Crunch-time play calling remains a problem
The minus-13 temperature didn't bother Aaron Rodgers. Neither did the 9 mph wind. In fact, it might as well have been 60 degrees the way No. 12 played Monday night at Soldier Field. After three quarters, Rodgers was 20-of-31 passing for 226 yards with two touchdowns and an interception on a pass tipped at the line. So why, with the score tied 17-17 and the game on the line, did coach Mike McCarthy take the ball out of his quarterback's hand?
McCarthy maintains he hasn't lost confidence in his quarterback, despite Rodgers' inability to lead them to a win in the waning minutes of the game. But if that's true, then McCarthy's play selection is even more terrible than at first glance. After Rodgers hit James Jones for a 9-yard gain on third-and-8 that took them to down to the 2-minute mark, McCarthy turned to Ryan Grant, who was averaging 2.6 yards per carry to that point. Grant rushed for a yard, and then after a Chicago timeout, ran for 4 yards and minus-1 yard to set up Mason Crosby's 38-yard field-goal attempt that was blocked. That Rodgers had no option to change any of the running plays makes those calls even worse. When you're at the tail end of a five-win debacle of a season and no shot at a winning record, let alone the playoffs, you take a shot at the end zone.
Great teams win close games. Good teams win some of them. The Packers have lost seven games by four points or less.
Another defensive meltdown gift-wraps a Bears win
Two interceptions, three sacks and a collapse when it mattered most. How does this keep happening? It defies explanation. Green Bay held Chicago to 210 yards of offense, stopped the Bears nine out of 12 times on third down and had an interception apiece by Pro Bowlers Charles Woodson and Nick Collins.
But leading by a touchdown and facing the Bears at midfield in the closing minutes, it was going to come down to who wanted it more. Was there really any doubt? Rookie running back Matt Forte ripped off a 28-yard gain. Green Bay went on to give up a fourth-and-1 play to Forte and ultimately the tying score. In overtime, the Packers surrendered a 17-yard pass to tight end Greg Olsen and compounded the matter with a 15-yard penalty for an iffy horse-collar tackle. From there, Chicago was a stone's throw from the game-winning field goal.
Special teams in line for lump of coal
It's become a matter how the special teams are going to screw things up and not if. And Monday night's disappointment was no exception, though a blocked field goal was definitely a surprise. Crosby's low kick that was blocked by Bears defensive end Alex Brown ended a horrible evening for Mike Stock's unit. Crosby was also short on a 46-yard attempt and put a kickoff out of bounds.
Earlier in the game, the (lack of) kickoff coverage team gave up a 70-yard return to Danieal Manning that set up a field goal. Punter Jeremy Kapinos averaged 27.8 yards on four punts (compared to 41.3 on six by Chicago's Brad Maynard). While one punt was a nice 44-yarder into the wind, his low 33-yard boot with the wind in the fourth turned into a 24-yard return for Devin Hester, which set the Bears up at the Packers' 49-yard line with 3:11 left. Of course, the Bears would go on to score the tying touchdown.
There also was Jarrett Bush getting pushed into a punted ball that the Bears would recover and Will Blackmon nearly avoiding (or perhaps not) a ball glancing off his foot. The latter play was reviewed and resulted in a touchback. The only bright spot was a fake punt that was nicely executed by backup quarterback Matt Flynn.
Nelson continues to prove his worth
He doesn't get his hands on the ball a lot, but when he does, Jordy Nelson is making the most of it. Against Chicago, he only had two catches for 27 yards, but as is becoming habit for the rookie, they both went for first downs. On the first catch, Nelson ran an inside slant, but broke off his route when he saw Rodgers scrambling to his right and came back for a 15-yard gain. In the third quarter, Nelson slipped on his route, but managed to make a 12-yard catch from a seated position.
Nelson didn't necessarily seem like the best pick for the Packers last April when they had Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones and Ruvell Martin. But given the equality of talent at the bottom of the first round and top of the second, it remains a solid pick in hindsight, thanks to Nelson's clutch catches, tough downfield blocking and the occasional big kickoff return. On the year, he's averaged 11.2 yards per catch on 32 receptions with a pair of touchdowns. He may never be a No. 1 receiver, but he's got the physical tools and work ethic to be a good No. 2.
NFC North is Island of Misfit Toys
So, the Bears keep their chances for an NFC North crown alive and the Vikings will fight to hang on next week against a Giants team with nothing to play for. But really, is there a less relevant playoff entry than the NFC North winner? OK, maybe the Cardinals in the NFC West, who apparently decided to take some time off after locking that up. Forte aside, Chicago's offense is mostly terrible. The rookie runner is also their leading receiver, which should tell you something. Quarterback Kyle Orton stares down his wideouts and tight ends every time he drops back and their offensive line play is inconsistent. The special teams, including the formerly awe-inspiring Hester, are nothing to be scared. Sure, the defense can play well when it wants and linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher are forces but overall, this team looks one and done.
Then there are the Vikings. Everyone knows Adrian Peterson is the best back in football, but if you stop him, Tarvaris Jackson probably isn't going to beat you. Like Chicago, the defense is a strength and special teams are fairly ordinary.
At the end of the day, both of these teams, despite their obvious flaws, are better than the Packers. Talk about putting the season into perspective. And while a division crown always is worth winning, the representative from this group seems destined to be manhandled by someone in the NFC East or NFC South, probably sooner than later.
W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at email@example.com.
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