Hangin’ With Havel

Hangin’ with Havel

Tuesday May 28th

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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Brewers wallop Cubs in Counsell’s return

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Craig Counsell received a traitor’s welcome at American Family Field before Monday’s Cubs-Brewers game.

The Brewers played a tribute video of Counsell, the winningest manager in team history, before the Memorial Day matinee featuring the I-94 rivals and top two teams in the NL Central Division.

It was as well-received by Brewers fans as burnt brats and stale beer.

The fans’ boos cascaded throughout the ballpark as Counsell looked on from the third base dugout in wry amusement. The Cubs manager, who grew up in nearby Whitefish Bay, expected nothing less from the place he calls home and the fans he admires greatly.

Counsell’s Cubs were greeted in similarly rude fashion.

It was divine.

The Brewers captured a thrilling 5-1 victory thanks to some fancy footwork by their current manager, Pat Murphy, and a terrific swing on a 3-0 count by Willie Adames in the eighth.

In a well-pitched scoreless game through 7 ½ innings, Sal Frelick led off the eighth with a pinch-hit single (his first in 21 at-bats as a pinch hitter) off Cubs’ reliever Mark Leiter Jr.

Brice Turang walked and William Contreras followed with a rocket to third baseman Nick Madrigal, who tried to side-saddle the grounder as it ricocheted off his glove into left field to plate Frelick and make it 1-0.

Leiter Jr. struck out Christian Yelich before being pulled in favor of right-hander Hayden Wesneski.

After working the count to 3-0, Adames sat on a sinking fastball and drove it 427 feet over the center-field wall. That made it 4-0. Rookie Jackson Chourio capped the scoring with a ringing double to right center that scored Joey Ortiz from first base.

Adames’ home run was the Brewers’ first dinger on a 3-0 pitch since Christian Yelich did it in 2021. It was only the second time Adames had ever swung at a 3-0 pitch as a Brewer.

“I don’t really like to swing 3-0, but today, it was just the right opportunity, the right moment, the right situation,” Adames told reporters. “I think today was one of those situations where you’re like really confident about swinging 3-0, and we got the results we wanted.”

The Brewers (31-22) increased their lead to 4 ½ games over the Cubs (27-27) in the NL Central.

Memorial Day is particularly emotional for fans that solemnly honored each branch of the military in an impressive pregame ceremony. It didn’t feel like the right time for Brewers’ fans to pay their respects to their (not so) dearly departed former manager.

“I feel a lot of us were waiting for this series because it’s always intense when you’re playing the Cubs, especially when we’ve got Counsell coming for the first time after he left,” Adames said.

Counsell’s brief “thank you” video elicited boos from every nook and cranny of AmFam Field. Counsell was booed by the sellout crowd of 41,882 every time he left the dugout or was shown on the big screen.

Counsell took it in stride.

“I think the fans are here to enjoy a day and enjoy a baseball game,” he said. “They get to do what they want. Hopefully they had a good time.”

Indeed, they did.

They were treated to as well-pitched a game as you’re likely to see.

Robert Gasser started and pitched six innings of scoreless baseball. He didn’t walk a batter and fanned seven. The rookie left-hander lowered his earned-run average to a tidy 1.96 through four big-league starts.

Lefty Bryan Hudson (3-0) struck out three in two scoreless innings to get the win. Hudson entered with two runners on and nobody out in the seventh, but got Gasser off the hook. Hoby Milner allowed a sacrifice fly in the ninth – the Cubs’ only run – to cap off the Brewers’ 5-1 win.

Cubs’ left-hander Justin Steele matched Gasser pitch for pitch.

Steele allowed just three hits while walking one and striking out eight in seven innings.

“It was a great pitchers’ duel,” Counsell said. “Both pitchers were outstanding. Both pitchers were kind of on the attack. It just felt like every hitter was in a hole every single at-bat, from both sides.”

The Brewers came into the four-game series off a series win against the Red Sox at Boston’s Fenway Park. Milwaukee took two of three with Murphy’s ingenuity leading the way.

Murphy used left-hander Jared Koenig as an “opener” in each of the Brewers’ first two games at Fenway Park. He had Bryse Wilson ready to follow on Friday night and Colin Rea likewise on Saturday.

The strategy paid huge dividends.

The Brewers scored a 7-2 win Friday night and followed with a 6-3 win on Saturday afternoon.

Boston’s lineup features three red-hot left-handed hitters among its first four hitters. Koenig was able to cool off Jarren Duran, Wilyer Abreu and Rafael Devers both games.

On Friday night, Koenig recorded two outs but allowed two baserunners to reach in the top of the first, prompting Murphy to bring in Bryse Wilson to get right-handed slugger Tyler O’Neill to end the frame.

Wilson (3-1) went on to pitch 5 1/3 innings while allowing six hits and two runs with one walk and seven strikeouts.

On Saturday, Koenig went 1 1/3 innings before giving way to Rea, who went 5 2/3 while allowing three hits and two runs to get the win. Rea improved his record to 4-2.

The Brewers dropped the series finale, 2-1, despite a strong pitching performance from Tobias Myers, who allowed a run on six hits while walking none and striking out four in 4 1/3 innings.

Murphy has been terrific as the Brewers’ manager since Counsell’s departure. He has the Brewers in first place despite dealing with numerous injuries to the starting pitchers.

His creativity has enabled Wilson, Myers and others to be effective by using an “opener” such as Koenig to get through the opposing lineup at least once before going to the quote/unquote “starter.”

Murphy also has juggled a lineup that ranks among the NL’s best in batting average, on-base percentage, home runs and steals.

The four-game series continues tonight as Brewers ace Freddy Peralta (3-3, 3.81) tangles with Cubs righty Ben Brown (1-1, 3.20).

Packers, Love in good

place as OTA’s begin

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Jordan Love gets it.

The Packers’ second-year starting quarterback realizes and embraces the responsibility that comes with playing that position in this city.

It’s about throwing touchdowns and directing comebacks and winning games, to be sure. It’s also about being willing to lead, to give of himself, to set the tone by example.

It is why Love was present and accounted for at the Packers’ start of OTA’s Monday. In his mind there’s nothing “voluntary” about being at the OTA’s. There’s no gray area in terms of being “all in.”

Either you are or you aren’t.

Love is in the final year of his one-year contract extension worth up to $22.5 million (with incentives), and $13 million guaranteed.

It’s a lot of money, but it’s dwarfed by his next deal, which is being negotiated and may be worth as much as $275 million over five years. There’s an inherent risk every time an NFL player takes the field, be it for practice or a game, and Love understands this.

He also knows his team is in a great position as the season approaches.

“I think that’s always a part of it … just showing up and the other guys will follow, too,” Love told reporters. “But I mean it’s a testament to everybody wanting to be here, wanting to get that work in.”

The Packers had near-perfect attendance at the start of OTAs, with only cornerback Robert Rochelle absent for personal reasons with the team’s blessings. It’s the most highly attended OTA since Packers head coach Matt LaFleur was hired six seasons ago.

LaFleur was asked about the high number of participants and in particular Love’s presence.

“It’s everything to us,” he said of Love being there. “We’ve had almost 100% the entire offseason, which has been the best that we’ve had since I’ve been here. And I always think that when you look around the league, when your quarterback’s there, it just naturally has a way of attracting everybody to come.”

Love’s viewpoint may change over the years, but right now he explained that being here, doing his job, is just business as usual for him.

“I mean that’s just something that I’ve always done,” he said. “Trying to be here, get the reps in, get the work in with the guys and just start building that chemistry and getting ready for the season.”

Love took that approach as Aaron Rodgers’ understudy, which was understandable. Now that he’s QB1 his approach hasn’t changed.

Love, 25, learned a lot – both positive and negative – by watching and considering Rodgers’ every move. He also watched how teammates respond to the quarterback’s lead.

“I think my leadership has grown every year, even more now,” he said. “I think it was tough when Aaron was still the quarterback and I was the backup to try and be that leadership role and tell guys one thing when he might want something said differently, so that was always tough and obviously now, being the guy last year, I try to elevate that role and talk to guys more, be in guys ears a little bit more and just try to focus on being a better leader.”

Love’s on-field performance is the most important aspect of his job, but nothing happens in a vacuum. The time spent together in OTAs talking football, working out and collaborating on routes all adds up.

For example, what might seem like a minor detail discussed between Love and Jayden Reed this week could lead to them hooking up for the game-winning touchdown pass in the Sept. 6 season opener.

It’s one of those things that the media, and therefore the fans, doesn’t hear about until a postgame news conference during the season.

It’s a bonus when that interaction is facilitated by the quarterback’s willingness to learn along with his receivers and vice-versa.

LaFleur has talked repeatedly this week about how much his team’s “love of football” on a player-by-player basis is critical to success.

He also pointed out Love’s embracing his role.

“I just think you feel the confidence from him, the way he projects himself in front of the team, and that’s what you expect. You expect guys to continue to push and get better and better and better.

“The command that he has of the offense, I know the guys, they all respect the hell out of him just in terms of who he is as a man and the work he puts in.”

It’s crazy how much difference a season can make.

Last offseason, rookie tight end Luke Musgrave was asked about his QB1, and he said something like, “Well, he played at North Dakota State and I’m excited to get to work with him.”

Uh, that’s Utah State, not NDSU, but Musgrave has been forgiven.

This offseason, rookie tackle Jordan Morgan admitted he “froze” when he first met Love. He stood in awe of what Love did in 2023.

Love smiled when told of Morgan being star struck.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever heard anything like that, so obviously it’s different,” Love said. “I’m just myself … They came in their first day, you could tell the rookies are wide-eyed, first time being in the locker room, being around the guys. So it’s cool just to be able to say, ‘What’s up?’ There’s a lot on their plate.”

Love isn’t the only player with the capacity to empathize.

Left tackle Rasheed Walker played superb football in the second half of last season. His ascension and the offense’s rise weren’t a coincidence. He allowed just six sacks and was flagged for one holding penalty in 851 snaps last season. The Packers allowed only two sacks in the final seven games of the season, including the playoffs.

Walker was asked what he thought when the Packers selected an offensive tackle (Morgan) with the 25th pick in April.

“I didn’t think much about it,” he said. “It doesn’t really have anything to do with me as far as my preparation and being ready and being the best player I can be.”

Instead of feeling threatened by Morgan’s presence, Walker said he’s going to do his best to help the rookie. In fact, Walker went so far as to say that he sees himself when he looks at the rookies finding their way.

“That was me,” he said, the empathy on full display.

As for Love, he’s going to build upon the foundation laid last year.

“Last year you have a lot of guys, young receivers that are learning the playbook, that the timing, the chemistry is just not really there yet and we go out there today and it’s just night and day,” Love said. “Guys know exactly where they’re going to be at. We have so much chemistry from last year and know where guys are going to be at and know what we need to do.”

All that chemistry, to go with the talent, could very well trigger an offensive explosion in Green Bay.

UWGB hires Gottlieb;

Brewers clinging to 1st

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Doug Gottlieb has realized a lifelong ambition.

The 10th men’s basketball coach in Wisconsin-Green Bay history said during last week’s introductory news conference that he grew up dreaming about being an NCAA Division I basketball head coach.

UWGB hired Gottlieb, a longtime media personality and former college player, to replace Sundance Wicks, who exited to become the head coach at Wyoming after posting an 18-14 record in his one season.

Now it’s up to Gottlieb to build on Wicks’ progress.

Gottlieb’s resume indicates a strong desire to be around the game in some capacity, whether it is coaching at the AAU level, or the United States’ team in the Maccabiah Games in 2009 and 2017, or talking basketball endlessly with college coaches in his media role.

All of this suggests Gottlieb is champing at the bit to get to work.

My concern regarding Gottlieb’s ability to lead the Phoenix program isn’t rooted in any lack of experience, enthusiasm or knowledge.

My concern is the fact that wanting something, especially after wanting it for so long, is often more desirable than having it.

So now what?

Gottlieb has his dream job, or dream jobs, if you will, because he is going to continue hosting his national radio show Monday through Friday from 3-6 CDT.

Let the juggling begin.

Landing the Phoenix job is a great accomplishment for Gottlieb. And one may question his motives, but the truth is building a program and a resume aren’t mutually exclusive.

In fact, one often begets the other.

However, Gottlieb’s hire is as non-traditional as it gets. That’s true even in these entirely non-traditional times in college basketball, from the NIL deals … to the transfer portal … to you name it.

One could argue the Phoenix and AD Josh Moon had few options.

In fairness, Wicks’ 11th-hour departure was the catalyst that turned a basketball program headed the right direction upside down.

Moon actually danced around the disaster rather adroitly.

He was decisive in hiring Gottlieb, and he focused on the positives rather than any potential negatives. The exposure afforded UWGB basketball is going to be incredible thanks to Gottlieb’s radio role. The university also was able to hire Gottlieb at a bargain salary because they’re allowing him to moonlight to supplement his income.

The tradeoff is obvious.

Gottlieb won’t be able to give his full, undivided attention to UWGB. As it is college basketball coaches across the country are bemoaning the additional time required to navigate NIL deals and the transfer portal.

These are strange, demanding times indeed.

Gottlieb swears he’s up to the task. He insists he has the energy, desire and commitment to make it work.

Perhaps the basketball gods will bless him for his great affection for the college game and all it brings. Perhaps they’ll watch over him and reward that love of the game with a great experience in Green Bay.

In the best-case scenario Gottlieb and UWGB will be better for it.

In reality I have my doubts that it will bring about the Phoenix’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in what feels like forever.

All anyone is wish UWGB and Gottlieb the best … fingers crossed.

** BREWERS STILL IN FIRST IN NL CENTRAL

The Milwaukee Brewers dropped two of three games at Houston over the weekend, but still hold a two-game lead over the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central.

The Brewers (27-19) kept pace with the Cubs (26-22) who lost two of three to the Pirates at Wrigley Field.

Milwaukee’s finest moment all weekend was William Contreras’ at-bat in a four-run fifth inning that propelled the Brewers to a 4-2 win over the Astros and ace Justin Verlander on Saturday.

Contreras saw 12 pitches before swatting the 13th offering an estimated 428 feet for his seventh home run, a three-run shot that plated Sal Frelick and Jackson Chourio with two outs.

It gave Milwaukee a 4-1 lead and the Brewers never looked back.

Contreras came into the game second in the NL in runs (39) and batting average (.353) while extending his on-base streak to 25 games. That streak was halted on Sunday.

The Brewers’ win halted the Astros’ six-game winning streak and enabled them to maintain their two-game lead over the Cubs.

Milwaukee is at Miami (15-33) for a three-game series beginning tonight. The Marlins are among MLB’s worst teams, although they have been better of late, going 5-5 in their last 10 games.

Joe Ross will start for the Brewers in the series opener.

** WAUSAU’S JIM OTTO PASSES AWAY AT 86

In NFL news, the player they called “The Original Raider” – Wausau native Jim Otto – passed away at 86 during the weekend.

Otto played 15 seasons and never missed a game. His career began in the AFL in 1960 and continued through 1974. The Raiders’ legend who wore jersey number 00 played in 223 straight games, including the playoffs. From 1960 until the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 Otto was the AFL’s only All-Pro center. He was a 12-time Pro Bowl player and was voted All-Pro (best at his position) an amazing 10 times.

Otto is quoted as saying the Packers’ Ray Nitschke laid the hardest hit on him of any player in all those seasons. It occurred in 1972.

“He broke my facemask in here, which broke my nose and set it over here,” he said, pointing with his index finger.

“Broke my cheekbone, and my zygomatic arch bone here, and detached my retina in my left eye … I was blind for six months in my left eye. It was really bad. It all swelled up, and I couldn’t see, but I kept playing. I never went out of the game.”

Otto remains one of Wisconsin’s most famous athletes of all time.

Packers’ schedule has

user friendly feel to it

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers’ schedule release has morphed into a cataclysmic event. It triggers a torrent of excitement, anticipation and action regarding what’s to come and what could be.

The possibilities are endless. The sky’s the limit. Visions of a Super Bowl berth dance through the minds of Packers’ fans everywhere.

Why not?

The Packers’ only wins and losses, at least until the final second of the Friday, Sept. 6, season opener against the Eagles in Sao Paulo, Brazil, are the W’s and L’s fans scrawl next to each of the 17 games.

The Packers remain unbeaten and untied until then.

One could say optimism runs high each offseason when the schedule is released. Perhaps, but this schedule feels different than most.

It seems more doable than daunting despite a singularly difficult stretch. It begins at home against San Francisco, continues Nov. 28 with a Thanksgiving home game against Miami and wraps with a Thursday night showdown Dec. 5 against the Lions in Detroit.

That’s 49ers, Dolphins and Lions in 12 days.

That’s tough.

Still, the typical Green Bay fan’s reaction to the Packers’ 2024 schedule ought to be, “I don’t like it. … I LOVE IT!”

It’s as user friendly as an open door … As inviting as a cup of hot chocolate on a cold night … As welcoming as a preacher perched in the narthex inviting parishioners to enter … As cordial as a politician shaking hands and making promises on the campaign trail.

Yes, the 12-day stretch from Nov. 24 through Dec. 5 is straight out of football hell.

No, it isn’t likely the Packer will run the table against the 49ers, Dolphins and Lions. Following that up with night games against the Seahawks and Saints is no bargain, either.

