GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Aaron Rodgers took a breath Sunday and tried to explain how the Green Bay Packers had scored 45 points, run up nearly 500 total yards and still seen their season come to an abrupt end.
“I started very slowly and didn’t make a lot of good plays early on to get us into position to win,” Rodgers finally said. “We were able to get on a roll there in the second half. Unfortunately, we couldn’t make enough plays to win.”
He might as well have been talking about the Packers’ entire 2009 season. They spent the second half of it digging out from the hole they created in the first half. Indeed, said coach Mike McCarthy, “our greatest strength … is really to overcome adversity.”
But that’s just it, isn’t it? The Packers proved better at getting themselves back to even than they did getting past it. Their 7-1 record after the season’s midpoint pushed them into a wild-card playoff spot, and a comeback in that first-round game from a 21-point deficit extended the Arizona Cardinals into overtime.
But ultimately, the Packers weren’t good enough to make that final hurdle. Sunday, Rodgers fumbled on the third play of overtime -- his second turnover of the game. Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby grabbed the ball and dashed 17 yards for the game-winning score in a wild 51-45 Cardinals' victory.
The Packers lost two games in the 10 weeks after Nov. 8. On both occasions -- Sunday and Dec. 20 at the Pittsburgh Steelers -- they tied the game with blazing comebacks before losing on the final play.
Ultimately, this was a team of almosts and what-ifs. Rodgers almost hit receiver Greg Jennings on the first play of overtime for what would have been an 80-yard touchdown. (“I just missed it," Rodgers said.) What if officials had called a face mask penalty on the game’s final play?
“This is a tough pill to swallow,” right tackle Mark Tauscher said. “It sucks. We have a very good team here and we just were not able to get where we wanted to go. We put ourselves in position to get there, but we just didn’t finish it.”
Look, this is not meant to douse the optimism Green Bay generated in 2009. The Packers were one of the six best teams in the NFC this season, and that means something. It also says something that they could score five touchdowns over the final 26 minutes of regulation to force overtime. Remember, the Cardinals led 31-10 midway through the third quarter.
Rodgers set a Packers postseason single-game record by throwing for 422 yards, and tight end Jermichael Finley did the same with 159 receiving yards. Coach Mike McCarthy admirably called for a third-quarter onside kick that jump-started the comeback. The Packers defense, steamrolled for much of the game, awakened for a key stop early in the fourth quarter.
“If you had come in this morning and told me our offense would score 45 points,” said defensive end Cullen Jenkins, “I’d be like, 'Yeah, we’re going to win.’”
It’s hard to come down too hard on a team that fought to this extent. I was among many who left them for dead in the second half of this game. But I was also in the Packers' locker room about 15 minutes after Dansby’s touchdown, and I can tell you it was full of stunned and spent players. Anger, exasperation and arrogance are staples of professional locker rooms, but Sunday it was clear the Packers had given everything they had.
So there are two lessons to take from the Packers' 2009 season. The first was an illustration of the dangers of early deficits. If nothing else, the Packers worked for most of the past three months with no margin for error. They put themselves in too many situations that required near-perfect play to overcome.
Green Bay plowed into the playoffs by nearly eliminating turnovers, committing 16 over the course of 16 regular season games. Sunday, they overcame two early turnovers but lost as a direct result of a third.
The second lesson: For all the good things their defense did this season, finishing No. 2 overall in the NFL rankings, it did nothing to so much as slow down the elite quarterbacks it faced this season.
Minnesota’s Brett Favre threw for 518 yards and seven touchdowns in two games. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger totaled 503 yards and three touchdowns last month. Sunday, Kurt Warner had a near-perfect passer rating (154.1) while completing 29 of 33 passes for 379 yards and five scores.
Arizona, in fact, took several pages from the Steelers’ playbook. According to cornerback Charles Woodson, the Cardinals got the Packers in a predominance of nickel and dime situations, spreading them across the field and then focusing their routes in the middle.
“It was the same type of deal. Really similar type of offense," he said. "They were able to move the ball up and down the field the same way.”
Woodson spent most of his day matched up on the outside against receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who caught two touchdowns when Woodson fell down. But the arrangement also left open the middle of the field. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information, Warner completed 21 of 22 passes in between the numbers for all five of his scores.
“That was basically our game plan,” Woodson said. “We’ve done a good job of protecting the middle this season. … Their guys made some plays, but that’s on us as a defense for not being able to get a guy down.”
There’s no shame in losing the aerial battle to Warner, Roethlisberger or Favre. But to get rolled over to that extent suggests the Packers have some fundamental tightening to do in that part of their scheme this offseason.
The Packers were a good team in 2009, but they got in their own way on the path to greatness. They battled through adversity, but like a basketball team that goes on a 20-2 run to tie a game, they were too spent at the end to keep it going.