Hangin’ With Havel

Hangin’ with Havel

Friday February 23rd

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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LaFleur hired Hafley

‘To lead … to connect’

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Matt LaFleur’s quest for the right fit at defensive coordinator has taken him down three different paths.

LaFleur retained Mike Pettine from the previous staff the first time.

He went outside the building and hired Joe Barry – despite Barry’s rather underwhelming resume – on the second go-round.

On Thursday, LaFleur introduced Jeff Hafley as his new defensive coordinator after firing Barry this offseason.

Will the third time be the charm?

Packers’ fans hope so. NFL insiders think so.

LaFleur knows so.

Or, at the least, LaFleur believes it will be a great fit based on everything he knows about Hafley, and he’s known of him for years.

It remains to be seen whether the third time is the charm, but this much is true: Hafley presented himself as an exceedingly charming, effective communicator at his introductory news conference.

Hafley, 44, conveyed a well-examined coaching philosophy.

He also displayed a sense of humor, a quick wit and a football background featuring an insatiably curious mind (Hafley’s) that was surrounded by a think tank of NFL coaches and players.

Hafley’s scheme – in and of itself – isn’t unique to the NFL. What makes it different is that it’s Hafley’s own home-brewed concoction. He tested it at Ohio State, and again at Boston College, to gauge its veracity.

The ingredients are basic football, but no two recipes are exactly alike.

Hafley’s football journey began as a defensive backs coach. His acumen is considerable in terms of disguising coverages, rotating coverages to mesh with blitzes and limiting big plays on the back end.

He intends to do that without handcuffing his defense’s aggressiveness.

“You have to get after the quarterback,” Hafley said. “Sometimes it’ll look exotic and other times very simple. But it’ll be matchup based. If (the offense) gets faster, we get faster. If they get bigger, we get bigger.”

If it sounds simple it’s because it’s meant to be so.

“It’s always been important to me to try to make the game simpler for players,” Hafley said. “That’s because part of me being a coach is I have to be a great teacher, so I take all this information that I have and all these things, but I make it very simple for you to understand so you can go out and play fast and aggressive and not worry about anything.”

Hafley prefers a “vision-based” style of defense.

He wants his defensive backs – and the “post safety” in particular – to play facing the quarterback. He often deploys press-man coverage out of a 4-3 base front. The corners may be in man coverage, but the safeties are forever lurking and looking to swoop in and make the big play.

It is clear LaFleur wants his defense to emulate the 49ers, Jets and Texans. Each has ties to San Francisco and Kyle Shanahan, and each is among the NFL’s top defenses year in, year out.

That meant switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base defense.

LaFleur discussed the Packers’ current personnel with GM Brian Gutekunst and how it might fit into Hafley’s preferred style. Gutekunst was convinced the Packers had enough horses to run this type of race.

Essentially, LaFleur got the best of both worlds.

Hafley’s background is rooted in the 4-3 base defense, and his scheme is compatible with the current roster.

It’s why LaFleur smiled when asked if he hired the man or the scheme.

“I wanted to get who I thought was the best for us,” he replied. “Every situation’s a little bit different. I equate putting a coaching staff together to … it’s like putting a puzzle together. And how does each piece fit? And that’s an important part of it, the fit, and he just happens to run more of a 4-3 and that’s … but I felt comfortable with what we had.”

Hafley described what he looks for in a “post safety” to run his defense.

The player’s size could range from 6-0, 190 all the way to 6-2, 215. They have to be fast, instinctive and an exceptionally sure tackler.

“They have to fly up to the line at 100 mph to tackle the running back. They have to fly up and help finish tackles. They have to be able to roam sideline-to-sideline. They’ve got to be able to communicate. They’ve got to be able to “pick it” – make interceptions – and I love a guy who can play man-to-man coverage.”

Hafley paused, smiled and added, “I just described the perfect player.”

Or, he could’ve said, “I just described Charles Woodson.”

There’s no doubt the Packers will be on the lookout for defensive backs in general, and big, rangy corners or safeties, in particular.

When Hafley was asked about Quay Walker the uptick was noticeable.

“Quay is a talented, talented player,” Hafley said. “He’s a player who’s going to be put in position to make a lot of plays for us.”

Hafley was asked about his staff, which includes some fiery coaches.

“We’ll be demanding but never demeaning,” he said. “We won’t be hollering. We’ll be coaching. We don’t motivate out of fear.”

Hafley’s ability to be creative and adapt surely was among the traits LaFleur coveted in his new defensive coordinator.

His scheme deploys a one-high shell look (one safety in the middle of the field) that actually plays like a two-high shell. It allows the defense to get extra defenders in the box at the last second before the snap.

Hafley further explained his philosophy.

“The things I believe in defense – whether you’re playing 3-4 or 4-3, press man, which I do love … it comes down to ‘can you  take your players who you have and put them in the best position to succeed?’ he said. “Can you take your players and maximize their ability? Every player wants to get better, and that’s our job to do. Our job is to put the players in the best position to succeed and make plays.”

While Hafley’s wife, Gina, and their 8- and 5-year-old daughters remain in Boston, he has been on a tape-watching binge.

Hafley, 44, has been at 1265 Lombardi Avenue pulling all-nighters because, as he explained, with his family in Boston there’s not much else to do but study film (which he loves) or sit in his hotel room.

“I’ve probably got to watch more football the last week-and-a-half than I’ve gotten to watch in like four months,” he said. “As a head coach in college, you’re pulled in so many different directions. I feel like a kid in a candy store again just sitting there and being able to watch on tape. It’s probably one of the most refreshing and clear minds I’ve had in such a long time. I’m having a blast doing it.”

Bucks’ Lillard is East All-Star MVP … So?

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Damian Lillard made NBA history this weekend.

The Bucks’ guard became only the second player ever – and the first since 1988 when Michael Jordan won the dunk contest – to capture an All-Star Weekend event and be selected as the game’s MVP.

Lillard won the 3-point contest Saturday night in Indianapolis.

Then, he won a second 3-point contest – also called the All-Star game – by scoring 39 points to lead the East to a 211-186 victory over the West in the highest-scoring game in All-Star history.

To that I say congratulations to Lillard, and I would add, “So what?”

The Bucks traded for Lillard with the hope that “Dame Time” might win an MVP trophy. It’s just that they were hoping for an NBA Finals MVP trophy, not a piece of hardware from a glorified pickup game.

Guess what? Lillard can still shoot. Everybody already knew that.

Guess what else? Lillard can’t play defense. Again, it’s no surprise.

It is difficult being happy for Lillard when all he’s been in Milwaukee is a mostly joyless soul. The last time I saw Lillard smile – in fact, one of the few times I’ve seen him smile – was during last night’s game.

Mostly, he’s cast an unhappy and at times downright miserable shadow.

Lillard more resembles a hostage than an All-Star in Milwaukee. If only he could click the heels of his Nikes together and go back home to Portland. Some Bucks fans would be Ok with that so long as they get the hardnosed, defensive-minded Jrue Holiday in return.

For his part Lillard accepted the award with class and a nod to greatness.

“Any time you’re mentioned in the same category as Mike, it’s an honor, it’s a major accomplishment, even if it’s All-Star Weekend,” he said, before adding, “Because if it was that simple more people would have done it.”

That much is true.

Lillard drew oohs and ahhs midway through the third quarter. That’s when he rebounded Luka Doncic’s failed alley-oop selfie, dribbled just past midcourt and uncorked a 41-foot bomb to put the East up 132-105.

He added six points in the fourth quarter, including a 44-foot rainbow with 22.1 seconds to play, as his walk-off shot.

Lillard was 14 of 26 from the floor (11 of 23 behind the 3-point arc) and added six assists.

This was Lillard’s eighth All-Star appearance and his first start.

“I’m a vet in the game at this point,” he said. “Why not go and try to get an MVP? I mean I’ve been here long enough.”

Karl Anthony-Towns was the runner-up for the Kobe Bryant MVP Trophy with 50 points in 28 minutes. Anthony-Towns also finished second, along with the Hawks’ Trae Young, in the 3-point contest.

Anthony-Towns became the fourth All-Star to eclipse 50 points.

Nevertheless, Lillard captured the award to become the third player in NBA history to convert at least 40 3-pointers in All-Star play. The others are Stephen Curry with 51 and LeBron James with 41.

Now the 33-year-old Lillard is setting his sights on another award.

Clearly, he wants to capture an NBA title in Milwaukee. It just appears that he has no idea how to go about it with his new team. He and Giannis will look like Magic-to-Kareem one play and total strangers the next.

Out of sync doesn’t begin to describe the Bucks’ sluggish play.

Nonetheless, nearly ever NBA fan in Wisconsin not only co-signed on the Lillard trade, they had to pinch themselves to make sure it was real. Since then that dream has slowly devolved into a nightmare.

After 11 seasons in Portland, the Bucks traded for Lillard in the offseason in search of an NBA title. The idea was to pair Lillard along with Giannis Antetokounmpo and win the Bucks’ third championship.

So far, it’s been an unmitigated disaster.

Adrian Griffin was in way over his head as the team’s first-year coach and was fired after 43 games. Doc Rivers took over but it hasn’t been any better for Milwaukee.

The Bucks (35-17) are third in the Eastern Conference standings behind the Boston Celtics (43-12) and Cleveland Cavaliers (36-17).

It isn’t their current record or playoff seeding that’s troublesome.

It’s the eye test.

The Bucks look disjointed and out of whack.

They play defense sparingly and offense occasionally.

These days the Bucks are almost as unrecognizable and unwatchable as the NBA’s All-Star game.

Lillard didn’t disagree that the new-look Bucks have struggled.

“It’s been a tough year, just the transition to a new tteam; we’ve had three coaches since I’ve been there,” he said, adding interim coach Joe Prunty to the equation. “Any time you have these types of experiences where you have adversity … I think that’s the time you got to show who you really are. Keep doing what you do, keep believing, and when you do that, usually it comes back to you.

“You just can’t fold.”

The Bucks open the second half of the season at the Timberwolves on Friday night. Then they travel to Philadelphia for a Sunday afternoon affair against the Joel Embiid-less 76ers.

As for the All-Star game, Lillard admitted the obvious: There isn’t going to be much effort expended, especially on the defensive end.

“I think the game could be more competitive,” Lillard said. “I think 200 (points) is a lot to be scored. It just shows that we didn’t go out there and compete like I guess you would want us to or whoever would want us to. But I think that’s just what it is. Guys are talented. They make a lot of shots. We hit a lot of 3s, and that was it.”

The NBA’s East squad sounds a lot like the Bucks.

They make a lot of 3s. They make jaw-dropping plays. They feature the greatest player on the planet – Giannis – along with one of the greatest sharpshooters in league history (Lillard).

Now they need to find a way to put it all together in time for the playoffs.

A late postseason run is still possible, but a lot has to change beginning with Lillard’s outlook and disposition. For all that bank he’s receiving, is an occasional smile too much to ask?

Brewers’ rotation top

concern going into ‘24

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Brewers won 92 games last season to claim the NL Central by a cozy nine games ahead of the second-place Cubs.

The Reds (82-80), Pirates (76-86) and Cardinals (71-91) were last seen in the Brewers’ rearview mirror running on fumes last September.

It was a wonderful sight to behold.

Furthermore, the Brewers’ stated intention to win the NL Central again this season must be music to fans’ ears. After seeing Craig Counsell’s Crew reach the playoffs four of the past five seasons it’s possible, right?

Well, anything is possible in a tight division, but is it realistic?

Brewers’ fans may love the optimism despite major offseason losses, but the cold, calculating Las Vegas odds-makers predict the Corbin Burnes trade and Brandon Woodruff’s injury will be too much to overcome.

That is especially true if Freddy Peralta, the staff’s ace, struggles for whatever reason this season.

There is also the reality that ex-Brewers manager Craig Counsell’s move to Chicago creates another significant question mark: Can Pat Murphy and his sidekick, Ricky Weeks, pull rabbits out of the cap like Counsell?

It’s why the Brewers are projected to go 81-81 for a fourth-place finish.

That’s ok. I’ll take the “over” on 81 total wins.

The NL Central’s cluster of mediocrity offers hope.

Las Vegas has the Cubs winning the division at 85-77, with the Reds (83-79), Cardinals (82-80) and Brewers (81-81) lumped together in the “close but no cigar” subset.

The Pirates (72-90) are penciled in at fifth.

One baseball writer cleverly called it the “throw-a-dart division.”

Which team is going to hit the bull’s-eye?

If it’s the Milwaukee Brewers here are three things that need to happen for them to capture a second straight division title:

** No. 1 – Pat Murphy is an experienced, knowledgeable baseball lifer.

Those attributes, in addition to possessing a delightful, self-deprecating sense of humor, should serve him well. It’ll be interesting to see how witty, whimsical and glib Murphy will be if the Brewers start slowly.

More important is Murphy’s ability to manipulate baseball’s best bullpen in order to compensate for the rotation’s perceived deficiencies.

Peralta is the unquestioned lead dog.

The hard-throwing right-hander needs to be himself, which is to say, Peralta can’t try to replace Burnes and Woodruff by himself. It’s ridiculous to think Burnes’ and Woodruff’s combined 350-plus innings, nearly that many strikeouts and a minuscule ERA won’t be missed.

Then again, Peralta can at least minimize the damage.

The 27-year-old was 12-10 over 30 starts last season. He pitched 165 2/3 innings while allowing 131 hits with 54 walks and 210 strikeouts.

Right-handers Colin Rea and Jakob Junis, along with left-handers Wade Miley, DL Hall and Robert Gasser, will be in the mix.

Six-foot, seven-inch Jacob Misiorowski and his 100-mph fastball could be a viable option as a starter by mid-season.

Otherwise it’s mostly about when and how often Murphy deploys righties Joel Payamps, Elvis Peguero and Bryse Wilson in addition to a pair of 100-mph righties in Abner Uribe and Trevor Megill.

Hoby Milner remains the primary lefty out of the bullpen.

Closer Devin Williams, the air bender, is among MLB’s finest.

Murphy needs to solve the riddle that is successfully maintaining and sustaining the staff through a 162-game journey.

** No. 2 – The Brewers’ bats need to be better.

First baseman Rhys Hoskins should end the search for a cleanup hitter. Hoskins is a proven power hitter. Now he needs to deliver.

William Contreras, an All-Star catcher who hits for power and average, should be more comfortable after a season under his belt. Veteran Gary Sanchez offers pop at DH and Eric Haase should be the backup catcher.

Newly acquired infielder Joey Ortiz could be the starting second baseman, but he’ll also see time at third base and shortstop. He has a chance to add home-run power as he matures and gets stronger.

Slick-fielding Brice Turang needs to find his bat in order to play, while Andruw Monasterio and Owen Miller offer infield depth.

Tyler Black is expected to be first up at third base. If Black can handle the bat as well as he plays defense he should start on Opening Day.

Willy Adames, the team’s heartbeat, is a first-rate shortstop who possesses legit 30-home run power.

Christian Yelich will be the leadoff hitter. He’ll see time in left field, but mostly he’ll be the everyday DH. Jackson Chourio and his $82.2 million albatross will have every chance to be the everyday centerfielder.

That leaves Sal Frelick, Garrett Mitchell, Blake Perkins and Joey Wiemer to sort out the rest. All are excellent defensive outfielders, but as the saying goes, “The bat plays.”

** No. 3 – The Brewers’ plate discipline, which means drawing walks and delivering opposite-field hits, hopefully will lead to more traffic. The idea is to turn solo home runs into two- and three-run shots.

Patience at the plate also should help the Brewers’ odds of getting into the opposing team’s bullpen. That is the one place Milwaukee has a distinct, undisputable advantage over everyone else.

What’s more all that speed – from Yelich to Mitchell to Frelick and the rest – should equate to better base running and more stolen bases.

Theoretically it should put more pressure on opposing defenses. Again, that’s where the Brewers – who had one of MLB’s top defenses in 2023 – own a distinct and significant edge over other teams.

The Brewers’ “Big Three” used to be Burnes, Woodruff and Peralta.

It has been replaced by great defense, a lights out bullpen and timely hitting with improved pop. It should be enough to exceed 81 wins.

The question is whether it will be enough to claim the NL Central.

Pitchers and catchers reported Wednesday. Today is the Brewers’ first practice. Milwaukee takes on the San Francisco Giants on Saturday, Feb. 24, at 2:10 p.m.

This will be among the Brewers’ most interesting spring trainings in recent memory. There is reason for optimism amid many unknowns.

It’s time to “Play ball!”

