Defense can't make key stops

The Green Bay Packers' 2005 season has turned into football's version of the Bill Murray comedy "Groundhog Day." Except there's nothing funny about this story.

Stop me if you've heard this before. The special teams are blah, at best. The offense can't get out of its own way. The Packers' defense plays just well enough to keep the team in the game but not well enough to win.

The Packers lose.

Former Packers general manager Ron Wolf recently said Brett Favre remains an elite quarterback but he's surrounded by an NFL Europe-caliber team. Unfortunately for the Packers, the Rhein Fire and Hamburg Sea Devils aren't on the schedule, so they are in danger of breaking the franchise single-season record of 12 losses, set in 1986, 1988 and 1991.

These Packers aren't awful, but they are just bad enough to lose.

Injuries, coach Mike Sherman and, to an increasing degree, Favre have gotten the lion's share of the blame for the Packers' 2-9 predicament. The defense is routinely let off the hook when it comes to doling out criticism, probably because the Jim Bates-led unit at least has a clue, unlike the disaster that was Bob Slowik's 2004 defense.

This defense is just good enough that it doesn't get overwhelmed, but it doesn't rise to the occasion when needed.

Remember the Cleveland game in Week 2, when the defense blew a 19-7 lead at home in the fourth quarter?

Remember "Cadillac" Williams running wild, allowing Tampa Bay to run out the final 5 minutes at Lambeau Field in Week 3?

Remember the Packers giving up 32 points in a Week 4 loss at Carolina?

Remember Minnesota rallying from a 17-0 halftime deficit in a Week 7 loss at Minnesota?

Remember Minnesota rallying from a 14-7 halftime deficit — including scoring drives of 88, 62 and 58 yards — in a Week 11 loss at Lambeau against Minnesota?

It happened again Sunday at Philadelphia.

If there was ever a game when the Packers could ride their defense to victory, Sunday's was it.

The Eagles' list of problems rivals the Packers'.

The Pro Bowl quarterback, Donovan McNabb, was placed on injured reserve, replaced by a guy, Mike McMahon, who has never completed 50 percent of his passes over the course of the season.

The running game ranked dead last in the league in yards per game.

The offensive line was without three starters, and a fourth, Shawn Andrews, wasn't expected to play. Todd Herremans, a rookie starting his first game, manned the all-important left tackle position.

Terrell Owens has been suspended for the season. The rest of the receiving corps is more a who's-that than a who's-who.

So what did the Eagles do?

Run the ball down the Packers' throats to the tune of 180 yards — or 105 more than their season average — and turn critical third and fourth downs into first downs.

Look at the Eagles' first scoring drive. On third-and-14, McMahon hit tight end L.J. Smith for 16 yards.

The Packers fumbled away the ensuing kickoff. While top-flight defenses hold the opponent to a field goal, Brian Westbrook sprinted through the Packers' defense for a 27-yard touchdown.

The defense kept the game tight, allowing the Packers to surge in front, 14-10, by halftime. But as has been the case too often this season, the defense couldn't slam the door.

On the Eagles' second drive of the second half, McMahon opened with two completions that covered 29 yards. The killer play, however, was a fourth-and-1 play from the Packers' 46-yard line. Nick Barnett had Westbrook in his sights but whiffed, and Westbrook dashed 22 yards for the first down. That play set up an Eagles field goal.

The Packers clung to their 14-13 lead when the Eagles took the ball at their 20-yard line with 10:41 left in the game. The defense had forced consecutive three-and-out series, but they wilted when it counted most. The Eagles gained 60 yards in a dozen plays to net the go-ahead field goal. The Eagles probably never should have got into scoring position. Brady Poppinga stuffed Westbrook for a 3-yard loss, but the Eagles overcame the second-and-13 predicament.

Giving up 19 points is no sin. But the Eagles are a team with a lousy quarterback and just one weapon, Westbrook, to focus on. The Packers, with Brett Favre and Donald Driver, have an embarrassment of riches in comparison. The Packers lost again, and the defense deserves as much blame as the error-prone Favre and the slippery-fingered returners.

Lawrence is a regular contributor to Send comments to

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