Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Packers Start that Wasn't in the Forecast (aka Our Annual Road Trip Takes Us to San Diego)

Four years ago I wrote to you about my excitement when my fantasy league had decided to take a last second trip to St. Louis in the middle of December, venturing down to the Gateway City to see our beloved Packers take on the lowly (at the time, and yet again) St. Louis Rams. It was a wild adventure; I crashed a van on the way there, we drank for free at one bar because of the items we stole at a different bar, I traded my Nick Barnett jersey to a beautiful young lady for her Christmas sweater in an effort to win her heart, all this and more as part of a whirlwind 48 hours that was highlighted by a Packers victory. After the weekend was in the books, it was a no-brainer to me and my closest friends that we were going to make the annual Packer road trip something of a yearly tradition. We then hit Nashville to see the Packers lose an overtime thriller to the Titans, traveled to Cleveland the following year to see a wild blowout of the Browns, and last year we saw Matt Flynn become a man in a close loss to the Patriots, which was actually the last time that the Packers have lost a meaningful game at this writing of this posting. Although this year, the San Diego Chargers did all they could to make that last statement untrue.

San Diego was the pick for our vacation this year, beating Atlanta when we took the vote many months ago. The leading factor? Obviously, the weather. Booking a trip for the first weekend in November to Southern California was a no-brainer, and despite the damage we knew this trip would do to all of our wallets, we were ready to fly westward to enjoy some Packers and some paradise. As you all know by now, the weather quite the opposite of what you would expect San Diego to offer. The only day where I really felt like I was in California was on Wednesday, the day the first batch of us flew in. After that, the cold front came in and brought some rain along with. "You folks from Wisconsin didn't have to bring the weather with you" earned the record for the phrase that I have fake laughed at the most in my life. While the weather never really was terrible (it would actually be considered fantastic for this time of the year in Wisconsin), it wasn't the California that I was promised in those commercials.

The only time that I would really say that the weather was a damper on the trip would be the first half of the Packers / Chargers game on Sunday afternoon. But that's only because I had packed for the game as if there would be 70 degree weather and sunshine. But the weather didn't seem to bother the Packers, and therefore it didn't bother me. It certainly didn't seem to bother the rest of the Packers faithful either, who had helped the Chargers fans make Sunday's crowd the third largest in Qualcomm Stadium history. You'll read that conservative estimates say that maybe one-third of "the Q" was made up of Packers fans, and there definitely could have been more than that. When the Packers were first introduced before the game, it definitely felt like a home game, as the Packers were cheered and the Chargers were booed (then again, Chargers fans did seem to be at their last wits with this ballclub and seem all too eager to criticize Phillip Rivers whenever given the opportunity). However, as soon as the game started, the Chargers fans took back their stadium and were definitely the louder of the two fan bases.

Now really, I wouldn't be surprised if some of that noise was manufactured in, but that's a feeling I've been coming away with on a couple of these trips. Take the aforementioned St. Louis trip. That was a stadium that was about 60 percent full of Packers fans at the time, yet it always seemed to get suspiciously loud whenever the Rams were on defense. I'm not saying there is a conspiracy here, but I am saying that I sat pretty high in the stands that year yet still heard the majority of the noise coming from behind me. As in, where the speakers would be located. This year the Chargers fans were definitely vocal, but I'm going to point to one play as to why I think something fishy was going on. Late in the fourth quarter, the Chargers were about to punt and needed to force the Packers into a quick three and out to get the ball back for an ensuing drive. The punt lands inside the Packers five yard line, a huge play that should keep the momentum on the Chargers side. Yet, when the ball was downed so close to the goal line, the stadium was dead quiet. Perhaps I'm mistaken and downed punts inside the five when your defense is about to take the field and absolutely needs a stop isn't as big of a deal as I thought it was, or perhaps the sound guy at Qualcomm forget to hit the magic little button to pump in some more noise.
Sure, it might be laughable to bring up an issue of fabricated cheering, but it's a claim I'm able to at least suggest because of just how many Packers fans where there.

A lot of us did make the journey from 2100 plus miles away to root on the green and gold and hopefully catch some sun, but I have to think that many of the Packers fans in attendance traveled from within the state of California. The giveaway? I have never seen that many cheeseheads in my life. Not cheeseheadscheeseheads as in the actual foam hat that graces the top of a supporters noggin. Think about the last time you went to a game at Lambeau Field - how many people wearing cheeseheads did you see? You don't see it too often anymore, at least not in Wisconsin. Yet out here in California, I'd say there were more people wearing the foam hat in my section alone than there were in the entire stadium of the last game I went to in Lambeau.

Regardless of where we were form, however, we all had the same task at hand - making Qualcomm feel as much like Lambeau as possible. Probably the biggest reason that the Chargers had to go to that silent count in the fourth quarter, and why Packers defenders and Mike McCarthy were calling for the crowd to get louder when the defense was looking for one final stop, was because of all the Chargers fans that had left the game shortly after the fourth quarter had began. At that point, the Packers had gone up three touchdowns, and you don't come back from a three touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter against the reigning Super Bowl champs. That's what the consensus seemed to be anyway among the home team crowd. Because of that three touchdown lead, the Packers fans slowly became the majority in that stadium, and the efforts of Packer nation lead to the headline "It's Tough to Win a Road Game When You're at Home" in the San Diego Union-Tribune on Monday morning.