Chiefs, Packers fueled by love stories in 2024

By Chris Havel
Special to The FAN
GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Chiefs’ fingerprints were still fresh on the Lombardi Trophy when Travis Kelce made his team’s intentions clear.
After exchanging a soulful kiss and hug with his world-famous pop star girlfriend, Taylor Swift, Kelce grabbed the mike and shouted out sweet music to Chiefs’ fans ears.
“Well, you know the goal has always been to get three,” he hollered from the stage. “But we couldn’t get here without getting that ‘two’ and having that target on our back all year … How about that?
“We get a chance to do it three times in a row.”
Chiefs’ fans responded with a roar of approval following Kansas City’s 25-22 victory over San Francisco in overtime Sunday to claim Super Bowl LVIII at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
While the Chiefs were celebrating the victory and looking ahead to a three-peat, the defeat left the stunned 49ers in abject misery.
The 49ers’ loss, which came with a scarcity of big plays, sowed seeds of doubt surrounding San Francisco’s Brock Purdy. The 49ers’ second-year QB was good, but not nearly good enough to mortally wound the Chiefs.
The 49ers’ loss also makes the mountain that much more difficult to climb given their hefty payroll, shaky QB and the defection of their own free agents who will be overrated and overpaid by other teams.
San Francisco’s got plenty of work to do this offseason.
That leads to Green Bay’s love story.
Only a fool would compare Jordan Love to Mahomes, especially this early in Love’s career, but it should be painfully obvious to 49ers fans that the Packers’ quarterback is a superior play-maker to Purdy.
Furthermore, the Packers have an ascending roster, a first-rate GM, a top-notch head coach, a new defensive coordinator and … Love.
The Packers beat the Chiefs at Lambeau Field last season and narrowly lost to the 49ers, 24-21, in the NFC divisional playoffs.
While Green Bay’s future is bright, San Francisco’s is a bit murky.
Four years ago, the 49ers blew a 20-10 lead going into the fourth quarter in Super Bowl LIV before falling to Kansas City, 31-20.
This time they led 19-16 late in the fourth quarter, and again 22-19 in overtime, before seeing coach Kyle Shanahan lose a third Super Bowl. His first came as offensive coordinator for the Falcons’ team that blew a 28-3 halftime lead and lost in overtime to the Patriots and Tom Brady.
Now Shanahan has felt the sting of Patrick Mahomes for the second time in four years.
“When you go against guys like Tom Brady and Pat Mahomes, you never feel comfortable with a lead,” he said. “Those guys are two of the best to ever play the game.”
Shanahan should hear himself talk.
The 49ers’ head coach is among the NFL’s finest.
Nevertheless, he deserves criticism for questionable decision-making in the game’s biggest moments.
First, he should’ve kicked off when he won the coin toss in overtime. The advantage is with the second team to get the football given the NFL’s new overtime rules for the postseason. He should know this.
Second, Shanahan should’ve gone for the touchdown on the opening drive in overtime. Instead, he capped the 13-play, 66-yard drive by kicking a 27-yard field goal.
So why go for it on fourth-and-4 at the Kansas City 9-yard line?
Here’s why: If the 49ers get the TD the best the Chiefs could do is tie it with a touchdown, unless head coach Andy Reid elected to go for two points and the win. If the 49ers failed on fourth down, the Chiefs would’ve had to go 50-plus yards to get into field goal range. And they wouldn’t have been in four-down territory the entire drive.
The 49ers’ field goal gave the Chiefs the opening they were looking for, and Mahomes took it from there.
The three-time Super Bowl MVP led Kansas City on a 13-play, 75-yard drive that was capped by a 3-yard touchdown pass to Mecole Hardman for the victory.
“With all the adversity we’ve been through this season to come through tonight … I’m proud of the guys,” Mahomes said.
“This is awesome … Legendary.”
It is all of that and more.
Mahomes, 28, became the fifth starting quarterback to win three Super Bowls, joining Brady, Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman.
After an underwhelming first half, Mahomes relied on his arm and his legs to overcome the 49ers’ stalwart defense. He finished 34 of 46 for 333 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a 99.3 passer rating.
Mahomes’ scrambles, including a 22-yard jaunt, kept the Chiefs’ offense moving against San Francisco’s salty defense.
Ultimately, an incredibly well-designed play by Reid and his staff enabled Mahomes to hit a wide-open Hardman for the game-winner. Furthermore, Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo neutralized the 49ers’ offense with an impressive array of blitz packages.
In Reid, Spagnuolo and Mahomes the Chiefs have what the Packers are trying to establish: True offensive and defensive balance.
It’s interesting to note that Packers defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley has discussed designing defenses to stop running quarterbacks in college. He also pointed out that it’s just as important to do so in the NFL – especially in the playoffs – when opposing QBs will do whatever it takes to win, including tucking it and running like Mahomes did Sunday night.
Perhaps Hafley and the Packers will have an opportunity to put Mahomes to the test next February. Super Bowl LIX is scheduled for a Feb. 9, 2025 kickoff at Caesar’s Stadium in New Orleans.
This much is certain: The Packers and Matt LaFleur aren’t going to take the 49ers for granted. There’s too much respect for Shanahan to allow it. In addition, the Packers are never going to take the Chiefs lightly.
“The Kansas City Chiefs are never underdogs. Just know that,” Mahomes said.
Trust me. The Packers know it.

Badgers can’t hit 3s, Bucks can’t play ‘D’

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – As their seasons stretch beyond the midway point, the Badgers and the Bucks are sputtering rather than excelling.

With anxiety rising and expectations falling concern is through the roof at the Kohl Center and Fiserv Forum. Where their seasons lead remains to be seen, but the Badgers’ prospects are better than the Bucks’.

Shooting slumps come and go. It’s a fact of life in college basketball and it’s nothing the Badgers haven’t worked through before. In fact, overcoming offensive inadequacy is part of Badgers’ folklore.

The Bucks’ awful defense is an entirely different matter.

Replacing Adrian Griffin with Doc Rivers as coach amounted to little more than rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.

Milwaukee (33-18) is third in the NBA’s Eastern Conference behind the Celtics (39-12) and Cavaliers (33-16) and just ahead of the surging Knicks (33-18) and slumping 76ers (30-20).

The Bucks are 1-4 since Rivers took the reins (all on the road). They have lost two straight and are a middling 5-5 in their last 10 games.

More disturbing is Milwaukee’s dismal 12-13 road record. The Bucks are the ONLY team among the top five teams in each conference with a losing road record.

Unless the Bucks pull off a stunning turnaround they aren’t going to be the No. 1 seed, which means they’re going to have to win on the road at some point in the postseason to reach the Finals.

As it stands the Bucks will be fortunate to advance past the first round.

When the Bucks traded for Damian Lillard most NBA observers had them penciled in for greatness. Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo would deliver the Bucks’ third NBA title in franchise history.

That’s because at crunch time, with the game on the line, Lillard would find the nearest phone booth and become his alter ego, “Dame Time.”

The narrative went like this: If the Bucks didn’t blow out opponents early, Lillard and Giannis would close them out late. The Bucks and the word “unstoppable” were routinely used in the same sentence.

Then a not-so-funny thing occurred on the way to the trophy ceremony.

A necessary evil known as defense – or rather the Bucks’ inability to play it – has cluttered up the championship landscape.

Lately, I have missed Jrue Holiday more times than the Badgers have missed wide-open 3-point shots, which is saying a lot.

Holiday, along with P.J. Tucker and Wes Matthews, provided proven, hardnosed defenders necessary to win playoff games. Inevitably, postseason games become half-court bump-and-grind affairs.

The Bucks are ill-equipped as currently constituted.

It’s no wonder Milwaukee’s Jon Horst is searching for trade partners in the hopes of acquiring defensive help. The Bucks have been linked to Mavericks’ power forward Grant Williams, the Nets’ Dorian Finney-Smith and the Warriors’ Andrew Wiggins.

Williams is a rugged rebounder and defender.

Finney-Smith and Wiggins are solid perimeter defenders who are capable of sticking 3-pointers.

The Bucks looked weary and played like it in a 114-106 loss to at Phoenix on Tuesday night. Devin Booker scored 32 points while Kevin Durant added 28 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Suns.

Star guard Bradley Beal had 25 points and 10 rebounds to go with three steals, and big man Jusuf Nurkic added 10 points and 10 rebounds.

The Bucks were outclassed by a Suns squad that is 16-6 after falling below .500 with a Christmas loss to the Mavericks.

To complicate matters, Giannis is dealing with a chronic sore right knee and desperately needs to play fewer minutes down the stretch. Lillard missed the Suns game with a sprained ankle, and Mr. Bad Luck – aka Khris Middleton – exited the game with a sprained ankle.

The Suns shot 50.6 percent from the field. They were 8 of 28 from beyond the arc. Durant scored 14 points in the fourth quarter, otherwise known as “Durant Time.”

Fixing what ails the Bucks isn’t going to be easy.

Right now Milwaukee fails the eye test miserably on defense. It’s either target practice from beyond the 3-point arc or a layup line for opponents.

If Rivers can transform the Bucks into a serious threat he should win the “Coach of the Year” award.

The Badgers are only an ophthalmologist away from the Sweet 16.

If they can correct their shooting eye they should make a strong tournament push. They have experience, size, talent and a willingness to play for and with each other.

What they don’t have is a tried-and-true sniper.

Connor Essegian was supposed to be that guy, but he has tailed off. John Blackwell was shooting 3’s at a 50-percent clip but also has slowed.

The Badgers (16-7, 8-4) are third in the Big Ten behind Purdue (21-2, 10-2) and Illinois (17-5, 8-3).

Wisconsin’s 3-point field goal percentage is 34.6 for the season, which ranks a respectable sixth in the Big Ten. However, the Badgers are only ninth in the league in made 3-pointers (157). No team in the league’s top five has made fewer 3-point shots.

In Wisconsin’s 72-68 loss at Michigan on Wednesday night A.J. Storr led the Badgers with 20 points and Chucky Hepburn added 17.

But Wisconsin committed 11 turnovers and hit just 5 of 19 3-point tries, including a disastrous 0-for-11 stretch.

The Badgers are at Rutgers on Saturday before returning to the Kohl Center to host Ohio State on Tuesday night.

Look for the Badgers to get their 3-point shooting straightened out and ultimately advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

As for the Bucks, it’s all about what player or players they can acquire before the trade deadline. And here Bucks fans thought the acquisition of Lillard was going to be the final championship piece.

As they say, even the best-laid plans …

Brewers trade Burnes,

still expect to compete

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – It isn’t often a big-league general manager trades one of the greatest pitchers in team history and says, with a straight face, “I wouldn’t look at this as any kind of a rebuild at all.”

That’s Matt Arnold’s story and he’s sticking to it.

The Brewers’ GM met with the media Thursday night after it was made official: Milwaukee traded ace Corbin Burnes to the Baltimore Orioles for pitcher DL Hall, infielder Joey Ortiz and a first-round draft pick.

“The overarching theme is we’re excited about the players we’re getting back,” Arnold said. “The reality of our situation is that we had one year left with Corbin.”

After 2024 the Brewers wouldn’t have received any compensation.

It is counterintuitive to believe any team could be as good after trading away one of the most dominant right-handed starters in all of baseball.

Nevertheless, that’s the plan in Milwaukee.

The Brewers have been to the playoffs four of the past five seasons. They won the NL Central by nine games last season. They finished a tidy 92-70 which was 10 ½ games better than their projected win total.

Milwaukee is a perennial overachiever.

Arnold expects that to continue despite Burnes’ departure to Baltimore.

“Corbin was nothing but a warrior for us,” he said.

Burnes was 45-27 with a 3.26 ERA during six seasons in Milwaukee. He made 106 starts and pitched 709 1/3 innings while allowing 542 hits, 206 walks and 870 strikeouts. He struck out 200 in 193 2/3 last season.

Burnes is amazing.

The reality, though, is the Brewers needed to recoup something for one of baseball’s top pitchers, even if it meant trading him with one year remaining on his contract.

Arnold noted that this is precisely the “balancing act (the Brewers) are trying to walk here” as a small-market club in terms of competing for division titles and retaining a well-stocked minor-league system.

The Brewers also enter the season without Craig Counsell as their manager for the first time since 2015.

Pat Murphy, his former bench coach, and Ricky Weeks, his former second baseman, replace him as the Brewers’ co-managers.

There is some uncertainty regarding the everyday lineup – and it’s possible shortstop Willy Adames, for example, could be traded – but as it stands a few things are solid bets.

** The Brewers’ defense was among MLB’s finest last season.

There is no reason to think that won’t continue this season. In fact, it is possible Milwaukee’s defense will be better. Catcher William Contreras will have a full season under his belt with the Brewers. The comfort level alone should help, not to mention his own self-improvement, which saw him develop into one of the game’s top defensive backstops.

Adames, the newly acquired third baseman/shortstop/second baseman Joey Ortiz (Arnold said he’s a gold glove defender) and Brice Turang all are exceptional middle infielders.

Andruw Monasterio, Owen Miller and Ortiz all are solid defenders at third base, and Rhys Hoskins is a capable first baseman.

In the outfield, Christian Yelich is a solid defender while Garrett Mitchell, Sal Frelick, Jackson Chourio and Joey Wiemer all grade out as well above average. Mitchell, Frelick and Chourio are all speedsters, and Blake Perkins may be the best defender of them all.

** The Brewers’ bullpen is one of MLB’s finest.

Right-handers Trevor Megill and Abner Uribe routinely unleash fastballs in the upper 90s into triple digits. Joel Payamps, Elvis Peguero and Bryce Wilson all were outstanding last season.

The newly acquired Hall, a hard-throwing left-hander, joins soft-tossing but effective Hoby Milner as another left-handed option.

Closer Devin Williams is dynamite.

** The offense should produce more runs.

The Brewers will have Yelich as the primary leadoff hitter and Hoskins as the cleanup hitter from Opening Day on. Hoskins is expected to provide 30-plus home run power from the right side.

Cruz or Monasterio at third base will add little pop to the attack, but the outfielders should be better for having nearly a full season under their belts. Chourio, Frelick and Mitchell are expected to be offensive threats by utilizing their speed, ability to get on base and timely hitting.

It’s a formula that has worked before to World Series success.

Of course, Wade Miley, Freddy Peralta, Aaron Ashby and Colin Rea are going to have to stay healthy and effective as the heart of the rotation.

I expect the Brewers to be a competitive team that finishes above .500 and challenges the Cubs for the NL Central title.

LaFleur hires Hafley

to build Packers’ ‘D’

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – If Jeff Hafley disguises defenses as well as Matt LaFleur conceals coaching hires the Packers’ new defensive coordinator just might be the right person for the job.

Hafley, 44, was hired to replace Joe Barry on Wednesday.

As of Monday, multiple media outlets were reporting that LaFleur had interviewed six candidates, none of whom were Jeff Hafley.

It appears LaFleur had his guy all along, but chose to use the hiring process to collect info on everyone from Broncos’ defensive backs coach Christian Parker to Cowboys’ defensive line coach Aden Durde.

LaFleur and Hafley have never worked together, but they’ve been longtime acquaintances and admirers of each other. In addition, they have various coaching connections across the football landscape.

Hafley was the head coach at Boston College for four years before leaving for Green Bay’s defensive coordinator position. He was hired at B.C. after spending 2019 as Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator.

Before that he spent five seasons in the NFL.

Hafley was the Cleveland Browns’ defensive backs coach under Mike Pettine in 2014 and 2015. He left in 2016 for San Francisco to work for Kyle Shanahan as the 49ers’ defensive backs coach.

The Packers introduced Hafley on Wednesday.

“We’re excited to welcome Jeff, his wife, Gina, and their daughters, Hope and Leah, to the Packers and the Green Bay community,” LaFleur said in the statement. “Jeff has had success at every stop of his coaching career with an impressive track record of developing players at every level. We look forward to him leading our defense.”

Hafley expressed his thoughts on a variety of football-related topics in an excellent Jan. 25 interview on the “Next Up” podcast with ESPN college football analyst Adam Breneman.

Hafley presented himself as quick-witted, self-deprecating, intelligent and confident. His exceptional communication skills are evident.

He spoke of getting huge breaks along the way, such as being hired by Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt as defensive backs coach in 2006.

Hafley was 24.

“We had Darrelle Revis,” he said, “so I thought I really knew how to coach corners. I realized early on you’ve got to have good players.”

Hafley said he learned more about the NFL’s “nickel” position from cornerback Ronde Barber than he did from any coach. It was the same with cornerback Richard Sherman in terms of zone coverage.

Hafley’s ability to be creative and adapt surely was among the traits LaFleur coveted in his new defensive coordinator.

Hafley’s scheme deploys a one-high shell look (one safety in the middle of the field) that actually plays like two-high shells. It allows the defense to get extra defenders in the box at the last second before the snap.

Hafley prefers to play a 4-3 base defense similar to the 49ers’ defense under current coordinator Steve Wilks, who inherited the 4-3 from DeMeco Ryans (now the Texans’ head coach) and Robert Saleh (the Jets’ head coach) before him.

The Packers’ current defensive personnel played a 3-4 base defense under Barry, but I’ve got to believe that will change under Hafley.

Packers’ fans also will love this tidbit: Hafley prefers to play press coverage, disrupt routes and get after the quarterback in the process. He also is adept at playing defenses that can stop a running quarterback.

Hafley has no intention of allowing a Tommy DeVito to run for mega yards, or of allowing a Baker Mayfield to stand in the pocket all day.

In the “Up Next” podcast Hafley was asked what he learned about working for and with people such as Shanahan.

“They grind. They study. They’re demanding,” Hafley said of the really good coaches he’s been around. “They hold people accountable. They’re not afraid of confrontation.”

Hafley has been criticized by some for leaving Boston College just months after professing to love it there.

The truth is he got burned out by everything college football entails.

“He wants to go coach football again in a league that is all about football,” a source told ESPN. “College coaching has become fundraising, NIL (name, image, likeness) and recruiting your own team and transfers. There’s no time to coach football anymore.

“A lot of things that he went back to college for have disappeared.”

Hafley is described as a “longtime friend” of LaFleur’s and a “longtime admirer” of the Packers’ franchise.

He becomes LaFleur’s third defensive coordinator in six seasons.

The Packers’ entire defensive staff under Barry remains under contract. It is likely Hafley will retain all or most of the existing staff.

Here are a few other nuggets regarding Hafley:

** Boston College defeated 24th-ranked SMU 23-14 in the Fenway Bowl last month. The Eagles lost to No. 3 Florida State 31-29 in the regular season. The Seminoles went 13-0 in the regular season.

** Adam Stenavich, the Packers’ offensive coordinator, worked for two seasons with Hafley in San Francisco.

** Hafley was a receiver in college despite going on to a career as a defensive backs coach and now a defensive coordinator.

