For 56 minutes in last year’s NFC Championship Game at Seattle, the Green Bay Packers’ defense dominated the Seahawks’ offense.
For 60 minutes in Saturday night’s NFC Divisional playoff game at Arizona, the Packers’ defense went toe to toe with arguably the best offense in the NFL.
In both cases, however, the defense tripped and fell before the finish line.
Mere moments after Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary to Jeff Janis improbably sent the game to overtime, the defense couldn’t bring down Carson Palmer, lost track of Larry Fitzgerald and forgot how to tackle. Barely a minute into overtime, the game and the season were over.
“It sucks,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “You play this game to win Super Bowls. I mean, that’s what greatness is defined by in this sport — winning Super Bowls. Losing in that fashion, especially with the offense pulling that out (with) another Hail Mary was unbelievable. This is a team that lives and dies and thrives on big plays. Our defense, we played a heck of a game for the most part, but it has to go beyond four quarters. It has to go into overtime. It sucks that a coin toss determines that. But if that was us on the other side of the ball, you probably wouldn’t hear me complaining.”
The Cardinals led 7-6 at halftime on a short-field touchdown. Green Bay’s defense, which had emerged as the team’s best unit throughout the season, held them to just 75 yards in the first half.
After Rodgers was intercepted near midfield on the opening possession of the third quarter, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix returned the favor. When the Cardinals drove to the Packers’ 7 on the next possession, the defense stiffened and held them to a field goal. When the Cardinals drove to the Packers’ 9, Morgan Burnett’s well-timed blitz led to Damarious Randall’s end-zone interception.
For Arizona to finally get in the end zone, it took a blown call and a lucky bounce to put it in front 17-13 with 3:44 remaining. Carson Palmer’s pass to Fitzgerald was deflected by Randall but bounced right into the waiting hands of Michael Floyd for a touchdown. Somehow, the officials missed receiver Jaron Brown latching onto cornerback Casey Hayward and pushing him about 10 yards. Who knows, but perhaps Hayward intercepts the deflection.
When Rodgers failed to move the offense, the defense gave him another shot by preventing the Cardinals from getting a first down or the clinching touchdown.
Through regulation, the Cardinals had scored 20 points and gained 288 yards — far below their season averages of 30.6 points and 408.3 yards. Standout running back David Johnson gained only 35 yards.
Then came the overtime disaster. Palmer moved up in the pocket to get away from Matthews and almost was sacked by linebacker Mike Neal. As he dodged Neal, he ran into his right tackle. But Palmer alertly saw Fitzgerald totally uncovered across the field.
“We blew a call,” Hayward said. “We blew a coverage and he got open. I think everybody was kind of confused on it, but we shouldn’t be confused on the back end. It was a simple call for us. I think they were a little confused up front.”
From there, the future Hall of Fame receiver worked his magic. Just past midfield, he cut back between Matthews and cornerback Sam Shields. Inside the 35, he stiff-armed safety Burnett to the turf. He outran linebacker Jake Ryan’s tackle attempt around the 15. Finally, he was hauled down at the 5 by Hayward. One play later, Palmer’s short flip to Fitzgerald ended the game and the Packers’ season.
“We’ll continue to move forward and draw upon this experience, but it sucks,” Matthews said. “We’re talking about going back to OTAs in April and to have it come down to a big play is disheartening. But it’s what it is, you’ve got to deal with it and more power to Arizona, they obviously made enough plays to come out on top.”
Bill Huber is publisher of 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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.