Sunday, January 15, 2012
An uncharacteristic loss for Packers
By Ashley Fox
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- In the hallway outside of the Green Bay Packers' locker room at Lambeau Field hang 12 rectangular collages commemorating some of the most iconic moments in the franchise's esteemed history.
There is the Lambeau Field dedication, the 1961 NFL Championship Game, the Ice Bowl of 1967 between the Packers and Dallas Cowboys, the "New Beginning" with Brett Favre and, most recently, a collage titled: The Run Begins, Green Bay 45, New York Giants 17, Dec. 26, 2010.
The magic began there in a must-have game that sparked the Packers' incredible run of 21 wins in 22 attempts. It wove its way through three road playoff victories, the Super Bowl victory over Pittsburgh and this dominating season. It was not supposed to stop, not yet, not after the Packers rewrote their record book and Aaron Rodgers undoubtedly won the league's MVP award. It wasn't supposed to end here, at Lambeau, where the Packers had won 19 of their past 20, had not lost once this season and were hosting a playoff game for the first time since 2007.
But end it did, and there will not be a collage to commemorate this one: New York Giants 37, Packers 20.
Momentum in the playoffs is everything. This is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, in which October only really matters in October. January is a different story.
With essentially the past three weeks off -- the bye plus a meaningless regular-season finale against Detroit where many of the starters looked on from the sideline -- Green Bay had none. New York had it all.
Like the Packers a year ago, the Giants had to win their last two regular-season games to even make the postseason. Then they had to beat a talented Atlanta team at home. After dominating the Falcons, holding them to a single safety on defense, the Giants had all the confidence in the world. With as good a pass rush as there is in the game, they have developed a swagger these past few weeks, a sense of purpose and a unity that didn't exist a couple of months ago.
The Packers? They struggled through one of the most unfathomably gut-wrenching weeks imaginable. On Thursday, many in the organization, including Aaron Rodgers, attended the wake for offensive coordinator Joe Philbin's son, Michael, who was pulled from the Fox River in nearby Oshkosh on Monday. On Friday, they attended Michael's funeral. On Saturday, Philbin surprised his offense by returning for his regularly scheduled morning meeting, and on Sunday, he was back in his customary spot in the coaches' booth.
But nothing was ordinary. Or normal. Or happy.
No one on the Packers used any of that as an excuse. They didn't have to. It was reality, as cold as the night air.
"I think deep down a lot of us kind of wanted to get this one for him," Rodgers said, "give him some happiness to him and his family during a tough week."
It did not happen.
Instead the Packers were unrecognizable. Every little sin of the season was on display, all at once, one after one, mistake after maddening mistake. There were missed tackles and dropped passes, six in all by six receivers. There was a blown coverage on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half that turned a 13-10 New York lead into a 20-10 halftime advantage.
In a season when the Packers lost only six fumbles, they left three on the ground against New York. During the regular season, Green Bay was the only team in the NFL to either win the turnover battle or come out even in every game, but they lost it to New York, 4-1.
The offensive line gave up four sacks. Aaron Rodgers lost a fumble when he had Greg Jennings wide open for what would have been a touchdown.
Mike McCarthy took risks he normally wouldn't, going for an onside kick in the first half and then a fourth-down call early in the fourth quarter on which Rodgers took a sack.
"We did not play very well today," McCarthy said. "I think that's stating the obvious.
We did not play to our identity."
No, they did not, and now it is fair to second-guess McCarthy's decision to rest his starters in Week 17, to pull off the gas and coast into the postseason. He wasn't the first coach to go that way, and had he played his starters in a meaningless game and one or more of them had gotten hurt, there would have been second-guessing there, too.
But he should have known better than anyone the value of momentum, of peaking at just the right time, of being confident. The Giants were. The Packers were not. Rodgers at times looked shaky, holding on to the ball too long. He misfired to a wide-open Jermichael Finley on the play before the failed fourth-down attempt. It was a play Rodgers had made 100 times this season.
"We did everything we normally don't," wide receiver Jordy Nelson said. "It's uncharacteristic for us. It came at the wrong time."
I asked Nelson if he could explain why, in a huge game at home with everything on the line, the Packers didn't remotely look like the team that cruised through the regular season 15-1.
"Nope," Nelson said. "Sometimes it does [happen]. I'm sure a lot of people don't want to hear that, but sometimes it's just not your day. Apparently, it wasn't meant for us to win this game. We did everything we don't do and we did it at the wrong time. It is extremely surprising.
"I don't think there is a person in this building that thought we wouldn't come in tomorrow and get ready for practice. We had all the confidence in the world, felt good, and it happened at the wrong time."
Isn't that the truth. Much like the Patriots' perfect season of 2007, which also ended at the Giants' hand, 15-1 won't carry much weight after losing to New York.
"At this point, we play to win championships," Rodgers said. "You win a championship and climb to the top of the mountain, you forget how bad this feeling is. After the 2009 season we lost to Arizona, and it sucks. This team, this organization, this fan base expects championships. We had a championship-caliber regular season, and we didn't play well today."
The run had to end, but no one with the Packers was ready for that day to come so soon.
Ashley Fox is an NFL columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @AshleyMFox.