The table was set for the Packers. Washington and Atlanta lost on Sunday. All the Packers had to do to keep pace with Chicago was beat the Titans to clinch a playoff berth for the first time since 1998. Instead, the Packers stumbled against the Titans and lost 26-20 before a record crowd of 68,804.
Green Bay's players and coaches were obviously disappointed. A couple of turnovers at the end of the first half didn't help. Allowing backup running back Skip Hicks to break loose for a career-high 142 yards didn't help, either. Woulda, coulda, didn't. Why?
Brett Favre put it best about Green Bay's inability to play well after a big game: inexperience. The Packers are a fairly young team in all aspects. And as injuries pile up, especially on defense, they're only getting younger. On Sunday, Green Bay started 10 players between the offense and defense that made the starting lineup because of injuries or promotion in the past two seasons. That's not to make an excuse for losing to the Titans. Tennessee entered the game with many more on the injury report than Green Bay and found a way to win.
But Green Bay's loss to Tennessee was a perfect example of how the Packers' younger players are in the process of learning how to win big games. The Packers played without four of their regular starters of this season on defense, and were forced to do some shuffling on the offensive line and special teams because of injuries.
Third-year pro Cletidus Hunt started for defensive end John Thierry. Rookie linebacker Torrance Marshall was inserted just before game time for Chris Gizzi, who was supposed to play for Nate Wayne. Rookie Bhawoh Jue has been learning on the job in place of LeRoy Butler, who will be out for the rest of the season. First-year nose tackle Rod Walker has been rotating with veteran Jim Flanigan to pick up the slack for Gilbert Brown. Third-year wide receiver Donald Driver received more playing time against the Titans because Corey Bradford developed leg cramps in the first half. Driver made some big catches, including a seven-yard touchdown catch that gave Green Bay a 10-2 lead.
For the most part the younger players are holding their own and not making any big mistakes, which is the encouraging news. But when it comes to making game-turning plays, such as the ones that veterans like Vonnie Holliday, Bernardo Harris, Bill Schroeder and Favre made against Tennessee, the younger players are coming up short when needed most. As a result, letdowns will happen.
Here's how Favre sees it:
"We have a young football team. We have good guys. We have good character guys. We have a great coaching staff. An organization couldn't ask for anything more. I don't question the effort that guys gave today. It was the same effort that we gave against Jacksonville. We made a few more plays in that game, but sometimes we're just questioning whether or not guys know how or believe in themselves enough to make it happen.
"Trust me, I'd much rather be up by 21 points in the fourth quarter. I wasn't, but I knew I was going to give it everything I had. I know how to get that done. You don't always do it. But you'd like everyone in the huddle (to say) 'Hey, I'll do whatever it takes. Throw it my way.' Not that guys don't feel that way, but you just wonder sometimes. Like I said, the effort's there. I would just hope that our guys, if we're in that situation, would say, 'Hey, come to me. Do whatever it takes.'"
Many of Green Bay's regular starters are hurting, playing despite injuries. If the Packers are going to succeed in the playoffs, they need to get even more out of younger receivers like Bubba Franks, David Martin, Driver and Bradford. Defensive linemen like rookie Jamal Reynolds and Hunt will have to make bigger contributions and Jue will have to not only hold his own but make some big plays. That might be asking a lot, but if the Packers intend on doing any damage in the playoffs, that's what has to be done.
Why do the Packers stumble after a big win? It's the lack of preparing mentally for the next challenge, which boils down to inexperience. The faster the younger players learn that, the quicker Green Bay will be able to avoid letdowns like the one that took place in Tennessee.
No one ever said Green Bay's return to the playoffs would be easy.