T.J. Lang could no longer hide the pain. For weeks he did it by just showing up and doing the dirty work along the offensive line for the Green Bay Packers. And last Sunday, for a moment, he did it with a towel over his face sitting on the bench during the second half.
This injury — a broken foot from earlier in the season that never fully healed — was too much to overcome. First physically, then mentally. As Lang dropped the towel, he was sobbing, a mix of emotions he described at his locker after the game.
Every man has his breaking point, even the team’s resident “tough guy.”
If one image could capture the final chapter of a remarkable turnaround 2016 season for the Packers, this was it. They, like Lang, simply ran out of gas. Just ask coach Mike McCarthy, who said as much.
In an NFC Championship loss — a blowout one, too — the Packers found a different type of pride to their season. They “ran the table” just to get into the playoffs after starting 4-6. Then, they pulled off two playoff wins, the second feeling like a victory to get to the Super Bowl when they beat the No. 1 seed Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium.
Those positive vibes and the right arm of Aaron Rodgers, however, only covered up what was bubbling beneath the surface. This was a team taxed to the max and the dam was about to break.
They certainly gave it a superhero’s effort. Jordy Nelson playing with broken ribs. Davante Adams with a sprained ankle. Geronimo Allison nursing a hammy. Morgan Burnett a quad. Ten others were listed on the injury report against only four for the Falcons, who had the coveted playoff bye two weeks prior.
Bumps and bruises and sprains and strains are common for many players late in the NFL season. Injuries never will be an excuse and the Packers never really used them as one. But perhaps the toll of the long run was most evident when the Packers finished the game with at least seven additional injured players. They were so short along the offensive line that they had to use defensive tackle Letroy Guion at guard to finish up.
By that point in the game, the white towel had already been raised in what would become the Packers’ worst playoff loss since 2002. In the end, even with Rodgers on a hot streak, they had little chance to go toe-to-toe with the high-flying Falcons. Quarterback Matt Ryan took advantage of a young Packers cornerback group that basically gave him whatever yardage he wanted underneath for fear of getting beat deep. Holding them to field goals in the red zone was really the Packers only chance going up against the league’s top-rated passer.
If there was a turning point to when the 2016 Packers’ Super Bowl dreams may have been crushed, it happened well before fullback Aaron Ripkowski’s fumble last Sunday or even the midseason, four-game losing streak. Really, it happened way back in Week 1.
At Jacksonville, the Packers lost Pro Bowl cornerback Sam Shields to a concussion. He never returned. On defense, he was the one player the Packers could ill-afford to lose to have a chance against the top passers in the NFL, let alone the best. The Packers’ young cornerback group was banged up and outmatched all season. They had their moments, yes, but were beaten far too often and conceded way too much without the speedy veteran to count on. The final game was a resounding final statement.
That put the offense on an almost impossible mission to match the Falcons possession-for-possession. So, when there was a rare missed field goal by Crosby, uncharacteristic dropped passes, and the aforementioned fumble — mistakes rarely seen down the stretch by the Packers — the game and the season was essentially over by halftime.
Winning each week in the NFL, let alone in the postseason, is difficult regardless of opponent. Now imagine playing, for all intents and purposes, in an elimination game each week over nine straight weeks. The Packers won eight of those, showing mettle few thought could reverse a lost season.
The eye-opener came against Seattle, a team that ended the Packers season in 2014, when the ball bounced the Packers’ way to the tune of six turnovers. After that came a run of three straight NFC North wins culminating in a division clincher at Detroit.
That Jan. 1 game was just about the only breather the Packers had during a grueling run. Before kickoff, they had clinched a playoff berth but not yet the division and a home playoff game. Add in three playoff games, and the Packers soldiered on for 16 straight weeks without a break. (Their bye was back in Week 4 with a mini-bye following a Thursday night game on Oct. 20.) Not since the NFL instituted the bye week in 1990 have the Packers played in as many consecutive games.
What a ride it was. And an exhausting one at that.
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.