In an NFC divisional playoff game in which it needed to be at its best, a unit that put up historic numbers in the regular season played its worst game of the season. The Packers coughed up three fumbles by three different players and dropped a staggering eight passes, unofficially, by eight different players in a 37-20 loss to the New York Giants that ended their bid to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
"I never thought we'd come out and play like that," said a still-stunned James Jones, who had one catch and one drop on the day. "I mean, we've been great on offense with turnovers all year, and to go out there and put together a game like that with turnovers is ridiculous.
"We didn't get on a roll, No. 1, we were fumbling. No. 2, we were dropping balls. We never did get in a rhythm. That's not us. It hasn't been us as an offense. It showed up today, I don't know how, I don't know why. It just happened."
At the worst possible time.
The Giants turned fumbles by fullback John Kuhn, quarterback Aaron Rodgers and running back Ryan Grant into 10 points. With Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks going off for 165 yards and two scores – including a 37-yard Hail Mary to end the first half — Green Bay didn't need to give New York additional help.
Kuhn tied the game at 10 with an 8-yard touchdown reception to start the second quarter. But the uber-reliable back had the ball knocked out at Green Bay's 38-yard line with 3:48 left in the half. Kicker Lawrence Tynes – whose overtime kick knocked the Packers out of the Super Bowl and gave New York a 23-20 win in the 2007 NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field — would put the Giants ahead five plays later with a 23-yard field goal. The Giants would never relinquish that lead.
Rodgers was sacked by Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora on the first drive of the third quarter and lost the ball for Green Bay's second turnover. While the defense was able to force the first three-and-out by either team, Green Bay wouldn't be so lucky with its third turnover.
Trailing 23-13 with just more than 7 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Rodgers fired a short pass over the middle to Ryan Grant. As Grant turned upfield and fought for extra yards, safety Kenny Phillips popped the ball loose and linebacker Chase Blackburn picked it up and ran 40 yards down the Packers' sideline before Rodgers pulled him down at the 4. Giants quarterback Eli Manning hit Mario Manningham over the middle on the next play to put New York up 30-13.
For a team that only had six fumbles during the entire regular season (three on offense), three in one day – which could have been four had officials ruled differently on a first-quarter reception by Greg Jennings – was nothing it could have imagined.
"We take pride in not turning the ball over and having great ball security" said a distraught Grant, who also had a dropped pass in the third quarter. "We didn't do that, of course. I didn't do that. The backfield didn't do that.
"I just didn't have two hands on it when I was going down. I had two hands on it initially when I broke the tackle. I just didn't go a good job securing the ball."
As costly as those fumbles were, those eight drops may have been even worse. They started early, with a first-quarter pass to tight end Jermichael Finley that went off his hands as he dove, and came often with Jones, running back James Starks, tight ends Tom Crabtree and Ryan Taylor, Grant, Jennings and receiver Jordy Nelson getting into the act. The drops by Starks and Crabtree came on back-to-back plays in the second quarter.
Jennings' drop came five plays after the one by Grant and was a potential 17-yard score as Rodgers put one deep into the back corner of the end zone with Giants safety Antrel Rolle in coverage. Difficult? Definitely. But one that a Pro Bowler like Jennings is capable of making and needed to make. Mason Crosby's 35-yard field goal on the next play kept the Packers within striking distance at 20-13. While a Jennings catch would've given Green Bay four more points, at least half of the other drops would've resulted in first downs.
"Frankly, I think the biggest thing was the self-inflected wounds," coach Mike McCarthy said when asked about any adjustments the Giants' secondary made since the Packers 38-35 victory over them in Week 13. "The dropped balls ... We left some yards on the field. We had some opportunities to make plays."
Opportunities they needed to capitalize on. If the drops on top of the fumbles weren't enough of a problem, Rodgers appeared out of sync with his receivers on several other plays – most glaringly on the Packers' first possession, when he threw deep to a wide-open Jennings, who turned inside and couldn't recover enough to pull down a ball thrown to his outside. Against a Giants defense that rushed four and dropped the rest, these kinds of chances for big yardage would prove rare. Rodgers was often forced into checking down or getting yards on his own. That he led the team in rushing with 66 yards – 23 more than the next-closest player – was not a good sign.
By the time Rodgers hit the ageless Donald Driver for a 16-yard score that made it 30-20, there was just less than 5 minutes remaining. Green Bay went for an onside kick, which it failed to recover, and the Giants took advantage of the short field to go up 37-20 on Brandon Jacobs' 14-yard rumble around the right end. Rodgers would throw an interception after the two-minute warning to bring the game — and a season filled with so much promise — to a sudden and unexpected close.
"We play to win championships," said Rodgers, who finished with 264 yards on 26-of-46 passing and a 78.5 quarterback rating, his lowest of the season. "You win a championship, have kind of the top of the mountain and you forget kind of how bad this feeling is. After the 2009 season when we lost to Arizona … it sucks. This team, this organization, this fan base expects championships. We had a championship-caliber regular season and didn't play well tonight."
But champions don't get crowned for what they do in the regular season. And it will be a good, long while before those accomplishments are savored.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.