On Sunday, the Packers' season, which looked like it could turn out to be one of the great seasons in Packers history, came to a crashing and disappointing halt. The visiting New York Giants ended the Packers' season, just as they did four years ago, this time by the score of 37-20.
I went in for a dental appointment on Monday afternoon. I'm sure you can see this line coming from a mile away - I feel like I spent two afternoons in a row at the dentist. In the waiting room I read, wistfully, Peter King's Postseason Predictions in Sports Illustrated from a couple of weeks ago: "I see New Orleans and Green Bay facing each other again [in the NFC Championship Game], with the survivor going on to win the Super Bowl." Yeah, me too.
All year long, the Packers have set various records, week to week. Well here is another one. The Packers became the first ever 15-1 team to be "one and done" in the playoffs. While it is painful to see the Packers squander their no. 1 seed position this way, it should be noted that 4 of the last 5 number 1 seeds in the NFC have been knocked out of the playoffs without reaching the Super Bowl (New Orleans in 2009 was the exception). Not that this helps very much - I am still walking around in a daze two days later - but at least the Packers are not alone in wasting a great season. (It was sad having to cancel my travel reservations for the NFC Championship game, so that didn't help matters, either.)
Before getting into what went wrong, it is appropriate to give some credit to the New York Giants. They outplayed the Packers on offense, on defense, and on special teams, and in my opinion the Packers were outcoached, as well. Or as Greg Jennings said on his Facebook page Sunday night: "Hats off to the NYG on their win today. They played a very sound game and we didn't do enough on our end to get this one. Thank u Packer fans for your commitment to excellence all season in bringing us closer together as a team as we fed off u all season. We'll bounce back."
So what went wrong? Aaron Nagler of Cheesehead TV said that the Packers picked a terrible day to play their worst game of the season, and that is certainly true. Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette says that this game will go down as the most disheartening playoff loss in team history. I'm not at all sure I agree with him, but why quibble? This was plenty bad enough.
I have not even re-watched the whole game yet, but to me it was a large collection of little things, all of which worked against the Packers. (And since the Packers benefited from a couple of bad calls by referees in their favor, it is horrifying to note that things could have been even worse.) Aaron Rodgers was off the mark on some of his passes, including what should have been a touchdown to Jennings in the first quarter. Was rust from an unnecessary week off a factor? I don't know. I was not in favor of resting healthy starters for competitive reasons, but there is no question that Rodgers did not look sharp. Rodgers also had Jennings open for an easy touchdown in the third quarter, but Umenyiora stripped him on the play for a fumble. In Rodgers' somber post-game press conference, he was asked about the play.
Q: "On the play where you fumbled, did you see how open Greg was?"This terse answer, together with the look on his face, says a lot about the missed opportunities in this game.
If Rodgers was off on offense, the receivers and running backs were even worse. There were either 6 or 8 dropped passes in the game, depending on how you count them. Since the Packers averaged about 2 dropped passes per game during the regular season, this hurt, killing promising drives in the process. Both Ryan Grant and John Kuhn are dependable ball carriers; but they both fumbled away the ball in this game (in Kuhn's case, it was his first career fumble).
On defense, it is probably not fair to single out one player, but nobody had a worse game than Charlie Peprah. Peprah was the one who hit Hakeem Nicks, but did not wrap him up, on what turned out to be Nicks' long touchdown catch. At the end of the first half, he took a bad angle and failed to get Ahmad Bradshaw on the ground when the Giants ran the ball with 15 seconds left, allowing him to get out of bounds and set up the Hail Mary pass. Peprah and Woodson were the players with the best shot to break up the Hail Mary pass, but didn't. This game, more than any other game this year, shows how much it hurt to lose Nick Collins early in the season. Peprah is a decent player, but he was a big downgrade from Collins. The latest word on Collins is that he will be reexamined in March, and will decide based on medical advice (and before the draft) whether he can come back and play again.
But most fundamentally, the problem on defense is what it has been all year: the inability to get pressure on the quarterback without blitzing. So, if the Packers rush 3 or 4 on a given play, there is no pressure, and the quarterback has plenty of time for someone to get open. If the Packers blitz, they get pressure, but if the quarterback gets the ball out quickly enough, somebody is going to have an opening to make a big play. It is no fluke that the Packers gave up as many yards as they did on defense this year, but two factors allowed them to mask the problem and go 15-1: (1) the MVP quality of play by Aaron Rodgers; and (2) the turnovers generated by the defense. On a day when Rodgers did not play like an MVP, and when the Packers lost the turnover battle, we now see what can happen.
This problem will have to be addressed in the draft and/or free agency, with the top priority being the defensive line. I will have more comments on the Packers' needs later, after we see which coaches (if any) are hired away or simply replaced by the Packers.
Putting the pieces together, how do we explain (1) a sub-par performance by our MVP quarterback; (2) an extra dose of dropped passes; (3) fumbles by our normally reliable running backs; (4) sloppy tackling on defense; (5) worse than usual pass rush; and (6) poor play in the secondary? I had predicted that the team would use Coach Philbin's son's death as a rallying point. But Andy Hayes (of Packergeeks) was at the game and points to some things not visible on TV that really do suggest that there was something lacking, emotionally, from the team's effort. So I have come to the conclusion that this was a far bigger, and more negative, factor than I would have anticipated.
It has been a good run for the Packers in the first few years with Aaron Rodgers as the starting quarterback. Despite the disappointing end to this season, the core of this team is young and good enough that there should be more opportunities in the coming years. The caveat is that I thought the same thing when the Packers lost Super Bowl XXXII. I was convinced that the Favre era Packers would rack up a couple more Super Bowl wins, but we found out that nothing comes easily, and nothing is guaranteed.
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I had occasion over the weekend to reflect on the way that technology has changed the lives of sports fans. When my wife and I spent a week in England in October 1983, we literally had to wait until Monday and buy the International Herald Tribune to find out who won the football games on Sunday. (We were happy to learn that the Packers beat the Buccaneers, 55-14, October 2, 1983). But on Sunday, we watched the game at home with friends, while our son watched the game while flying on Jet Blue, and our daughter watched it with Wisconsin expats in Amsterdam. The expats were Erik and Mary Jo Tunison, who own Eat at Jo's restaurant in the Melkweg entertainment complex, near the Leidseplein. They showed themselves to be classic Wisconsin people, by being nice enough to invite a total stranger to watch the game with them, just because she is a Packers fan! As Erik said afterwards, "We had a good time, except for that one little thing..." Eat at Jo's is on my list of places to go, if I ever get back to Amsterdam.