A few weeks back, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Bob McGinn offered his educated opinion that coach Mike McCarthy would play “extremely hard” while gunning for an undefeated season against the Bears and Lions in Weeks 16 and 17. “They remember what Lovie Smith did to them in the regular season finale last year,” explained McGinn. “Lovie didn’t need it for anything and he played it to the hilt, tried to knock the Packers out, played it for the rivalry. It was a great moment for Lovie Smith and Bears and they almost won that game. I think McCarthy will play it.” The stakes in the race for that 19-0 season were raised, though, following Greg Jennings’ MCL injury on Sunday. CBS analyst Phil Simms suggesting shortly after Jennings’ exit that the injury would affect the playing time of Packers starters the rest of the way. McCarthy acknowledged in the post-game presser that he “wanted to get the heck out of [Sunday’s blowout victory] due to injury risk,” but insisted the Packers “don’t play scared.” The Packers players, ostensibly taking their cue from the head coach, made it clear that the undefeated season is their new brass ring after taking the Super Bowl last season. "I think we're going to go for this thing,'' NT B.J. Raji said, of the perfect season. "I mean, obviously if you're up 34-0, you're going to pull (quarterback) Aaron Rodgers. That's a no-brainer. That's playing smart. But ultimately, just being a competitor, you want to try and do something that hasn't been done in a while. We have the talent and the capabilities, so why not go for it? You want to do it for each other and do it for our fans and for the organization. It's not my decision who plays and who doesn't, but I think I can speak for coach, and he's going to try and go for this thing.''“You don’t win a Super Bowl by being scared,” Raji added. “You just play. That’s the message [McCarthy] is preaching. Just play the game because . . . that’s the way you’re supposed to play it. You’re not supposed to be playing a game and looking at all of these scenarios of who you want to play. That’s not how football is supposed to be played.”Asked what he expects of McCarthy’s philosophy the final three weeks, future Hall of Famer and team leader Charles Woodson responded, "I know we're going to play to win, that's all I know. … Nothing’s going to stop this train. That’s our thought. We understand guys are going to go down. No excuses.”' In fantasy terms, we can expect the Packers’ approach to be closer to that of the 2007 Patriots than the 2009 Colts. McCarthy will go full-throttle early in the final three games against the Chiefs, Bears, and Lions. Ideally, he can begin substituting in the third and fourth quarters in an effort to keep his impact players healthy. In most cases, three quarters of Aaron Rodgers or Jordy Nelson is better than the alternative riding your bench. Game Balls Patriots 6’7” tight end Rob Gronkowski told the Monday Night Football crew a few weeks back that he’s playing at 275 pounds this season. How is a linebacker or safety supposed to stop that runaway train? The answer to that question was never more evident than on this series of tackle-breaking plays in Gronk’s career-high 160 yards against the Redskins. Arguably the toughest cover in the league right now, Gronkowski came within just one yard of Ben Coats’ 1994 single-game record for receiving yards while posting a ridiculous 120 yards after the catch and 83 yards after contact on Sunday. His 25 receiving touchdowns through two seasons are tied with Bullet Bob Hayes for the third-most all-time, just four behind Bill Groman’s 29 with the AFL upstart Houston Oilers from 1961-62. The most reliable red-zone weapon in the league now has 11 touchdowns on passes thrown into the end zone, five more than the next closest receiver. Gronkowski's last 16 regular season games have produced a line of 82 catches, 1,269 yards, and 19 touchdowns. This season, he’s on pace for 87 catches, 1339 yards, and 20 total touchdowns, which would put him in rare 20-TD air with Jerry Rice and Randy Moss.The trigger man for an offense on its way to the best ever seasons by both a tight end and slot receiver (Wes Welker) made the wrong kind of news for a sideline kerfuffle with his offensive coordinator. Forget that nonsense. These dustups in the heat of the battle are always overblown. Brady’s three touchdowns moved him past Hall of Famer Warren Moon for the sixth-most in NFL history. Next on the list is John Elway, and it just so happens that Brady squares off with Elway’s squad in a marquee Week 15 matchup at Denver. Maurice Jones-Drew - With 37 standard-scoring fantasy points and a personal best four touchdowns, MJD was the fantasy MVP of Week 14. His passing-game role on the rise since change-of-pace back Deji Karim hit