However, the Thanksgiving night game against Miami begins a stretch of four straight night games. The Packers are at Detroit (7:15 p.m. on Dec. 5), at Seattle (7:20 p.m. on Dec. 15), and home against New Orleans for Monday Night Football at 7:15 p.m. on Dec. 23.

There aren’t any games on Halloween, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day.

Thank you, NFL.

More important, the Packers can get dialed in on night games rather than constantly readjusting their body clocks.

The natural rhythm and routine can’t hurt.

Furthermore, if things go according to plan, the Packers will be playing their best football against top opponents at a time when NFL fans are tuning in to check out Jordan Love and the Packers’ retooled defense.

LaFleur discussed the schedule on Packers.com.

“That will definitely be a tough four-game stretch,” he said. “Going into the season, those are four teams (Dolphins, Lions, Seahawks and Saints) that I think project to be very tough football teams. But it is nice to have two of those, at least, at home with San Francisco and then following it up with Miami on Thanksgiving, which is great to have a Thanksgiving night game in Lambeau.”

The Packers kick off six of eight games to open the season at noon.

NFL coaches are control freaks by nature. They put stock in a regular routine and regimen. The noon starts help to facilitate all of that.

The early starts also are great for Packers fans.

Lambeau Field in all its glory is always a wondrous place to watch a football game. It’s a special mixture of magical and magnificent in two instances: When the snow is blowing, the wind is howling and the temperatures plummet to single digits … Or when it’s a gorgeous autumn day in Wisconsin and the brilliant colors – especially green and gold – stand in brave opposition to the coming winter.

The Packers host the Colts on Sunday, Sept. 15, in their noon home opener. They return Sunday, Sept. 29, to take on the Vikings and Aaron Jones. Then it’s the Cardinals on Oct. 13 and the Texans on Oct. 20.

That’s four warm-weather home games during which fans will be able to hoot and holler without seeing their own breath.

LaFleur needs his team to be ready to spring at the starting line.

“Yeah, our guys better wake up with their (blank) hot like I’ve said before … they got to get ready to go,” LaFleur said of the noon starts. “I do think in the preseason, we’ll have an early kick game (against Baltimore on Aug. 24) to get those guys acclimated with that rhythm.”

The bye week comes in Week 10. It falls between critical NFC North home games against the Lions before the bye and the Bears after.

Division games are crucial. It’s especially true at home.

“I think we’re excited about that,” LaFleur said of the bye week. “You’re never quite sure when the right time for a bye is, although it does seem like it maps out pretty favorably for us.”

Much the same could be said of the entire schedule.

The Packers, coming off an impressive 9-8 mark in Love’s first year as the fulltime starting quarterback, should be in the double-digit win total.

At the risk of sounding like a Packers’ fan an 11-6 season seems doable. It’s possible the Packers could go 12-5 and vie for the NFC’s top seed.

Either way, the course has been charted and the journey’s about to begin. The Packers-Texans matchup featuring Houston’s terrific young quarterback, C.J. Stroud, and Love, might be the Super Bowl preview.

Anything’s possible. The sky’s the limit.

“We’re excited,” LaFleur said. “We’re excited to have a plan for the season. The schedule’s the schedule. Our mindset is ‘we’ve got to be our best regardless of when we play, where we play,’ but we are excited to be able to map out our plan.”

Brewers win 3 of 4 to

claim St. Louis series

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Brewers’ plan to capture a four-game sweep of St. Louis in Sunday’s finale at American Family Field was derailed by erstwhile slugger Paul Goldschmidt’s slump-busting day.

Goldschmidt ended a career-worst 0-for-32 slump with a ninth-inning base hit on Saturday night. He followed it up with a home run and single on Sunday afternoon to help the Cardinals rally for a 4-3 victory over Milwaukee and salvage the series finale.

William Contreras, Gary Sanchez and Christian Yelich each had two hits, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Bryse Wilson’s shaky start and the bullpen’s inability to make a 3-2 lead through 5 innings stand up.

“Offensively and pitching, whatever, it just wasn’t a great ballgame for us,” Brewers manager Pat Murphy said.

The Cardinals won despite stranding 13 baserunners on Sunday. They were a dreadful 2-of-14 with runners in scoring position Sunday and finished 4-of-35 with RISP for the four-game series.

Wilson issued five walks, Goldschmidt was due and the Brewers’ insane eight-game winning streak against St. Louis had to end sometime. The Cardinals’ win also snapped their seven-game losing streak.

Nevertheless, the Brewers (24-16) remain atop the NL Central. The second-place Cubs (24-17) trail Milwaukee by percentage points.

Milwaukee is a splendid 11-6 versus the NL Central. The Cubs are next at 4-2. No one else has more than one win in the division. The Brewers also are also an NL-best 12-7 in day games and 14-8 on the road.

Milwaukee has spent 29 days in first place. It also is 9-8 in intra-league games and owns nine comeback wins. Its plus-35 run differential is fourth-best in the National League.

The loss Sunday was disappointing for Brewers’ fans, but the overall series was a smashing success given their three wins and rookie pitcher Robert Gasser’s outstanding MLB debut on Friday night.

Gasser, a 24-year-old left-hander, threw six scoreless innings to set the tone in Milwaukee’s 11-2 victory over the Cardinals. The Brewers are an impressive 9-3 in blowout games (decided by five or more runs).

Gasser (1-0) was called up from Triple-A Nashville, where he was recovering from bone spurs in spring training that postponed his season. He was acquired as part of the trade that sent Josh Hader to the Padres.

Gasser scattered six hits to go along with four strikeouts, no walks and a hit batter in his 79-pitch outing.

Murphy said he was pleased with Gasser’s poise and patience.

Once the Brewers claimed a commanding lead Gasser proceeded to pepper the strike zone.

The Brewers took command with a five-run fifth to grab a 7-0 lead. St. Louis right-hander Lance Lynn started strong but lost command in the fourth, when he allowed two runs. The Brewers chased him in the fifth.

Gasser and the bullpen did the rest.

The last time a Brewers pitcher went six scoreless in his MLB debut was Brandon Woodruff in 2017.

On Thursday, the Brewers claimed a 7-1 win as they lit up veteran right-hander Sonny Gray like a Roman candle.

Gray (4-2) surrendered solo homers to Joey Ortiz and Jake Bauers after entering with a 0.89 ERA and allowing just one home run in five starts.

On Saturday, Milwaukee rallied for a 5-3 win behind Rhys Hoskins’ three-run home run in the seventh.

Cardinals’ reliever Andrew Kittredge came in with one out in the seventh. Contreras walked and went to third on Bauers’ two-out single. Hoskins then delivered a 407-foot bomb to center for his ninth homer.

Trevor Megill pitched a 1-2-3 ninth to get his fourth save in fourth tries.

Here are some notable Brewers’ statistics through 40 games (nearly a quarter of the schedule):

** Contreras is hitting .346 with 13 doubles, five home runs, 30 RBI and 22 walks. His batting average, RBI and walks are among the league leaders.

** Christian Yelich has stayed hot despite missing several weeks with a sore back. Yelich is batting .364 with no letup in sight.

** The Brewers acquired Hoskins to bring punch to the lineup. He has done that with a team-high nine home runs and 27 RBI.

** Leadoff hitter Brice Turang’s remarkable sophomore season continues with him hitting .301 with 10 doubles, 14 RBI and 16 stolen bases without being caught. His Gold Glove-caliber defense is apparent.

** Milwaukee’s .254 team batting average ranks 4th in the NL. The Brewers’ 48 home runs, 53 steals and .334 on-base percentage each ranks 3rd in the NL. Milwaukee batters have been hit 19 times (second most in the NL) and their 150 walks ranks fifth in the senior circuit.

The Brewers open a three-game series with the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday. First pitch is set for 6:40 p.m. at American Family Field. Steady right-hander Colin Rea (3-0, 3.29) will start for Milwaukee versus Pirates’ ace righty Mitch Keller (3-3, 4.41).

Right-hander Joe Ross (1-4) will face off against Pirates’ righty Quinn Priester (0-3, 3.60) in Tuesday’s 6:40 p.m. game.

On Wednesday it’ll be Gasser (1-0, 0.00) squaring off against Pirates’ left-hander Martin Perez (1-2, 3.60).

The Pirates (18-23) trail the Brewers by 6 ½ games and are 4-6 in their last 10 games.

Five bold predictions

for Packers’ offseason

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers’ offseason soundtrack surely kicks off with Pharrell Williams easing into a mike and crooning, “Happy.”

It’s been pure bliss in Green Bay these days.

It’s been full speed ahead ever since Jordan Love began to blossom in a rough but revealing 23-19 loss last November at Pittsburgh.

While the defense showed modest improvement after an abysmal 3-6 start to the season, Green Bay’s offense established itself as legit.

Love was 21 of 40 for 289 yards in the Packers’ loss at Pittsburgh, but he also threw touchdown passes to answer early Steelers leads of 7-0 and 14-7. His resiliency under fire was impressive. His ability to give his team a chance despite facing heavy pressure on the road was exciting.

Love looked and played like an upper-tier NFL quarterback. While the Steelers’ game was his breakout appearance it’s difficult to imagine anyone predicting what was to come.

In the Packers’ final eight regular-season games and two playoff contests, they were held to fewer than 21 points just twice, compared with seven times during the 3-6 start.

The Packers’ third-down efficiency was 50 percent or better in 10 of the final 12 games. Green Bay finished fifth in the NFL in third down conversion rate.

Love also posted triple-digit passer ratings in nine games from November through January.

The NFC divisional playoff loss to San Francisco was disappointing, but it definitely allowed Packers coach Matt LaFleur to have the “first shot” at replacing Joe Barry with Jeff Hafley as his defensive coordinator. It’s all but certain 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan would’ve been on the phone to Hafley within days of an early playoff exit.

Instead, the Packers pounced on Hafley, just like they went all-in to sign safety Xavier McKinney and running back Josh Jacobs in free agency.

It’s much easier to be aggressive when you have “the guy” at QB1.

Here are five bold predictions in terms of what will happen between now and the Packers-Eagles season opener in Brazil.

** No. 1 – Who will be the “best five” offensive linemen at the season’s outset, and where will they be lining up?

Based on past performance, experience, contract status and rookie potential it seems there really is only one way LaFleur could go here.

It’s likely he’ll have incumbent left tackle Rasheed Walker and first-round pick Jordan Morgan compete for the starting job. However, it’s not unprecedented to see Walker and Morgan time-share the position throughout training camp, the preseason and into the season opener.

If it’s Walker/Morgan time sharing left tackle, it’ll be Elgton Jenkins at left guard, Josh Myers at center, rookie Jacob Monk at right guard and right tackle Zach Tom staying put until further notice.

Earlier this week offensive line coach Luke Butkus revealed Myers is staying put at center.

“We need depth, so we’re going to cross-train them all,” Butkus said. “Obviously, Josh Myers is our center but as far as everybody else, we’re going to cross-train them and put the best five out there. It’s competition so it’s making everybody better.”

Myers is in the final year of his contract. It appears the Packers are going to play out the string before moving on from him. Much of that is because of the offensive line’s terrific performance down the stretch.

The run game exploded with a healthy Aaron Jones leading the attack.

Green Bay also allowed only two sacks in Love’s final 150 pass attempts of the regular season and playoffs. In fact, the Packers surrendered only eight sacks in their final nine games.

They also were the NFL’s best offense in goal-to-go situations. Once they got there, they got into the end zone 95 percent of the time.

They did all of that with Myers at center.

His improvement was a critical if underappreciated aspect of the Packers’ offensive ascension.

At least Myers wasn’t unappreciated by Butkus.

When asked what Myers needs to do to continue his improved play, Butkus said: “Just continue to grow, just like our expectations for everybody. That’s where Josh excelled last year. He did get better as the year went on and he had command of this offense and took charge, was a little bit more vocal toward the end in commanding this offense.

“So, what do we need from him? Just to get better every single day. Keep improving.”

** No. 2 – The Packers’ tight ends will emerge as an integral and irreplaceable part of the offense.

LaFleur’s offense puts great emphasis and reliance on tight end play. In the past, he hasn’t always had the proper pieces to execute it to its fullest.

With the addition of Luke Musgrave and Tucker Kraft in last year’s draft, the signing of Ben Sims and Tyler Davis’ return from injury, Green Bay’s tight end room is second to none in the NFL.

Musgrave is a big, fast target that’s just beginning to find his way.

Kraft is a rugged blocker, reliable pass catcher and bruising runner after the catch. Sims is steady and versatile, and Davis is an excellent special teams’ player who already knows LaFleur’s scheme inside and out.

Tight ends coach John Dunn can’t wait to get to work.

“Tight ends are great weapons because they can wear a bunch of different hats and defenses have to match that … I think it will be fun to see that.”

I suspect Musgrave and Kraft will combine for more receptions than the Packers’ top two receivers, which is another way of saying I believe double-tight end formations are going to be deployed a lot of the time.

** No. 3 – Greg Joseph is going to replace Anders Carlson as kicker.

Joseph beat out Riley Patterson in 2021 to become Minnesota’s kicker. He went on to hit 33 of 38 field goals (86.8 percent) in his first season. He also drilled a 61-yard game-winner against the Giants, so there’s no shortage of leg strength.

Furthermore, Joseph is a veteran who has been there, done that.

The Packers have too much at stake to put their faith in Carlson’s right foot. The change will be quick and unceremonious, except for the inevitable questions about the risk of drafting a kicker.

** No. 4 – Rookie safety Evan Williams will start alongside McKinney to open the season. That means second-round pick Javon Bullard will be lining up at the nickel cornerback spot in sub-packages in tandem with the returning Keisean Nixon.

Williams is a heavy hitter who can slide down and defend the run with a vengeance, especially on early downs. At least that’s what the scouts see and I tend to agree.

Bullard is incredibly versatile with big-play potential. He’ll play more snaps than Williams, but on early downs and run situations it’ll be Williams on the field.

** No. 5 – Jacobs is going to finish among the top three in rushing yards after one season removed as the NFL’s top rusher.

The Packers are going to ride Jacobs like they rode Jones down the stretch. Except Jacobs is going to be the lead dog from Day One with only minimal concerns about being overused.

With Love at the throttle the Packers can use the pass to set up the run, and vice-versa, to their play-caller’s hearts content.

The offensive weapons are young at receiver and tight end, but they’ve also logged a fair number of snaps in their short time.

Jayden Reed and Dontayvion Wicks shared a residence in Florida this offseason so they could train together religiously. If that doesn’t make a football coach smile nothing will.

Christian Watson’s healthy return, Romeo Doubs’ continued improvement and another leap for Reed, Wicks, Malik Heath and Bo Melton will further bolster the attack.

That leaves Jacobs to do a lot of the heavy lifting with rookie MarShawn Lloyd providing him a breather and the defense another reason to worry.

Packers offensive coordinator Adam Stenavich is excited by the potential to be creative and hit the ground running.

“We can go out there right now and just run plays and it’s not like we’re installing everything for the first time,” he said this week. “We can start experimenting faster and taking the next steps with the offense.

“You’re always looking to take the next step. You have to keep evolving, so it’s just a matter of what’s our best next step, or next two things that we want to do … where you can see, ‘alright, is this the direction we want to go?’ ”

Once Love began to blossom the next steps have been full speed ahead.

Cubs win 2 of 3 to join Brewers atop division

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Brewers forgot to pack their bats.

At least it looked that way as Milwaukee dropped two of three to the Cubs in their weekend series at Wrigley Field. Better that than the beginning of a slump because the Brewers have neither the starting pitching nor the bullpen to overcome a lengthy scoring drought.

The Brewers’ 5-0 loss to the Cubs and right-hander Javier Assad (2-0) on Sunday put the exclamation point on Milwaukee’s lack of offense.

The Brewers didn’t score until they plated three runs in the eighth inning of Friday’s series opener. They didn’t score until they posted four runs in the seventh inning of Saturday’s 6-5 loss.

They didn’t score at all on Sunday.

The Cubs’ Hayden Wesneski, Jameson Taillon and Assad put up terrific numbers in the three starts. They combined to pitch 18.1 innings while allowing just nine hits, zero runs, seven walks and 19 strikeouts.

That’s nearly flawless starting pitching.

Brewers’ manager Pat Murphy seemed to take it in stride.

“We ran into three guys that pitched very, very well,” Murphy said. “And offensively we didn’t hit with runners in scoring position. But like I said, (it was) a great, great experience for our guys.”

The Brewers began the series with a tidy 3-1 victory over the Cubs on Friday afternoon. Willy Adames highlighted a three-run, eighth-inning rally to turn a 1-0 deficit into a victory.

Rookie Jackson Chourio opened the eighth with a one-out single, stole second and scored on William Contreras’ sharp single to make it 1-1. Contreras stole second and scored on Adames’ base hit to centerfield. Jake Bauers followed by driving in Adames for a two-run cushion.

The Cubs’ Adbert Alzolay suffered the loss while Elvis Peguero (4-0) got the win and Trevor Megill pitched a clean ninth for his second save.

Brewers’ starter Joe Ross allowed just one run on six hits in six innings while striking out four without issuing a walk.

Brice Turang stayed hot with a 2-for-4 day to help Milwaukee run its winning streak to three games. That’s when the offense withered, the pitching couldn’t hold up and a pair of disappointing losses ensued.

The Brewers (20-13, .606) and the Cubs (21-14, .600) are separated by percentage points atop the NL Central.