Packers’ fans should
relish Lions’ collapse,
KC-SF Super Bowl

By Chris Havel
Special to The FAN
GREEN BAY, Wis. – All things considered it was a terrific NFC-AFC Championship Sunday afternoon. That is unless you’re Lamar Jackson, Dan Campbell or a Ravens’ or Lions’ fan.
On the other hand if you’re a Packers fan it was a terrific day all around.
Here are three reasons why:
** No. 1 – The Lions’ epic collapse at San Francisco may provide the motivation needed to get Detroit head coach Dan Campbell and his team into the Super Bowl next year.
Detroit became the first team to hold at least a 17-point halftime lead and lose in the conference championship. The previous 21 teams in that situation all sealed the deal and advanced to the Super Bowl.
The Lions flamed out spectacularly. They’ll be seeking redemption.
Then again, it could trigger doubt, especially in the biggest moments. The hangover undoubtedly is going to be severe and apt to linger.
The Lions’ collapse is the most recent in the long-suffering franchise’s decades-long futility. Who’s to say it will be the last?
The Lions haven’t won a championship since 1957. When the Lions are awful, which is frequent, their fans just shrug their shoulders, support their team and say, “Maybe next year.”
I hate to break the news to them, but this year WAS next year.
Detroit’s reward for being close-but-not-quite includes a first-place schedule and the realization that success means having some of your top assistants pilfered and your best players poached.
The Lions’ offense without coordinator Ben Johnson won’t be the same. I say that because I believe Detroit’s media when it insists Johnson is a play-calling savant.
Jared Goff’s improvement, the O-line’s stoutness and the emergence of running back Jahmyr Gibbs and tight end Sam LaPorta support it.
Johnson is likely to be swooped up sooner than later. It’s a big hit.
Furthermore, pro personnel departments throughout the league are taking a second look at the Lions’ roster to identify hidden gems for the purpose of luring them away in free agency.
It happens all the time to rising teams. The Lions are no exception.
It also sets up a delightful battle featuring the Lions and Packers for NFC North supremacy. It’s been decades since the Green Bay-Detroit game has carried so much cache.
Best of all, the Packers have the better coach and quarterback with defensive help (allegedly) on the way.
** No. 2 – A San Francisco-Kansas City Super Bowl LVIII matchup should be fun for Packers’ fans for several reasons.
The Andy Reid connection is priceless.
Big Andy cut his football teeth in Green Bay under Mike Holmgren. He and his wife, Tammy, raised their family here for several years. The connections still run deep after all these years.
Then there is Patrick Mahomes.
He carved up the Ravens’ defense like a Thanksgiving turkey with a near-flawless first half. The Chiefs may have produced the most exciting 17 points EVER in an NFL playoff game.
Every time Packers’ fans see Mahomes playing in a championship game or a Super Bowl they should thank their lucky stars that once upon a time the Chicago Bears drafted Mitch Trubisky over Mahomes.
Some say, yeah, it was bungled, but that was a long time ago. To which I’d reply, “That’s exactly the point. Packers’ fans still would be waking up every day to the reality that Mahomes resides in the NFC North.”
Packers’ fans also should take delight in the way Reid and Mahomes incorporate the tight ends, led by the amazing Travis Kelce. Green Bay’s young, talented tight end group has the potential to rival Kelce’s crew.
That’s saying a lot.
The Packers also saw the need to draft the next Gibbs if he’s available, and if he’s not draft the next Isiah Pacheco. Green Bay needs to develop the “two” behind Aaron Jones and Player X as the “one-two punch.”
** No. 3 – The 49ers are a tremendous team.
Their defense held the explosive Lions’ offense to just seven points in the second half. It was what the situation required and they delivered.
It is true 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan wasn’t pleased at halftime.
It’s also true that Shanahan didn’t blink.
San Francisco felt it was the better team so they stayed with Christian McCaffrey and the running game, incorporated tight end George Kittle a bit more in the passing game and enabled Brock Purdy to settle down.
So how would any of that please Packers’ fans?
It’s simple. By advancing to the Super Bowl, the 49ers have put a ton of pressure squarely on Purdy’s shoulder pads. If he fails miserable Feb. 11 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, the 49ers may be in search of a QB.
That sounds crazy, but with that much talent San Francisco can’t allow an above-average but not great quarterback undermining the operation. As amazing as it seems, Purdy may become one of the rare quarterbacks who leads his team to the Super Bowl, loses badly and finds himself in serious jeopardy of being replaced.
That type of turmoil can’t help the 49ers going into 2024.
All in all, it was a terrific championship Sunday that could’ve been perfect if I hadn’t picked the 49ers to cover and the Ravens to win.
Oh well, as Lions’ fans know, there’s always next year.

LaFleur fires Barry in

move to improve ‘D’

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Matt LaFleur made the difficult but correct decision to fire Joe Barry this week.

Now, LaFleur steps into the batter’s box down 0-2 in the hiring count. He took a called strike one when he elected to retain Mike Pettine as the Packers’ defensive coordinator in 2019.

Continuity was one of his big reasons for keeping Pettine.

The problem with that logic is what exactly was LaFleur hoping would continue on Pettine’s watch? That Pettine would persist in trotting out a mediocre defense all but guaranteed to break Packers fans’ hearts?

Strike two was a swing-and-a-miss with Joe Barry.

It was a total whiff.

In 2021, the first red flag with Barry was his willingness to take over as the Packers’ defensive coordinator while agreeing to retain the staff. At the time, it may have seemed like a good idea for continuity’s sake. The fact is Barry wanted the job so badly he’d have agreed to anything.

Any self-respecting NFL defensive coordinator would have required an assurance that he would be in charge of assembling his staff.

Not Joe Barry.

Barry’s three seasons in Green Bay were a rollercoaster ride. There were some ups, some downs, and a lot of queasiness in between.

The Packers yielded four 200-plus rushing games in 2023.

That is unacceptable. It put the Packers behind the 8-ball in four games. That’s nearly 25 percent of the schedule in which that 200-plus yard rushing game makes it incredibly difficult to prevail.

It wasn’t just the 28th-ranked run defense.

They made the Giants’ Tommy DeVito and the Bucs’ Baker Mayfield look like surefire All-Pros in consecutive weeks. While DeVito was scrambling wild on the Packers’ defense, and Mayfield was throwing with impunity to wide-open receivers, Barry looked on from the booth.

His expression was blank.

His inability to make in-game changes was staggering.

So was his defense’s lack of communication.

It is speculated that Mayfield’s four-touchdown, perfect passer rating game in Tampa Bay’s 34-20 win at Lambeau Field was the final straw.

I think Barry’s fate was already sealed by then.

Either way it dropped the Packers to 6-8 and seemingly out of the playoff hunt. Nevertheless, LaFleur didn’t fire Barry but instead got more involved on the defensive side. Green Bay responded by winning three straight to reach the postseason.

Once there, the Packers walloped Dallas 48-32 and took San Francisco down to the final drive before succumbing 24-21. LaFleur was right not to fire Barry in early December, as it turns out, just as he is right to fire him now that the season is finished.

Clearly, there was nothing pleasant about LaFleur having to fire Barry. On the other hand it goes with the job. Barry couldn’t cut it. He’s out.

Reports that Barry might be retained in a different role in Green Bay have surfaced. I hope they go back underwater, the sooner the better, because the Packers don’t need Barry in the building.

No good can come of it.

Perhaps one role Barry might be suited to fill is team chaplain. Lord knows he got Packers’ fans praying to the football gods most Sundays.

LaFleur offered the anticipated kind words for Barry.

“We want to thank Joe for his commitment and contributions to our success the past three seasons,” LaFleur said in a statement. “These decisions are extremely difficult and Joe is one of the best men I’ve had the opportunity to work with in this league.”

Now, LaFleur needs to deliver a first-rate defensive coordinator despite being down 0-2 in the count.

My top choice would be the Panthers’ Ejiro Evero. He has coached in Green Bay, he interviewed with LaFleur for the defensive coordinator job that went to Barry, and he has an incredibly sound proven record.

Evero’s defenses are known for being among the best at getting offenses off the field on third down. His defense’s third-down stop rate has been among the NFL’s best the past several seasons. That includes seasons in Denver and Carolina in which the offenses were dreadful.

Imagine what Evero could do with a top-notch offense backing his play.

After that it’s a who’s who among Brandon Staley, the fired L.A. Chargers’ head coach, and Wink Martindale, whose time had come with the Giants in New York.

Beyond that Aubrey Pleasant is another strong candidate. Pleasant joined LaFleur’s staff for the back end of the 2022 season after the Detroit Lions fired him.

Clearly, the Packers’ talent on defense is better than the results.

In addition, Green Bay has five of the top 100 picks in the draft. The most pressing needs are a ball-hawking safety and a hard-hitting off ball linebacker to replace De’Vondre Campbell.

At any rate, LaFleur should have a quality list of candidates in part because of the great job he’s done building up the Packers. It’s a really tantalizing job considering the history, past and present, in Green Bay.

The next move is LaFleur’s.

Packers’ fans had better hope he gets it right.

Packers test 49ers but

fall in gritty 24-21 loss

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – After a one-year postseason absence and the departure of future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the Packers have re-established themselves as a force to be reckoned with.

The Packers traded blows with top-seeded San Francisco in Saturday night’s NFC divisional playoff game before falling 24-21 in 50-degree temperatures and a light, steady rain at Levi’s Stadium.

The dreary weather mirrored the Packers’ mood after the loss.

The NFL’s youngest team – and one of its hottest – wasn’t ready for what became a magical season to end.

Kenny Clark, the veteran defensive tackle, offered perspective.

“I think with any game, you always think about you could’ve done, what plays you left out there,” Clark said. “It sucks. I feel like we played a really good game for the most part … (we) let it get away from us.”

The Packers trailed 7-6 at halftime before scoring 15 unanswered points in the third quarter to take a 21-14 lead going into the fourth quarter.

It looked like a Green Bay upset was in the making.

Then the 49ers rallied for 10 fourth quarter points and the Packers couldn’t respond.

“Well, I think any time there’s a finality to the season, it’s always tough unless you’re the last team standing,” LaFleur said. “For us to lose this game certainly stings, and I’m sure it’s going to sting for a long time. I told the guys part of the reason it stings so bad right now is we fully believed and fully expected to win this game.”

The opportunity was there for the taking.

San Francisco pulled to within 21-17 after a Jordan Love interception led to a field goal early in the fourth quarter. The Packers missed numerous opportunities to salt away the game, including a dreadful 2-5 in the red zone, and the 49ers pounced.

Brock Purdy led them on a 12-play, 69-yard touchdown drive to retake the lead at 24-21 with 1:07 to play. All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey delivered the go-ahead score on a 6-yard touchdown run.

It was San Francisco’s best drive of the night against a Joe Barry-coordinated defense that kept the Packers close, but couldn’t seal the deal in the final minutes.

The 49ers converted 10 of 16 third downs (62.5 percent) for the game, including three straight on the game-winning drive.

On the Packers’ final possession Love’s second interception of the half – both were pilfered by 49ers’ linebacker Dre Greenlaw – came on first-and-10 at Green Bay’s 36 and allowed the 49ers to run out the clock.

The Packers’ miscues along the way were daggers:

** Darnell Savage dropped an easy interception and sure-fire “Pick 6” in the first half. Keisean Nixon dropped what appeared to be a catchable interception in the second half. A play by either Savage or Nixon would’ve likely altered the outcome.

** The Packers turned it over on downs early in the second quarter at the 49ers’ 14 after twice failing to gain a yard on third- and fourth-down tries when Jones was stuffed and Love’s sneak came up just short.

** Anders Carlson missed a 41-yard field goal with 6:18 to play that would’ve given the Packers a chance to win in overtime.

Lafleur was disappointed in his team’s inability to capitalize.

“I felt like we had plenty of opportunities to put the game out of reach and unfortunately just didn’t do enough,” LaFleur said. “There were a lot of plays out there. If one play goes different, we probably have a different result right now.

“We just didn’t make enough plays. I’m mad about a couple of play calls. It’s unfortunate.”

The Packers’ final four possessions were a punt, an interception, a missed field goal and another interception.

Love completed 21 of 34 passes for 194 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He wasn’t sacked but was hit six times and pressured on at least another eight pass attempts for a 72.4 passer rating.

Jones posted his fifth straight 100 yard-plus game by gaining 108 yards on 18 carries (a 6-yard average) with a long of 53 yards. Jones became the first running back to eclipse 100 yards against the 49ers’ defense in 50 straight games.

Jones took the loss hard and not just for himself, but for his teammates.

“I feel like this is the hottest we’ve been in my time here, going into the playoff stretch,” the seventh-year pro said. “I feel like we caught lightning in the bottle. The chemistry, how all the guys came together, bought in. I felt like we were playing for each other.”

Romeo Doubs (four catches for 83 yards) and Jayden Reed (four for 35) led the Packers’ young receiving corps. Bo Melton added a 19-yard touchdown catch on his only target and reception of the game.

Tight end Tucker Kraft had three catches, including a 2-yard touchdown grab to help Green Bay to its 21-14 lead.

The Packers got some juice from the return game with Nixon’s 73-yard kick return to set up Love’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Kraft. Nixon’s 73-yard return was the second-longest in Packers playoff history behind Desmond Howard’s 99-yard touchdown return in Super Bowl XXXI.

Nixon fumbled on the play, but a hustling Eric Wilson scooped it up ala Willy Adames at the 49ers’ 20-yard line. Four plays later Love hooked up with Kraft and it was 21-14 Packers going into the fourth quarter.

Still, it wasn’t enough.

The Packers’ offense took a hit when right tackle Zach Tom exited with a possible concussion in the second half. Yosh Nijman took the final 26 snaps at right tackle. Nijman didn’t allow a sack but did yield pressures.

Green Bay was held scoreless in the fourth quarter despite decent field position and the fact that they had moved the football against the 49ers.

Meantime, the 49ers came to life before it was too late.

McCaffrey’s 39-yard touchdown run and George Kittle’s 32-yard touchdown catch put San Francisco in position to win. Green Bay’s failure to respond sealed their fate.

“It’s going to be tough to win a game going against a good offense when you’re not putting up enough points like that,” Love said.

Love guaranteed the Packers will learn from the experience.

“You’ve got to understand how small the margin is and how important every play is and how locked in you have to be to take advantage and win,” Love said. “But there are so many areas and lessons learned for me – and my teammates – going ahead.”

Love and his receivers already are talking about lining up informal offseason practices. In fact, the focus was all about going forward and improving and realizing their tremendous potential.

LaFleur was asked if he’ll be able to look back and process all that the team has accomplished in its final 11 games, including two playoff games that saw 14 rookies get significant playing time.

“I don’t know. I can’t tell you,” LaFleur said. “It’s hard right now to kind of see through everything. I am proud of these guys, but it’s more just the ability to keep competing, to stick together. There some tough moments in our season, we lost some tough games, and this is one of them, quite frankly, to be honest with you.

“But I’ve got the utmost confidence in the guys in that locker room, our staff. We’ll stick together.”

Upset-minded Packers

anxious to tackle 49ers

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The 49ers had two unanimous All-Pro selections in addition to three others voted to The AP’s 2023 All-Pro first team, plus another two that earned second-team recognition.

The Packers didn’t have any first- or second-team All-Pros on offense or defense, although left guard Elgton Jenkins did receive one vote. Keisean Nixon was named the All-Pro kick returner, and he drew a handful of votes as a punt returner, but that was it.

On Saturday night we’ll see if the All-Pro disparity is reflected on the field when the Packers (10-8) face the 49ers (12-5) in an NFC divisional round matchup. Kickoff is 7:15 p.m. at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

Packers coach Matt LaFleur realizes the challenge ahead.

In fact, the 49ers and head coach Kyle Shanahan have been something of a stumbling block for the Packers, and it’s a trend they want to change.

“I think we just continue to take it one day at a time and try to get better each and every day and attack the process the right way,” LaFleur said this week. “Certainly, we know we’re going against one of the elite teams in the National Football League, certainly the class of the NFC.”

Running back Christian McCaffrey and linebacker Fred Warner – the 49ers’ unanimous All-Pros, join a host of 49ers’ players who have earned every ounce of recognition they’ve received this season.

Left tackle Trent Williams, fullback Kyle Juszczyk and tight end George Kittle were named first-team selections, and cornerback Charvarius Ward and receiver Brandon Aiyuk were second-team picks.

Pass rusher Nick Bosa, linebacker Dre Greenlaw, quarterback Brock Purdy and receiver Deebo Samuel didn’t even earn All-Pro honors. Nevertheless, they rank among the finest players at their positions.

“They’ve got a lot of the same players they’ve had for a few years now, and they’ve added some other freak shows over there,” LaFleur said of the 49ers’ lineup. “We know it’s a great challenge, but it’s a great opportunity, as well. That’s exactly how we’ll approach it.

“At the end of this thing, there’s only one happy team, period. So you’ve got to approach it the same way each and every day. We’re going out there to win a football game and we know we’re going to have to play our best ball.”

The 49ers’ lynchpins are McCaffrey and Warner.

McCaffrey, 27, led the NFL with 1,459 rushing yards. He outgained the Titans’ Derrick Henry by almost 300 yards. He joins O.J. Simpson, Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton as the only wire-to-wire NFL rushing champions since 1970, according to PackersSI.com.

He also is a legitimate receiving threat out of the backfield or in the slot.

McCaffrey puts massive pressure on any defense and in particular a Packers’ defense that ranked 28th (128.3 yards per game) in the league. They also allowed 4.42 yards per carry (23rd).

Obviously, coordinator Joe Barry’s defense has buttoned things up a bit during the Packers’ second half of the season. That includes limiting Tony Pollard to just 3.7 yards per carry in the blowout win over Dallas.

The Packers’ defense isn’t likely to shut down McCaffrey, but they’ll be pleased if they can limit him to a mild roar. McCaffrey is talented enough to break tackles and wreck defenses by himself.

Purdy is an excellent facilitator when given time to throw and it’s a given that the 49ers’ Samuel and Aiyuk are going to gain chunks of yards. So will Kittle, who remains one of the league’s top tight ends.

Obviously, the 49ers are loaded, but if McCaffrey runs with impunity it’s difficult to see much, if any, chance for a Packers’ upset.

Kenny Clark, T.J. Slaton, Devonte Wyatt and Karl Brooks are going to have to be stout at the point of attack. In fact, I’d give the Packers’ interior defensive line an edge over the 49ers’ interior O-line.

In addition, Rashan Gary, Preston Smith and Lukas Van Ness are going to be required to play both the run and the pass. The loss of Kingsley Enagbare to a season-ending ACL injury is bad news because he was among the Packers’ top outside linebackers against the run.

Van Ness is going to get an opportunity to flash that first-round promise.

The “Dre’ and Quay Show” of inside line backers Quay Walker and De’Vondre Campbell also need to be on top of their game.

Meantime, the Packers are confident their offense can do some damage.

Jordan Love has been playing as well as any quarterback in the league since midseason. He was near-perfect in a 48-32 dismantling of Dallas in last week’s NFC Super Wild-Card Game.

Love has played with poise and purpose for weeks.

He also has flashed the first-round arm talent that initially drew Packers GM Brian Gutekunst to Love in the 2020 draft.

LaFleur’s message to his young quarterback isn’t going to change.

“My only advice to him – and it’s been this way, I would say, once we hit a certain spot during the season – is just go out there and be aggressive,” LaFleur said of Love. “Trust what you see and let it rip.

“We’re here now. You can’t hold anything back. I think he went out there and played exactly like that.”

Love’s 20-yard laser to Dontayvion Wicks at Dallas still stands out in LaFleur’s mind.

“That cover-zero play that he ripped that post to Wicks, that was one of those plays that you could sit there and watch that all day long.”

How many times did LaFleur watch it?

“A lot,” the Packers’ coach said with a gleam in his eye.

When Love has time he can carve up a defense. When he has only a split-second to release it or be sacked, he’s almost as deadly. Love was 5-for-7 for 152 yards and two touchdowns when Dallas pressured him. When he was blitzed, he was 6-for-8 for 129 yards and two touchdowns.

