounmpo didn’t practice Sunday but was able to do so some individual work.

“He always wants to make himself available,” Budenholzer said. “He does everything to make himself available. He wants to play, but I think there’s also a maturity for Giannis and an understanding and a growth that we just respect and I think he respects us.”

The Heat couldn’t have had a better first half on Saturday.

One game after the Bucks rained 25 three-point shots to tie Cleveland for the NBA’s playoff record for made 3’s, Milwaukee stayed hot through 24 minutes but couldn’t sustain it for four quarters.

The Heat’s Jimmy Butler scored 17 of his game-high 30 points in the first quarter that helped trigger a 19-0 Miami run. The Heat also set a franchise record by making 12 3-pointers in a half.

For all of that, Miami held a modest 66-53 lead at the half as the Bucks stayed close by drilling 10 of 18 from beyond the arc in the first half. However, the Heat defense stiffened, the Bucks started missing 3’s and finished just 5 of 21 from 3-point range after intermission.

The Bucks trailed by 29 points at one juncture and committed 18 turnovers, including five each by Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton.

A Milwaukee loss tonight means it will be facing an elimination game.

The Heat is trying to become only the sixth No. 8 seed to upset a No. 1 seed since the NBA went to a 16-team playoff format in 1984.

Budenholzer remained confident in his team.

“We’ve got a really good team,” he said. “This group’s been together. There’s a ton of confidence in that locker room, players that can play and execute at a high level.

“We weren’t at our best Saturday, and we’ve got to look at that. We’ve got to own that and be better going into the next game knowing that we’ve got a really good team and really good players.”

The Heat is dealing with injuries of its own.

Tyler Herro, a 3-point sniper, is out for the balance of the series with a broken right middle finger. Center Bam Adabeyo is questionable with a sore hamstring and Butler is also questionable with a sore glute.

In addition, Victor Oladipo appeared to suffer a serious knee injury in the second half of Saturday’s game and did not return. Oladipo’s status for the balance of the playoffs is in question.

The Heat locker room was subdued despite the win.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra tried to strike an upbeat chord.

“I feel probably like how everybody feels,” he said. “It was a great win, but when you see a player go down like that – especially a player like Vic who’s gone through so much in the last three years … that’s definitely not a good feeling.”

Clearly, the Bucks need to get the series back to even or risk a most disappointing playoff exit.

And that’s with or without Giannis playing.

Meantime, the Brewers dropped two of three to the Red Sox during their three-game weekend series at American Family Field.

The highlight was Milwaukee’s 5-4 victory Saturday in which the red-hot Rowdy Tellez belted a two-run home run and the Brewers’ bullpen backed a strong outing by veteran left-hander Wade Miley.

Miley (3-1) scattered four hits over five innings while allowing two runs, walking one and striking out three. Peter Strzelecki and Hoby Milner kept it a 5-4 game until the ninth, when Devin Williams pitched around a one-out single to notch his third save of the season.

The Brewers (15-7) dropped to a half-game behind surprising Pittsburgh (16-7) in the NL Central standings.

The Brewers open a three-game series with Detroit tonight.

The pressure is on because Milwaukee hasn’t dropped back-to-back games all season. They are the only team in the major leagues that has managed to avoid consecutive losses to date.

Right-hander Colin Rea will be making his third start in place of the injured Brandon Woodruff, while Matthew Boyd (0-1) will start for the visiting Tigers.

The Tigers were swept in a three-game weekend series at Baltimore.

Tellez now has seven home runs and 17 RBI, William Contreras is hitting .311 and Brian Anderson, who belted two home runs Sunday, is batting .280 with five home runs.

The Brewers’ 12-4 loss was punctuated by a nine-run Red Sox eighth.

“This will be important for us to bounce back from,” Anderson said. “Obviously we fought all game and then we had that tough inning late. But our guys didn’t quit. We’re going to come out (today) swinging it and throwing it, and hopefully back to the same old, same old.”

The same old, same old, of course, is getting back to winning series.

Bucks turn back Heat,

Brewers stay red-hot

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Milwaukee Bucks didn’t have the NBA’s best player. It turns out the NBA’s best team didn’t need him.

With Giannis Antetokounmpo out with sore lower back, Milwaukee bounced back from a Game 1 loss to drill the Heat, 138-122, on Wednesday night at Fiserv Forum.

The Bucks tied the NBA record for 3-pointers in a game with a dazzling 25 of 49 shooting performance beyond the arc, and evened their Eastern Conference first-round series at a game apiece.

Without the league’s two-time MVP, the Bucks’ Brook Lopez (25 points) and Jrue Holiday (24) took charge to combine for 49 points in a rout of the Heat.

Pat Connaughton, who didn’t play in Game 1, scored a postseason career high 22 points on 6-for-10 shooting from distance. The Bucks’ spacing, passing and assertiveness on offense were at times breathtaking.

“Everyone’s ready,” Lopez told reporters after the game. “Everyone has the right mentality coming into this game – the mentality it takes to be a Milwaukee Buck. There’s no one above anyone else. We’re just out there trying to win.”

The Bucks improved to 12-8 in games without their superstar.

Clearly, Milwaukee’s genuine camaraderie and affection for each other as teammates elevates everyone’s game when Antetokounmpo is out.

On Wednesday night, the Bucks elevated for 25 3-pointers to share the NBA playoff record with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who nailed 25 in a 123-98 win over Atlanta in Game 2 of the 2016 East semifinals.

The Bucks were an awful 11 of 45 from 3-point range in Game 1.

Grayson Allen was one of six Bucks who scored at least 16 points. They shared the basketball and spread the wealth.

“There was a stretch there where it seemed like everything was going in,” Allen said. He was 4 of 8 beyond the arc.

Joe Ingles added 17 points and Khris Middleton finished with 16.

It appears Giannis is a unifying force even when he is sidelined.

“It takes the whole team,” Middleton said. “I think you saw that tonight. It wasn’t just one guy that carried us. A lot of people expect me or Jrue to take on all of the load that Giannis does, but what he does, we can’t match. So we have to do it by committee.”

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer didn’t have a definitive timetable for Giannis’ return to the court.

“We’ll continue to monitor him and expect for him to improve and still continue to be optimistic that soon he’ll be ready to play,” he said before tipoff.

The series resumes Saturday with Game 3 at Fiserv Forum.

Meantime, the Milwaukee Brewers continue to stay red-hot with a thrilling come-from-behind 5-3 victory at Seattle Wednesday afternoon.

It gave the Brewers (14-5) a three-game sweep of the Mariners while improve their win-loss record away from American Family Field to 9-4.

The Brewers have yet to lose consecutive games this season.

On Thursday, trailing 3-2 in the seventh with the bases loaded and one out, Christian Yelich was ahead 3-1 in the count before striking out. That left it to rookie Brice Turang, who delivered a clutch two-out single to drive in two runs, including the go-ahead run.

It triggered a five-run avalanche in the seventh that proved to be decisive.

It also backed Eric Lauer’s exceptional start.

Lauer (3-1) went 7 2/3 innings while scattering four hits and allowing two runs. After Peter Strzelecki loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth with one out, Matt Bush came on to notch the save.

Brewers’ manager Craig Counsell had high praise for Lauer.

“We got a really great pitching performance from Eric Lauer,” Counsell said. “There’s days when you come to the park where you really need your starter, and length from him is really important. (Lauer) delivered a gem, I thought. He made a lot of great pitches today. To get that deep in the game was sorely needed, for sure.”

For his part, Lauer is just trying to have fun.

“Obviously things are fun when you’re winning, but I think we have such a close-knit group in this clubhouse that I think that we’re going  to have fun no matter what,” Lauer said. “I think we’re good enough to win a lot, so hopefully we’re going to keep doing that.”

The Brewers have a day off Thursday before hosting the Boston Red Sox in a three-game weekend series at American Family Field.

Butler, Miami turn up

heat on ailing Bucks

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Milwaukee Bucks expertly navigated a rugged 82-game schedule to earn the NBA’s No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

Then, in the course of a single, ugly Sunday afternoon at Fiserv Forum, the Bucks watched Giannis’ injury add to the insult of losing home-court advantage to the Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference’s round one.

The Bucks’ ability to regain the home-court edge, and ultimately win the series, hinges on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s return from a back injury.

Milwaukee couldn’t overcome his absence in a 130-117 loss to the Heat, who rode Jimmy Butler’s game-high 35 points and 11 assists to victory.

Antetokounmpo hurt his lower back when he fell to the court in the first quarter. He returned with 9:56 to play in the second quarter but didn’t look comfortable and exited for good with 8:33 to play.

In the span of 23 seconds, the Bucks’ playoff hopes took a hit.

Whether they recover from the blow remains to be seen.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said he substituted for his superstar because “he just wasn’t moving well … Didn’t look comfortable, confident it felt like the right thing.”

The Heat (up 1-0 in the best-of-seven series) were playing less than 48 hours after defeating the Chicago Bulls in a play-in game, but still looked fresher, stronger and quicker to the basketball.

The Bucks lost The Greek Freak before they had time to play with anything resembling rhythm after a 10-day layoff.

Milwaukee trailed by 13 at halftime before using an 11-0 run to close to within 78-75 midway through the third quarter.

It didn’t matter. The Heat had too much experience and firepower.

Bam Adebayo has 22 points as the No. 8 seed Heat also got 18 points from a resurgent Kevin Love to go with 15 apiece from Gabe Vincent and Caleb Martin. Tyler Herro scored 12 points before leaving with what later was reported as a broken right hand.

It appears Herro may be out for the balance of the postseason.

Antetokounmpo’s fate remains to be determined.

“We have to wait and see what the doctors say,” Budenholzer told reporters Sunday. “Most importantly, what matters is what Giannis says (about how he feels). Certainly, we’ve been blessed with him being incredibly resilient and quick to heal, but you’ve got to take it day to day and see how he’s doing and see how he feels.”

Antetokounmpo had six points and three rebounds in 11 minutes.

It was impossible to watch the game and repeatedly think, “The Bucks wouldn’t gotten that rebound” or “The Bucks would’ve scored on that possession” if Giannis were playing.

The league’s two-time MVP is that important to everything the Bucks do, from rim protection to fast-break points to second-chance scores on offensive rebounds.

The Bucks are 11-8 in games he doesn’t play in. They also fall to an uninspiring 5-7 under Budenholzer in Game 1s in any playoff series.

Against the hungry Heat, the Bucks made a valiant comeback but ultimately fell short due to a lack of firepower. Milwaukee was a dreadful 11 of 45 from 3-point range (24.4 percent) compared with the Heat’s 15-for-25 (60 percent) from beyond the arc.

Despite such poor shooting from long range, the Bucks managed just eight offensive rebounds.

Khris Middleton led the Bucks with 33 points, Bobby Portis Jr. had 21, Jrue Holiday 16 points to go with 16 assists, and Grayson Allen had 12. Brooke Lopez was limited to 10 points on 4 of 7 shooting that included going 0-for-3 from distance.

As the Bucks prepare for Game 2 Wednesday night, they are hoping that they’ve only lost one game, as opposed to one superstar. The former, they can overcome; the latter appears unlikely.

In more positive news, the Milwaukee Brewers didn’t squander a second straight strong start by Wade Miley in a 1-0 shutout win over the Padres at San Diego’s Petco Park Sunday afternoon.

Miley (2-1) had eight strikeouts and zero walks while scattering four hits in seven innings. Peter Strzelecki pitched a clean eighth inning before Brewers closer Devin Williams raised Brewers’ fans collective heartbeats with a hair-raising ninth.

Williams loaded the bases with two outs before coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the count to strike out ex-Brewers outfielder Trent Grisham to earn the save and seal the victory.

The Brewers (11-5) won their third series in four tries. Their 3-1 series win at Petco Park was arguably the most impressive.

Yu Darvish (0-2) allowed just four hits and matched Miley pitch-for-pitch through seven innings. Garrett Mitchell scored the game’s only run in the second inning. He reached on a bunt single up the first-base line and advanced to second on a Darvish balk. Then he used his speed and excellent base-running ability to steal third and score on Brian Anderson’s sacrifice fly.

The NL Central’s first-place Brewers open a three-game series at Seattle with the first pitch at 8:40 p.m. Monday.

Milwaukee sends ace Corbin Burnes (1-1) to the mound against the Mariners’ right-hander Chris Flexen (0-2). Burnes was brilliant in his most previous outing after a couple of shaky starts to begin the season.

Burnes threw eight scoreless innings at Arizona in Milwaukee’s 7-1 victory last week. It was a performance Brewers manager Craig Counsell said was as good as any he’s seen from the big right-hander in a Brewers uniform.

Brewers get a Rea of sunshine in San Diego

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Colin Rea has the distinction of recording the final out of the 11,000th win in Chicago Cubs history.

The 6-foot-5 right-hander also has the distinction of recording the first out in the 4,132nd win in Milwaukee Brewers history.

The former occurred in 2021, the latter on Thursday night in San Diego, where the Brewers scored a 4-3 victory in 10 innings over the Padres at Petco Park.

For a Brewers’ pitching staff without right-hander Brandon Woodruff, who was placed on the 15-day I.L. with arm fatigue, the 32-year-old journeyman was a “Rea” of sunshine during a difficult road trip.

Brewers’ manager Craig Counsell was pleased with the shot in the arm.

“To give us 17 outs in 5 2/3 innings, it’s a great performance for sure,” Counsell told reporters. “I couldn’t ask for anything more. I thought he was wonderful and he gave us a real chance to win.”

Rea scattered a pair of hits over 5 2/3 innings with a walk and six strikeouts. He stayed ahead of the hitters all night. His only mistake – if it can be called that – was a hanging slider Manny Machado deposited over the right-center field fence 380 feet away.

It was Machado’s first home run of the season. Xander Bogaerts followed with a two-out single before Rae notched the third out. He opened the third inning with a walk to Austin Nola, who was wiped out on an inning-ending double play.

Rea didn’t allow a baserunner the rest of his outing.

The Brewers purchased Rea’s contract from Triple-A Nashville earlier in the day. Rea pitched in Japan last season and played with the Padres for parts of 2015 and 2016. His last start was in 2020 with the Cubs.

For his part, Rea joked about his status as a former Padre.

“I was just glad I didn’t go over to the other dugout after the first inning,” Rea said. “That’s all I thought about the last couple of days. It’s always good to be back here. It’s always a good place to pitch and a good atmosphere.”

Rowdy Tellez opened the scoring with a two-run home run in the first inning and closed it with the go-ahead sac fly in the 10th inning.

Christian Yelich began the 10th as the automatic runner at second base. After Willy Adames drew a leadoff walk against Luis Garcia (0-2), he and Yelich successfully pulled off a double steal.

Tellez’s sac fly followed to put the Brewers ahead.

Devin Williams (1-0) struck out the side in the bottom of the ninth to get the win, and Joel Payamps recorded a 1-2-3 10th to earn the save.

Peter Strzelecki surrendered two hits in 1 1/3 innings, and Matt Bush gave up a game-tying, two-run shot to Trent Grisham in the eighth. For Grisham, a former Brewer, it was his fourth home run this season.

Rea was asked about his time with the Padres.

“It’s a different team,” he said. “That was my first time facing a lot of those guys so they’d never seen me before. It was good.”

Tellez’s third home run this season came off San Diego starter Nick Martinez, and Mike Brosseau added a solo shot, his second of the year, in the fifth.

The Brewers (9-4) are tied with Atlanta (9-4) for the NL’s best record. Milwaukee holds a modest one-game lead over Pittsburgh (8-5) in the NL Central race.

The pitching matchups for the weekend consist of a trio of dandies.

In Friday night’s 8:40 game, left-hander Eric Lauer (1-1) will start for Milwaukee against San Diego righty Michael Wacha (2-0, 3.00 ERA).

On Saturday, Freddy Peralta (2-0, 0.75 ERA with 14 strikeouts) and Seth Lugo (2-0, 1.35 with 12 strikeouts) will tangle in a matchup of top-notch right-handers. First pitch is set for 3:05 p.m.

On Sunday, veteran lefty Wade Miley (1-1, 2.45) will start against veteran right-hander Yu Darvish (0-1, 4.76) for the Padres.

The Brewers are fortunate they don’t have to face Fernando Tatis Jr., the Padres’ shortstop, who is on a rehab assignment in Triple-A El Paso. Tatis Jr. went 5-for-6 with three home runs and eight RBI on Thursday.

Tatis received an 80-game suspension Aug. 12, 2022, after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug.

Brewers surge to 7-2, open road trip tonight

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Brewers’ veteran position players couldn’t just stand by and let the rookies have all the fun.

So Willy Adames, Christian Yelich and Rowdy Tellez did something about it in Sunday afternoon’s rubber match against the Cardinals.

They came out swinging.

Adames went 3-for-4 with a home run, a double and three RBI to raise his batting average to a cool .344.

Yelich went 3-for-5 with a home run and two runs scored. He entered the weekend hitting .217. He exited hitting .257.

Tellez added a two-run double for good measure.

It resulted in Milwaukee’s third straight series win to open the season, this one capped by a 6-1 victory over St. Louis at American Family Field on a sun-splashed Easter Sunday.

Rookies Brice Turang, Garrett Mitchell and Joey Wiemer have been making headlines by carrying the brunt of the offensive load. Turang is hitting .304 with a grand slam to his credit. Mitchell has a multi-home run game to go with his solid .286 average, and Wiemer is at .296 and registered a hit in six of his first seven games.

All of that hitting – plus an abundance of first-rate pitching – has served as the backdrop for the Brewers’ fast start.

The Brewers won Friday night’s opener, 4-0, behind Brandon Woodruff’s second strong start and excellent relief pitching. The Brewers’ bullpen has been lights out thus far.

On Saturday, the Cardinals’ Nolan Arenado belted his 300th career home run and left-hander Jordan Montgomery shut out the Brewers, 6-0.

It was no big deal.

The Brewers’ Freddy Peralta returned the favor Sunday.

Peralta (2-0) scattered four hits over six innings while striking out seven and walking three to notch his second win of the season. Peralta’s ERA fell to a minuscule 0.75, while Woodruff’s ERA dropped to 0.79.

On Sunday, Milwaukee’s bullpen continued to be sharp.

St. Louis loaded the bases with nobody out in the eighth inning on a single and two walks off Matt Bush, but the hard-throwing right-hander wriggled off the hook by striking out Willson Contreras and inducing Tommy Edman to fly out to left before Hoby Milner came in to strike out pinch-hitter Taylor Motter.

Peter Strzelecki threw a scoreless seventh, his 14th straight scoreless appearance dating back to last season.

Devin Williams closed it out by pitching a scoreless ninth.

The Brewers’ bullpen has not allowed a run in the past 23 1/3 innings.

Milwaukee (7-2) owns the National League’s best record. Only the American League’s Tampa Bay Rays (9-0) have a better mark thus far.

The Brewers’ hot start is reflected in MLB’s latest power rankings. Milwaukee climbed to eighth after debuting at 14 last week.

The Rays (9-0) sit at No. 1, followed by the Braves (6-4), the Dodgers (5-5), the Yankees (6-3) and the Padres (6-4) to round out the top five. The Astros are sixth, the Blue Jays seventh and the Brewers eighth ahead of NL Central rivals St. Louis (12th), Chicago (21st), Pittsburgh (24) and Cincinnati (25).

Milwaukee’s odds to win the NL Central also took a sizable jump.

The Cardinals came into the season as the NL Central betting favorite, but the Brewers (at -115) have since overtaken the Cards (at +135).

The Brewers begin a 10-game road trip tonight at Arizona (6-4).

Milwaukee will send left-hander Wade Miley (1-0) to the mound against the Diamondbacks’ Zac Gallen (0-1) with the first pitch set for 8:40 p.m.

Corbin Burnes (0-1) is slated to start Tuesday night’s Game 2 against right-hander Merrill Kelly (0-1). Burnes is in search of his first win after a pair of so-so outings by his standards.

Woodruff is penciled in to start Game 3 with Wednesday’s first pitch set for 2:40 p.m. Arizona hasn’t named a starter yet for the rubber match.

The Brewers open a four-game series at San Diego on Thursday, and wrap up the road trip with a three-game set at Seattle.

Bucks earn top seed,

Brewers keep rolling

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Milwaukee Bucks are the NBA’s No. 1 overall seed going into the postseason.

If fans weren’t sure, one glance at the injury report for tonight’s game against Memphis at Fiserv Forum would have confirmed it.

The Bucks (58-22) will be without Giannis Antetokounmpo (knee), Jrue Holiday (rest), Brook Lopez (rest) and Khris Middleton (knee).

In addition to the “Big Four” being unavailable, the Bucks also will be without Pat Connaughton and Grayson Allen, who are sidelined with ankle injuries.

The Bucks have earned the R&R to be sure.

Teams such as the Grizzlies don’t have the same luxury.

Memphis (50-30) can lock up the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed with a win tonight or Sunday at Oklahoma City. The Grizzlies rested Ja Morant (left hip soreness) in a 138-131 loss at New Orleans Wednesday.

Expect Morant to be a full participant in tonight’s game.

Obviously, it is always preferable to play at home, which is why earning the NBA’s top seed is important. The rub is that having the best overall record and the No. 1 seed doesn’t guarantee an NBA title.

In the past 24 years, the NBA’s top-seeded team has captured the title just seven times. The Golden State Warriors – the No. 1 seed in 2016-17 – are the most recent No. 1 seed to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

The Bucks failed to win the NBA title in 2018-19 and 2019-20 despite being the No. 1 seed overall. In 2018-19 the Bucks (60-22) bowed out to the Toronto Raptors 4-2 in the Eastern Conference finals. In 2019-20, the Covid-19 shortened season, the Bucks (56-17) fell to the Heat 4-1 in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Milwaukee hopes to improve the No. 1 seed’s success rate once the playoffs begin, but that doesn’t mean they can’t win Friday night.

In fact, it was fitting that Milwaukee wrapped up the top seed while Giannis was resting his sore left knee. The Bucks downed the visiting Chicago Bulls 105-92 on Wednesday night with a makeshift lineup.

Bobby Portis scored 27 points and grabbed 13 rebounds while Lopez added 26 points and Holiday had 20 points and 15 assists in the win.

The second-seeded Celtics (55-25) await the winner of the Miami-Atlanta play-in tournament, with the loser of that game playing the Toronto-Chicago winner to see who draws the Bucks in the first round.

Meantime, the Milwaukee Brewers (5-1) just keep on winning.

The Brewers take a five-game winning streak into Friday night’s series opener against N.L. Central rival St. Louis (2-4) with the first pitch set for 7:10 p.m. at American Family Field.

The Cardinals will start right-hander Jack Flaherty (1-0) in the opener, while the Brewers will counter with righty Brandon Woodruff.

The Brewers are coming off a three-game series sweep of the Mets in which they outscored New York 26-6 including 10-0 and 9-0 shutouts to open the three-game set.

Milwaukee capped the sweep with a 7-6 victory Wednesday afternoon when Garrett Mitchell’s walk-off home run ended it in the ninth.

The Brewers belted nine home runs in the series, including a grand slam by Brice Turang and back-to-back-to-back blasts by Rowdy Tellez, Brian Anderson and Mitchell off Mets starter Max Scherzer (1-1).

Anderson and Mitchell doubled down by hitting consecutive blasts in the seventh inning.

It has been Anderson and fellow newcomer Jesse Winker who have been the veterans swinging the big bats. Anderson is hitting .500 (9-for-18) with seven runs scored, 10 RBI, a double and three home runs. Winker is hitting .333 (6-for-18) with three runs scored, a pair of doubles and seven RBI.

While they have been a dynamic duo, the trio of Tellez, Christian Yelich and Willy Adames have struggled. Tellez is hitting .158 with a home run. Yelich is scuffling at .217 although he has been making good contact, and Adames is at .238 with three RBI.

Mostly, it’s been Anderson, Winker and the rookies carrying the load.

Mitchell is hitting .300 (6-for-20) with six runs scored, a triple, three home runs and five RBI.

Turang is batting .313 (5-for-16) with five runs scored, a double, a grand slam and five RBI.

Joey Wiemer is hitting .353 (6-for-17) with a double and a home run.

The rookies are a combined seven walks to just 10 strikeouts, a testament to their plate discipline thus far.

Brewers’ manager Craig Counsell is excited about the young players’ potential, and he relishes the enthusiasm they bring to the clubhouse, the dugout and the diamond every day.

“That’s what young players do,” Counsell said. “They take us all back to a time when we’re just starting out, and that’s for everybody a great time in your life, a great time in your career.”

Counsell said their energy is contagious.

“Just the way they play … they can all do so much on the field,” he added. “They’re not one-dimensional players. They’re players that can do a lot. That means they can impact the game a lot and that’s what they’ve been doing.”

Woodruff, who was 13-4 with a 3.05 ERA last season, gave up one run on three hits in six innings of work in his first start. He did not get the decision in the Brewers’ 3-1 win over the Cubs.

Woodruff hasn’t received the national attention that Corbin Burnes has seen, but he has been among baseball’s best starting pitchers during the past three seasons. In fact, Woodruff is 8-1 with a 2.33 ERA in his last 19 starts dating back to last season.

St. Louis comes into the series on a three-game losing streak and with slugging outfielder Tyler O’Neill and manager Oliver Marmol at odds. Marmol criticized O’Neill’s lack of hustle when he was thrown out at the plate in Tuesday’s loss to the Braves.

O’Neill reacted strongly to Marmol’s comments and vehemently defended himself, saying that he gives 100 percent all the time.

The following day O’Neill wasn’t in the lineup, and Marmol continued to be critical by referencing the “high standard” in which players must abide by to play for him.

Stay tuned.

Bucks, Brewers roll to

blowout wins Sunday

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Some sense of normalcy returned to Milwaukee’s sports scene during a weekend that featured the Bucks reasserting their dominance and the Brewers rediscovering their batting eye.

The Brewers’ 9-5 rout of the Cubs on Sunday at Wrigley Field gave Milwaukee a series win on opening weekend. Now they return to American Family Field for Monday’s home opener against the Mets, with Freddy Peralta set to start for the Brewers.

Later that night the Bucks rode a 41-point first quarter to fire up Fiserv Forum and set the tone in a 117-104 blowout of the 76ers.

The collaborative win-win made it a delightful day for state sports fans.

In Chicago, the Brewers displayed solid pitching and excellent defense to score a 3-1 win Saturday. They got more of the same on Sunday with the difference being their bats came alive.

Milwaukee (2-1) pounded out 13 hits with Jesse Winker, Christian Yelich, Garrett Mitchell and Brice Turang collecting two hits apiece.

Winker, who was acquired in a December trade with Seattle, delivered a pinch-hit, run-scoring single in the eighth inning of Saturday’s win. On Sunday, Winker drove in three runs. The key hit was a two-run single in the Brewers’ five-run sixth inning.

“I thought we swung the bats very well,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “Put the ball in play a lot at the right times, and with the amount of traffic we had it led to some good results.”

Winker agreed while admitting he’s pleased to contribute right away.

“I think the first thing we want to do as hitters is to see the ball, and I feel like I’m seeing the ball,” he said. “So I feel comfortable with that.”

Eric Lauer (1-0) overcame a shaky start to earn the win. He scattered five hits over 5 1/3 innings of two-run ball with a pair of walks and six strikeouts. He was tagged for a solo home run by Patrick Wisdom, who added another solo shot off Joel Payamps in the seventh.

Lauer struggled in spring training and then had difficulty locating his command early in Sunday’s game. Nevertheless, he kept battling and managed to tap-dance his way through a minefield.

“I think that’s the kind of step you take in season,” Lauer said. “It’s where you go to more ‘compete mode’ rather than ‘Ok, I’m working on some things mode,’ ”

The Brewers had four rookies play well at Wrigley.

Turang, Mitchell and Joey Wiemer all contributed in the field, and Gus Varland pitched a scoreless inning in each of his two appearances.

Turang, who is a shortstop playing second base, has been dazzling in the field. He shows a confidence and maturity that belies his 23 years. He also is hitting .429 (3-for-7) with a double, an RBI and two walks.

Mitchell flashed his speed with a run-scoring triple on Sunday. The only concern was whether Brian Anderson was fast enough to score from first – and ahead of Mitchell – without being held at third.

Mitchell is that fast.

Wiemer, who is 6-4, 220, flashed his speed by making several nice running catches in right field.

Winker was impressed.

“All four of those guys bring great elements to our team,” he said. “They play the game extremely hard, play the game right, and it’s so much fun to watch.”

Back in Milwaukee, the Bucks re-established a clear line of demarcation in the NBA’s Eastern Conference with their Sunday night rout of the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Bucks (56-22) hold a two-game lead over Boston (54-24) with four to play in the regular season. The 76ers (51-27) are five games back and host the Celtics on Tuesday night, while the Bucks are at the Wizards.

Milwaukee’s magic number is four, therefore a Bucks’ win and a Celtics’ loss at Philly would slice it to two. The Bucks would have to win one of their three remaining games to clinch the No. 1 seed.

Clearly, the Bucks and Celtics are the top teams in the Eastern Conference, with the 76ers a distant-but-dangerous third. The top seed means the Bucks won’t have to eliminate both Boston and Philadelphia to reach the NBA Finals.

The NBA’s MVP conversation continues to heat up with sentiment building for the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic and the 76ers’ Joel Embiid. Both of the big men are wonderful players. Jokic is a walking triple-double with the ability to pass out of double-teams and score from wherever. Embiid is the NBA’s leading scorer at 33 points per game.

The other contender is two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer believes “The Greek Freak” is deserving of a third MVP trophy.

“We certainly feel like Giannis is the MVP,” he said. “I think what our team has been able to do – we’ve still got some more work to have the best record in the league – but best player, best record. What he does on both ends of the court – the rebounding, the blocked shots, the defense, the guarding the perimeter – he does everything. He makes plays, attacks, gets to the free throw line. We feel like he’s in the conversation or he should be the guy.”

Win or lose the MVP, Giannis seems to take it as it comes.

“When you think about the MVP, it just puts pressure on yourself,” Antetokounmpo said Sunday night. “At the end of the day, I’m happy. I’m happy where I am in life. I’m happy. I’m blessed with this talent. I’m happy I’m able to go out there every day and chase my dream that I had as a little kid, try to improve, go out there and play with an edge.”

Part of being an MVP is being a leader in the tough times.

Two days after a disheartening 140-99 blowout loss to the Celtics, an edgy Antetokounmpo scored 33 points, pulled down 14 rebounds and dished out six assists in the Bucks’ blowout of the 76ers.

The Bucks hit their first eight shots and 12 of their first 13 to lead by as much as 20 points in the first half. The 76ers closed to within four points in the third quarter, but the Bucks responded with a 16-2 run to end it.

“I thought they just kicked our butt,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers. “They were more aggressive, they were prepared. They beat us all the way around.”

No joy in Sudsville as

Brewers, Bucks lose

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Brewers couldn’t find their bats, the Bucks couldn’t find the basket and Milwaukee’s sports fans likely had a hard time believing what they were seeing on a forgettable Friday.

It began with sunrise illuminating a day filled with promise.

The Brewers were sending ace right-hander Corbin Burnes to start their mid-afternoon season opener against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

And the NBA-leading Bucks were hosting arch-rival Boston that night with a chance to essentially sew up the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed.

It would’ve been a terrific two-step.

It could’ve been a delightful daily-double.

It should’ve been a reason to party until the Holsteins come home.

Alas, by sundown it was all over but the explaining, although much of what transpired defied it.

Let’s start with the Brewers’ 4-0 loss to the Cubbies.

Milwaukee managed to accomplish next to nothing in its season opener. Burnes allowed four hits and as many runs in five innings spent mostly in search of his command.

News flash: Burnes’ command is still at-large.

Burnes uncharacteristically walked three and struck out three while being backed by zero run support and shaky defense. His undoing was a four-run third inning that was fueled by three singles, two fielder’s choice ground outs, a walk and an error.

Neither team managed an extra-base hit at chilly, windy Wrigley.

Then again, the Cubs didn’t need any. All they needed was a lead for right-hander Marcus Stroman, who bewitched the Brewers by scattering three hits over six innings of shutout baseball.

Stroman walked three, struck out eight and navigated a bases-loaded jam by inducing Rowdy Tellez to hit into an inning-ending double play. He even survived the first pitch clock violation in big-league history.

Major League Baseball introduced the pitch clock this season to speed the pace of play. Players have 30 seconds to resume play between batters. Between pitches, pitchers have 15 seconds with nobody on and 20 seconds if there is a baserunner. Batters must be in the box and alert to the pitcher with at least eight seconds on the clock.

“It’s definitely not easy to be a pitcher out there and feel rushed at times,” Stroman said.

It’s also definitely not easy to be a pitcher out there when your teammates struggle to hit, score runs or play defense.

Just ask Burnes.

The Brewers’ lone bright spot may have been wide-eyed Bryce Turang.

The second baseman became only Milwaukee’s seventh rookie to start on opening day, a distinguished list that includes future Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Paul Molitor.

Turang, 23, went 1-for-3 to account for 25 percent of Milwaukee’s hits.

The good news is the Brewers’ 4-0 loss doesn’t mean they won’t compete with St. Louis, also 0-1, for the NL Central championship.

It’s the same for the Bucks, whose nightmarish 140-99 loss to the Celtics should serve as a wakeup call, rather than any foreshadowing of disasters to come.

Giannis Antetokounmpo enjoyed nothing about the lopsided loss, although he did seem to take it in stride. He called it out for what it was: A reminder that to beat the best, you have to play your best.

The Bucks (55-22) weren’t even close.

“We know what the deal is,” Giannis said. “If you’re not focused and you don’t play hard, they are going to kick our (butt). It’s as simple as that. There is no level of concern. It’s a fact. If we play the same way, we’ll have the same outcome. We’ve got to have some pride.”

Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 24 points.

Teammate Khris Middleton led with his chin and took an elbow for his trouble. He left midway through the second half with blood pouring from his mouth after getting clipped by Jaylen Brown.

It was indicative of the Bucks’ evening.

Jayson Tatum scored 40 points, Brown added 30 and the Celtics (53-24) drilled 22 of 43 shots from 3-point range to close within two games.

“It does matter,” said Brown, who played like it did. “We want to finish out the season strong and see what happens.”

Boston won the season series, 2-1, and would win the tiebreaker.

The Bucks aren’t planning on it coming down to that. They host the 76ers on Sunday in another key Eastern Conference matchup.

The difference in the 24-hour turnaround was staggering.

On Wednesday night, the Bucks shot 62% from the field in a 149-136 rout of the Indiana Pacers. Jrue Holiday scored a career-high 51 points and Antetokounmpo had 38 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists. It was the first time in NBA history when one teammate scored at least 50 and another posted a triple-double with at least 35 points.

Things went quite the opposite Thursday night.

Holiday had six points and Antetokounmpo was 11 of 27 from the floor.

It was just one of those days … and nights.

Packers’ GM disputes
QB’s stated narrative
By Chris Havel
Special to The FAN
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Packers president Mark Murphy was only partially correct when he called Aaron Rodgers “a complicated fella.”
Murphy could’ve added that he’s an arrogant, insecure and ego-driven fella who may be prone to contradicting himself or indulging in revisionist history when it suits his agenda.
In those ways, for better or worse, he’s like a lot of folks.
The difference is most reasonable people don’t act on those impulses.
In that way Rodgers is shameless. He can afford to be a jack-ass, the irony being it’s mostly because of the Packers, not in spite of them. The Packers have made their future Hall of Fame QB wealthy enough so he can thumb his nose at them with impunity.
Less than a year ago, the Packers offered and he signed a three-year, $150 million contract that included $50 million guaranteed. Rodgers said he inked to the deal because he “wanted to retire as a Packer.”
Then, he expressed his gratitude by being a no-show for most of the offseason, playing poorly by his standards, and griping through an 8-9 season. Along the way it became clear that Rodgers and head coach Matt LaFleur didn’t see eye-to-eye despite achieving 47 wins and three playoff berths in four seasons together.
Of course, Rodgers’ ego may have him thinking it was all his doing.
The tipping point came after a disappointing home loss to Detroit in the regular-season finale with a playoff berth at stake.
After the game, Rodgers criticized LaFleur’s play-calling on the final drive, as if his own subpar accuracy and lack of mobility weren’t factors.
The kicker was this: Rodgers said he needed time to ponder his future.
Say what? Wasn’t the $150 million golden parachute his future?
Apparently it wasn’t.
That left Packers GM Brian Gutekunst little choice but to attempt to consummate a trade with the New York Jets and clean up the mess.
In fact, Gutekunst took exception to Rodgers’ offseason narrative claiming the Packers made no effort to directly discuss his future.
Gutekunst said Monday at the NFL’s league meetings in Phoenix that the team tried “many times” to reach Rodgers after their end-of-season meeting in January but to no avail.
That directly disputes the narrative Rodgers presented March 15 on “The Pat McAfee Show.” That’s when Rodgers whined about how he wished the Packers would have been direct about their intentions with him.
Rodgers said: “I wish that in the beginning of the offseason that had been the conversation, because I love direct communication.”
Gutekunst claimed otherwise on Monday.
“I was really looking forward to the conversations with Aaron to see how he fit into that,” he said. “Those never transpired. So there came a time when we had to make some decisions, so we went through his representatives to try to talk to him (about) where we were going with our team. At that point, they informed us that he would like to be traded to the Jets.”
Gutekunst said he was led to believe after their end-of-season meeting that they would talk again after each side assessed the situation.
“Our inability to reach him or for him to respond in any way – I think at that point, I had to do my job and kind of reach out (to other teams) and understand that a trade could be possible and see who was interested.”
That sounds reasonable enough. The problem is Rodgers’ version is in direct contrast to the events Gutekunst detailed.
Rodgers said on March 15 that the Packers didn’t reach out to him.
“If they had just said, ‘Listen, we think it’s time to move in a different direction. We love you. You’re going to be a Packer Hall of Famer. You’re going to go into the Hall as a Packer. We’re going to retire your number, whatever it might be, but it’s time to move on.’ I would’ve said, ‘Thank you so much just for telling me that. I really, really appreciate that. That means the world to me that you would tell me that.’ Because I really believe that’s the sentiment, and that’s fine. It really is. It’s totally fine. This is an incredible profession, but it’s a tough business, for sure.”
It isn’t surprising that Rodgers didn’t share the fact that the Packers did reach out to him after the season, but it is disappointing.
Gutekunst didn’t wager a guess as to why Rodgers didn’t respond.
“You’d love to have those conversations about where our team’s going and how he might fit into that,” Gutekunst said. “We were unable to have those, so it is what it is. At the same time, Aaron’s been a great player for us. He means a lot to the organization. There’s a lot of gratitude there, but those conversations would’ve been nice.”
Gutekunst acknowledged that he and Jets GM Joe Douglas have been in regular contact, including briefly at the meetings in Phoenix, but that there is no deadline for a trade.
The Packers could wait until the summer to finalize a deal. That would mitigate the team’s cap hit for Rodgers. It also would mean they wouldn’t be receiving any draft picks until the 2024 draft.
Gutekunst said it isn’t a necessity to have a deal prior to the draft.
“I think fair value for the player is important. There’s risks to all this. But again, I’m hopeful, I’m confident that we’ll be able to reach a conclusion at some point.”
The Packers have until May to pick up the fifth-year option on Jordan Love’s rookie contract. He made it perfectly clear that the team believes Love is ready to be their starter.

“I think it’s really a credit to Jordan how he’s handled that and how professional he’s been through this, him and his representatives,” Gutekunst said. “We’ve been in kind of constant communication with them and him, and I think he’s got a really good outlook on this. He understands there’s so much out of his control, but I know he’s really preparing, and I think he’s really excited for this opportunity, and we are, as well.”

FAU’s Owls advance,

Mich. State falls in OT

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Sweet Sixteen tipped off Thursday night and promptly played true to form … and I’m not talking chalk.

The upstart Owls of 9th-seeded Florida Atlantic University dispatched the No. 4 seed Tennessee 62-55 in a game FAU won going away. It means the Owls (34-3) are advancing to their first Elite Eight in school history after their third straight NCAA Tournament win.

In a slightly lesser upset, No. 3 seed Gonzaga outlasted No. 2 seed UCLA 79-76 in a late-night battle of the West Coast’s top teams. The Zags and Drew Timme, who scored 36 points to go with 13 rebounds in the win over UCLA, are a legit threat to reach the Final Four.

Timme wasn’t the Zags’ only hero.

Julian Strawther scored 16 points, including a 27-foot bomb to make it 78-76 Gonzaga with 12.4 seconds to play.

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few knew he was going to Strawther all the way, even though Timme had a terrific night.

“This guy has made so many big shots for us,” Few said of Strawther. “I knew if I called his number he would deliver.”

Strawther said, “As soon as it came off, it looked like it was on line. We work on that play in practice literally all the time, and I may be joking around sometimes, but here we are and it mattered today.”

UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. scored 29 points to go with 11 rebounds and three steals for the 2nd-seeded Bruins. It was only UCLA’s second loss in its last 16 games.

In between, 4th-seeded UConn rolled No. 8 seed Arkansas 88-65 in the Sweet Sixteen’s only blowout halfway to the Elite Eight.

That leaves the game of the night.

Michigan State’s 7th-seeded Spartans and head coach Tom Izzo felt good going into Thursday night’s matchup with No. 3 seed Kansas State.

The Spartans and Izzo featured a season-hardened squad that matured and improved as the Big Ten season clattered along. It showed in a top-shelf performance that ended in a 98-93 overtime loss to Kansas State.

The Wildcats’ Markquis Nowell scored 20 points to go with his NCAA Tournament record 19 assists to lead Kansas State to a thrilling win. Nowell battled through an ankle injury early in the second half to trigger the Wildcats’ win over a game Spartans’ squad.

Nowell’s lob feed to Keyontae Johnson (22 points) for a two-handed reverse dunk gave K-State a 94-92 lead with 52 seconds to play in OT. Malik Hall split a pair of free throws, K-State countered with a sweet inbounds play to Ismael Massoud for a 17-foot baseline jumper to make it 96-93. After a Michigan State timeout, Nowell stripped the basketball away from Tyson Walker, gathered it in and laid it in at the buzzer.

Nowell is one of the grittiest guards in all of college basketball.

When Wildcats first-year coach Jerome Tang replaced Bruce Weber, who had become something of a legend in Manhattan, Kansas, the Big 12’s prompt response was to pick K-State 11th in the preseason poll.

Now they’re on to the Elite Eight.

Nowell anticipated the alley-oop to go the way it went.

“We knew how Michigan State plays defense – they play high up,” Nowell said. “And Keyontae just told me, we got eye contact and he was like lob, lob. I just threw it up and he made a great play.”

Nowell, Massoud and Nae’Qwan Tomlin all grew up in Harlem, so effectively they went from one Manhattan (N.Y.) to another.

“This one was special,” Nowell said. “In front of my hometown, in front of the city that loves me, I can’t even put into words how blessed and grateful I am.”

In addition to the clutch baseline jumper, Massoud went 4-of-6 from beyond the arc and finished with 15 points, while Tomlin added 11 points and seven rebounds.

Kansas State (26-9) faces Florida Atlantic in the Elite Eight. It is the Wildcats’ first Elite Eight appearance since 2010.

Michigan State’s A.J. Hoggard had a game-high 25 points and Wisconsin native Joey Hauser had 18 points.


The Wisconsin Badgers reached the 20-win plateau in 2022-23, but they had to do it the hard way. Wisconsin (20-14) won its third straight NIT game Tuesday night, a 61-58 victory at Oregon, to advance.

The Badgers take on North Texas (29-7) in one semifinal Tuesday night at Las Vegas’ Orleans Arena, while Utah Valley (28-8) and UAB (28-9) meet in the other semifinal matchup.

Against Oregon, Max Klesmit scored 18 points and Chucky Hepburn tacked on 12 as the Badgers rallied for a three-point win.

Oregon was without its top three scorers, but still tested Wisconsin in the late-night affair in Eugene, Ore.

It was Wisconsin’s 20th game of the season decided by five or fewer points, and it saw the Badgers improve to 13-7 in those contests.

North Texas ranks among the NCAA’s top defensive teams. In many ways, the Mean Green is a mirror image of the Badgers. They play tough, physical defense without fouling, and they can shoot the 3-point shot with tremendous proficiency.

Now we’ll see if the Badgers can prevail over North Texas and ultimately capture an unlikely championship.

Two 1s, two 2s and a 3

eliminated in NCAAs

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers could only wish the NCAA Tournament’s opening weekend upsets doubled as the New York Jets’ trade compensation for Aaron Rodgers.

Two 1s, two 2s and a 3 were sent packing during the weekend.

Sadly, it wasn’t the Jets sending those picks to 1265 Lombardi Ave.

It was Purdue, Kansas, Arizona, Marquette and Baylor – highly seeded and perhaps overrated – being sent home after suffering major upsets.

The most difficult of the bracket-busting losses was Marquette’s.

The No. 2-seeded Golden Eagles were flying high after a 20-point blowout of Vermont in Friday’s first round. Then Michigan State and their Hall of Fame coach, Tom Izzo, showed up and ruined the party.

The Spartans’ 69-60 victory over Marquette was an upset in seeds only.

Michigan State (21-12) underachieved during the Big Ten season, but on Sunday afternoon they were hitting on all cylinders.

Tyson Walker scored 17 of his game-high 23 points in the second half as the 7th-seeded Spartans advanced in the East Region.

Meantime, Marquette (29-7) can look back fondly upon their Big East regular season and conference tournament championships. But that won’t happen until they fight through the disappointment of defeat.

The Golden Eagles fell behind by 12 early and trailed at halftime, but rallied early in the second half to take a 39-36 lead. But Michigan State quickly regained control thanks to a 19-9 run and never looked back.

“We beat a good team,” Izzo said. “I am so proud of these guys for withstanding that, because that was – I’ve been in Elite Eight games, I’ve been in the Final Four – that was as intense and tough a game as I’ve been in during my career. And a lot of credit goes to Marquette and (coach) Shaka (Smart) and how they played, too.”

Olivier-Maxence Prosper scored 16 points and Kam Jones added 14 for Marquette. Joey Hauser had 14 points and 10 rebounds and A.J. Hoggard added 13 points for the Spartans.

Michigan State now faces third-seeded Kansas State in the East Region semifinals Thursday at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

The Spartans are the Big Ten’s only team in the NCAA Tournament. Purdue, Northwestern, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland and Penn State all were eliminated during the NCAA Tournament’s opening weekend.

It turns out the Big Ten’s 11th-place Wisconsin Badgers are the only other team in the conference still playing.

Wisconsin (19-14) edged Liberty 75-71 in a wildly entertaining game Sunday to advance to the NIT’s quarterfinals. The Badgers are at Oregon (21-14) on Tuesday night with tip-off set for 7 p.m. (CDT).

To the Badgers’ credit they took their NIT appearance seriously.

The benefit of playing in the NIT is that it provides a young team such as Wisconsin (Tyler Wahl is the lone senior) more experience together.

Steven Crowl made the most of it with a career-high 36 points in the Badgers’ 81-62 opening round blowout of the Bradley Braves.

Then, against a very good Liberty squad, Chucky Hepburn scored a career-high 27 points, including 19 in the first half, to lead the Badgers. Max Klesmit also came up big with seven points in the final minutes.

Wahl had 16 points and Crowl finished with 14 as the Badgers won back-to-back games for the first time since Jan. 3.

Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard has seen his team improve during the course of the season. The collective stress and toll of playing in tightly contested games one after another wore down the Badgers.

However, to its credit, Wisconsin shrugged off injuries, fatigue and disappointment to show up ready to roll in the NIT Tournament.