Fans of both teams may want to settle in for more of the same all season. When healthy the Brewers appear to have the better squad, but the Cubs are expecting to get Cody Bellinger back, and players such as Ian Happ aren’t going to stay cold all season.

Either way, there appears to be a paper-thin margin between them. It’s good for baseball. It’s good for the division. And it’s really good for the fans, especially Milwaukee fans if the Brewers manage to prevail.

If it’s going to be a two-team race the Brewers’ bats need to get busy.

Freddy Peralta (4-1) suffered his first loss of the season, and the Brewers’ first loss in his six starts, due to a three-run, 33-pitch fifth inning that proved to be his undoing.

Peralta’s curveball was A-plus on Sunday, but he couldn’t command his fastball. On one sequence, he threw such a nasty curve that Christopher Morel’s knees buckled. All Morel could do was call timeout, step out of the batter’s box and smile. It was utterly unhittable.

Three pitches later – including two wayward fastballs – and Morel had coaxed a walk.

It was that kind of afternoon for Peralta and the Brewers, who are now 13-6 on the road and 12-5 in day games.

“My (command) wasn’t that bad, but I walked a lot of people today,” Peralta said. “It shouldn’t have happened. I have to be better than that.”

Peralta appealed his five-game suspension for his ejection in last week’s game against the Rays. Now that he pitched against the Cubs on Sunday, he will drop the appeal and serve his suspension while waiting to make his next start, which is scheduled for Saturday against St. Louis.

Now, it appears left-handed pitcher Robert Gasser may be called up from Triple-A Nashville. Gasser pitched Sunday and threw 78 pitches before exiting with the lead.

“I think there’s a chance you might see (Gasser),” Murphy told MLB.com. “You see the hole there with Freddy being down, right? That would be a strong candidate.”

Peralta called Sunday’s loss “really important.”

“Especially today,” he said, “because I had the opportunity to win this game and the series.”

As it stands, the Brewers and Cubs are in a virtual dead heat.

Cubs’ shortstop Dansby Swanson expects it to be a two-team battle to the finish in the NL Central. Swanson definitely doesn’t expect the Brewers to fall out of contention any time soon.

“It’s kind of in their DNA to never beat themselves,” Swanson told MLB.com. “They pitch. They play great defense. They obviously run the bases well. They just do a lot of the little things right … I thought we had to play a good brand of baseball this weekend to be able to beat them, and we were able to do that two out of three times.”

The Brewers’ newest hitter, Tyler Black, got off to a slow start going 1-for-12 while batting third in Murphy’s lineup. Veteran outfielder Christian Yelich is recovering from back problems, but did participate in batting practice and some light workouts. He has been out since April 16, and his return to the lineup would be a godsend.

Meantime, Black continues to be excited and looks forward to contributing with the big league club.

“The only thing that matters is winning,” he said. “Obviously thrown into the fire, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I really felt the intensity and I’m looking forward to the future of that.”

The Brewers take on the Kansas City Royals (20-15) at Kansas City beginning tonight. Bryce Wilson will start for Milwaukee versus the Royals’ left-hander Cole Ragans. First pitch is set for 6:40 p.m.

Brewers get Counsell, Cubs at Wrigley Field

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – While the Packers sort out the post-draft details and the Bucks gamely try to stave off elimination, the Brewers are using Thursday’s off day to prepare for a much-anticipated weekend series.

The NL Central-leading Brewers (19-11) travel to Chicago to face Craig Counsell’s Cubs (19-12) in a three-game series at Wrigley Field. The first pitch is set for 1:20 p.m. for each game of the weekend set.

Counsell, the Brewers’ all-time winningest manager, left Milwaukee in the offseason for a huge payday and a chance to manage the rival Cubs.

The Brewers promoted bench coach Pat Murphy to the manager’s role.

The early returns suggest it could be a “win-win” for both teams.

The Brewers have persevered despite Counsell’s departure, the Corbin Burnes trade and injuries to starting pitchers Wade Miley and Brandon Woodruff (out for the season), as well as DL Hall and Jakob Junis (both are on the 15-day Injured List). Relievers JB Bukauskus (15-day IL) and Devin Williams (60-day IL) also are out.

Nevertheless, the Brewers are off to a terrific start.

They enter the Cubs series with the best road record (12-4) in baseball. They also own MLB’s top record in day games (11-3). In terms of wins against teams that are .500 or better, only Burnes’ Baltimore Orioles (13-5) have a better record than the Brewers’ 11-6 mark.

Interestingly, the Cubs own MLB’s top home record at 10-3.

Something has to give this weekend.

After a 7-6 start under Counsell the Cubs proceeded to win 10 of 13 to plant themselves directly in the Brewers’ rearview mirror. Like the mirror reads – objects are closer than they appear – and right now only percentage points separate the Brewers and Cubs.

The winnowing process begins in earnest on Friday afternoon.

The Brewers and Cubs will be without veteran outfielders Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger, who are on the 10-day IL. Yelich is hitting .333 with five home runs while Bellinger has five homers and 17 RBI.

Here are the probable starters in the series:

** Friday: Brewers right-hander Joe Ross (1-3) vs. Cubs righty Hayden Wesneski (2-0).

** Saturday: Brewers righty Tobias Myers (0-1) vs. Cubs right-hander Jameson Taillon (2-0)

** Sunday: Brewers right-hander Freddy Peralta (3-0) vs. Cubs righty Javier Assad (2-0).

The combined stats for the starting pitchers gives a slight edge to the Cubs, although none of Chicago’s starters has the stuff or the cache of Peralta, the Brewers’ ace.

Milwaukee’s starters are 4-4 in 13 starts spanning 68.2 innings. They have allowed 59 hits, 32 earned runs, 9 home runs, 22 walks and 77 strikeouts for a 4.19 ERA.

Chicago’s starters are 6-0 in 10 starts covering 60.1 innings. They have allowed 43 hits, 11 earned runs, 4 home runs, 13 walks and 42 strikeouts for a measly 1.63 ERA.

The Brewers’ defense, speed on the bases and bullpen are significantly better than the Cubs in those areas. Chicago’s Nico Hoerner (.272) and Michael Bush (6 HRs in 98 at-bats) have been hitting well. The bane of the Brewers’ existence – switch-hitting Ian Happ – has struggled with just one home run in 124 at-bats. Milwaukee is hoping Happ stays cold at least until the Brewers are on their way out of town.

If the Brewers can win one of the first two games they’ll have a great opportunity to capture the series with Peralta pitching on Sunday.

As much drama as the Brewers have endured the past three games, including multiple ejections and dreadful umpiring, the vibe feels like Brewers-Cubs is going to be all about baseball rather than nonsense.

** BUCKS BATTLE PACERS TO EXTEND SERIES

Milwaukee’s 115-92 blowout victory over the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday night was a profile in courage. The Bucks were without Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard but still managed to stave off elimination with a gritty team effort.

Bobby Portis and Khris Middleton scored 29 points each against a listless Pacers team that played like it couldn’t wait to get it over with and return to Indiana for Game 6 of their first-round matchup.

The undermanned Bucks were happy to oblige.

Middleton accurately assessed Milwaukee’s predicament.

“We have to find a way to win, whatever it takes,” he said. “We’re still confident. Our backs were up against the wall (on Tuesday) and we had a great home crowd that got us going. So we’re going to have to find a way. That’s the only way to put it … find a way to get this one and force a Game 7.”

If the Bucks survive there’s a chance Antetokounmpo and/or Lillard could be available if there is a Game 7 on Saturday at Milwaukee.

Bucks coach Doc Rivers said both are “very, very, very close” to returning to game action.

Antetokounmpo has been out since April 9 with a strained left calf. Lillard has missed the past two games with an Achilles injury. Lillard averaged 32.3 points in the first two games of the series.

The Pacers haven’t won a playoff series since 2014.

Indiana All-Star guard Tyrese Haliburton – a Wisconsin native and Oshkosh North graduate – offered the opposing viewpoint.

“We’ve just got to understand that they’re a team that’s on the brink of their season being done,” Haliburton said. “They’re playing desperate and they’re playing hard, as they should be. At the end of the day, they out-competed us (in Game 5). They played harder, they played better. They kind of just dominated us in every facet of the game. We’ve got to be better. It starts with me and that first group, but we’ve just got to be better top to bottom.”

The Pacers are a hefty 8-point favorite going into Game 6.

Then again, the Bucks are familiar with facing long odds. It has been that way ever since Antetokounmpo went down wincing and massaging his left calf before limping off the court 23 days ago.

It’s up to Antetokounmpo’s teammates to stay alive until he and Lillard are able to return. If that happens everything is still on the table, including a run to the NBA Finals. If that doesn’t happen, and the Bucks lose, it will bring an end to a disappointing, injury-riddled season.

Packers fill needs with

talent at OL, LB and S

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – A cold, rainy Monday in northeast Wisconsin can’t dampen fan spirit across the state’s pro sports landscape.

The brash young Brewers remain in first place in the NL Central, the brave but battered Bucks are still clinging to life in the NBA playoffs, and Green Bay is officially on the clock to host the 2025 NFL Draft.

Meantime, the Packers spent the weekend infusing speed, youth and (presumably) talent to fill a handful of needs in this draft.

Packers GM Brian Gutekunst followed a script similar to the one that transformed the tight end room into a force in a single draft.

If adding one player at a position is good, and adding two is better, why not make it three?

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur is a co-signer on the concept.

“I’m a firm believer that you can never have enough competition,” he said. “It’s going to bring out the best in somebody in that room. I do think when our guys are pushing one another they’re going to get better.”

Gutekunst needed two offensive tackles, including one capable of competing to start on Day One, and an interior offensive lineman.

He didn’t overthink it.

He drafted Arizona left tackle Jordan Morgan at 25, Duke center/guard Jacob Monk at 163 and Georgia State tackle Travis Glover at 202.

Morgan will wear No. 77 and compete with Rasheed Walker to start at left tackle, with whoever falls short serving as the swing tackle.

“If you can protect your quarterback, particularly one like we have, you have a chance to win the football game,” Gutekunst said.

It’s an undeniable fact.

Gutekunst set out to acquire a left tackle and he got one he preferred.

He also got another offensive tackle with terrific potential.

Glover (6-6, 317) has a great deal of experience at left tackle and the small-school product stood strong at the all-star games.

Glover was one of eight Senior Bowl participants drafted by Green Bay. The Packers put a premium on small-school players with the confidence to test their mettle against the very best.

“The willingness to compete and put themselves in that environment … that’s not an easy thing to walk out onto that Senior Bowl practice field with all these NFL people judging you,” Gutekunst said. “To a) choose to do that and b) compete at a high level when you’re out there, if none of that’s going to phase you that says something to me.”

Monk (6-3, 308) is a powerful (33 reps at 225 pounds), smart and seasoned interior lineman. Monk will work at center behind Josh Myers and at right guard behind Sean Rhyan, at least for now.

The Packers also needed help at linebacker and safety.

The Packers’ switch to a 4-3 base defense under first-year coordinator Jeff Hafley requires no less than two linebackers with the range, speed and tackling ability to cover a lot of ground in the 4-2-5 alignment.

This draft gives Green Bay’s Quay Walker and Isaiah McDuffie a pair of potential sidekicks.

So Gutekunst stepped up and selected Texas A&M linebacker Edgerrin Cooper, who was widely rated as the top player at his position, at 45. Then he doubled down with Missouri linebacker Ty’Ron Hopper at 59.

Cooper, who will wear No. 56, runs the 40-yard dash (4.51) like a running back. Hopper, who will wear No. 59, didn’t test as well, but he’s rangy, instinctive in pass coverage and an instant asset on special teams.

Cooper was among the top athletes in the entire draft.

“His speed is different,” said Jon-Eric Sullivan, the vice-president of player personnel. “When he hits the gas and he’s running things down, there’s a ‘whoa’ factor to that.”

In addition to linebacker, the Packers also needed help at safety.

The thunderbolt free-agent signing of Xavier McKinney gives the safety room a bona fide lead dog. Now they’ve got a significantly upgraded cast to follow their Pied Piper.

At 58, Gutekunst went down to Georgia looking for a safety to steal. He got one of the draft’s top-rated defenders in the Bulldogs’ Javon Bullard.

Bullard, who will wear No. 20, ran a 4.47 40-yard dash and is an aggressive tackler. He is a wonderful athlete at 5-10, 198, who is only 21 years old. He started as a sophomore on Georgia’s top-ranked defense, which is no small feat.

Gutekunst wasn’t done yet.

He doubled-down at 111 by selecting Oregon safety Evan Williams and then tripled-down at 169 by taking Oregon State’s Kitan Oladapo.

The Packers liked Williams enough to trade up 15 spots to select him.

Green Bay’s West Coast scout, Sam Seale, explained why.

“He’s smart. He’s instinctive. He’s a good kid and he makes tackles,” Seale said. “He makes plays around the ball. He’s always around the ball. He’s a football player.”

The Packers’ Sullivan said they were also pleased to add Monk and Oladapo.

“We’re excited to add Monk and Oladapo to the equation,” the Packers’ vice president of player personnel said. “Monk, we see as an interior offensive lineman, guard/center, swing … (he’s) quick, strong. Elite wiring when you talk to the people at the school there, two-time captain, alpha, all the things you want in a guy like that.

“And Oladapo the same … played a lot of football, smart kid, very versatile player.”

The Packers’ other three draft picks included USC running back MarShawn Lloyd, Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt and Penn State cornerback Kalen King.

None other than retired Alabama head coach Nick Saban sang Lloyd’s praises after the Packers selected him.

Saban called Lloyd the “second-best back” he evaluated in the draft, and predicted that he would be an immediate factor in the passing game.

Lloyd, who will wear No. 32, ran a 4.46 40-yard dash. He also showed strength with 25 reps at 225 pounds and explosiveness with a 36-inch vertical leap.

The 5-9, 220-pound back played one year at USC after transferring from South Carolina. He will serve as Josh Jacobs’ primary backup.

Pratt will be working next to Sean Clifford in a reserve quarterback role.

King, a feisty 5-11, 191, is determined to prove his detractors wrong after having an excellent career as a Penn State cornerback. He ran a 4.55 40-yard dash at his Pro Day workout.

King was the only cornerback the Packers selected, with Gutekunst noting how well 2023 seventh-round pick Carrington Valentine played in his rookie season.

“Our league has a long history of guys who felt they were overlooked and use that as motivation to drive themselves and hopefully that’ll be the case here,” Gutekunst said while referring to King. “Certainly, he was a guy that we expected to go higher, and as we went through it, we felt very fortunate to be able to pick him where we did. He’s got a really nice skill set.”

Packers protect Love,

take LT Morgan in 1st

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers took a major step toward protecting Jordan Love and their future without exhausting any Day 2 draft capital.

Packers GM Brian Gutekunst relied on patience and the process before selecting Arizona left tackle Jordan Morgan with the 25th overall pick.

The first 14 picks were offensive players, including six quarterbacks, as the 2024 NFL draft unfolded Thursday night in Detroit.

The offensive onslaught was unprecedented.

That didn’t dissuade Gutekunst from letting the board come to him.

The Packers weren’t hunting a quarterback, receiver or tight end. They weren’t eyeing an edge rusher, interior pass rusher or cornerback, either.

Not yet at least.

They wanted a college-tested left tackle to protect Love’s blindside. They wanted a player with a great blend of size and athleticism. They wanted a mature “football guy” that fit their locker room culture.

They wanted Jordan Morgan.

Morgan (6-5, 311) sustained an ACL injury late in the 2022 season. The fact that he rehabbed and returned to play outstanding the next season illustrated his mental toughness to overcome and his desire to play.

“It was remarkable how well he played early in the season coming off (the injury),” Gutekunst said. “(He) just kept getting better and better so that gives us a lot of confidence for where he’s headed.”

Morgan, 22, is going to line up at left tackle.

It appears Morgan and Rasheed Walker will compete for the starting job.

The Packers could go into the season with either Morgan or Walker at left tackle, Elgton Jenkins at left guard, Josh Myers at center, Sean Rhyan at right guard and Zach Tom playing right tackle. That would leave Walker or Morgan as the swing tackle.

It’s also possible the Packers could go with (left to right) Morgan, Jenkins, Tom, Myers/Rhyan and Walker.

Morgan’s presence and, presumably, his proficiency, give Green Bay a greater measure of flexibility along the offensive line. That will be especially true if the Packers select a guard/center on Day 2.

My pre-draft prediction was that the Packers would draft offensive linemen with two of their top three picks. It’s one down, one to go.

I’m saying Gutekunst will draft Texas A&M inside linebacker Edgerrin Cooper at 41 and Oregon center Jackson Powers-Johnson at 58.

If Gutekunst has to wheel and deal a bit he’ll make it happen.

Just think of the possibilities up front.

The Packers could have Morgan at left tackle, Jenkins at left guard, Powers-Johnson at center, Myers/Rhyan at right guard and Tom playing right tackle. That leaves Walker as the swing tackle and the Myers/Rhyan odd man out as the backup interior O-lineman.

It’s talented. It’s deep. It’s a significant upgrade from last season.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur claims the “best five” offensive linemen will play. LaFleur, like Gutekunst, also relishes flexibility. It’s why I believe another offensive lineman is going to be drafted on Day 2.

