PLAY OF THE GAME
Football's a game of inches.
With Green Bay clinging to a 30-27 lead but driving late in the fourth quarter, it appeared Randall Cobb converted a third-and-12 by a matter of inches. Instead, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis successfully challenged the spot and won, setting up the defining fourth-and-inches play from the Bengals' 30-yard line.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy could have sent Mason Crosby out for a 48-yard field goal into the wind, which would have made it a six-point game. Instead, he kept his depleted offense on the field. With Eddie Lacy and John Kuhn in street clothes and James Starks and Jermichael Finley sidelined by in-game injuries, McCarthy elected to go with the hot hand, rookie running back Johnathan Franklin.
"Obviously, I thought that we could convert it; that's why we called the play," McCarthy said. "We didn't get it done. That's the profession of play-calling. When it works, it's excellent execution by your players, and when it doesn't, it's the play-caller. You had confidence in Mason going in. We were inside the mark in the field goal. It had nothing to do with that. I just felt that we had a chance to convert and get another set of downs and particularly having their defense on the field for another long drive."
Franklin, however, didn't have a prayer. The Bengals sold out defensively and surged at the line of scrimmage. In fact, by the time the ball is on the ground, the pile is a full yard behind the line of scrimmage. Franklin is stripped of the ball before he even lifts off the ground. The ball was recovered by Reggie Nelson, who was stripped by Cobb. The ball bounced right to cornerback Terence Newman, who raced for what ultimately was the winning touchdown.
"I saw the quarterback was under the center and the back was underneath, so I was thinking quarterback sneak," Newman said. "The way our defensive line has been playing, I knew it was up to those guys to push the offensive lineman back and stop Rodgers. I saw the ball pop out and then Reggie picked it up. I was trying to get a block, and somebody was trying to tackle him. I started to scream "pitch it, pitch it," and nobody on defense ever yells that (laughing).
"I saw the ball pop loose, and it took a nice bounce where I could grab it on the run. I felt someone pushing on my back, I think it was Vontaze (Burfict), I looked to my left and saw Leon (Hall) get a great block on Jordy Nelson, I just opened it up and tried to get to the end zone."
Of course, it's not a disaster if Franklin is simply stuffed. Instead, with the Bengals returning the fumble for a touchdown, the ball went into the hands of Aaron Rodgers, who has not delivered often enough when trailing late in close games. It's the one festering wound on an otherworldly career.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Newman made the big play but enough credit can't be given to the Bengals' cornerbacks. Behind Newman, Leon Hall and Adam Jones, they helped limit Rodgers to 26-of-43 passing for 244 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions. On Green Bay's three opportunities after takeaways, the Bengals held Rodgers and Co. to two field goals and a mere 8 yards. A Packers receiving corps that piled up YAC last week really didn't have significant run after catch all day beyond Cobb's just-short play on third-and-12, thanks to superb tackling in the secondary.
Rodgers' passer rating of 64.5 was his lowest since the NFC Championship Game. In fact, he didn't even have a game in the 70s since the playoff loss to the Giants in 2011, when he was at 78.5. In 36 total games in 2011, 2012 and the start of 2013, Rodgers had ratings of at least 100 24 times, a rating in the 90s six times, a rating in the 80s five times and just one in the 70s.
"Yeah, it's disappointing," Rodgers said. "Prepared to play well this week against a great defense, very well coached, had a good plan for us. They did a good job knocking the ball down. They played a lot of two-high coverage; they played it on top, outside. Ran the ball really effectively but didn't throw it as well as we have the first couple weeks. That's disappointing because we had some chances."
THE CRYSTAL BALL
For the second consecutive season, the Packers have started a season 1-2. Injuries again have been a major issue. However, the situation looked bleaker last season, after a controversial 14-12 loss at Seattle, than it does after Sunday's loss to Cincinnati.
The Packers have the makings of an excellent running attack. Showing that last week wasn't a fluke, the Packers gashed the Bengals for a stunning 182 rushing yards. The defense, while not close to its shutdown level of 2010, continues to get better. McCarthy's history is that the offense will start eliminating giveaways.
Coming out of the bye, Green Bay hosts Detroit, plays at Baltimore, hosts Cleveland and plays at Minnesota. The Lions and Ravens are 2-1 but neither are powerhouses. The Browns are 1-2 and the Vikings are 0-3. The potential is there to get this season turned around, especially if the bye means a healthy Morgan Burnett, Eddie Lacy, James Starks, Clay Matthews, Casey Hayward, Jermichael Finley and John Kuhn.
.838: Green Bay's winning percentage under Dom Capers when forcing at least three turnovers. That's a 31-6 record. The Packers forced four on Sunday.
3: Aaron Rodgers had three passes batted down at the line of scrimmage on the final drive. He had one all of last season, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
4: Giveaways by the Packers, who hadn't even had three giveaways in a regular-season game since Dec. 12, 2010, when Matt Flynn replaced Rodgers (concussion) in a 7-3 loss at Detroit. The last time Green Bay had four giveaways in a regular-season game was on Oct. 3, 2010, when it beat Detroit 28-26.
7: Giveaways by the Packers in the first three games, including four on Sunday — a mishandled kickoff, a fumble by Johnathan Franklin and two interceptions by Rodgers.
9: Points by Green Bay on drives that reached Cincinnati's 23-, 1- and 8-yard lines in the first half.
10: Number of times Rodgers has been sacked in three games, including four on Sunday. That's a pace for 53 sacks, which would be a career high.
16: Giveaways by the Packers all of last season.
18: Losses by Rodgers, without a win, when trailing in the fourth quarter against teams with at least a .500 record entering this season, according to FootballOutsiders.com's Scott Kacsmar. That would fall to 0-20 if San Francisco and Cincinnati finish at least .500 this season.
30: Consecutive points scored by the Packers, making them the first team to lose under such a circumstance since Dallas beat Washington 41-35 in overtime on Sept. 12, 1999: Washington scored 32 straight in that game.
38: Career red-zone touchdown passes, without an interception, by Cincinnati's Andy Dalton, including two on Sunday. That's the most touchdowns without an interception among current quarterbacks. Russell Wilson entered the week with a second-best 19 touchdowns.
41: Consecutive games by Rodgers without throwing multiple interceptions. That was the longest streak in the league since the 1970 merger, but it ended on interceptions on back-to-back drives at the end of the third quarter and start of the fourth.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.