That must continue if the Packers hope to keep pace with the 49ers’ diverse and dangerous attack.

Purdy is similar to Love in that he cares not a whit about style points.

“I think it comes down to, if you’re in the NFL playing quarterback, there’s little room for error,” Purdy told NBC Sports Bay Area. “And so if you’re getting criticized for making the right decisions and not making a lot of flashy plays but winning, I feel like you really have to start looking at your judgment on football and stuff.”

It was well said.

Purdy has been good all season, but especially so at Levi’s Stadium, where his 115 passer rating was second to Dak Prescott’s 120 at Dallas. Purdy’s 11 yards per attempt at home ranks No. 2 in league history among all quarterbacks with at least 125 attempts.

“You look at the greats, (such as) Tom Brady and (Peyton) Manning, there are so many games where they’ve made consistent plays and decisions,” Purdy added. “And it may not be flashy but, at the end of the day, they protect the ball, they allow their defense to play and they win games. So it’s a team sport for a reason, and that’s part of our position.”

So what’s it going to take for the Packers to prevail Saturday night?

Here’s a quick checklist:

** The defense can’t allow the 49ers’ offense to run wild early on. If McCaffrey gets off to a fast start on the ground it will open up numerous options for Shanahan and Purdy to attempt to exploit.

** Big plays are going to occur against the Packers’ defense. It’s how they respond that will go a long way toward deciding the outcome. Green Bay’s red zone defense needs to turn at least one, if not two, of the 49ers’ red zone opportunities into field goals, rather than TDs.

** Green Bay’s running game with Aaron Jones is going to have to produce enough yards, and just as important enough positive “down-and-distance” situations for the passing game to be unleashed.

I expect Love to play well if he’s given enough time to read the defense.

I also expect the Packers’ young group of receivers and tight ends to play fast and loose while making big plays of their own.

In all of this, it always comes back to the 49ers’ running game, first-rate defense and a quarterback (Purdy) who rarely takes chances and seldom turns the football over.

On the other hand, if Green Bay’s offense shows life I’d look for the Packers’ defense to respond with great energy as it has all season.

The Packers are the rare NFL team in which the offense sparks the defense, and the young players instill hope and confidence in veterans.

All of that might lead up to an epic upset of the 49ers.

It’s not only possible. It’s time.

Prediction: Packers 35, 49ers 34 in a down-to-the final gun finish.

Love rolls in Packers’ 48-32 rout of Cowboys

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Green Bay registered a win for the ages.

Relying on a roster loaded with talented, tough-minded youngsters and resilient, rugged veterans, the Packers rode into Dallas and routed the Cowboys 48-32 in Sunday’s NFC Wild-Card game at AT&T Stadium.

Aaron Jones rushed for 118 yards and three touchdowns while Jordan Love directed an aggressive attack that came ready to roll. Green Bay won the toss, took the football, drove for a TD and never looked back.

The Packers (10-8) bolted to leads of 27-0 late in the first half and 48-16 with 10:23 to play in the fourth quarter. Dallas (12-6) mustered up 16 unanswered points to make the result more misleading than the reality.

The Packers became the NFL’s first No. 7 seed to win a playoff game in the four years since the league changed its format.

Green Bay’s stunning domination in “Big D” means it will advance to an NFC divisional round matchup with top-seeded San Francisco (12-5) at 7:15 p.m. Saturday night at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

Both the Packers and 49ers are 7-2 in their last nine games.

It is heady stuff for the Packers, who became the NFL’s youngest team since 1970 to win a playoff game.

Jordan Love led the way with a near-flawless performance.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur couldn’t have heaped more praise on his quarterback if he had a front-end loader.

“Man, Jordan Love, wow, that’s about all I can say, is wow,” LaFleur said afterward. “What he did and the poise he shows and the command he shows … He’s a dude.”

Love was 16 of 21 for 272 yards, three touchdowns and a 157.2 passer rating. His final incompletion came on a dropped pass by Tucker Kraft after the Packers reinserted their offensive starters late in the game. If not for Kraft’s drop Love would have had a perfect 158.3 passer rating.

Instead, Love will gladly settle for perfection in the form of victory.

“We’ve been counted out a lot of the season, but everybody keeps battling, keeps competing,” Love said. “I think it’s just noise on the outside. We’re not worried about it. We keep coming out here and showing what we’re about, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

The Packers are all about growing younger and better.

It is the most difficult trick to pull off in pro sports, but everyone from Packers president Mark Murphy to GM Brian Gutekunst to LaFleur and his staff to Love and the team has played a major role.

The Cowboys looked and sounded fairly astonished by Green Bay’s dominance from start to finish.

Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott had presided over 16 straight wins at AT&T Stadium. Their most recent home loss going into Sunday’s game occurred in the 2022 season opener against Tom Brady and the Bucs.

Prescott was 41 of 60 for 403 yards, three touchdowns and an 89.8 passer rating on Sunday. He also was sacked four times and threw three interceptions that proved to be killers.

CeeDee Lamb, one of the league’s premier receivers, had to work hard for almost everything he got against Green Bay. He caught nine passes (17 targets) for 110 yards including a long catch of 47 yards.

Ex-Badgers tight end Jake Ferguson had a career day with 10 catches (12 targets) for 93 yards and three touchdowns although most of his production came after the game was out of reach.

Much-maligned defensive coordinator Joe Barry put together a game plan that relied primarily on man coverage with the occasional man-zone combo coverage. The Packers generated enough pressure to make Prescott uncomfortable throughout the game.

Jaire Alexander’s interception late in the first quarter set up the Packers’ second touchdown and a 14-0 lead. Darnell Savage’s interception and 64-yard return for a touchdown made it 27-0 late in the first half.

Savage’s “pick six” was a measure of redemption in what had been an injury plagued up-and-down season for the veteran safety.

Alexander played despite a sprained ankle that required 24-hour care and made him a true game-time decision. He stepped up and intercepted a slant pass intended for Brandin Cooks at Dallas’ 19-yard line.

A few plays later the Packers’ Aaron Jones blasted in from the 1-yard line to make it 14-0 Green Bay.

Fellow veteran defender Kenny Clark sang Alexander’s praises.

“Ja is elite,” he said. “Ja is one of the best corners in this game. The story ain’t changed with him. Every time he’s out there, he’s making an impact and helping our team get better. We love him. We love having him out there for the team.”

With veterans such as Jones, Alexander and Savage balling out, the youthful Packers played fast and free.

“I think there’s a little bit of freedom with that, in terms of how you go out and play,” LaFleur said. “These guys, they went for it, and that’s exciting to see.”

Romeo Doubs led the Packers’ young receiving corps with a career day.

Doubs caught six passes on as many targets for 151 yards including a nifty 3-yard touchdown to close out the Packers’ scoring.

“Rome, he was on one tonight,” LaFleur said. “You could see it. Man, he’s got great hands. He’s got an unbelievable mindset, and it was really cool to see that come to fruition.”

“Rome, he was on one tonight,” LaFleur said. “You could see it. Man, he’s got great hands. He’s got an unbelievable mindset, and it was really cool to see that come to fruition.”

Instead, he finished 16-of-21 for 272 yards with three TDs and a 157.2 rating.

“It started up front, started with the run game, pass protection, the O-line stepped up big,” Love said. “Guys were out there making plays.”

None more than Love, who was making the Cowboys pay anytime they blitzed, selling play fakes to get throwing lanes on the edges, and timing his passes as his receivers broke into open spaces downfield.

“Man, Jordan Love, wow, that’s about all I can say, is wow,” LaFleur said. “What he did and the poise he shows and the command he shows …”

The Packers went 14 games this season without a 100-yard rusher, and now Aaron Jones has four 100-yard outings in a row. He had 21 carries for 118 yards and three scores, continuing an absolutely stellar run of games in his career against the Cowboys, especially in Dallas.

The Packers also went 14 games this season without a 100-yard receiver, and now three different pass catchers have hit the mark in the last four games, the latest being Romeo Doubs.

The second-year pro found openings all game, particularly over the middle, in catching six passes for 151 yards and a TD. He was the team’s second-leading receiver in the regular season behind rookie Jayden Reed, but Doubs was Love’s go-to guy in this one.

“It was awesome, just how locked in Rome was this whole week,” Love said. “Obviously with the performance he put on … I’m proud of Romeo and the way he’s continued to battle. He’s probably not getting as many completions or balls his way as he wanted to, kept working and made some plays tonight.”

It was the first 100-yard game of his career, and it came in the playoffs. His touchdown provided the Packers’ last points of the game, which tied the franchise record for scoring in a postseason contest (2010 NFC Divisional at Atlanta, also 48).

LaFleur also called a timeout in the second quarter prior to a key third down after Doubs had subbed out. He wanted to run a particular play for him and made sure he was in the game for it. The result? A 39-yard reception.

“Rome, he was on one tonight,” LaFleur said. “You could see it. Man, he’s got great hands. He’s got an unbelievable mindset, and it was really cool to see that come to fruition.”

This was my dad’s team,” Jones, who shared a moment with Smith before the game and now has 488 yards in four career games against the Cowboys, said of his late father. “You always want to be like your father, so that’s how it became my team. Dallas is a special place to me, so it’s a full-circle moment. It feels like home.”

Packers’ D and Joe B

face tall task in Dallas

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – A fair number of Packers’ fans give their rising young team a puncher’s chance Sunday afternoon at Dallas.

Although when they say “a puncher’s chance” they’re not referring to Green Bay’s defense entering this NFC Wild Card matchup. They realize by know – or at least they ought to – that defensive coordinator

Joe Barry’s crew is likely to surrender yards and points at a high rate. Dallas’ offense is that good and Green Bay’s defense is that untrustworthy based upon its entire body of work.

Packers’ fans also know their team has won six of eight games coming into this most recent Packers-Cowboys extravaganza, with kickoff set for 3:30 p.m., and that Jordan Love is THE MAN at quarterback.

The Packers’ offense isn’t apt to lose Sunday’s game, but if the 7-point underdog visitors expect to pull off an upset, odds suggest it’ll be because Love, Aaron Jones, etc., will outscore Dak Prescott and Co.

While Cowboys’ defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, pass rush demon Micah Parsons and Mr. Pick Six – DaRon Bland – will have plenty to say about it, the Packers’ offense is legit.

It begins with Love.

In the past eight games, the Packers’ back-to-back NFC Offensive Player of the Week has completed 196 of 279 passes (70.3 percent) for 2,150 yards, 18 touchdowns and one interception.

His passer rating is 112.7 in that stretch.

Packers’ defensive tackle Kenny Clark told reporters of the high degree of respect he has for Love.

“He’s always had the talent since he first got here and he figured it out,” Clark said. “He sat behind Aaron (Rodgers) and learned from one of the best to ever do it and it’s been awesome to see him do this.

“We’ve got a lot of young guys on this offense and a lot of young guys on this team. For him to lead us like this says a lot about him, a lot about his character and a lot about his work and a lot about the man. I’m excited for Jordan and happy he’s our quarterback.”

Obviously, it hasn’t all been on Love’s shoulder pads.

The offensive line’s coming together is an underrated aspect.

It’s also directly at the heart of the offensive ascension.

Rasheed Walker, Elgton Jenkins, Josh Myers, Jon Runyan/Sean Rhyan and Zach Tom have improved individually and collectively. Walker has plenty of room to grow, but he has exceeded all expectations. He is a second-year, seventh-round draft pick surviving at left tackle.

The tight end group of Luke Musgrave, Tucker Kraft and Ben Sims are likely to play a big role against the Cowboys. Musgrave’s return from injury opens the door to multiple double-tight end formations that balance up the defense and afford terrific pass or run options.

The Packers have four rookie receivers with at least 30 receptions. It’s the first time that has happened in team history.

Jones has been incredible during his three-game, 100-yards plus stretch. He has a history of big games against Dallas, and especially in Texas, so it would shock no one if Jones turned in a monster game.

The Packers’ young receivers are the real deal.

Christian Watson can blow the doors off any DB when he’s healthy.

Romeo Doubs is a sure-handed target who is willing and able to out-duel a cornerback for the football. Jayden Reed is an instinctive, gifted talent whose ceiling is unknown. Dontayvion Wicks looks and plays more like a second-round draft pick than a fifth-rounder, but in whatever round the Packers would’ve gotten him, they’re glad they did.

Bo Melton is an example of dogged determination – and 4.3 speed in the 40-yard dash – combining to pay off. Malik Heath is a tough dude who is equally comfortable catching the football or flattening a cornerback.

Love is the facilitator extraordinaire.

“If your quarterback can be that guy for everyone to lean on, it just makes it even easier for everybody,” Watson said. “Obviously, Jordan is that catalyst and that center-point of the offense and honestly even the team. He’s done a great job at just owning that role right away and bringing us all together. Through the good and the bad, he’s always been there.”

The Packers’ offensive linemen know if they can provide Love with enough time to survey the secondary it’s going to be a good day.

“Everybody looks to (Love) as a leader,” Runyan said. “He’s got complete control of this offense, and what he does. We trust him, and you’re able to see it on the field. He’s a great guy, a great person in the locker room, and the stuff he’s done for us is unbelievable, and hopefully we can sustain it and keep it going forward in these playoffs.”

The Packers’ offense is averaging 25.3 points per game on the road, which is third-best in the NFL. Green Bay has eclipsed 30 points on four occasions on the road. It’s apt to take a fifth 30-plus game to win Sunday because the Cowboys’ offense is explosive.

Dallas is 8-0 at home. The Cowboys are the NFL’s only team to be undefeated at home this season.

Prescott is the NFL’s top passer at home. His passer rating (120), completion percentage (72.3) and touchdown passes (22) are No. 1. His 2,470 passing yards at AT&T Stadium rank second.

It’ll be a tall task for a Packers’ defense that has played better of late.

Rashan Gary, Kenny Clark, Karl Brooks, Lukas Van Ness and Preston Smith have provided some serious pass rush. Quay Walker has been

allowed to blitz more often, and De’Vondre Campbell’s healthy return has helped solidify the heart of the defense.

Cornerbacks Carrington Valentine, Corey Ballentine and Keisean Nixon will be tested mightily by CeeDee Lamb, Brandin Cooks and Michael Gallup on a variety of deep routes, and tight end Jake Ferguson (Barry Alvarez’s grandson) is a tough, rugged and reliable pass catcher.

Tony Pollard is willing in blitz pickup and remains explosive in the open field despite a down season.

The Packers’ safety tandem of Darnell Savage and Jonathan Owens has played better in recent weeks, in large part due to Savage’s experience. When Owens and Rudy Ford were paired together it was a disaster.

Fortunately, Savage is back.

The question is whether Jaire Alexander will be available. Alexander stepped on a teammate’s shoe during Wednesday’s walk-through and rolled an ankle. He didn’t practice Thursday and his status for Sunday’s game remains up in the air.

Either way, the Packers’ defense will have its hands full.

Nevertheless, I’m going with the LaFleur-Love connection and a Packers’ upset victory.

Green Bay 28, Dallas 27

Packers maul Bears to

capture playoff berth

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers traveled a long and winding road to reach their postseason destination.

The journey began with a 2-5 start that included a four-game losing streak. It continued with a glint of hope at 6-6 followed by a relapse to a dreadful 6-8. It ended with a flourish that featured a three-game winning streak and culminated in the Packers’ first postseason berth since 2021.

The Packers capped their regular-season run with a 17-9 victory over Chicago on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field.

Then they celebrated in style with smiles all around.

It is heady stuff for the NFL’s youngest team – a team that is led by its impressive first-year starting quarterback, Jordan Love.

Advancing to the playoffs, Love said, “means everything.”

“This was an opportunity that we worked for all season long,” he said. “With our backs against the wall, I’m just proud of this team.”

Packers coach Matt LaFleur wasted no time celebrating the win. As soon as Love took the final kneel-down to end the game, LaFleur ran onto the field to give his quarterback a heartfelt hug.

“It’s rewarding in the fact that everybody counted us out, and we were struggling,” LaFleur said. “And we held it all together. And to get here (the playoffs) was … special.”

The Packers (9-8) earned the NFC’s No. 7 seed and will travel to Dallas (12-5) to face the second-seeded Cowboys and coach Mike McCarthy, who coached the Packers to their last Super Bowl win in 2010.

Green Bay’s victory over the Bears (7-10) was among its most complete games, if not its most aesthetically pleasing.

The Packers’ offense racked up yards, if not points, and the defense stayed strong from start to finish. Defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s much-maligned unit dominated for a second straight week. Green Bay’s defense has given up just 19 points in the past two games, which bodes well considering the high-octane Cowboys’ offense that awaits it.

On Sunday, the Bears’ Justin Fields led each of the offense’s six drives either to midfield or into Packers’ territory. All Chicago had to show for it was a trio of Cairo Santos field goals that yielded nine measly points.

Fields finished 11 of 16 for 148 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions for a 97.9 passer rating. Fields ran eight times for 27 yards with a long of only seven yards.

The Packers outgained the Bears 432 to 192. They had five sacks to Chicago’s one. They converted 7 of 10 third-down tries compared to the Bears’ 3-for-11 disaster. Green Bay had 24 first downs to Chicago’s 13.

The Packers punished the Bears by any measure.

LaFleur couldn’t have been more pleased with his defense.

“Any time you hold anybody under 10 points, you better find a way to win that football game,” he said. “Those guys (on defense), they’re playing their butt off right now.”

Quay Walker and De’Vondre Campbell led the way with nine and eight tackles, respectively, while Walker also notched one of Green Bay’s five sacks. The others were registered by Lukas Van Ness, Karl Brooks, Devonte Wyatt and Kenny Clark.

Rashan Gary didn’t have a sack, but he did draw a lot of attention which allowed the others to repeatedly beat one-on-one blocking.

The Bears ran for an inconsequential 75 yards while Fields struggled to buy time to find open receivers. He completed four of six targets to his go-to receiver, D.J. Moore, for a modest 64 yards with a long of 33.

The Bears’ other receivers combined to make two catches for 30 yards.

That was the extent of a Bears’ offense that endured 10 tackles for loss.

Meantime, the Packers’ offense moved the football almost at will but couldn’t finish drives with touchdowns.

Rookie placekicker Anders Carlson misfired from 41 yards in the first half. The Packers’ offense also drove to the Bears’ 22-yard line with less than a minute to play in the first half but failed to score. Love completed a 3-yard pass to Dontayvion Wicks who was tackled as time expired.

Love also lost a fumble after a promising drive in the second half.