the doghouse, Jones-Drew is carrying a heavier workload and landing more opportunities for big plays out in space. With just three games to go, Jones-Drew is the NFL rushing leader despite facing eight in the box all season due to the worst quarterback situation in the league. Sailing past Fred Taylor’s franchise record of 70 touchdowns, MJD now has 73 in 90 career games (0.81 per game). “It means a lot,” Jones-Drew said of setting the franchise touchdown record. “To break a record that Fred set, it means a bunch. Words can’t explain how excited I am to have a guy that mentored me the whole time, taught me how to play this game the right way, how to take care of my body and do those things.”Eli Manning - With his league-leading sixth fourth-quarter comeback victory of the year, Eli has now tied two Colts QBs -- his brother and Johnny Unitas -- with a record 14 touchdowns in the final frame of one season. “Talk about a guy who has elevated his game,” LT David Diehl said of Eli’s 8-of-11 for 122 yards and seven first downs on the Giants’ final two touchdown drives. Elevated game? In Manning’s first seven seasons, he had just eight games with more than 315 passing yards. In 2011, he’s averaging 315 yards per game. Over his past three games, Eli is averaging a robust 384.3 yards per, establishing a career-high of 4,105 through 13 games. With 327 yards per over the final three weeks, Manning can bypass Dan Marino’s record of 5,084 yards. The only problem is Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and/or Aaron Rodgers will beat him to it. Eli will have to settle for control of the NFC East until the rematch with the Cowboys in the season finale. Matt Ryan / Julio Jones - As has been the case for three months, Ryan needed the no-huddle attack to jump-start the offense. Down 23-7 at halftime, the Falcons came out for the third quarter planning to exploit Jones’ matchup advantage on Panthers CB Darius Butler. On the opening drive of the third quarter, Jones failed to come up with one jumpball in the end zone, had another knocked out of his hands, and slipped just shy of the goal-line on a potential score. Ryan stuck with his explosive rookie, though, and Jones made it pay off with two touchdowns. He dove over Butler at the goal-line for a 17-yard score, then broke Butler's tackle and raced 75 yards for a second TD. Jones joined Randy Moss as just the second rookie in NFL history with 100 receiving yards, a 30+ average, and two TDs of 75 yards in two different games. "Julio had an unbelievable second half,'' Ryan said. "He's a special player.'' Too explosive to bench in fantasy leagues, Jones is now a top-20 receiver in points per week while leading all rookies with 100 yards in four of ten games. Ryan has hit 300 yards or 2+ TDs in four of the past five games. He’s comfortable maintaining QB1 status.Drew Brees / Marques Colston - Playing outdoors against a defense laying it on the line, Brees completed 36-of-47 passes (76.6 percent) for 337 yars and two fourth-quarter strikes of 35 and 28 yards to Colston to extend his touchdown streak to 40 games. Brees has now matched himself (2008) and Rich Gannon (2002) with double-digit 300-yard games in the same season. Before 2011, no other season had ever seen three QBs reach 4,000 yards by the end of Week 14. With Brees leading the pack at 4,368 yards, four QBs managed the feat this season (Brady 4,273, Aaron Rodgers 4,125, and Manning 4,105). Averaging 336 yards per game, Brees is on pace to shatter Dan Marino’s single-season record with 5,376 yards.Larry Fitzgerald - NFL Network’s Michael Lombardi wonders if Kevin Kolb is more accurately described as a “China Doll” or “Bust” in Arizona. Either way, it’s clear at this point that John Skelton is better for Fitzgerald’s fantasy value -- even with the attendant faceplant risk. Through another season of undercertainty under center, Fitz is an impressive sixth in fantasy points while on pace for 1,343 yards and nine TDs. Shonn Greene - Greene’s 187 scrimmage yards were easily the most of his career, taking full advantage of a game that was already in the bag at 28-3 late in the second quarter. The Jets ground game is hitting its peak in December, as 51 of Greene’s 141 (36.2 percent) fantasy points this season have come in the last two games. He has plus matchups the next two games as well against the Eagles and Giants, two teams that allowed 100-yard rushers in Week 14.
Belichick on FootballOne of the small joys of working the Friday morning news shift is seeing the tweets from Patriots beat writers @RapSheet, @shalisemyoung, @MikeReiss, and @jeffphowe as Bill Belichick takes the scowl off his face and raps with the local media on the state of his team and the finer points of the game. Last Friday’s bull session was perhaps the most illuminating of the year.