The financial payout is almost inconsequential.

Wisconsin will receive $15,660 if it loses at Oregon. If it advances to the semifinals in Las Vegas it will receive $26,100.

When the UW offsets that with travel expenses it’s probably a wash. But the most important thing is the keen tournament competition it provides.

Without an NIT appearance, Crowl (36 points) and Hepburn (27 points) don’t have an opportunity to establish career highs. Klesmit, Carter Gilmore, Connor Essegian, Kamari McGhee and the rest also don’t get a chance to keep improving their games.

It’s been a win-win for Wisconsin thus far.

Oregon presents a difficult challenge on Tuesday night in Eugene, Ore., but given the way Gard’s unit has played so far, I would expect the Badgers to show up ready to give the Ducks their best shot.

The NIT isn’t for every team. For instance, North Carolina declined an invitation even before it was extended. That’s the Tar Heels’ prerogative. For Wisconsin, the experience their returning players are getting is invaluable and the Badgers have maximized their opportunity.

When it is all said and (almost) done, who would have thought the Big Ten’s fourth-place Spartans and 11th-place Badgers would be the conference’s final two teams standing?

It’s crazy. It’s college basketball.

Packers seek 13th pick

and more for Rodgers 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Aaron Rodgers said he intends to play for the Jets this season on Wednesday’s edition of the Pat McAfee Show.

The Jets’ owner, GM, coaches and players desperately want it, too.

So what’s the holdup?

It appears the Packers have the audacity to demand a first-round pick and more from the Jets in return for the four-time MVP quarterback.

It didn’t take long for Rodgers to switch sides in this negotiation. When asked why the trade hadn’t been consummated he put the onus squarely on the Packers.

“The Packers are digging in their heels,” he told McAfee, sounding more like the Jets’ GM than Green Bay’s quarterback.

Naturally, Rodgers sees it as “the Packers digging in their heels.” He already sees it from the Jets’ viewpoint, and he sees it from the perspective of an athlete who generally gets what he wants.

Last spring, Rodgers wanted a new contract so he could retire a Packer.

The team obliged by anteing up a three-year, $150 million contract that included $59 million in guaranteed money.

Then, after one year – a total of 17 games – Rodgers went from wanting to be a Packer for life to being unsure whether he wanted to play at all. In fact, he went into his darkness retreat 90 percent sure he was finished.

When he re-entered his life, he immediately took to social media. So much for all the contemplation and solitude clearing his mind and allowing him to be his own unfettered self.

Instead, he reacted to what “people he trusts … mostly players” were saying. They told him the Packers were trying to move him.

Rodgers’ reaction was to request permission to talk with Jets.

Again, the Packers granted his wishes.

Of course they were trying to move him. It’s called due diligence. It’s called the difference between being prepared for almost any eventuality and being caught flatfooted.

It’s what Packers GM Brian Gutekunst is paid to do. It’s his job.

Rodgers ought to be above the hypocrisy. He’s the one who started all of this in the first place by saying he didn’t know if he wanted to play. He’s the one who sought solitude to clear the clutter and make the right call.

Then, after four days of darkness, he reverted to being swayed by what others were telling him instead of deciding for himself.

He even went so far as to criticize the Packers for not coming to him immediately after the season and telling him straight.

“What I want is transparency,” he said. “I could understand if they came to me after the season and said they wanted to move on from me.”

Again, the hypocrisy is rich.

Rodgers contradicted himself on McAfee when he acknowledged that he didn’t believe he’d return to Green Bay before he went into the darkness, not because of anything that occurred during or after.

Now, that’s water under the bridge.

Rodgers has thrown his last pass in a Packers uniform. He’ll retire as one of the franchise’s greatest, if not arguably the greatest, player in its illustrious history.

Meantime, he’ll try taking the Jets to the postseason, a task that will begin once the Jets and Packers finalize the trade.

Gutekunst should stick to his stance and demand that the Jets’ 13th pick be included in any trade for Rodgers. That 13th pick should be the starting point. The Packers should also request that Jets receiver Corey Davis be included as well as a conditional second-round pick in 2024.

That’s a small price to pay for a shot at the Super Bowl.

If the Jets want to take the ride they have to buy the ticket.

If they believe Rodgers will be the first quarterback in a half-century to lead them to a Super Bowl what price is too steep?

Eventually this merry-go-round will stop in New York, Rodgers will get off the platform and Jets fans will get busy preparing for a Super Bowl.

By then, Rodgers will be New York’s to deal with.

I suspect the Jets and Rodgers will reach the playoffs. They might even win a game or two, but the odds of advancing to and winning a Super Bowl seem awfully long from here.

Either way, Gutekunst needs to hold the line on his demands. If the Jets are trying to pry Rodgers loose for next to nothing, Green Bay would be better off making him the highest-paid backup QB in NFL history.

I suspect it wouldn’t be long before Rodgers elected to retire rather than hold a clipboard while standing on the sideline next to Packers head coach Matt LaFleur.

Hopefully the Jets will do the right thing and fork over the 13th pick. At the very least, the Packers should swap their 15th pick for the Jets’ 13th pick to move up two spots, and also get the 41st overall pick and Davis.

That would be equitable.

Rodgers did emphatically profess his love for Green Bay.

“I f—ing love that city,” he said. “I love that organization and I’m always going to have love for that organization. The facts are right now they want to move on, and now so do I.”

He described leaving Green Bay as “bittersweet.”

“I got to be the starting quarterback of the Packers for 15 years. So, I love you, Green Bay. Thank you. I’m as sad as some of you are, but we’ll meet again.”

Marquette’s success eases UW fans’ pain
By Chris Havel
Special to The FAN
GREEN BAY, Wis. – It is time for Marquette’s wildly entertaining basketball team to take center court in Wisconsin.
While the gritty but offensively challenged Badgers (17-14) prepare to host Bradley (29-5) in Tuesday night’s NIT matchup, Marquette is the state’s lone entry into the NCAA Tournament’s Field of 68.
Thanks to the Golden Eagles’ incredible season, March Madness in Wisconsin won’t be limited to havoc wreaking snowfalls and whiteouts.
Marquette (28-6) has come a long way since early December.
Back then the Badgers edged the Golden Eagles 80-77 in an overtime thriller at Fiserv Forum. Wisconsin improved to 6-2 with the victory, but battled through a succession of nail-biters to go 11-12 after that.
Meantime, Marquette went on to go 22-3 to capture the Big East Conference’s regular- and post-season championships.
The Golden Eagles defeated Big East foes Xavier, Creighton and UConn twice each in conference play and roll into March Madness on a nine-game winning streak. Marquette has won 14 of its last 15 games.
The Golden Eagles are the No. 2 seed in the East Region and will play 15th-seeded Vermont (23-10) at 1:45 p.m. Friday at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
The No. 2 seed is Marquette’s highest since the NCAA Tournament began full tournament positioning in 1979. In 2003, as a No. 3 seed, Marquette advanced to the Final Four before losing to Kansas in the semifinals.
The Catamounts of the America East Conference are making their ninth NCAA Tournament appearance. They won the regular-season title and rolled through the conference tournament with three double-digit wins.
When Marquette coach Shaka Smart looks at Vermont, he sees an experienced, talented opponent that isn’t going to beat itself.
“It seems like they win the (America East) every year,” Smart said. “They have a championship-level program. We’ll dive into watching them (Sunday) night and (Monday) moving forward. But to be honest with you, we knew we were going to play a high-level team. You get into the NCAA Tournament all the teams are terrific.”
The Catamounts reached last year’s tournament as a No. 13 seed and opened against No. 4 seed Arkansas. Vermont put a serious scare into the Razorbacks before bowing out 75-71 in a down-to-the-wire finish.
Dylan Peters is Vermont’s leading scorer at 13.5 points per game. He also averages 3.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists. Robin Duncan is their top rebounder at 7.3 per game. He also averages 4.4 assists per game.
Finn Sullivan is the Catamounts’ three-point sniper (2 per game).
Vermont shot 47.6 percent despite an undersized roster while returning two starters from last year’s team. The Catamounts’ starters are all fourth- or fifth-year seniors.
Kam Jones is Marquette’s leading scorer at 15 points per game with 3.5 rebounds and two assists. Oso Ighodaro averages 5.9 rebounds and point guard Tyler Kolek averages 7.6 assists per game. Jones averages nearly three 3-point baskets per game.
The Marquette-Vermont winner faces the USC-Michigan State winner on Sunday.
In a game with Green Bay ties, Tony Bennett’s Virginia Cavaliers (25-7) have reached the NCAA Tournament for the ninth time under UWGB’s all-time leading scorer.
As usual, Bennett brings an experienced, pace-setting, defensive-minded squad that makes almost every possession feel like root canal surgery. Virginia hustles back on defense, denies dribble penetration and forces opponents into precarious positions. A turnover-prone team has little to no chance of pulling an upset against Virginia.
Virginia starts two seniors in its four-guard lineup that includes Reece Beekman, Armaan Franklin, Isaac McNeely and Kihei Clark, with 6-6 senior forward Jayden Gardner the fifth starter.
Franklin averages 12.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.4 assists, while Gardner averages 12.1, 5.8 and 1.0 respectively.
Virginia is going to have to survive without Ben Vander Plas, a senior starter who broke his hand late in the season. It’ll mean more minutes for McNeely, the cat-quick freshman guard.
Furman (27-7) presents a legitimate threat to the Cavaliers due to its terrific balance, 3-point firepower and desire to play up-tempo.
The Southern Conference champion Paladins rank 12th in the NCAA in 3-point shot attempts at 27.5 per game. They rely on the 3-pointers, long rebounds and more 3-pointers to key their offensive attack.
Furman has four double-digit scorers and that balance, combined with a penchant for taking and making 3-balls could be an equalizer.
The Paladins’ Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson are the top guns in head coach Bob Richey’s attack. Both are better than 50 percent from the field and Slawson hits nearly 40 percent of his 3-point attempts.
If Furman heats it up beyond the arc, Marquette may be in for a tussle. If not it’ll be on to the USC-Michigan State winner.
Here is a quick glance at three teams that could make serious noise:
** VCU (27-7)
The Atlantic-10 champion Rams played better than their No. 12 seed suggests. The problem is a matchup with No. 5 seed Saint Mary’s is going to be an incredible challenge. Saint Mary’s defense ranks among the NCAA’s finest, but VCU won’t back down.
** Charleston (31-3)
The Cougars are a No. 12 seed and face San Diego State, a 5 seed that has struggled with injuries and consistency down the stretch. Charleston averages 80.8 points per game and ranks fourth in the country in rebounding (40.5 per game).
** Oral Roberts (30-4)
The Golden Eagles look like the perfect team to pull a 12-5 upset. In fact, Oral Roberts is so good it may not qualify as a true upset if they should KO Duke. The Blue Devils come in red hot, but Oral Roberts and Max Abmas – the Sweet 16 hero two years back – won’t go easily.

Rodgers’ return not
Packers’ top priority
By Chris Havel
Special to The FAN
GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers don’t have to beg, bully or beguile anyone to achieve their top priority this offseason.
They simply have to maintain their resolve.
If it wasn’t clear before Packers president Mark Murphy chatted with the media on Friday at the WIAA state girls’ basketball tournament, it should be crystal clear now.
The Packers’ top priority this offseason isn’t Aaron Rodgers’ return.
On the contrary, it hinges on his departure via a trade or retirement so the Packers can segue to the Jordan Love era this season.
“We have a lot of confidence in (Love),” Murphy said. “We drafted him and developed him. A lot of credit goes to our coaches and to Jordan. But we do think he’s ready.”
Given that Rodgers’ possible availability was no secret, the New York Jets have been in hot pursuit of Rodgers for much of the offseason.
Jets owner Woody Johnson, GM Joe Douglas, head coach Robert Saleh, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and others flew to California last week in an attempt to persuade Rodgers to accept a trade.
Recent media reports indicate the Jets believe they’re on the verge of landing the 39-year-old quarterback as they sort out compensation.
When asked if Rodgers playing for the Packers in 2023 was still a possibility, Murphy didn’t rule it out, but he did make it abundantly clear that isn’t the Packers’ preference.
“I mean unless … if things don’t work out the way that we would want them, yeah,” Murphy replied. “He’s obviously a great player and a four-time MVP, but I think it’s trying to find what he wants and what we want, and hopefully we can find a win-win situation.”
Murphy added that the Packers did grant permission for the Jets and Rodgers to meet in order to gauge their level of mutual interest.
“We did give them permission, but I really can’t get into the details,” he said. “We’re really hopeful that we can reach a resolution that works not only for Aaron but for us.”
The apparent resolution is trading Rodgers to the Jets.
The Jets limped to a 7-10 finish in 2022. A promising start was quashed by absolutely awful quarterback play from Zach Wilson and others.
Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur’s release earlier this offseason paved the way for the Jets to hire Hackett, who has a strong relationship with Rodgers, based upon the quarterback’s and coach’s past comments.
Rodgers still hasn’t announced his intentions for this season, but the fact that he took the Jets meeting is a strong indication he intends to play.
If it’s with the Jets, the question is: What’s the compensation?
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Packers trade Rodgers AND left tackle David Bakhtiari as a package deal. It would increase the return significantly, and there’s good reason to think the Packers believe they can survive with Elgton Jenkins, Zach Tom, etc., if Bakhtiari goes.
The Packers did restructure Bakhtiari’s deal last week to make it more cap-friendly. It suggests the left tackle will be in Green Bay – something a first-year starter such as Love would love – but it doesn’t rule out the possibility of a trade, either.
The Jets have plenty of ammunition to swing a deal.
They hold the 13th, 44th, 75th and 113th picks in the first four rounds.
The Packers should demand the 13th pick as part of any deal for Rodgers. The deal also is likely to include future conditional picks based upon the Jets’ success (a deep playoff run, for instance) in addition to Rodgers’ playing time, performance and longevity.
The Jets also have a veteran receiver in Corey Davis whom the Packers might be interested in.
The Tennessee Titans made Davis, 28, the fifth pick overall in the 2017 draft out of Western Michigan.
Davis, 6-3, 209, was selected ahead of running back Christian McCaffrey (8th overall to Carolina) and quarterback Patrick Mahomes (10th overall) to Kansas City.
Davis has 273 catches for 3,879 yards and 17 touchdowns with a respectable 14.2 yards per catch average. His best season was 2020 when he caught 65 passes for 984 yards and five touchdowns.
Davis and Matt LaFleur were together in Tennessee in 2018 when LaFleur was the Titans’ offensive coordinator.
If the Packers trade Rodgers to the Jets, they would get hit with a $40.3 million “dead” charge in 2023 – nearly $9 million more than he would count if he were on the Packers’ roster.
Meantime, the Jets are in a cap-friendly position with Rodgers. He would cost them $15.8 million this season and $32.5 million in 2024.
Ultimately, it appears Rodgers has taken his last snap with the Packers.
Murphy spoke about the future Hall of Fame QB in the past tense.
“Very few players play for only one team, and obviously Brett (Favre) had a great career, Aaron had a great career here,” Murphy told WBAY. “And regardless of what happens, Aaron will be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he’ll be in our Hall of Fame and we’ll bring him back and retire his number. But this is just one of those things that you go through as a team. Again, we want to try to achieve something that’s good for both us and Aaron.”
In other news, the Packers received a pair of compensatory picks on Friday. They got the 170th and 256th picks for Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Chandon Sullivan, respectively.
MVS was selected by the Packers with a fifth-round compensatory pick in 2018.

Lopez carries Bucks
past struggling Magic
By Chris Havel
Special to The FAN
GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Milwaukee Bucks didn’t have their “Big 2.”
No problem.
They still had their big man.
Milwaukee center Brook Lopez scored 26 points to lead the Bucks past the fast-fading Magic 134-123 Tuesday night in Orlando.
Milwaukee (47-18) tacked on another win to its NBA-best record despite playing without Giannis Antetokounmpo (non-Covid-19 illness) and Jrue Holiday (sore neck).
Winning despite injuries to stars is nothing new to Milwaukee.
Antetokounmpo has missed 13 games and Holiday 14 games this season. That’s in addition to Khris Middleton being sidelined for 43 games.
The glue in all of this is Lopez, who has missed just one game this year.
In 64 games, Lopez is averaging 30.1 minutes, 15.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, a shade over an assist a game and 2 ½ blocks. He is the undeniable anchor of the NBA’s top-rated defense.
Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer told reporters the greatest difference between last season and this is Lopez’ unwavering presence.
“If you’re just going back to last year, Brook Lopez basically missed the entire season,” Budenholzer said. “So when Jrue and Khris and Giannis were missing, it was always in addition to Brook. Brook’s playing at a high level; he’s been excellent on both ends of the court. … Besides the depth of the roster, I think Brook’s health and quality of play has just been off the charts.”
While Giannis (31.2 points, 11.9 rebounds) and Holiday (19.9 points, 5.1 rebounds and 7.3 assists) stuff the stat line, it’s been the reliable Lopez who has been a constant throughout.
Lopez set the tone by dominating inside early, but a host of others contributed in a big way.
Jevon Carter drilled 4 of 5 3-pointers to finish with 24 points, while Middleton continues to sharpen his shooting eye. He hit his first three shots and finished with 24 points and 11 assists. It was Middleton’s first start since December.
Bobby Portis Jr. added 16 points and 11 rebounds, and Jae Crowder had 15 points as the Bucks won for the 18th time in their last 19 games.
On Tuesday night it was a workmanlike performance.
Milwaukee opened a 36-26 lead after the first quarter. They led by 10 at the half and by 10 after three quarters. It was solid start to finish. It also was the Bucks’ 14th straight win against Orlando.
The Bucks shot 59 percent from the floor and 35.7 percent from beyond the arc.
Lopez attributes the Bucks’ success while playing without all of its stars to his teammates’ mindset. They play hard and they play smart.
“I really think it’s just the caliber of players we have,” Lopez said. “We’ve got guys who are high basketball IQ and are unselfish, team first. It’s great to have a couple of those guys, but to have a bench full of them, we’re really lucky.”
Middleton’s return is critical to the Bucks’ NBA title aspirations. He remains one of the NBA’s top long-distance shooters, but he also has a knack for sensing when his team needs a quick “two” from mid-range.
“It’s crazy that we played so long without him this season,” Lopez said of Middleton. “But it was obviously important for him to get healthy and get right.”
Middleton played 30 minutes on Tuesday night.
“It felt like it was the right time for (Middleton) to get up to the 30-minute plateau, with Jrue and Giannis not playing,” Budenholzer said. “Just doing a little bit of everything, he set a good tone for us early. We were fortunate to have him come off the bench for us for a long time, and now he’s going to continue to do those things where he’s always been, in our starting lineup.”
The Bucks shot it well from everywhere including the free throw line, where they were 32 of 34.
Magic head coach Jamahl Mosley had nothing but praise for the Bucks.
“They are playing great basketball right now – confident, playing like a well-oiled machine,” he said. “They share, they move it. They trust their shot. You have to give them a ton of credit.”
The Bucks lead the faltering Celtics (45-21) by 2 ½ games in the race for the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed. The Bucks host Brooklyn Thursday.

Packers on verge of giving Love a chance
By Chris Havel
Special to The FAN
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Aaron Rodgers has engaged in extreme, intense soul-searching to determine which career path is best for him.
He isn’t the only one fixated on the future.
Packers GM Brian Gutekunst made it clear in a news conference at the NFL combine Tuesday that he has formulated and begun implementing a plan that he believes is best for the team.
That’s one plan irrespective of the quarterback.
The path Gutekunst has charted isn’t predicated on whether Rodgers retires, returns or is traded. It is determined by what the GM believes to be the wisest, shrewdest approach to building a championship roster.
It’s up to Rodgers to decide if the team’s stated direction is conducive to creating the “right situation” for him to thrive and the team to win. That conversation has been on hold while Rodgers tries to figure out what it is that he wants. He emerged from a four-day darkness retreat this past week and appeared on the Aubrey Marcus Podcast to discuss it.
The teaser for the episode offers a glimpse at Rodgers’ mindset:
“I spent parts of a couple of the days imagining what it would be like to retire. And then imagining what it would be like continuing to play.”
If Rodgers elects to retire it simplifies things. Rodgers will be gone but not forgotten, and Jordan Love will be the Packers’ starting quarterback. The downside is there won’t be any trade compensation.
If Rodgers decides to play – and I’m confident it won’t be in Green Bay – he’ll have an opportunity to experience a change of scenery. I suspect Rodgers would find it exhilarating to be traded to, say, the Miami Dolphins, so he can light it up with TD’s galore to Tyreek Hill and Co.
Rodgers still retains considerable value in the trade market. The speculation that Rodgers’ trade market is “drying up by the day” is grossly exaggerated. It only takes one team out of 31 to make it happen.
Gutekunst was asked if he wants Rodgers back in 2023.
“He’s a great player,” he replied. “But until we have those conversations, I think all options are on the table right now. But we really need to have those conversations. We want what’s best for the Green Bay Packers, what’s best for Aaron.
“So, we’ll get to that once those conversations happen.”
Gutekunst said they needed to make sure it was the “right fit.”
It’s interesting that after all these seasons in Green Bay, including the most recent four with coach Matt LaFleur, Rodgers and the team still need to make sure it’s the “right fit.”
Earlier this offseason, Gutekunst said he believed the $150 million, three-year contract extension Rodgers signed last spring wasn’t a year-to-year deal. He indicated that the team didn’t make that significant an investment in return for 17 regular-season games and eight wins.
Now, Gutekunst is singing a different tune.
“I don’t know if things shifted,” he said. “I think with a player who’s played as long as Aaron has, and as we’ve gone the last few years, we realized for him it’s been a year-to-year type of proposition. I think we’ve known that moving forward, that last year when we did the contract it was going to be year-to-year. That’s kind of where we’re at.
Make no mistake: This isn’t where the Packers thought they’d be.
This is where Rodgers has placed them. Once he makes a decision, the cleat will be on the other foot, and the Packers will have the leverage.
Tuesday’s news conference was about the Packers reclaiming the control they ceded to Rodgers when they gave him the $150 million deal.
Essentially, and I’m paraphrasing, Gutekunst said the team is going to present its plan to Rodgers – if he wants to play – to see if he’s on board.
If not, they’ll work a trade.
On one hand, Gutekunst was insisting the circumstances didn’t change. On the other, he was acknowledging that yes, things had changed.
“I don’t think it really adjusted or changed too much,” he said. “I thihnk we’ve always kind of known it was going to be year-to-year with him. I will say our season last year certainly adjusted some things and our thinking a little bit. Obviously, it was a disappointing season. It’s not where we wanted be. Whenever that happens, you’re going to look at a number of things that you’re going to change.”
Clearly, that includes the quarterback.
Hey, isn’t that Jordan Love loosening up in the bullpen right now?
That is Jordan Love, only he isn’t getting ready to relieve Rodgers. He’s getting ready to start the season opener.
Gutekunst was asked if he thought Love was ready to be the starter.
“Absolutely,” he quickly replied.
“I think he’s ready for that. Not every quarterback comes into this league ready to go out there and play. I think he needed a little time but over the last year and a half or so, we’ve seen that’s the next step in his progression. He needs to go out and play.”

** In related Packers news …
It appears Mason Crosby will return for a 17th season in Green Bay.

Crosby, 38, has played in a franchise-record 258 games. The Packers’ all-time leading scorer converted 25 of 29 field goals (86.2 percent) this past season. He accomplished that despite undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in the offseason and having to deal with back issues in-season.

When asked about Crosby, Gutekunst offered an endorsement.

“He went through a pretty significant little injury right before the season started,” he said. “I don’t know if he was ever really able to completely catch up because of what we were asking him to do. He had to go out there and kick for us right away. So, I think it’s a credit to him.”

“To be able to kick in Lambeau Field in clutch situations, I mean any new kicker, that’s going to be tough for those guys. That takes time and Mason has that. He has that experience. I think you’ll see a stronger leg and a different power in his leg on kickoffs this coming year just because he won’t be coming off that surgery.”

UW’s loss at Michigan
a microcosm of season
By Chris Havel
Special to The FAN
GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Badgers had 11 losses going into Sunday’s game at Michigan. None of those 11 hurt as much as the terrible 12th – Wisconsin’s 87-79 overtime loss to the Wolverines at Crisler Arena.
It hurt because Kamari McGee – the diminutive transfer from UW-Green Bay – hit two clutch free throws to give the Badgers a 68-65 lead with 24 seconds to play in regulation.
It hurt because Michigan’s Hunter Dickenson – who called the Badgers “scum bags” in a recent podcast – erased the lead with an awkward but effective 3-point shot at the buzzer to send the game into overtime.
Most of all it hurt because the loss effectively ended Wisconsin’s dreams of finding a backdoor entrance into the NCAA Tournament.
It was in keeping with a Badgers season replete with buzzer beaters, nail-biters and down-to-the-wire finishes. It has been one close game after another since UW coach Greg Gard nicknamed his Badgers “team drama” after an overtime win in December at Iowa City.
Wisconsin (16-12) came in first among the “last four in” teams in CBS Sports’ bracket expert Jerry Palm’s most recent iteration. The overtime loss at Michigan likely quashed Wisconsin’s tournament hopes.
Badgers forward Steven Crowl summed it up pretty accurately.
“I thought we played great until about the last two seconds,” he said. “We should have had it.”
The Badgers’ Max Klesmit blocked two shots in the final minute in an effort to stave off Michigan’s late rally.
Klesmit, who scored 19 points, admitted it was a tough loss.
“It’s pretty hard, knowing how hard we had to fight back in the second half to get in the game,” he said. “To bring ourselves back and then see one of those (Dickinson’s shot) go in … we needed to play a little bit better in overtime.”
Klesmit’s 3-pointer gave Wisconsin a 75-73 lead in overtime, but it was all Michigan after that.
Some media and fans thought Gard should’ve instructed Jordan Davis to foul Dickinson immediately rather than give him an opportunity to make the tying 3-point shot. Davis went for the steal and got a fingertip on the basketball, but Dickinson gathered it in and drilled the critical shot.
Gard said Davis should’ve stayed between Dickinson and the basket, which would’ve prevented the Michigan center from getting a clean look. Furthermore, Gard said the Badgers tried to foul Michigan with eight seconds to play as the Wolverines brought the ball up the court.
No whistle came.
“We were trying to foul up the floor, coming up in the last seven, eight seconds,” Gard said. “I don’t know what we need to do to get a foul, to the borderline of tackling. Obviously, they didn’t call it. We didn’t foul hard enough, obviously.”
Wisconsin freshman Connor Essegian scored a career-high 24 points while establishing the freshman record for 3-point shots made in a season. He eclipsed the mark set by Brad Davison.
McGee, the 5-11 point guard, played his best game at Wisconsin. When Chucky Hepburn exited after 20 minutes with a knee injury, McGee stepped in and played 25 minutes of turnover-free basketball. He also scored six points – including the two clutch free throws – and chased down three rebounds.
“Kam did an incredible job coming in and leading as a point guard with not a lot of experience at this level,” Essegian said. “He did some great things that I’m proud of for him.”
Crowl finished with 14 points and six rebounds, and Tyler Wahl posted his second straight double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds.
For Michigan, Dickinson finished with 23 points, including the game-tying three-pointer, and Kobe Bufkin had a career-high 28 points.
The Badgers’ best shot to re-enter the tournament conversation is with an upset victory over Purdue on Thursday night at the Kohl Center.
No. 5 Purdue (24-5) is coming off a 79-71 loss to No. 17 Indiana at West Lafayette, Ind., on Saturday. Tip is set for 8 p.m.
The Badgers close out the Big Ten’s regular season at Minnesota on Sunday. The Big Ten Conference Tournament is set for March 8-12 in Chicago.
In what could be a preview of the NBA Finals, the Milwaukee Bucks scored a 104-101 victory over Phoenix on Sunday at Fiserv Forum.
Both teams were without their respective superstars.
Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo was out with a sore knee, while the Suns’ newly acquired Kevin Durant was in street clothes while recovering from a sprained MCL that has sidelined him since Jan. 8.
The Bucks trailed by 96-87 with 5:47 to play, but Milwaukee responded with a 13-4 run that was capped by Jrue Holiday’s 3-pointer that gave them a 100-98 lead with 2:12 to play.
Milwaukee never trailed after that.
Jae Crowder, the newest member of the Bucks, contributed mightily. Crowder, the former Marquette star, hit back-to-back three-point shots to key the Bucks’ late rally.
Before the game, Crowder addressed his new team in the locker room and made a small request. Crowder, who used to play for the Suns, asked his new team to win this game for him.
Together, the Bucks and the newcomer made it happen.
Holiday scored 33 points and was amazing … again. Brook Lopez had 22 points and 12 rebounds and the Bucks kept rolling.

Badgers rout Iowa to

reset tournament run

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Greg Gard dubbed his Badgers “team drama” following an overtime victory against Iowa to start 2-0 in Big Ten play. That was after a 78-75 overtime victory Dec. 11 at Iowa City.

Wisconsin’s basketball coach has proven to be prescient.

The Badgers (16-11) ran their record to 8-2 with that victory over the Hawkeyes in December. They have gone 8-9 since then, a stretch that includes a 6-4 record in Big Ten games decided by five or fewer points.

That’s 10 down-to-the-wire finishes.

It has been one nail-biter after another … until Wednesday night.

Wisconsin dug deep to score a 64-52 victory over Iowa in a game that saw the Hawkeyes shoot as if they were blindfolded.

Iowa (17-11) connected on just 3 of 28 three-point shots.

Kris Murray, the Hawkeyes’ top scorer at 20.2 points per game, went scoreless in the first half. He picked up two quick fouls and had to sit, although the Badgers’ Tyler Wahl played terrific defense, too.

Murray finished with five points, only the second time all season he has been held below 10 points.

Iowa’s 52 points was its second-lowest total of the season. Only a dreadful showing in a 66-50 loss at Nebraska on Dec. 29 was worse. Filip Rebraca and Tony Perkins had 13 points each for Iowa.

Meantime, the Badgers improved to 12-2 when holding opponents under 60 points.

Wisconsin was led by Wahl, who had 11 points and 14 rebounds, and freshman sharpshooter Connor Essegian, who had a game-high 17 points. Chucky Hepburn added 12 points for the UW.

It was the Badgers’ first double-digit win in what felt like forever.

Gard quipped that his son, Isaac, hadn’t seen the court since November. Clearly, Gard was pleased to be able to reward his bench, including his son, with a few minutes in return for all the hard work at practice.

The Badgers came into the game No. 1 in the nation with a mere 8.7 turnovers per game. Wisconsin committed four turnovers in first four minutes, and a total of eight in the first half alone.

Still, the Badgers led 27-26 thanks to their defense and Iowa’s off-kilter shooting eye.

Wisconsin tightened up in a second half in which the Badgers committed just two turnovers in the final 20 minutes to sweep the season series.

Jerry Palm, CBS Sports’ NCAA Tournament bracket expert, had the Badgers atop the list of his “first four out” of the tournament. Wisconsin’s NET rating is 77, which is higher than each of the teams listed in the “last four in” grouping.

That’s Mississippi State (18-10), USC (20-8), New Mexico (20-8) and West Virginia (16-12).

The Badgers defeated USC 64-59 earlier this season.

Palm believes Wisconsin “still has time” to get to the Big Dance, but he said it started with getting a ‘W’ over Iowa.

Mission accomplished.

Now, the Badgers travel to Ann Arbor, Mich., to take on the Wolverines (16-12, 10-7) on Sunday in a 1 p.m. tip at Crisler Arena.

Michigan’s 7-foot-1 center, Hunter Dickinson, notched 13 points and 11 rebounds in a 58-45 victory Thursday night at Rutgers. The Wolverines’ Dug McDaniel led all scorers with 16 points and Kobe Bufkin scored 10 of his 14 points in the first half to help Michigan post a win for the fifth time in its last seven games.

Wisconsin’s Steven Crowl will draw the difficult assignment of trying to cover Dickinson. Crowl had eight points and three rebounds in just 13 minutes against Iowa after getting into foul trouble.

Gard wants Crowl to be aggressive but smart.

He wasn’t a fan of either of Crowl’s first-half fouls, but acknowledged the officials have a difficult job, especially with the size, speed and explosiveness of the athletes.

“It’s not easy and they work a lot of games,” Gard said. “We’re just looking for consistency and then we’ll go from there.”

Michigan turned 13 Rutgers turnovers into 17 points in the victory. It’s doubtful the Wolverines will be able to turn over Wisconsin that much.

Wisconsin closes out its regular season by hosting first-place Purdue (24-4, 13-4) on Thursday night at the Kohl Center and then traveling to Williams Arena to face the Golden Gophers in the March 5 finale.

Then it’s on to the Big Ten Conference Tournament for the Badgers with an outside shot to be participating in March Madness.

Change comes in all sizes, shapes and QBs

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – It has been 30 years since the Packers went into an NFL season with someone other than Hall of Famer Brett Favre or future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers as their starting quarterback.

Don Majkowski was the last. Jordan Love would be the next.

That’s an epic streak.

It featured the 1996 and 2010 Packers – teams that became Super Bowl champions – but a disappointing 3-6 record in NFC Championship games during that three-decade span.

On the bright side, Packers fans got to cheer for their team in 14 NFC wild-card games (9-5), 17 NFC divisional round games (9-8), nine NFC title games (3-6) and three Super Bowls (2-1).

That’s 43 playoff games, and 23 playoff wins, in 30 seasons.

Now it appears change is afoot at quarterback.

While Rodgers ponders, hibernates, deliberates, eats, sleeps and perhaps hallucinates his way to choosing his ideal career path the Packers are slicing, dicing, whittling and reworking contracts to stay competitive.

The Packers have no choice but to proceed by doing what’s best for the team irrespective of No. 12’s ultimate decision.

Rodgers has three options.

He can retire. He can express a desire to return to Green Bay, a feeling that may or may not be reciprocated by the Packers.

If the Packers are set on going forward with Love, and Rodgers still wishes to keep playing, that sets the stage for a trade. The potential return on a Rodgers trade is an open debate with a far-reaching range.

Common sense and experience tells me the Packers can expect a first- and third-round pick in April and a second-round pick in 2024.

It’s more likely to go down that way than the green-and-gold deniers who believe Rodgers ought to command three first-round picks, but are willing to smirk and settle for two first-round picks and whatever else.

That’s not happening.

Either way, the Packers will be armed with enough ammo to reinforce the receiver, tight end, edge rusher and safety positions.

That means Rodgers or Love should be able to guide and keep Green Bay in contention for a wild-card berth deep into the schedule. That would align with a quick retool to remain competitive in what has become a truly winnable NFC Conference.

All the greatest quarterbacks reside in the AFC.

The NFC is wide open for a team with a new-age quarterback, a rugged offensive line, two top-rate backs and Christian Watson. If nothing else the 2023 Packers set up to be wildly interesting and entertaining.

Change is inevitable. It doesn’t have to be invincible.

The Packers should be able to compete and contend with Love at QB.

That’s an especially true expectation among fans who believe in Matt LaFleur’s skill (with or without Rodgers) as the head coach, and GM Brian Gutekunst’s ability to assemble a top-notch roster.

To this point there’s more evidence to suggest success than failure.

The 2022 draft might rank among Gutekunst’s best, before or since.

I’m willing to afford Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt all the leftover patience I was unwilling to give Rashan Gary, who has blossomed into one of the NFL’s top pass rushers.

Watson’s rookie season was fantastic blur, and Zach Tom played like a versatile, NFL-caliber offensive tackle. He was pretty fair at guard, too.

Romeo Doubs also merits high praise. He has a chance to play Robin to Watson’s Batman, although there’s no reason to think Doubs can’t develop into a high-end WR2 or a high-volume target WR1 one day.

That’s quite a motherlode.

The Packers’ defense remains a question mark, especially considering the scrutiny coordinator Joe Barry will be under. If Barry’s defense plays up to or near its potential – and I like the personnel – his unit should do enough heavy lifting to give the offense a running start.

If Barry fails, it’ll mean one final hire for LaFleur to get the DC right.

There are fans who believe he should’ve replaced Barry this offseason. My cynical side thinks LaFleur didn’t pull the trigger for two reasons:

** 1) LaFleur’s offense played so poorly it’s difficult to point fingers.

** 2) If he fired Barry and the defense still played poorly in 2023, the next coach to be on the hot seat wouldn’t be the defensive coordinator. It would be the head coach.

So LaFleur will stick with Barry in the name of continuity, rather than reach for the stars in an effort to catch lightning in a bottle.

It is his right to make the call.

And it is the fans’ right to gripe and moan if it blows up in his face.

LaFleur’s reasons for retaining Barry will become more obvious as the season unfolds, whether it’s for better or worse. Right now, I’d rate it a 50-50 shot that the defense vaults into the top 10, 60-40 at best.

Those are better odds than Rodgers returning to Green Bay.

If Rodgers does depart, I still see the Packers carving out at least seven wins with Love running LaFleur’s offense as intended. It could be nine or more wins if the offense gets any meaningful help from the defense.

That’s not the worst in any season, and especially in a season of change.

Aaron Jones reworks

deal to return to G.B.

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – One Aaron down, one Aaron to go.

While the Packers await Aaron Rodgers’ career decision the business of football keeps rolling ahead.

The most recent development doubles as a “warm fuzzy” heading into a chilly February weekend: The Packers have restructured Aaron Jones’ deal in order to retain the elusive, popular running back for this season.

The Packers will pay Jones an $11 million salary of which $8.52 million is guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Friday.

Jones, 28, remains a dynamic weapon as he enters his seventh season.

The 5-foot-9, 208-pound ball-carrier ranks third in franchise history with 5,284 rushing yards and fourth in rushing touchdowns with 43. Among running backs with 850-plus career carries his 5.11 yards-per-carry average ranks fourth in NFL history.

Packers’ general manager Brian Gutekunst told reporters in mid-January that they planned on reworking Jones’ contract to secure his return.

“Certainly, we expect to have him back,” Gutekunst said at the time. “Obviously, he’s a dynamic player. It’s amazing. For a guy his size, to bring it every day, he rarely misses a practice, rarely misses a rep. The way he leads that football team, his consistency is amazing.”

Jones started 17 games last season and led the team with a career-high 1,121 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 213 carries (a 5.3 average). He was ninth in rushing yards and third in yards-per-carry in the NFL.

Jones will team up with A.J. Dillon to provide Green Bay with a potent one-two punch out of the backfield.

“In this league, you can’t have just one,” Gutekunst said of the backs. “Obviously, having A.J., it’s nice to have that one-two punch but Aaron just kind of … when we first got here, you’re thinking, ‘Hey, this probably won’t last long because of the way he’s built and his size,’ and he just keeps defying the odds.”

Jones’ strong season ended in disappointment when a fumble late in the first half contributed to the Packers’ season-ending loss to the Lions. A victory would have gotten Green Bay into the postseason.

Jones felt awful afterward and some fans/media speculated that his history of fumbles in big games might preclude his return.

Clearly that’s not the case.

For his part, Jones wanted badly to return to Green Bay. The Packers were able to accommodate.

“I control what I can control,” he said at season’s end. “I’d love to be here, so hopefully they feel the same way about me.”

The Packers showed their feelings to the tune of $11 million, and for a running back that has done it the right way, that’s a nice tune.

Jones’ return qualifies as great news for a Packers’ offense in search of an identity. The plan to replace receiver Davante Adams included deploying Jones and Dillon together. The combined threat of pass or run should have put defenses back on their cleats.

Instead, the Packers’ lack of consistent play from the receivers and tight ends sabotaged that part of the plan.

When Jones and Dillon were on the field together the Packers became less explosive and more predictable. That has to be fixed, and it lands squarely on head coach Matt LaFleur’s shoulders.

Whether it’s Rodgers or Jordan Love at quarterback, the Packers need to recapture their play-action passing game which revolves around the run.

Dillon, who turns 25 on May 2, rushed for 803 yards and a team-high five touchdowns on 187 carries (a 4.3 average) and 34 catches for 313 yards. Jones hauled in a career-high 59 catches for 395 yards and five touchdowns.

Together, Jones and Dillon because the second running back duo in Packers history to each eclipse 1,100 yards from scrimmage in the same season. John Brockington and MacArthur Lane – the only other running back tandem to accomplish the feat – did it in 1972.

The Packers need to build on that.

There is reason for optimism.

Green Bay’s offensive line finished third among Pro Football Focus’s 2022 league rankings. There is enough top-notch talent along the line to give the Packers a – no pun intended – running start.

Now, they need to add a play-making tight end and a surefire veteran receiver such as DeAndre Hopkins. The Cardinals’ Pro Bowl receiver was suspended for eight games last season for using a banned substance.

Nevertheless, the 30-year-old caught 64 passes on 96 targets for 717 yards and three touchdowns. Because of Hopkins’ suspension language in his contract was removed that had allowed him a no-trade clause. Now, the Cardinals can work a deal with any team they choose.

Hopefully the Packers will be in there bidding for Hopkins’ services.

Either way, Jones’ return makes the upcoming weekend that much better, and ditto for the upcoming season.

Reid, Mahomes show

way in Chiefs’ victory

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Patrick Mahomes are incredible individually.

Together, they are indomitable.

The Chiefs’ dynamic duo further cemented their Hall of Fame resumes by rallying Kansas City from a double-digit halftime deficit to capture a 38-35 victory over the worthy Eagles on Sunday night in Super Bowl LVII at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

Reid, 64, has captured two Super Bowls in the past four seasons.

He becomes the only coach in league history to win 100-plus games and appear in four straight championship games (four with the Eagles and four with the Chiefs). It’s an amazing accomplishment for a coach who cut his NFL teeth under Mike Holmgren in Green Bay in the early ‘90s.

Travis Kelce was among the first to sing Reid’s praises.

“We wanted to get this so bad for him,” the Chiefs’ tight end said. “His legacy in Philly lives on forever … There’s a lot of pride in knowing that he’s had success in two different organizations, but this was the better one.”

Mahomes, the other half of this terrific tandem, is the NFL’s reining MVP and widely considered Hall of Fame worthy after two victories in four seasons on the league’s greatest stage.

Mahomes, 27, has won a regular-season MVP and Super Bowl MVP in the same season. The great Tom Brady never accomplished that feat.

He has won two Super Bowl MVPs and two regular-season MVPs in a five-year span, which is unprecedented. He also has two double-digit comeback wins in the Super Bowl to tie Brady for the most ever.

On Sunday, facing the league’s most ferocious pass rush, Mahomes overcame a re-injured right ankle sprain to direct scoring drives on each of the Chiefs’ four second-half possessions. It was the first time in Mahomes’ career that he has scored on every drive in a second half.

He picked the perfect time to do it, because the Chiefs needed every score to overcome a 24-14 halftime deficit.

Mahomes was asked how the Chiefs rallied from such adversity.

“I thought our guys just embraced the moment,” Mahomes said. “In that first half, we were playing and doing some good stuff, but I felt like the guys were getting consumed by everything around us.”

Super Bowl LVII delivered on its promise as a tightly contested game, with the Eagles coming in as a 1-point favorite. It was the third-highest scoring game in Super Bowl history, and Philadelphia scored the most points of any team in defeat.

That didn’t sit well with the Eagles and their vaunted defense.

Tasked with protecting a double-digit halftime lead, Philadelphia’s defense withered against a hardnosed Chiefs offensive line. If any unit could take credit for this victory, Kansas City’s offensive line is tops.

Philadelphia’s pass rush never got its groove and Mahomes, who was gimpy going into halftime, managed to rush six times for 44 yards. The backbreaker was a 26-yard jaunt that set up the game-winning score.

It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective.

The Chiefs’ Isiah Pacheco factored in mightily, rushing 15 times for 76 yards (a 5.1 average) and a touchdown. Pacheco provided a sense of toughness and determination that Kansas City was lacking early on.

Mahomes finished 21 of 27 for 182 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 131.8 passer rating. He was a near-perfect 13 of 14 in the second half to spearhead the comeback.

Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts also was MVP-worthy save for an unforced fumble that Chiefs’ linebacker Nick Bolton recovered and returned for a 36-yard touchdown to make it 14-14 in the first half.

Hurts rushed 15 times for 70 yards and three touchdowns. He also completed 27 of 38 passes for 304 yards with one touchdown and a 103.4 passer rating.

It was the first matchup between black quarterbacks in Super Bowl history. They delivered with epic performances.

Mahomes deflected credit for the victory.

“It took everybody to win the game,” he said in a shower of red-and-gold confetti.

Reid called Mahomes “an incredibly unselfish quarterback” who works at his craft to be the best without offering any fanfare.

“He makes everybody around him a lot better,” Reid said. “That includes the head coach.”

Mahomes stopped short of calling the Chiefs “a dynasty” but the question wasn’t out of thin air.

“I’m not going to say dynasty yet, we’re not done,” he said.

Of course not, in large part because Reid announced that he’s going to return for the 2023 season, and Mahomes is just entering his prime.

Eagles’ fans were bitterly disappointed with a late defensive holding call on cornerback James Bradberry, who tugged Juju Smith-Shuster’s jersey on a third-and-8 play that gave the Chiefs an automatic first down.

All this occurred with the scored tied 35-35 and less than two minutes to play. Kansas City’s Jerrick McKinnon then declined to score a touchdown by sliding at the 1-yard line. It allowed the Chiefs to run the clock down to 11 seconds before Butker’s game-winning field goal.

Bradberry, to his credit, admitted that it was the right call.

“It was holding,” he said. “I tugged his jersey. I was hoping they would let it slide.”

Kadarius Toney’s 65-yard punt return in the fourth quarter set up the Chiefs’ next touchdown, which extended the lead to 34-27.

Toney’s punt return, had it gone for a touchdown, would’ve been the first in Super Bowl history. As it was, it set up a key Chiefs’ score and helped prove to be the Eagles’ undoing.

Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni already was looking ahead.

“We use this pain, we use this failure to motivate us so we can make it into a strength (of the team’s),” he said.

Bucks all-in on a title;

Eagles to edge Chiefs

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – It’s Super Bowl LVII week, the assumption being that everything in the world of sports revolves around Chiefs vs. Eagles.

It does. And it doesn’t.

The Milwaukee Bucks’ pursuit of their third NBA title in franchise history stole headlines with the expected but nonetheless impactful acquisition of Jae Crowder before Thursday’s trade deadline.

Crowder, a 6-foot-6 forward, is the quintessential Celtics neutralizer. If one didn’t know better they’d think the former Phoenix Suns player would be a perfect fit with Boston’s Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart. In fact, he’s equipped to defend either of the Celtics in the playoffs.

Crowder also comes well-rested.

He last played last season when he averaged 9.4 points and 5.3 rebounds in 67 games with Phoenix. He opted to sit out this season rather than proceed under his current contractual terms.

Now the 32-year-old brings a defensive toughness, unselfish offensive mindset and experience to a Bucks team in search of a championship.

Early reports indicate that Milwaukee dispatched a bevy of second-round picks to acquire Crowder, and were still on the hunt for a trade partner to send Serge Ibaka on his way.

Most notably, the Bucks (37-17) are building around super star Giannis Antetokounmpo, a once-in-a-generation talent, the absolutely right way.

NBA championship teams require a singular talent (Giannis), a bona fide “big three” to deal with (Giannis, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton), effective rim protectors (Brooke Lopez, Bobby Portis), savvy guard play (Grayson Allen, Jevon Carter, George Hill and Wesley Matthews) and three-point firepower and size off the bench (Pat Connaughton, Marjon Beauchamp and Joe Ingles).

That’s a lot for even the mighty Boston Celtics (39-16) to deal with in the Eastern Conference Finals.

And that’s just as of this writing. The Bucks may not be done.