Still, the Packers’ offense controlled the game.

Love was 27 of 32 for 316 yards, two touchdowns and a 128.6 passer rating. He was sacked just once and was in command start to finish.

In fact, Love directed a 12-play, 61-yard drive that consumed the final 6:08 of the fourth quarter. It ended with a kneel-down at Chicago’s 32. The crucial pass was a 15-yard dart to Tucker Kraft on third-and-7.

“The way the game was going we were in a mode that the (Chicago) defense wasn’t going to stop us,” Love said. “That’s just that killer mindset that everyone in the locker room and on the offense has.

“When we get in that position, we want to take advantage and finish with the ball.”

Earlier, Love rebounded from his fumble to hit Jayden Reed on a 59-yard crossing pattern to open the next series. It led to Carlson’s 25-yard field goal and a 17-9 Packers lead.

“Those are things you cannot coach,” LaFleur said of Love’s mental toughness and play-making ability. “You can sit there and talk about it ‘til your blue in the face. His ability to stay even-keel, to battle through adversity, to lead our team … He’s certainly proved himself over the back half of the season. I don’t think there are many questions left, to be honest with you.

“I think great things are in store for him.”

The same can be said of the Packers.

Aaron Jones eclipsed the 100-yard mark for a third straight game. He finished with 111 yards on 22 carries (a 5-yard average) and also caught five passes for 30 yards.

Wicks led the receivers with six catches for 61 yards and two touchdowns. Bo Melton added five for 62 and Reed finished with four for 112. Christian Watson wasn’t active but it didn’t matter.

Love makes it work with whatever he has to work with.

“I think everyone knew what we were capable of,” Love said. “All the games we lost were close games that we knew there were little things we could fix that would put us over the hump to win those games.

“I think we were always right there in every game, so that was the thing that was easy for us to keep believing.”

Packers one win away

from postseason play

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers hear the postseason beckoning.

They’re close enough to see it off in the not-so-far distance. The only thing obstructing their view is an improving Chicago Bears outfit that would like nothing better than to rain on the Packers’ playoff party.

The Bears (7-9) will get their chance Sunday when they take on the Packers (8-8) in Sunday’s 3:25 p.m. matchup at Lambeau Field.

If Chicago manages to pull off the upset it won’t be because the Packers took them lightly. In some ways Chicago’s late-season surge should add another layer of focus and urgency as the Packers brace for the Bears.

Furthermore, the Packers were in the same season-ending scenario last year. A win over the Lions would’ve sent Aaron Rodgers and the Packers into the postseason.

Green Bay lost in disappointing fashion.

That also could add another measure of motivation for Green Bay, although the Packers – to a player – declared themselves locked and loaded for what they expect to be a four-quarter battle.

“The Bears would love nothing more than to come in here and beat us,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said.

Clearly, the Bears have several sources of motivation coming in.

Then again, so does Green Bay.

In fact, quarterback Jordan Love said his team doesn’t need to use last year’s season-ending loss, or the Packers-Bears rivalry, to be ready to roll into Sunday’s game and beyond.

“I don’t even think we need to use that (last season’s loss) for motivation,” Love said. “I think this team is motivated enough – just the situation we have to get in the playoffs – and how bad we want that.

“Like I said, just with the season we’ve had – bumps along the road – we’ve put ourselves in a position (to reach the playoffs). I think everybody is very motivated.”

The Packers have won five of seven games coming into Sunday. They are fresh off back-to-back 33-point offensive explosions. They are at home, in front of the Green Bay faithful, and they are armed with one of the NFL’s best and brightest young quarterbacks.

Love’s first season as the full-time starter has been a revelation.

Love has thrown for 30 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions while leading an offense that ranks third in the NFL in third-down conversation rate (46 percent) and third in turnovers lost with 17.

The receivers and tight ends are made up entirely with rookies and second-year players. Despite the utter lack of experience, those two units have overcome injuries and youthfulness to put up really good numbers.

The Packers’ offense is averaging 22.9 points per game which ranks 11th in the NFL.

Jayden Reed (59 catches, an 11.4 average and eight touchdowns) and Romeo Doubs (60 catches, an 11.4 average and eight touchdowns) have posted nearly identical numbers.

Christian Watson has 28 catches for a 15.1 average and five touchdowns. The other deep threat – Dontayvion Wicks – has 33 catches for a 15.8 average and two touchdowns.

Tight end Tucker Kraft has also produced since fellow rookie Luke Musgrave suffered a lacerated kidney. Kraft has 28 catches for an 11.6 average and two touchdowns. Musgrave (33 for a 10.3 average and one touchdown) is healthy and eligible to return to the active roster.

It will be interesting to see if LaFleur springs Musgrave on the Bears or keeps him in his back pocket should they win and advance.

A healthy Aaron Jones has been the tip of the spear for the Packers’ offense the past two weeks. Jones has gone over 100 yards in each of the past two wins and has enabled the offense to control the football.

Jones had a big day in the season-opening 38-20 victory over the Bears at Chicago. There is no reason to think he can’t match that effort despite the fact that the Bears’ defense is on the rise.

The Bears have 16 takeaways and allowed fewer than 20 points four times in the past six games. The Bears lead the NFL in interceptions, but Love has been exceptional at protecting the football.

LaFleur has never lost to the Bears during a stretch that has been extended to nine straight wins by the Packers.

In order to make it 10 straight, the Packers’ defense must keep Justin Fields and the Bears’ offense in check.

Fields has 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions this season. He also has thrown for 2,414 yards in addition to running for four touchdowns.

Fields’ top weapon is wide receiver D.J. Moore, who is one of the NFL’s most dangerous players. Fields has a 119.5 passer rating when targeting Moore. He has an 82 passer rating targeting everyone else.

Moore has 1,300 receiving yards and eight touchdowns – both career highs.

Fields said he is excited to take on the Packers in Green Bay.

“It’s going to be a fun environment to walk into their home field,” Fields said. “I know their fans are going to be loud – because there’s not much to do in Green Bay except watch football – but it’s going to be a great environment for us to play in and hopefully have a great game and get the win.”

The Bears’ defense may be without its top cornerback, Jaylon Johnson, who is dealing with a shoulder injury and hasn’t practiced all week. Johnson, a Pro Bowl corner, would be a big loss if he can’t play.

Ultimately, the Packers have the better quarterback, the better offense and the home-field advantage. It should be enough to carry the day.

Prediction: Packers 27, Bears 16.

And it’s on to the playoffs.

Packers toast Vikings 33-10 to ring in 2024

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers rang in the New Year in style.

Jordan Love and Aaron Jones donned top hats with “Happy New Year” scrawled above the brim and hoisted champagne glasses filled with sparkling water to toast a most impressive victory.

Green Bay’s playoff hopes were alive and well after a convincing 33-10 victory over Minnesota on New Year’s Eve at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Jones slashed the Vikings’ defense for 120 yards to surpass the 100-yard barrier for a second straight week.

Love threw for three touchdowns, ran for a fourth and scarcely resembled the harried quarterback who generated a measly 10 points against the Vikings’ defense two months ago.

Matt LaFleur was pleased with Jones and the rest of his offense and in particular his young quarterback’s exceptional performance. He looked calm and cool – like usual – on the road in the playoff atmosphere.

“He’s playing at an incredibly high level,” the Packers’ head coach said of Love. “I’m super happy for him because he’s put in a ton of work to get to this point. I really think the sky is the limit for us. He’s just showing a glimpse of what he can ultimately be.”

Love was 24 of 33 (72 percent) for 256 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 125.3 passer rating. He wasn’t sacked. It’s the seventh time in nine games Love has posted a 100-plus passer rating.

He has thrown 19 touchdowns to only three interceptions since the Packers’ 24-10 loss to Minnesota on Oct. 29 at Lambeau Field.

Love’s progress is incredible, but he hasn’t done it alone.

He was sacked 29 times through the first seven games. In the past nine games he’s been sacked just 15 times. The offensive line’s improvement in both their run- and pass-blocking efficiency has been impressive.

Jones’ healthy return added another dimension since he came back from a knee injury last week.

“At the beginning of the season everybody tried to count us out,” Jones said. “In the middle of the season everybody tried to count us out. I think that speaks to a lot of these guys in this locker room, tuning out the noise and just getting to work.”

The Packers’ receiving corps is a thing to behold … and fear.

Bo Melton is the latest unheralded receiver to grab the reins.

Melton, 5-11, 190, was signed off Seattle’s practice squad one year and four days before posting his first 100-yard receiving day and hauling in his first NFL touchdown against the Vikings.

Melton had six catches for 105 yards (on nine targets) for a 17.5 average and a touchdown. Injuries to Christian Watson (hamstring) and Dontayvion Wicks (ankle) going into the game, and Jayden Reed’s chest injury during it, forced Melton to step up.

Reed added six catches for 89 yards and two touchdowns, and tight end Tucker Kraft came up big again with six catches for 48 yards.

But it was Melton who personified the “next man up” mentality Sunday.

“He’s stepped up huge,” Love said of Melton. “Bo’s been a guy working every week, finding ways to get better. It’s not a surprise to anybody he goes out there and does what he does.”

Melton’s performance when thrust into action was similar to the way Malik Heath has delivered at an injury-racked position.

LaFleur couldn’t say enough good things about Melton.

“From Day 1 that Bo got here, just an unbelievable attitude, unbelievable approach,” he said. “He’s been team first all the way.”

The Packers’ defense and beleaguered coordinator Joe Barry turned in a strong performance – start to finish – against Vikings quarterbacks Jaren Hall and Nick Mullens.

Hall started and played poorly. His fumble and interception led directly to the Packers’ 17-3 lead at halftime. Mullens took over at halftime and was worse.

Together, the Vikings’ quarterbacks were a combined 18 of 32 for 180 yards, one touchdown and one interception for a 69.8 passer rating. Barry’s defense notched four sacks and an incredible 14 QB hits.

“Hats off to Joe Barry and the defensive staff,” LaFleur said. “They came up with a great game plan. I know (Barry’s) taken a lot of heat lately, and I know it’s just one game, but I was happy for him, our staff and our players to go out and put on a performance like that.”

The Vikings couldn’t give their quarterbacks time to get the football to All-Pro receiver Justin Jefferson and his rookie sidekick, Jordan Addison. Minnesota’s run game was non-existent, due in part to the Packers forcing the Vikings to play from behind.

The Packers (8-8) now have a chance to make the playoffs with a victory over the Bears (7-9) on Sunday at Lambeau Field.

It’s a “win and advance” mindset for the Packers.

It’s also a repeat of the 2022 season-ending scenario when the Packers could’ve clinched a playoff berth with a victory but fell short against the Lions. That disappointment still lingers in the Packers’ locker room.

“It’s an awesome vibe in the locker room,” Love said, “but at the same time everyone’s focused on what we’ve got in front of us.”

Love mentioned that most of the Packers knew the Seahawks lost before the Vikings’ game, so they knew they controlled their own fate.

“The whole team is focused on making sure we get that win and moving on,” Love said. “We know what’s in front of us and we’re trying to make the playoffs.”

LaFleur added a final thought.

“It’s a great win tonight,” he said. “But it means nothing if we don’t take care of business (against the Bears).”

The Packers will be open for business at 3:25 Sunday when the NFL’s oldest rivalry resumes.

It’s enough to give Packers’ fans goose bumps.

The fairytale ending lives on.

Packers look to toast
Vikings in NFC North
New Year’s Eve game

By Chris Havel
Special to The FAN
GREEN BAY, Wis. – One team has lost its quarterback for the season. The other has found its quarterback of the future.
That’s just one storyline when the Packers face the Vikings in a prime time New Year’s Eve matchup set for 7:20 p.m. at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The Vikings (7-8) and Packers (7-8) are vying for an NFC wild-card berth with two games to play. The winner of Sunday night’s game will inch that much closer to the postseason. The loser will be eliminated.
That much is black and white.
Most everything else isn’t as clear cut.
For example, how will the Packers respond after All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander received a one-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the team? Rookie Carrington Valentine will start in his place.
It could be a rallying cry, of sorts, for Joe Barry’s beleaguered defense. Barry is all but gone after the season as the Packers’ defensive coordinator. That much is obvious. What isn’t so apparent is how a defense with prideful players such as Preston Smith, Kenny Clark and Rashan Gary will respond with a season on the brink.
The Packers are a 2-point underdog according to the odds-makers, but Green Bay’s edge at quarterback, running back and on the offensive line gives the Packers reason to think they can avenge a 24-10 loss to Minnesota earlier this season at Lambeau Field.
As for the Vikings, how will their offense function without one and perhaps two of its top weapons? Terrific tight end T.J. Hockenson suffered a season-ending knee injury in last week’s loss to Detroit.
Hockenson had 95 catches on 127 targets for 960 yards (a 10.1 average) with five touchdowns and 48 first downs converted. Josh Oliver and Johnny Mundt will try to pick up the slack in Hockenson’s absence.
Oliver, a third-round pick by Jacksonville in 2019, has 19 catches on 23 targets for two touchdowns. He has the ability to get downfield and make big plays. Given the Packers’ problems in the secondary in general, and at safety in particular, Oliver can’t be taken lightly.
The Vikings also may be without standout rookie receiver Jordan Addison, who is dealing with a knee injury. Addison is second on the team with 63 catches for 826 yards (a 13.1 average), nine touchdowns, 35 first downs converted and 13 plays of 20-plus yards.
The Vikings will have All-World receiver Justin Jefferson available to torment the Packers’ defense. Jefferson has played in only eight games due to injury, but he’s been amazing when he’s on the field.
Jefferson has 51 catches for 823 yards (a 16.1 average) with four touchdowns. What’s amazing is that 19 of his 51 receptions have gone for 20-plus yards. That means 37 percent of his catches are big plays.
The Packers’ offense hasn’t produced a 100-yard receiver all season. Jefferson is averaging 102.3 receiving yards per game.
The question going into the week was: Who will be throwing to him?
The answer is rookie Jaren Hall, a fifth-round pick out of BYU, who lasted two drives in his only other start before exiting with a concussion. Hall led the Vikings on a drive against the Falcons in that Week 9 matchup before being blasted at the 5-yard line.
Joshua Dobbs took over after that and played well before ultimately struggling and giving way to Nick Mullens, who has been benched in favor of Hall.
So the QB carousel continues in Minnesota.
It will be interesting to see if Hall can continue the trend of Barry’s defense making mediocre quarterbacks look All-Everything.
In the past three games, quarterbacks Tommy DeVito, Baker Mayfield and Bryce Young have combined for a perfect passer rating in the second halves of those games. The trio has completed 36 of 45 second-half passes for 517 yards and 10 touchdowns without an interception.
Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell has had to juggle QBs ever since Cousins went down with a torn Achilles at Green Bay.
“Since we’ve kind of lost Kirk, we’re trying to work through what we feel gives us the best chance to be explosive like we were moving the football the other day … but we have to find a way to possess the football and not set our team back,” O’Connell said.
O’Connell was referring to Mullens’ 411 passing yards – which was great – but also was negated by four interceptions. Turnovers have killed the Vikings’ offense. On the other hand, the Packers’ defense has been among the league’s worst at forcing turnovers.
Meantime, the Packers are high on Jordan Love, their first-year starting quarterback who keeps improving on a weekly basis.
In 15 starts, Love is 321 of 514 (62.5 percent) for 3,587 yards, 27 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He has a 91.8 passer rating.
By comparison, Aaron Rodgers was 320 of 505 (63.4 percent) for 3,730 yards, 25 touchdowns and 13 interceptions through his first 15 games.
Love has posted a passer rating of 100-plus in six of his last eight games. He understands what’s at stake and is up for the challenge.
“We all know what’s in front of us, and we know what we’re capable of,” Love said. “We’re just going to go finish this thing off.”
Love threw for two touchdowns and ran for another when he audibled to a sneak at the 1-yard line. The Packers put up 33 points and scored on their first four possessions at Carolina. That type of production may be required on New Year’s Eve if they’re to get past the Vikings.
It won’t be made easier without Alexander.
Packers GM Brian Gutekunst announced Alexander’s one-game suspension in a statement earlier this week. Alexander became a self-appointed game captain when he ran onto the field for the coin toss and proceeded to say, “We want to go on defense.”
It was the most recent in a litany of missteps for the talented corner.
“Unfortunately, Jaire’s actions prior to the game in Carolina led us to take this step,” Gutekunst said. “As an organization, we have an expectation that everyone puts the team first.”
At least this much is clear going into Sunday night’s game: It will require an entire team effort if the Packers are to knock off the Vikings even without Kirk Cousins.
Prediction: Packers 27, Vikings 23
Call me crazy. Call me a “homer.” But I’ve got to call it like I see it.
Green Bay has no excuses for not going to Minnesota and getting the win. Their offensive line is playing better, Aaron Jones is healthy and the receivers’ “next-man-up” mentality is amazing.
Happy New Year!

Packers’ ‘D’ awful in

33-30 win at Carolina

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Matt LaFleur has the unenviable task of preparing for not one but two defenses each week: His own and the opponents’.

Green Bay’s offense is a work in progress and the improvement has been laudable. The Packers’ defense, however, has been laughable. It has taken its substandard play under defensive coordinator Joe Barry to a new low the past three games, forcing the Packers’ head coach to play with one defense tied behind his back.

It’s LaFleur’s own fault for retaining Barry, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.

Fortunately, Jordan Love and the offense were able to overcome the Packers’ defensive foibles, foul-ups and foolishness to capture a 33-30 victory against Carolina on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

The Packers (7-8) currently sit in the No. 10 spot in the NFC playoff chase for one of two wild-card berths. They have a 24-percent chance of making the playoffs, but if they win out it skyrockets to 96 percent.

Green Bay is at Minnesota (7-8) in a prime time New Year’s Eve matchup before closing out against Chicago (5-9) on Jan. 7 at home.

“We know exactly what’s out in front of us, and we’ve got to go finish the season off,” Love said. “We know to keep those hopes alive and give ourselves a chance we’ve got to win these last two. We know what’s in front of us and what we’re capable of.”

The Packers know it won’t be easy.

Several key offensive weapons are injured and may be unavailable.

Christian Watson (knee), Dontayvion Wicks (chest) and Jayden Reed (ankle, chest) are all questionable at best. The good news is that Reed has had a week to recover, and Wicks didn’t break any ribs Sunday.

Wicks had two catches for 29 yards, including a 21-yard touchdown grab, before exiting with a chest injury.

