With the NFL playoffs kicking off this weekend, here's a piece of optimistic news for you glass-is-half-full Packers fans:
Green Bay, which last weekend concluded a 6-10 season that left it four games behind the first-place Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North, finished 2-4 against playoff teams. That's not good enough, but the four losses came by a combined 11 points.
The common denominator between the wins and losses is easy to peg. In the wins, the Packers made plays. In the losses, they didn't.
In Week 1 against Minnesota, the Packers beat the hated Vikings 24-19. Will Blackmon returned a punt for a touchdown to give the Packers a 17-6 lead in the third quarter. After the Vikings pulled within 17-12 early in the fourth quarter, Ryan Grant ripped off a 52-yard to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Aaron Rodgers. The Vikings answered with a touchdown and got another crack with the ball in the final 2 minutes, but Atari Bigby's interception sealed the victory.
"It feels great," Rodgers said. "You've got to remind yourself it's just one win, but it was a big one. I think the talk this week was a lot about the Vikings, and I don't think enough about the kind of team that we had, so we definitely wanted to play well tonight and I think we did."
In Week 7, the Packers played their finest game of the season in a 34-14 romp over the Indianapolis Colts. The win is even more impressive in retrospect, considering the Colts had won their previous two games, then entered the playoffs on a nine-game winning streak.
Rodgers, his shoulder still hurting after the injury three weeks earlier at Tampa Bay, was an efficient 21-of-28 passing for 186 yards and a touchdown. Grant's 31 carries for 105 yards and a touchdown kept the Colts' defense on its toes. And the Packers' defense picked off eventual league MVP Peyton Manning twice. The first was returned 62 yards for a touchdown by Nick Collins to give the Packers a 24-7 lead early in the third quarter, and Aaron Rouse put the game away with his 99-yard runback.
"I thought our defense was excellent today, along with the crowd," coach Mike McCarthy said. "When you play great defense and having the crowd at Lambeau Field, that's what it looks like right there."
The four losses to playoff teams followed the Packers' season-long trend of falling short in crunch time.
In Week 5, the Packers were 2-2 and losers of two straight. Surely, a game against the plucky young Atlanta Falcons — with a first-year NFL head coach and a rookie starting quarterback — would get the Packers back on track. Instead, Matt Ryan and Co. raced to a 17-7 lead before Rodgers — who didn't throw a single full-speed pass at practice after injuring his throwing the shoulder the week before — rallied the Packers to a 17-17 tie.
But Jerious Norwood returned the ensuing kickoff 54 yards to set up the go-ahead field goal, then Rodgers was intercepted with less than 5 minutes to go to set up a touchdown that pushed Atlanta's lead to 27-17. Rodgers drove the Packers to a touchdown with 1:56 left, but Green Bay's defense couldn't stop Michael Turner as the Falcons ran out the clock.
After the bye, the Packers lost back-to-back games at Tennessee and Minnesota to fall to 4-5.
The Packers had ample opportunities to beat the undefeated Titans. Twice in the first three quarters, the Packers drove inside the Titans' 10-yard line but had to settle for field goals.
After Mason Crosby's third field goal of the game tied the game 16-16 with 5:35 remaining in regulation, the Packers' defense forced the Titans to go three-and-out. Rodgers drove the Packers from their 18-yard line to the Titans' 45, highlighted by a 20-yard completion to Donald Driver on third-and-4. But the drive stalled, and on third-and-10, Brandon Jackson stumbled after catching a short pass and managed just 2 yards, preventing Crosby from attempting a long field goal with 2 minutes to go.
A good punt pinned the Titans at their 8-yard line, but the Packers' defense not only couldn't get a stop but almost allowed Tennessee to drive to the winning field goal. Rob Bironas hit the upright as time expired, but the Titans won the overtime coin flip and converted two third downs en route to the winning field goal.
The loss at the Metrodome the next week was no less painful. Green Bay, the first team in 12 years to allow two safeties in a game, was thoroughly outclassed for most of the day but stunningly rallied from a 21-10 deficit to take a 24-21 lead in a span of less than 3 minutes in the third quarter on an interception return by Nick Collins and a punt return by Blackmon.
After the defense stuffed Adrian Peterson on fourth-and-1, a field goal by Crosby gave Green Bay a 27-21 lead with 6 minutes to go. But Peterson accounted for 64 of the Vikings' 69 yards on a go-ahead drive, culminated by his 29-yard touchdown run with 2:22 remaining.
Blackmon's kickoff return set up the offense at the 41, and Rodgers' near-interception turned into a 19-yard completion to Driver to the Vikings' 40. But McCarthy, with little confidence in his offensive line, got conservative, calling two runs and a short pass that moved the ball 6 yards. With 31 seconds to go, Crosby's 52-yard field goal missed to the right.
"We just have to dig deeper," Collins said. "We have to find some kind of way to win the close game. The five losses that we have, we were right in the game. At the end, we just can't pull it off. I don't know what we have to do, but we have to find a way to get the job done."
After destroying the Bears and being destroyed by the Saints to fall to 5-6, the Packers faced a must-win game against powerful Carolina.
Rodgers rallied the Packers from a 21-10 deficit to take a 28-21 lead on his third touchdown pass of the game, but Mark Jones' 51-yard kickoff return set up the tying touchdown. Green Bay's offense answered impressively, driving from its 20-yard to line to the Panthers' 7. On first-and-goal, Brandon Jackson ran for 6 yards to the 1. On second-and-goal, Jackson was stopped. On third-and-goal, fullback John Kuhn was stuffed. On the first play after the two-minute warning, Crosby's chip-shot field goal gave the Packers a 31-28 lead.
"We have to punch that in," right tackle Mark Tauscher said.
Jones returned the ensuing kickoff to the 45. On first down, Jake Delhomme hooked up with Steve Smith for a 54-yard gain over the Packers' best defender, Charles Woodson. On the next play, DeAngelo Williams ran for his fifth touchdown of the game to put Carolina in front.
Needing to drive the Packers 83 yards in the final 1:30, Rodgers was intercepted to kill their playoff hopes.
"It shows you how close the margin of error is in the NFL," defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. "Sometimes, when you have a great season, the ball bounces your way. When it's not, you have a poor season like we're having right now."
Next season, the Packers play five games against 2008 playoff teams: the Vikings twice, along with a home game against Baltimore and road games against Pittsburgh and Arizona.
Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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