They tangle with the Los Angeles Lakers (25-30) tonight at 9 p.m. in Los Angeles. The Lakers should have a post-LeBron James scoring record hangover, meaning Milwaukee could benefit in a big way.

Meantime, the Chiefs and Eagles put final touches on Super Bowl LVII preparations ahead of Sunday’s 5:30 p.m. kickoff at State Farm Stadium.

I find this an especially difficult game to call.

Every football-related reason points to the NFC’s Eagles being the better team based on overall talent, recent level of play and two key intangibles (an unorthodox run-oriented offensive scheme backed by one of the league’s greatest defenses – at least statistically – in quite some time).

That screams Philadelphia downing the Chiefs to become the NFC’s third straight defense-heavy Super Bowl champion, following in the cleat-steps of the Rams and the Buccaneers.

Before that, it was the Chiefs stopping the 49ers to claim a 30-21 victory and head coach Andy Reid’s first Super Bowl championship.

Now it is Reid and MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes trying to derail the playoff juggernaut called the Eagles. Philadelphia dominated the Giants, 38-7, in the divisional round. Then the Eagles KO’d the 49ers, 31-7, in the championship game.

Philadelphia’s defense is so dominant the Eagles win, cover the spread and the under on total points. That suggests the Chiefs, who rely on a big-play offense and an attacking defense, are inviting a shootout.

That could materialize, especially if Mahomes’ ankle isn’t a hindrance.

Everything the Eagles do well – and there’s a lot – the Chiefs should be able to counter with Reid’s coaching, Mahome’s talent and their combined Super Bowl experience.

My best educated guess is that the Eagles’ offense and Jalen Hurts suffer early mistakes that open the door for the Chiefs to build an early lead. The question then is this: Do they lead to a pair of field goals and 6-0? Or is it a couple of touchdowns and 14-0 Kansas City?

If that happens then it is possible Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni and Hurts might panic and prematurely neglect the running game.

That’s hard to believe given that the Eagles’ run game is the backbone.

Others would suggest the Eagles’ talented receiving corps featuring A.J. Brown, Devonta Smith and tight end Dallas Goedert would be able to conjure up victory in a shootout or a blowout, take your pick.

Ultimately, I’m going to be rooting for the Chiefs, Reid, Mahomes and the rest of the Kansas City squad to knock off the Eagles.

However, if I’m going to be truthful and base my prediction on common sense, logic and Mahomes’ gimpy ankle, I’m seeing the Eagles prevail.

Final score: Philadelphia 27, Kansas City 24

Super Bowl LVII prop bets that’ll $core big

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – While the NFL world ponders Aaron Rodgers’ destination let’s focus on another venue: The pay window at your local sports book. It’s where shrewd fans will be cashing in Sunday night.

The NFL’s big game brings a bevy of prop bets.

It will be no different when the Chiefs and Eagles square off at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., the site of Super Bowl LVII.

Everything from calling the opening coin toss correctly to choosing which team is going to score last comes with odds attached.

Here are my top six prop bets you can take to the bank:

** No. 1 – The Chiefs’ Isiah Pacheco isn’t Tyreek Hill, but he is cat-quick, ultra-elusive and destined for at least one big play. That’s why Pacheco’s total receiving yards – 12 ½ yards – is a steal.

All that’s required is one check-down in the flat, a broken tackle and a brief burst up the sideline for 13-plus yards. A screen pass that gets traction is another way Pacheco could go over the 12 ½ yards.

There is a lot of talk about how Jerrick McKinnon will see the majority of playing time because he’s a better pass protector than Pacheco, and thus will be tasked with keeping the Eagles’ pass rush in check.

But Chiefs coach Andy Reid isn’t a surefire Hall of Famer for nothing. Reid knows another way to slow down a fire-breathing pass rush is to get the football out of Patrick Mahomes’ hands as quickly as possible.

That means devising a handful of clever ways to get Pacheco the ball. Frankly, the Chiefs NEED Pacheco to make several big plays if they expect to defeat the Eagles.

Bet: Isiah Pacheco OVER 12 ½ yards receiving

** No. 2 – Take one. Take them both. They aren’t going to spend the entire day in the opponent’s backfield, but the Eagles’ Haasan Reddick and the Chiefs’ Frank Clark are solid gold to record at least one sack.

That’s right. They’ll eclipse the over/under ½ sack, sooner or later.

The odds-makers have Mahomes’ passing attempts at 39 ½ and Jalen Hurts’ at 31 ½ attempts. If they’re on track, and they usually are, that’s 35-plus opportunities for each pass rusher to get home once.

Bet: Frank Clark and Haasan Reddick, OVER ½ sack

** No. 3 – Mahomes’ number for total passing yards (288 ½) is a steal.

He threw for 326 yards on one leg against the Bengals, and he’s going to have to throw for 300-plus yards if the Chiefs are going to keep it close.

The Chiefs’ issue is having enough healthy targets.

Tight end Travis Kelce should be good for at least 80 yards receiving. Pacheco and McKinnon should combine for another 40 yards. That means JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marques Valdez-Scantling and Kadarius Toney have to combine for 168 ½ receiving yards.

If the pass protection holds up, and Mahomes is his magical self, it’ll be another 300-plus yards passing game.

Bet: Mahomes total passing yards OVER 288 ½

** No. 4 – A prevailing storyline coming into the game is that the Chiefs’ defensive secondary is atrocious and therefore Eagles coach Nick Sirianni is going to have Hurts throwing it all over the joint.

The trouble with that theory is the number 20.

That’s how many points Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and the rest mustered against that same Chiefs secondary in the AFC Championship Game. If an incredible marksman such as Burrow could only deliver that many points, why is it a foregone conclusion that Hurts is going to be able to pass the Eagles to victory?

It shouldn’t be.

That doesn’t mean DeVonta Smith isn’t going to have a big day though.

The Eagles’ receiver is averaging nine targets per game since November. That high volume should continue against the Chiefs, and everyone saw what Smith can do in terms of one-handed grabs and open-field bursts in the NFC Championship Game victory over the 49ers.

Bet: DeVonta Smith receiving yards OVER 62 ½

** No. 5 – Travis Kelce is going to be a very busy tight end Sunday.

It is difficult to imagine Reid and Mahomes electing to use Kelce as a decoy, rather than the primary, game-breaking weapon that he is.

The idea that Kelce will have fewer than 10 targets, and thus fewer than 6 ½ catches, is difficult to conceive. In Kelce’s last six games he has averaged 8-plus catches per game. That total increases to 10-plus catches in the playoffs.

Kelce will be really close to the receiving yards total (78 ½) but it’s imperative that the Chiefs get him involved early and often.

That translates to a heavy dose of Kelce.

Bet: Travis Kelce total receptions OVER 6 ½

** No. 6 – Hurts is making his first Super Bowl appearance, which should require a series or two before he’ll be able to breathe.

Once Hurts finds his footing I expect him to manage the offense, make the right decisions on RPO’s (run-pass options) and move the chains. Hurts’ accuracy is the greatest concern here. He can be scattershot at times without any advance warning. Consider this that warning.

On the other hand, Hurts has a wonderful array of weapons and an offensive line that ranks among the NFL’s finest. He should be able to hook up with A.J. Brown, Dallas Goedert and Smith for some big plays.

Hurts’ total passing yards are set at a modest 240 ½ yards.

It’s not going to be easy to get there, but with Hurts looking to pass first and run second, he should be able to go over that total. That will be especially true if the Eagles are trailing in the second half.

Bet: Jalen Hurts total passing yards OVER 240 ½

As an aside, for those fans that are totally consumed with trying to determine Rodgers’ final destination, there is good news:

You can bet on that, too.

Brady retires for real,

trading Rodgers likely

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – One of Ron Wolf’s philosophies stressed the importance for NFL teams – no matter how difficult – to part ways with aging veterans a year too soon, as opposed to a year too late.

The Packers’ Hall of Fame general manager had it absolutely right from the perspective that mattered most to him: His team’s perspective.

It’s an entirely different thing for players. It goes double for the greatest.

That logic applied to Tom Brady after his unceremonious playoff exit in January, and it applies to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers as they work to reach an accord regarding the sure-fire Hall of Famer’s 2023 season.

Brady, for those paying attention, was a dust-covered relic at the end. It was painful to watch him direct a Buccaneers’ offense behind a porous line with a group of would-be play-makers either too few or too injured to pose any real threat to anyone but Brady.

It was time to go and Brady knew it.

His 23-year-year career will never be matched in terms of sheer success. His seven Super Bowl wins are more than any single franchise. His wins, touchdown passes, yards, completions and the rest are ridiculous.

But as shrewd a football mind as Brady possesses – that rare ability to honestly and accurately appraise any situation and proceed accordingly – even escaped him when it came to self-appraisal.

It’s fortunate that Brady’s reckoning occurred on a beach in the offseason as opposed to a hospital bed in mid-season.

It leaves the list of quarterbacks that have played in a Super Bowl – much less won multiple Super Bowls – to 10. Denver’s Russell Wilson and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes are the only QBs with multiple Super Bowl appearances now that Brady is done.

Mahomes will have a chance to make it two-of-three in the big game with a victory over the Eagles in Super Bowl LVII next Sunday in Glendale, Ariz. That leaves Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, Nick Foles, Matthew Stafford, Jimmy Garoppolo, Joe Burrow and Rodgers as having reached the big game. Of those, only Burrow and Rodgers seem like realistic bets to get back to the Super Bowl.

Meantime, Rodgers’ immediate future remains uncertain but common sense and the overriding tone on social media suggests the Packers trading their 39-year-old quarterback is possible, if not probable.

Someone on Twitter posed the question: Which neighborhood is Rodgers moving to?

Davante Adams had a one-word reply: Mine.

Was it wishful thinking? After all, Adams’ primary reason for desiring a trade to the Las Vegas Raiders was the opportunity to be reunited with Derek Carr, his college quarterback.

Now, Carr is likely to be released sooner than later, and Adams is left wondering who’s going to be throwing to him this season?

Perhaps Adams is right and the Raiders will ante up for Rodgers.

Ex-Packers running back Jamaal Williams also chimed in. The Lions’ record-setting running back said: “I just feel my boy is going to go to the Jets.”

He was referring to Rodgers’ trade destination.

Williams added the obvious: “Want to see Jordan Love finally get his time to shine and show us what he’s worth. Let A-rod go to the Jets and have fun and do his thing.”

I’d suspect it was a division opponent offering up a poison pill, except Williams’ character is beyond reproach. He’s just telling it like he feels.

Frankly, I couldn’t agree more.

Rodgers is teetering on the brink of something far less than greatness.

He’s on the brink of – perish the thought – mediocrity.

No one could argue the validity of Rodgers’ argument that in “the right situation” he could play at an MVP-caliber level. The trouble is there is only one, clear “right situation” anywhere near the horizon.

That is the 49ers’ situation. That also is a one-in-32 situation.

Rodgers couldn’t do for the Bills what Josh Allen does. He couldn’t do for the Chiefs what Mahomes does. He couldn’t do for the Bengals what Burrow does.

Perhaps with the Dallas Cowboys in an alternate universe where Mike McCarthy isn’t the play-calling head coach it might work, at least in terms of being surrounded by first-rate personnel.

But that isn’t going to happen.

For his part, Rodgers already has said he’s open to a trade.

During his Tuesday appearance on The Pat McAfee Show, Rodgers said, “It sounds like there’s already conversations going on (in Green Bay) that aren’t involving me. That’s very interesting.”

As recently as Thursday, Rodgers has been tied to the New York Jets, according to Tony Pauline of Pro Football Network. Pauline’s sources tell him the Jets will “go all out” to acquire Rodgers in a trade.

“In fact, one source said that general manager Joe Douglas is admitting to people in the league the franchise will go all out in the attempt to bring Rodgers to Gang Green. And it only makes sense,” Pauline wrote. “The team is in desperate need of a signal-caller, with Zach Wilson looking more and more like a draft bust. Factor in owner Woody Johnson’s comments not long ago that he’d be willing to pay whatever is necessary for a quarterback, and it all adds up.”

Rodgers has a connection with Jets offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, who was the Packers’ offensive coordinator before taking the Broncos’ head coaching job last season and subsequently being fired.

Hackett’s presence may not lure Rodgers to New York, but it definitely would help facilitate getting everybody on the same page.

Hey, whatever it takes for Packers GM Brian Gutekunst to swing a mega-trade involving Rodgers.

The prospect of the Packers possessing multiple high draft picks, plus the anticipation of seeing Love get his chance to show what he’s got, would make the offseason incredibly interesting.

It also might get the Packers back on track with their winning ways.

Eagles destroy 49ers,

Chiefs edge Cincy late

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Eagles essentially punched their Super bowl ticket with Haasan Reddick’s first-quarter hit on the 49ers’ Brock Purdy.

The Chiefs did likewise on Harrison Butker’s last-second field goal.

Start to finish, the NFL’s “Conference Championship Sunday” delivered teeth-rattling tackles, wondrous one-handed catches and one of the grittiest performances by a quarterback in playoff history.

Here’s a closer look at Sunday’s results:


Eagles 31, 49ers 7

The 49ers planned to have Purdy manage the offense by getting the football to an amazing array of weaponry. Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey and George Kittle just needed the ball in their hands.

They would take care of the rest with a little help from their defense.

It never materialized.

The Eagles’ Jalen Hurts led his team to an opening-drive touchdown to make it 7-0.

On the 49ers’ opening drive, Reddick’s hit on Purdy’s right arm in mid-throw effectively dislocated the rookie quarterback’s elbow.

“My arm felt like it stretched out, just felt really shocks all over from my elbow down to my wrist,” Purdy said. “Just pain all over.”

Josh Johnson replaced him on the 49ers’ second drive but was sacked once, hit twice and totally ineffective. Johnson did lead the 49ers on a game-tying drive to make it 7-7 on McCaffrey’s terrific 23-yard touchdown run.

But that was it.

Johnson got knocked out of the game on the 49ers’ first drive of the second half with a concussion, and 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan was left with two options: Put Purdy back in or go “wildcat” the rest of the game.

Shanahan elected to have Purdy hand it off and hope for the best, an impossible ask for a one-dimensional attack against the NFL’s No. 1 pass rush. The quarterback-depleted 49ers simply couldn’t hold up against a fast, ferocious Eagles’ defense that lived up to its billing.

The game’s turning point – along with Reddick’s hit – was Philadelphia’s back-to-back touchdowns in a 90-second span right before halftime.

The Eagles made it 14-7 when Miles Sanders blasted untouched through a gaping hole for a 13-yard touchdown run.

On the 49ers’ next possession, Johnson mishandled a shotgun snap and fumbled at the 49ers’ 30. Three plays later, Boston Scott scored on a 10-yard run to make it 21-7 at halftime.

“There’s no place like this in the NFL,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said. “It’s a hard-working city, a blue-collar city, and we tend to think that is the type of team we have.”

The 49ers’ defense extended its streak to 28 straight games without allowing an opposing rusher to gain 70-plus yards but to no avail.

Hurts completed a pedestrian 15 of 25 for 121 yards and a 72.3 passer rating. However, two of those completions keyed the opening drive. The first was a 10-yard completion to A.J. Brown, who made an amazing fingertip catch to sustain the drive. DeVonta Smith’s one-handed, 29-yard catch set up the Eagles with first and goal. TV replays showed that Smith bobbled the catch and if challenged it would’ve been overturned.

The 49ers didn’t challenge it, the Eagles scored and the rest is history.

Sirianni deserves credit for seeing the situation for what it was. His Eagles ran the football 20 straight plays in the second half.

Rather than stick it to the QB-less 49ers, Sirianni used the opportunity to say, “Ok, you can’t throw it, so we’re not going to, either … and we’ll still move the football, score points and win the game.”

Sirianni’s Eagles ran the football 20 straight plays in the second half.

The Eagles did all three.


Chiefs 23, Bengals 20

Aside from the age gap, here is one major difference between the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers:

Rodgers says he can be an MVP in “the right situation.”

Mahomes knows he’s an MVP who can make any situation “right.”

Mahomes, playing with a severe right ankle sprain, completed 29 of 43 passes for 326 yards, two touchdowns and a 105.4 passer rating. He was sacked twice but played masterfully despite being limited.

Joe Burrow, his Cincinnati counterpart, was 26 of 41 for 270 yards with one touchdown, two interceptions and a 70.2 passer rating. He was sacked five times and constantly under duress.

The Bengals’ running game eked out 71 yards on 17 carries.

Kansas City’s defense played perhaps its finest game of the season in what to this point WAS the biggest moment.

With the game tied at 20-20, the Bengals took over at their own 12-yard line with 2:30 to play. The Chiefs’ defense responded as Chris Jones notched his second sack of the day to kill the drive.

Ex-Packers wide-out Marquez Valdes-Scantling caught six passes for 116 yards and a touchdown, tight end Travis Kelce caught seven passes for 78 yards and a touchdown and Kansas City’s defense had two interceptions and five sacks of Burrow.

Now it’ll be a Super Bowl LVII matchup featuring the Eagles’ vaunted defense and a balanced offensive attack led by Hurts squaring off against the Chiefs’ feisty ‘D’ and an offense led by Mahomes.

It should be a dandy.

The Eagles are favored by 1 ½ with the total points set at 49 ½.

It’s going to be a long two-week wait.

Sunday’s NFL odds are historically close

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – If the Las Vegas sports books are correct the NFL’s “Championship Sunday” figures to have fans overdosing on spectacular plays, high drama and down-to-the-wire finishes.

The NFL has never featured a “final four” with such close odds in its recorded postseason history, according to the New York Times.

The NFC and AFC championship games’ point spreads are both within a field goal. The odds for each of the four teams to advance and go on to win the Super Bowl are extremely close.

The margin between the Eagles (+230), Bengals (+240), Chiefs (+280) and 49ers (+320) is so thin I wouldn’t want to live on the difference.

Here’s a closer look at Sunday’s matchups:


San Francisco (15-4) at Philadelphia (15-3)

2 p.m., Eagles – 2 ½, 46 ½

Brock Purdy’s magical, improbable ride is about to come to a halt.

The 49ers’ rookie quarterback has been impressive while leading his team to eight straight wins and a berth in the NFC championship game.

Purdy, aka Mr. Irrelevant, was the final player drafted last spring, which means he was the final quarterback selected. Now, he’s the ONLY quarterback from the 2022 class that’s still playing.

But even the greatest of stories comes to an end.

The 49ers’ 19-12 win over Dallas last week proved Purdy can meet the moment. It also proved he is merely mortal in the face of a high-end pass rush, the same as any quarterback.

The Eagles feature one of the NFL’s top all-time pass rushing defenses. Philadelphia racked up 70 sacks to tie the 1987 Chicago Bears for third on the all-time list behind the ‘84 Bears at 72 and the ‘89 Vikings at 71.

Haasan Reddick led the Eagles with 16 sacks, followed by teammates Brandon Graham, Josh Sweat and Javon Hargrave with 11 sacks each. That’s two defensive ends, a defensive tackle and a linebacker as the sack leaders, which means the Eagles can bring heat from a lot of angles.

Purdy got his chance when Trey Lance (ankle) and Jimmy Garoppolo (foot) were injured. He capitalized by joining Joe Flacco (2008-09) and Mark Sanchez (2009-10) to win their first two playoff starts as rookies.

As it turns out Flacco’s and Sanchez’s journeys ended in the AFC championship game. The Ravens lost 23-14 at Pittsburgh with Flacco completing just 13 of 30 passes for 141 yards and three interceptions. The Jets lost 30-17 at Indianapolis with Sanchez hitting 17 of 30 passes for 257 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

If history repeats itself Purdy will have a so-so performance in defeat.

Purdy’s calm demeanor has impressed his teammates. Deebo Samuel offered high praise for the rookie after the 49ers’ divisional round win.

“He doesn’t care if he messes up,” the 49ers’ star receiver said. “If he does, he’s going to go full speed and we’ll talk about it at the end of the day. I have seen him grow throughout the whole year from zero snaps to being the starter of this team.”

The 49ers’ defense also will have its hands full.

The Eagles’ Jalen Hurts has risen to MVP candidate status while throwing for 22 touchdowns and running for another 13 during the regular season. Hurts, who was dealing with an injured right shoulder, threw for two TDs and ran for another in the Eagles’ 38-7 blowout victory over the Giants in the divisional round.

Hurts is impressed with a 49ers’ defense that led the NFL in yards (300.6) and points (16.3) allowed per game.

“They’re really good across the board,” he said. “It starts out with their front seven and then adding a really good defensive back group. They fly to the ball at every position and they’re well-coached. We have a task in front of us and a really big challenge.”

The 49ers’ Nick Bosa is among the NFL’s top sack artists, while the linebacker trio of Azeez Al-Shaair, Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw are among the toughest, fastest groups in the NFL.

Ultimately, the Eagles’ defense will be too much for Purdy and the 49ers, and Hurts will do enough to advance to Super Bowl LVII.

Prediction: Eagles 26, 49ers 17.


Cincinnati (14-4) at Kansas City (15-3)

5:30 p.m., Chiefs -1 ½, 48

Sunday’s AFC Championship matchup rekindles images of New England’s Tom Brady and Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning battling for conference supremacy seemingly on an annual basis.

Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes may be the NFL’s two best quarterbacks. It’s an easy argument to make.

Burrow led the unheralded Bengals to the Super Bowl a year ago. Now he has his team playing for a chance to return.

Mahomes and head coach Andy Reid are attempting to reach the Super Bowl for the third time in four seasons, which ranks them among the league’s all-time greatest coach-quarterback combinations.

Burrow remains unflustered.

Chiefs’ linebacker Nick Bolton was asked what he recalled about the Bengals’ 27-24 victory over Kansas City earlier this season.

Said Bolton: “Last time we played (Burrow), he didn’t make a mistake all game.”

It says something when an opponent acknowledges perfection.

Bengals coach Zac Taylor, who is trying to become just the third head coach in NFL history to reach the Super Bowl twice in his first four seasons, is grateful to have Burrow leading his team.

“He’s got an edge to him,” Taylor said. “I like that in our quarterback.”

Burrow hasn’t been intercepted in his past three playoff games. He also is 3-0 against Mahomes with a collective nine touchdowns (one rushing), one interception and a passer rating of 121.

Mahomes doesn’t view the Bengals’ recent success against the Chiefs as deflating, but rather motivating in terms of tying up the loose ends.

The odds-makers might not view this game as a toss-up if not for Mahomes’ high ankle sprain in last week’s win over Jacksonville. Mahomes had the ankle X-rayed and heavily taped before returning to lead the Chiefs to a 27-20 win.

Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce dominated the Jaguars’ defense, but may find the sledding much tougher against the Bengals.

Kelce caught four passes for 56 yards in the 27-24 loss. The Chiefs need at least twice as much production from their tight end Sunday. That’s going to be difficult to come by given Mahomes’ compromised mobility.

The fact is the Chiefs are one sprained ankle away from becoming a Chad Henne-led longshot.

Prediction: Bengals 24, Chiefs 23

Bengals run over Bills,

Eagles rip Giants, 38-7

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The NFL’s divisional playoff round was largely underwhelming, although it did succeed in setting the stage for a pair of incredibly compelling matchups on “Championship Sunday.”

Can the 49ers’ rookie quarterback walk into Philly and get a win?

Can the Bengals’ Joe Burrow prevail at Arrowhead Stadium against a gimpy Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs?

Both are great questions. We’ll get the answers come Sunday afternoon.

The NFL’s divisional playoffs also raised questions that won’t be answered until next season. For instance:

** Do the Bills need to lighten the load for QB Josh Allen?

Indeed they do. Buffalo’s crushing 27-10 loss to Cincinnati is a terrific example of why the Bills fall short in the playoffs. Buffalo lacks true balance in terms of “run versus pass” and who’s doing the running.

It’s all about Allen of all the time.

Allen completed 25 of 42 passes for 265 yards with no touchdowns, one interception and a sack. He posted an awful 68.1 passer rating.

He also rushed eight times for a team-high 26 yards. Devin Singletary and James Cook – aka the running back tandem – combined for a measly 37 yards on 11 carries.

Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott hasn’t developed a bona fide rushing attack – aside from Allen’s heroics – since he arrived. It has been a glaring weakness that continues to cost the Bills dearly.

It must have Packers fans wondering what exactly Aaron Rodgers believes is “the right situation.”

Isn’t Buffalo the right situation for Allen? After all, he’s got wide outs Stefon Diggs and Gabe Davis to go with tight end Dawson Knox. All of that is backed up by a Top 5 defense and strong special teams.

Still, it wasn’t enough to overcome Burrow and the Bengals.

The difference was Joe Mixon’s 20 carries for 105 yards, which contributed to the Bengals’ 172-63 edge in rushing yards. Burrow also spread the wealth, completing 23 passes to eight different targets, including seven receivers with 10-plus yards on the day.

Surely Rodgers would view Cincinnati as “the right situation.”

Or would he?

The Bengals have Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd at receiver, and Hayden Hurst at tight end. That’s a lot of weaponry. Still, the Bengals sputtered at times behind a shaky offensive line. Their starting left tackle, Jonah Williams, had surrendered an NFL-high 12 sacks before departing the wild-card game with a knee injury.

Furthermore, the Bengals’ defense wasn’t always on point, which placed more pressure on Burrow and the offense.

Could Rodgers do in Cincinnati what Burrow is doing there?

I don’t think so.

Burrow is a top 10 quarterback. Rodgers is in decline.

He fails to grasp the reality that Father Time, disguised as every NFL pass rusher, is perpetually gaining ground on him.

Rodgers said he won’t be part of a rebuild in Green Bay. That’s fine but it doesn’t leave many trade partners to choose from. The divisional playoffs reminded everyone that great quarterbacks can win games, but great teams win championships.

** Where do the Cowboys go from here?

Dak Prescott played a miserable game against the 49ers. Whatever trust was built up before the postseason was washed away in the three hours it takes to play a game and throw two costly interceptions.

Again, the Cowboys have a rambunctious defense and weapons such as CeeDee Lamb, Dalton Schultz, Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. They also feature a strong offensive line when healthy.

Does Dallas qualify as “the right situation” for Rodgers? Perhaps, but I doubt Rodgers would’ve fared any better than Prescott against the 49ers.

** Were the Giants a mirage or are they for real?

While Daniel Jones and the Giants were being hammered by the Eagles, I couldn’t help but think: Those darn Vikings got me one last time.

Clearly, I overrated the Giants based upon their win at Minnesota. The fact is the Giants are good team with an exceptional coach who can look forward to a bright future.

The Giants are going to be a factor in the NFC in 2023.

** Last question: What exactly is the “right situation” for Rodgers? I ask in hopes of hastening his departure.

It’s time to trade Rodgers, give Love the reins and get started on the difficult work of building a winner this season.

In the NFL, every team is in rebuild mode, from the Bills to the Packers. Whatever ends up being Rodgers’ landing spot won’t be a significantly better situation than the one in Green Bay.

He just doesn’t know it or is unwilling to admit it.

Eagles better beware;

Bengals to push Bills

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The NFL’s “Super wild-card weekend” had its share of memorable and forgettable moments, and that was just Trevor Lawrence in the Jags’ 31-30 comeback victory over the Chargers.

The Bengals’ Sam Hubbard, the 49ers’ Brock Purdy and the Giants’ entire team each contributed mightily to an entertaining round.

Now take that and ratchet it up a notch or three.

Eight teams playing in four games during a much-anticipated two-day stretch will reveal one heck of a matchup for Super Bowl LVII, which is set for Sunday, Feb. 12, at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

Here are the matchups and my solid gold, take-it-to-the-teller predictions:

** Jaguars (10-8) at Chiefs (14-3), 3:30 p.m., Saturday

Lawrence couldn’t have been any worse in a four-interception first half against the Los Angeles Chargers in their wild-card matchup.

Nevertheless, the Jaguars didn’t quit, the Chargers and Justin Herbert imploded and the rest is history. For all the magic in the historic comeback, the reality is Jacksonville – an 8 ½ point underdog – is likely to be history when they take on the AFC’s top-seeded Chiefs.

Kansas City (14-3) isn’t likely to take the Jaguars likely, especially after that rousing rally.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid believes the Jags’ defense is real.

“They’ve got a lot of phenomenal players on that defense and they’re playing faster,” Reid said of the Jaguars.

Jaguars coach Doug Pederson’s and Reid’s relationship goes back all the way to their days in Green Bay where Reid was the quarterbacks coach under Mike Holmgren and Pederson the backup QB to Brett Favre.

Pederson intends to keep his team loose and eager to get after the Chiefs.

“House money or our money, we’re here now,” Pederson said.

Tangling with the Chiefs is a tall task.

Reid is 27-4 in regular-season and playoff games following a bye. He and MVP candidate Patrick Mahomes are 3-0 in the divisional round following a bye. It’s no coincidence, according to Reid.

“I’ll tell you, that’s the trick to it: to keep the balance to where the players stay sharp and coaches still can add a couple things into the mix and go from there,” Reid said.

Reid will have the Chiefs sharp.

Prediction: Kansas City 34, Jacksonville 23

** Giants (10-7) at Eagles (14-3), 7:15 p.m., Saturday

The Eagles are physically healthy for the first time in weeks. The Giants are mentally healthy after running roughshod over the Vikings last week.

The NFC East division rivals, perhaps an unlikely NFC divisional playoff matchup at the start of the season, are set to tangle in what could be the most entertaining, competitive game on the weekend slate.

MVP candidate Jalen Hurts is healthy and ready to lead the Eagles to their second Super Bowl appearance in five seasons.

Hurts missed time with a shoulder injury, but returned to play well enough to lead the Eagles to a 22-16 victory over the Giants to capture the NFC’s No. 1 seed and the lone bye.

Now, a healthy Jalen Hurts and the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles begin their quest to send the franchise to its second Super Bowl in five years.

Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said Hurts “was better than he was two weeks ago,” after Thursday’s practice.

Hurts is excited to kick off the playoffs.

“We put ourselves in this position by what we did all season, the consistency we had all season and the focus,” he said. “The process remains the same … but the standard rises.”

Giants coach Brian Daboll has his team primed after a 31-24 victory at Minnesota in last week. Daniel Jones played his best game as a pro against the Vikings. He threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed an NFL-playoff record 17 times for 78 yards.

Pro Bowl back Saquon Barkley rushed for 53 yards and two scores.

The Giants’ defense didn’t have tackle Leonard Williams or cornerback Adoree’ Jackson – two of their top defenders – for both Eagles games. Now they’re healthy and full go participants.

“Every game’s a new game,” Daboll said. “One week really has nothing to do with the next week or one game has nothing to do with the next game, other than you take things from it. You learn from it. You try to grow from it. But it’s going to be how we execute on Saturday night.”

This is going to be close and likely a one-score game. I really love the Giants’ chances and 7 ½ points should be enough, but the Eagles aren’t going to go down easy.

This is where I see the weekend’s upset.

Prediction: Giants 27, Eagles 24

** Bengals (13-4) at Bills (14-3), 2 p.m., Sunday

Joe Burrow and Josh Allen were braced for a good old-fashioned shootout earlier this month. Then the scary scene with Bills safety Damar Hamlin occurred and the game was cancelled.

Hamlin has had an amazing recovery since going into cardiac arrest on the field. He is back in Buffalo and has been around the team this week.

All of that is great news for Hamlin, Buffalo and the NFL and its fans.

Now it’s back to the show.

The Bengals have won nine straight. The Bills have won eight in a row.

“It feels like two deserving teams,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “Buffalo is one of the greatest environments to play in in all of football. I’ve been there many, many times and it’s a fun environment. It’s a worthy playoff environment and so our guys are going to be juiced up and ready to go.”

The Bengals defeated the Ravens 24-17 in the wild-card round spearheaded by defensive end Sam Hubbard’s 98-yard fumble return for a touchdown. It’s the longest fumble return in NFL playoff history.

The Bills have won 13 of their last 14 home playoff games after sliding past the pesky Dolphins 34-31. The Bills led 17-0 but got complacent. I wouldn’t expect an early big lead or complacency to be problems for Buffalo against the Bengals.

Cincinnati’s greatest concern is a massive one: The offensive line. They lost left tackle Jonah Williams (dislocated kneecap) in the win against Baltimore, although Williams had allowed a league-high 12 sacks. They also are without previously injured right tackle La’el Collins (ACL) and right guard Alex Cappa (ankle).

Pass protection could be a problem for the Bengals. Red-zone turnovers could be a problem for the Bills.

Either way, it should be an entertaining shootout.

Prediction: Bills 36, Bengals 30

** Cowboys (13-5) at 49ers (14-4), 5:30 p.m., Sunday

The Cowboys’ goal is to upset the 49ers. The challenge is keeping Nick Bosa and San Francisco’s defense out of Dak Prescott’s face all night.

It is going to be a tough task against the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense. Bosa had 18 ½ sacks on a defense that racked up 44, which enabled the secondary to make 20 interceptions, which was tied for the NFL lead.

Prescott and the Dallas offense can be explosive with CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup and an aging T.Y. Hilton at receiver, and ex-Badgers star Jake Ferguson and Dalton Schultz at tight end.

Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard are the one-two punch in the running game, and need to find traction or it could be a long night for Prescott.

Rookie Brock Purdy will be at quarterback for San Francisco, which has won 11 straight games, including seven in a row with Purdy at QB. He hit 18 of 30 passes for 332 yards and three touchdowns in the 49ers’ wild-card win over Seattle.

The 49ers feature Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk as a trio of versatile chess pieces. Running back Elijah Mitchell has been dependable and tight end George Kittle remains the glue.

Kittle could be due for a big game Sunday night.

The Cowboys’ Brett Maher missed four extra-point tries last week after missing only three all season. Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy had several kickers in for workouts this week, but is sticking with Maher.

McCarthy’s patience could be rewarded with the game on the line, but I don’t think the Cowboys will be close enough to win or tie with a field goal at the end of regulation.

Prediction: 49ers 27, Cowboys 21

Packers’ QB problem

clear on wild weekend  

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Brock Purdy aka Mr. Irrelevant extended his streak to 7-for-7 in terms of starts and victories in San Francisco.

Purdy wasn’t merely the final quarterback taken in the NFL draft last April. He was the final player drafted, period. And here he is hot off the 49ers’ 41-23 victory over Seattle on “Super Wild-Card Weekend” and looking for much more as the 49ers’ win streak stretched to 11.

Is it possible 31 other teams are kicking themselves for not drafting him?

Frankly, it’s more likely they’re kicking themselves for not hiring a head coach as special as Kyle Shanahan, and fashioning a complete team featuring a top 10 defense, top 5 skill players and … Mr. Irrelevant.

The 49ers are so deep they’re winning while working with a QB3 who is scarcely irrelevant anymore.

Meantime, nobody is questioning Aaron Rodgers’ relevance to the Packers. It’s his motivation that’s in doubt. If the 39-year-old QB needs time to decide if he wants to play the answer seems fairly obvious.

Then again, Rodgers may have trouble leaving money on the table.

After all, he signed a three-year, $150 million extension, including a $50 million signing bonus, last spring. Surely he realized the contract’s intent was for him to honor at least two season’s worth of football.

So what changed from Rodgers putting pen to contract and now?

Nothing has changed.

The Packers remain obligated to deal with Rodgers’ whims. That’s because they haven’t been nearly demanding enough of him.

That much became obvious during “Super wild-card weekend.”

The 49ers’ Purdy, the Seahawks’ Geno Smith, the Dolphins’ Skylar Thompson and the Ravens’ Tyler Huntley don’t reside in Rodgers’ stratosphere of greatness.

Nevertheless, they were in the playoffs. Rodgers wasn’t.

They also gave their teams a chance to win, and in Purdy’s case, the very real prospect of a Super Bowl.

Most Super Bowl participants feature a top 10 quarterback, a top 10 defense or both. The Packers have neither.

The Giants’ Daniel Jones was the 6th pick in the 2019 draft.

It was a pleasure watching Jones carve up the Vikings’ defense by running, throwing and relying on players both great (Saquon Barkley) and unheralded (Isaiah Hodgins) to get it done.

It wasn’t a Daniel Jones victory. It was a Giants victory.

The fact is the Giants are a better, more complete team than Green Bay. If you didn’t believe it after 27-22 in London, you can believe it now.

The point is this: Great teams don’t kneel before any player, no matter how good that player is or is perceived to be.

It’s bad business.

Gutekunst’s strongest words were:

“We made a really big commitment to him last offseason, so I think as we did that it wasn’t certainly for just this year.”

The Packers’ GM added that it was a tough season for all the players.

True enough, except most other players’ response is a vow to rededicate and recommit to being better, and being a champion, in 2023.

Rodgers’ response is a golly, gee, whiz not sure what I want to do.

It’s pretty clear what Jordan Love would like to do.

He would like to take every snap for the Packers in OTAs, minicamps, training camp, the preseason games, the regular season and the playoffs.

He’d like to quarterback his team in the postseason and give it a terrific chance to win, the same as Jones, Smith, Purdy and the rest.

It seems Gutekunst is inclined to believe Love can handle the job.

It’s just that No. 12 is standing in the way.

The questions about Love won’t be answered until he plays.

The Packers’ best option would be to trade Rodgers, get what they can get, name Love the starter and enable the team to rally around him.

The next-best option would be Rodgers retiring and Love taking over.

Frankly, it appears the third-best option – Rodgers returning – is the most likely to occur. I can’t see Rodgers walking away from the money, so I’d expect him to be back. The problem is this: How truly committed is a player if he’s unsure he wants to play again?

Furthermore, the Packers have no choice but to exercise the fifth-year option on Love’s contract. To choose a 39-year-old who is less than exuberant about playing over a 24-year-old whose greatest shortcoming is a lack of experience would be unforgivable.

At best, Love’s time is now.

At worst, it’ll be in 2024, and hopefully with enough salary cap space after Rodgers’ exit to build a strong supporting cast. Imagine what Love could do surrounded by the 49ers’ current coach and roster?

Oh, wait, you don’t have to imagine it.

San Francisco is doing it.

Packers’ loss triggers

daunting ‘to do’ list

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers couldn’t get it done against Detroit, leaving the players to clear their lockers, and the front office and coaches to clear their heads before getting back to work.

It starts with creating a “to do” list to fix what ails the 8-9 Packers.

It requires insight and honesty to identify and acknowledge the trouble spots, in addition to having the resources and skill to correct it. That’s with the definition of “correct it” being a Super Bowl-contending squad.

Like it or not, the Packers have set the standard here with 13-3, 13-4 and 13-4 seasons prior to what they’re hoping is a blip, rather than a trend.

Whew! That’s a lot for Green Bay’s GM and coach to reckon with.

In an unsolicited but well-intentioned gesture, I am providing the following “to do” list, free of charge, to hasten the Packers’ ability to trot out a team that is seriously capable of making a Super Bowl run.

** Matt LaFleur needs to choose an offensive identity and stick with it.

The Packers’ fifth-year coach has maintained his offensive scheme revolves around being able to run the football. While Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon have had their moments, there’s no question in the biggest moments they’ve been nowhere to be found.

For example, the Packers’ 27-22 loss against the Giants’ at London effectively ended when Green Bay couldn’t score on third- or fourth-and-2 on the Giants’ 6-yard line.

LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers debated which pass play to call. They finally settled on two, perhaps one for each. Unfortunately, neither involved running the football. Two incompletions followed and the Packers lost a game they should’ve won.

It didn’t get much better when LaFleur and Rodgers – 18 weeks later – couldn’t agree on the plays during the final series against Detroit. That’s not acceptable. Surely they discussed the best play options – in advance – should Green Bay need a 70-yard game-winning drive.

Instead, it appeared they hadn’t even raised the topic.

Whatever’s going on with LaFleur and Rodgers has to get fixed, whether it’s with face-to-face conversation and reconciliation or Rodgers’ departure. Either way that has to change or Green Bay isn’t going to be playing in the postseason any time soon, at least not under LaFleur.

Furthermore, the Packers’ offensive identity needs to be “run first.”

** Stick with Joe Barry at defensive coordinator.

LaFleur needs to trust his judgment in this matter. He’s the one who fired Mike Pettine, hired Barry and stayed with him after a so-so second season. So does Barry deserve a third season here?

Absolutely and here’s why:

Barry’s defense wasn’t the reason the Packers lost to San Francisco in the NFC divisional playoffs last year, or to the Lions in Sunday’s regular-season finale at Lambeau Field with a postseason berth at stake.

The offense and special teams were the culprits.

Rich Bisaccia’s hiring and Keisean Nixon’s emergence, coupled with Pat O’Donnell’s and Mason Crosby’s professionalism, have since uplifted the teams’ units.

The offense needs the aforementioned remake.

The defense needs a healthy Rashan Gary, another high-end pass rusher and safety in the draft, and continued growth from Quay Walker, Devonte Wyatt, J.J. Enagbare and the rest.

The Packers’ young players, in general, have really developed nicely under the current coaching staff. At a time when Green Bay’s salary cap limitations demand a rebirth of “draft and develop” this is a big positive.

That’s among the most important reasons for not overhauling the staff.

It doesn’t need it. Most of the young players are getting better.

** LaFleur needs to settle on his offensive line as soon as possible.

Whether it’s Rodgers or Jordan Love at quarterback doesn’t matter. What matters is that David Bakhtiari, Elgton Jenkins, Josh Myers, Jon Runyan and Zach Tom get the chance to grow as a unit.

And even the issue of roles is open for debate.

Myers has underperformed to the point where it’s not a given that he’ll be the team’s starting center in 2023. If not Myers, who? Both Jenkins and Tom played center in college, and they’re both locks to start. The question is at what position?

The Bakhtiari-Jenkins duo on the left side is exciting because of its potential to dominate. But if Myers isn’t cutting it, perhaps the Packers would be best-served if Jenkins anchored the line at center. Myers could complete to start at guard, and Tom would start at right tackle. That would leave Bakhtiari, Myers/Sean Rhyan, Jenkins, Runyan and Tom as the line, left to right, with Yosh Nijman as the swing tackle and whichever player loses out in the Myers/Rhyan battle as the backup interior lineman.

** The tight end position needs a significant upgrade in youth and talent.

The Packers need to seriously consider drafting a tight end within the first three rounds. This year’s class has an abundance of them.

** Finally, on offense, the receivers need to continue to grow together. Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs are the future, with the speedy Samori Toure close behind.

If the Packers don’t add an explosive tight end, they’re probably going to have to sign a veteran receiver of some note. That will become less a priority the sooner Watson and Co. develop into reliable starters.

There’s more for the “to do” list but the offseason is long.

Packers lose to Lions,

fall short of playoffs

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Judging by the Packers’ subpar performance against the not-so-loveable Lions it appears the goal wasn’t to actually qualify for the postseason, but merely to play for the chance.

The Packers did that and little else in a 20-16 loss to Detroit on Sunday night in the regular-season finale at Lambeau Field.

The Lions (9-8) learned a Seattle victory had eliminated them from playoff contention. The way the Packers played one might’ve thought it was their season that went kaput before kickoff.

The Packers (8-9) have had their recent share of big-moment meltdowns under head coach Matt LaFleur.

Sunday night’s raises the question, “Can LaFleur rise to the occasion?” His record in elimination games gives legitimacy to the concern, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Here’s a question for LaFleur today, this regarding his fourth-and-1 play calling: “What’s the shortest distance between two points?”

And another, “What are the consequences (if any) for a player – oh, let’s say Quay Walker – who gets ejected for shoving a medical staffer on their way to assist an injured player?” Is Walker the only one connected with the NFL who hadn’t heard of Damar Hamlin this past week?

And still another, “Why call a jet sweep on fourth-and-1 just a few plays after running the same play? If the idea was to get the Lions’ defense to honor the jet sweep it worked. They honored it. Then they stuffed it.

LaFleur will have time to contemplate these and other nagging questions while his 39-year-old quarterback tugs at his salt-and-pepper beard and considers the question, “Should I retire or give it one more try?”

Rodgers and Randall Cobb breathed in the atmosphere inside Lambeau Field as they exited, shoulder-to-shoulder, for perhaps the final time.

Rodgers seemed wistful as he discussed his future after the game.

“At some point the carousel comes to a stop and it’s time to get off, and I think you kind of know when that is,” he said. “And that’s what needs to be contemplated. Is it time? Also, what’s the organization doing? That’s part of it as well. But the competitive fire is always going to be there. I don’t think that ever goes away.”

Aaron Rodgers is an above-average NFL starter in decline.

That is a fact.

It doesn’t mean Rodgers should retire. It means if he continues to play don’t expect him to rekindle his MVP level. Those days are over.

Unfortunately, so is a Packers’ season that held so much promise.

The not-so-loveable Lions outplayed and outcoached the home team.

“To not get it done at your home stadium with the support of your fans certainly is, like I’ve said it a million times … the overall theme is just disappointing,” LaFleur said after the Lions’ loss. “I’m disappointed in myself and just the fact that we couldn’t get it done.”

The Lions weren’t spectacular, but they were steadfast. They seemed more motivated than fazed by their pre-kickoff elimination.

Lions head coach Dan Campbell brought his team to Green Bay to cap (or continue) a fairly successful turnaround season. They took the bad news of Seattle’s win in stride, and then they made the Packers pay.

Aaron Jones’ fumble late in the first half is considered the turning point. I’d say it was one of several missed opportunities that proved costly.

A look at the Packers’ miscues is revealing in that it includes most, if not all, of the team’s earlier shortfalls.

** The Packers’ opening drive conjured up three points, but it also conjured memories of past red-zone failures.

** LaFleur’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the Green Bay 32 on his second drive was just plain ridiculous. The only thing worse than the decision was the play call: A jet sweep – or rather a “truck sweep” when Allen Lazard gets the football – after running the identical play with Christian Watson on the opening drive. The reason for running it early is to make the Lions honor it, and then run something off it to make them pay. Instead, the Lions’ defense couldn’t have been more prepared if it was going against its own scout team.

** Rasul Douglas’ decision to intervene on the center snap with the Lions in field-goal formation is difficult to defend. Whatever he was trying to accomplish – even if it was preventing them from a practice kick – demands the straightforward rebuke: Don’t ever do that again!

It turned a 48-yard field goal try into a 33-yard layup and three points.

** Walker’s unfortunate and undisciplined decision to push a member of the Lions’ medical staff contributed directly to the Lions’ game-winning touchdown. It was the second time Walker has been ejected this season. That hasn’t happened to the same player since 2015. Apparently LaFleur wasn’t emphatic enough after the Buffalo debacle.

LaFleur’s response to Walker’s and Douglas’ lack of discipline didn’t exactly have teeth.

“That is unacceptable,” he began by stating the obvious. “I’ve got a much higher standard for our players than to do silly things like that. We’ve got to be much more mentally tough. Any time our guys commit personal fouls I take that very personally because I think that’s always a reflection of myself and the standards that we set for our players.”

I’d buy it except this wasn’t Walker’s first such offense.

** Rodgers’ “what the hay heave” to a blanketed Christian Watson that was easily intercepted by Kerby Joseph – Rodgers’ favorite new target – was reminiscent of another legendary quarterback’s final heave ho.

Hall of Famer Brett Favre threw up a similar prayer that was picked off by the Giants’ Corey Webster. It was Favre’s final pass in a Packers’ uniform. Could that ill-advised lollipop be Rodgers’ final heave ho?

** The Lions’ special teams outplayed the Packers’ units. Keisean Nixon was limited to 74 yards on four kick returns. The Lions netted 94 on their four returns. Mason “crossbar” Crosby scarcely missed from 53 yards, but the play-caller might’ve helped by running it or calling a high-percentage pass to get their legendary kicker a bit closer.

All of it added up to a most disappointing loss.

