Special Teams in Giving Spirit

The Packers were dogged by bobbled balls and bad coverage, a fake punt and a crazy blocked field goal, and a critical penalty.

Frank Costanza would have no shortage of grievances to air about the Green Bay Packers' special teams after their 38-31 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers a day shy of Festivus.

But unlike the classic "Seinfeld" episode, no one in Green and Gold was laughing at the end.

There were bobbled balls and bad kick coverage, a fake punt by Pittsburgh, the most fortuitous blocked field goal ever seen and crushing penalties by the Packers – the worst of which came on a field goal attempt that led to the final Steelers touchdown.

Despite Micah Hyde's 70-yard kickoff return with 1:25 remaining, there was no Festivus miracle to be had. But in a game ripe with bizarre plays all around, the outcome was ultimately negated when the Philadelphia Eagles rained blows upon the hapless Chicago Bears hours later in the Sunday night contest.

Chicago could've clinched the NFC North with a win and eliminated the Packers from playoff contention. Instead, the division – and a trip to the postseason – will come down to next week's Packers-Bears game at Chicago.

Aaron Rodgers may not be back at quarterback, depending on yet another "organizational decision" on the NFL's most talked about collarbone. Eddie Lacy could be out after re-injuring his ankle. And Clay Matthews could be sidelined after hurting his recently healed broken thumb.

If ever there is a need for the special teams to rise up, this is it. But the challenge after Sunday's loss will be to keep the plays that provide a spark and lose the ones that blow up in their face.

After giving up two 40-plus-yard returns in the second quarter that netted just three points for Pittsburgh, Green Bay would fall victim to a well-timed and perfectly executed fake punt on fourth-and-2 from the Steelers' 44-yard line with 12:40 left in the third quarter.

Punter Mat McBriar took the snap and sprinted to his right, scanned the field and found fourth-string tight end David Paulson down the right sideline for a 30-yard gain. To add insult to injury, Packers backup tight end Jake Stoneburner – who was unable to field a high, short kickoff at the end of the first quarter – picked up a roughing-the-passer penalty that gave Pittsburgh a 43-yard gain. On first down at Green Bay's 13, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sprinted up the middle for a touchdown and a 17-14 Steelers lead.

"You gotta give it to them … it was a well-drawn up play and the guy actually went through his reads," Packers tight end Ryan Taylor said of McBriar. "They were not a team that showed a whole lot of fakes in their history, and you have to give credit where credit's due.

"They weren't a big fake team. It's obviously something that we're always ready for and always prepared for, but we weren't on high alert, I'll say that. But you always have to be ready. It's the NFL."

As it turned out, that fake punt wasn't even close to the strangest play of the day. That came in the third quarter, when kicker Mason Crosby had a 23-yard field goal attempt blocked by Steelers nose tackle Sheldon McLendon. The ball went bouncing to Crosby's left, there was a melee and, at one point, Steelers safety Ryan Clark appeared to have grabbed it. But as the ball rolled along the snow-swept ground, Steelers defensive end Ziggy Hood batted the ball forward and out of bounds. The resulting penalty gave the Packers possession at the Pittsburgh 2-yard line. Running back Eddie Lacy scored on the next play to put the Packers back on top, 21-17.

"I felt like I slid a little bit on the field, and it came out a little low, and they got a hand up and blocked it," Crosby said. "The ball went to my left, I went to grab it. I think (Troy) Polamalu grabbed me, so I got a hand on it and then the ball just kept bouncing around. It was kind of a wild play.

"I didn't know what the situation was going to be. I was disappointed just not making the kick, but we got a touchdown out of it, so it ended up being beneficial for us. I don't know that rule very well, but I know batting has a penalty. I didn't know it would get us the ball back, but I'm happy it did."

After the Steelers scored a touchdown to regain the lead, then pushed it to 10 points on a Matt Flynn pick-six, the stage was set for two more decisive, late-game special teams plays.

Green Bay had tied the game at 31 on Crosby's 22-yard field goal and John Kuhn's 1-yard touchdown run with 7:17 remaining. After Pittsburgh punted and Flynn fumbled on a third-down scramble, Shaun Suisham lined up for a 27-yard attempt. Packers linebacker Nick Perry came across the line early, with the 5-yard encroachment penalty giving Pittsburgh a first down at Green Bay's 5. After stopping Le'Veon Bell after a 4-yard game and wasting its final timeout, Green Bay let Bell score on the next play, giving Pittsburgh a 38-31 lead with 1:28 remaining.

"We're realistic and we know that if they don't score, if we stop them out there, we don't have any timeouts," linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "So I think it was a collective thing, we needed to let them score to give our offense a chance."

As for why they didn't save the timeout and let Bell score on first down?

"I don't know. That's a good question." Hawk said.

But Green Bay wasn't done yet. Hyde had the home crowd on their feet with a 70-yard return on the ensuing kick – the team's longest return of the season.

"It was a huge spark," Hyde said of his return. "I was just trying to give the offense a chance to punch it in. That's all you can ask."

Short of a touchdown, that is.

"I knew a couple (Pittsburgh) guys had angles on me," Hyde said. "(Shamarko Thomas) had a nice angle on me. I would've liked to burst it into another speed, but I didn't have another gear."

So in a sequence befitting the previous 59 minutes and 38 seconds of play, Green Bay's offense drove to the 1-yard line. A penalty, 10-second runoff and incomplete pass ended the game.

Yet somehow, against odds, against injuries, against conventional wisdom, the Packers have another chance to extend their season with a win at Chicago. And that might merit consideration as a minor miracle – Festivus or otherwise.

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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at karoer@msn.com.

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