He Was Who We Thought He Was

January 26, 2011

At the start of my typical post, I recap a story or event that I saw or read about and then either make my comments about it or go off on a barely related tangent.

This time, I don’t have to do that, because you’ve already heard enough about Jay Cutler in the last three days. Approximately 94% of all football stories written since Sunday started something like this:

Jay Cutler left the NFC Championship Game with a knee injury in the third quarter. Players ripped him on Twitter. He stood on the sidelines in the second half and looked disinterested. The Bears lost.

Then the story goes one of three directions:

A. Jay Cutler is a big sissy. He needs to man up and lead his team when his team needs it the most.

B. We’re all just a bunch of fat turds watching the game from the sofa and don’t know how badly his knee hurt. We just don’t know. Don’t pass judgment. We just don’t know how badly he was hurt. We don’t know.

C. He shouldn’t have pouted like a girl on the sidelines with an injury. For crying out loud, they pay you a boatload of money to be a leader. The least you could do is pretend to be interested.

In my quick conference championship recap post, I briefly went with choice C. I argued that Jay Cutler was the least self-aware person on the planet and he apparently didn’t even think that it looked bad that he chose to stand on the injured knee instead of sitting on the bench or getting it worked on.

But I think I missed the larger point when I wrote that. The treatment of Jay Cutler is merely an extension of my post from last Thursday on how the media drives our perception of sports figures. Jay Cutler’s story is already written. Sitting on the bench during the second half of the NFC Championship Game is just another chapter of his story.

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Here is how Jay Cutler’s story is perceived by fans. Once again, I don’t know if any of this is actually true, but perception is all that matters:

Cutler attended Vanderbilt University. The same Vanderbilt University that every private school kid in the South dreams of attending. And happens to have the second highest cost of attendance of any FBS school. And is named for the richest and most famous Southern family in American history.

The Commodores went 11-35 in Cutler’s four seasons at quarterback. Oh sure, Vanderbilt sucks and has sucked for a long time. But they went 12-32 in the four years before Cutler. Fairly or unfairly, he earned the dreaded “not a winner” label in college.

Cutler somehow shot up draft boards because of his ridiculous arm strength, mobility, and solid completion percentage. Ironically, the Broncos picked him with the 11th pick in the draft, the exact same number of wins he had in college.

Cutler didn’t make the playoffs in three years with the Broncos. He was variously described as moody, sulking, not a leader, standoffish and any synonym of those. He stared down receivers when they dropped balls. He looked like a jerk on the sidelines – at best, he seemed disinterested; at worst, he seemed like a locker room cancer.

The Broncos and new coach Josh McDaniels had a verbal dispute with Cutler in the offseason after the 2008 season, presumably in a competition to see who could act like a bigger douche. The Broncos brass decided the relationship was irreparable and traded him to the Bears for Kyle Orton and two first round draft picks. As a Bronco, he was considered a future franchise quarterback. Not any longer – a franchise QB cannot be traded for Kyle Orton, regardless of how sour the relationship turned.

Cutler was supposed to make the Bears into a contender. He did not. He added erratic and poor decision-maker to his already less than sterling reputation. He threw 26 interceptions in 2009 – six more than Mark Sanchez and Matthew Stafford, who tied for second with 20 interceptions. Stafford and Sanchez were rookies.

Cutler led the Bears to an 11-5 record in 2010. He played in and won his first postseason game of any kind since the 2000 Indiana High School State Championship. And then came the fateful NFC Championship Game.

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Is this the whole story? Absolutely not. By all accounts, Cutler is a model citizen. In 2008, he announced that he had Type 1 diabetes and has since become a diabetes spokesperson. I’m sure he’s a fantastic guy if you get to know him.

Of course, that’s highly irrelevant, because the media thinks he’s a jerk and I’m not going to ever meet him. So the issue really has nothing to do with how tough Cutler is or how big his proverbial heart is. How can it be? He has missed a grand total of one game on any level – and that was this year, when the NFL literally didn’t allow him to play because he failed a concussion test.

The guy was sacked 57 times in 17 games this season. I don’t have sack stats from Vanderbilt, but I can’t imagine that the offensive line was particularly effective in stopping SEC defensive linemen. And yet he never missed a game. He’s a tough dude. Before this game, you could say a lot of things about Cutler, but a quitter was not one of them.