Despite all of those obstacles, the Packers still built a 30-16 lead early in the fourth quarter.

Love made it work Sunday with a pair of rookie tight ends (Tucker Kraft and Ben Sims), second-year receivers Romeo Doubs and Samori Toure, and rookie receivers Malik Heath and Bo Melton.

Aaron Jones also provided a big lift.

Jones became the Packers’ first ball-carrier to surpass the 100-yard mark this season. Jones finished with 127 yards on 21 carries (a 6.0 average) and a 39-yard gallop that suggests he has recovered from his knee injury.

Kraft continues to develop into a really promising tight end. He had four catches for 60 yards as the Packers relied on a healthy dose of double-tight end formations to kick-start the running attack.

Meantime, Melton hauled in four catches for 44 yards to complement Doubs, who had four catches for 79 yards and a touchdown. He also made a critical 36-yard catch to sustain what ultimately became the game-winning drive via Carlson’s field goal.

Still, it almost wasn’t enough.

In the span of eight minutes of game time, Carolina rookie quarterback Bryce Young led the Panthers on touchdown drives of 60 and 70 yards to tie it at 30-30 with 4:12 to play.

“That was definitely frustrating,” LaFleur said. “But it wasn’t just on the defense. Offensively you’ve got to give them a breather, especially if we’re bleeding a little bit defensively.

“Momentum is a crazy phenomenon. They got momentum in the second half and they were rolling in every phase.”

Love did answer with a clutch 9-play, 61-yard drive that resulted in Carlson’s 32-yard field goal with 19 seconds to play. Doubs’ 36-yard catch along the sideline was critical. So was Love’s 20-yard completion to Kraft that allowed Green Bay to run all but 19 seconds off the clock before Carlson kicked the eventual game-winning field goal.

Nevertheless, the Panthers nearly managed to tie the game.

The Panthers got the football at their own 25 with 19 seconds to play.

Young hit D.J. Chark for a 22-yard gain to the Panthers’ 47 where he got out-of-bounds with 13 seconds to play. Young then hit Adam Thielen for another 22-yard gain over the middle.

By the time the Panthers raced to the Green Bay 31, lined up and spiked the football there was no time on the clock.

The Panthers (2-13) missed a chance to kick a tying 38-yard field goal by a half-tick of the clock.

Whew! The Packers’ defense got lucky.

In no way does the outcome excuse one of their poorest performances of the season. When Green Bay’s defense isn’t surrendering 200-plus yards rushing, it’s transforming mediocre QBs into first-rate signal callers.

The Panthers posted numerous season-highs on offense:

** Total yards: 394

** Passing yards: 298

** First downs: 26

** Plays of 20-plus yards: Five

The Packers’ defense has had three straight bad games, a fact that is magnified because it includes three straight second-half collapses.

Barry’s crew has made the Giants’ Tommy DeVito (who was benched on Christmas), the Bucs’ Baker Mayfield and the Panthers’ Young look like Eli Manning, Tom Brady and Cam Newton in their prime.

In six second-half quarters DeVito, Mayfield and Young have combined for a perfect second-half passer rating of 158.3 by completing 36 of 45 passes for 517 yards and 10 touchdowns with no interceptions.

The Packers’ defensive communication is so poor it nearly led to the Panthers receiving both the first- and second-half kickoffs.

Jaire Alexander, one of the Packers’ captains, declared “we’re going on defense,” after winning the coin flip. The problem is that technically it meant Carolina would’ve had the choice, and the ball, in the second half.

LaFleur said he makes it a point to tell the game’s referee before kickoff his preference should the Packers win the toss.

Fortunately, the referee heeded LaFleur’s pre-emptive strike, rather than causing a ruckus by making the technically correct ruling.

Barry’s defense doesn’t even wait until kickoff before allowing the miscommunication to begin.

At any rate, the Packers got out of Charlotte with a much-needed win, and they now have a chance to reach the postseason in spite of their incompetent defense.

“Everything’s at stake,” LaFleur said. “We’re going into a great environment next week in Minnesota, against a really good football team. It’s going to be a great challenge. This is what we prepare for all year.”

Or in Barry’s case, it’s what the defense has inadequately prepared for all year.

Panthers’ Evero a top

pick to replace Barry

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Matt LaFleur was asked the typical questions leading up to the Packers’ game Sunday at Carolina.

Invariably his responses circled back to how well the Panthers’ defense has played despite the team’s dismal 2-12 win-loss record.

Carolina head coach Chris Tabor took over as the interim replacement when Frank Reich was fired earlier this season. Reich hired ex-Denver defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero to run that side of the football.

One of the few bright spots in Carolina’s downtrodden season is its defense, which ranks among the NFL’s top units despite having to do all the heavy lifting.

Rookie quarterback Bryce Young has legit first-round talent, but he has looked and played like a first-year starter. In other words, there has been some good but an awful lot of bad.

Running back Chuba Hubbard and receiver Adam Thielen provide Young with a couple of weapons, but the Panthers’ 30th-ranked offense has struggled to consistently move the football and score points.

Meantime, Evero’s defense ranks third in yards allowed overall and third in passing yards allowed. The Panthers also are seventh in third-down conversation rate (34.1 percent) and 11th in rushing yards per play.

It is little wonder LaFleur is impressed with Evero.

Then again, LaFleur thought highly enough of him to interview him for the defensive coordinator’s job in Green Bay before the 2021 season. Ultimately and unfortunately, as it turns out, LaFleur hired Joe Barry.

For comparison’s sake, Barry’s defense ranks 28th in rush yards per play, 23rd in pass yards per play, and 25th in third-down conversation rate.

The numbers suggest it’s not even close.

LaFleur all but said so this week.

“He’s done a hell of a job,” LaFleur said of Evero. “You saw it a year ago in Denver, and you see the carryover this year with a whole new group. I’ve got a lot of respect for Ejior. He’s a great communicator, he’s demanding, he holds guys accountable. I’ve just got a ton of respect for what he’s been able to accomplish.”

It’s a foregone conclusion – in my mind – that Barry is fired after the season. He’s been given talented players, two-plus seasons and an offense that generally doesn’t put the Packers’ defense in bad spots.

And still he can’t get the job done.

Clearly, Evero would be among LaFleur’s top candidates for the job.

In fact, Evero’s stock has risen so much lately that he’s being talked about in terms of getting the head coaching job at Carolina. LaFleur may not have the opportunity to hire him.

Nevertheless, it adds another layer of interest to Sunday’s game.

“You see it on tape,” LaFleur said of Carolina’s defense. “They’re very well coached. He’s got a really good scheme … nice wrinkles to it. They play very competitive on all three levels. You definitely see how hard they play. It jumps off the tape. I think they’re third in total yards right now. I know they’re Top 10 in a lot of categories.”

Evero worked in Green Bay in 2016 as the defensive quality control assistant under Dom Capers. He was hired by the Rams’ Sean McVay the following offseason, joined their staff as the defensive backs coach and helped them beat Cincinnati 23-20 in Super Bowl LVI.

Joe Burrow and the Bengals’ vaunted passing attack never got on track against Evero’s secondary and the Rams’ defense.

On Sunday, LaFleur will match wits with Evero.

It will be interesting to see if Jordan Love and the offense get back on track at Carolina. Love wasn’t sharp in a 24-22 loss to the Giants, but he did bounce back in a 34-20 loss to the Bucs last week.

Love was 29 of 39 for 284 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions for a 111.5 passer rating.

The Packers (6-8) likely have to win out to reach the postseason.

“It’s all about how we finish the season at this point with these three games that we’ve got,” Love said.

The Packers’ two-game losing streak followed a three-game win streak. The loss to the Giants didn’t seem to shake them out of their doldrums.

“You’re being introduced to adversity and there’s two ways you’re going to respond to it,” Packers linebacker Quay Walker said. “You’re either going to lie down or you’re going to get up.”

The Packers better be up for the Panthers’ game or risk a disaster.

Green Bay’s problem in the Tampa Bay loss was that their offense couldn’t keep pace with the Bucs’ Baker Mayfield, who threw for four touchdowns and finished with a perfect 158.3 passer rating.

Barry’s defense had absolutely no answers for the Mayfield.

Now we’ll see what he draws up to try and trip up Young.

The Panthers are in “spoiler” mode coming off a 9-7 win over Atlanta in which they didn’t score a touchdown.

LaFleur isn’t taking the Panthers for granted. We’ll find out if his team, and in particular the defense, is going to follow suit.

“We’ve got three games and every game is a playoff mentality,” LaFleur said. “Who knows what will happen, but we can’t get it all back at once.”

The Packers’ defensive implosion against the Bucs further fueled speculation that Barry will be fired after the season. His unit already has surrendered four 200-plus rushing yard games this season.

LaFleur was visibly displeased with his defense’s lack of communication during and after the game.

“I’ve seen us execute this stuff before,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that it happened at this time of the year. Every guy plays off one another and when there’s any type of miscommunication, you get gashed.

“And that’s what happened. They gashed us.”

To use LaFleur’s description of his defense, the Packers are down to their final gashing. Another subpar performance by Barry’s defense will put the proverbial nail in the Packers’ coffin.

The vibe isn’t good right now, but I believe the Packers’ offense will do enough good things to escape with the win.

Prediction: Packers 19, Panthers 11

Packers’ defense lame in 34-20 loss to Bucs

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – It should be painfully obvious to Matt LaFleur that Joe Barry isn’t qualified to coordinate a church picnic.

It’s too important to the church’s financial well-being, and parishioners’ faith only goes so far.

And yet LaFleur is willing to live in “sin” – the sin of omission – by not firing his defensive coordinator. He should have done it after last season. It would’ve been best for his team and merciful for his coordinator.

He didn’t.

LaFleur should do it now in the wake of a 34-20 loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday in front of 77,275 Joe Barry non-believers at Lambeau Field.

He won’t.

In fact I’ll be surprised if LaFleur fires Barry in-season, but whenever he does it can’t happen soon enough.

The Bucs scored 31 points on five of six series after the first quarter. It could’ve been worse except the Bucs’ seventh and final drive bled four minutes before Baker Mayfield took a knee at Green Bay’s 12 to end it.

Mayfield completed 22 of 28 passes for 381 yards, four touchdowns and a perfect 158.3 passer rating. He was sacked five times, but didn’t throw an interception and overcame four of the sacks with long completions.

Eighteen of Mayfield’s 22 completions went for first downs. The Bucs ran 12 plays that covered 18 or more yards. The Bucs’ offense currently ranks 23rd in yards and that includes Sunday’s 452-yard effort.

Barry is sinking into an abyss of incompetence. What’s worse, he’s taking an entire team and a lot of really good players down with him.

In his postgame news conference, LaFleur sounded resigned to the fact that Barry has to go. He also sounded like he’s trying to decipher what’s best for his 6-8 Packers with three games to play.

“Right now we’re looking for solutions,” he said. “So I want to go back to it. As soon as we leave here, I’m going to go right into my office and get to work on that.

“It’s extremely disappointing to have a home game against a team that’s right in the thick of it in their division when you’re holding onto one of those (playoff) spots, and you get manhandled in the second half of a tight ballgame.”

The Packers slipped from seventh to 11th in the NFC playoff race. They play at Carolina (2-12) and at Minnesota (7-7) before the regular-season finale against Chicago (5-9) on Jan. 7 at Lambeau Field.

Green Bay went from a dreadful 2-5 to a promising 6-6 before relapsing into a disappointing 6-8.

Now the Packers must win out to have any shot at postseason play.

Green Bay’s defense isn’t the only problem, but it’s the most glaring. Here’s the litany of dirty laundry:

** Mayfield hit a wide-open Mike Evans for a 19-yard touchdown on third-and-6 to take a 10-7 second-quarter lead.

** He hit Godwin for 24 yards on second-and-29 to set up a field goal late in the first half.

** He found Godwin again for 15 yards on third-and-12 before hitting running back Rachaad White for a 26-yard touchdown to push the Buccaneers’ lead to 20-10 early in the third quarter.

But wait … the Barry-led Packers’ defense wasn’t finished.

** Mayfield hit Godwin again for 21 yards on second-and-18 and then found David Moore for a 52-yard catch-and-run to make it 34-20 to close out the Buccaneers’ scoring.

“It’s all concerning, right, when it looks like there’s some confusion going on back there (on defense),” LaFleur said. “You’ve got to be so coordinated and so in tune, really on all three levels. Every guy plays off one another and when there’s any type of miscommunication, you get gashed and that’s what happened.”

LaFleur was asked if Barry’s approach was flawed. Barry played mostly zone coverage behind a four-man rush. Blitzes were sparse. Creative personnel groupings were non-existent.

“Hindsight’s 20-20,” LaFleur said, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Barry used a similar scheme in last Monday’s loss against the Giants. Barry made Giants QB Tommy DeVito look like a Pro Bowler on Monday night. He made Mayfield look like a Hall of Famer Sunday.

What Barry lacks in creativity he makes up for in redundancy and opposing offenses are reaping the rewards.

“You’ve got to be willing to challenge, especially if you’re getting gashed, just changing it up,” LaFleur said.

LaFleur should hear himself talk.

He’s no more willing to make a change at defensive coordinator than Barry is willing to make a change in the way he does business.

Doesn’t LaFleur realize the hypocrisy in his own statement? Perhaps a five-game losing streak to totally incinerate a once-promising season will be enough for LaFleur to pull the rug out from Barry.

Hey, whatever it takes.

LaFleur should be embarrassed the way the Giants and Bucs took it to his Packers in back-to-back games.

At least he’s willing to admit that much of the obvious.

“They’re beating us. They’re outcoaching us. They’re out-scheming us and outplaying us, ultimately,” he said. “We haven’t found solutions that are good enough, in particular in a game of this magnitude. Because we all know what’s at stake at this time of the year. I’m proud of the guys in terms of our ability to fight our way back into this thing but (I’m) obviously very disappointed with the outcomes of the last two weeks.”

There were some bright spots.

Jordan Love completed 29 of 39 passes (74 percent) for 284 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He had a 111.5 passer rating. It was the fifth time in seven games Love has eclipsed a 100 passer rating.

Aaron Jones, Dontayvion Wicks and Jayden Reed played through painful injuries – and played well doing it – because they are consummate pros.

Jones rushed 13 times for 53 yards (4.1 per carry) and caught four passes for 16 yards. He also had a 20-yard gallop during which he flashed a glimpse of his former explosive self.

Wicks hauled in six passes for 97 yards (16.2 per catch) including a 22-yarder to keep a touchdown drive alive.

Reed added six catches for 52 yards and a 17-yard touchdown. 

The Packers’ top four receiving yards leaders were all rookies. Wicks (97), Reed (52), Tucker Kraft (four for 57) and Malik Heath (three for 29) combined for 19 catches, 235 yards and two touchdowns.

Again, it all comes back to an unqualified defensive coordinator being allowed to keep running an unsuccessful unit for reasons known only to God and the Packers’ head coach.

This much is known: If Barry isn’t gone by mid-January odds are LaFleur will be after the 2024 season.

Packers better beware of Bucs’ WR Evans

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The NFC race is a four-game sprint featuring three legit contenders and a handful of flawed but determined also-rans.

The NFC’s top teams – the 49ers, Eagles and Cowboys – are replete with high-level playmakers. They also have a starting quarterback who is healthy, effective and no stranger to winning big-time games.

San Francisco, Philadelphia and Dallas are the most complete teams among the NFC’s true Super Bowl contenders.

The 49ers are a strong bet to win the Super Bowl, especially given the AFC’s rash of horrible injuries at the quarterback position. It’s Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Tua Tagovailoa and not much else still standing. It may not make for a great Super Bowl representative, although the trivia possibilities – name the AFC’s seven starting QBs in the playoffs in 2023 – ridiculously difficult and endless.

Then there is the top-heavy NFC and a mish-mash of mediocrity.

The Lions (9-4) have been sabotaged by an injured, undermanned defense and an offense that’s former top-of-the-line, uh, lines has been unable to adequately protect the immobile Jared Goff.

The split-second between “Good Goff” and “Good Grief” is an O-line that can’t give him enough time to prevent him from being pressured, hit, harassed and sacked repeatedly despite the opponent.

The Vikings (7-6) aren’t going anywhere with Nick Mullens as their QB1 and that’s even if Justin Jefferson can get healthy and stay healthy.

The Packers (6-7) are dealing with significant injuries on offense to running back A.J. Dillon, whose broken thumb makes it doubtful he’ll be able to play Sunday against a feisty Tampa Bay (6-7) squad.

The good news is receivers Jayden Reed and Dontayvion Wicks (both with ankle sprains) were cleared to return to practice Thursday. Wicks’ return was especially surprising in that he believed his ankle was “(blanked) up” after the Giants’ game and the MetLife turf menace.

Aaron Jones said “I feel I’m confident for Sunday” but nobody can be quite certain what that means. The Packers’ running back has been close but not quite for a while now. Jones’ return would bolster a running back position that might be down to Patrick Taylor and Kenyan Drake. After all there is a limit to the number of reverses Reed can run in a given day.

Kickoff between the NFC wannabe Bucs and Packers is set for noon at Lambeau Field. The forecast calls for mild conditions with the day’s high at 41 – 10 degrees above the average high – with 9 mph winds.

It’s not Tampa Bay balmy but it is unseasonably wonderful for Titletown, USA, in mid-December.

The Buccaneers come to Green Bay seeking a third straight win, although the Panthers and Falcons aren’t exactly the NFL’s elite. Nevertheless, the Bucs will take any win they can get given the NFC South logjam between Tampa Bay, Atlanta and New Orleans.

The Bucs believe they are going to reach the postseason.

It’s likely given the soft-as-tissue conference, and especially their dreadful division, but that doesn’t mean Tampa Bay isn’t capable of upsetting the Packers this week.

Bucs linebacker Lavonte David told reporters, “There’s certainly some of that feeling (a playoff run) around here. Everybody understands if we just stay focused, there’s still time on the clock in this season.”

The Packers are singing a similar tune, although they were as tone deaf as could be in a 24-22 last-second loss to the New York Giants at the aforementioned MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

Green Bay’s disappointing loss snapped a three-game winning streak and nudged talk of a playoff run a bit closer to the back burner. The Packers’ defense has been a chronic problem all season. It has allowed four games of 200-plus yards rushing to opposing offenses. That’s exactly 20 percent of the league-wide total of 20 200-plus games.

It’s ridiculous and defensive coordinator Joe Barry most certainly will not be back in 2024. That doesn’t mean the Packers can’t finish strong in spite of their defensive shortcomings and win four straight to close out.