The Lions were only 2-for-5 in the red zone, but the revealing thing there is that they reached it five times. They were living in the red zone and Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry couldn’t prevent it.

“Ultimately we dug ourselves too big of a hole and the margin for error in this league is so small,” LaFleur said. “If you don’t capitalize on opportunities and you make mistakes, then you’re going to lose, especially against quality football teams.”

LaFleur’s mistakes included starting Yosh Nijman at right tackle despite concerns about his shoulder. Then he magnified the miscue by waiting two series to pull Nijman for Zach Tom.

The fact is Tom should’ve been the starting right tackle. It became clear that he is a better tackle – left or right – than Nijman in the past few weeks. And that’s not a knock on Nijman, but rather praise for Tom.

Then again, it took the Packers forever to replace Amari Rodgers with Nixon so it’s not exactly an unexpected oversight.

The Packers’ loss left a lot to be desired, and much to think about.

What we do know is rookies such as Romeo Doubs, Devonte Wyatt, Watson, Wyatt, Tom and the rest have bright futures.

We also know Jordan Love has progressed while being the QB-in-waiting, and that the defensive talent is decent when deployed properly. Here’s some of what we don’t know:

Will Barry be back?

Will Rodgers return?

Will LaFleur learn?

And of course, the big question: Where are the Packers pick in the draft?

SNF’s Lions-Packers a ‘win-and-in’ scenario

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers’ stressful-turned-satisfying season of wreckage, reconstitution and perhaps redemption enters the final stretch.

It’s Lions versus Packers in a “win-and-in” playoff scenario.

It’s Sunday Night Football. It’s the final NFL game of 2022. It’s at historic Lambeau Field and it features two of the NFC’s hottest teams. Who could want more? Oh, yeah, and it’ll be Packers’ fans in full throat.

It definitely won’t be “freeze-your-mouth-shut” cold.

It’ll be far from it.

The Lions-Packers’ 7:20 p.m. kickoff coincides with a mild forecast that predicts a temperature of 30 degrees with 10 mph winds.

That is conducive to a shootout.

The Las Vegas line has the Packers as 4-point favorites and the total points scored at 48 ½ or thereabouts. The fact that Aaron Rodgers and Jared Goff are no strangers to frosty forecasts or big playoff games, the Detroit and Green Bay offenses should be able to execute at a high level.

That equals points … lots of points.

The Lions (8-8) feature an attack that relies on its offensive line to set the tone. Detroit’s line is among the NFL’s finest and has given Goff ample time to find open receivers.

Goff requires ample time to do his thing. It’s true of most NFL QBs, with “ample” being a sliding scale. In Goff’s case, he’s a sitting duck if his receivers aren’t coming open on time or his line springs a few leaks.

Otherwise, the Lions are legit dangerous.

Amon-Ra St. Brown, D.J. Chark and Jameson Williams rank among the league’s finest, if not fastest, receiving trios. It’s critical that the Packers’ front seven and secondary sync up rush and coverage. If Goff has a ton of time, or running backs D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams can get to the second level frequently it’s going to be a long night.

There is reason for optimism in Titletown, USA, however.

That’s because the Packers’ defense has been a takeaway machine of late. Whether it’s a Kenny Clark strip sack and fumble recovery, or Darnell Savage stepping in front of an errant Kirk Cousins pass, the Packers’ defense has been ball-hawking, swarming and opportunistic.

They’ve done all of this without Rashan Gary.

That alone is fairly amazing.

Clearly, the players know what is at stake.

The Lions’ second season under coach Dan Campbell has been a success, win or lose Sunday, but victory is their preferred outcome.

“Yeah, it’s important,” Goff repeated. “It’s huge. It’s where we want to be – playing the last game of the season and it means something – and we’ll see where we land after it all.”

Williams, the touchdown machine and ex-Packers’ back, said: “It’s just me … It’s just my type of game. It’s cold and I like cold. That’s it. But yeah it’s going to be great in Green Bay.”

Campbell is going to be jacked-up per usual.

“I think it means everything,” the Lions’ second-year coach said. “I think it’s just so special. It’s as good as it can get. I mean, seriously, hyou get to go to Lambeau – historic Lambeau – where the top of this division has  been Green Bay every year for years, and to go earn your right to potentially get in … I just think this is as special as it gets. I mean, I just don’t think you’d want it any other way.”

The Packers (8-8) are wary of the Lions regardless of whether Seattle defeats the Rams earlier in the day. If the Lions lose the best they can be is spoilers, but in some respects that makes them all the more dangerous.

Let’s be honest.

Campbell is a high-energy firebrand, but he’s also a coach who would play it closer to the vest if a playoff berth is at stake. If Detroit was eliminated before kickoff I’d expect fakes, flea-flickers and all of that.

The Packers are in a good place offensively.

The line is healthy. All-Pro David Bakhtiari is playing like it. Elgton Jenkins has reclaimed left guard, which has helped the Packers’ offensive line do likewise in the trenches.

Bakhtiari and Jenkins working over defensive linemen is tandem is a thing of beauty. In addition, center Josh Myers, right guard Jon Runyan and right tackle Yosh Nijman (or Zach Tom in a pinch) are improving.

Aaron Rodgers looks more comfortable than at any point this season.

Much of that is playing behind a healthy offensive line, and the rest is throwing to a competent, explosive receiving corps.

Christian Watson’s emergence was the spark that lit the fuse.

He is expected to be 100% against the Lions. In the Packers’ 15-9 loss a lifetime ago, Watson left after taking a hit on an 18-yard reception early in the second quarter. He didn’t return out of an abundance of caution because he had been concussed at Buffalo the previous week.

Now, Watson is fit and ready to contribute.

Nobody is taking the Lions lightly.

“It’s not the same old Lions,” Rodgers said. “They were 1-6 at one point, and they’ve come all the way back to 8-8. There’ll be a lot on the line for both teams, and it’ll be exciting to line up against them.”

Tight end Robert Tonyan, who has been contributing more lately, relishes the fact that they control their fate. There’s no reason to “scoreboard watch” and he’s grateful.

“We control our own destiny at this point,” he said. “What better way to have it than against a division rival at home.”

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur is counting on the fans to be loud, proud and aid their victory.

“I do think the environment at Lambeau Field at night time is unlike any other place,” he said. “So hopefully our fans show up and show out for us and support us. And don’t sell your tickets to the Lions’ fans, please.”

Fair enough.

Prediction: Packers 28, Lions 24 … and on to the playoffs and the 49ers.

Packers rout Vikings,

host Lions in do-or-die

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Packers fans know their defense is balling when the DBs are jockeying with each other to make the interception, only to see the football batted down by one of their pass rushers.

Oh, well, with Kirk Cousins there’s apt to be a next time or three.

And there was.

The Packers’ defense harassed Cousins into four turnovers, including a “pick six” by Darnell Savage, as Green Bay rolled to a 41-17 victory over Minnesota to celebrate New Year’s Day in style at Lambeau Field.

The Packers (8-8) host the Lions (8-8) this weekend in a do-or-die scenario with the winner qualifying for the playoffs. The notion that Green Bay could reach the postseason was laughable at 3-7, but the Packers have now won five of six to gain control of their destiny.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur was asked about the Lions-Packers matchup in the Week 18 regular-season finale.

“You talk about a play-in game,” he said. “The stakes are going to be high.”

It will feature Detroit’s high-flying offense against the Packers’ surging defense to see which team will claim the NFC’s final playoff berth.

Meantime, the Packers celebrated the New Year by toasting the NFC North champion Vikings (12-4) in utterly convincing fashion.

Cousins rushed for 37 yards, which wouldn’t merit a mention except in this case it was 10 more yards than Dalvin Cook eked out. Cook finished with 27 yards on nine carries and was a non-factor.

Justin Jefferson had one catch for 15 yards.

Adam Thielen had one for 16.

It took nine targets to produce those 31 yards, with tight end T.J. Hockenson (7 for 59) being the Vikings’ only reliable weapon.

The Packers’ defense dominated the Vikings from start to finish.

After Green Bay’s offense was forced to punt on its opening drive, the Vikings’ Josh Metellus blocked Pat O’Donnell’s punt to give Minnesota the football first-and-goal at Green Bay’s 1.

But the Vikings were held to minus-1 yards and were forced to settle for Greg Joseph’s 21-yard field goal. The Vikings seemed deflated.

“That’s a big-time win right there,” LaFleur said. “Our guys showed up ready to play.”

It’s safe to count Keisean Nixon among them.

The NFL’s top kickoff man returned the ensuing kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown to make it 7-3 Green Bay. When asked what he saw on the return, Nixon joked, “The kicker.”

It was blocked as well as a return can be and Nixon made the most of it.

After the teams traded possessions, the Vikings elected to go for it on fourth-and-2 from Green Bay’s 37. Cousins’ pass to Hockenson was tipped by corner Rasul Douglas into the hands of Savage, who picked up a few blocks before bolting 75 yards for a touchdown.

In the blink of an eye the Packers were up 14-3 in the first quarter. And Aaron Rodgers and the offense hadn’t gained a first down yet.

Savage’s “pick six” triggered a disastrous six-series stretch in which the Vikings’ offense had the “pick six,” a missed field goal, an interception, a missed field goal, a fumble and an interception.

“We’ve done absolutely nothing on offense and we’re up by two scores,” Rodgers said. “It’s a little different feeling for sure.”

Nixon’s and Savage’s touchdown returns set the stage for another return: A Packers’ return to the playoffs for a fourth straight season.

Green Bay’s defense has led the charge.

“I think this is the way they expected to play for much of the season,” Rodgers said of the defense. “It hasn’t been the way that they’ve played the entire time, but when you’re playing ball in December and January, the most important thing when you’re talking playoffs … you want to be playing the right way and you want to be healthy.

“And if you look at our squad, outside of Rashan Gary, we’re pretty healthy and we’re playing the right way.”

Rodgers wasn’t brilliant but he didn’t have to be.

He completed 15 of 24 passes for 159 yards and a 24-yard touchdown pass to Robert Tonyan. He was sacked just once, didn’t commit a turnover and posted a respectable 95.7 passer rating.

Aaron Jones keyed the offense with 111 yards rushing on 14 carries for a robust 7.9 average per carry. A.J. Dillon added 41 yards on 12 carries.

The Packers played clean football with no turnovers and only three penalties for 30 yards. They converted seven of 12 third-down tries (58.3 percent) and spread the football around.

Allen Lazard led the way with five catches for 59 yards. Tonyan had three for 52, including the 24-yard TD grab, and Romeo Doubs (three) and Randall Cobb (two) combined on five catches for 40 yards.

Christian Watson played sparingly and had one catch for 11 yards.

But on this day, with the Packers’ defense playing dominant football, Green Bay didn’t need the big-play dynamic to notch the win.

Jaire Alexander spent much of the day shadowing Jefferson into submission. However, it wasn’t just Alexander that had a big day. Savage, Douglas, Rudy Ford and Adrian Amos all made crucial plays.

“I know Jaire chirped a little bit, but he backed it up,” LaFleur said. The Packers’ coach also praised Savage, who was benched last month, for maintaining a positive attitude and responding when called upon.

“Some guys won’t respond that way and I think that speaks to who he is as a man,” LaFleur said of Savage. “Just really, really, really happy with how he’s responded and I think he’s stacked two games back-to-back and played really good football.”

That’s also four straight games the Packers have strung together.

On Sunday, the fact that offense, defense and special teams were all feeding off each other makes Green Bay a dangerous opponent.

“This is probably the first game all season we’ve played complementary football in all three phases,” Rodgers said. “The way our defense played, forcing turnovers. Offensively, not a huge game stat-wise but we did a good job holding onto the football and then running the ball effectively. And then Keisean, what can you say?”

LaFleur seconded that notion.

“Every phase definitely made an impact,” he said.

Now it’s Lions-Packers to see who makes the playoffs. Buckle up.

It’s going to be a wild ride in the regular-season finale.

Hard-to-judge Vikings up next for Green Bay

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers managed a Christmas miracle in their win last week at Miami. Now we’ll see if they can ring in the New Year by toasting the Vikings on Sunday at Lambeau Field.

It won’t be easy.

One misguided national storyline suggested the Vikings (12-3) have next-to-nothing to play for. The NFC North champions are the No. 2 seed behind Philadelphia. If the Vikings win out and the Eagles (13-2) lose out Minnesota would get the bye as the top seed.

That sounds like the Vikings have plenty to play for.

Minnesota will know by kickoff who won the Saints-Eagles game. Just in case Philadelphia wins, Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander made sure to provide the Vikings’ No. 1 weapon with added incentive.

Alexander, who is a two-time Pro Bowl corner, made Week 1 headlines by saying he’d have preferred covering Justin Jefferson one-on-one in Green Bay’s 23-7 loss.

Jefferson caught nine passes on 11 targets for 184 yards and two touchdowns. Packers’ defensive coordinator Joe Barry took heat for staying in a soft two-shell defense while Jefferson ran wild.

Barry has suggested adjustments will be made. The most obvious of those is pointing to Jefferson and telling Alexander, “Sic ‘em.”

Then, under his breath, adding, “Good luck.”

Alexander added fuel to the fire by saying Jefferson isn’t Superman.

“You’ve just got to be real: He don’t jump in no super suit and get dressed and jump outside, you hear me?” he said Thursday. “I don’t either, sometimes. But he is human, is what I’m saying … We ain’t putting too much on nobody.

“He’s a really good receiver. But at the end of the day, I’m a really good corner. We’ve got really good corners. We’ve got really good linebackers, D-line, whatever it is. You don’t want to put too much focus on that one person because it’s like, the first game … that was a fluke.”

Alexander did include Jefferson on his list of the NFL’s top three receivers along with the Raiders’ Davante Adams and the Dolphins’ Jaylen Waddle.

While Alexander’s comments may sound like trash talking, what I’m hearing is a player explaining – in advance – why he isn’t going to be covering Jefferson one-on-one.

We’ll see once kickoff rolls around.

The Packers’ defense should be able to exploit the interior of the Vikings’ offensive line. Center Garrett Bradbury (back) was nearly finished rehabbing his back when he was in a car accident last week.

It leaves the Vikings woefully shorthanded up front, a circumstance defensive tackle Kenny Clark and friends need to exploit. If the Packers’ defense can get pressure on Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins it’ll make covering Jefferson and tight end T.J. Hockenson that much easier.

Opposing defenses have sacked Cousins 11 times in the past two games.

It would behoove the Packers to get off to a fast start because the Vikings are a perfect 8-0 when leading at halftime. Two things Minnesota seems good at: Holding onto a halftime lead and finding ways to win one-possession games at an historic clip.

The Packers’ offense may have to play without Christian Watson, Yosh Nijman and David Bakhtiari. Watson (hip) didn’t practice Thursday and Nijman was limited. Bakhtiari is recovering from an appendectomy.

That leaves Zach Tom to line up at left tackle and Royce Newman at right tackle if Bakhtiari and Nijman can’t play. That would be an invitation to disaster in the form of Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter, who are dynamic if inconsistent pass rushers.

Green Bay’s best chance on offense is to get it out of Aaron Rodgers’ hands as quickly as possible. That means handing off or tossing it to Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon mixed with a heavy dose of screens, check-downs and shallow-to-intermediate routes.

The Packers’ tight ends have caught seven passes in the past four games. That includes Marcedes Lewis’ 1-yard touchdown grab and 31-yard diving catch up the sideline last week.

They need to re-establish Robert Tonyan.

Ultimately, this game is going to be won (or lost) up front.

The Packers must play their most complete game of the season if they are going to get past the Vikings. I’ll make a bold prediction before my game prediction: If the Packers beat the Vikings, they’ll go on to defeat the Lions and – if they make the playoffs – they’ll win at least one game.

Prediction: Vikings 28, Packers 24

Green Bay ‘D’ thwarts

Miami when it matters

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers’ defense made a second-half statement that didn’t include excuses, blame-placing or gibberish.

Their statement was all about meeting the moment.

After being pierced for 172 yards in the first quarter, Green Bay’s defense erased that ugliness by pitching a second-half shutout to lead the Packers to a 26-20 victory Sunday at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium.

The Packers (7-8) didn’t play their best game of the season, or even their most complete, but they did play winning football.

Green Bay’s offense and special teams managed two touchdowns and four field goals. The defense did the rest by snatching interceptions on each of the Dolphins’ final three drives. Jaire Alexander, De’Vondre Campbell and Rasul Douglas all got a piece of the Tua Tagovailoa pie.

Surely there were Packers’ fans who felt compelled to apologize for all the nasty things they might’ve thought or said about Douglas and the defense after the first quarter.

The Packers’ victory was a terrific total team effort. It doubled as a wonderful Christmas gift for fans who’ve endured a rough ride thus far.

Green Bay has won three straight to keep its playoff hopes alive.

If the Packers defeat Minnesota (12-3) and Detroit (7-8) to finish 9-8 they’ll reach the playoffs, but only if Washington loses one of its final two games or the New York Giants lose both of theirs.

Meantime, the Packers handled business by rallying from a double-digit deficit Sunday for the third time this season to claim the win.

Miami (8-7) sprinted to a 10-3 lead while racking up 172 yards (56 rushing, 116 passing) in the first quarter. That’s a 688-yard pace. They opened a 20-10 late in the first half, but amazingly the Packers’ defense hit the “reset” button and pitched a second-half shutout.

It’s crazy to think Jaylen Waddle (five catches, 143 yards and a touchdown) and Tyreek Hill (four for 103) had such huge games and Miami still lost. Much of that was because Tagovailoa was as awful in the fourth quarter as he was brilliant in the first.

Jarran Reed added a critical forced fumble and recovery to give the Packers a 4-1 edge in turnovers.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur was pleased with the defense’s effort.

“Any time you get four takeaways in a game, you should win that game,” he said. “Our guys seemed like they were getting more pressure up front on Tua and making him move out of the pocket. We knew he’s a guy who’s going to anticipate and going to let the ball go, and if you can read the quarterback right away, it also gives you opportunities.”

Aaron Rodgers loved the defense’s multiple big plays.

“Our defense clamped down and played excellent football,” he said.

Rodgers also said he is pleased to be playing “meaningful” football in the wake of a 3-0 December.

“I’d like to be, you know, 10-5, 11-4, but considering where we were a few weeks ago, a lot has happened in our favor,” Rodgers said. “All the games that needed to go a certain way went a certain way. Now, there’s obviously much left (to do), but again, we’ve played meaningful games in December, we won all three of those. Now we’re playing meaningful games in January, and we’ve got to win those.”

Rodgers was 24 of 38 for 238 yards with one touchdown and an interception. He was sacked twice and finished with a 78.6 passer rating.

Rookie left tackle Zach Tom stoned Pro Bowl pass rusher Bradley Chubb, who finished with just one tackle and a quarterback hit. Royce Newman came off the bench to replace the injured Yosh Nijman (shoulder) and played better than in his previous go-round.

The offense also had to overcome injuries to Christian Watson (hip) and Aaron Jones (shin) – undoubtedly their two most explosive weapons – by relying on Allen Lazard (five catches for 61 yards) and Romeo Doubs (three for 36) to move the chains.

LaFleur was aggressive from start to finish, and that included winning the coin toss and deferring to the second half. It sent a message – intended or otherwise – to the Packers’ defense saying, “We trust you.” Then, the offense made it work by kicking a field goal to end the first half and scoring a touchdown to open the second half.

LaFleur also called an ill-fated fake punt – it should’ve been scuttled because Miami was set for it – but the aggressiveness was refreshing.

Far too often this season Green Bay has been the counterpuncher. The Packers have devised game plans based on an opponent’s strengths, rather than focusing on developing their own identity.

That wasn’t the case Sunday when LaFleur went for it on fourth-and-1 at Miami’s 1 while trailing 10-3 in the first quarter.

Marcedes Lewis, the 17-year veteran, faked a block and curled to the left corner of the end zone, where he was all alone for the easy touchdown to make it 10-10.

Lewis also delivered a clutch 31-yard catch on Green Bay’s opening drive of the second half. After Patrick Taylor picked up 17 yards on a nifty catch-and-run, Lewis was stride-for-stride with safety Eric Rowe up the left sideline when he hauled in a perfectly thrown ball for 31.

It set up A.J. Dillon’s 1-yard touchdown run to make it 20-20.

Lewis, a 17-year veteran, was part of a rarely deployed four-tight end formation dictated, in part, by the injuries to Watson and Jones.

Again, the four-tight end formation reflected LaFleur’s creativity and aggressiveness. The personnel offers a “run heavy” look, but the Packers used that against Miami’s defense to hit the big play to Lewis.

Lewis, a consummate pro, was thrilled to contribute to the win.

“That play, even in practice, A-Rod doesn’t really let it go like that in practice to me,” he said. “I feel like I had him beat, saw the ball up there and the rest was fundamental after that. Been doing that all my life and I was just very grateful to be accountable when my number was called.”

Jones reveled in his teammate’s big play.

“I said, ‘Marcedes, you still have some wheels son,” Jones said. “That’s Big Dog. However you need him to show up, he’ll show up. No questions asked. He’s a team-first player.”

Lewis wasn’t the only “old-timer” to contribute in a big way.

Mason Crosby was a perfect 4-for-4 on field goal attempts while making his team record 256th straight start. He will surpass London Fletcher for fourth place all-time against the Vikings.

“It’s pretty awesome,” Crosby said. “A day like this, it’s Christmas, come down to Miami and get a great win, these are the memories and moments. It’s not my accomplishment. It’s just remembering all these types of things that have been so special.”

Now the Packers are on to preparing for Minnesota.

They’ll have to decipher how to proceed given the long injury list.

It starts with Keisean Nixon, whose 93-yard kickoff return in the first quarter set up Green Bay’s first field goal. Nixon has four kick returns of 50-plus yards, which is the most in the NFL since Andre Roberts had six 50-plus yard returns for the Jets in 2018.

Nixon (groin) left the game early.

Watson (hip) also is a question mark going into the Vikings game.

According to the Press-Gazette’s Ryan Wood, Watson told him that his hip was Ok. “I’ll be alright,” Watson said.

The Packers hope to have Nixon and Watson against the Vikings, but if they stay aggressive and keep playing for (and with) each other, they ought to be Ok either way.

“It’s cool to see whenever you do lose somebody who’s going to step up and take the opportunity,” he said. “It was a total, collective team effort, and we did just enough to get the win.”

Packers see Dolphins
as playoff-caliber foe
By Chris Havel
Special to The FAN
GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers have made their fair share of mistakes during this mostly disappointing season.
Here’s one they don’t intend to make: Underestimating the Dolphins.
Miami (8-6) has lost three straight – all on the road – and fallen from first in the AFC East to the conference’s seventh-seeded wild-card.
The Packers (6-8) aren’t going to be deceived.
The Dolphins are a playoff-worthy team. They also are a much-better team at Miami Gardens than they are on the road. And they have an upper-echelon quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa, the NFL’s leader in passer rating at 107.8, who has a trio of first-rate pass catchers.
Tagovailoa has completed 243 of 375 passes (64.8 %) for 3,238 yards with 24 touchdowns and five interceptions. He has been sacked just 19 times, which has allowed him to exploit defenses with the deadly speed present in the receiving corps.
Tyreek Hill has 109 catches for 1,529 yards (a 14-yard average) and seven touchdowns. He has converted 68 first downs and remains one of the NFL’s pre-eminent deep threats.
Hill’s sidekick is no slouch, either.
Jaylon Waddle has 62 catches for 1,117 yards (an even more impressive 18 yards per catch) with seven touchdowns and 52 first downs converted. Waddle is more of a precise route runner, while Hill is a legit threat to go the distance every time he touches the football.
Dolphins’ tight end Mike Gesicki has 25 catches for 274 yards and four touchdowns. He’s been a reliable weapon in the red zone. Alec Ingold, the pride of Bay Port High School, is Miami’s fullback and short-yard horse. Ingold has six carries for eight yards and five first downs. He also has caught 15 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown.
When he’s not banging away in short-yardage or goal-line, Ingold is serving as the lead blocker for running back Raheem Mostert. The Pacekrs and their fans remember Mostert, who tore apart their defense in a playoff disaster a few years back. Mostert is the Dolphins’ running game, period, while averaging a robust 4.9 yards per carry.
Mostert has 746 yards on 153 carries and three touchdowns.
The Packers’ defense faces a daunting task.
When asked to describe the challenge the Dolphins will present Christmas Day, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers just smiled.
“They’re all good football teams,” he said. “Miami’s playing for the playoffs. Minnesota’s obviously division winners and coming off a big win. Detroit’s won what, six out of seven? They’re playing really well. So it’s going to be three difficult games.”
Packers head coach Matt LaFleur echoed Rodgers’ sentiment.
“We know that we’re in a one-game season from here on out, from here until the end of the year,” he said. “So we’ve got to take care of business.”
But when asked about “winning out,” LaFleur waved off the question.
“I don’t even want to talk like that, to be honest with you,” he said. “I think you’ve got to keep the focus on what’s right in front of you … and that starts with Miami.”
The Packers are coming off an encouraging 24-12 victory over the Rams on Monday Night Football at Lambeau Field. It’s encouraging because of the outcome, of course, but also because of the method.
The Packers’ offense ran 35 times to 33 passes. The attack ran through running backs Aaron Jones (17 for 90) and A.J. Dillon (two touchdowns and several nifty catches) with the young receivers moving the chains.
Romeo Doubs had five catches on five targets for 55 yards. Christian Watson had four catches for 46 yards (on six targets). They kept Green Bay’s offense on the field between big runs and during long drives.
Keisean Nixon’s exploits as the team’s punt- and kick-returner have boosted special teams’ spirits and upgraded the offense’s field position.
Nixon has three 50-yard plus returns in the past three games. He returned two punts for 36 yards in the win over the Rams.
He has been close to breaking a return for a touchdown. Perhaps it will happen at the most opportune time: During Sunday’s game at Miami.
The Packers have a 12.2 percent chance to win the playoffs provided they win out. That must begin with a Christmas Day win at Miami.
It won’t be easy.
“We’ve got two … Got two in the bag,” Rodgers said. “I don’t know. Look, before the Bears week, we knew we had a bye afterwards, and those of us who sometimes peek ahead knew that we had to win five and then have a lot of things go our way. So we’ve won two and just about everything we needed to happen has gone our way. Just about, right?
“So things are looking up.”
Indeed, they are for the Packers.
With my heart, rather than my head, I’m going to predict:
Packers 28, Dolphins 27 … and hope!

Packers handle Rams,

turn page to Dolphins

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers are playing for a chance to take on a playoff-caliber team on the road in a “win-or-go-home” scenario.

It turns out they won’t have long to wait.

The Packers’ rugged 24-12 victory over the Rams on Monday Night Football at snowy Lambeau Field kept their feint playoff hopes alive. It also means Green Bay’s Christmas Day game against the Dolphins (8-6) qualifies as a “must win” in order to keep the playoffs a possibility.

The Packers’ win over the Rams increased their odds of qualifying for the postseason to 12 percent should they win out. That means notching wins at Miami and at home against the Vikings (11-3) and Lions (7-7).

If the Packers lose at Miami it isn’t the end of the world. It just means they aren’t playoff-worthy and it’s time to give the reins to Jordan Love.

Either way, they’ll need to build upon the good things they did in defeating the Rams while continuing to clean up the mistakes.

Rasul Douglas made a sweet interception before nearly lateralling his way into infamy, and Keisean Nixon remains a touchdown waiting to happen on kick returns.

The rookie receivers also didn’t look like rookies, and the Packers’ defense rose up against the Rams and played pretty well.

Despite all of that, Aaron Rodgers understands the odds are long, but he’s up for the challenge.

“They’re all good football teams,” he said after Green Bay’s win. “Miami’s playing for the playoffs. Minnesota’s obviously division winners and coming off a big win. Detroit’s won what, six out of seven? They’re playing really well. So it’s going to be three difficult games.”

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur echoed Rodgers’ sentiment.

“We know that we’re in a one-game season from here on out, from here until the end of the year,” he said. “So we’ve got to take care of business.”

But when asked about “winning out,” LaFleur waved off the question.

“I don’t even want to talk like that, to be honest with you,” he said. “I think you’ve got to keep the focus on what’s right in front of you … and that starts with Miami.”

Meantime, they dispatched the defenseless Rams in convincing fashion.

Los Angeles (4-10) mustered a season-low 156 yards in total offense, the fewest since head coach Sean McVay took over in 2017. The one-week curiosity that was Baker Mayfield after his stunning debut in a 17-16 upset of the Raiders last week predictably came back to earth.

More precisely, Mayfield came back to the Frozen Tundra repeatedly as the Packers’ defense abused an injury-racked offensive line. The Packers sacked Mayfield five times and created constant chaos.

Mayfield’s night can be summed up like this: Aaron Rodgers completed more passes (22) than the Rams’ quarterback attempted. Mayfield finished 12 of 21 for 111 yards with one touchdown and an interception. He fell short of the “seven interceptions” predicted by the Packers’ Jaire Alexander, but he was hit early and often by Preston Smith and Co.

Smith had two sacks while Quay Walker and Kingsley Enagbare had one each. Devonte Wyatt and Justin Hollins shared the other sack.

Smith said the answer was simple: Playing together as one unit.

“Everybody was just doing their job a high level,” he said. “A lot of guys were benefiting tonight. We had five sacks as a defense. We were all on one accord tonight. We were playing at a high level in every phase. I feel like we were doing that pretty well, and guys were just maximizing off of the opportunities.”

LaFleur also liked what he saw from his defense.

“That’s what we need moving forward,” he said. “Certainly going down to Miami I think Tua (Tagavailoa) has been playing great. They’ve got a very, very, very explosive offense, a very creative offense, and it’s going to be critical for us to get pressure on the quarterback in order to give us an opportunity to win the game.”

The Packers’ offense looked pretty good, too.

Rodgers was 22 of 30 for 229 yards with one touchdown and an interception. He was sacked three times and posted a 92.2 passer rating.

The Packers’ opening drive was promising, but Rodgers retreated like a scared rabbit on third-and-goal at the 5 and was sacked by Leonard Floyd. Green Bay settled for a 34-yard Mason Crosby field goal.

Their second drive ended in an interception when Rodgers and Allen Lazard weren’t on the same page. The mistake led to an easy pick.

However, the Packers got it going to open the second half.

Green Bay marched 68 yards in 11 plays to score its first opening-half touchdown in the past 21 tries. A.J. Dillon capped it with his second touchdown of the game, a 1-yard blast through the Rams’ midsection.

“I like how we came out in the second half,” Rodgers said. “That first drive was really important, seven minutes, touchdown (and go) back up by two scores. That was winning football, and we haven’t really done that consistent enough throughout the season.”

The Packers’ balance was tremendous with 35 carries out of 68 snaps. Aaron Jones led the way with 90 yards on 17 carries and Dillon added 36 yards on 11 carries and the two touchdowns. Jones also caught four passes (in five targets) for 36 yards and the Packers’ final touchdown of the game, a 7-yard grab from Rodgers to seal it.

Rookie receivers Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs also had strong performances. Doubs caught five passes (in five targets) for 55 yards, and Watson added four grabs (in six targets) for 46 yards.

“Romes has always been a bit more polished as a route runner,” Rodgers said. “Christian is just so explosive.”

Watson’s touchdown streak ended at four games, but his mere presence influenced the Rams’ defense to play “Cover 2” – a two-deep, five-under zone – which invites short passes but prevents big plays.

That’s in theory at least.

The Packers’ offense stayed patient – which is to say Rodgers stayed patient – and the run-pass balance was outstanding.

“They basically played a lot of two-shell,” Rodgers said. “If we’ve got to throw with the quick game and run the football to win, we’ll do that.”

The Packers’ future Hall of Fame quarterback said last week that the cold weather was Green Bay’s friend. That didn’t keep him from admitting he’s looking forward to playing in warmer temperatures.

“It’s going to have to be a really good effort to go out there and win (at Miami),” Rodgers said. “It’ll be a nice weather change. Nobody’s going to be bummed that it’ll be 40 or 50 above what it is, at least, maybe 50 or 60 above what it is right now. We’ll be looking forward to getting back home to some cold weather and hopefully we’ll be 7-8.”

Packers’ odds go up
with help from 49ers
By Chris Havel
Special to The FAN
GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers return from their Week 14 bye presumably refreshed and ready to make a strong stretch run.
They should have added juice after two weeks and a day off.
The Packers’ odds to reach the playoffs nudged up to six percent with their 28-19 win over the Bears last week. If Green Bay wins its final four games it has a 61-percent chance to make the playoffs. That’s the same odds as Giannis hitting a free throw, so there’s a chance.
The Packers (5-8) host the Rams (4-9) on Monday night.
After that they play the Dolphins on Christmas Day at Hard Rock Stadium, where Miami (8-5) is 5-1 this season. Then it’s a pair of home games against the Vikings (10-3) and Lions (6-7) to close out.
Packers’ receiver Allen Lazard and his teammates are clinging to hope.
“We haven’t given up,” Lazard said. “This whole year hasn’t gone our way. A lot of our losses have been one-possession games, for the most part. (It’s) a play here, a play there, a turnover there or not being able to make a turnover in some certain situations. That’s just kind of been the thing that’s been holding us back, so to speak.”
The Packers’ remaining opponents are a combined 29-23 (.558), but they play them in December and January, which historically has been “go time” for Green Bay under coach Matt LaFleur.
The Packers are an amazing 15-1 in December/January games since LaFleur took the helm in 2019. That is reflective of Super Bowl-caliber teams that proceeded to fall short in the postseason. That isn’t this.
Remember, the Packers were 10-1 in October games under LaFleur. Then they went a dreadful 1-4 to trigger the landslide.
Nevertheless, the Packers feel like they have a puncher’s chance.
The offense is averaging a Packers-like 27 points in its last four games.
Rookie receiver Christian Watson’s mercurial rise is a major reason.
Watson has eight touchdowns in four games, which has allowed the Packers to run the football more effectively. In addition, the offensive line has settled down a bit with Zach Tom pinch-hitting for David Bakhtiari at left tackle while Yosh Nijman – who just may be the Packers’ most underrated player – handling right tackle.
In turn, the defense hasn’t resembled a sieve lately.
When the Packers reduce or eliminate pre-snap penalties, assignment errors and turnovers they can compete with anyone. When they don’t they might as well dress in Texans’ uniforms.
“I told the guys … we’ve played good enough to beat anybody in the league, and at times played poor enough to lose to just about anybody,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “Our highs have been pretty solid.”
If the Packers sweep the Rams, Dolphins, Vikings and Lions they will finish 9-8, 4-2 in the NFC North and 7-5 in the NFC. Detroit can also finish 9-8, 4-2 and 7-5, but in this scenario the Packers would have a 5-5 versus 4-6 edge over the Lions based on common opponents, so the Packers win that tiebreaker.
The Seahawks (7-7) have back-to-back losses to Carolina and San Francisco. They need to win out to get to 10, which isn’t likely with games against the Chiefs, Jets and Rams. The Packers would be 7-5 in the NFC and win the tiebreaker with Seattle.

The Giants (7-5-1) and Commanders (7-5-1) play each other so one will fall to six losses. The Giants’ other games are against the Vikings (10-3), the Colts (4-8-1) and the Eagles (12-1).

The Packers don’t control their destiny, but if they rise to the occasion they should make the playoffs at 9-8 as the No. 6 seed.

Clearly, the Packers must take care of business or they’ll miss the playoffs regardless of any breaks that come their way.

Nevertheless, it’s the hand the Packers essentially have dealt themselves. Packers’ fans better hope Rodgers is better throwing a football with his fingers crossed than he is with a broken thumb.

Speaking of thumbs, here is a thumbnail sketch of the NFC’s sixth through ninth seeds entering Week 15:

** No. 6 – Washington (7-5-1)

Schedule: New York Giants, at San Francisco, Cleveland, Dallas

Comment: The Commanders should KO the Giants this week, but easily could drop their final three games. The 49ers are in a dogfight of their own, the Browns are dangerous with Deshaun Watson, and the Cowboys need to keep winning to remain the top wild card.

** No. 7 – New York Giants (7-5-1)

Schedule: at Washington, at Minnesota, Indianapolis, at Philadelphia

Comment: The Giants aren’t upsetting the Commanders in Washington, and the Vikings are much better at home than on the road (ask anyone at Ford Field that witnessed the Lions’ 34-23 rout Sunday).

** No. 8 – Seattle (7-7)

Schedule: at Kansas City, N.Y. Jets, L.A. Rams

Comment: The Seahawks’ 30-24 loss to Carolina leaves Seattle in a lurch with the 49ers and Chiefs beckoning. The Seahawks have lost three of four and I don’t see them halting the slide.

** No. 9 – Detroit (6-7)

Schedule: at N.Y. Jets, at Carolina, Chicago, at Green Bay

Comment: The notion that the Sunday, Jan. 8 Lions-Packers game could be for the NFC’s final wild-card spot is enough to give a fan goosebumps. After all that has gone wrong this season, it would be amazing to see Packers’ fans scoreboard watching while cheering for a win over the Lions on a frosty January afternoon at Lambeau Field.

** PREDICTION: Packers 27, Rams 13

The Rams’ 17-16 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders with Baker Mayfield at the helm made headlines last week.

Mayfield rallied the Rams from a 16-3 deficit in the fourth quarter against a Raiders team bent on self-destruction. His last-minute, 98-yard touchdown drive was incredibly impressive given that he was a member of the Rams for less than 72 hours.

Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be misconstrued as Mayfield’s renaissance.

It was about a bad football (the Raiders) imploding while another bad team (the Rams) managed to take advantage in the 11th hour.

Green Bay should be embarrassed if it allows Mayfield and the Rams to hang around and make it a game going into the fourth quarter. In other words, the Rams should need more than a 98-yard miracle to win it.

Badgers tip Hawkeyes,

Packers get some help

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers got some much-needed help during their Week 14 bye with losses by the Seahawks and Giants.

Green Bay (5-8) has a 61-percent chance to qualify for the playoffs if they win their four remaining games. That’s approximately the same odds of Giannis hitting a free throw, so there’s a chance.

The Packers’ odds to reach the playoffs nudged up from 4% to 6% with their 28-19 win at Chicago last week.

I’ll have more on that below.

Meantime, the Badgers scored an impressive 78-75 victory in overtime against the Hawkeyes on Sunday afternoon at Iowa City.

Tyler Wahl led the way with 21 points and seven rebounds, and Steven Crowl added 12 points and seven assists to pave the way.

Wisconsin (8-2, 2-0) also had a strong performance from its bench. Connor Essegian and Carter Gilmore combined for 22 points and 10 rebounds. Gilmore’s eight points were a career high for the 6-7 junior from Hartland.

Wahl noted that the Badgers’ bench gives opponents trouble because they’re fairly unknown players who go out and play hard.

“It’s just a switch of pace,” Wahl said. “They bring a different look. Guys on the other team might not have them on the scouting report or know too much about them. They come in, they bring some good energy, they make good plays and that just gets everyone else going.”

The Badgers appeared to have the game in hand when Iowa went on an 8-0 run in 45 seconds to tie it at 60. In overtime, Iowa twice built three-point leads behind Patrick McCaffery’s deadeye shooting, but with the game on the line Chucky Hepburn stole the ball from Patrick McCaffery to seal the victory.

The Badgers made five straight shots in overtime to remain undefeated in Big Ten play.

“Those are veteran players that know the moment when we can make those types of plays,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said of late steals by Wahl and Hepburn. “We had bodies on the floor. Max (Klesmit) was on the floor fighting for balls. We did what we needed to do.”

The Badgers were picked to finish ninth in the conference by media members that cover Big Ten basketball.

So far, the defending Big Ten champion Badgers have been a very pleasant surprise. Then again, there’s nothing new in that.

** Packers’ hopes rise with Seahawks, Giants losses

The Packers’ playoff prospects inched upward with losses by the Seahawks and Giants.

The Packers (5-8) host the Rams (4-9) next Monday night.

After that they play the Dolphins on Christmas Day at Hard Rock Stadium, where Miami (8-5) is 5-1 this season. Then it’s a pair of home games against the Vikings (10-3) and Lions (6-7) to close out.

Packers’ receiver Allen Lazard and his teammates are clinging to hope.

“We haven’t given up,” Lazard said. “This whole year hasn’t gone our way. A lot of our losses have been one-possession games, for the most part. (It’s) a play here, a play there, a turnover there or not being able to make a turnover in some certain situations. That’s just kind of been the thing that’s been holding us back, so to speak.”

The Packers’ remaining opponents are a combined 29-23 (.558), but they play them in December and January, which historically has been “go time” for Green Bay under coach Matt LaFleur.

The Packers are an amazing 15-1 in December/January games since LaFleur took the helm in 2019. That is reflective of Super Bowl-caliber teams that proceeded to fall short in the postseason. That isn’t this.

Remember, the Packers were 10-1 in October games under LaFleur. Then they went a dreadful 1-4 to trigger the landslide.

Nevertheless, the Packers feel like they have a puncher’s chance.

The offense is averaging a Packers-like 27 points in its last four games.

Rookie receiver Christian Watson’s mercurial rise is a major reason.

Watson has eight touchdowns in four games, which has allowed the Packers to run the football more effectively. In addition, the offensive line has settled down a bit with Zach Tom pinch-hitting for David Bakhtiari at left tackle while Yosh Nijman – who just may be the Packers’ most underrated player – handling right tackle.

In turn, the defense hasn’t resembled a sieve lately.

When the Packers reduce or eliminate pre-snap penalties, assignment errors and turnovers they can compete with anyone. When they don’t they might as well dress in Texans’ uniforms.

“I told the guys … we’ve played good enough to beat anybody in the league, and at times played poor enough to lose to just about anybody,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “Our highs have been pretty solid.”

If the Packers win their four remaining games they will be 9-8 overall, 4-2 in the NFC North and 7-5 in the conference. Provided it comes down to Detroit or Green Bay for the final wild-card slot, the Packers actually are in pretty good shape given their current 5-8 record.

In the “Packers win out” scenario the Lions (6-7) would finish 9-8 overall, 4-2 in the division and 7-5 in the conference. However, the Packers would hold a 5-5 versus 4-6 edge in common opponents, so the Packers would own the tiebreaker over Detroit.

The Seahawks (7-6) must win three of four to get to 10-7. That is not going to happen with games against the 49ers, Chiefs, Jets and Rams. The best Seattle could do is 6-6 in the NFC. The Packers would be 7-5 and win the tiebreaker with Seattle.

The Giants (7-5-1) and Commanders (7-5-1) play each other so one will fall to six losses. The Giants’ other games are against the Vikings (10-3), the Colts (4-8-1) and the Eagles (12-1).

The Packers trail the No. 7 seeded Giants by 2 ½ games with four to play. It would be a tall mountain to climb if this were baseball and the Packers had Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff alternating starts.

Nevertheless, it’s the hand the Packers essentially have dealt themselves. Packers’ fans better hope Rodgers is better throwing a football with his fingers crossed than he is with a broken thumb.

Packers: Five moves

that cost them dearly

on way to 5-8 at bye

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers go into their Week 14 bye clinging to the thinnest of playoff hopes even as the conversation alternates between past mistakes, present disappointment and future promise.

The Packers (5-8) have it all going on.

It is conceivable that they win three or perhaps even all four of their remaining games. The Rams, Dolphins, Vikings and Lions aren’t exactly the NFL’s elite – although Minnesota fans would vehemently disagree – with the Packers’ Christmas Day game at Miami the toughest test.

The question is how many games will Aaron Rodgers start at quarterback before he gives way to Jordan Love?

My best guess is Rodgers starts against the Rams and provided they win also gets the call against the Dolphins. By game’s end at Miami the Packers will be on a three-game winning streak with a glimmer of hope, or they will be eliminated and Love will start the final two home games.

So how did a season with such great expectations come to this?

There is any number of reasons. Here are the top five most impactful reasons the Packers have struggled this season:

** No. 1 – The future Hall of Fame quarterback hasn’t been good

Rodgers has underperformed by any measure.

A broken right thumb and a two-week battle with sore ribs provide a partial explanation as to his struggles, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

The Packers may have felt obliged to extend Rodgers’ contract last March ($150 million through the 2024 season, including $58.3 guaranteed) because he was the NFL’s back-to-back MVP.

That would make sense if he was turning 29 this month, rather than 39, and it seemed the Packers made no concession for age.

Rodgers’ ability to dodge sacks, extend plays and deliver accurate lasers isn’t what it was even last season.

Clearly, the loss of Davante Adams, the slow start for Christian Watson and injuries to the receivers and offensive linemen impacted Rodgers’ effectiveness.

Rodgers is 272 of 423 passes (64.3 percent) for 2,864 yards with 22 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a mundane passer rating of 92.4. He has been sacked 24 times and is averaging 220 yards passing per game.

A telling statistic is that he has gone 17 games – more than a full calendar year – without throwing for 300-plus yards, easily the longest such stretch of his illustrious career.

** No. 2 – The mishandling of personnel

The Packers were wise to bring in veterans Keisean Nixon and Rudy Ford, both of whom have been as good as promised.

Nixon is among the NFL’s top kick returners and has played well in stretches as the nickel and dime back. Ford has been impactful on special teams and also an upgrade over Darnell Savage at safety.

Why it took the Packers’ coaches so long to get Nixon and Ford more involved is beyond me. They fiddled around with Amari Rodgers far too long, especially for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.

It retarded the progress of other receivers, especially Samori Toure, in addition to fumbling away several winnable games in the process.

The Packers also failed to recognize that Yosh Nijman, if given a chance, could hold up just fine at right tackle. Instead, they plugged in Elgton Jenkins, who looked like a fish out of water. Eventually, they corrected the mistake and moved Jenkins back to left guard.

They also failed to have Zach Tom locked and loaded to play left tackle. They should’ve sat David Bakhtiari until he was ready to go. Instead, they played the on-again, off-again game to everyone’s detriment.

** No. 3 – Abandoning the run game and two-back sets

All anyone heard about was how Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon were going to pick up the slack left by Adams’ departure. Instead, Jones gets a whopping eight touches in the season opening 23-7 loss at Minnesota.

It continued in the Giants’ game at London.

The Packers were in great position to tie or win the game with a 69-yard drive in the final minutes. Trailing 27-20, Rodgers drove the Packers to the Giants’ 6-yard line where they faced third-and-1 with 1:11 to play.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur and Rodgers discussed the plan. Apparently it didn’t involve running the football. Two ill-fated incompletions later and the Giants took a safety and the win.

** No. 4 – Unrealistic expectations for players coming off injuries

The Packers began the season waiting on Bakhtiari, Jenkins and Robert Tonyan to return from injuries. They’re still waiting on Bakhtiari, albeit because of his emergency appendectomy, and it is mid-December.

Jenkins and Tonyan eventually returned to play, but not to their previous form. Bakhtiari has been excellent when he’s played, but it’s not often enough.

** No. 5 – The absence of an identity on offense and defense

The Packers’ entire season has been one big counterpunch.

Every week it seems the Packers’ focus was all about stopping whatever it was the opponent did best. That’s fine unless it comes at the expense of failing to discover and utilize what THE PACKERS do best.

The great Bill Belichick gets credit for being able to analyze what an opponent does best and then take that away. However, the future Hall of Fame coach never allows that to diminish what the Patriots’ do best.

Clearly, the Packers have a lot of work to do between now and the upcoming offseason.

Packers ride Watson to victory over Bears

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The best thing about the NFL’s oldest rivalry is that it never gets old, which is to say it never gets old beating the Bears.

The Packers relied on big plays from its stars to rally for a 28-19 victory over the Bears on a sunny Sunday at Soldier Field. The win keeps alive the Packers’ razor-thin playoff hopes, and it moves them past Chicago for the most wins (787) in NFL history.

