The Green Bay Packers – the one and only team I root for in any sport at any level – went down in flames Sunday evening on the moderately chilly tundra of Lambeau Field.
I’d tell you the final score except I don’t know it. I shut the game off early in order to avoid teaching my daughters words that they should learn on the playground, and have stayed as far away from SportsCenter as possible since. In fact, it pains me to even mention this divisional-round debacle. But I’m going to man up, just as Miller Lite suggests, to make a couple points.
The season officially came to a close Sunday, but it figuratively ended a few weeks ago in Kansas City. That’s where a franchise record 19-game win streak came to an end against a rag-tag team in low-scoring fashion, a harbinger for what was to come: a playoff loss where the team played poorly rather than being ousted while performing well. Certainly, the run was going to stop at some point – they all do. But the way it ended – not against the Saints or at the Giants or because Aaron Rodgers got hurt – was an omen that this squad was spent. The incredible run began with six must-wins, culminating in the Super Bowl and that attitude carried over into this season.
But once the cloak of invincibility was gone, that was it. The Packers no longer had reason to keep playing like their football lives depended on it. They began to rein it in late in the regular season, rest guys. Some were hurt, some were not. It seemed to change their state of mind, sap them of their edge, their urgency.
Much of what happened Sunday was a product of that. The Giants were the better team in that game – no question. Why? Because Green Bay had lost its rhythm and its swagger. Things were off all the way around from the opening possession.
The offense made mistakes it hadn’t all year – namely dropping the ball whether would-be touchdowns or flat-out fumbles. Rodgers, who hadn’t played in three weeks, probably did enough to win, but still missed throws he normally makes, a couple of them in crucial spots. The Pack had maybe three possessions late in the first half with an opportunity to break a 10-10 tie AND get the ball back to start the second half, something they had done repeatedly during the regular season. They cashed in on none of them, getting outscored 10-0.
The defense, which was bad to begin with, made two inexcusable mistakes at the end of the first half. The first – not tackling Ahmad Bradshaw when the Giants seemed content to run out the clock – led to the second, a way-too-easy Hail Mary to push the spread to 10 at the half. That play will live in Packers’ infamy, right up there with the fourth-and-26 disaster against the Eagles in 2004.
Even the coaching staff, a group that pushed all the right buttons and arguably played over its skis during the unbeaten streak, reverted to its 2009 form. The onside kick attempt in the first half was especially questionable – like the porous defense needed any help giving up chunks of yards. Did the absence of offensive coordinator Joe Philbin this week due to the death of his son factor into the problems? Perhaps. But the offensive scheme would have looked a lot better if the Packers had connected on the plays that were there. Rodgers missing Greg Jennings on a sure touchdown in the first drive stood out, as did Jennings dropping a touchdown in the second half.
It just didn’t feel right from the start. And in the end, the 2011 Packers will probably be remembered along the lines of the 1998 Vikings and the 2007 Patriots as a team that was great until it wasn’t – when it really mattered. That group seems to be growing by the way, as four of the last five No. 1 seeds in the NFC have gone down in the divisional round. Football is starting to look more like baseball in that way – winning a title is about getting hot late more than being the best team over 16 regular-season games. Just ask last year’s Packers, who needed a miracle punt return by Philadelphia just to get in the playoffs.
Think about that for a second: As if navigating the uber-competitive NFL wasn’t hard enough already, now it’s becoming almost better to put together a team that’s not really the best all the way through. Add that to the list of reasons why, win or lose, we all love this game.