That would put them in the playoffs, yet another important step in the ongoing growth process for Jordan Love and his young teammates.

Love had a tough night against the Giants – in fact, one of his worst this season – but sounded as resilient as ever this week.

“I think we’ve got a great team,” he said. “Obviously, we’re a team that has been in this situation. (We’ve) lost some tough games and been able to bounce back.”

Tampa Bay will look to quarterback Baker Mayfield, who has passed for 2,934 yards, 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 13 starts this season, to extend the winning streak.

The Bucs’ greatest weapon is receiver Mike Evans, who can be nearly unstoppable at times. He has 62 catches for 1,020 yards and 10 touchdowns this season with no sign of letting up.

Chris Godwin is second with 58 catches for 659 yards and one touchdown, but a knee injury could keep him out.

 Mayfield is closing in on the fifth 3,000-yard season of his career.

Rachaad White is the Buccaneers’ top rusher. He has racked up 745 yards and five touchdowns this season as the team’s primary running back. No doubt White is hoping to be the catalyst of a fifth 200-plus yard rushing day against Joe Barry’s defense.

If that happens it’s going to be a very long, incredibly disappointing Sunday afternoon for the Packers and their fans.

Still, I’m willing to believe the Packers will pay off on this shot at scoring a critical victory and a dose of redemption in a single game.

PREDICTION: Packers 23, Buccaneers 19

Improved Packers aim

for 4th straight at NYG

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers’ sharp uptick in execution during their three-game winning streak has catapulted them into the NFC’s seventh seed.

If the season ended today … yes, the Packers (6-6) would be in the playoffs, but no, they would be a longshot to advance. The lesson amidst the Packers’ terrific trifecta versus the Chargers, Lions and Chiefs is that effort and execution lays the foundation for success.

On offense, the Packers’ drops, pre-snap penalties and blown assignments have sharply decreased in the past month. It’s a byproduct of players’ growing confidence being reflected in more reacting and less thinking. It’s as if Jordan Love and the huddle can predict with a high degree of accuracy what play coach Matt LaFleur is dialing up next.

They’re on the same page, so to speak, in the playbook.

They also appear to be running plays during games that they’ve practiced during the week. It sounds basic, if not remedial, but it’s true. Early in the season the preparation and the rollout were different things.

Now that the offensive line has settled in – rotations and all – it has allowed Love the confidence to let the play develop as he surveys the field. It also allows LaFleur to trust that his play will be blocked up effectively, and that his quarterback will deliver given time.

The Packers’ defense also is in need of improvement despite the fact that it has been exceptional during the three-game winning streak.

The run defense remains a problem smoldering beneath the surface. The Packers allowed the Chiefs to score a mere 19 points, but feisty Isaiah Pacheco ran 18 times for 110 yards, a 6.1 yards-per-carry average.

The New York Giants (4-8) bring in one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines when they host the Packers on Monday Night Football at East Rutherford, New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium.

Injuries, questionable personnel decisions and quarterback Daniel Jones’ regression after a strong finish to 2022 have been disastrous.

The Giants’ offense averages 150 yards per game. That’s right – total yards per game, not just passing yards, or running yards.

Tommy Devito should be the Rams’ Brett Rypien all over again, meaning the Packers’ defense should be all over Devito.

Devito isn’t going to scare NFL defenses, but he did throw for 246 yards and three touchdowns two weeks ago in a win over the Commanders. He threw for 191 yards and a touchdown in a 10-7 win over New England leading up to their just-completed bye week.

The Giants are on a two-game winning streak in spite of themselves.

Saquon Barkley remains their No. 1 threat on offense. He is talented enough to go off on any given week, given at least a bit of help from his offensive mates.

If Barkley has a monster game against the Packers’ defense, and the Giants threaten to eclipse the 200-yard barrier, Barry might have to find his own transportation back to Green Bay.

But I don’t see that happening.

On paper, Rashan Gary, Kenny Clark and the rest should be in “seek and destroy” mode Monday night.

The Giants are a minus-133 in point differential.

New York has won consecutive games for the first time this season and is coming off its bye week.

“Don’t want to make any excuses,” Giants general manager Joe Schoen told reporters this week. “We’ve had some injuries. We’ve just got to continue to build the depth and we’ve got to continue to build the team all around so when injuries do occur, we can overcome those and still be competitive when injuries happen.

“It’s going to happen every year. It’s football. It’s a contact sport. There’s going to be injuries, and we’ve got to be able to overcome any type of adversity that presents itself.”

The Packers’ recent success has media and fans wondering if it might go to the heads of such a young roster. The fact is Love and his teammates are saying all the right things. They realize they haven’t accomplished anything, aside from clawing back to .500 against top-notch teams.

“As soon as you start feeling yourself and feeling like you’ve arrived, this league has a way of knocking you out,” LaFleur said. “The bottom line is we’re a .500 football team.”

Green Bay has been much more than that as of late.

Love has thrown for eight touchdowns to zero interceptions while averaging 285.7 yards passing during the win streak. He won’t have Christian Watson (hamstring) and most likely won’t have Aaron Jones (hamstring) on Monday night.

The Packers have figured out ways to win without either or both. They will have to do that once again at MetLife Stadium.

Prediction: Packers 23, Giants 13

Green Bay moves to 7-6 and further entrenches itself in the NFC playoff race as it sets its sights on the No. 6 seed and perhaps a rematch with NFC North foe Detroit.

Packers handle Chiefs

27-19 with great effort

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers are ascending, their fans have visions of the postseason dancing through their heads, and their head coach remains unbeaten in December.

It truly is the most wonderful time of the year in Green Bay.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur improved to 16-0 in the month as Green Bay delivered a statement-making 27-19 victory over Kansas City on Sunday night at Lambeau Field.

The Packers’ statement: “We’re a good team.”

Jordan Love offered that modest but true assessment after he outplayed Patrick Mahomes, LaFleur outcoached Andy Reid and Joe Barry – yes, Joe Barry – dialed up enough red zone pressure to secure the victory.

Love directed back-to-back touchdown drives to start the game while the Chiefs settled for field goals as Green Bay opened a 14-6 lead against the NFL’s defending Super Bowl champions.

Then they staved off a late Chiefs’ rally to secure a third straight win, much to the delight of the 78,000 fans on a gorgeous wintry night.

The Packers believed in each other Sunday night, just the same as they believed in each other going into the season. Now they are reaping the rewards of unity, trust and hard work while still looking to improve.

“Everybody just trusted it, stayed together, no one’s wavered,” Love said. “Obviously it wasn’t easy the beginning of the year. It wasn’t exactly how we’d planned or how we wanted it to go, but we just stuck together and kept our heads down, kept working every week, showing up with the mindset that we’ve just got to take it one week at a time and know that we’re not a bad team.

“We’re a good team.”

The Packers (6-6) are the NFC’s No. 7 seed.

If the regular season ended today – and Packers fans are in no hurry for that to happen with five winnable games remaining – Green Bay would travel to San Francisco to face the 49ers in the wild-card round.

It is heady stuff for a team that went from 2-5 and growing talk as to who and where the Packers might draft next spring.

April can wait.

The Packers are living in the moment and looking good doing it.

LaFleur never wavered from his belief in this team.

“Any time you’re struggling, it is hard to stay positive, but you have to. You have to,” he said. “I knew we had a young group. Everybody in this league is going through their own set of circumstances and nobody cares at the end of the day. All anybody cares about is the result.

“But you continue to stay resilient, because I do believe, if you can fight through the tough times, you’re better for them.”

But when asked about currently being the NFC’s No. 7 seed, LaFleur channeled his inner Jim Mora: Playoffs? You’re talking about playoffs?

“Nope, nope, nope,” he said. “It’s one game. The guys got to understand you start winning games and people start gunning for you now. We’re a .500 football team, that’s where we’re at. That’s the reality of it.”

That’s true.

It’s also true that the Packers are among the NFL’s hottest teams right now with plenty of room for improvement.

Hard-charging A.J. Dillon embraced the concept.

He swapped out his wife’s handpicked game-day wardrobe, sweet as it was, in exchange for an orange-and-black camouflage jacket. He did so to reinforce the Packers’ “hunter’s mentality” and teammates noticed.

He also stressed that the goal is to keep improving on a weekly basis.

“We’re not full … we’ve still got a lot more room (to improve),” he said. “We still got a lot more to do and it’s all about the hunt. It’s one game at a time.”

On Sunday night the Packers played like they’ve been there before.

Love completed 25 of 36 passes for 267 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He was sacked twice and posted a 118.6 passer rating.

Love completed 23 passes for 255 yards and the three TDs to seven players who are either rookies (five) or second-year pros. With rookie tight end Ben Sims’ 1-yard touchdown catch, the Packers became the first team in the Super Bowl era to have three rookie TEs catch TDs. Luke Musgrave and Tucker Kraft are the other two.

It’s a credit to the Packers’ coaching, LaFleur’s play-calling and Love’s patience and perseverance. Of all the things Love may have learned from his predecessor, one of the most important is that the histrionics, finger-pointing and blame-placing don’t sit well with teammates.

In addition to Love’s beautiful TD tosses to Christian Watson, he also made an unbelievable 33-yard completion to Romeo Doubs. It came on fourth-and-1 at the Chiefs’ 44 and set up Love’s 12-yard TD to Watson.

It was a critical throw-and-catch in a game where the Packers’ offense was able to answer every time Kansas City put points on the board.

Dillon’s 18 rushing attempts for 73 bruising yards combined with a clever variety of end arounds provided just enough in the run game.

Love, his merry band of receivers and the Packers’ defense did the rest.

Barry has been under fire this season, particularly for a subpar run defense, and Isiah Pacheco gashed the Packers for a career-high 118 yards on 18 carries (6.1 per attempt) and a touchdown.

But the Packers’ defense hunkered down in the red zone.

Lukas Van Ness had one sack and Devonte Wyatt/Preston Smith and Rashan Gary/Kenny Clark tag-teamed Mahomes for the other two. It forced two early field goals and gave the Packers some breathing room.

There were only six total possessions in the first half, including the Chiefs’ kneel-down on the final play.

“It was just a wild, crazy first half in terms of very long, sustained drives,” LaFleur said. “But you’ve got to give it up to our defense, our red-zone defense, keeping them out of the end zone obviously was a big-time factor in the game.”

Keisean Nixon’s fourth-quarter interception on a beautiful read-and-react also was a pivotal moment. The Chiefs were at the Packers’ 49 and driving when Mahomes lofted a pass toward Sky Moore on a pick play. The problem for Mahomes is Nixon sniffed it out, avoided the screen and ran the route better than Moore could have for the interception.

Instead of driving for the go-ahead touchdown with five minutes to play, Mahomes and Co. were forced to sit and watch as seconds ticked by.

Clark was thrilled for Nixon.

“It was huge,” he said. “I’m happy for Kei. He’s another guy who’s been putting in a lot of work. He’s been playing that nickel position and he did a great job of making the play on the ball. Pat threw it up there and he made an over-the-shoulder catch. That was huge for us. We needed that turnover.”

LaFleur agreed.

“We told the guys that it was going to come down to the ball, that whoever gets a takeaway is going to win the game,” LaFleur said. “And it happened to be us. It happened to be a great play by Keisean and certainly that was a pivotal moment in that game.”

Not to be lost in all of that is Anders Carlson’s 48- and 40-yard field goals in the fourth quarter. The rookie kicker stayed calm and cool as he split the uprights on both.

Carlson’s 40-yarder was critical in that it made it an 8-point game.

“I knew it was a big one, and I knew the wind was a little right to left, maybe a little bit in my face,” he said. “The guys up front did an amazing job. The snap, the hold, they were on point, and I was able to put it through.”

The Chiefs’ last-ditch drive ended with a failed Hail Mary in the end zone. It came after what appeared to be pass interference on Carrington Valentine against Marquez Valdes-Scantling at the Packers’ 11.

When asked afterward, Valentine gave the perfect answer with a wry grin: “What penalty? I didn’t see any flags out there.”

Just like so many NFL observers didn’t see THIS coming. The NFL’s youngest team is endeavoring to become one its best teams. The old saying goes that kids grow up too fast. Once upon a time, or about four weeks ago, the talk was the Packers weren’t growing up fast enough.

The fact is they’re growing up right before our eyes.

And it’s a beautiful sight.

Packers’ future is now

in 6-game stretch run 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Green Bay’s three wins in its past four games offers Packers’ head coach Matt LaFleur and Co. a rare opportunity to seize a pivotal moment in franchise history.

The Packers (5-6) sit a mere half-game behind the beleaguered Vikings (6-6) led by a trio of QBO’s (Josh Dobbs, Nick Mullens, Jaren Hall, etc.) – a group also known as the Journeymen’s QB Club.

The NFC’s eighth-seeded Packers also sit within shouting distance of the conference’s sixth-seeded Seahawks. Seattle (6-5) faces a terrifying trio of games: at Dallas (8-2), at San Francisco (8-3) and at home versus Philadelphia (10-1).

The Packers could be sitting in the NFC’s sixth slot when the Eagles and Seahawks wrap it up in Philly.

Green Bay’s potentially course-charting six-game stretch run begins against defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City (8-3) on Sunday night at Lambeau Field.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid will be going for his 125th win at Kansas City. He’ll set out to get it with MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes, all-world tight end Travis Kelce and an outstanding defense keyed by Chris Jones.

The Packers are 6 ½-point home underdogs for a reason.

The reason is Kansas City’s head coach, QB and blitz-happy defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo.

It’s a tall order to expect a Packers’ victory, but it is reasonable to expect them to play a smart, fast, competitive brand of football.

The Packers’ defense is getting healthier with the possible return of linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, cornerbacks Jaire Alexander (back) and Eric Stokes, and safeties Darnell Savage and Rudy Ford.

Rashan Gary, Kenny Clark, Karl Brooks, Preston Smith and the rest of the front seven is generating a formidable amount of pass rush.

Meantime, the offense and Jordan Love have shown significant progress in each of the past four games. Love’s play in a 29-22 Thanksgiving Day win at Detroit was superb. He was 22 of 32 for 268 yards, three touchdowns and a 125.5 passer rating. He wasn’t sacked and each of his three TD tosses went to a different receiver.

Love is making exponential leaps-and-bounds at this stage.

So is a receiving corps whose sum total is greater than its individual parts. Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs, Jayden Reed, Dontayvion Wicks and Malik Heath represent a bright future at receiver.

The fact that they are learning, and growing, with Love is a bonus. Their time together is important, and it’s maximized by their time together specifically in LaFleur’s offense.

The tight ends also are receiving first-rate coaching.

Tucker Kraft’s back-to-back performances against the Chargers and Lions were impressive. With Luke Musgrave (lacerated kidney) sidelined and the tight end room shorthanded, Kraft stepped up and played 54 of 56 snaps at Detroit. He caught two passes in as many targets, including a nifty touchdown grab.

The offensive line also has been significantly better of late.

Their game of musical chairs at left tackle (Yosh Nijman and Rasheed Walker) and right guard (Jon Runyan Jr. and Sean Rhyan) hasn’t diminished performance while heightening competition.

I suspect Walker to prevail as the team’s future swing tackle, and Rhyan to win the right guard job by season’s end.

The trick is for the Packers to keep improving throughout the stretch run.

The best NFL teams take care of business in most winnable games.

Green Bay is at the New York Giants for a Monday Night Football matchup – unless it is flexed out – on Dec. 11. The Giants (4-8) are dealing with infighting between head coach Brian Daboll and defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, according to reports.

The Packers follow that up by hosting Tampa Bay (4-7) on Dec. 17 before games at Carolina (1-10) on Dec. 24 and at Minnesota (6-6) on Dec. 31. Green Bay closes out at home against Chicago (4-8) on Jan. 7.

That’s five winnable games to finish.

Anything less than a 4-1 record would be disappointing.

The Packers’ challenge isn’t their opponents so much as it’s their ability to sustain the focus necessary to prepare for and win four of five games.

If the Packers make that happen they will be in the postseason.

That would be the reward for a well-traveled regular-season journey.

Imagine the anticipation going into the postseason facing a road game at San Francisco to open it up. It would be a significant step in the process of Love’s development, the offense’s growth and this team’s legacy.

And to think the fuse may never have been lit if not for the Chargers’ Asante Samuel Junior’s pass interference penalty on third-and-20 with the Packers’ odds to win flailing between slim and none.

A terrific touchdown run later and the Packers may be off to an incredible 6-2 finish and a playoff game to boot. Speaking of kickers … ah, never mind.

Bears help Packers by beating Vikings 12-10

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The NFL’s postseason hunt can make for strange bedfellows. Consider Packers fans in the rare position of rooting for the Bears to upset the Vikings on Monday night at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Fortunately the circumstances for such bizarre alliances are infrequent, but it happens.

In this latest iteration the Bears claimed a 12-10 victory on Cairo Santos’ fourth field goal, a 30-yarder with 10 seconds to play, in a sloppy game that featured six turnovers, including four Joshua Dobbs interceptions.

The Bears’ win snapped a 12-game losing streak against NFC North opponents and also halted a six-game losing streak to the Vikings.

More important for Packers fans it nudged their team a half-game closer to qualifying for the NFC’s seventh and final playoff slot.

The Packers (5-6) trail the Vikings (6-6) by a half-game entering their Week 13 encounter with Kansas City on Sunday night. The AFC’s No. 2-seeded Chiefs (8-3) are led by head coach Andy Reid, who is seeking his 125th win in Kansas City, MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes and all-world tight end Travis Kelce.

Kansas City’s underrated defense has allowed 24 or fewer points in 11 straight games, just three shy of the franchise record.

Upsetting the Chiefs is a tall order, but it’s not impossible.

The Packers have won two straight, including a dominant 29-22 victory over the Lions on Thanksgiving Day, and are playing their best football. They also are getting healthier during this 10-day gap between games.

Green Bay waived receiver Bo Melton and running back James Robinson on Monday. The roster spots pave the way for the return of cornerback Eric Stokes and safety Darnell Savage from injured reserve.

Melton played six snaps and Robinson none at Detroit.

Now, Stokes and Savage join Carrington Valentine, Corey Ballentine, Anthony Johnson, Jr., and Jonathan Owens in the Packers’ secondary. In addition, cornerback Jaire Alexander and safety Rudy Ford also returned to practice Monday. Both were questionable but didn’t play Thursday.

Linebacker De’Vondre Campbell also was back at practice Monday, meaning the Packers’ defense is as healthy as it’s been all season.