Offensive line isn’t the sexiest pick, to be sure, and there was plenty of Packers’ fan sentiment to select Iowa cornerback Cooper DeJean at 25. The fact that DeJean and Duke offensive lineman Graham Barton were both available at 25 – and the Packers went with Morgan – leaves no doubt as to which player Gutekunst coveted most and for good reason.

“If you can protect your quarterback, particularly one like we have, you have a chance to win the football game,” Gutekunst said.

It’s an undeniable fact.

Gutekunst set out to acquire a left tackle and he got one he preferred.

“Obviously it’s a premium position,” he said of left tackle. “For me, there’s only so many big guys usually in each draft, and you realize that they’re going to go early and they’re going to go quick and if you don’t get one, you might be out of luck.”

The Packers could have gone another direction. They also could have traded back and acquired more draft capital, but that would’ve been at the risk of losing Morgan.

It was an unnecessary risk when the player was there for the taking AND the Packers didn’t have to expend any extra picks to nab him.

“There’s some of that (fear of missing the player),” Gutekunst said. “But again, where we had him valued, this was a pretty easy decision for us.”

The Packers will have plenty of options on Day 2.

With the 41st and 58th picks, plus the 88th and 91st, they could rule the roost – so to speak – early in the second round,

Another offensive lineman and two defenders seem likely. I’d look for the inside linebacker Cooper, or perhaps Michigan linebacker Junior Colson, and either Powers-Johnson or a cornerback in the second round.

I won’t be surprised if the Packers package their 88th and 91st picks in order to move back into the late-second round. The plan would be to take Washington State safety Jaden Hicks to join Xavier McKinney.

If the Packers come away with Morgan, Cooper, Powers-Johnson and Hicks it will be qualify as a dream scenario. It would button up the offensive line. It would give Quay Walker a Robin to go with his Batman. It would give McKinney a talented sidekick to mentor.

Best of all, it would give Love the protection he needs to be terrific.

Gutekunst didn’t divulge any Day 2 details, other than to say that it’s an important day for the Packers’ immediate and future success.

“(Tomorrow’s) a big day for our organization,” he said of Friday. “I’ve talked about how important the draft is. To have four picks in the second and third round, we have a nice opportunity to help our football team, so yeah, I think we’re all really eager to get after it.”

In the NFC North, the Bears selected quarterback Caleb Williams with the first pick and receiver Rome Odunze with the ninth pick. Chicago’s new offensive coordinator, Shane Waldron, will have some shiny new toys to help bring the Bears’ offense into the 21st century.

The Vikings drafted Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy, who will be blessed with receivers Justin Jefferson and Jordan Addison, tight end T.J. Hockenson and running back Aaron Jones. It’s the best situation for a rookie quarterback in the entire NFL.

The Lions traded up from 29 to 24 – one pick ahead of the Packers – to select Alabama cornerback Terrion Arnold. His presence gives Detroit’s secondary an infusion of terrific talent to go with safety Brian Branch.

It is “game on” in the NFC North between the Lions and Packers. If Williams and/or McCarthy play to their draft status the Bears and Vikings also will be much-improved going into the season.

It’s why Day 2 is so important for the Packers.

Packers go up in first,

take Duke OL Barton

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers’ modus operandi since it became apparent Jordan Love was the heir apparent has been full speed ahead.

GM Brian Gutekunst is in the midst of his most aggressive offseason and he’s just starting to get loose.

He broke in front of the competition to intercept safety Xavier McKinney in free agency before anyone else had a chance. He didn’t hesitate to acquire the NFL’s top free-agent safety – a critical piece to filling in defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley’s puzzle – because he was confident in what he knew and what he needed.

Then, when a chance to acquire running back Josh Jacobs presented itself, he made the difficult but necessary decision to part with Aaron Jones. He traded a terrific, aging running back for a terrific, in-his-prime running back that’s better-suited to coach Matt LaFleur’s offense.

Gutekunst was only beginning the retool.

He re-signed All-Pro kick returner and solid cornerback Keisean Nixon. He brought back tight end Tyler Davis. He re-signed cornerback Corey Ballantine and linebackers Eric Wilson and Kristian Welch.

Thursday’s NFL draft will be the seventh draft Gutekunst has presided over since he flashed some fancy footwork to land Louisville cornerback Jaire Alexander in his debut.

It will be Gutekunst’s fifth since he decided, “popular opinion be darned,” and traded up to select Jordan “Alexander” Love at 26 in 2020.

That bold decision – reaffirmed by Love’s subsequent success – is the cornerstone upon which the Packers’ future Super Bowl hopes rest.

It is why Gutekunst’s game plan for the 2024 NFL draft is fairly apparent. He needs to do everything he can to provide LaFleur and Love the supporting cast to become a championship-caliber team.

The Packers’ defense has been addressed with Hafley’s hire, McKinney’s signing and all of the rest. It also will be further fortified in this week’s draft.

That leaves the obvious answer to the No. 1 question: What will the Packers do in the draft?

I’m going to make the not-so-bold prediction that Gutekunst trades up and selects Duke offensive lineman Graham Barton. Wherever Gutekunst determines is the break point – the pick in which Barton won’t get beyond – will be the pick he trades up to acquire.

Barton could go anywhere from 13th to 19th or even into the 20s.

That’s up to Gutekunst to determine and make it happen. I have the utmost confidence that he’ll be able to execute the plan.

Barton (6-5, 314) is an athletic, versatile and battle-tested offensive lineman. He is able to line up at center, guard or tackle with equal aplomb. Ex-Packers offensive linemen Mike Wahle and Bryan Bulaga believe Barton is a fine interior lineman but that his future is at tackle.

“He’s just too good to play center,” Bulaga said on a statewide radio show. “That’s not a knock on a center’s value. It’s just that Barton’s too talented not to play tackle. He could be an All-Pro tackle. They’re rare.”

Bulaga is right.

Gutekunst could combine his 25th and 88th picks to reach the mid-teens. Ammunition is no object. It’s just a matter of how seriously Gutekunst is about landing Barton.

The Packers’ GM said THE reason to trade up for a player is the belief that there’s no way to get THAT GUY anywhere else. That’s especially true if the Packers don’t plan on drafting in the Top 10 any time soon.

There is an argument to be made for staying put at No. 25.

However, I posed this question to my Sports Line co-host, Marques Eversoll, on Tuesday’s show:

If you could draft NC State linebacker Payton Wilson, Alabama cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry or Iowa defensive back Cooper DeJean at 25 would you do it right now? Or would you let the draft board come to you to see who’s still available?

He said he’d wait.

So would I and the reason is Graham Barton.

If the Packers trade up for a player other than Barton it will be because they couldn’t get him for whatever reason and went to Plan B which is selecting a premier left tackle.

That’s it. Barton, a left tackle or staying put at 25.

Gutekunst’s m-o this offseason is to be aggressive. That’s not going to change in the draft. It’s going to be accentuated.

Furthermore, I’m banking on the Packers selecting Oklahoma left tackle Jordan Morgan with the 41st pick. Again, Gutekunst may trade up from 41 to get Morgan or perhaps Oklahoma State left tackle Tyler Guyton.

That’s two offensive linemen with the first two picks in the draft.

The safety, off-ball linebacker and 3-technique pass rusher will have to wait, but not for long because Gutekunst is loaded for Bears, and Lions, and Vikings, and the rest of the NFC.

In this scenario, Love would be taking snaps behind an offensive line that has (left to right) Rasheed Walker and the 41st pick competing at left tackle, Elgton Jenkins at left guard, Zach Tom at center, Sean Rhyan and Josh Myers competing at right guard, and Graham Barton at right tackle.

The Packers need to protect their investment at quarterback.

This would do that to a T.

Bucks, Brewers win as

Packers finalize draft

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Bucks’ start to the postseason, much like the Brewers’ start to their regular season, was exciting and uplifting.

Both teams entered the weekend with legitimate concerns.

Could the Bucks compete with the Pacers in a playoff series despite the absence of the NBA’s best player? Could the Brewers maintain their hot start in a three-game series at NL Central rival St. Louis?

The answer to both was an unequivocal, emphatic “Yes!”

The Damian Lillard-led Bucks blew out the Pacers 109-94 Sunday night in Game 1 of their first round Eastern Conference playoff series. That they did so without Giannis Antetokounmpo was a pleasant surprise.

It suggests Milwaukee can hold on until The Greek Freak returns. Giannis is listed day-to-day with a calf strain.

The red-hot Brewers blanked St. Louis 2-0 on Sunday to capture their first sweep of the Cardinals since 2018. Milwaukee’s devastating bullpen covered 13 1/3 innings during the weekend at Busch Stadium and allowed just three hits and two runs with 13 strikeouts.

It indicates the Brewers – and their hypnotizing bullpen – have a penchant for winning games in a variety of ways. Their defense and bullpen are among baseball’s best. Add a dash of timely hitting and a pinch of head’s up base-running and it’s a recipe for success.

In addition, the Brewers’ offense has flashed plenty of power in addition to the ability to hit for average, draw walks and advance runners. That’s baseball code for “unselfish plate appearances.”

With those positive vibes among Bucks and Brewers fans – many of whom are Packers diehards – seldom has late-April looked so grand. That’s because the Packers own five of the top 91 picks entering the NFL draft, which begins Thursday night in Detroit.

Let’s start with the allegedly beleaguered Bucks. Their struggles both before and after Doc Rivers was hired have been well-Documented.

The fact is Rivers gives Milwaukee its best chance to be a factor in this postseason. The Bucks were going nowhere fast with Adrian Griffin. Now, at least, Rivers has his team playing a semblance of defense while giving Lillard, Khris Middleton and Bobby Portis, Jr., great freedom to excel. That’s with or without Giannis on the floor.

Lillard poured in 35 first-half points as the Bucks outscored the Pacers 39-21 in the second quarter. He made 11 of 24 shots from the field, including 6 of 11 from 3-point range, to set the tone.

Lillard capped his dynamite first half with a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

He didn’t score a single point thereafter. He didn’t need to.

“It’s a long series,” Lillard told TNT after the game. “It’s only one game out of a possible seven. Every game is going to be a different game, but I thought we did a great job of setting the tone (of) how we needed to without our best player.”

Middleton is the Bucks’ X factor.

“Cash Money” had 23 points and 10 rebounds – all in small, unmarked bills – to augment Lillard’s terrific performance. It is notable that Middleton scored 15 in the second half.

“I was able to knock a couple down early in the second half to help balance the game a little bit,” he said.

Meantime, Portis added 15 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out.

The undersized Pacers got strong efforts from Pascal Siakam (36 points, 13 rebounds) and Myles Turner (17 and 8) but it wasn’t enough to overcome their atrocious 3-point shooting.

The Pacers missed their first 14 3-point shots and finished 8-of-38 behind the arc. Indiana had a fair number of open looks, too. The Bucks can’t count on Indiana’s marksmanship to be that awful on Tuesday.

Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle didn’t mince words after the game.

“First half was embarrassing,” he said. “No excuses. We simply have got to come out better.”

The Pacers will get their chance Tuesday night in Game 2 at Milwaukee.

The Bucks know it’s only going to be more difficult from here until Giannis returns, but it’s clear they have a survival plan in place.

The Brewers also are thriving despite trading Corbin Burnes in the offseason and being without the injured Brandon Woodruff.

Milwaukee (14-6) has been incredible in day games (9-2) and even more fantastic in away games (10-2) this season.

The Brewers also are tied with Atlanta at plus-35 for the third-best run differential in all of baseball. It suggests they can win slugfests as well as well-pitched, low-scoring contests.

Milwaukee’s 2-1, 10-inning victory Friday night was the series catalyst.

Freddy Peralta (2-0) pitched six scoreless innings with two walks and seven strikeouts to set the tone. Peralta has a 1.90 earned-run average through four starts. He’s pitched 23 2/3 innings while allowing 14 hits and five runs with four walks and 33 strikeouts.

Opposing hitters are batting .169 against Peralta, which is the second-lowest average against starters in the National League. Peralta is just behind the Padres’ Dylan Cease (.130).

Red-hot William Contreras (.354) drove in designated runner Brice Turang with the winning run in the 10th after Blake Perkins’ single advanced him to third base.

On Sunday, Perkins and Turang singled off the Cardinals’ Sonny Gray to open the seventh. The St. Louis right-hander had allowed just two hits and a walk while striking out 12 through six innings.

Owen Miller kept the line moving by notching his first hit of the season to drive in Turang and Perkins for a 2-0 lead. The bullpen made it stand.

Miller was called up Tuesday and snapped an eight-game hitless streak dating back to last season.

“To get called up, get his first start and get a huge hit, that says a lot about him,” Brewers manager Pat Murphy said.

The Brewers’ bottom third of the batting order – namely Perkins, Turang, Gary Sanchez, Joey Ortiz and the rest – has been awesome.

And Perkins has been a godsend while Christian Yelich remains sidelined with back issues. Yelich was hitting .333 with five home runs when he felt the soreness in his lower back last week.

Perkins has helped ease the pain, so to speak, at least for the Brewers.

He is hitting .354 (17-for-48) with three doubles, two home runs and superlative defense in the outfield. Perkins’ home-run robbing catch of Paul Goldschmidt’s fly ball to deep-centerfield saved a three-run home run in the bottom of the first inning.

After that Colin Rea (2-0) settled down to toss five scoreless innings.

The Brewers open a four-game set at Pittsburgh on Monday night.

To top it off, the Packers kick off the draft Thursday night. By that time, if all goes well, the Bucks will be up 2-0 heading to Indiana and the Brewers will be discussing their eight-game winning streak.

Packers trade up in 1st for Texas DT Murphy

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

It’s the NFL’s version of Christmas – the league’s “Annual Player Selection Meeting” aka the NFL Draft – and it’s just a week away.

The question is which presents, or players, will Packers GM Brian Gutekunst be unwrapping and gifting to the team and its fans?

I’ve got two scenarios that are at once reasonable and wonderful.

The first has the Packers trading up in the first round.

The second has them staying put with the 25th overall pick.

Here we go:

** No. 1 scenario – (Chime sounder indicating a trade)

The Packers send the 25th pick and the 58th pick to the Raiders for the 13th pick, the Colts for the 15th pick or the Chiefs for the 17th pick.

In return, the Packers select (in order) one of these three players …

Texas defensive tackle Byron Murphy II would be the player I’d consider most valuable to acquire in a trade up. Murphy is rated the No. 1 defensive tackle in the entire draft.

Murphy (6-1, 297) ran a 4.87 40-yard dash, showed a vertical leap of 33 inches and bench pressed 225 pounds 28 times.

NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein writes:

“Muscular ball of explosiveness with the tools and talent to become a productive three-down defender in the right scheme … Twitchy first-step quickness combined with flexion and power in his lower half to create a recipe for disruption as a gap shooter or as a pass rusher … Murphy is well-schooled at taking on double-teams but lacks ideal mass and length for that role long-term … Murphy is ascending and could become a successful nose tackle or 3-technique in an even front (that’s Hafley’s scheme).”

Murphy is relentless with quick-strike hands and an elite combination of strength, balance and flexible power in his lower half.

Kenny Clark and T.J. Slaton are working on one-year contracts.

A disruptive interior pass rusher would give new defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley immediate help this season and insurance should Clark and/or Slaton move on.

If it’s not Murphy II then who do the Packers take?

Duke offensive lineman Graham Barton would be my No. 2 choice in a trade to move up in the first round.

Barton (6-5, 313) is a versatile, talented and smart player whose overviews almost always comment on what a pleasure it is to watch him play. Here is Zierlein’s review:

“Watching Barton’s tape is a pleasurable experience in an offensive line evaluation, as his tenacity and know-how are on full display throughout. Thought he played at a high level at left tackle, center will likely be his NFL home. Barton is an explosive drive blocker with the body control and leg drive to keep his opponents centered and to finish the job …”

Barton could step in and battle Sean Rhyan for the job at right guard on Day One and eventually replace Josh Myers at center. He also could handle right tackle and allow Zach Tom to move to center.

Either way, Barton would be beyond useful as soon as he arrived in Green Bay.

If it’s not Barton then who do the Packers take?

That’s easy. If Murphy and Barton aren’t available and the Packers still trade up it’ll be for a cornerback. Either Alabama’s Terrion Arnold or Toledo’s Quincy Mitchell would do quite nicely here.

I’ve got to believe Arnold will be selected in the Top 13 or thereabouts. That may be too rich for the Packers’ blood, especially if they have such a sensational alternative as Mitchell.

Toledo’s Mitchell (6-0, 195) is an athletic freak who also possesses great football instincts. Mitchell posted an NBA-like 38-inch vertical jump, ran a 4.33 40 and bench pressed 225 pounds 20 times.

Zierlein writes:

“Mitchell possesses a gumbo of traits, with size, strength and speed filling up the pot. He’s built like a running back, tackles like a safety and has the ball skills of a cornerback … Mitchell can play in a variety of coverages and was the clear-cut top cornerback at the Senior Bowl when working against the top receivers in practice …”

Mitchell would be a dynamic defensive addition.

** No. 2 scenario (Chime sounder indicating the Packers’ pick is in)

The Packers would be fortunate beyond belief if Barton lands in their laps at 25. It’s possible if for no other reason than teams make mistakes in every draft, and teams passing on Barton would benefit Green Bay.

If that’s not the case, the Packers will look to snag Alabama cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry or Oklahoma offensive tackle Tyler Guyton.

McKinstry is a ball-hawking, play-making corner who would be a terrific bookend for Jaire Alexander.