The Packers (5-8) tasted sweet victory for only the second time in nine games, while the Bears (3-10) cling to Justin Fields for hope as another losing season swirls down the toilet.

Not that it was easy for Green Bay.

The Bears bolted to a 10-0 first quarter lead thanks to Fields’ 55-yard touchdown gallop on their opening drive. It nearly triggered a case of post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of Jalen Hurts’ exploits.

But the Packers’ defense got it together long enough for the offense to rack up 18 fourth-quarter points to erase a 19-10 deficit for the win.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur was happy for his team.

“I’m just super proud of our guys to be resilient and truly embody and embrace that one-play mindset and battle right to the end,” LaFleur said.

The Packers forced three turnovers – including a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions to set up and seal the win – while committing just two penalties on the day. The offensive line didn’t allow a sack and played extremely well despite left tackle David Bakhtiari’s absence due to emergency appendectomy surgery on Friday.

Rookie Zach Tom filled in and played well enough to get the win.

Aaron Rodgers completed 18 of 31 passes for 182 yards and one touchdown for an 85.7 passer rating. He wasn’t sacked and hit just once.

“The line played really good today,” Rodgers said. “I moved around a decent amount … and I went to the ground one time. So that’s like a dream game for somebody in my position with a pretty sore rib cage.”

He added that his broken right thumb is close to being a non-issue.

“I feel good going to the bye week that maybe both of these things (the ribs and thumb) will be behind me.”

Rodgers would like to put his injuries in the rear-view mirror, just like Christian Watson does with would-be defenders.

The Packers’ rookie receiver scored two touchdowns to raise his total to eight touchdowns in four games. It is the most touchdowns by a receiver in a four-game stretch since Randy Moss did it in 1998.

Watson’s 14-yard touchdown catch whittled Chicago’s lead to 16-10 with 17 seconds to play in the first half. The Packers trailed 10-0 early,

Then, Watson’s 46-yard fourth-quarter gallop on a perfectly executed jet sweep and Marcedes Lewis’ catch for the two-point conversion put the Packers up by nine with less than two minutes to play to seal the deal.

Others may marvel at Watson’s speed but the touchdown machine takes it all in stride, so to speak. While his exploits are new and thrilling to Packers fans, he’s been outrunning defenders his entire life.

“To be honest, if I see nothing in front of me, it’s looking pretty good,” Watson said. “Honestly that’s exactly what I saw: I saw no one. I saw the corner go in with Sammy (Watkins) on his little crack block and I knew if the corner’s not coming off there’s no one that’s going to make the play from the inside.”

Translation: Even with the angle nobody can lay a glove on him.

“That man got some burners,” Packers’ running back Aaron Jones said of Watson. “He can do it all. It just helps us. It gives us so many options. It keeps us versatile. I love having a weapon like that. Any time he touches the ball, he has a chance to take it to the house.”

Rodgers seemed to relish his front-row seat to Watson’s exploits.

“It’s a rapid, wild development,” Rodgers said. “It’s hard to think about another player who goes from being kind of a here-and-there, minimal production to go-to type player, home-run player.”

LaFleur was happy for Watson.

“It’s so cool to see guys respond in these moments, and then once you see confidence, once he’s gained confidence, to see him take off. I’m just really proud of him,” LaFleur said. “He’s a smart guy that works his tail off. It means a lot to him. I think it’s cool to see the other guys – they have confidence in him as well. It’s just a really cool story.”

Watson had three catches for 48 yards on six targets, but his presence was felt even when he didn’t catch the ball. He drew a 38-yard pass interference penalty on the first play of the fourth quarter. It set up A.J. Dillon’s 21-yard touchdown run that cut the Bears’ lead to 19-17.

The Packers rushed for 175 yards on 32 carries. Dillon was the lead dog with 18 carries for 93 yards and the touchdown. Jones added just 26 yards. He left with a bruised shin in the first half, but returned in the second half. He said Dillon had the hot hand so they rode him.

“When a dog is being a dog let the dog be the dog,” Jones said with a smile. “I told (Dillon) that. I told him I’m proud of him, as well. He stepped up. I believe he’s getting better and better. I’m proud of him.”

The Packers’ defense also forced three turnovers, and Jaire Alexander and the rest rose to the occasion with the game on the line.

Alexander remained undaunted after surrendering big plays to Equanimeous St. Brown for 56 yards in the first half, and to N’Keal Harry for 49 yards in the second half.

In the fourth quarter, Alexander stepped in front of Brown to intercept Fields with less than three minutes to play. Then Keisean Nixon notched the first interception of his career on the Bears’ final possession.

LaFleur wasn’t surprised by Alexander’s bounce-back ability.

“I just think that shows his mindset,” LaFleur said. “He’s going to go out there and compete, and sometimes he’s going to take a chance and he might get beat on it, and that’s just the way it rolls. As a corner, especially in this league, you have to have a short memory, and certainly I think Ja does. He goes out there and battles.”

Now, the Packers have their bye week to regroup for the four-game stretch run that will determine if they can squeeze into the playoffs.

Rodgers, Packers aim to roll depleted Bears

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers have won just once in their past eight starts. If they were an over-the-hill thoroughbred it’d be time to put them out to pasture and start racing a younger stallion.

Perhaps that day is nagging, so to speak, but that day isn’t Sunday.

Aaron Rodgers expects to and should start for the Packers when they take on the Bears in a noon kickoff at Soldier Field. It’s the venue Rodgers and his teammates have owned one day a year.

The Packers (4-8) have been a dazzling disappointment this season.

The Bears (3-9) have been blessed with hope in the form of Justin Fields, but they’ve also been cursed with essentially having to cut loose veteran defenders such as Robert Quinn, the NFL’s sack leader in 2021, and Roquan Smith, a one-man tackling machine.

Veteran safety Eddie Jackson was in the midst of a wonderful comeback season when he went down in a heap against the Jets last week. He suffered a season-ending foot injury. At the time, he was the last, most well-respected member of the Bears’ previously dominant defense.

Meantime, the Packers’ offense is finally getting healthy along the offensive line and at receiver – the areas that have been hit the hardest. It’s a pleasure to see David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins line up shoulder-pad-to-shoulder-pad and do their thing.

The All-Pro left tackle has been excellent, while the Pro Bowl left guard has been really good with occasionally bouts of “what the hey?” As they continue to regain their rhythm and nail down the left side of the line, either Rodgers or Jordan Love should have a great chance to succeed.

The receivers also have been upgraded to “outstanding” every time Christian Watson has the football cradled under his elbow. Watson possesses the biggest big-play potential since James Lofton, who combined a high intellect, soft hands and a breathtaking stride to beat NFL defenses for the better part of two decades.

Watson’s career is in its infancy but the early returns from the orthopedic ward are glowing. Watson’s 63-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown against the Eagles left corner Darius Slay fairly impressed.

The Pro Bowl corner raved about Watson, and then proceeded to do likewise about Love during a podcast earlier this week. When Slay sees the potential for something special in Love – especially in such a small sample size – it’s worth taking note.

Surely the Bears’ defense will prepare for Watson much like the Packers’ defense will attempt to prepare for Fields, if he starts or Trevor Simien if he doesn’t. Fields’ separated left shoulder has improved, but I wouldn’t risk his future on a game for a team going nowhere.

Either way, it doesn’t set up well for Fields.

If his shoulder forces him to be less mobile, and sit in the pocket, the Packers’ pass rush – such as it is – ought to be able to tee off. Fields’ job got that much more difficult with the loss of receiver Darnell Mooney.

Furthermore, Fields’ risk of injury increases if he can’t adequately and fully protect himself when he is forced to run. It’s just not worth it, so my guess is common sense prevails and Simien starts.

The Bears’ offense lacks the firepower of Green Bay’s underperforming crew. They have nobody like Aaron Jones, or A.J. Dillon, for that matter, and the aforementioned Watson has been lights out. Tight end Robert Tonyan is recovering from an illness and should be friskier than he was a week ago, when Tyler Davis was forced into more action.

Randall Cobb’s return also was strong and he should continue that on Sunday at a familiar stomping ground.

The debate about whether Love should start in favor of Rodgers, or when if Packers head coach Matt LaFleur chooses to do so, will play itself out.  All the anxiety is meaningless.

When the Packers are mathematically eliminated, and if Rodgers really and truly is uncertain about his future in the NFL, then it is time to start Love until further notice.

If Rodgers does wish to return then it would make sense to have him play with Watson and Romeo Doubs, who is expected to return from his knee injury perhaps as soon as this week.

If Rodgers sits, Love will receive valuable snaps going forward. If that happens, and Love plays well, it only increases the Packers’ leverage in terms of trading one or the other, or surviving if Rodgers calls it quits.

Either way, the Packers should walk all over the Bears on Sunday, with Allen Lazard reminding Green Bay’s front office that he can play, too.

Prediction: Packers 31, Bears 16.

Hurts, Eagles run over Packers; Rodgers hurt

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – In a game that was difficult to watch at times, Packers’ fans saw their past and future at quarterback on full display Sunday night at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field.

Aaron Rodgers was OK before exiting with sore ribs in the second half. Jordan Love replaced him, played markedly better and opened the door to speculation about the team’s direction at quarterback.

Meantime, Eagles’ fans reveled in the present as quarterback Jalen Hurts threw for 153 yards and ran for another 157 yards to lead Philadelphia to a convincing 40-33 rout of the Packers.

As good as the Eagles’ offense was, the Packers’ defense was worse.

Hurts eclipsed the Eagles’ single-game rushing mark for a quarterback, surpassing Michael Vick’s 130 yards rushing in December 2010 against the New York Giants. He also became the first player since at least 1950 with 150-plus rushing yards and 150-plus passing yards in addition to multiple passing touchdowns.

Hurts is the NFL’s MVP front-runner after Sunday night’s showing, and the Packers’ defense did its part to thrust him atop the conversation.

Afterward, Packers coach Matt LaFleur resembled his defense. He couldn’t get his mind around their awful play, just like they couldn’t get their arms around Hurts long enough to bring him down.

LaFleur noted that the team charted at least 15 missed tackles.

“That’s tough to stop anything if you have 15 missed tackles,” he said. “It’s hard to look at that number. We’ve got to be better. We have to have a better plan and we have to go out and execute better. This just can’t happen in this league.”

Actually, it can and did happen.

Packers’ defensive coordinator Joe Barry looked lost on the sideline.

When the Eagles started the game by running wild, Barry brought in extra run defenders and dared them to pass.

So they did.

Philadelphia (10-1) converted 8 of 15 third-down attempts, clicked off 79 plays (to Green Bay’s 49) and rushed 49 times for 363 yards. Miles Sanders rushed 21 times for 143 yards and the aptly named Kenneth Gainwell picked up another 39 yards on eight carries.

The Eagles’ offense played downhill all night.

Packers’ safety Adrian Amos said Hurts’ success unleashed Sanders. He also noted that the Packers face the Bears and Justin Fields – who set the NFL’s single-game rushing record for a quarterback (178 yards) earlier this season – next week at Soldier Field.

Fields didn’t play (sore left shoulder) in Chicago’s 31-10 loss to the Jets, but could return in time for the Packers-Bears noon game on Sunday.

“Getting Hurts running, it opens up the running back running as well, the threat with him and the zone read,” Amos said. “We’ve got a running quarterback (Fields) next week. We’ve got to be better against a scrambling quarterback.”

Packers’ newcomer Justin Hollins agreed. Hollins, a linebacker who was signed last week, arrived in time to register his first sack of the season. But he admitted it’s not easy trying to track down Hurts.

“He has a great awareness in the pocket,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to contain him all the way. They got a couple on us. Again, hats off to him.”

The heat on Barry will be amped up now that the Wisconsin football program has hired former Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell to replace Paul Chryst. Many observers thought Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard would replace Chryst.

Leonhard interviewed for and declined the Packers’ defensive coordinator job before LaFleur hired Barry. That conversation, along with the Rodgers-Love debate, also should heat up this week.

Meantime, the Packers were bemoaning missed opportunities against the Eagles, especially in the first half.

“But we didn’t capitalize on every opportunity,” LaFleur said. “And you can’t do that against a good football team.”

The Packers’ defense forced a stop on fourth-and-1, and Rudy Ford forced a fumble that was scooped up by Quay Walker and returned 63 yards to the Philadelphia 13 to set up a touchdown.

Beyond that the Eagles’ offense owned the Packers.

Philadelphia scored on seven of its eight other possessions with five touchdowns and a pair of field goals.

Green Bay’s defense was out-classed all night.

The Packers’ offense played well enough to make it interesting, if not well enough to overcome its own defense.

The Packers’ offensive game plan was easy to embrace. Here’s the highly technical, football-speak breakdown: It centered around and hinged upon getting the football to Aaron Jones.

However, wherever … whenever possible.

And when Jones wasn’t touching it, A.J. Dillon was, at least early on.

Jones flashed his brilliance on Green Bay’s first scoring possession, a four-play, 59-yard beauty that cut the Eagles’ lead to 13-7 and at least temporarily slowed the home team’s momentum. On the drive, Jones rushed for 10 yards, and then minus-1 yard, before catching a 30-yard screen that was set up behind by Josh Myers, Elgton Jenkins and others.

Dillon finished it off with 20-yard thunderbolt off the right side. The Packers’ powerful back dragged a defender across the goal line.

Alas, those were the highlights.

Jones carried the football just 12 times for 43 yards. Dillon carried it eight times for 64 yards and the touchdown.

That was the extent of the Packers’ running game.

Rodgers came out throwing and looked good early hitting 11 of 16 for 140 yards and two touchdowns. The problem was he also threw two interceptions – one on a tip, the other on a lousy route by Tyler Davis – that prevented the Packers from opening an early lead.

The Packers’ bright spots were the play of Love and Christian Watson.

Love hit 6 of 9 passes for 113 yards and a 63-yard touchdown to Watson. On the play, Watson lined up in the slot right and ran an in-breaking route to his left. Love faked a handoff to Jones to the left, squared his hips and fired a strike to Watson.

The rookie receiver did the rest by outracing the Eagles’ secondary for the 63-yard touchdown catch-and-run. He finished with four catches (on six targets) for 110 yards.

According to NFL NextGenStats, Watson hit a top speed of 20.97 miles per hour, which is the fastest speed registered by a Packer this season.

He also became the franchise’s first rookie to post receiving touchdowns in three straight games since Billy Howton in 1952.

“I was just able to show obviously the type of player I am, obviously the things I can do with the ball in my hands,” Watson said. “Be able to create mismatches out there, win one-on-ones. It’s hard to say after a team doesn’t get it done but obviously, I think I’ve been able to show who I am a little bit the last couple games.”

Rodgers briefly reminded TV viewers who he is Sunday night. His interceptions were offset by touchdowns to Jones and Randall Cobb. His strike to Cobb elicited a praiseworthy response from the TV booth.

“That looked like Aaron Rodgers,” NBC’s Cris Collinsworth said of the Packers’ four-time MVP quarterback. “You can pick out any year you want out of that quarterback’s career and it won’t be better than that.”

That was true. It was also short-lived.

Rodgers was sacked three times and absorbed considerable punishment before leaving in the second half with chest discomfort. He didn’t puncture a lung, but it was possible he fractured a rib or two.

Now, the Packers have to decide whether to go with Love on Sunday, or hope Rodgers can tape up his ribs and get through the game.

Right now, the smart money is on Love.

The bigger question is how many more games will Rodgers start for the Packers the balance of this season and beyond?

Packers face must-win

scenario versus Eagles

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Matt LaFleur has all of his eggs in one basket.

He knows the risk, but he has little choice.

If the Packers (4-7) score an upset victory over the Eagles (9-1) on Sunday night at Lincoln Financial Field, it keeps their feint playoff hopes alive. It also gets them that much closer to .500.

If they lose, LaFleur will deal with that if and when the time comes.

Now is not the time to start Jordan Love at quarterback, Samori Toure at receiver or Zach Tom at any of three positions on the offensive line. Circumstances may force those and other moves soon enough.

Now is the time to figure out how to knock off the NFC’s top team.

The Eagles’ offense is led by MVP candidate Jalen Hurts. The third-year quarterback is efficient when he throws and elusive when he runs.

He is among the league’s top dual threats.

Hurts is 198 of 290 (68.3 %) for 2,407 yards, 15 touchdowns and only three interceptions. He has a 106.5 passer rating, which is 36.6 points better than the Eagles’ opposing quarterbacks (69.9 rating) combined.

He also has rushed 110 times for 440 yards with eight touchdowns and zero fumbles lost.

Hurts’ typical game is 20 of 29 for 240 yards passing and 11 rushing attempts for 44 yards. His 23 touchdowns (15 passing and eight rushing) accounts for nearly 14 points per game.

A.J. Brown has 49 catches for 785 yards (a 16.0 average) and six touchdowns. DeVonta Smith has 52 receptions for 559 yards (10.8) and three touchdowns.

Miles Sanders handles the running duties (when Hurts isn’t) and averages a healthy 4.9 yards per carry (156 for 757) and six touchdowns.

An offensive line anchored by All-Pro center Jason Kelce ranks among the NFL’s finest when healthy. Tight end Dallas Goedert (43 catches for 544 yards and three touchdowns) is out with a shoulder injury, but is expected to return later this season. Meantime, it’s Jack Stoll and Grant Calcaterra handling the tight end duties.

The Packers’ defense is tasked with finding a way to slow down Hurts. He is the catalyst that makes it all go for the Eagles, who are ranked fourth in the NFL in points scored and fifth in yards gained.

The Eagles had lost 43 straight games when trailing by 10 points or more going into the fourth quarter, but erased that statistic by rallying for a 17-16 victory at Indianapolis last Sunday.

Meantime, the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers has gone 16 straight games without a 300-yard passing game. It’s the longest such drought in his career, and provides an accurate gauge of the team’s offensive woes.

Earlier this week, Rodgers seemed to acknowledge that he broke his right thumb on the final play of the Packers’ Week 5 loss to the Giants. He doesn’t want to use it as an excuse, though, so I won’t, either.

Rodgers is 243 of 376 (64.6%) for 2,542 yards with 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions for a 93.2 passer rating. Opposing quarterbacks own a combined 93.7 passer rating. It’s the first time in Rodgers’ career that opposing QB’s have a better passer rating than the four-time MVP.

The Eagles’ No. 2-ranked defense (yards allowed) borders on dominant.

“It’s a complete unit,” LaFleur said this week. “You look at every level of their defense, they’ve got star players.”

The Eagles’ defensive line is anchored by Fletcher Cox in the middle and Josh Sweat off the edge. They acquired Robert Quinn, the NFL’s top pass rusher in 2021, from the Bears at the trade deadline. They also added Ndamukong Suh and Linval Joseph to compensate for the loss or massive rookie Jordan Davis, who is out with an injury, although he is expected to return either this week or next week.

Brandon Graham and Milton Williams are the Eagles’ other DL studs.

At linebacker, Hasson Reddick leads the Eagles with 7 ½ sacks, while ex-Badger T.J. Edwards leads them with 96 tackles.

At corner, Darius Slay and James Bradbury have been a godsend, while Chauncey Gardner-Johnson leads the NFL with six interceptions.

“Chauncey Gardner-Johnson’s been a great addition to them,” LaFleur said. “We got to see him up close and personal when we practiced against the Saints and he’s a guy that we’ve got a ton of respect for. He’s one of the better safeties in the league.”

LaFleur also noted the Eagles’ overall speed on defense.

“It’s a defense that can really run,” he said. “I think they play their scheme extremely well. The two corners on the outside are a really good combo, and they know that they can count on the pass rush getting home, so they can be a little bit more aggressive in certain situations. I think that’s a lot of the reasons why they’ve had so many picks.

The Eagles have 13 interceptions and 33 sacks in 10 games.

Rodgers said it starts up front.

“They’ve got a lot of good pass rushers, guys inside and outside that can get after you,” he said. “I’ve got to deal the ball on time, we’ve got to get open and we’ve got to keep them off-balance, moving the pocket and obviously mixing in runs in the shotgun.”

Clearly, the Packers face a monumental task.

It’s not impossible, though, and Green Bay presumably has put everything it has into winning this game. I suspect the Eagles will be leading 26-20 when Rodgers takes over for one final drive.

Call me crazy.

Packers 27, Eagles 26 in what undoubtedly will be the team’s signature win in a most underwhelming season.

NFC North takes hits in revealing Week 11

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Rarely is it good for the Packers or the NFC North when the Detroit Lions are the division’s standard bearers, but that was the case in a crazy Week 11 in the NFL.

The NFC North isn’t very good right now.

Neither are the Packers.

The sorry state of the division can be summed up thusly: The Lions (4-6) were the NFC North’s only team to taste sweet victory in Week 11. The Bears (3-8) were the only team to compete before losing by one score.

The Packers (4-7) had the momentum of a win over Dallas shoved down their face-masks by Tennessee. Green Bay’s 27-17 loss to the Titans at Lambeau Field came in front of a Thursday Night Football audience.

It was a low-point in a Packers’ season all too full of them.

The Packers came into the season with what felt like reasonably high expectations. I will be the first to admit I was right there with the prognosticators that believed an 11- or 12-win season was in the offing.

Now, the Packers must win out to get to 10-7, although an NFC team qualified for the playoffs at 9-8 last season. But the reality is four teams sit between Green Bay and the Commanders, which is a lot of teams to leapfrog with six games to play.

It’s possible, to be sure, but a longshot.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur isn’t under any illusions.

“We are in a really tough spot,” he said last Friday. “The message that I articulated to our team is every game, it’s a one-game season from here on out. Every game is absolutely critical, and they all are, but just in particular where we are today, there is no margin for error.”

The Packers mauled Dallas a week ago, but that was with Aaron Rodgers directing a run-oriented attack that featured 39 rushing attempts to just 20 passes. It produced Rodgers’ highest-rated passing game of the season and featured three TD passes to Christian Watson.

Against the Titans, the Packers reverted back to a “pass first” mentality, attempting 39 passes while exploring the run game sparingly. The result was a 10-point Titans win that wasn’t really that close.

Meantime, the Vikings (8-2) endured their worst home loss since U.S. Bank Stadium opened in 2016. The Cowboys embarrassed them 40-3 in an epic rout that saw Dallas score – get this – 37 unanswered points.

Ex-Packers coach Mike McCarthy had his Cowboys (7-3) ready to avenge a 31-28 overtime loss at Green Bay. Dallas’ dominance of the Vikings showed in third-down conversions. The Cowboys (12 of 17) converted more third downs than the Vikings (1 of 11) attempted.

The Vikings’ Kirk Cousins completed just 12 of 23 passes for 105 yards and a 64.6 passer rating. He was sacked seven times for 49 yards, which was more yards than any of Minnesota’s receivers (T.J. Hockenson had 34 receiving yards, Justin Jefferson had 33 and Adam Thielen had 25).

Obviously, Minnesota is positioned to absorb such an ugly loss. On the other hand, despite the Vikings’ 33-30 overtime victory at Buffalo, a lot of NFL fans are suspicious and doubtful despite the win-loss record.

The drubbing by Dallas will escalate that vibe.

The Vikings have precious little time for self-pity. They play host to future Hall of Fame coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots on Thanksgiving in a 7:20 p.m. game at U.S. Bank Stadium.

The Patriots are coming off a thrilling 10-3 victory over the Jets in which Marcus Jones’ 84-yard punt return provided the game’s only touchdown. It was the NFL’s first punt return for a touchdown this season, and it came with five seconds in regulation to stun the Jets.

The Vikings need to figure it out or risk looking really bad in consecutive games. Belichick’s been known to do that to teams.

The Bears racked up 24 points but it wasn’t enough in a 27-24 loss at Atlanta on Sunday. It was a familiar refrain for the Bears. They’ve finally discovered an offense behind quarterback Justin Fields, only to see their eroded defense fail to stop anyone.

Fields gives Bears’ fans hope.

He is easily the franchise’s most talented quarterback since Jay Cutler, and the second-year quarterback’s upside is considerable. He completed 14 of 21 passes for 153 yards, a touchdown and an interception against the Falcons. He also rushed 18 times for 85 yards and another TD.

Fields’ 14 first-half carries were the most in a half by a quarterback since at least 2000. He ran four times for 12 yards in the second half, including twice on the final drive, but didn’t run nearly as much after the intermission. Then, late in the game, Fields injured his left shoulder. After the game, he said the pain was “pretty bad.”

Fortunately, it’s Fields’ non-throwing shoulder.

The Lions are the surprise of the division so far.

Detroit’s 31-18 victory over the Giants at East Rutherford, N.J., accounted for the team’s first three-game winning streak since November of 1017 when Jim Caldwell was the head coach.

The Lions’ Dan Campbell has his team believing right now. One of the catalysts is former Packers’ running back Jamaal Williams, who lit up the Giants’ defense for three rushing touchdowns.

In fact, Williams’ 12 rushing touchdowns are eight more than the Packers’ offense has mustered all season.

The Lions play host to Buffalo (7-3) on Thanksgiving Day. Common sense and Josh Allen’s talent suggest the Lions’ winning streak is due to end. Then again, in this crazy season, it would be a holiday treat – at least in my opinion – to see the “lowly Lions” rise up and bite the Bills.

It wouldn’t hurt the Packers’ draft position, either.

If there is a shred of good news to be cleaned for Green Bay from Sunday’s games it’s that the Eagles looked ordinary in Indianapolis. Philadelphia (9-1) escaped with a 17-16 victory over the feisty Colts and second-week head coach Jeff Saturday.

The Eagles struggled offensively throughout the game. It was apparent they dearly missed tight end Dallas Goedert, who is sidelined by a shoulder injury until later this season.

At this juncture of a Packers’ season, fans are typically talking about playoff seeding. Today, Green Bay is 12th in the conference and trails Washington (6-5) by two games, including the head-to-head tiebreaker.

This season the conversation is more likely to be, “So where is Green Bay picking in the draft if it were held today?”

The Packers would be selecting 11th overall, just ahead of the Lions (12th) and after the Saints (10th), in case fans want to know which teams to root for or against.

Despite the disappointing loss to the Titans, the Packers can fan the flames of hope with an upset of the Eagles at Philadelphia. The Packers opened as 6 ½-point underdogs. The total is 45 points.

The game will be featured on Sunday Night Football. It will be an opportunity for Rodgers to remind the NFL that the rumors of his demise have been great exaggerated. A late, game-winning drive capped by a laser to Watson in the back of the end zone ought to do it.

Prediction: Packers 27, Eagles 26.

Packers’ hopes fade as
Tennessee wins 27-17

By Chris Havel
Special to THE FAN
GREEN BAY, Wis. – In the span of four days, the Packers’ playoff hopes proved to be as fleeting as the notion that meaningful momentum was wrought by their upset win over the Cowboys.
It wasn’t a turning point.
It was an outlier the visiting Titans were all too happy to expose on their way to a convincing 27-17 victory over the Packers on a snowy, chilly Thursday night at Lambeau Field.
The Packers (4-7) are near the bottom looking up.
Washington, Atlanta and Arizona all sit between San Francisco and Green Bay, which trails the 49ers (5-4) by two games for the NFC’s final wild-card spot.
That means leapfrogging four teams with six games to play.
“Literally, it’s win or go home at this point,” cornerback Jaire Alexander said after the loss. “So every game is a playoff game. Every game is the Super bowl for us. So that’s how we’ve got to attack it now.”
That’s how they’ve got to attack it “now”? It would’ve been a good way to proceed in the previous 11 games, but it’s much too late for that.
The Titans (7-3) rolled the Packers on their own frozen tundra.
Tennessee achieved season highs for points and yards (408) while converting 7 of 13 on third down. In addition, the Titans scored the first fourth-quarter touchdown of their season.
One has to give Titans coach Mike Vrabel credit. He got his team revved up and energized enough to meet the Packers more than halfway.
Thursday night’s first quarter foreshadowed what was to come.
The Titans stuffed it down the defense’s throat on the opening drive as Tennessee marched 83 yards in eight plays. The key play was a third-and-7 at the Titans’ 20 when Ryan Tannehill hooked up with rookie Treylon Burks on a 51-yard bomb. Five plays later, Tannehill connected with Dontrell Hilliard on a 14-yard touchdown pass.
The Packers closed to within 7-6 when Rodgers hit Christian Watson on a 14-yard touchdown pass at the close of the first quarter. Rodgers seized the opportunity to catch the Titans with 12 men on the field by hustling his team to the line, snapping the ball and hitting Watson in the back left corner of the end zone.
In that moment hope was lit up like a Christmas tree.
Then slowly, unmercifully, it was snuffed out by off-target throws, blown assignments in the secondary and head-scratching play calls.
The Packers rushed 39 times in an uplifting victory over Dallas. The Packers threw it 39 times in a bitter loss to Tennessee. The writing is on the wall: If the Packers are unwilling or unable to run the football, they’re all but fated to lose.
There was a time when Aaron Rodgers delivered passes with the accuracy of an atomic clock. Lately, it appears Father Time is catching up with the soon-to-be 39-year-old quarterback.
Rodgers was off-target on several crucial throws that might’ve been the difference between hope at 5-6 and despair at 4-7. It’s clear that Rodgers’ right thumb is troubling him, but that hasn’t kept fans from suggesting he use it to hitchhike his way to retirement.
Rodgers was 24 of 39 for 227 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a ho-hum 94.7 passer rating. He missed key throws to several open receivers, including an errant toss to Allen Lazard that could’ve set up a late field goal to make it a one-possession game.
“We’ve got to play up to our potential,” Rodgers said. “If we play up to our potential, we can win our last six games. I’m confident in that. Obviously, I’ve got to play up to my potential. Tonight wasn’t it.”
The Packers’ grasp of “complementary football” appears to be similar to their understanding of quantum physics. They don’t get it.
When the Packers’ defense makes a great stand or forces a turnover, the offense routinely fails to take advantage. And when the offense starts to get on a roll, the defense tends to roll over.
It’s been that way much of the season.
“We haven’t been playing complementary football,” safety Adrian Amos said. “Sometimes the offense is doing well and the defense isn’t doing their job or vice-versa, or special teams. We’ve got to get all phases working good at the same time. That’s really what it’s been.”
In Green Bay, the notion of complimentary football is saying nice things about the team that just made you look bad.
After the game, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur looked like he was fresh out of straws to grasp at.
“Extremely disappointed right now to put on a performance like that,” he said. “I don’t even know what to say. It was nothing like a few days ago, and that’s why you’re only as good as your last game and every time you step out on that field, you’ve got to go out and do it.”
The Packers will have the Thanksgiving holiday to consider what might’ve been, and more importantly, to figure out the best way to proceed moving forward.
It begins with a singular focus on the Eagles (9-1) when they travel to Philadelphia. There is still a lot to play for even if that list realistically no longer includes playing in the postseason.
And even at that a glimmer of hope remains.
If the Packers play to their potential, Rodgers believes they can win out. But does anyone seriously believe they can reach their potential?

Packers pull OT upset

over Dallas, McCarthy

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – For a mid-season game between teams apparently headed in opposite directions, Sunday’s Week 10 matchup between the Cowboys and Packers was about as emotional as it gets.

Cowboys’ coach Mike McCarthy didn’t bother to wait for kickoff.

He choked up during his mid-week news conference when asked about returning to Green Bay, where he won a Super Bowl and became the franchise’s No. 2 all-time winningest coach.

Packers’ coach Matt LaFleur apologized for getting emotional at his post-game presser when asked how it felt to see Green Bay’s five-game losing streak come to an end.

In between, Packers’ fans shed tears of joy as rookie receiver Christian Watson snagged three touchdown passes in Green Bay’s 31-28 overtime victory against Dallas on Sunday at Lambeau Field.

LaFleur sounded grateful to be unburdened.

“Man, it’s been a long time to stand up here and have a smile,” he said. “It’s been too long to have that feeling to into the locker room and see just the sheer joy.”

“I know for myself it was hard not to get emotional after that game,” he said before pausing to apologize for losing his composure. “We put a lot into this. And it is tough at times … it means a lot to us. And to be down and fight and continue to fight, that’s what you want to see.”

Watson personified the Packers’ resiliency.

The 34th pick overall was plagued by injuries and inconsistency before Sunday’s coming out party, which began with two mortifying drops and ended with four catches for 107 yards and three touchdowns.

The 6-foot-4, 208-pound speedster celebrated his first NFL touchdown reception by doing a back flip in the end zone. It came in the first quarter and erased the Cowboys’ early 7-0 lead.

He was at once thrilled and relieved.

“It meant the world to me,” he said. “It was a play called for me, a shot play for me, and just being able to contribute and set the tone for our offense and get some points on the board, that was huge.”

Watson’s second touchdown reception, a 39-yarder in which he outraced Dallas’ secondary, cut the Cowboys’ lead to 28-21 early in the fourth quarter. His third touchdown, a nifty 7-yarder, pulled the Packers even at 28-28 and set the stage for Allen Lazard’s overtime heroics.

After the Packers stopped Dallas’ opening drive of overtime, Lazard’s 36-yard catch set up Mason Crosby’s 28-yard field goal as the Packers (4-6) won for the first time since Oct. 2.

That’s 44 days between wins.

Aaron Rodgers stayed with the game plan, which was to run the football in order to set up play-action passes, and after a sluggish start it paid off.

The Packers rushed 39 times for 207 yards. Aaron Jones knifed his way to 138 yards on 24 carries with a 12-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. A.J. Dillon added 65 yards on 13 carries, including a 17-yarder.

Rodgers had time to throw and completed 14 of 20 passes for 224 yards, three touchdowns and a season-best 146.7 passer rating. Watson’s display made it eminently clear the Packers’ offense NEEDS a speed receiver to take the top off the defense.

Otherwise, it just doesn’t work.

Rodgers was thrilled for Watson and what it may mean for the offense going forward. He also acknowledged the sense of relief after Watson’s 58-yard home run along the right sideline.

“That first one I feel like was the monkey, the 800-pound gorilla, getting off his back … the weight of expectations and frustrations and drops and disappointment and hopefully that’s a big jolt for him moving forward.

“We need him to stay healthy because when he is he’s a different guy.”

Dallas (6-3) came into the game as a 3 ½-point favorite and led by 14 points entering the fourth quarter. But the Packers rallied to hand the Cowboys their first loss in franchise history (195 games) when they held at least a 14-point lead entering the fourth quarter,

Each team committed two turnovers, with Rudy Ford’s back-to-back first half interceptions keeping Green Bay close enough to rally.

Ford lined up at safety when Darnell Savage would move to the slot. That change was forced in part because of Eric Stokes’ season-ending ankle and knee injuries.

The absence of inside linebackers De’Vondre Campbell and Krys Barnes due to injury forced defensive coordinator Joe Barry to get creative. It was necessity being the mother of invention at its finest.

The Packers’ defense deployed five down linemen with Isaiah McDuffie lining up as the lone inside linebacker while Ford joined Adrian Amos, Jaire Alexander and Savage in the secondary.

It provided the Packers’ defense with more mass up front to stop the run, and it added Ford’s size and speed to an athletic defensive backfield.

Both of Ford’s interceptions halted Dallas drives in Green Bay territory AND preceded a pair of Packers’ scoring drives.

“Any time you’re taking points away from the opposition, that’s big time,” LaFleur said of Ford. “He plays with a lot of speed. You can feel his speed out there, and he’s physical, too.”

Ford’s interceptions helped to negate big games by the Cowboys’ Tony Pollard and CeeDee Lamb. Pollard, who started in place of the injured Ezekiel Elliott, rushed 22 times for 115 yards and a touchdown.

Meantime, Lamb reminded Packers’ fans of Justin Jefferson’s Week 1 annihilation of the Green Bay secondary. Lamb caught 11 passes (on 15 targets) for 150 yards and two touchdowns. Tight end Dalton Schultz added six catches for 54 yards and a touchdown.

Still, it wasn’t enough against a gutsy Green Bay defense.

The Packers might’ve been able to win this game in regulation if not for Amari Rodgers’ fumbled punt early in the second half. Rodgers ruined an 11-yard return by putting it on the ground.

He was replaced by Keisean Nixon as the punt returner for the balance of the game.

LaFleur offered positive comments regarding Rodgers, but ultimately it appears he’ll have no choice but to replace him going forward.

“It was a tough break, a critical turnover that we can’t have,” LaFleur said of Rodgers’ fumble. “I told him that ball is everything. When you have it in your hands, you hold it for everybody in this organization.

“You can’t put it on the ground.”

Rodgers believes this game can build confidence and foster success. He called the Packers’ 15-9 loss at Detroit last week “rock bottom-ish.”

“I felt like that was the bottom and it was only up from there,” he said. “There were a lot of demons exorcised today.”

Packers aim to rein in

McCarthy’s Cowboys

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy bears no ill will toward the Green Bay Packers.

After all, the Packers hired him to coach one of the NFL’s most iconic franchises, and together they captured Super Bowl XLV with a 31-25 victory over Pittsburgh at Cowboys Stadium.

Eight years later, the Packers abruptly fired McCarthy on Dec. 2, 2018, following a particularly abysmal loss to Arizona at Lambeau Field.

Now, McCarthy gets to return the favor by figuratively cutting short the Packers’ season with a victory over Green Bay at Lambeau Field. Kickoff is set for 3:25 with the Packers coming in as a 5-point underdog. A Packers’ loss most assuredly will force a “next year” mindset.

McCarthy intends to oversee a Cowboys’ victory, but it doesn’t sound like he’ll enjoy more or less than any of the previous six.

“I was there 13 years. That’s a long time. That’s a l-o-o-o-o-n-g time,” he said. “So you don’t ever stay the same in this game, especially as a head coach, as a successful team. You’re either getting better or going the other way. I really don’t have any issue with the change.”

However, McCarthy did admit his family struggled with the firing.

“The exit, it left a dent, just to be honest, with our family,” McCarthy said. “But it’s been four years. We’re so much better because of it.”

McCarthy’s 125 wins is second-most all-time in Packers’ franchise history, trailing only Curly Lambeau’s 209. McCarthy coached the Packers to six NFC North titles, including four straight, and directed one of the NFL’s most powerful offensive attacks.

Now, that seems like forever ago.

Green Bay (3-6) has lost five straight games. Its offense is inept. Its defense is fairly dependable but ultimately inconsequential. The Packers’ defense played well at Detroit, but nine points won’t cut it.

The Packers’ previous five-game losing streak came in 2008, which was Aaron Rodgers’ first season as the full-time starter. Together, McCarthy and Rodgers led the Packers to the NFL’s pinnacle in three seasons.

On Sunday, the Packers and the Cowboys (6-2) meet as teams moving in opposite directions. The Packers can’t figure out a way to win, while McCarthy’s Cowboys survived Dak Prescott’s absence by revving up the running game and trotting out a terrific defense every week.

The Cowboys should be healthy coming out of their bye week.

Meantime, the Packers listed 17 players on the injury report.

Aaron Jones (ankle) practiced Wednesday and is expected to play. The same can’t be said for De’Vondre Campbell (knee), Romeo Doubs (ankle), Eric Stokes (knee and ankle) and Rashan Gary (knee) who was placed on the season-ending reserve list this week.

“Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “We’ve just got to stay focused, take care of the details and stick together. We’ll get through this.”

If they do it’ll require better offensive game plans, a modicum of continuity along the offensive line, and an upgrade in performance from one Aaron Charles Rodgers.

Rodgers hasn’t thrown for 300 yards in a game this season.

He has passed for 2,091 yards with 14 touchdowns to seven interceptions. His accuracy has been mitigated by a thumb injury, and his judgment hasn’t been as sharp as seasons past.

Nevertheless, Rodgers is looking forward to seeing McCarthy.

It’s doubtful the same can be said of Rodgers’ desire to see Micah Parsons and the Cowboys’ devastating defense. Coordinator Dan Quinn, whom LaFleur worked with in Atlanta, was a mentor to the Packers’ coach. He holds Quinn and the Cowboys’ defense in the highest esteem.

That’s all well and good.

But the question is, “Is it possible for LaFleur’s offense to get rolling and put points on the scoreboard against Dallas’ defense?”

The heart says, “Sure, why not?”

The head says, “Why not? I’d list all the reasons but I haven’t got enough time in the day. This is likely to get real ugly, real fast.”

Prediction: Cowboys 31, Packers 13

Packers’ 15-9 loss at

Detroit ugly as it gets

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers’ ill-conceived “tackle eligible” pass to a wobbly, weak-kneed David Bakhtiari – with a season hanging in the balance no less – illustrates Green Bay’s sorry state of affairs.

To whichever genius at 1265 Lombardi Avenue dreamt up that play, here’s a simple request: Keep it to yourself next time. And to coach Matt LaFleur, who co-signed and called it: What were you thinking?

The Packers’ outrageous 15-9 loss to the Lions on Sunday at Ford Field was Green Bay’s fifth straight. It revealed an alarming lack of discipline, self-control and execution, and that was just the quarterback.

Aaron Rodgers spent the day throwing interceptions and hissy fits.

He threw three interceptions, including two in the end zone, to secure his team’s red-zone implosions. The Packers were 0-for-4 once they got inside the Lions’ 20. The Lions were 2-for-3 in the red zone.

It was the difference in the game.

The Packers’ defense had its share of ups and downs, to be sure, but coordinator Joe Barry’s crew contributed to what should’ve been a win.

Instead, the Packers (3-6) are left to lament another frustrating loss.

“Everybody’s very, very, very disappointed right now,” LaFleur said. “I saw us not taking advantage of certain opportunities and making way too many critical mistakes.”

Rodgers, who has treated blame-placing like his new in-season hobby, deserves the majority of it after Sunday’s showstopper.

The future Hall of Fame quarterback has come full circle.

The Packers’ previous five-game losing streak occurred in 2008, which was Rodgers’ first year as the full-time starter in Green Bay.

On Sunday, he completed 23 of 43 passes for 291 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions for a 53.5 passer rating. Two of his interceptions came in the end zone, and a third came at the end zone’s door step.

Rodgers’ first pick came after his errant throw caromed off a Lions’ helmet, bounced straight in the air and was corralled by Kirby Joseph for a touchback. The second came on an ill-advised “tackle eligible” pass intended for – I hope you’re sitting down – Bakhtiari. Rodgers’ pass was woefully underthrown and it led to an easy Aidan Hutchinson pick.

Afterward, Hutchinson said Rodgers told him, “That was a gift.”

How apropos given Rodgers’ penchant for giving on Sunday.

The third was a poor decision by Rodgers in which he tried to connect with tight end Robert Tonyan at the goal line between the safeties. It came on second-and-9 at the Detroit 22 with the Packers trailing 8-0 early in the third quarter. It was Kirby’s second interception of the day.

All three were so bad it’s impossible to say which was worse.

Clearly, the run game was abandoned early on, unless it was the old man himself either running out of necessity or for his life. The 38-year-old rushed four times for 40 yards to lead the Packers in that category.

Rodgers’ desire isn’t in question. It’s his judgment that’s a concern.

The interception on the pass intended for Bakhtiari defies common sense. Is that REALLY the time for a “tackle eligible” to THAT guy? Bakhtiari’s knee isn’t healthy enough to enable him to practice, but it’s good enough to put the weight of an entire season atop it?

That’s utter foolishness. It’s an absurd play call, and it arguably if not likely cost them an opportunity to get a touchdown and a victory.

Instead, they got nothing. Even a field goal would’ve enabled the Packers to tie the game on their final, unsuccessful drive.

LaFleur’s play-calling was as mind-numbing as Rodgers’ performance. Whereas some fans are debating “who’s to blame?” I choose to use the “one size fits all” approach in this instance.

The Packers’ entire offensive operation was awful.

Injuries were a factor, but they weren’t the reason the Packers lost.

That’s on the head coach and the quarterback.

The injuries are another issue.

It appears pass rusher Rashan Gary is going to miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL, according to reports Monday morning.

Gary came into the game with a team-high six sacks. Rookie J.J. Enagbare replaced Gary and was active as a pass rusher, although he had a sack nullified when he was flagged for a hit to Jared Goff’s helmet. Frankly, the penalty was ridiculous, but Enagbare will learn from it.

Eric Stokes (ankle) also was sidelined during the game, and De’Vondre Campbell missed the game entirely with a knee injury.

On offense, Romeo Doubs caught an 18-yard pass on the opening drive before crumbling to the turf with an ankle injury. He had to be carted to the locker room. Christian Watson exited after a hit to the helmet, which forced him into the concussion protocol for a second straight week.

Jon Runyan left briefly with a knee injury, and Bakhtiari sat out for all but the final drive of the second half. Zach Tom replaced both.

Aaron Jones also exited with an ankle injury and didn’t return.

Still, he remained his positive self after the loss.

“I definitely think we can turn it around,” he said. “We have everything we need in this locker room. I feel like all these guys are capable. We’ve just got to really nail the details and finish when it comes down to it.

“And execute in situations that are in our favor.”

Situations like the red zone, for instance.

Now, the Packers must prepare for Dallas (6-2) and coach Mike McCarthy in his return to Lambeau Field. It marks the first of five games against multiple plus .500 teams on the schedule.

The Cowboys are 4 ½ point favorites.

The Packers are in trouble.

Bills deal Packers 4th straight setback, 27-17

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – To say the Packers-Bills game was a tale of two halves isn’t entirely accurate. It was more like an ongoing odyssey of Packers’ injuries, inconsistency and the inability to win.

On a not-so-happy Halloween in Green Bay, the Packers woke up Monday to find a four-game losing streak staring them in the facemask. The nightmare on Lombardi Avenue refuses to die.

The Packers’ 27-17 loss to the Bills on Sunday night at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., was at once encouraging and enraging.

Aaron Jones’ stellar performance, which was punctuated by a handful of big plays from rookie receivers Romeo Doubs and Samori Toure, provided the bulk of the highlights.

Second-half interceptions by Jaire Alexander and Rasul Douglas also offered a glimmer of hope, but it wasn’t enough.

“There are times we play good football and times we let it get away from us,” Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark said. “Whatever it is we’ve got to correct it. We’ve got to figure that out. I don’t really have an answer for it.”

It certainly can’t be chalked up to a lack of urgency.

Aaron Rodgers said he liked his teammate’s energy all week. Their attitude, focus and preparation didn’t suggest the kind of problems often associated with a team on a three-game losing streak.

The vibe was good.

Then the Packers kicked off, the teams exchanged possessions and the Bills proceeded to score on their next five straight drives.

Game, set and match.

The Bills (6-1) imposed their will on the Packers’ defense by passing sparingly, running repeatedly and jamming it down Green Bay’s throat. Josh Allen, the NFL’s leading MVP candidate, hit on just 13 of 25 passes for 218 yards with a substandard 75.1 passer rating for the night.

His numbers were pedestrian, but don’t be fooled.

Allen was deadly while rolling the Packers’ defense in the first half.

He was 8 of 11 for 129 yards, two touchdowns and a 151.1 passer rating. He also rushed twice for 26 yards as the Bills took a 24-7 halftime lead.

The Packers (3-5) showed pride by outscoring Buffalo 10-3 in the second half, but the reality is the Bills were in control start to finish.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur was disappointed by the sluggish start after what had been a strong week of practice.

“They came out with more intensity early on and put us in too big of a hole to climb out of,” he said. “Certainly our guys are disappointed, I’m disappointed, but we’ve got to find a way to right this thing.”

The Packers’ offense rolled up 208 yards on 31 carries behind Jones’ 143 yards rushing on 20 carries. A.J. Dillon added 54 yards on 10 carries as the Packers ran the football effectively.

The lack of an explosive perimeter receiver was evident, though.