But then we get headlines like this from FoxSports.com’s Jason Whitlock:

Jay Cutler’s a quitter, just like LeBron and that’s why we’re mad

Or this one from Yahoo’s Les Carpenter:

Cutler’s rep takes another hit after ‘injury’

These headlines imply that a) fans are mad that Cutler’s a quitter and b) the “injury” isn’t really an injury. As if both of these are a given. FOXSports.com even had a cute slideshow with the biggest quitters in sports next to Whitlock’s article.* And there are countless other similar articles online.

* Number one on the list is Roberto Duran saying “no mas” after getting beaten senseless for eight rounds by Sugar Ray Leonard, one of the best boxers of all-time. Really? Not going back out to keep getting pummeled after ALREADY getting your ass kicked for 24 minutes makes you a quitter? Can’t figure out why American kids don’t box any more.

Looking at his career, there’s no reason that we should attribute the word quitter to Cutler or question his injury. Prior to Sunday, he had left only one game in his career with a non-head injury: a November 2007 regular season game against Detroit with a deep lower leg bruise.

So why are fans burning his jersey in the streets of Chicago? Simple – we’d already given Cutler all the loser labels I listed above. Why not add quitter to that list?

Seriously, look at the various articles on the internet about Cutler. Even the ones defending him still feel the need to mention his reputation. Which makes no sense. Of all the things you could have said about his reputation prior to this game, pretty much the only thing you couldn’t question was his toughness.

Off-hand, I can think of no other established starter in the league that would have gotten that treatment. Maybe Vince Young, if you can call him established. Maybe Donovan McNabb, if only because of his stomach illness in Super Bowl XXXIX. But even with those two, I’m fairly certain that they wouldn’t have gotten the venom that Cutler has gotten.

There is no way that Aaron Rodgers, a guy who twice had season-ending injuries as a backup, would have been questioned half as much as Cutler has been if it was Rodgers with the knee injury. There’s definitely no way that a dozen or so other NFL players would have taken to Twitter to mock Rodgers’ heart.

The bottom line: this is not a story about toughness, heart, or a knee sprain/tear/whatever the diagnosis is. It’s the story about dislike of a guy who has a reputation for being a jerk.

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Conference Championship Thoughts

January 24, 2011

Rooting for a professional sports team is completely irrational.

By the end of every NFL season, there’s a 31 out of 32 chance that you will be unhappy as a fan (32 out of 32 if you root for the Vikings or Lions). I know going into the start of every single season, that there’s a 97% chance that I’m going to be unhappy at the end of it. That’s borderline masochism.

But there’s always that 3% chance, and well…I’ll be doing this move for the better part of the next two weeks:

Unless you’re also a Packer (or Steeler) fan, you don’t care about that. And I certainly don’t want to jinx the Packers by writing about my own feelings. I also can’t really write a coherent article without sounding like a homer, so instead I’ll go with a few stray thoughts from the weekend.

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#1. Aaron Rodgers picked up right where he left off last Saturday. Rodgers was 4-4 for 76 yards on the opening drive as the Packers drove right down the field against the Bears defense to take a quick 7-0 lead. Every Packer fan breathed a sigh of relief after this drive, because the team had been able to move the ball on the Bears this year, but just couldn’t score. In the first two games against the Bears, the Packers offense had 663 total yards but could only muster 27 points combined. So the opening touchdown was a very good sign.

Rodgers scored on a bootleg from the one yard line. I always find it strange that teams think the best way to score from inside the 2 is by running the ball up the middle four times. Why would anyone think running it right at all eleven players on the other team is the best way to go? Especially considering that two goal line plays – the fake hand-off/quarterback bootleg and the tight end fake block/release into the end zone – work something like 114% of the time.

I think it goes back to my theory that all coaches are scared of getting fired all the time. If a team calls a run up the middle four times and it fails, the coach won’t get called out for it because that’s what every team does. But if they try something off the wall and it fails, then the fans will be calling for the coach’s head. This is reason #2,943 that an NFL team needs to hire Les Miles. The entire league will open up, because every coach will be able to say “at least I’m not as crazy as that guy.”

#2. I love when NFL announcers latch on to a talking point that bares little, if any, relation to reality. The ongoing theme about why the Packers offense has been so good in the playoffs is the emergence of James Starks at running back.