Zierlein writes:

“McKinstry was a three-year starter and former five-star prospect with a quirky name and consistent game … He is patient and well-groomed in matching the outside release and riding the inside release from press (coverage) … He’s confident enough to handle business on an island and is able to stay in phase as the route travels vertically … He’s not overly fast but does play with plus acceleration to close out crossing routes or make aggressive plays on the catch point …”

McKinstry is smart and an outstanding communicator.

So if it isn’t McKinstry at 25 then what do they do?

Again, it’s fairly evident: They take the best offensive tackle on their board. In this scenario that would be Oklahoma’s Tyler Guyton.

Guyton (6-8, 322) is an athletic monster. He posted a 34 ½ inch vertical leap at 322 pounds. That’s a lot of weight to lift that high off the ground.

Zierlein’s overview:

“Ascending tackle prospect with the traits and tape to project a bright future as a high-level pass protector … Guyton has battled injuries and had limited reps after coming from TCU after the 2021 season, but his flashes have been complemented by increasing consistency … He plays with a high center of gravity and needs to get stronger, but leveraged hand strikes can help overcome those concerns … He should improve as a run blocker but he may never be great in that area. His value comes with his pass protection, as he has the length, feet and body control to become a human roadblock.”

The Packers also have excellent options beyond the first round even if they trade the 58th pick to move up. They would still have the 41st, 88th and 91st picks which add up to four players in the first three rounds.

In the “trade up” scenario they could get Murphy, the stud defensive tackle, at 13 through 17.

Then they could add Arizona offensive tackle Jordan Morgan with the 41st pick and still have enough ammunition to select one or two of the following marquee players:

Texas A&M inside linebacker Edgerrin Cooper, Utah safety Cole Bishop, Oregon interior offensive lineman Jackson Powers-Johnson or Michigan inside linebacker Junior Colson with any combination of the 88th, 91st and 126th picks to manipulate the draft board.

Regardless what happens, Gutekunst will be able to look his coaches, players and fans in the eye and say, “Merry Christmas!”

Brewers win O’s series

but lose Sunday finale

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The old saying says, “Two out of three ain’t bad.”

That is true for the Brewers, who would have loved to be the first team since May of 2022 to sweep the Baltimore Orioles, but instead will be pleased to win a road series against one of baseball’s best just the same.

The Orioles’ MLB record of 96 straight series without being swept was put to the test by Milwaukee, which won the first two games and took a one-run lead into the seventh Sunday before losing 6-4 in the finale.

Milwaukee (10-4) pushed across three runs in five innings against former ace Corbin Burnes, but couldn’t seal the deal as Abner Uribe surrendered two runs in the bottom of the seventh. The O’s tacked on an insurance run with Colton Cowser’s solo home run in the eighth.

Burnes needed 98 pitches to get through five innings. He allowed three runs (two earned) on six hits with two walks and five strikeouts. Yennier Cano (2-1) got the win in relief and Craig Kimbrel earned the save.

Burnes didn’t have his best stuff, and the Brewers battled at the plate, but it was Milwaukee’s vaunted bullpen that let them down.

Nevertheless, facing Burnes is always a tremendous challenge.

Brewers’ manager Pat Murphy said as much in his postgame interview.

“Whenever you’re facing a No. 1, you’re trying to do everything you can to pester him to get him off his game,” Murphy said. “I don’t know if we did that. He made some big pitches at some big times and gave his team a chance to win.”

William Contreras led off with a solo home run in the top of the first to give Milwaukee a 1-0 lead. Blake Perkins had three hits and also homered, and Willy Adames added two hits, but the Brewers were a disastrous 2-for-17 with runners in scoring position.

That conspired to snap the Brewers’ four-game winning streak.

On Friday afternoon, Burnes made the rounds in the visitor’s clubhouse to say hello to his former teammates and coaches.

“Everybody wanted a piece of him,” Murphy said, “To wish him luck (going forward).”

Burnes was asked to explain his approach to facing the Brewers.

“It’s friends that I played with in the past and they’re former teammates,and it’s the word ‘former’ for a reason,” he said. “I’m here to win baseball games for the Baltimore Orioles and win a World Series for the Baltimore Orioles. I’m as frustrated as anyone else in here that we got our butt kicked (Saturday).”

Actually, the Brewers kicked the O’s butts on Friday and Saturday.

The Brewers won the opener 11-1 and Saturday’s game 11-5.

Brewers ace Freddy Peralta (2-0) started Friday night’s game and allowed a run on five hits. He struck out 11 without issuing a walk while lowering his ERA to a tidy 2.55 through three starts.

Adames backed Peralta with three hits, including a home run, while Gary Sanchez and Contreras also homered. Ex-Orioles infielder Joey Ortiz had three hits, including his first big-league triple.

Friday night’s game also was the first matchup between 20-year-olds Jackson Holliday of the Orioles and Jackson Chourio of the Brewers. Chourio went 0-for-6 and Holliday was 0-for-3 with three strikeouts.

The Brewers’ worst news of the series came in the opener when red-hot Christian Yelich singled in the top of the first before exiting with lower back discomfort. The Brewers have since called up outfielder Joey Wiemer, which suggests Yelich is headed for a stint on IL.

Fortunately for the Brewers, Perkins also is swinging a red-hot bat. The left-handed hitting Perkins is 10-for-26 (.385) with two home runs, five RBI and two stolen bases. He also is an excellent defensive outfielder.

On Saturday, left-hander DL Hall – who was acquired in the Burnes trade – started and lasted just 3 1/3 innings. He allowed five runs on eight hits with a walk and four strikeouts.

Elvis Peguero (3-0) got the win in relief.

The Brewers’ Rhys Hoskins belted a solo home run, and Jake Bauers picked up an RBI on a fielder’s choice groundout.

Sal Frelick had a run-scoring double and Adames drove in two more with a double.

Milwaukee’s statistics are impressive through 14 games.

The Brewers’ anemic offense of 2023 is nowhere to be found.

Milwaukee ranks second in home runs (23) and batting average (.290) in the National League. Their 91 runs and 21 steals rank third in the NL.

The Brewers have seven players hitting above .300. They are Perkins (.385), Contreras (.375), Bryce Turang (.362), Yelich (.333), Ortiz (.323), Adames (.310) and Frelick (.308).

Milwaukee’s 3.85 ERA is fourth in the NL. They have walked just 35 batters (fewest in the majors) while allowing 113 hits (tops in the NL).

Obviously it’s impossible to sustain these numbers through 162 games, but it’s better than in the past when slow starts were business as usual.

The first-place Brewers host the San Diego Padres in a three-game series beginning Monday night at American Family Field. The first pitch is set for 6:40 p.m. with Padres right-hander Joe Musgrove (1-2, 6.87) facing Brewers’ right-hander Joe Ross (1-0, 1.80). On Tuesday it will be righty Dylan Cease (1-1, 2.16) squaring off against lefty Wade Miley (0-0, 2.25). The Padres will send right-hander Michael King to the mound for Wednesday’s “getaway game,” set for 12:10. The Brewers haven’t named a starter for Wednesday’s game.

Packers’ draft needs mandate OL, then ‘D’

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers got it right by drafting Jordan Love and developing him into what many believe is a franchise quarterback.

It’s the most valuable asset in the NFL. It’s what every team covets.

Now it’s time for the Packers to protect their investment.

That means selecting an offensive tackle and a guard/center with two of their six picks in the first four rounds.

The question then becomes “who” and “when.”

With only an educated guess at which players will be available when the Packers are on the clock with the 25th pick, it’s nearly impossible to say exactly which offensive tackle they will draft in the first round.

But rest assured it will be a tackle they believe can protect Love.

Will Packers’ GM Brian Gutekunst sleep better after Day One of the draft if he lands Iowa cornerback Cooper DeJean at 25? Or if he selects the Packers’ left tackle of the future?

The answer is easy: It’s the left tackle.

Look at it this way: What is the point of building a top-notch defense if the quarterback doesn’t have enough time to do his thing? Ask the New York Jets how life is with a terrific defense and a terrible offense.

It used to be said that offense puts fans in the stands, but defense wins championships. That old adage doesn’t hold true any longer.

There are two reasons Kansas City has been the NFL’s dominant team. They have a terrific quarterback in Patrick Mahomes and a wise head coach in Andy Reid who never forgets it and proceeds accordingly.

The Packers’ offensive line was living on the edge last season. That they had time-share arrangements at left tackle (Rasheed Walker and Yosh Nijman) and right guard (Jon Runyan and Sean Rhyan) says a mouthful.

They were one injury away from disaster even after Walker won the job at left tackle and the whole time the Runyan-Rhyan co-op played out.

That has to change beginning with Day One of the NFL draft which is slated for Thursday, April 25.

Strong cases could be made for drafting defense. Who doesn’t desire a shutdown cornerback such as Kool-Aid McKinstry? How wonderful it would be to have a dynamic off-ball linebacker such as Payton Wilson.

I’ve even seen edge rushers mocked to the Packers because they were “just too good” to pass up.

I’m not buying those scenarios because they don’t track with Gutekunst’s actions this offseason. He signed free-agent safety Xavier McKinney to direct coordinator Jeff Hafley’s defense. He re-signed Keisean Nixon to provide a solid option at nickel cornerback.

He filled critical needs swiftly and aggressively.

No need is more critical than offensive line and no single defensive player is such a surefire Hall of Famer that they can’t pass him up.

That’s what four of the Packers’ next five picks are for.

Green Bay needs to find a lockdown left tackle and a strong interior offensive lineman in the first four rounds. If that happens they’ll have created competition in training camp and an O-line that’s seven deep.

Gutekunst may have to trade up in the first round to get his tackle, which I suspect he’s more than willing to do if he finds the right trade partner. If not he’ll sit at 25 and watch, wait and pounce on a left tackle.

Walker is a decent starting left tackle who would be an excellent swing tackle. Rhyan still has a lot to prove and he’ll earn whatever he gets, but he’s hardly a lock at right guard.

Center Josh Myers had a strong second half of last season, but he’s in the final year of his contract and needs to replaced, rather than resigned.

An interior offensive lineman who can line up at guard or center would be an ideal fit for 2024 and beyond.

That’s why two of the top six picks need to be offensive linemen.

After that it’s defense, defense and more defense.

Common sense suggests the Packers will draft at least one defender at every level within the first four rounds.

That means a pass-rushing defensive tackle to pair with Kenny Clark, an off-ball linebacker to pair with Quay Walker and two defensive backs.

Ideally, one defensive back would be a safety to learn under McKinney and the other would be a cornerback to compete with Carrington Valentine and Eric Stokes opposite Jaire Alexander.

Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Hall, Jr. is a slick interior pass rusher who could join Devonte Wyatt and Karl Brooks on passing downs.

Texas A&M inside linebacker Edgerrin Cooper would be a great fit next to Walker. He has great range as a run defender ala Walker and he doesn’t have to come off the field in nickel and dime defenses.

In Hafley’s 4-2-5 alignment both Hall and Cooper would be nice fits.

Georgia safety Javon Bullard is also in the mix. Bullard is a bit undersized at 5-11, 198, but Hafley made it clear he prefers playmakers to workout warriors.

Between now and April 25th there will be a lot of talk about the Packers drafting a cornerback, a linebacker or a safety with the 25th pick.

It would be foolish to rule out anything, but it would be even more foolish to overthink it.

The Packers’ No. 1 priority is protecting Love and making sure that head coach Matt LaFleur’s offense has what it needs to rank among the best.

Hafley already got his Christmas wish list filled. He got McKinney. I suspect he’ll be just fine working with four rookies that were talented enough to be selected among the top 126 players in college football.

I also suspect Hafley – like all defensive coordinators – is more than OK with playing with the lead.

UConn rolls Purdue to

win back-to-back titles

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Purdue’s Zach Edey hoped the zenith of his incredible college career would be a national title in his final game.

The 7-foot-4 consensus “Player of the Year” didn’t get his storybook ending as mighty UConn rolled the Boilermakers 75-60 Monday night to capture back-to-back national championships.

Either way, it was a win-win for Wisconsin and the rest of the Big Ten.

If Purdue would’ve carried the conference mantle to the stage for the trophy presentation it would’ve been terrific for the league. If not, well, in Edey’s case parting isn’t sweet sorrow.

It’s just sweet, period, because Edey was that good.

Unfortunately for Purdue, UConn coach Dan Hurley’s Huskies were that much better than the Boilermakers. In fact, they were that much better than everyone they played during a marvelous two-year run.

UConn capped its season by winning a 12th straight NCAA Tournament game by double-digits. They did it in last season’s march to the title and they repeated it again this season.

“To win by double digits these past two years, it’s just a tribute to our culture here,” UConn’s Alex Karaban said. “We’re never satisfied. We’re always hungry. We’re always going to go on runs and we’re always going to continue to play hard to where we’re going to break the other team. No team practices like us, no team goes as hard as us. It showed in the second half.”

The Huskies outscored the Boilermakers 39-30 in the second half. Purdue moved to within seven points when Camden Heide’s emphatic slam dunk made it 41-34 with 16:41 to play.

After that it was all UConn. Purdue never got any closer.

In fact, you can count on one hand the number of minutes UConn trailed during the entire tournament. This UConn team ranks among the greatest in college basketball history.

“What could you say?” Hurley said. “We won – by a lot again.”

Hurley isn’t the self-deprecating, golly-gee-whiz kind of coach who steers clear of any brash, bold statements. Hurley’s Huskies are epically good and he isn’t afraid to say it.

“I think it’s up there in terms of the greatest two-year runs that a program maybe has ever had,” Hurley said. “I just think it’s the best two-year run in a very, very long time just because of everything we lost from last year’s team. To lose that much, and again, to do what we did again, it’s got to be as impressive a two-year  run as a program’s had since prior to whoever did it before Duke.

“To me, it’s more impressive than what Florida and Duke did because they brought back entire teams. We lost some major players.”

Not that anyone was crying for UConn.

Donovan Clingan, the Huskie’s 7-2 center, is merely the second-best big man in the nation and has a chance to be pretty good at the next level. Clingan scored 11 points and grabbed five rebounds.

Karaban is a complete, smooth 6-8 player who totaled five points, six rebounds and four assists Monday night.

Tristan Newton, an El Paso, Texas, native and ex-Packer Aaron Jones’ cousin, is merely a back-to-back national champion and the 2024 “Most Outstanding Player” in the title game. Newton had 20 points, five rebounds and seven assists to win the award.

Stephon Castle added 15 points and five rebounds after scoring 21 points in UConn’s victory over Alabama in the semifinals.

Early on it appeared the Boilermakers might be able to hang with UConn. Edey scored 14 points out of the gate and Purdue led with eight minutes to play in the first half.

After that it was all UConn.

Edey made just one field goal in the next 14:28 as UConn flipped the script by turning a 2-point deficit into a 9-point lead.

Edey’s 37 points is the most scored by a player on the national title game’s losing team.

He went 15 of 25 from the field and 7-of-10 at the line. He had 10 rebounds but ZERO assists. The Huskies did a tremendous job of disguising double teams, coming at Edey from different directions and covering up on the 3-point line so he couldn’t kick it out.

The fact that Edey didn’t have an assist illustrates how difficult UConn’s big guard line made it on Braden Smith, Fletcher Loyer and the rest.

Now, Purdue is left to celebrate Edey’s illustrious career while the rest of the Big Ten is celebrating his exit after four long years.

** South Carolina-Iowa women’s NCAA championship a ratings bonanza for good reason

The first half of the South Carolina-Iowa women’s NCAA championship game was the best 20 minutes of basketball I’ve seen all season.

The Gamecocks prevailed 87-75 over Iowa in a fast-paced game that showcased just how impressive the women’s game has become.

The TV ratings make the point.

The South Carolina-Iowa game drew 18.7 million viewers on ABC and ESPN. It tipped at 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon. Clearly, viewers planned their day around watching Cordoso, Clark and the rest.

It was the most watched basketball game since 2019 when Virginia coach Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers defeated Texas Tech in front of 19.6 million viewers.

It’s possible the women’s title game will exceed the men’s title game in viewership for the first time in history.

As an aside, the 2015 Final Four game between Wisconsin and Kentucky on TBS is the only college basketball game on cable to draw more than 18.7 million. The Badgers-Wildcats game drew 22.6 million.

It shows how many diehard Badgers and Wildcats fans there are around the country. It also speaks to the terrific show that South Carolina and Iowa put on display.

South Carolina’s Kamilla Cordoso scored 15 points and grabbed 17 rebounds to lead the Gamecocks. The 6-foot-7 center displayed tremendous agility, defensive ability and dominance around the basket.

On the other side, Iowa’s legendary Caitlin Clark didn’t disappoint. The closest thing to Steph Curry in the women’s game scored 30 points on 5-for-13 shooting from beyond the arc.

Clark’s unlimited range, clever passing and amazing leadership provides the template for what the women’s game is all about.

Both Cordoso and Clark are terrific role models for all young players – both boys and girls – in terms of illustrating how a tremendous work ethic, patience and a commitment to teamwork pay off.

Like the old TV commercial said, “You’ve come a long way, baby!”

Bullpen fails Brewers

as Twins salvage split

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Brewers’ two-game home stand perfectly illustrated the way timely hitting, great defense and a bullish bullpen – in concert with decent starting pitching – can win big league games.