Christian Watson’s return from a hamstring injury didn’t last a quarter. The rookie receiver snagged a pass on a crossing route, was drilled by a Bills’ defender, and crumbled to the turf in a heap. He left with a possible concussion and didn’t return.

The Packers compensated by running the ball frequently, taking shots downfield occasionally, and utilizing the short passing game in between.

Rodgers finished 19 of 30 for 203 yards, two touchdowns, an interception and a 91.4 passer rating. He was sacked twice and constantly under pressure.

Robert Tonyan proved to be a reliable safety valve by catching five passes (six targets) for 35 yards. Doubs hauled in four for 62 yards and an incredible 19-yard touchdown catch. Toure corralled a 37-yard touchdown pass on an “off script” play late in the game.

LaFleur also utilized Josiah Deguara as a true H-Back. It enabled Deguara to be a lead blocker for Jones, or to stay in and pass protect, or to slip out into a pattern as a receiver.

At least the Packers got some mileage out of it.

“Do I think we showed some physicality in the run game? Absolutely, I think we did,” LaFleur said. “We need that every week, because that is one of the premier defenses in this league. We knew it was going to be a grind of a game.”

The Packers’ offensive line was thrown a curve when left guard Elgton Jenkins was sidelined by a foot injury before kickoff. After a decent performance at left tackle last week, Tom struggled at left guard. The Bills’ Ed Oliver and Tim Settle took turns abusing him in the trenches.

It looked like the rookie didn’t get many, if any, reps there all week.

Rodgers bemoaned the Packers’ slow start on offense.

The Packers cut the Bills’ lead to 14-7 on Doubs’ touchdown catch, but that was as close as they would get the rest of the night.

“We’ve got to help our defense out a little better early in the game,” he said. “When we went on a run back in ’16 we started those games faster so we could play more one-dimensionally on defense. We just haven’t done that. We haven’t put up any points early in games to get our defense to have a chance to pin their ears back and get after the passer.”

The Packers’ defense struggled to stop the run all night. It didn’t help that Quay Walker was ejected for shoving a Bills’ practice squad player on the sideline. De’Vondre Campbell left late in the first half with a knee injury and didn’t return.

It left the Packers without their starting inside linebackers, although Isaiah McDuffie and Eric Wilson actually played well in their stead.

Now, the Packers must regroup and get ready for the Lions.

Clearly, the Packers’ goal is to get back to .500 at 5-5 and then take their best shot at capturing a playoff berth.

If Packers lose it’ll be

truly winter of despair

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – It was the best of teams. It was the worst of teams. It was the Bills last week. It is the Lions this week.

How apropos given last Sunday night’s game was a Tale of Two Halves.

“It was the season of light. It was the season of darkness,” Charles Dickens wrote. “It was the spring of hope. It was the winter of despair.”

And if the Lions (1-6) upset the Packers (3-5) on Sunday afternoon at Ford Field, this truly will be the winter of despair in Green Bay.

So what’s next in this Dickensian-like season? Aaron Jones begging the team’s play-caller, “Please sir, may I have another carry?”

“No, you may not,” might be Aaron Rodgers’ stern rebuke. “Only gruel for you … and the occasional check-down pass.”

So it goes with the Packers, losers of four straight and dog-paddling like crazy to stay afloat in the NFC North. Once again, the Lions are in a position to win nothing and ruin everything … for the Packers.

The NFL’s trade deadline came and went Tuesday without the Packers making a move. They were in on Steelers’ receiver Chase Claypool, but Pittsburgh believed the Bears’ second-round pick in 2023 would be more valuable than the Packers’ pick because of the standings.

Perhaps the Steelers were right in sending Claypool to Chicago.

Either way, it did nothing to help the Packers’ battered receiving corps.

For his part, Rodgers said the trade deadline silence simply means it’s up to the Packers on the roster to start playing better and winning.

“That just sent the message to us that we’ve got to play with the guys we’ve got and win with the guys we’ve got,” Rodgers said. “I think there’s still a lot of confidence in the guys in the locker room. I do feel like we need to get healthy.”

Rodgers sided with Packers GM Brian Gutekunst’s decision to stand pat.

“Obviously, the compensation for whatever players we were going after, it just didn’t make sense,” he said. “So I trust Brian and we had some good conversations and I know we were in on some things and it obviously just didn’t pan out.”

The same could be said for the Packers’ season thus far.

It hasn’t panned out, at least not based upon the lofty expectations. The Packers’ over/under was 10 ½ for their season win total. To cover that number the Packers would need to finish 8-1, which is unlikely at best.

The Packers received a bit of good news this week with running back Kylin Hill’s return from a torn ACL last season. Receiver Christian Watson is in the concussion protocol but there’s reason to believe he’ll be able to go on Sunday, too.

Sammy Watkins has returned from his hamstring injury after missing multiple games, and the Packers are hoping Allen Lazard (shoulder) also will be available at Detroit.

“We’ve got to hopefully get (Watson) and (Lazard) back this week, Cobby (Randall Cobb) in a couple more weeks,” Rodgers said. “We’re hopeful that both Elgton (Jenkins) and Dave (Bakhtiari) will be able to go and that there aren’t any surprises on game day.

“I think that squad, when you put that together, I think we can win some football games with those guys. That’s what we’re all hoping for, is just to get a little bit healthier and then everybody plays a little bit better.”

Those are realistic if not lofty goals, I suppose, but given the massive room for improvement playing “a little bit better” isn’t going to cut it.

The Packers need to follow the Bears’ lead and develop an identity on offense. Right now, Chicago (3-5) is on pace to set the NFL’s team rushing record, previously held by Baltimore.

According to 670 The Score’s Chris Emma, who covers the Bears, head coach Matt Eberflus has embraced a “run first” identity on offense. Meantime, the Packers have an “ask first” offensive identity. They ask themselves, “What does our opponent do best?” The better question would be, “What do we do best?” and then stick with it.

Identities are conceived before the season and developed during it. Frankly, the Packers’ offense plays like it didn’t bother to seriously consider what the attack should look like without Davante Adams.

Now, head coach Matt LaFleur is grasping to find something that works. The Packers are in the bottom third of the league in points scored. The production is down nearly a touchdown per game.

The Packers’ “dink and dunk” approach at Buffalo might be panned by some, but it’s the best way for the offense to proceed right now.

Nevertheless, LaFleur remains stubborn and steadfast in his commitment to pushing the football downfield, whether receivers are open or not.

That has to change beginning Sunday at Detroit. I wish I could say it will happen, but if the Packers insist on throwing deep and exposing Rodgers to sacks, that’s their business, but lately business has been bad.

Prediction: Packers 23, Lions 21.

Time for Packers to pay the Bills … a visit

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers are 0-6 all-time at Buffalo.

Whoa! Better make that 0-7.

Why bother waiting for Sunday’s 7:20 p.m. kickoff between the Packers and Bills at Orchard Park, N.Y.?

After all, everyone from disgruntled Packers’ fans to the beat writers to the Las Vegas odds-makers believes the Bills will win by a landslide. Buffalo is an 11.5-point favorite over the Packers and for good reason.

The Bills (5-1) are coming off their bye week.

They boast the NFL’s top-rated defense, which allows just 13.5 points per game, and their second-ranked offense (29.3) trails only the Chiefs, whom they defeated 24-20 at Kansas City before the bye.

Meantime, the Packers (3-4) have lost three straight, including an uninspired 23-21 setback against Washington Sunday at Lambeau Field.

Green Bay’s scoring is down more than a touchdown a game from 2021. The Packers averaged 25.6 points last year. They’re at 18.3 this season.

Injuries to the receiving corps and along the offensive line are factors, but so is the alarmingly high frequency of penalties, fumbles, drops and missed assignments.

Aaron Rodgers estimated that the offense is guilty of mental mistakes on perhaps 20 percent of their plays. The result has been an offense that can’t get out of its own way long enough to sustain drives.

That led Rodgers to say “players who are making too many mistakes shouldn’t be playing. Gotta start cutting some reps. And maybe guys who aren’t playing, give them a chance.”

Rodgers said it’s nothing he hasn’t told his teammates directly.

Veteran receiver Sammy Watkins supported Rodgers’ tough love.

“If you’re not performing or executing or doing the things that you’re supposed to be doing then I’m with Aaron,” Watkins said. “If I’m not playing well and I’m freaking up and busting plays, get me out of the game because that’s not helping the team. I think that’s a wakeup call to everybody … (it’s a) wakeup call to myself.”

The Bills present the Packers with a tremendous challenge.

They also provide a terrific opportunity.

If Packers head coach Matt LaFleur can resuscitate the run game, and the offense can reduce its mistakes to a reasonable level, Green Bay should make this game a lot closer than most think.

Rodgers hasn’t given up on his teammates or the season.

He’s just sick and tired of the same old, same old.

“I don’t understand why people have a problem with things that are truthful,” Rodgers said. “I’m calling things the way I see it. People don’t think I need to air that stuff out, that’s their opinion. But I’m doing what I think is in the best interest of our guys, and I’ve tried a lot of different things from a leadership standpoint this year, and I was just relating my personal feelings on the situation. I didn’t call anybody out by name. I think we all need to be on the details, and that includes me.”

Rodgers, who turns 39 on Dec. 2, has struggled trying to escape the pass rush and make plays outside the pocket. He has completed 163 of 244 passes (66.8 percent) for 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. He has been sacked 15 times and has a 94.9 passer rating.

This is the first time in his 234-game career that the Packers have been double-digit underdogs.

Meantime, MVP frontrunner Josh Allen is having a terrific season.

Allen has completed 160 of 239 passes (66.9 percent) for 1,980 yards, 17 touchdowns and four interceptions. He has been sacked nine times and owns a gaudy 109.1 passer rating.

Allen also is the Bills’ leading rusher with 257 yards on 47 carries. He has rushed for two touchdowns and 21 first downs. By comparison, Rodgers has rushed for one first down this season.

Von Miller leads a dynamic Bills defense that has 19 sacks while allowing just two touchdown passes to 10 interceptions. Opposing quarterbacks have combined for a dreadful 71.2 passer rating.

The Bills are beyond dangerous. They’re deadly. If they dominate the Packers and hand them a fourth-straight loss it could be the season’s death knell.

Then again, if the Packers can get it together and stand tall the momentum could carry them a long way.

Rodgers is up for the challenge of being a prohibitive underdog.

“You can be a dangerous team when you feel like you have a lot to prove, and when you’re kind of counted out,” Rodgers said. “So I welcome us being counted out as much as possible. I’ve always enjoyed that feeling. And for these guys who have a lot to prove, hopefully they embrace that as well. It’s time to make a name in this league and a lot of guys are going to get opportunities on Sunday. On national TV, with millions and millions of people watching – a great time for some of those guys to step into the limelight.”

Prediction: Bills 27, Packers 19

Packers still gripping

after 3rd straight loss

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Aaron Rodgers asked the Packers’ coaches – on his teammates’ behalf, no doubt – to simplify things last week.

It is safe to say “mission accomplished” because it doesn’t get much simpler than this: The Packers aren’t very good right now. Specifically, the Packers’ offense isn’t very good right now.

In fact, it was awful in Green Bay’s 23-21 loss to the Commanders on Sunday at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. It was the Packers’ third straight loss to an underdog and it left them grasping for answers.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur implored his team to have fun last week, perhaps sensing it was tight after consecutive losses. There was nothing about LaFleur’s postgame demeanor suggesting “fun” Sunday.

“Our guys are extremely disappointed,” he said. “I don’t think anybody thought we’d be in this spot that we’re in right now.”

LaFleur entered the season 11-1 in October games. This is the point where Packers’ fans typically are discussing a division title, the NFC’s seeding and what it will take to win a home game in January.

Instead, the Packers (3-4) dropped to 1-3 this month with Buffalo (5-1) looming for what could be a nightmarish loss on Halloween eve. The Packers are 9 ½ -point underdogs to the Bills. Among bettors, at least, it appears the Packers’ poor play has finally outrun their reputation.

It may get uglier in Buffalo, which begs the question: “Is that possible?”

The Packers’ offense was 0-for-6 on third down conversions. They committed nine penalties for 69 yards, including an illegal contact call that nullified Rasul Douglas’ 62-yard fumble return for a touchdown.

Eric Stokes was whistled for what was a dubious call at best, but it’s those types of missed opportunities that have bedeviled the Packers.

In the wake of the offense’s most recent no-show, veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis didn’t make a call for “fun” or “simplicity.”

He took a different tact.

Lewis wants his teammates to regain their confidence through repetition, and their redemption by working hard until they get it right. He told them so when he addressed the team in the locker room after the loss.

“We’ve got to stick together through prosperity and adversity,” he said. “When it’s going well, everything’s good. But when it’s not going so well, we’ve got to be stronger whether it’s on the sideline, individually, being able to keep your head up and go through that adversity.

“Nobody wants to be in this spot. It’s time to go back, look at the film obviously and just confront that truth and come back better next week.”

Confronting the truth is indeed the first step on the road to salvation, which in this instance is defined as 10-7 and a wild-card berth.

The Packers’ “truth confronting” begins with the offensive line.

David Bakhtiari was a game-day scratch because of knee soreness. This is the second time his last-second inability to play has left the Packers in a lurch. It happened in January leading up to the NFC divisional playoff game, and it happened again on Sunday in Landover.

The Packers responded by starting rookie Zach Tom at left tackle, Elgton Jenkins at left guard, Josh Myers at center, Jon Runyan at right guard and Yosh Nijman at right tackle.

Tom played well, and Rodgers had time to throw, but nobody was open.

The run blocking was horrendous. It was as if the offensive line didn’t practice together all week. Guess what? That is exactly what happened and it looked like it.

The Packers’ offense couldn’t generate much of anything, in fact.

“We didn’t run the ball particularly well, didn’t catch it particularly well and I didn’t really move a whole lot to extend plays until that last drive,” Rodgers said.

Take away De’Vondre Campbell’s incredible “pick six” and the offense mustered just 14 points.

Rodgers was 23 of 35 for 194 yards and two touchdowns for a 99 passer rating. He wasn’t sacked and got hit just once. Still, he had trouble stepping into throws and making accurate passes downfield.

Perhaps it’s the oft-shaky offensive line that’s inside Rodgers’ helmet. Maybe his right thumb is a lot worse than anyone is letting on. Regardless, Rodgers and the offense are shells of their former selves.

Allen Lazard was the top receiver with six catches for 55 yards before exiting with a second-half shoulder injury. Aaron Jones caught nine passes on 10 targets for 53 yards and two touchdowns, which qualified as one of the few offensive highlights on the day.

The Packers’ running game was non-existent.

Green Bay is 22-2 since 2019 when Aaron Jones has 15-plus rushes.

Jones had eight carries for 23 yards against the Commanders. A.J. Dillon had four rushes for 15 yards. That was it. They rushed for 60 yards against the Jets, and 38 yards against the Commanders.

Lewis said it “feels eerie; weird, almost,” in the way they’re playing.

Most fans would agree.

The Packers were 14-0 in their past 14 games when they forced a turnover. Sunday the defense got a “pick six” and it wasn’t enough.

The Packers’ Amari Rodgers handed the Commanders a gift field goal when he muffed a punt deep inside Green Bay territory. Again, the Packers’ defense stiffened and held Washington to a field goal.

But in the spirit of confronting the truth, the Packers must replace Rodgers on punt return or suffer the consequences. LaFleur has no business allowing Rodgers to continue in that role.

Offensively, LaFleur has to find a way to meld Robert Tonyan’s 10-catch, 12-target day with Aaron Jones’ nine-catch, 10-target day and run the attack through them.

Rodgers has his own ideas.

“We’ve just got to play better – all of us,” he said. “There are probably a number of plays in every phase that we could’ve done better. The margin of error is so tight, a couple calls don’t necessarily go our way and we don’t execute at all on offense in certain situations.”

“It’s not winning football.”

Packers need to halt

2-game losing streak

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Matt LaFleur needs to jump-start the attack.

Changes need to be made moving forward.

Green Bay’s underachieving offense is averaging a pathetic 17 points per costume party. They may look like the Packers’ offense, but they sure don’t play like it. They’re all dressed up with nowhere to go, except back to the sideline after their most recent “three-and-out.”

Frankly, the Packers’ offense is wheezing like a two-pack-a-day smoker as it trundles along from series to series. Thankfully, there is a solution, and it’s as plain as the frustration on Aaron Rodgers’ face.

Hand the play-calling keys to Tom Clements. That ought to simplify things AND placate Rodgers in the process. Heck, maybe it’ll even work better for LaFleur than it did his predecessor.

In the aftermath of an overtime loss at Seattle in the 2014 NFC title game, it was as if Mike McCarthy went on a bender, drunk-dialed Clements and informed him he’d be calling the plays going forward.

The Packers’ offense was No. 1 in the NFL averaging 30.4 points with McCarthy on the headset in 2014. The next year with Clements AND Rodgers calling the shots it dropped to 15th at 23 points per – that’s more than a touchdown a game – and it should serve as a stark lesson.

Panic never pays.

LaFleur doesn’t need Clements calling the plays, and he doesn’t need Rodgers playing pseudo psychiatrist by getting inside his teammates’ helmets and selling the notion that the offense is too complex.

Here’s a concept: How about the players re-focusing and earnestly assimilating the current scheme so they can effectively execute it?

I’ll paraphrase the genius (Rodgers) himself. If the Packers’ players were good enough at 3-1, they’re good enough at 3-3. That I will accept, but only if Rodgers agrees that it’s also true of the scheme.

If LaFleur’s offense – complicated or not – was good enough to win 13 games for three straight seasons, it’s plenty good enough now.

What the Packers (3-3) badly need is a renewed sense of urgency going into Sunday’s game against the 2-4 Washington Commanders.

What they don’t need is change fueled by desperation.

The Packers’ greatest missed opportunity thus far is failing to correct the shortcomings exposed in their 23-7 season-opening loss at Minnesota. Green Bay’s scheme, deployment of Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon in the “Pony Package,” the offensive line and the defense were either exploited, underused or both.

Green Bay’s subsequent three-game winning streak provided a window to rack up victories while sharpening both sides of the ball. Instead, the Packers eked out wins, played so-so in doing so, and didn’t get it fixed.

The back-to-back losses to New York’s Giants and Jets have provided ample reason – as Packers’ cornerback Jaire Alexander stated after the loss in London – to start worrying.

Better yet, it’s time to affect several changes, none of which includes, suggests or speculates that LaFleur should give the keys to Clements. Here you go:

** No. 1 – Given the offense’s simplification it would be a great time to implement a bit of no-huddle to give the offense a sense of rhythm.

** No. 2 – Run the offense through Aaron Jones, and to a complementary degree, A.J. Dillon. That’s it. Design plays that shake No. 33 free in the open field so he can make big plays.

The Packers should invest an equal amount of resources to utilize Jones’ skills as they did to maximize Davante Adams’ skillset. Rodgers said 80 percent of the passing offense was designed with Adams in mind.

They need to go all-in with Jones in similar style.

** No. 3 – Bite the bullet and kick Elgton Jenkins back inside to left guard, slide Jon Runyan to right guard, and start Yosh Nijman at right tackle. It makes the left side of the line dominant, and it provides a chance for Runyan and Nijman to settle in before the stretch run.

** No. 4 – It’s time to make receiver Samori Toure a game-day elevation from the practice squad. The NFL’s rule that allows each practice squad player a maximum of three game-day “call ups” is great. That is until you’re Juwann Winfree down to your last strike. If Winfree is called up a final time, he needs to play well enough to earn a spot on the 53-man roster, or at least well enough to secure his practice squad status through the balance of the season. The other outcome is being cut.

That leads to Toure, who merits a game-day “call up” and the sooner the better.

** No. 5 – Blitz more on defense.

None of this seems like it’s asking too much.

Prediction: Commanders 23, Packers 21.

Packers routed by Jets

27-10 to drop to .500

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers wasted neither time nor energy trying to tap-dance around an awful game in which their offense was AWOL, their defense was substandard and their special teams was sloppy.

They made no attempt to sugarcoat a 27-10 loss to the New York Jets on a damp, dreary Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field.

They owned it.

Here’s what they didn’t own: The line of scrimmage … on either side. It has been a struggle up front for most of the season.

The question is why the O-line and defensive front seven have been bad.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur hasn’t lost his football acumen, Aaron Rodgers didn’t become decrepit overnight and the defensive talent hasn’t suddenly vanished as if it were a training camp mirage.

Criticizing the play-caller, the scheme, the talent and the desire merely addresses the symptoms of what’s ailing Green Bay.

The Packers’ No. 1 problem is up front in the trenches. Perhaps they could invite Tom Brady to Green Bay to scream at the Packers’ O-line the way he does at Tampa Bay’s. It couldn’t hurt. In fact, it may be more effective than Rodgers breaking into a chorus of “Kumbaya, my Lord.”

It’s time for the Packers to start kicking butts rather than patting them.

While the defensive front seven has rated a charitable C+ or so, the Packers’ offensive line is playing footsy with failure.

The Jets’ defense roughed up Rodgers while racking up four sacks, nine QB hits and a forced fumble. Green Bay’s future Hall of Famer’s birthday is Dec. 2. At this rate he’s 38 going on over-the-hill.

LaFleur didn’t mince words after the humiliating loss.

“If we don’t get it blocked better up front it’s going to be hard,” he said. “We didn’t run the ball effectively. I felt there was a lot of pressure on our QB. Aaron took a ton of hits. We’ve got to alleviate the pressure.”

“It was a pretty poor day offensively.”

Green Bay’s first half consisted of eight possessions, six first downs and three points to show for a mistake-riddled 30 minutes. The Jets’ running backs averaged 6.1 yards per carry, which was more than Rodgers’ 6.0 yards per PASS play.

The Packers (3-3) have lost consecutive in-season games for the first time since LaFleur was hired in 2019. That they came against the surging Giants and Jets further exacerbates their struggles.

The loss came on the heels of Green Bay’s 27-22 defeat to the New York Giants last week at London.

LaFleur endured the first back-to-back losses of his four-year career, both in front of and because of his relatives. His younger brother, Mike, had a good day as the Jets’ offensive coordinator. His best friend, Jets head coach Robert Saleh, drew up a superior defensive game plan.

The LaFleurs’ parents and grandmother were in attendance, alternately smiling and smirking if such a thing is possible. Certainly there was a lot of twisting, contorting and hand-wringing on Matt LaFleur’s part.

It’s the first time in memory the Boy Wonder sounded fresh out of ideas. When asked why the Packers’ offense hasn’t hit stride he frowned.

“That’s a great question … a fair question,” he said, then added, “I don’t know. We’re in a pretty bad predicament right now. We could never get into a flow. Give them credit. They were tough to handle up front.”

Royce Newman was outclassed at right guard. Center Josh Myers wasn’t much better. Right tackle Elgton Jenkins got whistled for a dubious holding penalty, as did left guard Jon Runyan.

The Packers benched Newman in favor of Jake Hanson on the final series of the first half, only to have Hanson exit with a biceps tear. So it was back to Newman and more punishment for Rodgers.

The Packers had one turnover and seven penalties. They were outgained by the Jets’ rushing attack 179 to 60. Aaron Jones had nine carries for 19 yards. A.J. Dillon had 10 carries for 41 yards and a lost fumble.

Green Bay’s ground game was non-existent.

Jets’ defensive tackle Quinnen Williams single-handedly redrew the line of scrimmage about 3 yards into the Packers’ backfield. Quinnen Williams had five tackles, two sacks, three QB hits and a forced fumble.

Linebacker Quincy Williams led the Jets with 14 tackles and rookie cornerback Sauce Gardner had three tackles and defended two passes.

Saleh had high praise for his defensive line.

“We feel like our D-line matches up from an advantage standpoint versus anybody, whether that’s cocky or unguided confidence, whatever it is,” he said. “We love our D-line. We think they’re a rolling ball of butcher knives, and there are a lot of them that can play at a high level.”

The Packers are in no position to disagree.

The highlight was tight end Robert Tonyan’s big day. He caught a franchise record 10 passes on 12 targets for 90 yards. Tonyan was on a snap count earlier this season after coming off serious knee surgery.

Tonyan has to become a more integral part of the offense, especially with the way the receiving corps is decimated by injuries. Sammy Watkins (hamstring) is on injured reserve. Christian Watson (hamstring) may be joining him. Randall Cobb suffered a left ankle injury and was carted off the field. He could be seen wiping away tears on the way out.

Fortunately, it appears Cobb didn’t break his ankle, which would’ve been a season-ending injury. Instead, he is expected to return at some point later this season.

The greater question is this: Will the double-digit win Packers return before season’s end? As it stands, with three straight road games staring them in the facemask, the Packers’ season is at a crossroads.

A convincing victory at Washington against the lowly Commanders would qualify as a step in the right direction, although right now the Packers will take any win they can get.

Packers must cool Jets

or risk falling to .500

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – New York Jets defensive end Carl Lawson is rehabbed and ready to return to the scene of the crime.

Lawson, who is one of the NFL’s premier pass rushers, suffered a season-ending knee injury during a Jets-Packers joint practice 14 months ago on Ray Nitschke Field.

On Sunday, a healthy Lawson gets to set foot on Lambeau Field when the visiting Jets take on the Packers in a noon kickoff.

The Jets (3-2) are coming off a convincing 40-17 victory over Miami in which Lawson terrorized Dolphins’ backup QB Skylar Thompson. Lawson had one sack and an incredible seven quarterback hits to raise his season total to 14, which ranks second in the NFL.

Lawson will line up opposite Packers right tackle Elgton Jenkins, who has struggled at times and definitely will be tested.

Jets head coach Robert Saleh is excited to have a healthy Lawson after the huge free-agent acquisition missed all of last season.

“I still think he’s got more to go, too,” Saleh said. “He’s slowly stacking up good days and he’s getting faster. I’m really pumped for him. He’s gaining confidence. He’s getting stronger and stronger every week.”

The same cannot be said of the Packers.

The Packers (3-2) are reeling a bit after a 27-22 loss to the New York Giants last Sunday in London. They are struggling to achieve continuity on offense and their defense can’t force a turnover to save its soul.

Furthermore, Packers coach Matt LaFleur knows firsthand how dangerous the Jets can be. His younger brother, Mike, is the offensive coordinator, and Saleh was the best man at his wedding.

LaFleur revealed he speaks with his younger bro daily during the season, although he acknowledged that will be curtailed this week.

“Everything they’ve done catches my attention,” LaFleur said. “They’ve had a big comeback win in Cleveland when it didn’t look very good and (they did it) against the Steelers as well. I think it’s a matter of time before they really hit their stride. It doesn’t happen overnight, but I think you’ve seen the strides that they’ve made in a short period of time.

“It’s been pretty impressive.”

Indeed, the Jets’ defense has as many interceptions (seven) as the Packers’ defense has pass breakups. In addition to Lawson, the Jets also have a monster inside in defensive tackle Quinnen Williams. The third pick in the 2019 draft out of Alabama, Williams has 17 tackles, three sacks and a fumble recovery through five games.

The Jets also have first-round rookie Sauce Gardner at left cornerback. Gardner already looks like an elite corner. He had five tackles, a pass defended and a sack against the Dolphins. Saleh isn’t afraid to blitz Gardner off the corner or from the slot.

The Jets already have two road victories this season.

On offense, the Jets’ scheme is similar to the Packers’ in that they profess a desire to run the football, and they’ll line up with two running backs (Breece Hall and Michael Carter) and utilize play-action passes.

Hall, the 38th pick in this year’s draft, is off to a terrific start. He rushed 18 times for 97 yards and scored one of the Jets’ five rushing touchdowns against the Dolphins. He caught a swing pass and galloped 79 yards to the Dolphins’ 1-yard line.

Hall is a special talent. He has 588 yards from scrimmage which ranks 11th in the NFL.

“We appreciate the hell out of him,” Jets guard Laken Tomlinson said after last week’s win. “If he can go like that, we can go a long way in this league.”

Quarterback Zach Wilson was 14 of 21 for 210 yards and a 99.3 passer rating in the Jets’ win over the Dolphins.

Meantime, the Packers are regrouping after an ugly trip to London.

After taking a 17-3 lead, the Packers were outscored by the Giants 24-3 until they were gifted a late safety. Daniel Jones isn’t that much more of a polished quarterback than Wilson, and while Hall isn’t to be confused with Saquon Barkley, he is versatile, fast and elusive.

If the Packers aren’t careful Hall could eat them alive.

On offense, the Packers need to decide what their offensive identity is going to be and then foster it. It was distressing to think that the Packers – faced with third-and-2 at the Giants’ 6 – didn’t consider running it.

LaFleur said he and Aaron Rodgers discussed two pass plays, and the quarterback chose the one he liked best. The Giants batted down the pass. On fourth-and-2 the Packers went with an RPO (run-pass option). When the Giants loaded the box, Rodgers checked to a “run solution” and aimed a fade pass to Allen Lazard in the corner of the end zone.

Again, the Giants’ defense batted it down.

Nowhere in that game-deciding scenario did the Packers seriously consider running the football. That’s messed up, especially when they’ve got Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon to choose from.

The Packers better be ready to get the Jets’ best effort.

That’s because the Jets definitely sound like they’re up for the challenge.

“That’s what you want,” Jets receiver Corey Davis said of playing against the Packers. “In order to be the best, you’ve got to play the best. The Packers are one of the best, a great team. Aaron Rodgers obviously is a future Hall of Famer. He’s done a few things in his career. So we’re going to be on top of our game and do what we’ve got to do to go out there and get this win.”

The Packers do have recent history on their side.

Rodgers has been incredible at Lambeau Field, and especially against AFC teams. Green Bay is 18-1 in its last 19 home games against AFC teams. I’ve got to believe they’ll be 19-1 in their last 20 after Sunday.

I don’t think it’ll be easy, though.

Prediction: Packers 24, Jets 19

Giants stun Packers in

brutal loss in London

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Saquon Barkley didn’t beat the Packers all by himself. The Giants’ terrific running back had plenty of help, with a fair amount of it provided by – wait for it – the Packers.

The Packers’ top three players Sunday were Pat O’Donnell, Mason Crosby and whichever player was covering kicks.

In turn, Green Bay’s defense elected to make pass defense optional in the second half, which coincided with the offense’s vanishing act.

That ought to tell you everything you need to know about the Packers’ 27-22 loss to the Giants at London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. After building a 10-point halftime lead, the Packers’ offense abandoned the run game and the defense made Daniel Jones look like Joe Montana.

Jones completed 13 of 14 second-half passes for 136 of his 217 yards as the Giants scored 17 unanswered points to pull the upset.

The Packers spent so much time fussing over their departure time they overlooked the return trip, which apparently was scheduled for halftime. After that they were nowhere to be found.

“It was the tale of two halves,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said. “They kicked our butt in the second half.”

The Packers’ performance qualifies as a crime, but they don’t need super sleuth Sherlock Holmes to solve the case of the AWOL offense.

The solution is getting the football into the hands of their best players: Aaron Jones, A.J. Dillon and Robert Tonyan. Jones and Dillon combined for just 21 touches and Tonyan was targeted a mere four times, resulting in four catches for 23 yards.

I’ll save LaFleur a few hours this week.

Here’s the game plan for the Jets: Toss it to Jones, hand it to Dillon and throw it to Tonyan. Going back to more pre-snap chicanery and dialing up a screen now and then wouldn’t be the worst ideas, either.

And for the love of the football gods, use play action to set up the deep shots, as opposed to lining up in the shotgun and saying, “Go fetch!”

Come to think of it that’s precisely the phrase Bears legend Dick Butkus used to describe Green Bay’s passing game without Davante Adams. A month or so ago he predicted it would dissolve into Rodgers telling his receivers to “go fetch” and then hoping for the best.

Butkus wasn’t that far off.

The production from the Packers’ top three receivers could be best described as not much bang for a whole lot of targets.

Randall Cobb was wonderful while catching seven passes for 99 yards, including a 35-yard catch-and-run. The downside is that it took 13 targets to get those seven catches.

Allen Lazard had four catches for 35 yards and a touchdown, but that was on eight targets. Romeo Doubs had three catches for 29 yards, but it took five targets. In all, the trio combined for 14 catches for 163 yards and a touchdown, but it took 26 plays to get there.

Rodgers was asked why they’re having trouble connecting.

“We’re just not quite on the same page at times,” he said. “We’ve got to go back and look at it. I don’t want to make a blanket statement right now, and definitely not an emotional blanket statement.”

The Packers (3-2) came in as 9-point favorites. They left as the NFL’s most heavily favored team to lose thus far this season.

Last week, Aaron Rodgers predicted that this could happen. He said winning wasn’t sustainable if the offense only showed up for a half.

He was right.

“Offensively, we haven’t put two halves together,” Rodgers said. “There’s a lot that factors into that – everything from calls to execution, to the momentum, to defensive stops, to the adjustments that we make. There’s games like this were our defense is not going to be up to their normal standards and we’ve got to pick them up.

“And we had chances … a lot of chances.”

Indeed, trailing 27-20 they had a chance to tie it in the final minute. Rodgers drove the Packers 69 yards in 12 plays. Facing third-and-1 at the Giants’ 6-yard line, the Packers threw twice and had the football swatted away both times.

It was jarring to see the Packers ignore Jones and Dillon in that situation.

Apparently LaFleur liked the calls. He just didn’t like the execution.

“We had a run-pass option on, and they loaded the box and went Cover O, and we figured that’s what they were going to do,” he said. “Unfortunately, we had two batted passes.”

Guess what? If you run the football it’s impossible to have passes batted.

Rodgers finished 25 of 39 for 222 yards, two touchdowns and a 96.3 passer rating. He was sacked twice and never really looked comfortable. The right side of the offensive line struggled throughout the game. It appeared right guard Royce Newman was on the ground more than he was on his feet, and Elgton Jenkins looked to have his hands full, too.

Defensively, the Packers looked like they packed up and headed back to Green Bay at halftime.

Barkley rushed 13 times for 70 yards with a long run of 40 yards. He also caught three passes, including a 41-yarder. Both big plays fueled two of the Giants’ scoring drives.

The Giants gained four first downs by penalties, including three by cornerback Rasul Douglas.

“I just told everybody, ‘My fault,’ ” Douglas said. “I had three uncharacteristic f—ing penalties that I don’t usually get, but I had them. I think that f—ed the whole defense up.”

Packers’ linebacker Preston Smith said the Giants took advantage of Green Bay’s mistakes on defense.

“They executed off a lot of our mistakes,” Smith said. “They had opportunities to get first downs when we could have executed a lot better.”

The Packers have a few days to shake off the jet lag and do their best to avoid a letdown. LaFleur’s team has never lost back-to-back games, but that guarantees nothing against a Jets team coming off a big win.

Suddenly, the Packers-Jets game got a lot more interesting.

Packers’ win streak on line vs. NYG, Barkley

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers are a work in progress.

Sunday would be a good time to see the progress in action.

The Packers’ 3-1 record suggests head coach Matt LaFleur’s plan is working, but is it progressing quickly enough – and in the areas of greatest importance – for the Packers to be Super Bowl worthy?

Green Bay enters its overseas Week 5 matchup with the New York Giants (3-1) at 8:30 a.m. (CDT) in London with an opportunity to separate itself from the NFC’s rank and file.

Much has been made of the fact that the Packers-Giants matchup is the first time teams with above-.500 records have played in London. It’s more a reflection of how many poor teams have been dispatched here.

But the notion that a 3-1 record equates to efficient, entertaining football being played at a high level is misguided. Clearly, they didn’t see the Bears-Giants game last week. The Giants survived 20-12 and have now outscored their opponents 76-71 on the season.

Their fast start is fraudulent in that they won’t be 6-2 entering Week 9. That isn’t happening for the G-men. No way, no how, is that happening, even if Saquon Barkley continues to dominate in the coming weeks.

The NFL’s rushing leader has 463 yards on 84 carries and is averaging 5.5 yards per attempt. He also has 15 catches (on 17 targets) for 107 yards with a long of 21 yards.

Giants first-year head coach Brian Dabol deserves credit for not overthinking it in terms of utilizing his most dangerous weapon. He may be criticized for overusing Barkley, but not for overlooking him.

Barkley gets a heavy dose of handoffs, tosses, screens, swing passes and wheel routes. In addition, he also takes direct snaps in the “wildcat.” His vision and burst allows him to be decisive between the tackles. It’s almost impossible to stop him for anything shy of 5 yards.

Whether he’s a passing threat remains to be seen.

In fact, it remains to be seen how much of a threat – passing or otherwise – the Giants’ Daniel Jones will be come Sunday. Jones, who is dealing with a high ankle sprain, was upgraded on Wednesday’s injury report and is expected to play.

Jones is 67 of 105 (63.8 percent) for 631 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. He has been sacked 14 times and features a passer rating of 81.9. Jones is a threat to run (31 carries for 193 yards), although the high ankle sprain may limit that possibility.

The Packers’ defense has taken heat for its inability to stop the run.

That was highlighted in the Packers’ 27-24 victory in overtime against the Patriots last week. New England put together back-to-back touchdown drives in which the Patriots rushed 10 times for 75 yards. Those drives made the game much more dramatic than it might’ve been.

On the other hand, Green Bay’s defense bowed its back to stop the Patriots on three straight three-and-outs to sew up the win. The Packers forced the Patriots to punt seven times and held up overall, but the two second-half touchdown drives led by Bailey Zappe were startling.

Packers’ defensive coordinator Joe Barry wouldn’t entirely disagree.

“I think we played dominant at times (against the Patriots) for nine drives and then, specifically, the end of that seventh drive and the eighth drive, they got after us a little bit,” Barry said. “We got everything cooled down. I think the biggest thing is consistency. We’re still looking for that complete game. There were 11 drives the other day and I think nine of them were pretty darn good. The opening drive they got three points. They punted seven times. We got a takeaway. But those two drives, we had some lapses. We turned it into much more of a dramatic game than it needed to be.”

Still, the Packers’ defense has been very good on third down.

Green Bay ranks No. 1 in the NFL in third-down conversion percentage, and is especially dominant in third-and-long situations. It is the classic instance of one feeding off of the other. The Packers’ defense has developed a “three-and-out” mindset. “Third-and-long” is all the better.

Packers’ opponents are 0-for-21 on third-and-8 or more yards. On those 21 plays, the most they’ve surrendered on a single play was to Buccaneers’ tight end Cameron Brate, who had an 11-yard catch on third-and-30.

Overall, the Packers have yielded 10 third-down conversions, which is the fewest in the NFL, on 42 attempts.

What Barry’s unit hasn’t done is force turnovers. The Packers have just one interception this season. Jones can be pressured into making poor decisions, so the Packers’ defenders need to be prepared.

A lot has been made of the Packers’ run defense, and how Barkley may be able to victimize it. I don’t see that happening. Green Bay knows what’s at stake against the Giants, and it has shown a knack for being able to live in the moment under LaFleur’s direction.

Regardless who wins Sunday, both the Packers and the Giants are guaranteed to depart London with winning records. It’s just that in Green Bay’s case, a 3-2 start seems such the failure compared with 4-1.

No worries.

Packers 24, Giants 16.

Packers edge Patriots

27-24 on OT walk-off

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Patriots tried their darnedest to win with little more than a Hall of Fame head coach and a third-string quarterback.

The Packers managed to survive by the slimmest of margins.

Green Bay’s 27-24 overtime victory over New England was a timely reminder that head coach Matt LaFleur’s team is a work in progress. Sometimes, progress comes slower than fans would like.

In fact, the most difficult thing for fans is awaiting the finished product. On the other hand, the Packers’ ability to win while striving to improve helps make it easier to say, “A win’s a win.”

LaFleur acknowledge his shortcomings and those of his team. He also made some good sense in terms of the slim margin between NFL teams.

“We have enough respect for teams that you have to show up and play your best ball,” LaFleur said. “The competitive balance is marginal. You’re going to see upsets each week.”

The Packers (3-1) came painfully close to experiencing one firsthand.

The Patriots came into the game without starting quarterback Mac Jones (ankle injury) and turned to veteran backup Brian Hoyer. The Packers quickly KO’d Hoyer when Rashan Gary’s hit forced him out.

New England turned to Bailey Zappe, a fourth-round pick out of Western Kentucky, to run the offense.

When Zappe came in it looked to be the greatest mismatch since Tyson versus Spinks. By game’s end it was more like David versus Goliath, with Zappe wielding a pretty mean sling.

Zappe finished 10 of 15 for 99 yards with a touchdown, no interceptions and a 107.4 passer rating. He was sacked three times but stayed with it.

He was aided by a running game that churned out 167 yards in 33 carries for a 5.1 average. Damien Harris had 86 yards on 18 carries and Rhamondre Stevenson added 66 yards on 14 carries.

Fortunately, the Packers didn’t fall flat on their face like Goliath.

“Coming into halftime, we didn’t want to come in like that (the pick six), but we talk about, ‘How do you respond from adversity?’ ” LaFleur said. “Our guys stuck together and I was proud of them. They’re not always going to be pretty wins … you (media) can criticize us and that’s cool, but every week presents new challenges and we’ll take the win.”

The Packers will do that knowing full well they need to play better.

“This way of winning, I don’t think, is sustainable because it puts too much pressure on our defense,” Rodgers said. “And obviously, I’ve got to play better and will play better.”

Rodgers went on to say what fans must’ve been thinking.

“You can’t be 2-2 losing to a third-string quarterback and not playing great in all three phases, so we had to have this one,” he said. “That doesn’t take anything away from the joy of winning, but this was one we had to have.”

Rodgers finished 21 of 35 for 251 yards with two touchdowns, the interception and an 89.1 passer rating.

The biggest completion of the day came on the opening drive of the second half. Trailing 10-7, the Packers came out and threw back-to-back incompletions, one to Christian Watson and the other to Romeo Doubs.

Now it was third-and-10 at Green Bay’s 19.

LaFleur could feel the fans’ displeasure growing.

“I was on the headset telling the guys upstairs, ‘If we have three consecutive passes (for incompletions) we’re about to get booed out of here,’ ” LaFleur said. “Thankfully, (Allen) Lazard … we took a shot downfield and he caught it. It was like ‘boom.’ I could feel it.”

Lazard beat Jonathan Jones on a sideline rout for 32 yards. The Packers drove it to New England’s 28, where they faced fourth-and-1.

No problem.

LaFleur called Jones’ number on a counter toss left and the shifty back sprinted for 17 yards. Three plays later Rodgers turned a second-and-19 into a 20-yard touchdown strike to Robert Tonyan to make it 14-10.

The Patriots answered to make it 17-14, and then 24-17, but Green Bay didn’t wilt. The Packers’ defense rose to the occasion and Rodgers did just enough to eke out the victory.

“The Patriots battled,” LaFleur said. “It’s never easy.”

The Packers’ difficulties were fueled by safety Adrian Amos’ absence. If ever there was an all-underrated defensive player for the Packers, he is it. The secondary looked unorganized when he left in the first half with what appeared to be a concussion. The Packers’ problems in run defense and special teams’ coverage also were impacted by Amos’ absence.

Rudy Ford had to play a majority of snaps at safety, as well as on special teams, and it had to take a toll. It was much the same for Keisean Nixon.

Nevertheless, the Packers’ defense stood tall in overtime, and Mason Crosby delivered a clutch 31-yard field goal to win it.

Now it’s on to London for a matchup with the New York Giants. The Giants’ starting quarterback, Daniel Jones, is dealing with an ankle injury. That leaves Tyrod Taylor and who else as an option?

The Packers might want to take another look at the Giants’ third-string quarterback, just in case.

Prediction: Green Bay 28, Giants 13

LaFleur gets to match

wits with ‘The Hoodie’

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – There’s truth to the old NFL saying, “It isn’t just who you play that matters, but when you play them.”

In that regard, the Packers are getting the Patriots at a good time.

Some of that is due to Mac Jones’ high ankle sprain.

New England’s second-year quarterback has struggled this season, to be sure, but he still gives his team a better chance to win than his backup, veteran Brian Hoyer, provides the Patriots.

The 36-year-old Hoyer is in his 14th NFL season.

If longevity were talent he’d merit All-Pro consideration. In his case, the longevity is due to his intellect, the fact that he’s a great teammate, and the reality that there isn’t an abundance of QB talent league wide.

Either way, the Patriots’ best chance to upset the heavily favored Packers (2-1) rests more with its defense’s ability to keep Aaron Rodgers and friends in check, and the special teams units to make plays.

New England’s quarterback is the facilitator.

Jones, and presumably Hoyer on Sunday, does New England head coach Bill Belichick’s bidding. The future Hall of Fame coach runs the defense, but he controls the team. He’ll demand that Hoyer execute a conservative game plan that will ride the run game and the short passing attack so long as it works and the Packers’ offense doesn’t light it up.

In short, Belichick will ask Hoyer not to lose it. Only if it begins to border on a double-digit blowout will he ask Hoyer to try and win it.

The Packers’ defense is ascending.

It is allowing 15 points per game through three weeks. The Patriots are averaging 16.7 points. Split the difference and it’s not nearly enough.

Green Bay’s defense also leads the NFL in third-down conversion rate at 18.2 percent. It is especially impressive that defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s unit is doing this by rushing four and blitzing sparingly.

The Patriots (1-2) will try to test the Packers’ run defense.

Rhamondre Stevenson has rushed 29 times for 145 yards on the season, but he was especially effective in the second half of last week’s loss against the Ravens. Stevenson ran for 73 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries, and also caught four passes for 28 yards.

Backfield mate Damien Harris has 35 carries for 160 yards (a 4.6 average) and they’ve combined for three rushing touchdowns. The Patriots’ running backs have yet to generate a big play (20-plus yards).

Hoyer is 0-11 in his last 11 starts. He is 16-23 in his career. That means he was 16-12 at some point many seasons ago.

Meantime, Rodgers is 141-67-1 as an NFL starter.

He is getting his No. 1 offensive line healthy and intact.

All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari looks to build upon a strong return that saw him play well in 35 snaps last week. In 17 pass-blocking plays he didn’t allow anyone to lay a hand on Rodgers.

“I thought he did a really good job,” Packers offensive coordinator Adam Stenavich said. “He hadn’t really been able to consistently go out there and practice and stuff, so it was great to get him out there. I thought he did a really good job just going out there and playing hard and putting good stuff on film.”

Bakhtiari’s strong return may deter opposing defensive coordinators from attacking the Packers’ left tackle to see what he’s got. In that way, Bakhtiari’s top-flight performance may ease the path in his return.

The Packers’ offensive line is finally at full strength with Bakhtiari, Jon Runyan, Josh Myers, Royce Newman and Elgton Jenkins. Some in the media have been calling for Zach Tom to replace Newman. To that I say, “Give Newman a chance, give it some time, and then make the call. But be darn sure to make it in plenty of time before the playoffs.”

The Patriots’ defense is led by Lawrence Guy and some guys.

Belichick’s style has been to have his defense keep everything in front of it, meaning they’ll sacrifice some yards to make sure they don’t surrender big plays.

It’ll be interesting to watch because one of the criticisms of the Packers’ offense is that Rodgers hasn’t been throwing it downfield. Now that his offensive line is set, and Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb, Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson are healthy, I suspect he’ll be taking some shots deep.

Ultimately, Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon drive the offense.

It’s likely that they’ll combine for 30-plus touches for 150-plus yards and a pair of touchdowns. This also seems like a game where tight end Robert Tonyan emerges with a half-dozen catches and some big plays.

Frankly, the Patriots don’t have the horses to win this race, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be in position to take advantage if the Packers are something less than expected.

Give Green Bay head coach Matt LaFleur’s glitzy 11-1 record in October games, I’ll stick with the home team in a big way.

Packers 28, Patriots 9 and it’s on to London.

Packers’ defense seals 14-12 win on late stop

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense came out hotter than the Tampa Bay sun.