It’ll be up to defensive coordinator Joe Barry and secondary coach Greg Williams to divvy up the snaps, but it’s a good problem to have.

It’s likely to be Alexander and Valentine at the corners, Keisean Nixon in the slot and Savage and Ford at safety to open against Kansas City. The Packers’ secondary has shown exceptional quality depth all season, though, so look for Owens to continue seeing playing time.

Meantime, the Packers’ pass rush ate up the Lions’ first-rate O-line.

Detroit quarterback Jared Goff was under constant duress while being sacked three times. He also lost a career-high three fumbles, including a 37-yard scoop-and-score by the Packers’ Owens for a touchdown.

Rashan Gary had seven tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery at Detroit. Gary also had plenty of help.

Rookie defensive tackle Karl Brooks had a QB hit, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Brooks, a sixth-round pick from Bowling Green State University, has proven to be a disruptive interior pass rusher.

Kenny Clark, Lukas Van Ness and Kingsley Enagbare each had two quarterback hits to make it a long day for Goff.

The Packers’ shorthanded offense also is on the rise.

Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon didn’t practice Monday, but Dillon is expected to play against the Chiefs. Jones’ return date remains unclear, but receiver Dontayvion Wicks (concussion) returned to practice.

Jordan Love has shown significant improvement each of the past three games, with his best performance of the season coming at Detroit.

Love was 22 of 32 for 268 yards with three touchdown passes and zero interceptions. He wasn’t sacked and posted a 125.5 passer rating. His touchdown tosses came to three different receivers.

Christian Watson caught five passes for 94 yards on seven targets. It was his best game of the season. It began with a 53-yard bomb to set up the Packers’ first touchdown – a 10-yard laser from Love to Jayden Reed – and it ended with a nifty 16-yard touchdown grab to make it 29-14.

Rookie Malik Heath hauled in four passes on as many targets for 46 yards, including several key third-down conversions. Rookie tight end Tucker Kraft played 54 of 56 offensive snaps with fellow tight end Luke Musgrave on injured reserve with a lacerated kidney. Kraft caught two passes for 15 yards, including a 9-yard touchdown catch.

On a day when the Packers’ running game was limited to Love’s 37-yard scramble-and-slide in the second half, the offense still found a way to churn out first downs and move the football.

The Packers’ remaining schedule is favorable beyond the Chiefs game.

Green Bay is at the New York Giants for a Monday Night Football matchup – unless it is swapped out – on Dec. 11. The Giants (4-8) are dealing with infighting between head coach Brian Daboll and defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, according to reports.

The Packers follow that up by hosting Tampa Bay (4-7) on Dec. 17 before games at Carolina (1-10) on Dec. 24 and at Minnesota (6-6) on Dec. 31. Green Bay closes out at home against Chicago (4-8) on Jan. 7.

That’s five winnable games to finish.

Meantime, the sixth-seeded Seahawks (6-5) have a rugged row to hoe down the stretch. It begins with a Nov. 30 game at Dallas (8-3) and a Dec. 11 game at San Francisco (8-3) before hosting the NFC’s top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles (10-1) on Dec. 17. That’s as difficult a three-game stretch as there is in the NFL.

The stretch run sets up nicely for Green Bay. Now we’ll see what head coach Matt LaFleur and the Packers can do with it.

A playoff berth for the Packers – the NFL’s youngest team – would be a resounding endorsement of LaFleur, Love and the plucky young supporting cast on offense.

It also would strongly suggest GM Brian Gutekunst has the team moving in the right direction while accomplishing one of sport’s most difficult feats: Getting young AND better at the same time.

Packers tame Lions in

impressive T-Day win

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Vince Lombardi was no fan of having to play the Lions every year on Thanksgiving Day in Detroit, so much so that he convinced the NFL to rotate the opponents annually.

The Packers’ tremendous 29-22 victory over the Lions on Thursday may not have changed his mind, but rest assured on this Thanksgiving Day Lombardi was flashing that gap-tooth grin from high above Ford Field nonetheless. This was a victory the great coach could only admire.

On a short week on the road against the NFC North-leading Lions the injured but undaunted Packers put a big-time hurt on the home team.

It was Green Bay’s most complete game of the season.

The offense, defense and special teams each played exceptionally well and put points on the scoreboard. The Packers started fast, finished strong and dominated in between.

When Green Bay won the Madden-Turducken coin toss Packers coach Matt LaFleur elected to take the football and kick butt.

“Hopefully we gave Packers fans a lot to cheer about today,” he said after the win. “That was a hard-fought win against a really, really good football team.

“I can’t say enough about our guys in terms of their belief in one another. Guys were juiced up and ready to play. They’ve supported one another through all the ups and downs, and hopefully we’re starting to catch our stride a little bit.”

Speaking of catching and strides, Packers receiver Christian Watson blew the doors off the Lions’ secondary on the opening play of the game to make a terrific 53-yard tone-setting catch.

Four plays later, Jordan Love paid it off with a 10-yard laser to Jayden Reed to cap the 75-yard touchdown drive.

LaFleur and Love liked the idea of starting with a deep shot to Watson all week, but when the coach had second thoughts before kickoff the quarterback convinced him to stick with it.

Then Love and Watson delivered.

“Something we put in this week that we thought was going to work, and we were confident in it,” Love said. “Came out and obviously put the ball up there, and Christian went up there and made a great catch.”

Love and Watson each had their best games of the season.

Watson had five catches on just seven targets for 94 yards including a 16-yard touchdown grab to make it 29-14 late in the third quarter.

Love completed 22 of 32 passes for 268 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions for a 125.5 passer rating.

He wasn’t sacked and hit just four times.

Meantime, Lions quarterback Jared Goff spent most of the afternoon trying unsuccessfully to elude a relentless Packers pass rush. Goff was hit on 12 dropbacks and sacked three times. He also had a career-worst three fumbles, one of which resulted in safety Jonathan Owens’ 27-yard recovery and return for a touchdown late in the first quarter.

The Packers (5-6) entered the game having scored 20 first quarter points. They matched that total in the game’s first 13 minutes on Thursday.

The Lions (8-3) looked like they never knew what hit them.

“I think the game was won up front today on both sides of the ball,” LaFleur said. “Any time you drop back against Detroit and throw 30-plus passes and come away with zero sacks … and conversely, what we were doing up front on the other side of the ball … that was really the difference.”

In Week 4 at Lambeau Field, the Lions raced to a 27-3 halftime lead and never looked back on their way to a 34-20 win.

The difference between then and now is staggering.

Love’s outstanding play is a credit to the quarterback, but it’s also a reflection of the offense’s overall improvement. The drops, pre-snap penalties and blown assignments have abated.

Love’s stellar performance, which featured pinpoint passing, a critical 37-yard scramble and quiet confidence, was outstanding.

“I think it’s night and day,” LaFleur said of Love’s development since Week 4. “I mean, I don’t know how you guys feel. I have to go back and look at it, but certainly, it appears that way. And it’s given us a lot of confidence to be a little more aggressive with some of the calls.

“When you trust your offensive line (to block it up) … when you trust your quarterback to facilitate and get the ball where it needs to go and throwing on rhythm, that allows you to do that. And we had a lot of – I would say deeper developing plays – and hit a lot of intermediate throws for some chunk plays that ended up being big for us.”

LaFleur was quick to praise Love’s supporting cast.

“I think (Love) has done a tremendous job,” he said. “He can’t do it alone. I think a lot of guys made plays for him. I think the story was the offensive line just to provide the protection for him.”

Left guard Elgton Jenkins, center Josh Myers and right tackle Zach Tom played all 56 snaps. Rasheed Walker (29) and Yosh Nijman (27) essentially split snaps at left tackle, while Jon Runyan Jr. (43) and Sean Rhyan (13) time-shared at right guard.

Defensively, Rashan Gary was making life miserable for Goff.

Gary had three sacks – his second three-sack game of the season – and wrecked perhaps a dozen of Detroit’s 84 offensive snaps.

For Gary, who starred at Michigan, it was a homecoming of sorts.

Kenny Clark had an inkling Gary would come up big.

“We were just telling him we’re ready for him to come back and put on a great performance and that’s what he did,” Clark said of Gary. “He came back and got three sacks, disruptive all game, disruptive in the run game. He balled out today.”

Detroit head coach Dan Campbell was his predictable “go for it” self, but was repeatedly stymied by the Packers. The Lions finished 1-for-5 on fourth down tries, including an ill-advised fake punt that was blown up by Lucas Van Ness.

Van Ness said the Packers’ punt cover team was ready in anticipation of some Thanksgiving Day shenanigans.

“We practiced it all week,” said Van Ness, who had three tackles (one for loss) and two quarterback hits. “Given that it was Thanksgiving, we knew a lot of that (trick) stuff comes out. So be ready for it. Coach Rich (Bisaccia) stressed be aware right before we went out there. I was rushing but right away I noticed something was up and got my eyes up and was able to make the tackle.”

The stuffed fake punt epitomized the Packers’ success.

They came in well-coached and they played like it.

Four weeks ago the Packers were 2-5 and seemingly going nowhere.

Today, they’re 5-6 and right in the mix for a postseason berth.

Lombardi would be proud.

Love, young WRs help Packers’ resilient ‘D’

thwart Chargers 23-20

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Jordan Love’s development and improvement has been steady and apparent throughout nine challenging starts.

Now that progress is being reflected in the results.

In just Love’s 10th start as the heir apparent to greatness, his future – and the team’s – is as bright as Sunday’s blinding sun at Lambeau Field.

Green Bay’s offense and defense each delivered multiple big plays in critical moments to rally the Packers to a thrilling 23-20 victory over the L.A. Chargers in front of 77,432 fans on a gorgeous autumn day.

Love hit 27 of 40 passes for 322 yards and two touchdowns, including the 24-yard go-ahead score to Romeo Doubs to make it 23-20 with 2:24 to play. Love was calm and cool on the six-play, 75-yard winning drive.

Love’s big moment came with 5:24 to play trailing 20-16 thanks to a missed 52-yard field goal and a missed PAT. It was eerily similar to the Pittsburgh game in Week 10 except for the outcome.

Down by four points and needing a touchdown to win, Love didn’t waste time. Faced with third-and-20 at Green Bay’s 15, Dontayvion Wicks drew a 24-yard pass interference penalty on Asante Samuel Jr.

Wicks then caught a short pass over the middle, bounced off a would-be tackler, and raced 35 yards before Eric Kendricks made the touchdown-saving tackle.

Two plays later Love found Doubs in the back of the Chargers’ end zone for a 24-yard touchdown that proved to be the game winner.

The Packers’ defense did the rest.

Rashan Gary ended the Chargers’ first comeback bid with a 10-yard sack. Kenny Clark stymied Los Angeles’ final drive by batting down Justin Herbert’s fourth down pass.

Gary took pride in the defense doing its part to seal the win.

“The past two games the offense has been doing great, catching their rhythm, and the defense has got to match their energy,” said Gary, who stuffed the stat line with two QB hits, a sack and a fumble recovery. “Us being able to do that helped the team and helped us get this win today.”

Clark also chimed in.

“This team, we’ve been fighting all year,” he said. “We’ve been on the other side of these games, so for us to come out on top of this one is huge for us, huge for our confidence, and we’ve got to keep it rolling.”

The Packers (4-6) won’t have to wait long.

Green Bay travels to Detroit (8-2) to tangle with the NFC North-leading Lions in a Thanksgiving Day matchup. Kickoff is set for 11:30 a.m.

Packers coach Matt LaFleur was pleased with the comeback win.

“Well, it certainly feels good to be on the other side of one of these tight ballgames,” he said. “I think just the guys made plays. That was evident in the second-to-last offensive series and then defensively to hold them there on the fourth down.”

Some viewed the Packers’ win as a “gift” from the Chargers, who dropped four critical passes and were 1-for-4 in the red zone, including an Austin Ekeler fumble at Green Bay’s 5-yard line.

That’s fair so long as the Packers’ missed opportunities aren’t ignored. In addition to the missed kicks, the Packers’ offense also had chances to make it a two-possession game down the stretch.

Injuries to Aaron Jones and Emanuel Wilson left the Packers with only one healthy running back, A.J. Dillon, for much of the second half.

Even before the injuries the Packers’ running game amounted to rookie receiver Jayden Reed gaining big yards on end-arounds, of all things. Reed gained 46 yards on three carries, including a 32-yard gallop for a touchdown. The big play was aided by a great Luke Musgrave block.

“There were definitely a lot of opportunities that we didn’t capitalize on,” Love said. “It could have been a completely different game if we did. It’s something we’ve got to continue to grow and learn from and move forward.”

Love’s first career 300-yard passing day – the Packers’ first in almost two seasons – showcased the young receivers’ talents.

Tied 10-10 at halftime the Packers’ mission was clear.

“We finished it off,” Love said. “The message in the second half was it’s a 0-0 ballgame, let’s go finish.”

The Packers had one possession sandwiched between the Chargers’ final two drives and went three-and-out on three straight runs by Dillon.

The Packers punted and the Chargers had a final shot with 1:38 to play, whereas a first down would’ve sealed the victory right there.

LaFleur said he gave Love a run play with directions to call a timeout if the Chargers’ defense had it read. Indeed, the Chargers had it read correctly, but Love didn’t call a timeout and instead handed it off.

“That was on me,” said LaFleur, who admitted he should’ve called a timeout to go over it in detail with his quarterback.

“I’ve just got to be better in that situation and pop the timeout. I think that’s too much to put on (Love’s) plate at this point in time where it wasn’t even something in the game plan. That was a bad deal.”

The outcome was a great deal, though, and it’s more success to build on.

It won’t be easy, though, trying to hang with the Lions on Thanksgiving Day. Detroit handled the Packers 34-20 in their Week 4 matchup.

Much has changed in Green Bay since then.

Reed and the receivers speak excitedly about how much further along they are from then to now. The offensive line also has managed to hold it together the past few weeks, and the rookie tight ends are making leaps. Tucker Kraft actually did his first “Lambeau Leap” on a nifty 39-yard touchdown catch-and-run in which replay showed he stepped out at the Chargers’ 12-yard line.

Kraft still enjoyed making the play, and the “Lambeau Leap,” especially because the Packers scored two plays later on a 9-yard Love-to-Watson pass. That put the Packers up by a score of 16-13.

It also set the stage for a terrific comeback win.

Packers’ pass rush key to short-circuiting

L.A. Chargers’ offense

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers and Chargers are surprisingly similar in many ways regarding their strengths, weaknesses and win-loss record.

If the home underdog Packers pull off an upset in Sunday’s noon kickoff at Lambeau Field – and I think it’s likely to happen – Green Bay and Los Angeles would be sitting at 4-6.

The difference is that the Chargers and their outstanding quarterback, Justin Herbert, would be viewed as failures while the Packers and Jordan Love would be seen as taking a significant step forward.

Both teams are coming off losses.

The Chargers (4-5) fell to the Lions 41-38 in a shootout last week in Los Angeles. The Packers (3-6) held a 19-17 second-half lead before falling to the Steelers 23-19 at Pittsburgh.

It was Love’s finest performance of the season.

When the Steelers’ running attack throttled the Packers’ defense to the tune of 17 points on their first three possessions, Love didn’t blink.

He led the Packers’ offense to within 17-13 at half by making several big plays from the pocket. He only rushed twice for 7 yards, but threw for 289 yards and two touchdowns.

Love’s two fourth-quarter interceptions riled up some in the fan base, but the fact is it was Love’s resiliency that proved Green Bay with an opportunity to win on the road against one of the NFL’s top defenses.

Now it’s the Chargers, a potent but underperforming outfit whose defense can be had and whose offense can be sporadic or explosive.

Herbert has thrown for 2,349 yards with 17 touchdowns to five interceptions. The numbers are good especially given that receivers Mike Williams and Josh Palmer are on injured reserve, and tight ends Gerald Everett and Donald Parham Jr. are both banged up. Neither of the Chargers’ top two tight ends practiced Thursday. If one or both can’t go it’ll be a hit to the passing game AND the running attack.

Herbert, the sixth overall pick in 2020, tries to focus on the positives.

He wasn’t pleased with the 3-point loss to Detroit, but he was encouraged by the offense’s season-highs in points and yards.

“I think you just have to build off it,” he said. “You have to understand that when things are going well and when things are going the way we want them to, we can play pretty good offense.

“We can move the ball pretty well and we can get things rolling. As long as we’re dialed in, we’re eliminating those mental errors and those missed assignments and we’re focused on our job, I think that’s huge for our offense. When we’re able to do that, good things happen. It’s just something to build off of for sure.”

The Chargers’ Austin Ekeler is a wonderful running back, but he has encountered tough sledding behind an average offensive line. If the tight ends aren’t available, it’ll make run blocking that much more difficult.

The Packers’ pass rush is critical to winning this game. That’s provided their run defense can keep the Chargers out of positive down-and-distance situations.

Rashan Gary, Kenny Clark and Preston Smith need to be on top of their games. Herbert has been hit a lot this season, and as great as he is, there’s no doubt his accuracy and production wane under pressure.

The Packers’ defense needs to tackle better than it did at Pittsburgh, where Green Bay missed 16 tackles while yielding 205 yards on 36 carries. Ekeler is also a major threat out of the backfield.

The Chargers’ top weapon, Keenan Allen, caught 14 passes for 157 yards against the Lions. He leads the NFL with 73 catches. He is dealing with a shoulder injury, but is expected to play.

The Packers’ offense needs a big game from Aaron Jones. The veteran running back has been underperforming by his standards. He has dropped passes, fumbled and averaged a career low in yards per carry.

Jones is as healthy as he’s been all season.

It’s time to unleash him, and follow up with a heavy dose of A.J. Dillon once Jones has put the Chargers’ defense back on its cleats.

Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa are among the NFL’s premier pass-rushing tandems and are capable of blowing up an entire game plan.

Yosh Nijman/Rasheed Walker at left tackle and Zach Tom at right tackle will have their hands full all game long. That will be especially true if the Packers’ offense self-destructs with penalties, drops, missed assignments and turnovers.

I don’t see that happening. In fact, the emergence of Jayden Reed, in addition to several solid games from tight end Luke Musgrave, raises hope that the Packers’ passing game can eclipse 300 yards for the first time in forever.

The Packers are showing signs of steady improvement.

That should continue against an overrated Chargers’ team, especially if Keisean Nixon can shake loose for a big return or two.

Prediction: Packers 24, Chargers 23