It also revealed the Brewers’ ultra-thin margin for error if any one of those elements – especially their top-notch bullpen – falters.

That was the case Wednesday when Milwaukee took a one-run lead into the seventh inning only to see the Twins erase it with a five-run uprising. That it came against Joel Payamps and Bryce Wilson – two of the team’s most reliable relievers – was all the more unsettling.

There are going to be ups like the Brewers’ 3-2 opening day victory over the Twins. The Brewers were 29-18 in one-run games last season. They need to continue that into this season.

And there are going to be downs such as the 7-3 loss Wednesday. It was shaping up to be a one-run win until the dust settled in the seventh.

The key takeaway is that there is a lot of reason to be optimistic just five games into Milwaukee’s 162-game marathon. No one doubts it’ll be a tremendous challenge to compete in the NL Central, but the reigning division champs have shown they intend to be a factor.

That’s because the Brewers (4-1) are getting plenty of positive answers to key questions early on. Here are the top five reasons to be excited:

** No. 1 – Jackson Chourio looks like the real deal.

The 20-year-old rookie has displayed a lightning-quick bat, the ability to go to the opposite field with power and all the tools necessary to be a top-notch defensive outfielder.

Chourio’s first big-league home run gave the Brewers a 3-1 lead through five innings on Wednesday. He crushed a 1-1 pitch into right-center to become the Brewers’ youngest player to hit a home run since Gary Sheffield, at 19, did it in 1988.

“I think off the bat I knew it was gone there,” he said via an interpreter. “(I give) thanks to God for being able to put a good swing on it.”

Brewers’ manager Pat Murphy has been suitably impressed.

“Day by day you notice more and more that Jackson belongs in the big leagues,” he said Wednesday.

Chourio is 7-for-20 (.350) with a double, a home run, four RBI and a stolen base. He has one walk to six strikeouts in 21 plate appearances. He needs to reduce his strikeout ratio from once every three at-bats, otherwise he hasn’t looked overmatched at any point.

Chourio is the youngest player in Major League Baseball. The Brewers signed him to an eight-year, $82 million contract this offseason.

Brewers’ owner Mark Attanasio said it was a good business decision.

“It’s hard for us to compete in the free agent market,” he said. “Here we can have a guy who can be homegrown, whose story the fans can follow for at a minimum of eight years. I think there’s a value to that.”

Chourio was asked how he blocks out the hype.

“The organization has treated me incredibly, ever since before I signed the contract,” he said. “So, you know, ever since after signing … Really? Now it’s just time to demonstrate my abilities and go out there, perform.”

So far he’s done exactly that while exceeding massive expectations.

** No. 2 – Rhys Hoskins is exactly what you picture when thinking about a smooth-fielding, power-hitting first baseman with attitude.

Hoskins is 5-for-17 (.294) with two home runs and five RBI. He took the Mets’ best shot last weekend and made them pay. He and Jake Bauers appear to have first base locked down for the season.

** No. 3 – The defense has been every bit as spectacular as billed.

When Milwaukee deploys Joey Ortiz at third base, Willy Adames at shortstop and Brice Turang at second base they are essentially playing with a trio of Gold Glove shortstops.

Ortiz made a play that was extraordinary on Wednesday. He fielded a slow roller to third and nailed the runner at first thanks to a lightning-quick glove-hand exchange and strong, accurate throw. The initial call was safe at first, but after replay it was corrected. Even the first base umpire couldn’t believe that Ortiz made the play.

William Contreras is an All-Star catcher and the outfield is blessed with speedy defenders left to right.

The Brewers’ pitching staff should count its blessings.

** No. 4 – The starting pitchers have gotten off to a decent start.

In 22.2 innings they’ve allowed 17 hits, five runs and two home runs. The starters have 11 walks – a number that has to drop – while racking up 18 strikeouts.

Staff ace Freddy Peralta is the only starter with enough stuff to be able to offset walks with strikeouts.

The Brewers’ starters have a combined 1.98 ERA thus far.

Left-hander DL Hall’s performance is critical to the staff’s success. He has the stuff to be occasionally overpowering and routinely effectively. Hall would be the perfect complement to Peralta while Jakob Junis, Joe Ross and the rest get stretched out.

Wade Miley’s return can’t come soon enough.

** No. 5 – The bullpen is going to be stressed to the maximum until the aforementioned Junis, Ross and the others get stretched out.

Right now Murphy is hoping for five innings from anyone not named Peralta. That’s 15 outs. With Milwaukee’s defense and bullpen that would be enough to give the Brewers a chance to win most games.

The relievers, led by flame-throwing Abner Uribe, have four saves. They’ve gone 22.1 innings while allowing 12 runs (11 earned) with six walks and 19 strikeouts. The bullpen also has surrendered three homers.

Nevertheless, once Trevor McGill returns from a concussion that occurred when he feinted from food poisoning, fell and hit his head.

Payamps and Wilson both are expected to rebound from their subpar outings Wednesday. Hoby Milner, Elvis Peguero and Bryan Hudson also will factor in heavily.

Murphy said the evaluation process is continuing even as the season begins. Expect Milwaukee to look for starting pitching from its own minor league system as July rolls into August.

For now, the Brewers need their bullpen to hang in there and either close out leads or keep games close enough to rally.

“The first weekend had a lot of good parts to it,” Murphy said. “A lot of not so good, too. So what we’re evaluating, what we’re going by, we’re still developing our personality.”

Christian Yelich, who is hitting the cover off the baseball, has two home runs and a lot of confidence in his team.

“I think our expectation is always to win,” he said. “I think that’s been pretty evident over the years. We’ve had a lot of talent come through the room and a lot of successful teams, but each year has been its own year.”

This year, he believes, also will be a success.

The promising start suggests Yelich could be right.

Brewers sweep Mets,

home opener Tuesday

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Brewers’ offseason losses included two of baseball’s top starting pitchers and one of the game’s premier closers.

In addition, they also lost the winningest manager in franchise history.

Nevertheless, the Brewers’ brass still insisted they would compete to repeat as the NL Central Division champs even without Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Devin Williams and Craig Counsell.

Many Brewers’ fans weren’t buying it.

Then a funny thing happened on their 162-game mope toward last place: The Brewers provided light where there was darkness in a single series.

Milwaukee’s three-game sweep of the New York Mets at Citi Field in Flushing, Queens, N.Y., on Easter weekend served notice to the rest of the National League.

The Brewers aren’t going down without a fight. In other words, they still plan to play outstanding defense in support of quality starting pitching and the game’s No. 1 bullpen.

Here’s the best part: They appear better equipped to string together quality at-bats, bunt effectively and hit to the opposite field. They also steal bases, move baserunners and hit for enough power to be dangerous.

The Brewers’ tidy 4-1 victory in Sunday’s series finale capped the team’s first opening-season sweep since 2018.

Right-hander Colin Rea (1-0) allowed one run on five hits and two walks while striking out two over five innings. Milwaukee’s starters allowed just four runs over 15 innings in the three-game series.

In fact, Milwaukee (3-0) outhit, outpitched and out-defended the overmatched Mets (0-3) in each of their three wins.

Shortstop Willy Adames said the Brewers know what they’re capable of. Now that vision is starting to take shape in the minds of their fans.

“We’re just making a statement,” Adames said after the series. “We’re making a statement that we’re going to compete this year.”

A rainout moved Opening Day from Thursday to Friday, but the Brewers didn’t appear inconvenienced in the least. They rode Freddy Peralta’s six-inning one-hitter to a 3-1 victory to kick off the weekend.

On Saturday, left-handed starter DL Hall gave them four decent innings and the Brewers’ bats did the rest to capture a 7-6 slugfest.

 “There are a lot of people saying we don’t have it this year,” Adames continued. “After this series, I think the guys … they know that we can make it happen.”

Adames, one of the team’s emotional leaders, added: “We’re going to come every day with the right energy, and we’re just going to try to win today. We’ll worry about tomorrow … tomorrow. That’s going to be the mentality this whole year.”

On Friday, Peralta tossed the 42rd one-hitter against the Mets in their history. He walked one, struck out eight and was dominant throughout. He retired the first four hitters before Starling Marte belted a line-drive home run in the bottom of the second inning.

Peralta was untouchable after that.

Then Trevor McGill, Joel Payamps and Abner Uribe combined for three scoreless, hitless innings to close it out.

Christian Yelich had three hits, including a home run in the fourth, to tie it at 1-1. William Contreras’ sacrifice fly in the fifth put the Brewers up 2-1 and rookie Jackson Chourio added an RBI groundout in the seventh.

Chourio, who signed an eight-year, $82 million contract in the offseason, batted leadoff in the opener and had a single, a walk and a stolen base. He is the youngest player to bat leadoff in his Major League debut since Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr was 19 years, 13 days in 1937.

Chourio, who is 20 years, 18 days, looked like a big-time big leaguer.

He went 5-for-12 (.417) with one walk and three strikeouts. Not once did he appear overmatched by big league pitching.

Newcomer Rhys Hoskins was 3-for-11 with a home run, four RBIs and mega-attitude. The slugging first baseman appears to be exactly what the Brewers needed in the heart of their lineup.

All-Star catcher William Contreras was 5-for-13 with two doubles, Adames was 4-for-12 with a double and Yelich finished the series going 5-for-11 (.455) with three runs scored and the home run.

“What I liked about this series was just how hard everybody played,” Yelich said. “We played aggressive. Guys were making things happen. That’s what we’re going to have to do this year. The thing I took away from these three days was the way everybody competed, on all sides of the ball.”

The Brewers’ pitchers allowed 20 hits over 27 innings while yielding eight runs (a 2.67 ERA) and six walks with 23 strikeouts.

Uribe notched a pair of saves and looks like the full-time closer until further notice, or Williams’ return, whichever comes first.

Hall, the lefty acquired from the Orioles in the Burnes trade, was effective in Saturday’s start. Hall allowed two runs on six hits and a pair of walks while striking out one in four innings. Elvis Peguero (1-0) earned the win by tossing two perfect innings in relief of Hall.

Murphy, who replaced Counsell as the Brewers’ manager, liked what he saw from his team during the weekend.

“They’re game to compete,” he said. “We stayed on it for nine innings (Sunday). I hope they understand that if they play all nine, it doesn’t always matter how much experience you have, and it doesn’t always matter if there’s some pretty great players over there on the other side. It doesn’t always matter. They can go ahead and compete with anyone.”

On Tuesday, the Brewers will get to compete against the visiting Minnesota Twins (2-1) who won two of three at Kansas City.

Right-hander Jakob Junis will start for Milwaukee. He’ll face the Twins’ right-hander Louie Varland. First pitch is set for 3:10 p.m. at American Family Field.

Packers built to win,

Brewers open Friday

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The holes are few. The needs are obvious. And the roster is the NFL’s youngest for a second straight season, but it has an abundance of talent and meaningful playoff experience throughout.

In other words, the Packers are in a terrific place right now.

Those facts afford Packers GM Brian Gutekunst the flexibility to tie up a few loose ends going into this season while stockpiling assets at several positions to guard against unforeseen consequences.

With the NFL draft less than a month away, and a handful of second-tier free agents still available, the Packers are built to win now. To hear Gutekunst tell it they are operating on a three-year window.

The idea is to win this season while resisting the urge to go “all in” even deeper than they already have. It’s why they elected to let Aaron Jones leave, rather than have his contract hinder the salary cap next season.

It’s why they also may pass on signing a second veteran safety to pair with Xavier McKinney, who commanded a four-year, $68 million deal, at free agency’s outset. Julian Blackmon, the former Colts safety, is still available and would be a tremendous running mate next to McKinney.

But if it means shrinking the 2025 salary cap the Packers may not bite.

The wonderful thing is they have the flexibility to go either way without significantly compromising their success this season or next.

The difference between Jones and Blackmon is that former is nearing the end of his prime while the latter is just entering it.

At any rate, Gutekunst and head coach Matt LaFleur both made it apparent that they don’t just like where their team is headed.

They love it.

Running back Josh Jacobs, corner/return specialist Keisean Nixon and McKinney are all in the prime of their careers. In fact, Gutekunst said as much earlier this week at the NFL’s annual league meetings.

Gutekunst said the Packers scouted Alabama’s McKinney heavily leading up to the 2020 NFL draft. The 6-foot, 205-pound safety is only 24 but with four years of playing in the league at a high level.

McKinney has 279 tackles, 27 passes defended and nine interceptions in 49 games (46 starts).

The Packers’ due diligence frequently amounts to nothing of substance. But in McKinney’s case it made signing him a no-brainer.

“We had a number of players where we said, if these guys do become available, I think we have to consider bringing them and trying to acquire them,” Gutekunst said. “A lot of those players, before we got to the actual date, were gone by that time, either re-signed or franchised and things like that and (McKinney) wasn’t, so we aggressively pursued it. We’re just really excited. His next three years should be the best football he plays in our mind and we’re excited about that.”

It’s a similar case with Jacobs, the former Raiders running back who is just one season removed from being the NFL’s leading rusher.

The Packers wanted Jones to return but at a price that wouldn’t compromise the 2025 cap. That didn’t work out.

Meantime, Jacobs became available and the Packers pounced.

Jacobs, 26, is four years younger, 20 pounds heavier and presumably more durable than Jones. He also is adept at catching screens and check-downs out of the backfield in addition to being capable at blitz pickup.

Gutekunst had a difficult decision. He could’ve kept Jones and prayed for the running back’s good health. He could’ve kept Jones AND Jacobs and it might’ve been a dynamic one-two punch … or not. That also would’ve meant putting pressure on the cap next season.

So Gutekunst made the shrewd, difficult but necessary decision to move on from Jones and go with Jacobs.

“Up until that Monday, you don’t really have an idea of whether (free agents) are going to be re-signed or if they were tagged,” he said. “We never take anything off the table, even with Aaron. But once we got into Monday afternoon and realized there was an opportunity to sign a player like Josh that was something I didn’t feel we could pass up.”

Gutekunst made the right call.

He also mentioned Jacobs’ youth despite plenty of NFL experience. In five seasons – two fewer than Jones – he has more carries. He also is more accomplished in short yardage and near the goal line, and he has a reputation for wearing down defenses during the course of a game.

Believe it or not it’s an upgrade.

Nixon, who turns 27 in June, was a player the Packers targeted as one they dearly wanted back.

“We’re excited for what he can do for our defense,” Gutekunst said. “I think bringing in (defensive coordinator) Jeff Hafley and giving him some time to study Keisean and make sure that that was a fit was important. He’s very excited to have him back as well.”

Nixon played 809 regular-season snaps as the nickel cornerback. He worked mostly in the slot and apparently impressed Hafley.

Nixon, a willing tackler, had 80 tackles and six passes defended while corralling his first NFL interception against the Chiefs.

Nixon also is the NFL’s two-time All-Pro kick return specialist.

The NFL’s new return-friendly kickoff rules should also benefit Nixon, but he was paid $18 million to do more than return kicks.

“I certainly feel really good about Keisean and what he did as a first-year (starter) with that many snaps in the nickel and where he’s headed,” Gutekunst said. “Having some stability there is something that gives me some peace.”

In other news, the Packers are working on a long-term contract extension for quarterback Jordan Love. It may take some time, according to Gutekunst, but it’ll get done.

They also reloaded by signing running back A.J. Dillon, linebackers Kristian Welch and Eric Wilson, and tight end Tyler Davis.

Indeed, the Packers are built to win … and now.

** BREWERS SEASON-OPENER POSTPONED

The Brewers and Mets bowed to Mother Nature’s will and moved their Major League Baseball season opener to Friday.

Right-hander Freddy Peralta will start for Milwaukee against the Mets’ left-hander, Jose Quintana.

The highly anticipated debut of rookie Jackson Chourio will happen Friday when he starts in right field, according to manager Pat Murphy.

Also, impressive left-hander DL Hall will start on Saturday with veteran right-hander Colin Rea pitching in Sunday’s series finale.

Wisconsin flames out,

Marquette moves on

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The best version of the Wisconsin’s men’s basketball team rolled through the Big Ten Conference Tournament before bowing to Illinois in the championship game.

Unfortunately, Wisconsin’s worst version showed up for its NCAA Tournament first-round matchup with James Madison.

The outcome was predictable.

The Badgers (22-14) were scarcely competitive in a disheartening 72-61 loss to the Dukes (32-4) on Friday night in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The Dukes extended their winning streak to 14 before being blown out by Duke 93-55 in Sunday’s second-round matchup.

Meantime, Wisconsin was still trying to figure out what hit them.

Wisconsin never led and really never

The Dukes’ Terrence Edwards Jr. scored 14 points and was every bit as good as advertised. The silky smooth 6-6, 190-pounder knifed his way into the creases of Wisconsin’s defense – calling the gaps “creases” is being kind – and was able to score, draw a foul or make an assist.

T.J. Bickerstaff and Julien Wooden scored 12 points each and Michael Green III added 11 as the Dukes advanced past the first round for the first time since 1983.

“I’m proud of them, but not surprised,” James Madison coach Mark Byington said of the Dukes. “These guys compete. We kind of heard things about our schedule not being tough and who we are. And we knew we belonged. We know we’re good. We know we can compete and they showed that today from start to finish.”

The Badgers became the most recent victim of the dreaded “5-12” curse.

A No. 12 seed has upset a No. 5 seed in 33 of 39 tournaments since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

It is said “misery loves company.” If that’s true the Badgers weren’t alone for long as Grand Canyon knocked out 19th-ranked Saint Mary’s 75-66 later on Friday night.

