There's one big difference between these Green Bay Packers and last year's model.
And, no, that difference isn't necessarily at quarterback.
When the Packers needed to make a play last season, more times than not, somebody delivered. When the Packers need to make a play this season, more times than not, the call has gone unanswered.
Stop Michael Turner late in the game against Atlanta, and maybe the Packers earn a come-from-behind victory instead of losing 27-24.
Stop the Buccaneers on one of two third-down plays in the fourth quarter, and perhaps the Packers win 21-20 instead of losing 30-21.
Pick up just a few more yards on their last drive against Tennessee, and Mason Crosby gets a chance to kick a winning field goal. Instead, the Packers lose 19-16 in overtime.
It was the same story against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. Make a tackle. Make a block. Complete a pass. Kick a dramatic field goal. All of those things could have prevented Sunday's devastating 28-27 loss at the Metrodome.
So, instead of being 5-4 and tied with the Chicago Bears for first place in the NFC North — or being 6-3 or 7-2 or even 8-1 — the Packers are mired in third place at 4-5 after their second consecutive last-seconds defeat.
It was a painful loss, especially for Aaron Rodgers, who took a beating at the hands of the Vikings' aggressive defense and gave Minnesota four points with a pair of safeties. Whether it was Chad Clifton's inability to handle Jared Allen or the interior line's inability to pick up the Vikings' blitzes or up-the-middle pressure, Rodgers didn't have a prayer for most of the game.
Because they couldn't protect Rodgers, the deep pass was eliminated from the game plan, which allowed the Vikings' defensive backs to make quick tackles to take away the receivers' run-after-catch ability.
And on those precious few occasions when Rodgers did have a little bit of time, the first-year starting quarterback was dazed and confused and unable to make a play against the Vikings' porous secondary.
According to the official stats, Rodgers was sacked four times and hit on six other occasions. In reality, though, Rodgers was hit at least 15 times in his 31 dropbacks. Frequently, he was drilled by full-throttled Vikings defenders.
"It was a combination of we didn't do the fundamentals the way we know how to and me probably holding the ball a little too long," Rodgers said. "They did a great job. You've got to give them credit."
Rodgers and his linemen would have been helped considerably had the Packers run the ball more and called a few screens to slow the Vikings' onslaught.
Ryan Grant provided a consistent threat with 16 carries for 75 yards and was the offense's only spark. But he was a forgotten man, for instance, early in the fourth quarter. With the Packers leading 24-21 early in the fourth quarter, an offsides gave Green Bay a first-and-5 from the Vikings' 47. A short run and two passes later, and the Packers were forced to punt after yet another failure to convert on third down (they were 1-of-11).
As for the screen game? It's been awful all season. The Packers tried it once and the Vikings saw it coming, leading to an ineligible-man-downfield penalty when Rodgers was forced to throw the ball to a receiver past the line of scrimmage.
Penalties were, as usual, a big problem. Green Bay, the NFL's leader in penalties and penalty yardage, was slapped with 10 flags for 80 yards. A biggie came midway through the fourth quarter, when Grant rumbled to the right for 15 yards to Minnesota's 12. Left guard Daryn Colledge, however, was called for holding.
Special teams, Will Blackmon's go-ahead punt return touchdown notwithstanding, weren't good. Punter Derrick Frost was brutal, with his low, short first kick practically handing the Vikings a quick seven points. And Blackmon's inexplicable decision to field a punt in the end zone — in Punt Returning 101, returners are taught to stand at the 10-yard line and not take a step backward — made the Vikings' second safety possible because the Packers were unable to flip the field position.
Of course, the Packers would have been blown out if not for their defense. Interceptions by Nick Collins (returned for a touchdown), Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams accounted for 17 points, and stopping Adrian Peterson fourth-and-1 set up a field goal. But, just like what happened against Atlanta, Tampa Bay and even Dallas, the Packers couldn't corral a quality running back in the game's biggest moments.
On a seven-play, 69-yard drive that led to the winning touchdown, Peterson got the ball six times. The Vikings faced just one third down on the drive — third-and-1, which Gus Frerotte converted with a short pass to Bobby Wade. Peterson's 29-yard touchdown was way too easy, with three of the Packers' top run defenders — Aaron Kampman, Colin Cole and Brady Poppinga — manhandled at the point of attack.
So, in a make-or-break two-game series against their chief NFC North rivals, the Packers are 0-1. They host Chicago next week. Win, and the Packers are right back in the race. Lose? Failure, as NASA's Gene Kranz told the imperiled Apollo 13 crew, is not an option.
Bill Huber is the Lead Analyst for Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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