Aaron Rodgers, the league's likely MVP when the award is announced the night before Super Bowl XLVI, had his lowest quarterback rating of the season as he and the Green Bay Packers' offense were thrown off course, falling to the confident New York Giants, 37-20, in the NFC Divisional round of the playoffs.
Afterward, Rodgers scoffed at the notion that the disappointing performance had anything to do with the playoff bye week or not playing in the regular-season finale, a stretch of 21 days without game action for the quarterback, the longest layoff of his career since he took over as the starter.
"I wouldn't say that he wasn't as sharp," said head coach Mike McCarthy. "There's some throws he probably wish he had back. The protection – those are things that, based on where I was standing on the field, I thought he played like he normally does, just the plays he was making with his feet. Yeah, we missed some opportunities, one to Greg (Jennings) and this and that, but I thought Aaron made a lot of plays tonight."
But this was a far cry from the league's No. 1 scoring (35 points per game), big-play making offense that the Packers had put on the field consistently all season. It fell flat in the biggest game of the season.
There were dropped passes (eight by Packer Report's count), lost fumbles (three) and even an interception, all be it a meaningless one in the fourth quarter.
"I felt like we had pretty good rhythm," said Rodgers. "We moved the ball pretty effectively; we just had some drops and had some uncharacteristic turnovers. I think our third down was 50 percent, so we converted pretty well on that, but we just had some chances and didn't make the most of them."
Of course, the Giants' defense played a part in that. Coming off the high of a shutout the week before against the Falcons in the wild-card round, it made Rodgers and the Packers' receivers beat coverage down the field, which proved to be difficult.
"I think that was probably part of their game plan," Rodgers said. "They wanted to keep everything in front of them but they played more one-high (safety) tonight with their man coverage and we just didn't make enough plays."
The Giants sent an extra rusher at Rodgers on only a handful of plays. Twice, linebacker Michael Boley got home for sacks, but for most of the night, the Giants stayed with a simple plan.
Like the Chiefs, the only other team to beat the Packers this season, the Giants primarily pushed the Packers' passing pocket with four rushers and dropped seven into coverage. When Rodgers could find no open receivers, he was forced to take off and run or check down the ball. Rodgers ran seven times for five first downs and 66 yards, the most a quarterback has run for in the playoffs since 2005.
"When you play that much man coverage, you don't have a guy assigned to me," said Rodgers. "If nobody's open, I'm going to try to extend the play, and for whatever reason, that happened more than usual tonight. I tried to make the most of it, ran for a few first downs. That's not something I was thinking was going to happen maybe as much going into the game, but their high volume of man coverage kind of dictated that."
Three missed opportunities provided great examples of what kind of a day it was for Rodgers and his receivers.
In the first quarter, Rodgers overthrew Jennings, who was late adjusting to the pass, on what could have been a touchdown or at least a big play on a third-and-8 from the Giants' 29. The Packers had to settle for a field goal to tie the game at 3.
On third-and-5 from the Giants' 17 late in the third-quarter, Rodgers threw a perfect ball in the end zone to Jennings, who got both hands on the ball but couldn't make the catch against tight coverage from Antrel Rolle. They settled for another field goal, cutting the deficit to 20-13.
And early in the fourth quarter, with the Packers still trailing 20-13 and facing a third-and-5 from the Giants' 39, Rodgers failed to time up with a wide-open Finley for what would have been a first down. It looked like Finley may have cut his route short, but Rodgers said he was unsure.
"I missed my spot maybe a little bit, but I'll have to go back and look at the film and see what happened," said Rodgers.
"It was one of those plays I couldn't make," Finley said. "There was too much on it and it was out there a little. The fans think it was me probably. It was just one of those things. If you're looking on the outside, you probably think I dropped the ball. I'm just letting you know."
On the next play, the Packers failed to convert a fourth-and-5 when Rodgers was sacked by Boley. The Giants marched 38 yards in 10 plays on the ensuing drive to take a 23-13 lead with 7:48 left.
"We left some yards on the field. We had some opportunities to make plays," said McCarthy. "We probably dropped back and threw it more that we wanted to. We initially wanted to stay into a little more run mix than we normally do. Once it got to a two-score game, then we got out of it. The third quarter, I thought was a turning point, having the ball primarily the whole quarter and only having three points to show. That was something that obviously put us in a position to play uphill in the fourth quarter."
Rodgers was also sacked four times in the game, one coming by Osi Umenyiora that forced a fumble after a long Packers drive to open the second quarter reached the Giants' 30. To add insult to injury, Rodgers said he saw Jennings come open just before the sack. That would have been an easy touchdown, with Jennings open by at least 10 yards.
On 26-of-46 passing for 264 yards with two touchdown passes and one interception, Rodgers finished with a 78.5 passer rating. He finished the regular season with an NFL-record 122.5 mark.
Only two other times this season (against the Chiefs and Raiders) Rodgers posted a rating of less than 106.2.
"We just turned the ball over too many times to win," said Rodgers. "You've got to give them credit, they played well on defense. They had a good plan, but we had a lot of chances to execute and didn't do it. (We) put our defense in a tough spot a couple times and that's why our season's over."
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org