GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The first inkling came on the Green Bay Packers' seventh offensive play Sunday. On third down from the New York Giants' 29-yard line, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers did what he often does when a play breaks down. So did receiver Greg Jennings.
Rodgers stepped up in the pocket to escape Jacquian Williams, the Giants' blitzing linebacker. Jennings, in turn, took off toward the end zone. The Giants' secondary lost track of him. Jennings turned to look for the ball over his left shoulder. Rodgers threw it over his right. The ball fell incomplete at the 4-yard line, and the Packers settled for a field goal.
At that moment, I turned to someone in the press box and remarked how rarely we have seen the Packers miss easy touchdown opportunities during this historic season.
The Packers' season ended Sunday with an offensive thud, a 37-20 loss to the New York Giants that was wholly out of character and inexplicable on most every level. And I'm sure as you review how the Packers reached such an unsatisfying conclusion, some will recite a well-rehearsed litany of their season-long defensive problems. A few of you will wonder why Lambeau Field is no longer the greatest home-field advantage in NFL postseason history; the Packers are 2-4 in their past six playoff games there after winning 13 consecutively from 1939-2001.
But here, as they say, is the stone-cold truth: One of the most explosive and efficient offenses in NFL history -- the one that almost single-handedly was responsible for a 15-1 regular-season record -- stumbled at the starting line and never regained its footing. Credit goes to the Giants' defense for scheming to take away the deep pass, but independent of that, I think we can agree it's been a while since we've seen the Packers' offense play so poorly. ESPN Stats & Information had it with six drops, tied for the most by any NFL team in a game this season. The Packers committed a season-high four turnovers, including a fumble by Rodgers as he was trying to hit a wide-open Jennings in the third quarter. They had only two plays go for more than 20 yards, a 29-yard run by running back James Starks and a 21-yard pass to receiver Randall Cobb once the game was out of hand.
"This year," receiver Jordy Nelson said, "we've made the easy plays into big plays. And we didn't make the easy plays today. That's what hurts you. Every once in a while, you'll get a big shot, but if you can't make the easy plays, you aren't going to make any plays."
I couldn't have put it better if I tried. Why that happened, however, will be a mental mystery that will haunt the Packers all offseason.
How can you explain how a team that dropped 30 passes in 16 regular season games dropped six in one playoff game? What causes a team to commit four turnovers in one game when it had only 14 in the regular season? What made fullback John Kuhn fumble for the first time in his career? Why didn't Rodgers slide away from Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora, as he usually does, on his third-quarter miscue?
"I ain't God, so I can't tell you why we were out of synch," tight end Jermichael Finley said. "We just didn't play our style of ball."
It would be easy to say the Packers were rusty after a playoff bye week. And I guess we should note that Rodgers hadn't played since Dec. 25 and Jennings since Dec. 11. Is it that simple? Were the Packers rusty? Perhaps, but at some point, you must wonder if we were holding them to an impossible standard.
What Sunday's mistakes told me was how much the Packers grew to depend on elite -- and not just great -- play from their offense on a weekly basis. The Packers were an elite team as long as their offense scored at a rate that left them with the second-highest point total in NFL history. But as soon as a few mistakes piled up, they got wiped out of the playoffs by a team that won its division with a 9-7 record.
"I felt like we had a pretty good rhythm," Rodgers said. "We moved the ball pretty effectively. We just had some drops and some uncharacteristic turnovers. … We just had some chances and didn't make the most of them."
None was more critical than Rodgers' misfire to Finley on third-and-five from the Giants' 39-yard line in the third quarter. With the Packers trailing 20-13, Finley ran a slant route and was wide open for a first down at about the 25-yard line. Rodgers threw him a fastball that sailed wide and off Finley's fingertips. Rodgers was sacked on fourth down, and the Packers never had an opportunity to tie the game again.
"I missed my spot a little bit," Rodgers said. Finley added: "It was out in front of me. I put one hand out. I tried to get it. I have to catch that ball …. It was one of those plays I couldn't make."
Those are the types of plays we grew accustomed to the Packers making this season, be it a sharp throw-and-catch on third-and-5 or an ad lib that leads to Jennings getting wide open in the end zone. To be sure, the Giants ran an aggressive scheme designed to take away their deep pass with "off" coverage but also flood intermediate routes with maximum coverage. Only eight of Rodgers' 46 attempts traveled 15 yards in the air, and he completed only two of them.
But regardless of the situation this season, the Packers have relied on their offense to bail them out. Even as they jogged off the field trailing 20-10 at halftime, there was no sense of panic.
"We thought going in with the way we'd be scoring on offense, the game wasn't that far away from us," said nose tackle B.J. Raji.
For the first time all season, however, the Packers offense dropped the ball -- and the Packers weren't a team equipped to compensate for it. We all know what happened. The Packers will spend the next six months figuring out the how and the why. But in the end, all they'll have to show for one of the greatest regular seasons in team history is one of their most surprising conclusions. Not everyone thought the Packers would repeat as Super Bowl champions, but I'm not sure many thought their offense would bring them down.