Max Klesmit hit 5 3-pointers in the second half while scoring all 18 of his team-high points after intermission. A.J. Storr had 13 points and Steven Crowl added 10 points and 11 rebounds.

Wisconsin hasn’t advanced to the Sweet 16 since 2016-17.

“The (Dukes) are even more impressive in person than they were on film,” UW coach Greg Gard said. “And I was really impressed with them on film. I though their pressure bothered us, specifically in the first half, obviously, with 13 turnovers.

“They really got after us and we didn’t handle it exceptionally well. And when we did, we weren’t able to finish at times around the rim and missed some easy shots.”

James Madison blitzed Wisconsin from the start.

The Dukes opened the game on an 18-5 run with seven players scoring in the tone-setting stretch. It didn’t get much better for the Badgers as JMU led by as many as 17 before settling for a 33-20 lead at the half.

Wisconsin’s 20 first-half points was its fewest all season. The Badgers also committed 13 turnovers in the half, again a season high.

James Madison had 14 steals and four blocked shots. The Dukes made 23 field goals on 12 assists and out-rebounded the taller Badgers 35-33.

“Playing with momentum (is a) really big deal in this tournament, at this time of March,” Klesmit said. “We kind of saw how it played against us early in the first half. Obviously cutting it down to three or four would have helped us out big time, got the crowd back into it.”

Obviously, that never came to pass.

Meantime, Marquette’s Golden Eagles advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in three seasons under head coach Shaka Smart.

Marquette fought off a pesky Colorado team for an impressive 81-77 victory on Sunday to advance.

Tyler Kolek scored 21 points and dished out 11 assists and David Joplin made a pair of free throws with 7.4 seconds to play to seal the win.

The No. 2 seeded Golden Eagles (27-9) played terrific offense but had difficulty slowing down the explosive Buffaloes (26-11). Marquette’s victory over Colorado helps wash away the bad taste of last year’s upset loss to No. 10 seed Michigan State.

“We’ve had some adversity,” Smart said. “But the guys have never wavered in terms of their belief in our playing and our way and they stayed connected with one another.

“And I think that won us the game.”

Joplin had 14 points to back Kam Jones, who scored 18 points for a Marquette team that couldn’t put away the Buffs despite shooting a sizzling 61.8 percent from the floor.

Colorado head coach Tad Boyle had to give Marquette its due.

“When a team shoots 61 percent against you for the game, almost 62 percent, and you’ve still got a chance at the end it means you’re doing something right,” he said. “We rebounded the ball well. We fought. We battled. … I’ve got a lot of respect for Marquette.”

KJ Simpson scored 20 points and Tristan da Silva had 17 for Colorado.

Simpson said the Buffaloes had not thought of conceding anything despite the score.

“We all just had the mentality of ‘I’m not giving up.’ We’ve done that throughout the whole year,” Simpson said.

Kolek looked good while playing in his second game back after missing six games with an oblique injury. Kolek was 10 of 14 from the floor and seemed at ease while working against the Colorado defense.

Marquette now faces North Carolina State in the Sweet 16. The Wolf Pack defeated Texas Tech and the Horizon League’s Oakland to advance. Oakland, the tournament’s upset darlings, KO’d mighty Kentucky in the first round before falling to N.C. State.

Red-hot Dukes have

Badgers’ full attention

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Wisconsin’s impressive three-win, four-game run in the Big Ten Conference Tournament didn’t go unnoticed.

The NCAA’s selection committee rewarded the Badgers (22-13) with the No. 5 seed in the South. It accurately reflects a Badgers’ season that started strong, faded miserably and righted itself at the 11th hour.

That seed was the limit of selection committee’s generosity, though, because they did the Badgers no favor in terms of their opponent.

The Badgers drew No. 12 seed James Madison as their first-round foe with tipoff set for Friday at 8:40 p.m. in Brooklyn, N.Y.

James Madison (31-3) enters the tournament on a 13-game winning streak, the longest streak in the country. It comes after the Dukes opened the season with a 14-game winning streak and a Top 25 appearance.

The winning streaks are the first- and second-longest in school history.

The Dukes defeated Michigan State in their season opener and survived a double-overtime affair to edge Kent State.

The Sun Belt Conference runners-up went 15-3 in league play to finish one game behind conference champion Appalachian State. The Dukes won their conference tournament and the automatic bid that goes with it.

It was the Dukes’ resolve, in addition to their talent, that carried them through the tough times according to Shane Mettlen, who covers James Madison for the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va.

“This team thought it had a chance to be special going into the season,” Mettlen said Wednesday. “They’re a mature team that knows how to deal with adversity. Their (31-3) record also reflects their ability to adapt and overcome regardless of the obstacles in their path.”

The Dukes are a veteran team that loves to play up-tempo offense and either man or zone depending on which defense best suits the situation.

They average 84.4 points while allowing 69.2 per game. On the season, they are shooting 48 percent from the field and 36.5 percent from beyond the 3-point line. They play fast, but not at efficiency’s expense.

The fact that they realized anything less than a conference tournament title would leave them on the outside looking in didn’t faze them.

Terrence Edwards and Noah Freidel, two of JMU’s top players, made a pact before the season began. Mettlen detailed the events in a recent article in the Daily News-Record.

Edwards explained the pact in Mettlen’s article.

“Me and Noah, we had an agreement before the season even started,” Edwards was quoted as saying. “We said we were going to push each other and not let each other have any bad days. We just get on each other. He yells at me and I yell at him.

“I knew it was going to be good after that.”

The Dukes have been beyond good. They’ve been remarkable.

Then again, the Sun Belt isn’t the Big Ten, and as tough-minded as JMU appears it’s not as if the Badgers have had an adversity-free season.

It’s been quite the opposite.

The Badgers soared to as high as sixth in the country and were leading the Big Ten with a glitzy 8-1 record. That all went up in smoke when Wisconsin lost its mojo – which is to say its shooting eye – and went a dreadful 3-7 after the impressive start.

Just when Badgers fans began questioning the program’s direction under head coach Greg Gard – yep, that same old tired refrain – Gard’s team refocused, reset and got back on track.

It sets up what should be an entertaining first-round matchup between two talented, battle-tested teams that believe anything is possible.

That includes a lengthy stay in the tournament.

Edwards is the Dukes’ lynchpin. The silky smooth 6-6 guard monopolizes the basketball and the offense runs through him.

That’s not a bad thing.

Edwards, the Sun Belt Player of the Year, averages 17.4 points and 3.5 assists. He likes to exploit creases in the defense and has a knack for getting great mid-range looks.

Edwards also possesses 3-point range and backs down from no one.

In some ways he’s a slightly skinnier version of the Badgers’ A.J. Storr, who is Wisconsin’s top weapon.

The Badgers’ and Dukes’ strengths suggest a hotly contested game. The odds-makers in Las Vegas made Wisconsin a 5 ½-point favorite. If that’s accurate it is shaping up to be a one- or two-possession game down the stretch.

James Madison is ranked second in the nation defending the 3-point shot, holding opponents to 28.6 percent from long range. When the Badgers win, they shoot 37.3 percent from 3-point range. When they lose it falls off to 30.8 percent.

Creating and making 3s is going to be critical to UW’s success.

The Dukes commit 10.8 turnovers a game, but own a 12.2 percent steal rate, which is 12th best in Division I. Conversely, Wisconsin seldom turns it over. UW’s turnovers-per-possession rate is 13th in the nation.

With the Dukes defending the 3-point line as if the world’s fate depended on it, the Badgers have to be able to penetrate off the dribble. Chucky Hepburn, John Blackwell and Kamari McGee need to create gaps for Max Klesmit, Stephen Crowl and Storr to get open 3s.

The Badgers are playing some of their best basketball right now.

Their upset win over No. 3 Purdue in the conference tournament semifinals was as impressive as any win all season. The Badgers shared the ball on offense while making a concerted effort to get everyone touches, if not shots, to keep the Boilermakers off balance.

It’ll be much the same challenge against James Madison. The biggest difference – literally and figuratively – is there won’t be a 7-foot-4 monster lurking in the lane.

In fact, the Badgers hold a significant size advantage of the Dukes.

JMU’s tallest player is 6-foot-9 post player T.J. Bickerstaff. Expect the Badgers’ 7-footer, Crowl, to hunt the 3-point shot (he was 6 of 13 from 3-point range in the Big Ten tourney). However, Crowl also should look to exploit his size advantage in the low post.

If Bickerstaff gets in foul trouble the Dukes could be in trouble.

This should be a terrific first-round matchup. Ultimately, the Badgers’ size, experience and recent surge should enable them to fend off James Madison and advance.

Prediction: Wisconsin 78, James Madison 72

Packers, Badgers and Lady Phoenix go big

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – A week ago sports fans throughout the Badger state woke up with modest, realistic expectations going into the day.

The NFL’s free agency period opened with hopes that the Packers might be a player in some form or fashion. The fondest desire was signing a quality safety in order to begin building a viable last line of defense.

An upper-tier safety such as Geno Stone or Jordan Fuller would represent a significant upgrade, but it was probably wishful thinking. The Packers typically are conservative, especially on Day One.

The Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team was coming off a gallant defeat at the hands of second-ranked Purdue. The Big Ten Conference Tournament awaited a Badgers’ team that was beginning to feel itself.

The question was whether it was too little, too late.

Meantime, the UW-Green Bay Lady Phoenix was eyeing the Horizon League title and the NCAA berth that goes with it.

They faced top-seeded Cleveland State in Tuesday night’s final. A victory over the pesky Vikings was no sure thing.

Then one of the most exciting, exhilarating weeks began unfolding right before Wisconsin sports’ fans very eyes.

The Packers went big in free agency on Day One.

It was like Jordan Love dropping back to pass on the game’s first play and finding a wide-open Christian Watson for a 75-yard touchdown. It was like Keisean Nixon taking a kickoff 90 yards for the score.

It was magnificent.

The Packers signed ex-Giants safety Xavier McKinney to a four-year, $68-million contract to fill the team’s greatest need with the top-rated free agent at that position.

McKinney, 24, instantly becomes defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley’s “post safety” in the new scheme. McKinney can do it all. He’s as talented and versatile as they come.

McKinney, who will wear No. 29, already has met with Hafley and discussed how the Packers intend to maximize his skill set. It appears they are going to play him as a single-high safety, or in quarters’ coverage, or in the slot, or in the box.

“That’s the plan,” McKinney confirmed. “I cannot wait.”

The Packers weren’t done … not by a long shot.

They signed free-agent running back Josh Jacobs, formerly of the Raiders, to a four-year, $48 million deal. Jacobs replaces Aaron Jones, the surefire Packer Hall of Famer, who declined to accept a pay cut.

Jones is with the Vikings, Jacobs is in Green Bay and it’ll make for a tremendously interesting storyline when the teams meet this season.

Jacobs, 26, is 20 pounds heavier and four years younger with a history of excellent production in the NFL. He led the league in rushing yards in 2022 and despite a down year last season remained a consummate pro.

Whether fans want to believe it or not Jacobs is an upgrade.

Jacobs and McKinney were captains for their previous teams.

“Once you earn the guys’ respect and they see the way you go about business on a day-to-day basis, that’s kind of how you step into that role,” Jacobs said. “It’s not really something you ask for – it’s kind of something that’s shown.”

McKinney and Jacobs said they were attracted to Green Bay because of starting quarterback Jordan Love’s talent, potential and production. They joined the Packers with the expressed goal of winning a Super Bowl.

That’s the loftiest of goals, but given Love’s performance, the Packers’ roster and head coach Matt LaFleur’s track record it’s a realistic goal.

McKinney had his best season in 2023, according to Pro Football Focus.

He had 116 tackles and a minuscule missed tackle rate. He also had three interceptions and is notorious for providing tight coverage. He has a reputation for being able to defend tight ends, in particular.

“I critique myself a whole bunch,” McKinney said. “I get better at the small things. I try to perfect my craft. That’s always how I’ve been. I think that even six or seven missed tackles (a season) is too much for a safety. We’re going to get that number down for sure.”

McKinney, like Jacobs, is proud of his work ethic.

“I never get complacent,” he said. “I’m trying to win at the end of the day, and I know what that takes to be able to win games and win championships.”

The 36th pick out of Alabama wants to return to the Crimson Tide glory days and move on from the Raiders’ experience.

The Packers also re-signed Nixon, running back A.J. Dillon (to many fans’ surprise), tight end Tyler Davis and cornerback Corey Ballantine.

The Packers said good-bye to future Packer Hall of Famer David Bakhtiari, as well as Jones, and right guard Jon Runyan, Jr., who signed with the Giants.

All is good in the Packers’ world right now with the NFL draft and five picks in the top 91 selections beckoning.

Life also is good in Madison, where the Badgers’ basketball team is preparing to take on James Madison in the NCAA Tournament’s South Region later this week.

The Badgers (23-11) are coming off a most amazing Big Ten Conference Tournament run.

Wisconsin blasted Maryland, outlasted Northwestern and upset Purdue in a glorious three-day, three-game stretch.

It set up a championship final Sunday pitting the Badgers against 13th-ranked Illinois. It would be Wisconsin’s fourth game in as many days, and the Illini were coming off two draining comeback wins

Neither team looked worse for the wear.

The Illini prevailed, 93-87, but the Badgers took it to the final minute.

Wisconsin coach Greg Gard’s gritty team earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Badgers will take on No. 12 seed James Madison in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Friday night. Tip is set for 8:40 p.m.

Go Badgers!

Meantime, the Lady Phoenix took care of business and Cleveland State in most convincing fashion, posting a 64-40 victory in the Horizon League final on Tuesday night.

On Selection Sunday the Phoenix (27-6) discovered they will be an 11 seed and playing No. 6 seed Tennessee (19-12) on Saturday morning. Tip is set for 11 a.m.

Go Phoenix!

Of course, none of these events guarantees future success. Signing McKinney, Jacobs and all the rest doesn’t mean the Packers will be in the Super Bowl, but it’s a great step in that direction.

The Badgers’ tremendous Big Ten tournament run doesn’t mean they’ll KO James Madison and perhaps reach the Sweet 16. James Madison (31-3) is a brutally difficult draw for the red-hot Badgers.

It’ll make for an exciting first-round matchup, though.

In addition, the Lady Phoenix will have all they can handle against the Lady Volunteers, one of women’s college basketball’s greatest programs.

On the other hand, little old UW-Green Bay and head coach Kevin Borseth have been here before. Bring it on.

McKinney, Jacobs to Packers in free agency

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The NFL’s free agent signing period opened with a thunderclap Monday in a most unexpected place.

Little old Green Bay, Wisconsin, dominated the headlines on Day One.

The Packers frequently spend free agency’s outset watching from the sidelines while the first wave of players ink mega deals elsewhere.

That wasn’t the case this spring.

Packers GM Brian Gutekunst had a plan and he executed it to perfection.

Gutekunst’s most grandiose maneuver was signing safety Xavier McKinney to a four-year, $68 million deal. The former New York Giants defender is in his prime and among the best at his position.

McKinney, 24, had three interceptions and 11 passes defended last season. He was the 36th pick in the 2020 draft but suffered a fractured foot and missed most of his rookie season.

McKinney did return in time to finish the season and notch his first career interception. It was an end zone interception with less than two minutes to play to preserve a 23-19 Giants’ win over Dallas.

After that it’s been nothing but high-level play ever since.

McKinney is the prototypical “post safety” in first-year Packers defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley’s scheme.

Green Bay’s No. 1 hole has been filled. He will be the Week 1 starter alongside whichever safety the Packers select in the first three rounds.

Gutekunst began Monday by releasing perennial All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari due to chronic knee issues. The move was expected and spurred an outpouring of heartfelt respect and gratitude for Bakhtiari.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur sang the left tackle’s praises.

“David is one of the best offensive linemen to have played in the NFL during my time in the league,” he said in a statement. “His consistency and approach to his craft are unmatched.”

Gutekunst then signed free-agent running back Josh Jacobs, formerly of the Raiders, to a four-year, $48 million contract. Many Packers’ fans initially thought it meant an Aaron Jones-Josh Jacobs one-two punch.

They were hovering between elated and ecstatic.

The euphoria soon faded when the Packers released Jones, the team’s third all-time leading rusher, after he didn’t accept a 50-percent pay cut.

Some fans were enraged. Others were perplexed. They didn’t understand how the Packers could release Jones just weeks after proclaiming the seventh-year pro was “the heartbeat” of the offense down the stretch.

It’s natural to be conflicted, especially when Jones was coming off the most dominant five-game stretch of his career.

It begged the questions: Why him? Why now?

What fans need to understand is this: Jacobs had a down season on an awful Raiders offense and he still outrushed and outplayed Jones.

Jacobs, 26, rushed for a career-low 805 yards and six touchdowns in 13 games for the Raiders. That was after an All-Pro 2022 season when he led the NFL with 1,653 yards and 2,053 yards from scrimmage.

Jacobs’ down season was an aberration. He dealt with an offseason contract stalemate that carried over into the season. He still did the little things such as blitz pickup and catching it out of the backfield, but it was nothing like the 2022 season.

Don’t be fooled.

Jacobs’ 46 rushing touchdowns since 2019 rank second in the NFL behind only Derrick Henry.