Starks stats for the playoffs: 70 carries, 263 yards, 3.8 yards per carry, 1 touchdown
Packers running backs in the regular season: 421 carries, 1,606 yards per carry, 3.8 yards per carry, 11 touchdowns

And it’s not like Starks has been going against the best rushing defenses in the league. In yards per rushing attempt allowed in the regular season, the Bears ranked 6th, the Eagles 14th, and the Falcons 27th.

But I suppose “the sixth round draft pick out of Buffalo suddenly emerging in the playoffs after rushing for only 101 yards in the regular season” is a fun story, even if we have to ignore statistics.

#3. I don’t know how hurt Jay Cutler was, so far be it for me to question his toughness. In fact, I’m an anti-tough it out guy. The outrage at Cutler not going back in the game is an example of the biggest obstacle to player safety. It’s nice to crack down on the helmet-to-helmet hits, but those are small potatoes compared to the “Durrr…get out there and tough it out” mentality that both fans and players have. If it turns out that Cutler has a mild sprain, by all means, go to town on his toughness. But until we know the extent of his injury, there should be no questioning his toughness.

The more interesting story is Cutler’s reaction on the sidelines. Prior to the game, he was already the least self-aware person in the league. This is a guy who complained on the bench that the other team’s quarterback was getting too much screen time on the Jumbotron during a game that he was wearing an NFL Network microphone for their Mic’ed up segment. That’s just ballsy. I personally wouldn’t want the entire world to know that I was jealous of my Jumbotron screen time, but that’s just me.

Apparently Cutler just doesn’t have that off switch that the rest of us have. Most people have that little voice in their head that says things like “maybe I shouldn’t be standing up on the sidelines if I don’t want people to question my knee injury.” Not Cutler. It’s actually admirable in a way. He not only doesn’t care about what other people think – he seems to actively try to be the biggest jerk he can be.

#4. Thank you Lovie Smith for giving us two series of Todd Collins before putting Caleb Hanie in the game. Apparently Collins’ two appearances in the regular season didn’t show Lovie that Collins was a washed-up 39-year old quarterback. In two games, Collins threw 27 passes. He completed 15 of those 27 passes, but five of those 15 were caught by the other team. Predictably, he went 0-for-4 in this game. Unfortunately for the Packers, they couldn’t intercept any of the four passes because none were in the vicinity of anyone.

Meanwhile, Caleb Hanie wasn’t terrible. Raji’s interception looked bad, but I give him a break there. Raji had only dropped into coverage a total of five times all season – hard to fault a third-string quarterback for missing that read. He only played in one quarter, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a crappy team brought him in to compete for a starting job.

#5. Why, oh why, can’t the Packers just put a team away? It’s inconsiderate to your fan base. Don’t they understand how many brats and beers were consumed by Wisconsinites yesterday? Talk about a heart attack waiting to happen.

The Packers were thirty yards away from one of the more epic collapses in football history. How the Packers almost blew that game is beyond me. They were up 21-7 with six minutes left and the Bears had their third-string quarterback in.

I think it goes back to the conservative coach syndrome that I explained above. Every other NFL coach would have gone with the prevent defense/run the ball up the middle and punt. So that’s what McCarthy called…never mind that the Packers can’t run the ball and that it might be a good idea to put pressure on the guy with eight career passes.

#6. I somehow nailed the Steelers/Jets pick. From now on, I’m going to throw out random theories when I pick games and hope one of them sticks. Yesterday, I predicted a Steelers win because of Roethlisberger, the potential letdown for the Jets, and home field advantage.

I was way off on Roethlisberger. He went 10 for 19 with two picks and one fumbled snap in the end zone that led to a safety. Sanchez went 20 for 33 with two touchdowns. The Steelers were completely unable to move the ball in the second half as they almost let the Jets comeback to win the game. Sanchez, while not exactly brilliant, probably had the best performance for a quarterback this weekend.

#7. The home field advantage probably helped some, but the real reason the Jets won was the emotional letdown. They came out flat and could never recover.

The Steelers coaching staff came out with a brilliant game plan. The first drive was a 15 play, 92 yard scoring drive that ate up 9:06 off the clock. That was the game. The drive was perfect – the Jets were demoralized right off the bat. The Steelers converted all three third downs.

