Ultimately, the Cardinals drove into position to win the game but missed a field goal in the final seconds before they won in overtime on Rodgers' fumble.
On Sunday night, coach Mike McCarthy tried walking that fine line again against the New England Patriots. The Packers needed a touchdown to win the game but didn't want to leave too much time on the clock for Tom Brady and an offense that had scored 24 points in less than 20 minutes of possession time.
"You're never going to complain if you hit a big play and all of a sudden you get into the end zone," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said on Monday. "You're not going to say, ‘Oh, my God, it's terrible.' When you look at the way we were playing the whole night, we didn't have a ton of big, 40-, 30-yard gains. We had kind of been more efficient and keeping our down-and-distance pretty manageable."
The Packers started their final possession at their 43-yard line. With 4:22 remaining and two timeouts, time was not of the essence. Accordingly, on the first six plays of the drive, Brandon Jackson carried the ball four times and Matt Flynn snuck for a first down, with the only pass being Flynn's interception that was nullified by a defensive penalty.
So, with McCarthy trying to run the sand out of the hourglass, there was 1:23 remaining when the ball was snapped and Flynn rolled to his left and wound up throwing the ball away on a second-and-4 play from the Patriots' 29-yard line. When Flynn converted the third-and-4 with a 5-yard completion to Donald Driver, McCarthy called the Packers' second timeout with 1:05 to go.
"You are cognizant of what's going on on their sideline," McCarthy said on Monday, no doubt alluding to Brady. "We were trying to take as much time off the clock. It was evident the way we effectively ran the ball earlier in the drive. The intent was to get down there and take the thing all the way … we never felt like we were pressed for time, especially with our timeout situation."
In the end, though, the Packers were pressed for time. After the Flynn-to-Driver conversion, Flynn was sacked, forcing McCarthy to burn the final timeout with 53 seconds to remaining. After a 7-yard completion to James Jones, Flynn hit Driver for 10 yards on third-and-11. Driver was tackled at the 15-yard line with 23 seconds to go. What happened in the next 19 seconds didn't bother McCarthy after the game and it apparently didn't bother him on Monday, either.
The offense milled around the line of scrimmage, starting with McCarthy waiting to see if it was a first down or fourth down. If it was a first down, Flynn would have clocked the ball and there probably would have been around 15 seconds remaining – meaning no fewer than two shots into the end zone. Instead, the clocked ticked-ticked-ticked away. Once he saw it was fourth-and-1, McCarthy had to call the play into Flynn. Flynn had to relay it to the rest of the offense, and he and the offensive line had to sort out the protection.
It all took what seemed like an eternity. Presumably, Rodgers would have the wherewithal to call his own play rather than waiting for direction with the clock running out, though none of the coaches would entertain that logic.
Regardless, the ball was snapped with 4 seconds to go, meaning Flynn had no choice but to go for the touchdown rather than a first down. When Flynn tried to buy time to give the receivers a chance to work themselves open in the end zone, Tully Banta-Cain had a free pass to spin away from right tackle Bryan Bulaga and sack Flynn from behind as time expired.
"I didn't find anything chaotic about the final seconds of the game. I thought that it was a very standard operation," McCarthy said. "Really, what threw the drive out of whack was the sack (with 1 minute remaining). The sack is a negative play as we all know. At that particular time, it's hard to overcome. The third-down call in the time frame that it was made, you're waiting on the spot of the ball, the identification from the officials whether it's fourth down or if it's first down. If it's first down, you clock the play. If it's fourth down, you go with the play that we had called. I thought that Matt did fine with the operation of the third-down to the fourth-down play. They went with a three-man rush, Matt tried to extend the play which you like to do there, and he was sacked."
Time management is a hindsight-is-20-20 sort of thing. Unless a coach has the ability to see the future, there's no way to forecast that the offense will score the winning touchdown on the final play of the game. A coach can't plan for — and shouldn't plan for — a sack that will cost the team its final timeout no more than can it plan for what happened in the Arizona game, when Greg Jennings made an all-time catch to gain 22 yards and put the offense is position to score "too quickly."
"I think our plan was, let's take what's there, let's take what they give us," Philbin said. "If there's an opportunity to have a big play, let's take one, but I thought we put ourselves in a position to win the game. I still think we did, albeit we got sacked and all that other stuff. We were still in a reasonable position to win the game."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.