Meantime, Jones played in 11 games while rushing for 656 yards and 889 total yards from scrimmage. Both were career lows dating back to his rookie season of 2017.

However, Jones did rush for 226 and three TDs in two playoff games. That final flourish remains ingrained in fans’ brains, as it should be.

Jones nearly helped carry the Packers past the 49ers and a date with the Detroit Lions in the NFC Championship. But that impressive finish shouldn’t cloud the overall forecast for Jones’ future.

He’s 30 years old. His best days – as recent as they may be – are behind him. He did do the Packers a tremendous service down the stretch by reinforcing the notion that LaFleur’s offense goes from zero to sixty in a heartbeat when it has a top-flight ball carrier.

Jacobs is exactly that: A top-flight ball carrier.

He is four years younger and 20 pounds heavier than Jones, which should provide more durability and stability in the backfield. He also is among the NFL’s top backs in terms of yards after first contact.

Logan Reever, the Raiders reporter for 8 News Now in Las Vegas, described Jacobs as a beast near the goal line.

“If you give the football to Jacobs at the 2 or 3 yard line he’ll score 11 out of 10 times, he’s that good,” Reever said.

Jacobs joins an offense with Jordan Love at quarterback and a deep, talented group of receivers and tight ends that includes Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs, Jayden Reed, Dontayvion Wicks, Luke Musgrave and Tucker Kraft.

All of these players are 26 or younger.

The sting of Jones’ departure was eased for some fans by his decision to sign a contract with NFC North rival Minnesota.

The fans’ reaction went from, “How could they?” to “How could he?”

Hopefully, Jacobs will be the reliable, sensational back he was in 2022 for the Packers, and Jones stays healthy and plays well for the Vikings despite the rivalry. As they say, “If you can’t beat ‘em, tip your helmet to them.” Jones’ exit to Minnesota should make for an intriguing storyline when the Packers and Vikings meet this fall.

Clearly, Gutekunst took no pleasure in releasing Jones. But that doesn’t mean it was the wrong decision.

“It is certainly one of the hardest decisions we’ve had to make in my time with the Packers and not one taken lightly,” he said in a statement. “He has not only had a significant impact on the field and in the locker room, but he is one of the most beloved players in the community.”

Fans shouldn’t worry.

Jones will be back in Green Bay once a season to play the Packers, and eventually he’ll return to be enshrined into the Packer Hall of Fame.

In seven seasons with the Packers, Jones had 5.940 yards rushing, 272 catches for 2,076 yards receiving and 63 total touchdowns.

Jones most definitely won’t be forgotten.

The Packers also made several shrewd moves by resigning All-Pro kick returner and cornerback Keisean Nixon, tight end Tyler Davis and cornerback Corey Ballentine.

The Packers quite likely will field the NFL’s youngest team for a second straight season. They also will be fielding one of the league’s best teams.

10 fearless predictions for state sports scene 

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – March Madness presents in many forms.

There is the NCAA Tournament, its inspirational namesake, which features so many gut-wrenching moments it may induce madness.

There also is the NFL draft, which takes place in late April, but in fact is played out by Packers’ fans beginning in March right up to the moment commissioner Roger Goodell says, “and with the 25th pick (for now), the Green Bay Packers select …”

March also includes the Bucks’ renewed playoff push under coach Doc Rivers, which continues Monday, March 4, at home against the Clippers.

The Brewers’ regular season begins Thursday, March 28, at the New York Mets. First pitch is set for 12:10 p.m. The mere fact that the MLB season opens in March – in and of itself – is enough to drive fans mad.

As they say, “Tradition be damned … it’s all about the Benjamins.”

Last, and perhaps least, is the Wisconsin Badgers’ struggling men’s basketball team. The Badgers will be in the NCAA Tournament, but for how long?

Here are 10 fearless predictions for the Packers, Brewers, Bucks and Badgers as state sports fans bravely embark upon March Madness:

** No. 1 – Tonight the Bucks start fast, finish strong and maul James Harden and the L.A. Clippers 119-107 behind Damian Lillard’s 41 points and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s eighth triple-double of the season.

Giannis will finish with 32 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists.

It extends the Bucks’ winning streak to six, a stretch that includes six straight covers against the spread. The Bucks aren’t just winning. They’re kicking butt. Spend those winnings wisely.

** No. 2 – The Bucks (40-21) close out 16-5 to finish the regular season at 56-36, a cool 30 games above .500. They proceed to advance to the Eastern Conference finals, where they upset the mighty Celtics in 7.

That sets up a most interesting Bucks-Oklahoma City Thunder Finals.

** No. 3 – Doc Rivers signs an extension to continue as the Bucks’ head coach going into the 2024-25 season. If you wonder why see above.

** No. 4 – Once upon a time the Badgers were 16-4 overall and sitting atop the Big Ten at 8-1. It earned them the No. 6 spot in the AP poll. That was in late January.

February has been most unkind.

Wisconsin has since plummeted to 18-11 and 10-8. The Badgers have gone from 6th in the nation to a projected No. 6 seed at best.

The unranked Badgers host a pesky Rutgers team Thursday night. They dropped a 91-83 decision to 13th-ranked Illinois on Saturday.

Consecutive home losses would definitely turn up the heat on head coach Greg Gard, as if his backside isn’t suffering heat rash already.

I think Gard has done about as well as to be expected following in the footsteps of Hall of Famer Bo Ryan. I also think Gard should be back.

Sadly, it’s likely an early exit in the Big Ten Conference Tournament AND the NCAA Tournament will lead to his dismissal. This is one shot that I derive no pleasure in calling correctly.

** No. 5 – The Brewers are going to be just fine.

They may not match their 92-win total from last season, but they will be very competitive, highly entertaining and right in the NL Central mix.

I came to that conclusion during a pleasant Sunday afternoon drive in the country. The Brewers were playing the Diamondbacks in Cactus League play and I happened to tune in for the first pitch.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Rookie centerfielder Jackson Chourio led off by lacing a fastball to left field which he promptly parlayed into a hustling double. Christian Yelich, the perfect No. 2 hitter in any lineup, singled to drive in Chourio.

It was 1-0 Brewers.

Willy Adames followed with a two-run shot to make it 3-0 before the Diamondbacks recorded a single out. Milwaukee went on to win 10-4 behind a strong spring training debut from ace Freddy Peralta.

The Brewers will win no fewer than 87 games.

Bet on it.

** No. 6 – After a slow start, first baseman and cleanup hitter Rhys Hoskins will heat up and become a Brewers fan favorite. How can Hoskins go wrong with Chourio, Yelich and Adames hitting in the lineup ahead of him? The correct answer is he can’t.

Hoskins will belt a career-high 34 home runs in the friendly confines of American Family Field.

** No. 7 – Jordan Love will throw two fewer touchdown passes (30) and three fewer interceptions (8) while raising his completion percentage to 65-plus (it was 64.1 in ’23) and passer rating to 100-plus (it was 96.1).

That will equate to an 11-6 season and a berth in the NFC Championship Game against a resurrected Philadelphia Eagles squad.

After that it’s on to Super Bowl LIV against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, Feb. 9, at the Superdome in New Orleans.

Take the Packers and the points.

** No. 8 – Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy will announce at the annual shareholder’s meeting that GM Brian Gutekunst and head coach Matt LaFleur both received hefty contract extensions this offseason.

It’s also possible this news will become public before July.

Either way, Gutekunst has proven to be a shrewd GM. He doesn’t throw away future draft picks. He is willing to work the draft by trading up or down to get what he needs. And he has maintained personnel excellence. His past two drafts have been among the best in the league.

LaFleur is 59-31 (.656) including 3-4 in postseason play.

** No. 9 – The Packers sign free-agent safety Jordan Fuller from the L.A. Rams and draft Iowa safety Cooper DeJean with the 25th pick.

That would qualify as a good start for coordinator Jeff Hafley’s defense.

** No. 10 – Where the Packers’ scouting department might’ve misjudged A.J. Dillon’s upside, they’ll take another shot in the late second round at running back by selecting Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen.

Is it the right call?

Allen didn’t impress with a 9-foot, 9-inch broad jump (15th of 20) and a 32-inch vertical leap (18th out of 20). He also didn’t run the 40-yard dash. He did bang out 26 reps at 225 pounds to finish second behind Michigan’s Blake Corum with 27 reps.

Allen, who allegedly runs the 40 in the 4.45-second range, has a chance to elevate his draft stock with a sub 4.5 40-yard dash at Wisconsin’s Pro Day later this month.

If I’m the Packers I’d think long and hard about drafting Allen.

Then I’d probably pass on it. The Packers will, too.

Badgers host Illinois

after alarming defeat

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The fire alarm that halted play in the second half of Wisconsin’s 74-70 loss at Indiana Tuesday night was apropos.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and I just assumed Greg Gard had set up flares along the UW bench to signal their latest roadside breakdown.

The Badgers trailed by as many as 15 points in the first half.

Nevertheless, and in spite of themselves, they clawed back to a 54-54 tie on back-to-back layups by John Blackwell with 10:31 to play. That’s when the fire alarm sounded, Assembly Hall was emptied and play was delayed 20 minutes before the “all clear” was given and play resumed.

Wisconsin (18-10, 10-7) briefly held a 56-54 lead and tied it twice, first at 65-65, and again at 68-all. Tyler Wahl’s layup actually gave Wisconsin a 70-68 lead with 2:06 to play.

After that the Badgers misfired on all six of their final shots while the Hoosiers (15-13, 7-10) went on a 6-2 run to close it out.

Wisconsin forced 12 turnovers while committing just three. The Badgers also had five double-figure scorers. Hepburn had 15 points, AJ Storr had 14, Max Klesmit and Blackwell had 11 each and Stephen Crowl had 10.

And they still lost.

Hepburn was asked where it went wrong for Wisconsin.

“Letting them set the tone first,” the Badgers’ guard replied. “That’s where we went wrong.”

Now, the Badgers will jump from the frying pan into the path of an oncoming freight train called Illinois. The red-hot Illini are coming off a wild 105-97 victory Wednesday night at home versus Minnesota.

The Illini’s Terrence Shannon Jr. scored 29 points and Marcus Domask added 22, including 18 in the second half, to capture the shootout.

Illinois (21-7, 12-5) shot a blistering 61.3 percent from the floor to eclipse the century mark in a regular-season Big Ten game for the first time since Jan., 1994.

The 13th-ranked Illini will be eager to get after the struggling Badgers.

Indiana certainly had its way with Wisconsin.

Kel’el Ware scored 27 points and pulled down 11 rebounds to lead Indiana. The Hoosiers’ big man dominated everyone the Badgers tried to defend him with.

Ware didn’t play in the Badgers’ 91-79 victory on Jan. 19 at Wisconsin.

His presence made all the difference Tuesday night.

Ware was 11 of 12 from the field while relying on an array of low post moves and a feathery fade-away jump shot.

The Badgers’ Stephen Crowl was impressed.

“Just another interior presence they have,” he said.

Gard also was obliged to state the obvious: Ware was the best center on the court.

“Ware has an all-American type night,” Gard said. “Twenty points in the first half … He was terrific.”

Malik Reneau made the go-ahhead layup with 55 seconds to play to seal the win. Reneau was coming off a 27-point performance and finished with 14, while Mackenzie Mgbako also added 14 points for Indiana.

The Badgers’ Blackwell played strong despite the loss.

The freshman guard showed moxie and poise down the stretch. Clearly, the Badgers’ backcourt is in good hands going forward.

“He just gets it,” Gard said of Blackwell. “He understands the game. He’s a very cerebral player.”

Blackwell was 5 of 8 from the floor, including a 3-point shot, and will be critical if the Badgers are going to make a strong push here at the end.

Storr is another player who needs to find more consistency.

The Hoosiers made him work for everything and nothing came easy.

Storr’s offensive prowess is what makes him special. It’s also what can contribute to the Badgers’ offense becoming stale. Far too often Storr’s teammates stand and watch while he tries to create his shots.

It’s not good offensive basketball. As Indiana proved it’s easy to defend when you know who the opponent’s go-to guy is and that’s Storr.

Storr nailed a difficult 3-pointer to tie it at 68-68 late in the game. He dialed up another 3-pointer late in the shot clock that didn’t go in and Wisconsin had to settle for the loss.

Some thought Storr’s shot selection was questionable.

Gard didn’t bite on it.

“He made a tough 3, he misses a tough 3,” he said. “Those things happen. You got the ball in the playmaker’s hands, you trust his decision making.”

Now, the Badgers find themselves staggering down the stretch.

Illinois has no intention of giving Wisconsin a reason to believe it can take down the nation’s 13th-ranked team. If nothing else, we’ll find out what the Badgers are made of on Saturday.

Bucks look sharp off

All-Star break reset

By Chris Havel

Special to The FAN

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Mona Lisa smiled.

That’s right. There is visual evidence. In fact, it occurred in plain sight, on national TV no less, during the Bucks’ game Sunday at Philadelphia.

Damian Lillard nearly cracked an ear-to-ear grin during Milwaukee’s 119-98 blowout victory over the Joel Embiid-less 76ers. The East’s fifth-seeded Sixers (33-24) are trying to hang on for dear life until Embiid makes a possible late-season return from knee issues.

Not that Milwaukee cares a whit about the Sixers’ troubles.

The Bucks (37-21) are focused on fixing their own woebegone defense, and the early post-All-Star break returns are promising.

On Friday night, the Bucks outscored the Timberwolves 36-13 in the third quarter on their way to a 112-107 win at Minneapolis. The West’s top-seeded Timberwolves (40-17) came into the game 19-5 at home.

On Sunday afternoon, the Bucks were in control from start to finish.

It made coach Doc Rivers’ return to Philadelphia thoroughly enjoyable. The former Marquette star coached the 76ers from 2020-23.

“It was awesome,” he said of coming back to the City of Brotherly Love.

“I had three good years here, and I’m not talking about basketball; I’m talking about life. I enjoyed my stay here. I have made friends for life. The fans were good, too. There were a couple hilarious comments. One guy told me that Larry David was looking for me to golf. I thought that was pretty funny.”

Rivers’ introduction elicited boos from the crowd.

That seemed to energize the Bucks all the more, as Lillard dropped the first seven points on the 76ers, including 11 in the first quarter, as Milwaukee built a 14-point lead.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 30 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, and Malik Beasley added 20 points on 6-of-7 shooting beyond the arc.

But it was Lillard serving as the lynchpin.

Lillard scored 24 points on 8-of-15 shooting, including 4-for-8 from beyond the arc. He added seven rebounds and nine assists.

On offense, the plan appears to be Lillard-centric.

The Bucks were intent on running the offense through Lillard early and often. Then, late in the game, they went back to him to ice it.

“I thought we were consistent,” Lillard said. “We got into the paint, we were willing to make the extra pass to find the open guy, and we got quality looks. To play good offense you find quality shots and have a lot of mix. I though that’s what we did.”

The Bucks’ defensive plan appears to be a concerted effort to challenge 3-point shots, funnel ball-handlers into Brook Lopez while Giannis lurks on the weak-side, and limit second-chance points.

Lopez blocked five shots and Pat Connaughton added two swats. The Bucks only forced 10 turnovers but held Philly to 37-percent shooting.

“We had been putting such an emphasis on defense,” Rivers said. “The last few games we’ve been terrific. When you have Giannis on your team, if you can get stops and get him in transition, Giannis in transition is a problem for everybody.”

The Bucks improved to 5-7 under Rivers, who replaced Adrian Griffin after an underwhelming 30-13 start. At the time of Griffin’s firing the Bucks were unorganized on offense and a sieve on defense.

The strides have been slow but steady under Rivers.

Some of that seems spawned by Milwaukee’s own sense of urgency. There is plenty of work to do in the final 24 regular-season games.

The Bucks held consecutive opponents to fewer than 100 points earlier this month for the first time since November, 2021. They blasted the outgunned Hornets 120-84 on Feb. 9 and backed it up with a 112-95 victory over the defending champion Nuggets on Feb. 12.

Now, Milwaukee has a legitimate chance to earn a hat trick.

The Bucks have back-to-back games against Charlotte this week. They host the Hornets on Tuesday and are at Charlotte Thursday.

The Hornets (14-42) are seeded 13th out of 15 teams in the Eastern Conference. They are averaging 108.3 points per game, which is the third-lowest total in the league.

Bobby Portis, who scored 17 points, was wearing a microphone during Sunday’s game. At one point, with Milwaukee surging, Portis could be heard saying, “The Bucks are starting to look like … the Bucks.”

Giannis said it’s important to keep the defensive momentum rolling.

The key to fixing their problems, he said, is pretty simple.

“Play hard,” he said. “Carryover – that’s got to be a key word for us. I feel like we’re feeling like ourselves. We’re playing hard, moving the ball, and we are defending better. We’re just playing hard.”

While Sixers fans welcomed Rivers with boos, Giannis said he’s 100 percent in his new coach’s court.

“I love him,” he said of Rivers. “It’s been incredible playing for him. He just explains to me what he wants from me. You respect him because he’s been 25 years in the league. You’ve got to respect what he’s done in the league, won a championship, won a lot of games, but when he comes into the locker room, he keeps it simple.”

Who would’ve thought the Bucks’ problems – and Lillard’s disposition – could be so easily fixed. All it took is for Lillard to start knocking down 3-point shots with impunity, and the Bucks to start playing hard.

If the Bucks sustain it the Charlotte Hornets are in for a long week.

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

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