So without the three touchdown lead, I don't think the Packers crowd is as powerful as they were at the end of the game. But without the Packers crowd being that powerful, I'm not sure the Packers are able to pull off the victory. You could definitely tell that the Packers were feeding off of their unexpected support on the road (some support expected yes, but not this much). The Packers defense rose to another level at the end of that game, so stand up and give yourselves a pat on the back (not so fast, Charles Woodson). That right there is my favorite part of these road trips. Seeing just how many Packers fans are doing the same thing we are, traveling great distances spending money we don't have to support our team, basically taking over stadiums and cities along the way. Let me be another in a long line of bloggers to suggest a way to fix the nation's economy - have the Packers play a road game in every major U.S. city.

Before I take too much credit for the Packers victory, let me stop to remind myself just how incredible of an offense we are witnessing as Packers fans. Why is all the national coverage after week nine focusing on guys like Tim Tebow, Eli Manning, and even Matt Moore? Because there's nothing to say about Aaron Rodgers that hasn't already been said. Not only is he putting together one of the best stretches by a quarterback in all-time (or the best, according to several analysts such as ESPN's Merrill Hoge), but he's doing it in a way that makes it look so effortless. There is just an enormous amount of confidence flowing out of that guy, and it's simply amazing how he's able to perform at this level week in and week out. You hate to put your entire offense in the hands of one guy for two long (see Favre, Brett and the ego of his that grew because of that tactic), but out of these last 14 victories, the Packers have won quite a few games that you don't win if you don't have Aaron Rodgers.

Some of those games have been won by the defense as well, while not always playing solid, they still have the big play ability that was evidenced by two pick sixes in the first quarter, and a near third to cap off the end of the game. Right now the only formula to beating the Packers is to outscore them, but that defense needs to be ready to win another game for when Aaron Rodgers doesn't play at this MVP-type level.

It's interesting that the Packers sit at 8-0 on the same weekend when the rematch between the Giants and the Patriots takes place, as the 16-0 regular season for New England a few years ago was constantly brought up on television and in print this week. It doesn't matter how many wins you have, the undefeated discussion is going to crop up until you suffer your first loss. I'm never going to sit in front of my television and root for the Packers to lose, but the question "Do we really want the Packers to go undefeated?" is one that might turn into an article if Green Bay is still perfect this time next month. You could go the Colts route and purposely lose games when you have everything clinched, you could go the New England route and go for the jugular, but again I'm going to save that conversation for another day. The way it stands now though, you're not rooting for any type of loss as the 7-1 San Francisco 49ers are right on your heels, believe it or not. The Lions aren't far behind Green Bay in the division either. So no, I will never root for the Packers to lose a game, but I still don't want to go into the playoffs at 16-0. Does that make sense? Kind of, but not really? I'm not sure, as again I think the talk is a bit premature even though I'm the one that just spent the last paragraph on the matter.

Like Mike McCarthy said, the Packers are 8-0. And that's a fact. Yes, there were negatives in this game, and there are plenty of things that the Packers need to correct if they are going to repeat. But last time this year the Packers were 4-4, and there was a pile in the middle of our apartment of all the Packers items we owned, because of how disgusted we were after losses to both the Redskins and the Chiefs. Yes, 8-0 is a lot better than 4-4, but having a Super Bowl title would be a lot better than not having one. I think Mike McCarthy will have these guys on the right track to hold off on any real celebrating until the end of the season, and I think Packers fans are willing to do the same.

Plus, I'm not sure if I'm ready to do anything real partying after how much we partied on this trip to San Diego. From the Gaslamp District, to Pacific and Ocean Beach, we definitely hit the town hard and with force. And while this trip was another classic adventure between myself and the guys in my fantasy league, we don't have any of the stories to tell that we did in years past. No random hookups with the locals, no adventures that kept us up until 11am the next morning, no clear candidate for this year's LVP (we usually designate the person that was the weakest link on the trip, but this year everyone was simply the same level of mediocre, and we were all fine with that). We partied yes, but no one really did anything stupid. Let me tell you, for this group of guys I'm with that's almost more impressive than the Packers 8-0 record right now.

We've seen some good games in these five trips, but I don't think we've seen one this exciting, and definitely haven't been to an opposing stadium that felt more like Lambeau when we were there (although the stadium itself was really a piece of garbage. The walkways felt like the basement of a church, nearly every seat is a distracted view in one way or another, the scoreboard and graphics weren't even cutting edge when they were renovated in 1997, and the banners with the logo of every team that hang around the stadium gave Qualcomm the touch of my bedroom when I was twelve years old). It's going to take awhile for my bank account to reboot after running into the wall that was $15 Captain Diets, but continuing this journey with my closest friends as we continue our quest to hit all 32 NFL stadiums was another great success. Southern California showed us a good time, and with the 49ers, Raiders, and possibly Vikings/Jaguars on the move out West, we'll be back out to California in the future. Hopefully with a little more sun next time.

No reason to complain though, because even though the weather may not have been perfect, the Packers still are.

I'll book that trip anytime.


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