The visiting Packers scored on consecutive possessions to turn an early 3-0 deficit into a 14-3 lead against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers.

That was the good news.

Even better was the way Green Bay’s defense made it stand in a 14-12 victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday at steamy Raymond James Stadium.

Trailing 14-6 with less than three minutes to play, Brady and the Bucs mounted a last-ditch drive to try to tie the game and send it to overtime.

Brady moved the offense and capped the 13-play, 89-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Russell Gage to make it a two-point game with 14 seconds to play. It appeared the Bucs were going to run for the tying 2-point try, but were flagged for a costly delay of game penalty.

Backed up to the 7-yard line, Brady rolled right and tried to force a pass to Gage in the back of the end zone, but the Packers’ De’Vondre Campbell leaped high and swatted it away to seal the win.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur could’ve done without the game’s end drama, but he still managed to smile at the outcome.

“It’s about finding ways to win football games,” LaFleur said. “Every team is going to face adversity throughout the course of the season and it really doesn’t matter. Nobody really cares. I told our guys we’ll never apologize for winning. You’ve just got to find a way and we did.”

Indeed, the Packers (2-1) found a way to win. They also found a few answers to key questions in the process.

Here are the big takeaways:

** No. 1 – The Packers’ defense slugged it out in Tampa’s heat and humidity for four quarters and still made the clinching play at the end. Green Bay’s defense also proved it can wreak havoc when rushing four, and that the secondary is deep enough to overcome Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander’s absence due to a first-quarter groin injury.

** No. 2 – Romeo Doubs doesn’t look, play or act like a rookie receiver. The fourth-round pick out of Nevada is fast-becoming a legit weapon. Doubs caught eight passes for 73 yards and a 5-yard touchdown catch. It was the first touchdown of his NFL career.

Doubs’ big game was badly needed on a day when Sammy Watkins (who was placed on IR) and rookie Christian Watson were out with hamstring injuries.

As an aside, Randall Cobb had two catches for 57 yards. Both converted key third downs and both contributed to the Packers’ scoring drives.

** No. 3 – All-Pro David Bakhtiari’s return to left tackle for several series is the last, final piece in the offensive line puzzle. If Bakhtiari’s comeback goes as planned, the Packers’ offensive line undoubtedly rates among the NFL’s finest units.

** No. 4 – The Packers’ special teams units aren’t merely hoping to play to a draw. They are making the plays that help teams win.

All of that contributed to the Packers’ road victory against one of the NFC’s top teams, and one of the league’s all-time great quarterbacks.

The defense’s late stop was the highlight.

Campbell had 14 tackles (eight solo) and defended the key pass.

Rodgers heaped praise on the defense and Campbell.

“He’s a special player,” Rodgers said. “He’s really coming into his own as a leader. To think a couple years ago nobody really wanted him and here he is, 14 tackles, a deflection at the end of the game … It says a lot about the type of person that he is.”

The Bucs (2-1) were shorthanded, so to speak, at receiver.

Mike Evans, their top receiver, was serving a one-game suspension. Julio Jones (knee) was a game-time inactive, and Chris Godwin (knee) also was out. The Bucs were so decimated they signed Cole Beasley, who caught three passes for 12 yards on short notice.

It wasn’t nearly enough against Green Bay’s active defense.

Coordinator Joe Barry didn’t blitz in the first two games. He did blitz against the Bucs, but only sparingly, and managed to prove his point. Why blitz if your defense can be impactful and disruptive when rushing Rashan Gary and Preston Smith off the edges, with Kenny Clark and whomever (take your pick) coming inside.

Clark had four tackles and two sacks. Gary had three tackles and a sack. Dean Lowry had three tackles and Jarran Reed had a tackle and fumble recovery. Rookie Quay Walker had five tackles and a forced fumble.

The Bucs’ receiver woes were offset by Alexander’s absence. In his postgame news conference, LaFleur said he was unsure of the severity.

LaFleur added that special teams’ ace and slot corner Keisean Nixon had a strong game in place of Alexander.

“Our defense was playing great,” LaFleur said. “A couple of times (the Bucs) got into a rhythm but we caused turnovers. Nixon busted it on teams and then he played a ton of snaps on nickel. Shemar (Jean-Charles) was out there, Rasul (Douglas) played some in the nickel, and 21 (Eric Stokes) seems to have a pretty quiet number of targets his way, so give him credit.”

Brady finished 31 of 42 for 271 yards and one touchdown. He was sacked three times and posted a 98.4 passer rating.

Rodgers was 27 of 35 for 255 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He was sacked once and had a 103.9 passer rating.

Rodgers’ primary weapons were Doubs and Cobb. Doubs was smooth as silk while catching eight passes in as many targets for 73 yards and his first NFL touchdown. Doubs’ 5-yard touchdown grab gave Green Bay a 7-3 lead late in the first quarter.

Doubs also had a 21-yard catch and was sure-handed throughout.

Rodgers said he is going to look at the tape to see if Doubs might’ve had more opportunities to inflict further damage. It was interesting that Rodgers’ tone concerning Doubs was so matter-of-fact, as if the 8-catch, 73-yard day was expected.

Allen Lazard also had a strong game.

Lazard had four catches for 45 yards and a 6-yard touchdown that capped the Packers’ 12-play, 71-yard drive that made it 14-3.

Lazard’s 26-yard catch on a blitz-beater late in the game gave the Packers an opportunity to seal the game with a Mason Crosby field goal. But on the next play, Juwann Winfree was bumped off his route, which led to a drive-killing incompletion.

“That should have been a completion to Juwann inside field-goal range,” Rodgers said. “Bada bing, bada boom, ball game.”

If only it were that easy.

Neither team could run the football effectively.

The Bucs’ Leonard Fournette banged away 12 times for 35 yards with a long run of 6 yards. Aaron Jones rushed 12 times for 36 yards with a long of 10, and A.J. Dillon also had 12 carries and finished with 32 yards. Jones caught three passes for 11 yards and Dillon two for six.

The Packers rushed for three first downs. The Bucs rushed for one. The Packers were 6 of 15 (40 percent) on third-down conversions while Tampa Bay struggled to go just 2 of 11 (18.2 percent).

Brady and the Bucs finished with only 285 total yards of offense.

LaFleur was looking for the Packers’ offense to back its defense’s play by delivering the knockout punch in the second half.

It didn’t happen.

“What I was disappointed in was so much good field position in the second half and we did nothing with it,” LaFleur said. “It felt like we could close out the game and we didn’t do it on offense.”

LaFleur paused, and added, “This game was won by our defense and special teams.”

And for that nobody in Green Bay is going to apologize.

Packers get early test vs. tough, smart Bucs

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – One of the hallmarks of a Hall of Fame quarterback is the ability to make their teammates better.

Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have been doing it forever, or so it seems. On Sunday, they will be put to the test in that regard by salty defenses and circumstances beyond their control.

When the Packers (1-1) take on the Bucs (2-0) at 3:25 p.m. at Raymond James Stadium temperatures will be in the high 80s, but that’s not the only reason the heat will be on Brady and Rodgers.

Both of the future Hall of Fame quarterbacks’ receiving corps is decimated.

The Bucs’ receiving corps is depleted due to Mike Evans’ suspension and injuries to Julio Jones (knee) and Chris Godwin (hamstring). Neither Jones nor Godwin practiced Thursday.

The Packers’ plan for life after Davante Adams has been complicated by injuries to Allen Lazard (ankle), Sammy Watkins (hamstring), Christian Watson (hamstring) and Randall Cobb (undisclosed illness). Cobb sat out Wednesday and none of the four practiced Thursday.

Evans, a four-time Pro Bowl receiver, was the most-targeted receiver on a sputtering Bucs offense. Lazard, who missed the season opener with the ankle, played well against the Bears but may have had a setback.

Most weeks, the Bucs would bang away with Leonard Fournette, throw to the tight ends and rely on Brady to back their defense’s play. Likewise, the Packers would ride Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon, move the chains with precision passes and rely on Rodgers to make the big play.

That’s a much greater challenge given the Bucs’ and Packers’ defenses. Tampa Bay is the NFL’s No. 1 scoring defense (13 points allowed) through two weeks. Green Bay’s defense has surrendered 33 points, but has yet to allow a second-half touchdown.

That doesn’t mean Brady and Rodgers can’t generate offense. It just means the margin for error is slim and it’s going to be awful difficult, especially with the ravaged receiving corps.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur was asked to compare and contrast Brady and Rodgers.

“All you have to do is No. 1 look at their ability to win games and lead teams,” LaFleur said. “Tom’s won a ton of Super Bowls (seven). You look at the talent of both (Brady and Rodgers) and it’s not surprising why they’re referred to as two of the greatest ever. I think they’re both great competitors.”

Brady, 45, is averaging just 201 yards passing per game with two touchdowns and an interception. He threw 43 TD passes last season. The Bucs have ridden Fournette hard through two games. He has 192 yards on 45 carries for a 4.3 average.

Rodgers, 38, is figuring things out without Adams.

The Packers’ one-two punch (Jones and Dillon) has combined for 287 yards rushing on 48 carries. After ignoring Jones in the season-opening loss at Minnesota, LaFleur relied on him in the win over the Bears.

Bucs coach Todd Bowles is aware of the Jones-Dillon challenge.

“They both can do everything,” Bowles said. “Obviously, Aaron is faster – he plays wide-out, he plays running back, he moves inside, he moves outside, he plays the slot – he does a lot of things great. He’s very explosive when he catches the ball and when he runs the ball, he can break it and he can turn a 4-yard gain into a 60-yard gain.

“A.J. is just tough to bring down. He’s tough – not only is he tough, but he has very good feet. He can catch the football as well. Those two, along with Aaron (Rodgers) and the rest of the guys – it’s going to be a tough draw.”

The Packers catch a break with Bucs defensive tackle Akiem Hicks out with a plantar fascia injury. It should make running the ball that much more do-able, but nose tackle Vita Vea is still a beast. The 6-4, 330-pound defensive tackle has 1 ½ sacks this season.

The Bucs’ linebacker corps is led by Devin White, Lavonte David and Shaq Barrett. They are fast, aggressive and battle-tested.

White has three sacks and the Bucs’ defense has forced six turnovers.

Look for the Packers to deploy Jones and Dillon together to balance up the Bucs’ defense in an attempt to make them defend the entire field. Draws and screens are difficult because of the Bucs’ defensive speed, but play-action passes can be successful if the run game gets going.

On defense, the Packers have yet to blitz this season.

That could change Sunday, but it’s a greater gamble given Brady’s experience and the possibility of creating run lanes for Fournette. It’s only two games but neither De’Vondre Campbell nor Quay Walker has blitzed from their inside linebacker spots. Rasul Douglas also hasn’t blitzed when he’s been lined up in the slot.

Will Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry change up the tendency? It seems unlikely. It’s almost as if Barry is doing some reconnaissance in terms of answering the question, “Can we get home rushing four?”

Barry talked about it.

“We do like to bring multiple people but, on the other end, too, when we do choose to rush four, the four guys we have rushing are pretty effective and pretty good,” Barry said. “But by no means do I ever want to think that we’re not a pressure team because we can, we will, we like to do that. It’s just the way the two games have gone. We’ve defended quite a few runs. We’ll get to the point where we do that, but I really do like our four-man rush. I think it’s highly effective.”

Edge rushers Rashan Gary and Preston Smith each have two sacks. Nobody else has a sack.

Brady said he’s been getting quality protection up front.

“I’ve been getting great protection,” he said this week. “The guys up front have been competing very hard. I think that’s part of why we’ve run the ball so well. We’ve been able to run it a bunch of times and … control the line of scrimmage. It’s a big challenge. Great pass-rushers, one of the best inside players we’ll face all year, Kenny Clark; Preston Smith and Rashan Gary are great rushers. It’s another big challenge but we’ve got to meet it.”

Prediction: Bucs 20, Packers 19

Packers bury Bears as

Jones runs roughshod

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – If the Packers’ winning formula was predicated solely on Aaron Jones touching the football Green Bay’s season would be nothing but outrageous victories and Super Bowl berths.

It would be pure bliss.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur could simply call Jones’ number with impunity, and No. 33 would do the rest.

If only it were that simple.

The mercurial Jones was dominant in the Packers’ 27-10 victory over Chicago on Sunday night at Lambeau Field, but it wasn’t purely because of his incredible talent.

The healthy return of right tackle Elgton Jenkins (to solidify the line) and receiver Allen Lazard (to shore up the downfield blocking) had a huge impact on Jones’ 170 yards from scrimmage.

Jones rushed 15 times for 132 yards (an 8.8 average) and a touchdown. He also caught three passes for 37 yards and a touchdown.

A.J. Dillon had Jones’ back by hammering away 18 times for 61 yards and delivering several jarring blocks to spring his backfield mate.

“A.J. does it all,” Jones said. “He catches the ball. He can block. He was blocking their starting middle linebacker, Roquan (Smith) on that and he sprung me into the touchdown. That shows a lot. A.J. cares about me. I care about him. We’ll lay it all out for each other.”

Aaron Rodgers did his part by completing 19 of 25 passes for 234 yards, two touchdowns and a 131.1 passer rating. Rodgers threw for 10 first downs to keep drives alive and allow Jones and Dillon to do their thing.

“Tonight was really about 28 (A.J. Dillon) and 33 (Jones), getting them the football,” Rodgers said. “I didn’t play great. I feel like the stats look a little better than the game. … I missed some throws that I should never miss. There were some opportunities for more points out there.”

Green Bay’s defense also factored into Jones’ success by bending early, recovering after the Bears’ opening-drive touchdown, and proceeding to administer a first-rate butt-kicking.

“We got smacked in the mouth and then came back and responded,” the Packers’ Kenny Clark said.

The Bears’ offense eked out 228 yards, just 25 yards more than the Packers rushed for as a team. Chicago was a dreadful 1-for-7 on third down attempts and converted only two passing first downs all night.

Justin Fields finished 7 of 11 for 70 yards, one interception and a 43.8 passer rating. Fields was sacked three times, an incredible total given the infrequency with which he passed, and the Bears’ 48 net yards passing was the fewest allowed by a Green Bay defense in 16 seasons.

Chicago’s David Montgomery did his best to offset the onslaught by racking up 122 yards on 15 carries (an 8.1 average) but it wasn’t enough. As sub-standard as the Packers’ run defense was Sunday night, their pass rush and pass coverage were synced up.

Fields had little time to throw and when he did nobody was open.

The Packers’ Jaire Alexander didn’t get the shutout he was hoping for, but he approved of the performance just the same.

“I think that today our secondary came to play and we communicated,” Alexander said. “We’ve got to stop the run a little bit better, though. As far as passing, I think we were all on the same page and it was much better than last week.”

Alexander’s dazzling interception highlighted the effort.

“I was like, ‘I’ve been waiting all game for this,” he said. “They had gotten me on the flea flicker. I was like, ‘I need something else.’ I was getting ready to let that route go and then something told me to just stay with it.”

Alexander stayed with that play the way the Packers’ offense stayed with the running game. It was good old-fashioned dogged determination.

“We set high goals for ourselves in that room,” Alexander said. “We want to be the best secondary in the league. It’s a long season. So, at the end of the year, we want to be the best and we’re just taking the steps towards it.”

Preston Smith had a team-high seven tackles and two sacks. Rashan Gary, his edge-rushing bookend, had a sack and two QB hits.

On offense, the Packers ran everything through their running backs.

Jones and Dillon combined for 237 total yards on 37 touches. It was up from their combined 23 touches for 167 yards in a Week 1 loss.

LaFleur vowed to get the ball to Jones. He made good on his promise.

“Aaron Jones, man, he was absolutely electric,” LaFleur said. “Every time I’d think he was going down, he’d somehow find a way to squirt his way through. And he’s just a hell of a competitor and he’s a guy that just embodies everything that you want in a football player: the way he works, how selfless he is, how he cheers for his teammates, how he supports his teammates.

“They don’t make many like this guy. He is one of a kind. We’re lucky to have a guy like that.”

The Packers had eight different players catch passes.

Lazard, who was making his season debut after missing the opener with an ankle injury, hauled in a nifty 13-yard touchdown catch to make it 24-7 to close out the first half.

Rodgers was sacked three times, which is three too many, but he didn’t endure anything close to the beating he took at Minnesota.

Rodgers also looked more in sync with his receivers, and in particular rookies Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson.

Veteran Sammy Watkins made the most of his three catches by racking up 93 yards. His 24-yard grab late in the first quarter helped set up the Packers’ first touchdown. His 55-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter set up Mason Crosby’s 28-yard field goal to make it 27-10.

Randall Cobb also was efficient catching three passes in as many targets for 38 yards.

Bears’ secondary will

test Packers’ receivers

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers have sufficient cause to take the Bears seriously going into Sunday night’s game at Lambeau Field.

The concern begins with a disjointed Green Bay offense that produced little but contributed mightily to a 23-7 loss at Minnesota in Week 1.

The Packers (0-1) are 10-point favorites against Chicago (1-0).

Apparently the Las Vegas odds-makers see Green Bay’s defense pitching a shutout. If the Bears eke out 10 points can the Packers score 21? As crazy as that sounds, it’s a legitimate question.

Then there is Chicago’s surprising 19-7 upset of the 49ers in last week’s monsoon at Soldier Field. The Bears’ defense generated a pass rush, forced turnovers and was solid in coverage against San Francisco.

Furthermore, Jaylon Johnson and the Bears’ cornerbacks are above average, with talented veteran Eddie Jackson and promising rookie Jaquan Brisker backing their play at safety.

Win or lose, there’s also this nugget: The Buccaneers (1-0) looked to be in fine form – especially on defense – in Week 1. They await Green Bay in what will be a marquee Week 3 matchup at Tampa Bay.

If the Packers aren’t careful head coach Matt LaFleur may go from having never lost back-to-back games to staring down the barrel of a three-game losing streak to open the season.

LaFleur is 6-0 versus Chicago with Aaron Rodgers throwing 16 touchdown passes to zero interceptions in those games. That might explain the massive 10-point spread, but that was with Davante Adams.

Now it’s up to Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb, Sammy Watkins and the rookies to add to Rodgers’ lopsided six-game total. It won’t be easy because the Bears’ defensive secondary is no joke.

Johnson, the left corner, is among the Top 10 in the league. He has terrific instincts to go with his obvious talent. Vildor Kindle, the right corner, is aggressive and loves to hit. Kyler Gordon, a second-round pick in April, is the starting nickel back.

Brisker, the Bears’ other second-round pick, recovered a fumble and was in on four tackles. Jackson, his mentor, made a key interception and added four tackles in the Week 1 win.

Roquan Smith, the Bears’ middle linebacker, is a terrific player. He posted a team-high nine tackles and a half-sack against the 49ers.

Robert Quinn is the most experienced pass rusher, while rookie Dominique Robinson had seven tackles, two QB hits and 1 ½ sacks in his NFL debut.

On offense, the Bears’ Justin Fields played with much more poise and confidence in his first start of Year 2. Fields was 8 of 17 for 121 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and an 85.7 passer rating.

Fields’ touchdown passes both came in the second half.

On Wednesday, he was asked about the difference in Year 2, and in particular offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, the play caller.

“It’s confidence,” he said. “That’s one thing that I take from him, he’s a very confident guy. I think he gives confidence to the rest of the guys.”

LaFleur said he was impressed with Fields against the 49ers.

“I think he looks more decisive out there, and I think that’s a natural progression,” LaFleur said of Fields. “Obviously, I know Luke Getsy very well, a guy I have the utmost respect for and I know he’s a damn good coach. I’m sure he’s really helped (Fields’) growth. I thought just the resiliency he showed, that’s a tough football team. They battled them and were more physical than San Fran. Most importantly, especially for young quarterbacks, it’s just staying resilient, and he definitely did that.”

The Packers are bringing back former players such as Hall of Famer LeRoy Butler and safety Johnnie Gray to celebrate the home opener.

Fields sees an opportunity to rain on the Packers’ parade, so to speak.

When asked about the Packers-Bears rivalry, Fields said, “It means a lot. Of course, I want to win every game I play. But it’s the tradition of this rivalry. It means a lot to us as a team, to the fan base, to the people upstairs. It just means a lot to everyone in this building.”

Undoubtedly, the game is important in the Bears’ attempt to become relevant in the NFC North. But given everything the Packers have on the line, especially in Week 2, Green Bay needs this win to restore its divisional dominance and all that goes with it.

Consecutive division losses with Tampa Bay waiting in Week 3 would be a challenging way to open the season.

Clearly, the Packers have other ideas.

Prediction: Green Bay 20, Chicago 9

Packers’ offense lame, 

‘D’ tame in 23-7 loss 

By Chris Havel 

Special to The FAN 

GREEN BAY, Wis. – After months of hype and high hopes the Packers managed to raise concerns and lower expectations in a single afternoon. 

The Packers’ disappointing 23-7 loss to the Vikings in Sunday’s season opener at U.S. Bank Stadium isn’t unprecedented. They were drubbed by the Saints, 38-3, in last year’s opener at Jacksonville. 

To be sure, the 2021 fiasco was ugly, but this year’s is alarming. 

The Packers’ offense had months to determine how to proceed without All-Pro receiver Davante Adams. It was assumed head coach Matt LaFleur would deploy “21” or “22” personnel – two backs and one tight end, or two backs and two tight ends – to account for Adams’ loss. 

Instead, LaFleur under-utilized Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon – his top two weapons – by handing it to them infrequently and throwing it to them sparingly. 

Jones had five carries for 49 yards. Dillon had 10 for 45. The Vikings’ run defense didn’t stop them. LaFleur’s play-calling did. Dillon added five catches for 46 yards and Jones had three catches for 27 yards. 

It was telling that LaFleur didn’t activate a third running back. 

With that game plan why bother? 

LaFleur’s game plan resembled the disaster otherwise known as the Packers’ NFC divisional playoff loss to the 49ers in January. It seemed as if it was predicated on tackles David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins being healthy and ready to roll – both then and Sunday. 

With the Packers’ top two offensive linemen inactive, LaFleur went with Jake Hanson at right guard and Royce Newman at right tackle, and neither appeared up to the task. 

Newman was responsible for two of the Vikings’ four sacks. If Jenkins isn’t ready to play against the Bears on Sunday night, LaFleur needs to seriously consider Zach Tom or Rasheed Walker at right tackle. 

LaFleur also must figure out how heavily he is going to rely on the backs. Jones is a dynamic, big-play back whose touchdown-making ability is unquestioned. 

Dillon is another terrific weapon who possesses tremendous size, strength and agility for such a big man. He also has soft hands. 

None of that impressed LaFleur enough to rely on his backs. 

Instead, he asked Aaron Rodgers to drop back 38 times (62 percent) and make it work with a collection of aging veterans and unproven rookies at receiver, plus backups Yosh Nijman and Newman at tackle. 

The result was predictable. 

Rodgers completed 22 of 34 passes for 195 yards with no touchdowns, one interception and a 67.7 passer rating. By comparison, the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins hit on 23 of 32 for 277 yards and two touchdowns. Cousins posted a 118.9 passer rating while being sacked once. 

Christian Watson’s drop of a would-be 75-yard touchdown catch on the Packers’ first offensive play of 2022 set the tone. Dillon getting stuffed by smack-talking ex-Packer Za’Darius Smith on fourth-and-goal at the Vikings’ 1 early in the second quarter extended the misery. 

Justin Jefferson’s dominance of the Packers’ secondary sealed the deal. Halfway through the first half concerned fans should have tweeted Jefferson’s bio to Green Bay defensive coordinator Joe Barry. 

Was Barry somehow unfamiliar with Jefferson’s work? It looked like it. 

Cousins hooked up with Jefferson on nine of 11 targets for 184 yards and two touchdowns. It looked eerily similar to Matthew Stafford to Cooper Kupp with the Rams, where Vikings’ first-year head coach Kevin O’Connell was the offensive coordinator a year ago. 

Jefferson wasn’t merely open. He was playing solitaire. 

Even the Vikings’ terrific young receiver was surprised he was so open on his second touchdown catch of the game. It was a 36-yard grab in which there wasn’t a Packers defender within 10 yards as he sprinted into the end zone to make it 17-0 with 35 seconds left in the first half. 

“I was thinking somebody was about to come from behind and tackle me,” Jefferson said. “I thought (Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander) had run with me. But he wasn’t there. It kind of shook me up a little bit, but I’m glad I got into the end zone.” 

It shook up Alexander, too. 

“All week, (I) was asking for that matchup,” Alexander told reporters. “But it ain’t about me. It’s about the team. It ain’t about me. If it was my way, you know what I would be doing.” 

None of this rises to the level of mutiny, but it’s likely to shake the lines of communication between the defensive coordinator and his players. 

Offensively, the Packers and Vikings each ran 61 plays. That’s where the similarities between the offenses ended. 

Dalvin Cook, the Vikings’ star running back, rushed a workmanlike 20 times for 90 yards (a 4.5 average) with a long of 16. 

The Packers’ defense actually played well in stretches. 

Both teams were 1-for-3 in the red zone. The Packers were just 3 of 9 on third-down conversions, but the Vikings (4 of 13, 30.8%) were worse. 

The Vikings’ four sacks were a significant factor in the outcome. 

Trailing 17-0 with the football on the opening possession of the second half, Rodgers drove the Packers to a first down at Green Bay’s 44. LaFleur called a slow-developing pass play, Newman couldn’t hold up and Rodgers was sacked by Jordan Hicks. The football came loose and Minnesota recovered. 

The Packers’ defense bucked up and held the Vikings to a field goal to make it 20-0, and Green Bay’s offense finally found the end zone on its next possession to close it to 20-7. 

But it was too little, too late. 

“We had a lot of chances today,” Rodgers said. “I’m not taking anything away from their defense, but we hurt ourselves many times, myself included. We had a lot of opportunities to score more than seven.” 

Rodgers said he should have kept the football on the RPO (run-pass option) in which Dillon was stuffed at the 1. 

Watson’s opening-play drop didn’t help. 

“Obviously, it’d be great to have a 75-yard touchdown to start the game, but drops are going to happen. It’s part of the game,” Rodgers said. “It’s the mental stuff that we just can’t have because we’re hurting ourselves. Whether we’re going the wrong way on a block or missing a protection something or missing a hot or not running the right route, the right depth, there was just too many mental mistakes.” 

Many were anticipating the Packers’ deploying Jones and Dillon together. Instead, they scarcely used either one. They combined for 167 yards on just 23 touches. That has got to change. 

On the bright side, the Packers’ special teams’ wasn’t the culprit. It wasn’t even culpable. It was a non-factor, which qualifies as progress, I suppose. 

Clearly the Packers have lots of work to do between now and Sunday’s 7:20 p.m. kickoff against the unbeaten Bears (1-0) at Lambeau Field. 

The Packers are favored by 9 ½ points. Las Vegas really must believe the Chicago Bears still suck, because that’s more points than Green Bay managed in four quarters on Sunday. 

Packers at Minnesota:

Week 1 curiosity high

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers’ offense has been living on the edge for what feels like forever.

Ever since the Packers’ all-everything tackle tandem of David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins have been sidelined with serious knee injuries it has been a study in patience, the art of adjustment and winning with what you have (or don’t have).

This precarious situation dates back to New Year’s Eve of 2020 when Bakhtiari’s knee crumbled during practice leading up to the Bucs-Packers NFC Championship. Jenkins went down with a torn ACL on Nov. 21 in a 34-31 loss at Minnesota.

Finally, after a 21-month eternity, the bookends are back.       

That’s the word anyway leading up to the Packers’ regular-season opener Sunday at Minnesota’s U.S. Bank Stadium. Kickoff is set for 3:25 p.m. with hot and heavy action guaranteed to ensue.

Their healthy arrival couldn’t be more welcomed.

The Vikings’ defense features edge rushers Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith. Hunter brings a cat-quick first step and closing speed. Smith has a similarly dangerous skillset in addition to a Paul Bunyan-sized axe to grind with Green Bay.

Smith, who had injury and contract issues with the Packers, was unceremoniously released after last season. Initially, he signed with his former team, the Ravens. Then he did a 180 and went to Minnesota in hopes of tormenting his former team.

Now, he’ll have to do it while squaring off against Jenkins. On the other side, Hunter and Bakhtiari are familiar adversaries. Whichever tandem owns this battle likely will go a long way toward deciding who wins the game.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur was coy about his tackles’ status, but he did say they’ve been working in 11-on-11 drills with the first unit.

“There are never enough reps but we feel good about our guys,” LaFleur said. “Our guys are experienced. We’re going to put the best five out there and try to put them in the best position possible, however that may be. And we’re going up against a really good defensive line. They’ve got a couple great pass rushers (Hunter and Smith), and then having the inability to probably hear on most of the snap counts, it’ll be a great test for our guys to see where we’re at.”

Aaron Rodgers admits there’s a comfort level with Bakhtiari and Jenkins.

“It would definitely settle everybody’s nerves maybe a little bit about that,” Rodgers said.

The Packers may be without receiver Allen Lazard, who had his ankle stepped on last week and still hasn’t practiced. If Lazard can’t go it will be up to Sammy Watkins, Randall Cobb and the youngsters to make it work at receiver.

Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs, Samori Toure and Juwann Winfree are in the mix of a handful of receivers expected to do the job.

“There are about five guys that we kind of expect to be in the mix consistently playing receiver for us and, if one of them goes down, then the other four better be ready,” Rodgers said earlier this week.

The Packers’ game-like practice last week should help get them up to speed.

“The speed is amped up,” Rodgers explained. “They felt the other day, I think, what me in a game-like situation is like – my energy, the expectation, the tempo with which we play at. Look, they know what the expectations are. We’re not going to put them in positions to not be successful, but there’s going to be opportunities for them when they get out there to make plays, and I’m confident they’re going to make the plays that are available.”

The Packers’ concern on offense would be greater if not for the return of tight end Robert Tonyan, who also is back from a serious knee injury. Tonyan is a capable receiver and above-average blocker whose presence is a key to the attack.

“He looks great,” Rodgers said of Tonyan. “He’s really gifted. He has great hands. He’s a really intuitive route runner. He’s got great instincts. He’s made a couple plays in practice that (are) just different than what we’ve had from those other guys in his absence, and it’s no disrespect to those guys. It’s just that the level that he’s capable of playing at is at that Pro Bowl caliber level, so we’ve got to get him feeling healthy and playing like he was playing a couple years ago and get him going early.”

Clearly, if the Packers’ regular- and post-seasons go as smoothly as training camp and the preseason it’s a fair bet Green Bay fans will be partying in Glendale, Ariz., in early February.

There’s just one problem with that way of thinking.

As LaFleur knows firsthand it’s seldom easy. The NFL schedule’s 17-game grind is a beast to navigate with injuries, illnesses, the occasional poor performance and plain old bad luck.

The Packers will combat it with optimism, professionalism and talent.

The challenge is considerable. The goal is attainable. The reward for being the NFL’s best team in any single season lasts a lifetime. As if the Packers needed to be reminded, LaFleur invited Pro Football Hall of Fame safety LeRoy Butler to lend perspective in a speech last week.

LaFleur called it one of the best speeches he’s heard in the last decade. The fuse has been lit.

The Packers come in as 1 ½-point favorites. The point total is 48 ½.

Take the Packers and the under. A look at the offense, defense and special teams entering Week 1 will explain why.

** Packers’ offense

Rodgers has done a 180 in the past 18 months.

It wasn’t known in the spring of 2021 if Rodgers would play for the Packers. A rift between the future Hall of Fame quarterback and GM Brian Gutekunst seemed irreconcilable at one point.

Today, it’s a different dynamic.

Gutekunst and Rodgers have an open line of communication and the GM routinely consults his quarterback in terms of the roster. Their relationship went from being at death’s doorstep to fairly flourishing.

Now, a rejuvenated Rodgers is eager to attack the 2022 season.

He likes his young receivers, he loves his running back tandem and he is ecstatic about having his bookend tackles  back from serious injuries.

Three of the Packers’ biggest questions were on offense this offseason.

In addition to the health of Bakhtiari and Jenkins, fans are curious to see the debut of Watson. The 34th pick overall elected to have a knee scope and as a result missed camp and the preseason games. Now he is back at practice and getting up to speed.

Rodgers has been effusive in his praise of Watson’s physical skills. Now we’ll see how quickly he is integrated into the offense.

The other question is how frequently the Packers will deploy two-back formations. Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon are two of the team’s top five weapons, and Rodgers has said repeatedly that the best 11 will play.

The Packers didn’t show any two-back sets in the preseason. I won’t be surprised if they deploy it on nearly 20 percent of the snaps.

Rodgers talked at length about ways to attack with two backs.

“They can both, obviously, run the ball really well,” he said of Jones and Dillon. They can both catch it out of the backfield well. Different types of backs. I was talking to Matt (LaFleur) this morning about it, they’re both I feel dangerous in the open field. Jonesy’s such a slasher and, when he gets the ball, he’s tough to take down. He’s got great balance, low center of gravity. And 28 learned how to run behind his pads, and he can punish, especially in the wintertime, but he can also make you miss. He’s tough to bring down. He’s got tremendous quad size and strength.”

Ideally, the Packers will wear down the Vikings’ defense with an array of short and intermediate passes mixed with a heavy dose of the run game. I suspect the Packers will run right at Hunter and Smith to test their willingness to tackle, as opposed to just pinning their ears back.

** Packers’ defense

Packers’ fans haven’t anticipated watching a great defense in years.

This is that year.

The Packers’ 10th-ranked defense has been galvanized by a second season with De’Vondre Campbell and Rasul Douglas, plus the ongoing improvement of edge rusher Rashan Gary.

Kenny Clark remains one of the league’s top defensive tackles, and he’ll have veteran Jarran Reed lining up next to him. Dean Lowry is coming off a solid season and second-year tackle T.J. Slaton has looked good.

Rookies Devonte Wyatt and Jonathan Ford will be brought along slowly, a luxury they can afford right now.

The corners are loaded with All-Pro Jaire Alexander, promising second-year pro Eric Stokes and Douglas. Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage will direct traffic at safety.

The Packers’ defense is feeling the vibe – and the vibe is good.

** Packers’ special teams

NFL rosters annually undergo a 33-percent makeover. The Packers were no different. They kept all 11 draft picks plus an additional seven players. Reed and Watkins were the offensive and defensive niche players, while the other five roster spots were devoted to special teams.

Safeties Dallin Leavitt and Rudy Ford, plus corner Keisean Nixon, each led their teams in special teams tackles the past three seasons. Punter Pat O’Donnell and long snapper Jack Coco are the others. With new coordinator Rich Bisaccia running the show the coverage units should be better. The return game appears to be in the hands of Amari Rodgers on punt returns and perhaps Romeo Doubs or Rodgers on kick returns.

** Prediction

The Packers’ offense is likely to experience some growing pains while the tackles and tight end Robert Tonyan settle in after their injuries. The absence of Rodgers’ go-to receiver, Davante Adams, also is a factor.

Meantime, Green Bay’s defense is excited about the challenge presented by Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson and the Vikings’ offense.

So long as the Packers’ special teams units don’t sabotage the effort, look for Green Bay to notch a 26-19 victory at Minnesota.

Packers’ final roster

covers present, future

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers’ final 53-man roster and 16-player practice squad is a deal brokered in common sense. There was the GM’s ability to protect the roster’s future, and there was the coach’s need to win now.

There was something for Packers GM Brian Gutekunst, and head coach Matt LaFleur, with the shared knowledge that the collaboration is just beginning. Who’s to say there isn’t another Rasul Douglas out there waiting to be plucked? If the Packers don’t snatch him up it won’t be for a lack of vigilance.

Furthermore, the game-day “call ups” and greater roster flexibility make it an ongoing, fluid situation. The Packers’ roster cuts were announced Tuesday, but they were hardly finished.

Green Bay’s below-the-radar acquisition of ex-Jaguars safety/special teams whiz Rudy Ford was particularly impressive. Ford admitted that it was Green Bay’s immediate interest that tilted his decision in their favor. They were on top of it, and now we’ll see if it pays off, but Kansas City was among the other teams bidding for Ford’s services. He chose the Packers.

Ford, 27, joins fellow safety (in name only) Dallin Leavitt, 28, and cornerback Keisean Nixon, 25, as the trio of special teams’ mercenaries. Gutekunst devoted those three roster spots, although Nixon can play slot corner to some degree, to the pursuit of special teams’ competence. It’s been hard to come by in Green Bay.

Nixon led the Raiders in special teams tackles with nine in 2019. In 2020, Ford led the Eagles with 11. In 2021, Leavitt led the Raiders with 12. They’ve been there, done that, in terms of being professional gunners, jammers and what-not.

Now, with special teams’ coordinator Rich Bisaccia in charge, and a handful of his hand-picked mercenaries to deploy, the expectation is vast improvement on teams.

The roster also allows for safe-guarding the future of all 11 draft picks who have proven worthy thus far, while it has room for hardened mercenaries whose NFL livelihood relies on their ability to own special teams. It has a terrific balance between winning now while laying the groundwork for the future.

To some, the Packers’ final roster conjured few, if any, surprises.

On the contrary, the roster’s very nature is a surprise.

It is nothing short of astounding that A) the Packers drafted 11 players in the first place and B) all 11 earned a roster spot, capped by C) the fact that each of the spots was earned by the player, and rooted in good football sense.

It isn’t a stretch to see any of the 11 draft picks contributing in some way.

Quay Walker, the 22nd overall pick, is paired with All-Pro De’Vondre Campbell to form one of the Packers’ most intriguing inside linebacker duos in forever.

Devonte Wyatt, the 28th pick, and Christian Watson, the 34th selection, will be worked in as Wyatt lines up behind Jarran Reed and Watson continues to get up to speed after recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery.

Receiver Romeo Doubs will be a game-day active at Minnesota in Week 1. The only question is how many snaps will he be lining up for that day? The Packers’ roster has it covered with veteran receivers Allen Lazard, Sammy Watkins and Randall Cobb, each of whom has gotten their work in and is deemed full go.

Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon also are in a similar situation. They have prepared without any preseason snaps, but did participate heavily in the joint practices and Wednesday’s “game-like” practice that drew rave reviews.

The Packers’ offensive linemen got a ton of reps during training camp and the preseason, especially center Josh Myers, left guard Jon Runyan, left tackle Yosh Nijman and the versatile Zach Tom. The Packers kept 10 offensive linemen. Seven of the 10 are in their first or second NFL seasons. Runyan’s entering his third. Left tackle David Bakhtiari and right tackle Elgton Jenkins are the old men in the room.

Aaron Rodgers and Jordan Love will handle the QB duties with a practice squad assist from Danny Etling. Rodgers said he likes the chemistry of the roster, and its makeup, while also being pleased to retain the services of rookies such as tackle Caleb Jones, a massive 6-foot-9, 338-pounder (slimmed down from 370).

“I thought Caleb had a great camp and deserved to be on the 53,” Rodgers said. “Lucky to get him back on the p-squad. Looks like he has a bright future in this league. You can’t teach that kind of size. But, take the 6-9, 340 out of the way, the way that he worked from spring to fall camp and then throughout fall camp, he has what it takes to be a player in this league. I told him that a couple of weeks ago.”

Rodgers appreciated the efforts all the rookies made to maximize their development between OTA’s and today. It’s fairly impressive that none of the 11 draft picks incurred an injury that required them to miss extended time. Watson’s knee surgery was elective, and he’s back in time for the season.

Otherwise it was a clean bill of health.

Some suggested it was a self-fulfilling prophecy for the Packers’ GM and coach to keep all 11 draft picks. It was a way they could say, “See how smart we are? Every draft pick is good enough to make the 53-man roster.”

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

The draft will only be confirmed when players step up in meaningful games. Until then it’s just a lot of speculation. In addition, if any of the 11 draft picks can’t play, but the Packers kept them anyway, it’s going to catch up with them.

Gutekunst explained.

“When we invest in these guys, there’s a reason, and however many weeks in training camp they’re here and OTA’s, that’s a part of it,” he said. “There’s also a lot of work on these guys, not only on the draft picks, but the undrafted free agents and even the guys we pick up off the street. We’re watching these guys and there’s a lot of investment and time into what these guys are. So, I think you weigh a lot of different things, but it’s not simply because they’re drafted. I think it’s because of the work we’ve done on them and where we think they’re going to be down the road.”

Brewers still in hunt;

Packers’ cuts coming

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Brewers continue to persevere in their pursuit of what would be the team’s fourth playoff appearance in the past five seasons.

Milwaukee (67-59) captured the weekend series against Chicago by outslugging the Cubs 9-7 in Sunday’s win. It came on the heels of a 7-0 shutout victory on Saturday at American Family Field.

The Brewers trail NL Central-leading St. Louis (74-54) by six with 36 to play.

In the wild-card race, Milwaukee sits 1 ½ games behind San Diego (70-59) for the NL’s final playoff spot. The Brewers trail the Phillies (72-56) by four games and aren’t apt to catch the top wild-card, Atlanta (79-50), whom they trail by 10 ½.

The one-game playoff to break ties has been eliminated, meaning the Brewers need to finish a full game ahead of the Padres (who won the season series).

The good news is that the Brewers’ bats are beginning to spring to life.

Christian Yelich and Kolten Wong each homered with a baserunner aboard to carry the Brewers past the Cubs on Sunday. On Saturday, Yelich’s three-run home run capped a four-run seventh inning to carry the Brewers to victory.

Yelich is hitting .264 with 11 home runs, 44 RBI and 16 stolen bases. He is a white-hot 16 of 39 (.410) in the past 10 games. He also flashed the power stroke that has long been absent by blasting home runs in back-to-back games.

The Brewers’ bats also got a lift from Garrett Mitchell, who was called up from Triple-A Nashville on Saturday and contributed the next day.

Mitchell delivered the go-ahead, two-run single in the fourth inning. It was his first big-league hit and he eventually came around to score. Mitchell’s family and friends were jubilant in the stands.

Mitchell’s contributions helped Milwaukee win its first three-game series since July 29-31.

Now, the Brewers play host to Pittsburgh today while trying to snap a five-game losing streak to the last-place Pirates. Pittsburgh has won just three of its past 16 games and won’t have scheduled starter JT Brubaker available Monday. Brubaker was placed on the paternity list, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The Pirates haven’t named a starter yet.

Meantime, the Brewers will counter with Corbin Burnes (9-6, 2.84) on Monday. Burnes is 2-1 with a 3.44 ERA against the Pirates this season and a glitzy 6-1 with a 3.02 ERA in 19 career games against Pittsburgh.

Burnes tossed five scoreless innings before Oneil Cruz’s three-run home run keyed a four-run sixth in the Brewers’ 5-3 loss at Pittsburgh on Aug. 2. Burnes was uncharacteristically wild, yielding five walks in 5 1/3 innings.

Milwaukee expects its ace to be much sharper tonight.

“If you’re on top of your game, the saying for me is always that good pitching can beat good hitting,” Burnes said. “If you’re not on top of your game, they’re able to back you into corners and get good pitches to hit.”

If the Brewers are looking for a Pirates killer in their lineup, they have to look no further than Wong, who is hitting .322 with two home runs and 13 RBI in 16 games versus the Pirates this season.

** Packers closing in on final roster cuts

The Packers must trim their active roster to 53 and their practice squad to 16 by Tuesday’s 3 p.m. deadline.

Here are my final roster predictions:

** Quarterback (2): Aaron Rodgers and Jordan Love will handle the quarterback duties with Danny Etling winning a spot on the practice squad.

** Running back (2): Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon are as fine a one-two punch as there is in the league. The third running back will be a game-day elevation off the practice squad (either Tyler Goodson or Patrick Taylor) until Kylin Hill is ready to come off the PUP list. Hill looks like he’ll be ready after the required four weeks.

** Tight end (4): Marcedes Lewis, Robert Tonyan, Josiah Deguara and Tyler Davis will be on the 53-man roster. Until Tonyan’s return, Davis is expected to be the quote/unquote “pass catcher” of the group. I wouldn’t discount Deguara, whose versatility will be integral in the Packers’ two-back sets.

** Receivers (6): Allen Lazard, Sammy Watkins, Randall Cobb, Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs and Amari Rodgers will be on the 53. Samori Toure and Juwann Winfree are locks for the practice squad, unless another team scoops up one or both, although that seems unlikely.

** Offensive line (10): David Bakhtiari, Elgton Jenkins, Josh Myers, Jon Runyan, Zach Tom, Sean Rhyan, Jake Hanson, Yosh Nijman, Royce Newman and Rasheed Walker make the 53.

Walker, who displayed great footwork against Kansas City, was a dependable starter at Penn State. He looks the part and is just too good to let go.

** Defensive line (5): Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry, Jarran Reed, Devonte Wyatt and T.J. Slaton are locks. Jack Heflin could be on the outside looking in unless the Packers deem him more valuable than a seventh receiver.

** Outside linebacker (6): Rashan Gary, Preston Smith, Kingsley Enagbare, Jonathan Garvin, Tipa Galeai and Kobe Jones.

** Inside linebacker (4): De’Vondre Campbell, Quay Walker, Krys Barnes and Isaiah McDuffie.

This is among the best units on the team.

** Cornerbacks (6): Jaire Alexander, Eric Stokes, Rasul Douglas, Keisean Nixon, Shemar Jean-Charles and Kiondre Thomas.

Thomas is a tough call. He has NFL experience and is reputed to be a good special teams’ player. If that’s the case he’s on the 53-man roster.

** Safeties (5): Adrian Amos, Darnell Savage, Shawn Davis, Tariq Carpenter and Dallin Leavitt.

** Specialists (3): Jack Coco, Pat O’Donnell and Mason Crosby.

Packers fall to KC as

special teams struggle

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – When will the Packers be confident kicker Mason Crosby is ready for the Sept. 11 regular-season opener at Minnesota?

That’s easy. It’s when he’s healthy enough to tackle, because he’ll have plenty of opportunities based on the Packers’ atrocious special teams play in a 17-10 loss to the Chiefs in Thursday night’s preseason finale at Kansas City.

Special teams’ coordinator Rich Bisaccia’s coverage and return units were badly outplayed by Kansas City’s crews. Some fans and media members chalk it up to the Packers’ roster being in a state of flux before Tuesday’s roster cuts. If that’s the case why did Kansas City’s special teams’ units look so good? The Chiefs’ coordinator faced the same challenges as the Packers’ Bisaccia.

It’s a lame excuse. The sub-par special teams play has been habitual since 2006. Mike Stock, Shawn Slocum, Ron Zook, Shawn Mennenga and Maurice Drayton all tried and failed to kick-start the special teams’ units into competency.

Now it’s the much-acclaimed Bisaccia’s turn to get it right. Thus far, it hasn’t been good for the alleged special teams’ guru. They’ve been penalized for having 12 men on the field. They’ve been gashed because they’ve only had 10 on the field.

If this is progress how come we’re still waiting to see it?

The Packers’ punt coverage unit yielded 118 yards on six returns for a 19.7 average. They allowed punt returns of 35, 20 and 17 yards to THREE different Kansas City punt returners. The kick coverage crew allowed a 45-yard return to open the second half and suck the life out of the Packers’ sideline.

Green Bay wasn’t much better in the return game. It got zero yards on one punt return and managed a meager 14-yard average on four kick returns. Unblocked Chiefs were crashing the Packers’ return game with a vengeance.

Punter Pat O’Donnell was the lone bright spot on special teams. He punted six times for an average of 56.3 yards and a long of 69.

The Packers have 17 days to figure it out on special teams.

Other takeaways from Thursday night’s preseason finale:

** Quay Walker is exactly what the Packers had hoped when they selected the Georgia linebacker with the 22nd pick back in April.