Roethlisberger made the play of the game on third and 12 from the Jets 25. Finding no one open, he scrambled 13 yards for the first down. Not only did that keep the eventual touchdown scoring drive going, but a 42-yard field goal try on the Heinz Field grass is no gimme.

#8. Speaking of conservative coaches, Rex Ryan probably should have been conservative at the end of the half. What was he expecting to happen on third and 17 on their own 26 with 1:20 to go in the half? Do the right thing – dump the ball off to your running back, pick up some yards, pin Pittsburgh in their own territory with no timeouts left, and go into the half down 17-0.

Instead, Sanchez dropped back to pass and was stripped of the ball. The Steelers’ William Gay picked it up and ran it in for a touchdown. The Jets lost the game in the last minutes of the first half. They were just two minutes away from going into the half down 10-0. Instead, because Ryan got greedy, they entered the half down 24-3. Game over.

#9. The Jets blew their chance to get back in the game late in the fourth quarter. Down 24-10, they had first and goal at the two-yard line. They ran the ball for a yard on first down. On second down, for one of the few times ever, the tight end release play didn’t work. After another incompletion on third down, the Jets faced fourth and goal from the 1.

Up to this point, I applaud Ryan for not falling into the conservative coach trap. But why in the world would you run up the middle on fourth down? That might be worse than running it up the middle four straight times. If that’s how you want to score, isn’t it better to try it four times instead of two? Just a dumb play call.

#10. I loved Mike Tomlin’s play call on the last drive of the game as much as I hated Ryan’s fourth down call. Facing third and six on the Jets 40 at the two minute warning, the safe move would have been to run up the middle, punt, and leave Sanchez to drive at least eighty yards in 1:10 with no timeouts.

Brilliantly, Tomlin put the ball in Roethlisberger’s hands on a rollout play. First, the ball is in the hands of the team’s best player – that seems like a good thing to me. Second, the rollout is a great call here. It gives Roethlisberger the option to pass to an open receiver or take it himself if nothing is there. This isn’t really any riskier than a run up the middle and the potential payoff is huge.

As it turns out, rookie receiver Antonio Brown was open, Roethlisberger’s throw was on the money, and the Steelers moved on to the Super Bowl, where they will hopefully lose to the Packers.


Conference Championship Games Preview

January 23, 2011

I haven’t been this excited for a set of conference championship games in years. This is largely due to the Packers’ appearance in the NFC championship, only their second appearance since 1998.

The Packers’ last NFC Championship appearance was in 2008, when they lost in overtime to the Giants. The AFC game that year was the undefeated Patriots against the Chargers. It seemed like a mere formality that the Patriots would win the Super Bowl at the time, so it was hard to be excited about that game. This time around, the Jets and Steelers are virtually dead even and should have a great game. Of course, if the Packers lose on Sunday, I’ll probably pass out angrily and miss the whole thing, but I’ll read the recap later.

The great thing about this year is that you could put forth a pretty good argument for any of the four teams. If you have to put your life on the line for one team to win this weekend, who do you even feel most comfortable with? Each year, it seems that there’s one obvious favorite – last year it was Indy over the Jets; the year before it was the Steelers over the Ravens; and so on. This year, it’s unclear.

So I suppose this year we’re not going to get a true underdog story. But at least we should get two highly competitive games.

AFC Championship Game: Jets (13-5) at Steelers (13-4, -3.5)

This is a rematch of a game that took place a month ago under almost exactly the same situations. The Steelers were also 3.5 point favorites in that game, but the Jets prevailed 22-17.

Pittsburgh dominated large stretches of that game; in fact, the difference was now-injured Brad Smith’s return touchdown on the opening kickoff. The Jets couldn’t really move the ball – the Steelers out-gained them 377 to 276. And that’s without Troy Polamalu in the lineup; he’s back for this game.

There seems to be little doubt that the Steelers will be able to move the ball more efficiently than the Jets. The Jets will try to win this game ugly. That’s what they are good at and that’s how they pulled off the first victory versus the Steelers. So the only question is whether they will be able to do it again.

I don’t think they can, for a few reasons.

#1. I’m sticking with Roethlisberger. In my prediction column last week, I said that you always go with the better quarterback when two teams are otherwise equal. Roethlisberger is now 9-2 in the playoffs with two Super Bowl victories. The guy just makes big plays.

