The question for us as a blog community is not whether the Packers will earn a wild-card berth. Given their remaining schedule and the squalid state of the NFC, it’s a near-lock. No, the real issue for the Packers is whether they’re equipped to win a playoff game. In my book, at least, missing the playoffs is only marginally less satisfying than a first-round defeat.
The events of Week 15 suggest the Packers will be a playoff team, but one that is not yet capable of winning a postseason game on the road -- as they will have to do when and if they clinch. Their opportunity to suggest otherwise came late in the fourth quarter Sunday, and quite frankly, they fell short.
Ahead by six points with 2:06 remaining, the Packers allowed Pittsburgh to drive 86 yards -- converting three third-down plays and one on fourth down -- and win on the final play of the game.
Mike Wallace’s 19-yard touchdown reception capped a career day for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who threw for a team-record 503 yards against the NFL’s second-ranked defense.
Put bluntly, none of what you read in the preceding paragraph should happen to a playoff team.
“You have these types of games in the playoffs and you go home,” cornerback Charles Woodson said. “We had what we wanted out there, but we didn’t make the plays that we needed.”
I wasn’t sure what I would encounter when I reached the Packers’ postgame locker room. Would there be stunned silence? Anger? Uncontrolled sobbing? (I’ve never seen the latter in a pro locker room, but I had to establish the full spectrum.)
More than anything, I encountered realism. The Packers lost on an exceptional effort on the final plays of a wild game. But they are still 9-5 this season and, based on the NFC standings, one victory away from clinching a playoff berth. Seattle’s pending arrival at Lambeau Field next weekend provides what should be an easy foil, a dynamic the Packers appear fully aware of.
“Right now our mindset is that we have to get ready for Seattle,” receiver Donald Driver said. “We take care of business at home and we’re 10-5 and that may get us in.”
With the rest of the NFC field at least 1.5 games behind the Packers and Dallas in the wild-card race, that scenario appears highly likely. But I thought Sunday’s game provided a good allegory for the Packers’ postseason aptitude: They’re on the brink, but not there yet.
To be clear, the Packers made an exceptional comeback to take the lead in the fourth quarter. I thought it would have been a seminal victory for quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who threw for 383 yards and led the Packers to three fourth-quarter touchdowns.
But a playoff-winning defense would have forced a turnover during the Steelers’ final drive. Instead, the Packers mishandled two opportunities -- one apiece by Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson -- and had a third overturned by penalty. A playoff-winning defense shouldn’t allow a 32-yard pass on fourth-and-7, but that’s what happened when Roethlisberger found Santonio Holmes wide open with 1:14 remaining.
And frankly, a playoff-winning defense wouldn’t have felt compelled to retreat into a dime defense -- which included two relative newcomers to the lineup whom the Steelers repeatedly targeted -- on the final drive. But that’s where defensive coordinator Dom Capers landed on the final play. Roethlisberger found Wallace matched up with dime back Josh Bell, whom the Packers signed last month and were using only because Brandon Underwood was sidelined with a hip injury.
Capers has had the Packers on the attack for most of their recent five-game winning streak, but Sunday he chose to emphasize coverage over pass rush.
“They went to four wide receivers,” Capers sad. “Down the stretch there, we felt we would have been better off matching up defensive backs on receivers.”
Perhaps, but I would argue the Packers would have been better off flooding Roethlisberger's passing lanes rather than giving him time to slide in the pocket. Starting with the opening play of the game, Roethlisberger identified and targeted both Bell and nickel back Jarrett Bush. With Woodson playing mostly against the slot receiver, the Steelers had exceptional matchups with Holmes and Wallace on the outside.
“That’s Roethlisberger,” Bush said. “We gave him some time to slide in the pocket and let guys get open. And we didn’t get it done on the back end. You can’t take it away from them. They made some plays. … We all know that’s not going to happen every week.”
Oooooooh, I’m not entirely sure of that final assertion, Jarrett. What we saw Sunday was the first Packers opponent to really capitalize on cornerback Al Harris’ season-ending knee injury. The domino effect of that injury, which moved Bush up to nickel back and Underwood/Bell up to dime, finally caught up to them.
Bush made an inexplicable adjustment on Roethlisberger’s first pass of the game, allowing Wallace further separation on a 60-yard touchdown play. Bell didn’t have terrible coverage on the final play, but my guess is a savvier player would have initiated more contact and perhaps given officials a tougher call to make.
But if I’m Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston -- the keys to an Arizona passing attack that could be the Packers’ first-round playoff opponent -- I’m licking my chops. If the Packers want to play a nickel or dime defense in the playoffs, a team like the Cardinals will be a particularly tough matchup.
“We all expected to win this game,” Woodson said. “I think we all thought we pretty much had it in the bag. But that’s the way it works. We’ve got another opportunity next week to try to get on the right track. That’s what we’ll try to do.”
To make the playoffs, yes. To win a game or two when they get there? I’m not so sure. Not yet.