Walker, the only defensive starter to play against the Chiefs, was terrific. He roamed sideline-to-sideline to make plays all over the field. He is instinctual, fast and strong. He finished tied for the team lead with five tackles (three solo).

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur can’t wait to see him paired with All-Pro inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell in the season opener.

“I thought Quay had a nice night,” LaFleur said. “He is far from a finished product but the guy takes unbelievable mental reps every play. I asked him why he was sitting so far away from the defense late in the game. He said, ‘I can see everything from here.’ That’s a great answer. That’s what I do. When I’m calling plays and I’m 30 yards behind the sticks that’s what I’m trying to do, to see everything.

“I love watching him run,” LaFleur continued. “He’s a big guy that can really move sideline-to-sideline. I’m excited to see him paired up with another creature (Campbell) who’s a 6-foot-4 inside linebacker.”

** Jordan Love’s final statistics don’t entirely reflect his performance.

Love was 16 of 26 for 148 yards with one sack and an interception. He finished with a paltry 61.1 passer rating.

Nevertheless, LaFleur liked what he saw from his third-year quarterback, especially after consecutive three-and-out drives to open the game.

“He showed a lot of resiliency right there,” LaFleur said. “I saw the maturation process that he’s done over the last couple of years. I look at the numbers – that doesn’t make sense – (because) I thought he did a lot of really good things.”

Love directed an 11-play, 68-yard touchdown drive on the third possession. The offense converted five first downs on a drive that was capped by Tyler Goodson’s 24-yard touchdown run.

Love’s fourth drive covered 84 yards in 13 plays and yielded four first downs. It ended with a 23-yard Ramiz Ahmed field goal. Love hit on passes of 19 and 23 yards to rookie Samori Toure, and a 15-yard completion to Amari Rodgers.

Love’s footwork looked good and his accuracy and velocity were NFL caliber.

** The battle for the third running back spot has been a dandy.

Goodson exploded through a gaping hole for his 24-yard touchdown run, and caught five passes on as many targets for 26 yards. He is quick as a cat and appears to have a nose for the end zone.

Patrick Taylor also had a decent game rushing seven times for 34 yards (a 4.9 average) while catching three passes in as many targets for 17 yards.

“I thought both did a nice job,” LaFleur said. “That’s a tough one. A lot of it’s going to come down to how they performed on special teams. I saw guys fighting for tough yards and making plays in the passing game. I’ll have to look at the number of opportunities in pass (protection). A lot of it’s going to come down to special teams play.”

Love looks smoother,

Packers edge Saints

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Jordan Love passed the football and the eye test with flying colors Friday night in the Packers’ 20-10 preseason victory over New Orleans.

Love didn’t look like he was playing quarterback as much as directing an attack – specifically, head coach Matt LaFleur’s attack.

The distinction may be subtle but it’s hardly inconsequential. For the first time with Love behind center, the Packers’ offense fairly resembled what we’ve come to expect the past three seasons. The tempo was good and the execution decent.

Certainly, it could be better, but Love’s improvement suggests it will be better.

Love, the Packers’ first-round pick in 2020, showed progress in the wake of last week’s preseason opener and two joint practices against the Saints. In front of an expectant Lambeau Field crowd, Love didn’t disappoint Friday night.

The Utah State product completed 12 of 24 passes for 113 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions for a77.3 passer rating. He also ran three times for 13 yards and was sacked once.

The Packers’ targeted receivers accounted for five drops among the 12 incompletions as well as Tyler Davis’ fumble after a 7-yard catch that would have produced a first down and kept a late-first half drive alive.

The statistics are misleading. Love’s 21-yard dart to Juwann Winfree and his 17-yard bullet to Romeo Doubs were big-time NFL throws. He went through his progression, read the defense correctly and delivered a strike on target.

Love, 23, remains a work in progress, but his footwork, balance and decisiveness were better. All of that led to more velocity and improved accuracy.

“I’ve gotten more comfortable being decisive, being able to let it rip and not waiting and being hesitant for a play to open up,” he said. “It comes down to being comfortable with the offense and understanding where the receiver’s going to be.”

Love threw three interceptions in the preseason opener at San Francisco. At least one of the three (Tyler Davis’ drop and deflection) wasn’t his fault. The other two interceptions were questionable decisions despite mitigating circumstances such as a collapsing pocket and substandard route-running.

Love was much smoother against the Saints.

“I think he’s light years ahead of where he was a year ago,” LaFleur said. “I think if you asked our guys in that locker room, every one of them would tell you they’ve got a lot of confidence in him. I think we would all agree in that locker room that he’s one of the most improved guys over the last year.”

The Packers’ offense gained 177 yards in the first half with impressive balance. They threw for 91 yards and rushed for 86 yards.

Love’s first drive netted 18 yards before a third-down incompletion on a difficult pass for Romeo Doubs along the sideline led to a punt.

The second and third drives were practically picture perfect.

The Packers went 73 yards in 14 plays before having to settle for a field goal. They went 75 yards in 11 plays and capped the second drive with a 4-yard Love-to-Doubs touchdown pass.

Davis’ fumble on the second play of the drive killed Green Bay’s fourth possession. The fumbles and drops won’t be tolerated by LaFleur or his MVP quarterback, Aaron Rodgers.

A year ago, the Packers had just 12 drops for the entire season. They had five on Friday night. The Packers also had just 35 offensive penalties last season, or scarcely more than two a game.

They play fast and they play clean. Any player giving anything less will be given a seat on the bench, and that’s if they’re not released.

The standard is set. Love is slowly but surely elevating his game to meet it.

“I know the numbers don’t necessary reflect probably how I feel,” LaFleur said of Love. “He stood in the pocket and was throwing on rhythm. Unfortunately again we had too many drops. He was decisive. I think that’s the big thing from him. I see a much more decisive player out there. I think that’s going to lead to a much more effective player.”


** Romeo Doubs made another positive impact and clearly is the No. 4 receiver if the season started today. Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb and Sammy Watkins are going to receive the majority of snaps in Week 1 at Minnesota, but it’s likely that Doubs will have a role and play perhaps a dozen or more snaps.

He hauled in a tough 17-yard catch with two defenders draped all over him and looked smooth grabbing three catches for 24 yards. He had another drop, but overall his ability to get open and make plays is readily apparent.

Love liked what he saw from Doubs.

“We’ve had a really good connection, I think, since he got here for OTAs,” Love said. “He’s been a guy that’s just been making plays out there.”

LaFleur agreed.

“It’s not going to be perfect,” LaFleur said. “There’s going to be some lessons along the way. He’s a guy that is pretty resilient. He doesn’t get fazed by a negative play. He just keeps on playing. That’s what excites you about him.”

LaFleur also appreciates his ability to get open as quick as a hiccup.

“He’s been able to separate, which is something that’s tough to coach,” LaFleur said. “Guys can either do it or they can’t. There’s stuff to clean up, for certain, but he’s a guy that we are excited about. We’ll see where we are in Week 1.”

** The Packers’ defense balled out Friday night.

From defensive tackle T.J. Slaton to safety Micah Abernathy the Packers’ young defenders acting as if defending their turf mattered to them. They played fairly fast and free with cornerback Kiondre Thomas crashing down to make tackles, linebacker Isaiah McDuffie making big strides and second-year corner Shemar Jean-Charles breaking up passes.

Abernathy’s diving sideline interception was a thing of beauty. He leapt over the intended receiver, caught the pass and managed to stay in bounds. On a night when veteran safety Shawn Davis played well, and the other safety, Vernon Scott, was injured, it was important that Abernathy stepped up.

Packers get healthier;

‘Grandpa’ Pujols hits 2 HRs to KO Brewers

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Green Bay fans received great news Sunday when head coach Matt LaFleur announced that Elgton Jenkins, Robert Tonyan and Christian Watson were activated off the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list.

It followed a solid showing by the Packers in Friday night’s preseason opener at San Francisco, which resulted in a 28-21 loss but showcased the talents of more than a dozen players who are battling for roster spots.

The weekend’s big news is the return of Jenkins, Tonyan and Watson.

Jenkins and Tonyan are coming back from ACL tears, while Watson underwent a scope on his right knee a few weeks ago.

“It’s just like the next step in the process,” LaFleur said. “It’s not like they’re going to be out there in team drills. But they’ll do some individual (work) and with them being back, now it allows you to do some walkthroughs, which is going to be obviously very beneficial for, especially for a guy who hasn’t played in the NFL like Christian. So it’ll be great to get ‘em out there for some of the walkthroughs.”

It doesn’t guarantee that they will play in Green Bay’s Sept. 11 season opener at Minnesota, but it does pave the way for the possibility.

Jenkins, a talented and versatile player, could start at left or right tackle when he’s ready to roll. Tonyan is the team’s top pass-catching tight end. Watson, a talented receiver and the 34th overall pick in April, is another piece in the puzzle that is figuring out how to replace All-Pro Davante Adams.

While some teams are dealing with mounting injuries in training camp, the Packers are getting healthier. Safety Dallin Leavitt incurred what’s described as a “serious” shoulder injury Friday night, but no other significant injuries were reported.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur announced the PUP list activations during his pre-practice news conference Sunday.

“It’s just like the next step in the process,” LaFleur said. “It’s not like they’re going to be out there in team drills. But they’ll do some individual (work) and with them being back, now it allows you to do some walkthroughs, which is going to be obviously very beneficial for, especially for a guy who hasn’t played in the NFL like Christian. So it’ll be great to get ‘em out there for some of the walkthroughs.”

LaFleur didn’t commit to playing Jenkins at a particular position.

“There’s not too many guys that are, No. 1, as talented as he is, but also as versatile as he is,” LaFleur said. “We can put him anywhere on that line. Shoot, we could probably put him at tight end. Maybe we will, I don’t know. You guys want to write a story about that?”

Jenkins’ stance and footwork during his individual work on Sunday, according to ESPN, suggests he’ll line up at right tackle. That makes sense, especially if All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari is activated off the PUP list in time to play in the regular-season opener.

If Bakhtiari remains on the PUP list to start the season he will have to miss at least the first four games. Jenkins seems the likely starter at left tackle if that’s the case.

With Jenkins at right tackle, the Packers’ offensive line would be Yosh Nijman at left tackle, Jon Runyan at left guard, Josh Myers at center and either Royce Newman, Jake Hanson or Zach Tom at right guard.

The Packers still have three players on the PUP list: Bakhtiari, veteran kicker Mason Crosby and running back Kylin Hill.

Also Sunday, rookie Kingsley Enagbare picked up where he left off Friday night, when he notched a sack and three pressures against the 49ers. Enagbare, the team’s fifth-round pick, destroyed right tackle Royce Newman in the two-minute drill.

Enagbare, by his own count, had three sacks.

“The last couple practices, I feel like I’ve been coming along and I’ve been able to stack a couple good days,” he told reporters. “It’s trying to stack each day and having a focus each day, whether it’s my hands, my get-off, things like that. Just have a focus each day and try to attack that so, slowly but surely, getting better each day.”

Enagbare could be the Packers’ No. 4 edge rusher behind starters Rashan Gary and Preston Smith, and Jonathan Garvin, who appears to be the No. 3 edge right now.

The Packers held a closed-to-the-public walkthrough Monday. They host the New Orleans Saints for joint practices Tuesday and Wednesday beginning at 10:30 a.m. at Ray Nitschke Field. They will be the final public practices of camp.

** Ageless Albert Pujols crushes Brewers in Sunday’s series finale

The Brewers dropped two of three at St. Louis during the weekend to find themselves 1 ½ games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central standings.

The Cardinals’ ageless wonder, Albert Pujols, did most of the damage in Milwaukee’s 6-3 loss in Sunday’s rubber match. Pujols’ 688th career home run cut the Brewers’ lead to 2-1 in the second inning.

He continued the rampage with a three-run shot in the eighth to seal the win. It was the 42-year-old Pujols’ 689th career home run. He currently is fifth on Major League Baseball’s all-time home run list, trailing only Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714) and Alex Rodriguez (696).

“I’m the grandpa in this clubhouse,” he said after the game. “I’m having a great time. I’ve been putting some good swings all year. Sometimes, you’re going to get breaks. Sometimes you are not.”

Pujols has 10 home runs and 30 RBI in what he said will be his final season.

Meantime, the Brewers’ hitters couldn’t solve Cardinals right-hander Miles Mikolas (9-9), who allowed two runs on four hits in eight innings. He struck out six and didn’t walk a batter.

Mikolas’ performance overshadowed a decent start by Brewers’ left-hander Aaron Ashby, who allowed two runs on three hits in six innings. Ashby struck out five and walked two.

Hunter Renfroe’s two-run home run in the second gave Milwaukee a quick 2-0 lead. It was Renfroe’s 20th bomb of the season.

Rowdy Tellez blasted his 24th home run in the ninth but it wasn’t enough.

Love’s play uneven in

Packers’ loss to 49ers

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Jordan Love needs to build on the positives and learn from the negatives following the third-year quarterback’s uneven play in Green Bay’s 28-21 loss to the 49ers in Friday night’s preseason opener at Santa Clara, Calif.

Love played with poise and confidence while flashing his first-round arm talent on a handful of throws. But the good was mitigated by two poor decisions on throws that were deflected by his receivers and resulted in interceptions.

The Packers’ backup to Aaron Rodgers alternated between sharp and shaky during his 36 snaps. He threw for two touchdowns and three interceptions while completing 13 of 24 for 176 yards and a pedestrian 66 passer rating.

Love’s touchdown throws were nicely delivered 33-yard lasers to rookie receivers Romeo Doubs and Danny Davis. He also commanded the huddle, got them in and out crisply and was accurate on his intermediate throws and check-downs.

His reads and decision-making on several throws was disappointing, though.

Two of his three interceptions were the result of passes that were deflected by his receivers. The third was an ill-advised throw to Amari Rodgers over the middle. He wasn’t perfect, to be sure.

Love seemed to take it in stride.

“The ball wasn’t bouncing our way tonight,” Love said. “A couple misfortunate plays. I think for everybody it could have been a better night. The ball bounced weird ways and they capitalized on those plays. Obviously no one wants that to happen and it sucks when it does. It’s something to learn from.”

Love’s first pick came on a pass that sailed through the hands of Tyler Davis, who is battling to make the team as the fourth tight end. Davis has to make that catch if he wants to earn a spot on the 53-man roster.

The second pick was high and behind Doubs, who contorted his body and nearly made a terrific play before having the football wrestled away by the defender. It should serve as a great teaching moment for Doubs: Finish the play.

The third pick had almost no chance to be completed and shouldn’t have been thrown. Amari Rodgers bowed his route, which allowed cornerback Samuel Womack to step in front for an easy interception.

“Certainly, he’s going to want a couple of the throws back and certainly some of the reads,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “But it’s never perfect for a quarterback. But I thought, by and large, just watching the things like how the operation was, it was a smooth operation.”

LaFleur didn’t entirely absolve Love for throwing the interceptions, but he acknowledged it wasn’t all the former Utah State quarterback’s fault.

“I think two of those you can totally take off him,” LaFleur told reporters. “The third one, we had two busted routes because the ball really shouldn’t have gone there on that play (to Rodgers). He had nowhere else to go with the football, and he forced it in there and the defender made a good play. We’ve just got to clean up everything around him. We say it all the time about quarterbacks, they’re going to get too much credit when we do well and they’re going to get a lot of the blame when we don’t, and that’s just the reality of playing that position in this league.”

Love will have plenty of opportunities to make the necessary corrections. He is likely to receive plenty of reps during the Packers-Saints joint practices, as well as the Saints’ and Chiefs’ preseason games.

Here are other key takeaways from Week 1 of the preseason:

** Amari Rodgers is a much sleeker, more explosive player than a year ago. The third-round pick dropped 10 pounds from his 5-foot-9 frame and appears quicker at 202 pounds.

Rodgers had a nifty 22-yard touchdown catch on a Danny Etling pass in the second half. He also made a terrific read on an incredibly well-blocked kick return and raced 50 yards before being forced out-of-bounds.

On the touchdown catch, Rodgers said: “I just had a flat route and the nickel blitzed off me, so I knew I had a chance of getting the ball. I saw that and I got my eyes around quick and made the first man miss. The second had a good angle on me. I was thinking about cutting back but I saw his angle so I gave him a little hesitation to see if I could stop his speed and it worked.”

Then what?

“I just reached for the pylon,” he said with a smile.

On the kickoff return, Rodgers followed his blocking, made one would-be tackler whiff and then kicked it into high gear.

“It was well-blocked and I think the hardest hit came when he got to the sideline and Rashan Gary knocked him on his butt,” LaFleur said.

** The Packers’ offensive line held up against the 49ers’ defensive starters.

Love wasn’t sacked and had a clean pocket to work in. Etling took one sack.

The Packers finished with 299 yards passing on 19 of 32 for three touchdowns. Perhaps even more impressive was a Packers’ running attack that produced 141 yards on 34 carries (4.1 average) and six rushing first downs.

“I thought our offensive line did a much better job,” LaFleur said. “I thought they held up really nicely throughout the course of the game. It wasn’t perfect. There were a couple runs that I think we could’ve blocked up a little bit better. But by and large I thought they did a nice job.

“I was really happy with the effort that the guys gave really in every phase. I thought guys were competing, playing with great urgency, playing with great effort, playing together. Nobody was making up their own stuff out there which tends to happen sometimes when you get your first exposure in an NFL football game, a preseason game, and so by and large the guys did a nice job.”

** There’s keen competition to be the sixth/seventh receiver.

Doubs had three catches for 45 yards on seven targets. He had two drops, which he’ll learn from, but overall he ran really good routes and showed he belongs.

Samori Toure is my longshot to make the 53-man roster. Toure had three catches for 42 yards on four targets. His speed translates on the field. After Toure’s NFL debut it’s easier to see why he had a knack for getting behind defenders. If the Packers choose to have Christian Watson on the PUP list to start the season – and I think it would be a disservice to him if they didn’t – Toure has a legit shot.

Juwan Winfree also had a nice game with three catches (three targets) for 27 yards. Then there is ex-Badgers receiver Danny Davis, who caught two passes for 45 yards, including the 33-yard touchdown grab.

The receivers will be Allen Lazard, Sammy Watkins, Randall Cobb, Amari Rodgers, Romeo Doubs and either Toure, Winfree or Davis in Week 1.

** The third running back job is up for grabs.

Patrick Taylor, Dexter Williams, B.J. Baylor and Tyler Goodson are battling for one roster spot behind Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon. This is perhaps the keenest competition on the roster.

Taylor and Williams have been in the system for a while now, while Baylor and Goodson flashed more quickness and better hands out of the backfield.

The turning point may be which is most capable on special teams, although the Packers have invested in Keisean Nixon and Dallin Leavitt – a pair of defensive backs – to shore up the teams’ play.

Right now, I’d put Taylor slightly ahead of Goodson, with Baylor and Williams as the longshots.

** The defense was stout against the run.

Green Bay held the 49ers to just 57 yards rushing on 18 carries (a 3.2 average) through the first three quarters. The 49ers then ran 11 times for 63 yards in the fourth quarter to skew the numbers a bit.

The Packers racked up three sacks and had decent pressure most of the night.

The problem was the two big pass plays that went for touchdowns. Danny Gray hauled in a 76-yard bomb behind Leavitt and Ray-Ray McCloud scored on a 39-yard grab when Rico Gafford slipped and fell.

“On one of them, we went up and challenged them, and the receiver made a nice move off the line of scrimmage, similar to the one Romeo scored his touchdown on,” Lafleur said. “The other one Rico (Gafford) slipped on the back end.”

“We gave up two big-time plays and had three turnovers on offense. That was ultimately the difference in the game.”

Love to start Packers’

preseason game at SF

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – There’s an old adage that claims you only get one chance to make a good first impression.

That’s not entirely true.

Jordan Love will start at quarterback in the Packers’ preseason opener against San Francisco on Friday night in San Jose, Calif. It is hardly the third-year signal caller’s first appearance in front of fans, but it may be the most important to date, and it could begin to ease the angst over Aaron Rodgers’ longevity.

What’s past is past, and what matters most is how Love plays against the 49ers. He’ll also get the majority of reps against the Saints and Chiefs this preseason. Packers head coach Matt LaFleur has ruled Rodgers out for Friday night’s game, but stopped short of declaring that he won’t play at all this preseason.

Meantime, Love has been fairly impressive through 10 training camp practices.

The 23-year-old is more decisive in terms of when and where to throw the football. He also has displayed better footwork and rhythm, which has led to increased velocity, improved accuracy and greater consistency.

Perhaps Love’s signature play was a 54-yard strike to Samori Toure with defensive lineman Devonte Wyatt bearing down on him. Wyatt is certain he would’ve recorded a sack, but that doesn’t diminish Love’s coolness under pressure during Friday’s Family Night Scrimmage.

“I feel like I’ve just got more rhythm in my drops, keeping that same tempo, just being in rhythm,” Love told reporters. “When I first got here, I might have been rushing my drops a little too much, trying to go too fast. My brain’s just trying to process information quickly so it’s speeding my feet up. But I’m more relaxed in the pocket, more relaxed with my decision-making and just kind of slowing the game down I think has slowed my feet down. I definitely think my feet, so far through camp, have been a lot better than what they were the last two years.”

Love has taken 131 snaps in the regular season.

The 6-foot-4, 219-pounder has played in six games, with the lone start coming in a 13-7 loss at Kansas City last season. Love is 36 of 62 (58.1 percent) for 411 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. He has been sacked three times and his passer rating is a modest 68.7.

Love acknowledged delivering passes under pressure is a work in progress.

“It’s something I’ve got to improve on,” he said. “Going back to the Lions game last year at the end, the two-minute drive, I had a throw with a guy in my face that I missed and it could have been a big play. That’s something that I looked at during the offseason and thinking about how I have to get better at being able to stay in the pocket and take those hits and still be able to make those throws.”

Love credited quarterbacks coach Tom Clements with his improved footwork. Clements, who is in his second go-round with Green Bay, has been praised by Rodgers for his ability to coach him up as a young player.

Now, Clements is working to do the same with Love.

LaFleur likes what he’s seeing in camp.

“I think (Love) is much more in rhythm, I think there’s much more decisiveness,” LaFleur said Sunday. “I think you see it in his footwork. He’s not getting what I call ‘stuck’ at the top of the drop where both feet are hitting at the same time and he’s just kind of sitting there. It just looks more rhythmical, just looks more fluid, and I think it’s translated in his play.

“I think he’s definitely thrown the ball pretty accurately and has made pretty good decisions. You’ve got to give Jordan a lot of credit for taking the drill work to team and, hopefully, we can take the practice to the games.”

Love’s play is going to be scrutinized throughout camp and the preseason.

The Packers have to determine if the 26th pick in the 2020 NFL draft is capable of leading the team whenever Rodgers decides to retire.

The next step in the process occurs Friday night.

LaFleur added that Rodgers may play in the preseason finale against the Chiefs. He said he wasn’t concerned about the state of the offensive line with David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins still rehabbing from injuries.

Yosh Nijman is working at left tackle while Royce Newman and Zach Tom split time at right tackle. LaFleur said he absolutely wouldn’t hesitate to play Rodgers behind those tackles.

“I think absolutely we would,” LaFleur said. “We still have confidence in those guys. Those guys are going to have to play. We’d just be very particular about what plays we’re calling. We’re not going to have open edges and seven-step drops that take a long time to develop. We’d just be super-intentional about what we call, which we are in every instance usually, anyway.”


** Vernon Scott worked with the No. 1 defense after Darnell Savage pulled a hamstring in Friday night’s scrimmage.

Scott, a third-year pro, has been derailed by injuries and a lack of opportunities early in his career. However, the Packers must like something about Scott to keep him around this long.

Scott worked with the No. 1 defense ahead of free-agent acquisition Shawn Davis.

** Rasul Douglas, Jaire Alexander and Eric Stokes are all getting work as the slot cornerback. Douglas has taken the lion’s share of snaps there, but Alexander and Stokes have been more work there of late.

The thinking is that it makes the cornerback trio more versatile, covers the defense in case of injury, and allows the Packers to go with the best game-specific matchups.

** Samori Toure capped an impressive week with the 54-yard TD grab from Love. Toure, a 4.35 40-yard dash speedster, brings a valuable dimension to the offense. He has the speed and the knack for being able to get behind defenders.

In Green Bay’s play-action happy attack a legit deep threat is vital. The Packers’ offense struggled mightily when Marquez Valdes-Scantling wasn’t available last season. Frankly, the Packers had no other options in terms of stretching the field.

With Toure in house – and Christian Watson still recovering from knee surgery – it isn’t a stretch to see the rookie from Nebraska crack the Packers’ 53-man roster.

** My most impressive player so far?

That’s Zach Tom, the 6-4, 308-pound lineman from Wake Forest. Tom combines the agility of a tight end with really good feet and the power of a lineman.

The Packers wouldn’t be working Tom at right tackle if they didn’t think he could handle it. My best guess is that he starts at right tackle in Week 1 if neither Elgton Jenkins nor David Bakhtiari is available.

If one or the other is able to go at Minnesota, I’m banking on Tom to be the Packers’ starting right guard ahead of Newman.

Brewers’ season goes

kaput in Pittsburgh

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Milwaukee Brewers traded away more than Josh Hader. They sent any chance to reach the postseason packing in the process.

The Brewers acquired multiple players in a trade that sent the All-Star closer to San Diego before the Tuesday deadline. Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns said the move was best for the organization long-term and that it didn’t mean the Brewers were waving the white flag on this season.

The Pirates’ three-game sweep of the Brewers suggests otherwise.

Milwaukee (57-48) dropped into a first-place tie with St. Louis (57-48) atop the NL Central. The Brewers’ 5-4 loss on Thursday – their fourth straight – coincided with the Cardinals’ doubleheader sweep of the Cubs.

St. Louis’ fourth straight win was led by newly acquired pitcher Jose Quintana, who started the nightcap and allowed just one run while striking out seven in six strong innings.

Meantime, the Brewers are listing badly, and to the port side no less.

The Pirates’ Bryan Reynolds was a one-man wrecking crew in the series.

Reynolds hit a ground-rule double to drive in the tying run Thursday, and then scored the winning run on Matt Bush’s wild pitch with the bases loaded and the score tied at 4-4.

Reynolds’ walk-off home run against Devin Williams lifted the Pirates to an 8-7 win Wednesday night.

Clearly, the Brewers missed Hader during the series. They lost each of the three games after the Pirates rallied from multi-run deficits.

Now, the Brewers must return home and try to pick up the pieces.

They have a three-game weekend series with Cincinnati at American Family Field. If the Brewers intend to compete for a playoff berth they have got to nip their current four-game losing streak beginning Friday night.

I wasn’t thrilled with trading Hader but I understood it as a business decision. What disappointed me is the way the organization handled it. They could’ve gone one of two ways:

** Acknowledge Hader’s greatness and what he meant to the organization, and follow it up with naming Devin Williams the closer going forward. It would have given Hader the respect he earned, and it would have kept Williams from the embarrassment of having to be asked, “Why aren’t you the closer?”

** Or they could’ve downplayed it by saying it’s difficult to trade “good” players but they did what’s best long-term while still competing for the playoffs.

They chose Door #2 which was a bad idea.

Williams was unscored upon in 30 straight appearances and should’ve been given the closer role. He earned it. Instead, manager Craig Counsell twisted in the wind and blathered nonsense about “situational roles” and doing it “by committee.”

It seemed Counsell wasn’t at all keen on the trade, either.

The Brewers were the only NL contender who got worse at the trade deadline. The fact that the Dodgers, Padres, Mets, Giants and Phillies all got better compounds it.

Stearns has been a strong presence as the team’s president of baseball operations. In this instance, though, the fact that he was uncomfortable acknowledging Hader’s contributions and greatness made him sound shallow.

He didn’t fool anybody. Not the fans. Not the players in the clubhouse. He was kidding himself, too, if he was to be honest.

The Brewers had a lot invested in this season. They acquired Hunter Renfroe and promoted Jonathan Davis and were getting Freddy Peralta back off the IL with Adrian Houser on that same path.

In the good old days, like a week ago, the Brewers were playing 7-inning games. It was whichever top-flight starter they trotted out with Williams and Hader to finish.

Now it’s a cluster.

If the Brewers manage to get it together and make the postseason that would be great. It would mean their bats finally heated up and the defense tightened up. It also would mean they were able to overcome the loss of Hader.

Here’s the sad part. If indeed the Brewers reach the postseason they’d have had a puncher’s chance with Hader. Now, even if they find their way in, their chances of winning a three-game series without him seem mighty slim.

Here’s the bright side: The Packers’ Family Night Scrimmage is tonight, with the first of three preseason games just a week away.

As for the Brewers’ playoff chances I say, “Maybe next year.”

Brewers trade Hader;

Packers’ D delivering

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Milwaukee Brewers did the unthinkable. They traded former Brewers pitcher Jerry Augustine’s idol. They traded Josh Hader.

It is another not-so-gentle reminder that baseball can be a brutal business.

It was the correct move strategically, but it was a sad farewell nonetheless.

Augustine, a regular contributor on Sports Line, pitched 11 seasons in Milwaukee. He and Mike Caldwell – a pair of left-handers – were the “Yankee Killers” back in the mid- to late-1970s. “Augie” aka the Pride of Kewaunee didn’t believe the Brewers would trade Hader until after the 2022 season.

It didn’t go down that way.

Milwaukee’s president of baseball operations, David Stearns, elected to pull the trigger and send Hader, who is baseball’s pre-eminent closer, to San Diego. In exchange, the Brewers received left-handed reliever Taylor Rodgers, left-handed pitching prospect Robert Gasser, right-hander Dinelson Lamet and outfielder Esteury Ruiz.

Rodgers has 28 saves this season, but also totes around a hefty 4.00-plus ERA. He has been struggling the past two months, and the Brewers are hoping a change of scenery will do him good. He’s also only a rest-of-this-season rental.

Ruiz, a slight but powerful 6-0, 169, is a strong defensive outfielder who hits for average .344 in Triple A plus more power (50 home runs in 2 ½ seasons) than one might suspect. The Brewers assigned Ruiz to Triple-A Nashville and Gasser to Double-A Biloxi.

Gasser is a left-handed strikeout pitcher who had 115 Ks to 28 walks in 90 1/3 innings at High A, where the second-round pick in 2021 is currently pitching.

Lamet, 30, is an intriguing story. He made 12 starts in the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season and finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting. He has been injured for much of the time since then and is only now getting healthy.

Hader, 28, had sustained back-to-back awful outings that shot his ERA to an unthinkable 4.24. However, Hader is healthy and his stuff is as electric as ever. I will be shocked if he doesn’t return to form with the Padres.

Hader said he understood the move but that didn’t make it any easier to pack.

“Thank you for the support throughout my career,” Hader said. “Y’all have been great to me. The people, the energy, the love! There will always be a special place in my heart for MKE.”

Some Brewers fans were puzzled by the move.

Milwaukee (57-46) holds a three-game lead over St. Louis in the NL Central. The Padres (58-46) trail the Dodgers by 12 games in the NL West, although they hold a two-game lead over Philadelphia for the second wild-card slot.

Why are the Brewers sellers and the Padres buyers at the trade deadline?

The Brewers don’t view the Hader trade as waving the white flag.

“We felt this was the right time, and it was only a player of that caliber that could garner such a significant return to make such an impact on the future of the organization,” Stearns said.

Devin Williams, who has been one of the top closer the past two months, will become the Brewers’ closer. Rodgers likely will be the 8th-inning setup man with Brad Boxberger working the seventh.

The Brewers have started fast at 7-2 since the All-Star break. They open a three-game series at Pittsburgh tonight with Corbin Burnes on the mound. After that they return home for a three-game weekend series with Cincinnati.


The scoreboard is 1-2 in favor of the defense after it got the better of it Thursday and Saturday. Friday was a light walkthrough and Sunday was a day off. The Packers will practice with shoulder pads Monday and full pads Tuesday, with Wednesday off.

Gary, whose name is being mentioned along with some of the NFL’s top pass rushers, has been difficult to block. He looks leaner, quicker and stronger than in the past, which is saying a lot.

Overall, the defense has played as fast and ferocious as practice allows.

Preston Smith, a defensive leader, is excited by Gary’s ascension.

“He’s been impressive since he’s been here,” Smith said of Gary. “Just seeing Rashan grow from a rookie until now, it’s just very impressive, man. We just seen what he did last year (9 ½ sacks), and I called it. I did call it early in the offseason. He just keeps stacking those years and keeps coming in working hard. He’s growing into a leader of his own. He’s grown into his own. He’s getting tremendous confidence and he’s playing at a high level and been really consistent with it.”

Defensive tackle Jarran Reed, cornerback Rasul Douglas and the mildly surprising Shemar Jean-Charles, a second-year corner, all have played well thus far. Veterans such as Kenny Clark, De’Vondre Campbell and Adrian Amos – as well as Smith – have been rock solid.

The defense has been vocal in terms of communicating with each other and directing some of the salty stuff at the offense.

“It’s a lot of trash-talking, a lot of confidence,” Smith said. “You just feel the energy in the meetings, out there in practice. Guys are feeling confident, guys are playing real fast, guys are playing at a high level and guys are playing together. We’re trying to stack our days, build off it and keep moving forward.”

A spirited defense undoubtedly will sharpen the offense.

At least that’s the plan.

Doubs shows out early as Packers open camp

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Romeo Doubs is a perfect 2-for-2 after a pair of eye-opening practices replete with sweet catches to kick off the Packers’ 2022 training camp.

Doubs (6-1 ¾, 202) grabbed everything thrown his way – and everyone’s attention in the process – by showing up fit, mentally sharp and ready to roll.

It’s a ray of hope at a position that’ll take all it can get.

Davante Adams’ departure is a source of anxiety. When a young receiver such as Doubs steps up like a pro it makes the growing pains easier to manage.

Obviously, it’s only a scintilla of a sample size, but it’s better than opining about how Doubs appears unable to catch a cold, much less a laser from Aaron Rodgers. That isn’t the case. Doubs body is hard, his hands are soft, and his mind is bright.

Doubs, the 132nd player selected in the draft, was a highly productive, sure-handed receiver at Nevada. He fit the Packers’ modus operandi at receiver: He finds ways to catch passes and make plays despite the fact that the defense knows the quarterback is coming his way.

It was the same for Jordy Nelson at Kansas State, Greg Jennings at Western Michigan and Davante Adams at Fresno State.

Whether Doubs attains their high level of proficiency is impossible to say.

What the rookie does have going for him – and it was the same for his predecessors – was Aaron Rodgers throwing him the football.

There are other similarities between Doubs and the aforementioned greats. He is potential bursting at the seams. He also is thoughtful and soft-spoken. He doesn’t seem to have one shred of prima donna in him.

He’s humble. And he’s a receiver? Go figure.

“I’ve been doing it since high school,” Doubs said of his low-key approach. “Everybody knows that I’m not this big …”

He is too much the gentleman to curse, but he made his point nonetheless.

“And I understand that celebrating his important,” he continued. “I just make sure I try to focus on the next play. That’s my biggest thing for me. You can have a great play, next play could be bad. Emotions change, so that’s why I try to make sure I stay flat-lined.”

It showed in his Day Two approach after an impressive debut.

LaFleur was asked about Doubs’ big Day One before Thursday’s practice. He said, “Anybody can do something one day.”

Now it is two days and counting for Doubs.

One of his more impressive plays came in the red zone when lined up against cornerback Eric Stokes. Rodgers underthrew a pass to the corner of the end zone, but Doubs reached over Stokes and hauled it in for a touchdown.

Doubs was nearly as impressive while discussing it with reporters afterward.

“I knew it was a man look because he had heavy eye on me,” Doubs said. “I just wanted to get attack leverage and Aaron threw a great ball and I was able to make a great grab and go on to the next play.”

Did he think the football was coming his way?

“Yes, because I had just enough space from the sideline to make sure I can get the ball and get my feet inbounds,” he said. “Pre-snap, I had a feeling the ball was coming to me just based on the spacing.”

But wait … there’s more.

“Stokes’ back was turned. I’ve noticed watching film that the majority of some of the QBs’ throws, receivers get chances based on the DB’s POV (point of view). His back was turned. From that point, he doesn’t know where the ball’s going to, if it’s going to go over him, under him. His back was turned, Aaron gave me a chance and I was able to make something happen.”

Sounds like a seasoned veteran.

Clearly, he is making the most of his opportunity while veteran Sammy Watkins and rookie Christian Watson are on the PUP list.

Packers GM Brian Gutekunst isn’t surprised by Doubs’ impressive start.

“He plays fast, runs by a lot of people, so we’re good there,” he said of Doubs’ 40-yard dash time at the combine. “The 40’s great but that play speed on the tape is real.”

So is his play speed on Ray Nitschke Field.

Doubs’ other big plays included a touchdown catch against De’Vondre Campbell. It was a case of the rookie taking advantage of a mismatch, even if the defender happens to be an All-Pro inside linebacker.

“I thought today was just another great day of practice,” Doubs said. “Just being myself, I make sure that I try to be as humble as I possibly can. Just stay consistent, just focus on the little things.”

Packers’ camp opens

with SB LVII the goal

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Aaron Rodgers is back for his 18th season with a singular purpose: Leading the Packers to victory in Super Bowl XLIII.

That’s it.

Anything less would be disappointing at this stage of the future Hall of Fame quarterback’s illustrious career. Rodgers has done and won practically everything there is for an NFL quarterback, but the four-time MVP wants one more ring.

The 38-year-old quarterback is all in and he wants his fans to know it.

“In March, when I made the decision to return, that’s 100 percent in,” he said. “Of course, you think about the next chapter and what’s next in your life all the time. It doesn’t mean you’re not fully invested. When I said I’m back, I’m 100 percent invested. When I’m here, I’m all in, and those guys know that. They know what to expect from me, the type of play, the type of leadership, and that’s what they’re going to get.”

Rodgers’ commitment is unquestioned, as is his ability to play at a high level: Witness his by back-to-back MVP seasons in 2020 and 2021.

While a third straight MVP seems less likely because of Davante Adams’ departure and the sheer difficulty of the feat, it’s not out of the realm of possible.

Rodgers won his second straight MVP (and fourth overall) after leading the NFL in passer rating, touchdown percentage and interception percentage. He threw for 37 touchdowns to just four interceptions, and his passer rating was 111.9.

Naturally, Rodgers’ success depends upon the offensive line play, and right now that position is the team’s greatest concern.

Both starting tackles – David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins – will open the season on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list.

It means Yosh Nijman, Cole Van Lanen, Sean Rhyan and Zach Tom will need to step up at the tackle positions until they return.

Thanks to head coach Matt LaFleur’s scheme, the staff’s coaching and GM Brian Gutekunst’s acquisitions the Packers should be able to survive until their No. 1 offensive line is healthy and in place.

LaFleur surely prefers dealing with the known, such as Adams’ departure, rather than tap-dancing around the unknown. Adams was traded March 18, so he’s had four months to calculate.

Fortunately, LaFleur knows he’ll have his trigger-man (Rodgers) from Day One.

The rest he can figure out.

It starts with teaching his team to play great offense despite being without one of the NFL’s top receivers.
If this were jeopardy, LaFleur could pose the answer, “Aaron Jones.”

To which Rodgers would reply, “Who put up insane numbers when the Packers were without Davante Adams?”

That is the correct answer for a chance to win Super Bowl LVII.

More accurately, given A.J. Dillon’s emergence, the question to the answer is Jones AND Dillon replacing Adams in the offense. The only reason Jones’ numbers weren’t better with Adams out is that he had to occasionally take a series off to catch his breath from all the big plays.

Now it’ll be Jones and Dillon collectively inflicting damage.

LaFleur’s offense will revolve around the running backs, rather than one receiver, which should make it less predictable. Whether it is more explosive remains to be seen, but the potential is exciting.

Then again, as Rodgers said, “I like production over potential. We have some production. We have a lot of potential.”

The potential-to-production transformation is going to require patience, persistence and practice to make it work. The Packers are up for the challenge on the heels of back-to-back losses in the NFC title game. They’re willing to do whatever takes to clear that final hurdle.

On offense it’ll require a bit of rewiring.

The Packers, 13-4 last season, ranked 10th in points (26.5 per game) and yards (365.6 per game). They were third in turnover ratio at +13 with 26 takeaways (18 interceptions, eight fumbles recovered) to just 13 turnovers (five interceptions, eight fumbles lost) in 2021.

LaFleur’s offenses have been among the NFL’s best in terms of avoiding turnovers, pre-snap penalties, drops and blown assignments. Any one of those, in and of itself, can be a game-killer. The Packers have kept them to a minimum under LaFleur and the win-loss record bears it out.

Those tenets of his offense aren’t likely to change.

The play-action pass remains a critical component of the Packers’ attack.

Opposing defenses face a difficult choice against Green Bay’s offense.

They can play it straight with six or seven in the box and hope that the Jones-Dillon duo doesn’t crush them. Or they can commit more players to stopping the run and pray Rodgers doesn’t gash them.

Good luck with that.

Defensively, second-year coordinator Joe Barry has a simple approach in Year 2.

“Daily excellence is our goal,” he said earlier this offseason. “I tell the defense all the time, if you can walk out of this building 1 percent better than you walked in it – and it sounds maybe kind of corny or cheesy – but I think if you take that mentality every single day …

“I think it’s so great that we have guys that, they look back at last year and even though from a team standpoint it was brutal, devastating, we didn’t hoist the Lombardi Trophy, so in our mind it’s a failure as a team, but when you do look at the specifics of the way we played, we played good. But our goal is to play great and our goal is to play great every single week, and we’ve got a bunch of guys in that locker room with that mindset and we’re chomping at the bit to get started.”

So how good can Green Bay’s defense be in 2022?

“It’s going to be scary,” edge rusher Rashan Gary said. “Once we get our communication down and we’re all on the same page, it’s going to be good.”

“Just nasty,” All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander added.

The defense features All-Pro Kenny Clark up front along with Dean Lowry, T.J. Slaton, Reed and Wyatt.

The outside linebackers are set with rising star Rashan Gary opposite Preston Smith, while Campbell, Walker and Krys Barnes will work at inside linebacker.

The corner trio of Alexander, Eric Stokes and Douglas rank among the league’s best at that position. Safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage are experienced, reliable and talented on the back end. Shawn Davis, a fifth-round pick by Indianapolis in 2021, is the third safety.

A year ago, the Packers’ special teams was nasty and not in a good way.

Rich Bisaccia intends to change all that, beginning with that most important of operations: the snap, the hold and the kick.

For his part, Bisaccia is excited to be working with Mason Crosby, who struggled in part because of the errant/inconsistent operation.

“He’s had a hell of a career,” Bisaccia said of Crosby. “The one good thing I know about Crosby is that he’s come back from a down year to play really well. I’m excited about being around him, learning from him, seeing what his strengths are and where we can go forward and keep improving.”

Pat O’Donnell, the veteran ex-Bears punter, was brought in to deliver in cold weather, and to be a reliable holder for Crosby.

Steven Wirtel is first up as the long snapper.


Brewers searching for slump-busting 2nd half

By Chris Havel

Special to THE FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Milwaukee Brewers enter the All-Star break clinging to sole possession of first place in the NL Central by the thinnest of margins.

The Brewers (50-43) are a half-game up on St. Louis (50-44) atop the NL’s weakest division. That’s the circumstance due in part to the Cardinals-Reds game being postponed Sunday. Perhaps Mother Nature is a Brewers fan, and if that’s the case, she also feels their fans’ pain.

To say the All-Star break came at a good time is an understatement.

If this were the Daytona 500 the Brewers would’ve been black-flagged a couple hundred laps in for leaking oil. Instead, all they can do is play on and hope that their pitchers get healthy and their bats awake from a half-season slumber.

The Brewers rode their strong starting pitching, lights out relief and steady defense to an impressive 32-18 win-loss record through 50 games. But when Freddy Peralta (right shoulder), Brandon Woodruff (Reynaud syndrome) and Aaron Ashby (left forearm inflammation) were placed on the IL – Woodruff and Ashby have since returned – the Brewers have struggled mightily.

Milwaukee is 18-25 since May 31. They have won just three of 14 series – and none in July – despite playing the Cubs, Pirates and Reds.

The Brewers’ plus-25 in runs for/against ranks eighth in the National League, and they have lost eight of 11 going into the break.

They are 28-19 against the NL Central, but only 11-13 versus the NL East and 4-8 versus the NL West. They are 7-3 in interleague play.

The Brewers lack of offense has been the team’s greatest problem.

“If you look up and down our lineup, it’s a lot of players having the same offensive year,” manager Craig Counsell said. “I don’t think any of them are dramatically underperforming, but I don’t think anybody’s having a big offensive season.”

Corbin Burnes, the NL’s reigning Cy Young Award winner, still has faith.

“Once everyone gets it going, it’ll be awesome,” Burnes said on MLB.com. “We’ve seen what this offense can do when they’re clicking. Defensively, we’ve got a ton of Gold Glovers, so all the pieces are there, and it’s just a matter of putting it all together, and we know we can.”

The Brewers’ lack of punch has been exacerbated by their recent lack of reliable relief pitching. Milwaukee’s bullpen has given up 28 earned runs in 38 2/3 innings during the past 11 games (3-8), and the pen has been tagged with six of the losses.

Josh Hader, the Brewers’ All-Star closer, has been especially bad recently.

Hader didn’t allow a run until June 7 this season. Now, his earned-run average has ballooned to a whopping 4.50 after his recent struggles. He served up a grand slam in the Brewers’ 8-5 loss Friday night to the Giants.

Hader opted out of the All-Star Game to be with his family during the break. It has been a long and grueling stretch for Hader, whose wife, Maria, struggling with health issues during the couple’s first pregnancy. After several stints on the family leave list, Hader’s wife delivered a healthy baby boy.

Perhaps the mental grind of balancing work and home took a toll.

Fortunately for Hader, and the Brewers, he will be able to recharge this week.

The best bit of news recently is Devin Williams’ addition to the NL All-Star team. Williams has been one of the league’s top relievers during the past two months. In Thursday’s series opener at San Francisco, Williams extended his scoreless-innings streak to 24 2/3 innings, the longest streak in the NL.

Brad Boxberger has been good, but others such as Brent Suter, Trevor Gott and Jandel Gustave have been less reliable.

“We’ve just played so many close games, so (Williams’) innings have obviously been really valuable,” Counsell told reporters. “Your bullpen is going to be in very high-pressure situations every time they take the ball.”

The stress is even higher because of the volume of close games.

The Brewers are 17-13 in one-run games. The 30 one-run games is tied for the second-most in the NL, trailing only Miami’s 36 one-run games. With the offense being so erratic, the pitchers have to be nearly perfect to win games.

Offensively, one bright spot is the team’s 15-15 win-loss record against left-handed starting pitchers. They are 35-28 against right-handers.

One reason for the success against lefties is the presence of Hunter Renfroe. The Brewers need Renfroe to be a reliable force in the heart of the order. He hits left-handers especially well, and forms a difficult one-two punch with Andrew McCutchen, who has been a strong addition this season.

The Brewers rank second in the NL in home runs with 124 and are led by Willy Adames with 19 and Rowdy Tellez with 18. They also rank fifth in slugging percentage at .407.

However, they are eighth in runs scored and 13th in batting average, so even when they’re hitting well with runners in scoring position, there aren’t enough times they have runners to drive in.

The Brewers will have to play better to stay ahead of St. Louis in the NL Central, starting with being more consistent offensively.

The pitching is too good to struggle for long, especially in the bullpen, so Milwaukee’s greatest strength (Burnes, Woodruff, Williams and Hader) remains the horse it is going to have to ride to win the division.