Dougherty: Packers risk ridicule if they can't beat winless Browns

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Hundley (7) sits on the bench after warming up at Lambeau Field on Sunday, December 3, 2017 in Green Bay.

On Nov. 17, 1997, the Green Bay Packers took the field at the RCA Dome as 13-point favorites over the Indianapolis Colts.

The Colts, coached by Lindy Infante, were in freefall. They were still winless (0-10) more than two months into the season. Their quarterback, Jim Harbaugh, was sidelined because of a broken hand, so their starter opposite Brett Favre that day was Paul Justin.

Full disclosure: I covered the game, and when I looked it up this week, Paul Justin didn’t even ring a bell. Who the hell is Paul Justin?

But if the Colts’ quarterback was forgettable, the game was memorable for one very good reason. The Colts picked up their first win of the season by beating the Super Bowl-bound Packers 41-38 on a short field goal on the game’s final play.

“You just don’t want to be that one team that they beat,” lamented LeRoy Butler, the former Packers safety who had the third of his four All-Pro seasons that year, in an interview Wednesday.

This week, the 2017 Packers find themselves in a similar position as their ’97 team. They play Sunday at the 0-12 Cleveland Browns, who are four losses from being only the second franchise in NFL history to go 0-16.

The Browns are the undisputed worst team in the NFL. They’ve won only one of their last 31 games.

The Packers, playing on the road with a backup starting at quarterback, are a 3 ½-point favorite. That’s nothing like the 13-point favorite they were in '97, but it’s the first time they’re been favored in three road games with Brett Hundley at quarterback.

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While the Packers have to be happy to see the Browns on their schedule for what could be Hundley’s last start before Aaron Rodgers’ return, a different kind of pressure sets in. If they lose, they’ll have to live with the stigma.

“If the worst team in the league beats you, (everybody is) going to say you’re a terrible team,” Butler said.

Yes, if the Packers don't beat the Browns, they'll be ridiculed nationally and vilified locally. It would confirm the worst take on their team: that they’re nothing without Rodgers.

It doesn’t matter that they’ve already won two games with Hundley at quarterback. A loss Sunday would be unforgivable.

From a psychological standpoint, coach Mike McCarthy is fortunate this is essentially a must-win game for his 6-6 team – a loss all-but-mathematically would knock them from the playoff race. That urgency could move Cleveland’s winless record from front-and-center in his players’ minds.

“We need to be seven wins when we get on that plane coming back from Cleveland,” McCarthy said this week in a comment clearly meant for his team. “Nothing else matters.”

So what kind of chance do the Browns have of picking up that first win Sunday?

Six weeks ago, I asked a high-ranking personnel executive for an NFL team to compare the Packers’ and Browns’ rosters, minus the quarterback position. His conclusion was that the Packers’ personnel is better, but not by much.

The point of the exercise wasn’t so much that the Packers’ roster is bad. Yes, general manager Ted Thompson mostly has failed in his many attempts to upgrade his defense via the draft, and the Packers’ personnel top to bottom isn’t anything like it was in 2010 and ‘11.

But the point was that not much separates the rosters of most NFL teams, except for the quarterback.

For most franchises, if you switched quarterbacks with another club the records would travel with them. The exceptions are the one or two teams that play the best defense. And maybe the New England Patriots, whose coach is a cut above.

So when the executive guessed the Browns would be a 10-win team if Rodgers were their quarterback, he probably was right.

The executive also said the Packers are better coached than the Browns. That could be a factor Sunday, too.

But the game very likely comes down to whether Hundley (70.6 passer rating) plays better than DeShone Kizer (58.1), the No. 52 pick overall in this year’s draft.

To be sure, the Packers are going to get the Browns’ best shot. Cleveland’s coaching staff and players have to view this as the most winnable game on the second half of their schedule. After this game, they play Baltimore at home, at Chicago and at Pittsburgh.

Catching the Packers without Rodgers is a huge break and rallying point. That’s why the first half of this game will be so important.

“Get in front and then the (Browns’) doubt sets in,” Butler said. “But if you let them get out in front or stay competitive, that’s when the pressure sets in.”

That’s what Butler remembers from that ’97 Colts game. The Packers led by 11 early, but then the lead changed hands twice in the second quarter, and they were up only 28-27 at halftime. It was still a one-point game at the start of the fourth quarter.

When it was that close that deep into the game, the pressure was all on the Packers.

“Then guys play a little tight, and that’s exactly what happened,” Butler said. “If you let them stay around, they’ve got nothing to lose, they’re terrible anyway. They’ll throw the kitchen sink at you. They really wanted to win that game.”

The Packers in fact have bigger things to think about than the Browns’ winless record. This essentially is a playoff game.

But there’s no escaping human nature, either. Their players and coaches know Cleveland hasn’t won yet this season. That’s simply impossible to forget, and at some point Sunday, that could matter.

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