Pack of problems

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After counting myself among the privileged few permitted to watch the NFL's heavily restricted Hostage Bowl, shown to selected viewers, here are the things I'd worry about if I were a Packers fan:

In his biggest game of the season, Brett Favre came up weird, as he used to do in the dark years of 2005 and '06, before his great renaissance of '07. An offense that was precise in its execution, even as overbalanced as it was, pass to run, all of a sudden had no coherence to it.

The first series ended in a hopeless heave deep downfield on third-and-one. The second was a three-and-out, the out caused by a rushed throw when the protection broke down. The third one wasn't a series at all, just one of those quackers into the heart of the coverage that would have people shaking their heads last year and the year before, wondering when Brett was going to retire.

Two series later, after Ryan Grant had burst through a small seam and put six points on the board, Favre was finished, victim of a protection scheme that didn't account for a nickel back coming in free on a blitz.

And that would be the second thing I'd worry about. His health. His arm.

The next thing I'd worry about is the fact that under Aaron Rodgers, the Pack seemed to have more of a chance than under Favre. At least he had the legs to get out of trouble and keep drives alive.

Think those are all the worries? Wait, we've only addressed one side of the ball. The focus of the Packers' defense, the thing that gave it such life and kept it on top in so many games this year, was the deep, eight-man defensive line rotation. Everyone seemed fresh. The pressure never stopped coming. Well, three of the eight were missing Thursday night, one of them Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, the bookend pass rusher from the right side.

KGB and Johnny Jolly might be back in a couple of weeks. Colin Cole is lost for the season. Without them, the D-linemen have to be on the field longer than what they are accustomed to. They hung in tough Thursday for as long as could be expected, but their pressure gradually wilted.

The secondary was a mess, with Charles Woodson out with a toe injury. Tony Romo had his way with it. He made the DBs look foolish. They were swallowing every fake. Terrell Owens ran a crossing pattern left to right, shedding Al Harris, who had only sporadic one-on-one duties on T.O. He broke it off, signaled for a left turn, headed up the seam and walked into the end zone, leaving free safety Nick Collins looking like a nanny who had just lost her baby carriage.

It happened all night, and if you're a Packers fan, you had to wonder when Woodson actually would be back, and how bad that toe injury is.

Were there any uppers out there? Well, yeah. Rodgers, given his most serious action since he joined the club two and a half years ago, was better than anyone had a right to expect. He brought the team back, came up with two long touchdown drives, completed 11 in a row at one point, and then found another field goal drive, which added the three points but turned out to be a strategic blunder.

Dallas led 34-24 when the Packers' drive stalled at fourth-and-one on the Cowboys' 35 with just more than five minutes left. Now the decision. Traditional logic says that you need two scores, a field goal and a TD, to tie, so it doesn't matter which one you get first. But practically speaking, the touchdown would give you a major advantage because Dallas could still drive for a field goal on its ensuing possession and leave you down only one score. Kick your 52-yard field goal, which the Pack did, and then give up a field goal to the Cowboys, and you were a dead duck, down 10 again with time running out.

The Packers' defense was heroic, but it was tired. And Romo and the Dallas offense had shown no signs of being stopped at any time during the evening, scoring on each of their first five possessions. Twice in the second half they had driven the length of the field, the first march reaching the Packers' six and ending with that goofy T.O. play in the end zone, the drop followed by the interception. The second one started on their own 20 and ended in a TD.

Each of their nine series in the game produced at least one first down. There were no three-and-outs. And finishing a game has been a Cowboys trademark this year, just as it was in the days of Emmitt Smith. This time it's Marion Barber, the NFL's nastiest runner, who abuses tiring defenses.

So, after the Packers' kick, the Cowboys drove, pulled in their horns, milked the clock and settled for their own field goal with 1:03 remaining, and wound up winning 37-27.

And that's the final thing I'd worry about if I were a Packers fan. A defense that had been so sturdy all season absolutely fell apart when guys like Woodson and KGB had to be replaced.

The controversial holdover from this contest, the one that will be discussed on the talk shows, involved two guys pretty far down on their respective depth charts, Green Bay's Tramon Williams, anywhere from third to fifth cornerback depending on the rotation, and Miles Austin, the No. 4 wideout for the Cowboys. With Dallas leading 27-24 midway through the fourth period, Williams was flagged for a 42-yard interference penalty, from the Packers' 47 to the five, setting up the TD that made it a 10-point game.

Contact had been made, Austin went down, and I've seen inadvertent bumping called in a situation such as that, you know, "they got their legs tangled," which resulted in no flag. Not this time. Williams, in a trail position, nipped one of Austin's legs with his own, from behind. It wasn't a tangle, it was a trip, and although I was in sympathy with Green Bay's effort to get back in the contest, I felt it was the right call.

What didn't seem right to me, though, was the way Green Bay approached this game. I really couldn't figure out what the Packers were trying to do. It seemed that things started out OK, multiple wides, hit the seam for 10 or 12 here and there, throw a little cross underneath, but then the cork just came out of the bottle and things were flying all over the place.

Romo and his Dallas operation looked downright conservative in comparison. Once again, he put up big numbers, with his usual flair. He completed 19 passes for 309 yards, which are a gunner's numbers, 16.26 yards a completion, the kind of long-range stats you used to see in the NFL before the dinkers and dunkers took over.

You could say that Rodgers' success against the Dallas defense means that there's a vulnerable area to be exploited, hopefully by Favre, should the teams meet again in the playoffs. I'm not so sure. I get the feeling that the Cowboys eased up a bit after Favre went out with the bad forearm, that they never felt that Rodgers actually was going to take his team all the way. I guess you could say that he almost did, if the defense could have just held off the Cowboys for a while. But they couldn't and didn't, and that's the real difference between these two superpowers of the NFC.