At some point, Mark Sanchez is going to make a believer out of me. He’s now 5-1 in the playoffs and all five of those victories have come on the road. I know this, and I give him credit for it.

And then I actually watch him play. His stats really aren’t that bad, but unlike the rest of the quarterbacks still left in the playoffs, I find myself abnormally impressed whenever he makes a routine 10-yard completion. I am well aware I shouldn’t feel that way based on his track record, but I can’t shake the feeling. I’m also well aware that Sanchez just beat Manning and Brady in consecutive weeks. Call me foolish.

#2. The Jets are due for a letdown. Emotionally, I don’t know how the Jets keep this up. In consecutive weeks, they avenged their loss against the Colts in a game they spent an entire year preparing for. Then they backed up a week of trash talk by upsetting their arch rival Patriots. At some point, the streak has to end.

#3. Pittsburgh has one of the biggest home field advantages in sports in the mud bowl known as Heinz Field. Do you really expect them to lose twice to the same opponent at home in the same season? I sure don’t.

Those are my three theories and I’m sticking with them. As always, I really have no idea what’s going on in this game.

However, before you go put all your money on the Jets, I’ve been on quite the hot streak on games that I guess at; it’s only when I have a good idea about who’s going to win that I lose. The Steelers win this one 24-17. Take that to the bank.

NFC Championship Game: Packers (12-6, -4) at Bears (12-5)

Oh come on, you didn’t think I would break my streak of not thinking about Packers games, did you? If this keeps on working, I might just tune out all pre-game Packer news for the rest of my life. Packers win 24-14.


NFL Divisional Weekend Picks

January 14, 2011

A fantastic weekend of football coming up in the NFL. Four matchups and not a single clunker. We have games from the two biggest rivalries in the AFC, the two best teams in the NFC, and the luckiest team in the league versus America’s adopted underdog. Here are my picks:

Baltimore (13-4) at Pittsburgh (12-4, -3)

This game is pretty simple: one team is going to win by a field goal. Here are the results of the seven Ravens/Steelers games since Joe Flacco entered the league in 2008 (away team first):

12/5/10 – Pittsburgh 13, Baltimore 10
10/3/10 – Baltimore 17, Pittsburgh 14
12/27/09 – Baltimore 20, Pittsburgh 23
11/29/09 – Pittsburgh 17, Baltimore 20 (OT)
1/18/09 – Baltimore 14, Pittsburgh 23 (playoffs)
12/14/08 – Pittsburgh 13, Baltimore 9
9/29/08 – Baltimore 20, Pittsburgh 23 (OT)

Five of those seven games were decided by a field goal. And even that’s deceptive. Pittsburgh won by 9 in the 2009 playoffs only after Flacco threw a late TAINT and won by 4 in the 2008 regular season on Ben Roethlisberger’s TD pass with 43 seconds left.

So basically we just have to figure out which team is going to win by three.* Let’s roll through some considerations.

* This could be the first game ever where I’d actually think about taking “push” if someone offered it.

At first I thought that Baltimore might be better than Pittsburgh this year based on their head-to-head matchups. They both finished 12-4 and the Ravens had the season series in the bag in the closing minutes in Pittsburgh in Week 13. The Ravens had the ball facing second and five on their own 43, up 10-6 with 3:20 left. Inexplicably, Joe Flacco drops back to pass.* Troy Polamalu comes around the outside, strips the ball and LaMarr Woodley returns it to the 9-yard line. The Steelers punch it in and steal the division from the Ravens just like that.

* I like going for the win in this situation as much as anybody. But, come on, if you’ve held the opposing team to six points in the first 57 minutes of the game, you absolutely have to run the ball, punt if necessary, and take your chances that they can’t drive for a touchdown in the last two minutes.

But then I looked back to the Week 4 game. Flacco needed to drive the ball forty yards in the last 55 seconds for a last-minute touchdown to give the Ravens a 17-14 win in Pittsburgh. Charlie Batch was at quarterback for the Steelers. Yeah, I’d call the season series a wash.

Then I thought about giving the edge to the Steelers based on the home field advantage. Road teams are 3-4 in this series since 2008 and won both games this season. Another wash.

My favorite tiebreaker in these tight games is which quarterback I trust more. Roethlisberger’s playoff record: 8-2, 2 Super Bowls, 1-0 vs. Ravens. Flacco: 3-2, 0-1 vs. Steelers. Huge advantage for the Steelers. If you’re going to go down with someone, you’d rather it be with Roethlisberger than Flacco. And yes, that was a subtle Big Ben joke.

To top it off, 62% of the public is on the Ravens this weekend – the highest of any team. Enough said. Steelers win 20-17.

Seattle (8-9) at Chicago (11-5, -10)

How quickly things change: just a week ago, fans considered Seattle a joke and I actually picked against them getting 10.5 points at home. A few poor decisions from Sean Payton and one highlight reel Marshawn Lynch touchdown run later, and suddenly the Seahawks are America’s darling and a trendy pick to upset the Bears this weekend.

It’s not difficult to see why. The Seahawks put everything together and looked incredible last weekend against the defending champion Saints. Matt Hasselbeck had the game of his life, throwing for 272 yards and four touchdowns. That was the first time he threw more than two touchdowns in ten career playoff games and only the sixth time he’s thrown four touchdowns in a game since his career began in the late 1970s. And his best receiver was Brandon Stokley. I didn’t know Stokley was still alive. I can only assume is immortal, so that’s another huge advantage for Seattle. Then there’s the 23-20 Seahawk upset victory over the Bears on the road back in Week 6.

Meanwhile, the Bears have Jay Cutler, who holds the record for most times making an entire fan base say “are you shitting me?” in unison. In his defense, he has decreased his interception total from 26 last season to 16 this season. He has compensated for that by increasing his sack total from 35 last year to 52 this year, capped by an insane nine first half sacks against the Giants. Cutler has never won a bowl or a playoff game before. The last time he played in a playoff game of any kind? The 2000 Class 3A Indiana High School State Championship. Again, in his defense, his team won that game…but I think the Bears should pack some extra pants just in case.

This game will come down to which Seahawk team shows up for the game. If it’s the team that struggled to finish 7-9 this season, the Bears win easily. If it’s the team from last week’s Saints game, the Seahawks could actually pull off a second straight huge upset.

Again, I’ll point out the same statistic from last week – the Seahawks either win (8 times) or lose by more than 15 (9 times). Last week, I didn’t think the Seahawks could win outright, so I picked the Saints. This week, I do think the Seahawks can win outright. They’ve already done it once this season and are playing better football now. Naturally, I’ll end up way off, but for now Seattle is the pick. Seahawks win 31-21.

New York Jets (12-5) at New England (14-2, -8.5)

The Jets spent the week trash-talking the Patriots. Antonio Cromartie called Tom Brady an asshole and Rex Ryan called the rivalry personal. Brady shrugged it off, saying that he’s been called worse. Then wide receiver Wes Welker did this at a press conference, presumably as the entire team cracked up behind the curtain:

Call me crazy, but I think the Patriots might come out a tad bit looser than the Jets. The Patriots are already a better team than the Jets – they beat them 45-3 on this same field just a few weeks ago. Trash-talking yourself into a corner might not have been the best approach to this game, although it is certainly the most amusing.

I just can’t see any way the Jets win this game. Of course the last time I said that, I picked the Saints to dominate the Seahawks. If you’ve learned anything so far, you should immediately go put your money on the Jets. The Patriots win 41-14.

Green Bay (11-6) at Atlanta (12-4, -2.5)

If I couldn’t provide any objective analysis last week, I definitely can’t this week. Am I terrified that #1 seed Atlanta isn’t even favored by the standard 3 points at home? Am I even more terrified that the majority of the public is on the Packers? Am I most terrified that the Packers have become a trendy Super Bowl pick? Yes, yes, and yes. The Packers still win 24-21.


Who cares about the Giants?

January 2, 2011

Gotta love these announcers in the Green Bay Packers game and how they keep playing up the Giants game. They’ve cut to the Giants/Redskins game twice saying that the Giants are trying to keep the pressure on the Packers and sideline reporter Pam Oliver told us that the Packers wouldn’t put the score of the Giants game on the scoreboard at the stadium.

Apparently they didn’t get the memo that the Bucs win over the Saints today means that the Giants game is meaningless for Packers fans. Either the Packers win and they’re in or they lose and they’re out. Guess that’s what happens when you write up a script before the game and don’t change it when another team pulls an upset!