Sunday School: Throw a Flag

Our W. Keith Roerdink steps to the lectern one last time this season to focus on three key lessons from the Packers' heart-breaking 51-45 overtime playoff loss to the Cardinals. Leading off: Aaron Rodgers won't say it, but the officiating was terrible.

Welcome to our final Sunday School of the season. Keith provides three key lessons from the Packers' 51-45 overtime playoff loss at Arizona. The officiating was terrible and Green Bay's defense was even worse. And despite two plays that will haunt him, No. 12 delivered a performance for the ages that gives hope for the future.

1.) Can't Rely On Help From Officials, But …

Often, blaming the officiating in a loss is akin to grasping at straws. It's excuse-making for a performance that required intervention from the men in stripes to secure a win. The Packers' defense was virtually nonexistent. That, and two costly turnovers to start the game, is why the Packers were cleaning out their lockers on Monday. Aaron Rodgers certainly didn't point to the penalties in the loss. Far from it — he put the blame on himself. The Packers' defense refused to get caught up in it, either. So, allow me to do the honors: Green Bay's loss to Arizona featured some of the most glaring officiating gaffes ever to be seen in a game of this magnitude. And to not comment on it, is to ignore the obvious.

It wasn't just Michael Adams grabbing ahold of Aaron Rodgers' face mask on the final play in overtime — a picture that stared at fans from tens of thousands of newspapers and computer screens across Packer Nation the next day. There's no doubt that a proper call should've resulted in a 15-yard penalty and a first down, rather than a score by linebacker Karlos Dansby that put the finishing touches on one of the most exciting playoff games in NFL history. Had that been the lone no-call, it would've been easier to understand, though no less painful. The referee did not have a great angle to see Adams' hand pulling on Rodgers' face mask and was watching the football bounce off Rodgers' foot and into Dansby's grasp.

But that final, glaring miss, by officials capped a second-half of jaw-dropping and mind-numbing no-calls. There was an illegal-hands-to-the-face call on Cullen Jenkins, who was held and blocked into Kurt Warner. Of course, the holding on Jenkins was missed. On two occasions, Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald knocked cornerback Charles Woodson to the ground before catching touchdowns, though offensive pass interference was called on neither. The first instance might have been a judgment call, but the second one was a no-brainer. You simply cannot shove a defender to the ground while running your route. And two plays before the fatal fumble recovery by Dansby, Rodgers was on the receiving end of a brutal helmet-to-helmet (or more like helmet-to-chin-and-face-mask) hit by Arizona's Bertrand Berry. But there wasn't a yellow flag to be found, which meant no 15-yard penalty and no first down.

If any of those calls are made, it changes the complexion of the game. We'll never know if it would've changed the outcome, but to miss so many in a game of this magnitude is inexcusable.

2.) Schedule Skewed Defensive Ranking

Steve Breaston found plenty of room in the secondary.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
You can only play the teams on your schedule. You can only give your best against the teams that line up in front of you. Throughout the regular season, the Packers did just that. And after struggling early, they grew into defensive coordinator Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme and became one of the league's top defenses, ending the regular season ranked No. 2 overall and tops against the run. They boasted the league's defensive most valuable player in cornerback Charles Woodson and one of its best young playmakers in linebacker Clay Matthews. Against the Cardinals, those two combined for a key play when Woodson stripped Fitzgerald and Matthews recovered. Matthews notched the unit's only sack. But those would be about the only plays the defense would make in its worst performance of the season. That wasn't exactly ideal timing. It raises at least a few questions about how good this unit really is, because against a high-octane playoff offense, it fell flat.

Warner carved up the Packers in historic fashion on his way to 379 yards on 29-of-33 passing with five touchdowns in one of the most prolific performances any quarterback has ever given. He had more touchdowns than incompletions. How absolutely mind-boggling and incredible is that? Warner was a Hall of Famer coming into this game. The 38-year-old might be first ballot after it finished.

Warner's day continued a disturbing trend that started for Green Bay back at the Metrodome on Oct. 5. In two games against Brett Favre, one against Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and on Sunday against Warner, Green Bay was lit up like a Christmas tree. Those three passers picked apart the zones, zeroed in on weak links and exploited matchups time after time on their way to victories. Receivers ran unchecked across the field, and if any defensive adjustments were made, it certainly didn't look like it.

Favre, Roethlisberger and Warner combined for 15 touchdowns, nearly 1,400 yards and had an average quarterback rating of 134.9 in four games. New Orleans' Drew Brees likely would've added to that total had Green Bay won and faced the Saints in the divisional round. But they would've loved the opportunity to find out for sure.

As for the Cardinals matchup, while it made sense to put Woodson on Fitzgerald, at some point it might have been worth a look to double Fitzgerald with two other defenders and play Woodson in the middle of the defense. Or maybe blitz Jarrett Bush to pressure Warner and remove your biggest liability from coverage. Capers obviously felt compelled to stick with what got them there and wait for the turnover to come. Unfortunately, Warner's not the type to make mistakes. Especially when all he needed to do was step up in the pocket and look for Steve Breaston or Early Doucet streaking down the middle — not to mention Fitzgerald. Of course, the players need to make plays in whatever defense they're in, and that just wasn't happening.

Perhaps most troubling was that Arizona rushed for 156 yards on the newly minted and much-talked about No. 1-ranked Packers run defense. Rookie Chris "Beanie" Wells had 14 carries for 91 yards, including a 42-yard backbreaker when inside linebacker A.J. Hawk couldn't make the stop. Hawk wasn't the only one with a shot at Wells, but fundamental tackling skills didn't make the plane ride out west. It was a disappointing ending for a defense that had done so many great things for so much of the season — despite missing Pro Bowlers Al Harris and Aaron Kampman down the stretch.  Capers — and GM Ted Thompson, for that matter — will have the next six months to figure out how to turn a statistical leader with playmakers young and old into a unit that can defeat a playoff-savvy quarterback and upstart running game.

3.) No Win, No Immortality, But Rodgers' Play Gives Hope For Future

In good hands with Rodgers.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
If Aaron Rodgers puts just a little more air under the ball on the first play of overtime, Greg Jennings — who already had eight receptions for 130 yards and a touchdown — coasts into the end zone, giving Green Bay a win in one of the most exciting games in NFL history. It also puts the pass into the pantheon of greatest plays in Packers history with Bart Starr's quarterback sneak in the Ice Bowl, Favre's walk-off touchdown to Jennings in overtime at Denver in 2007, and Desmond Howard's 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXI. Rodgers, in just his second year starting, becomes immortal.

Instead, he'd look all too mortal two plays later when he lost the ball on a blitz by Adams, only to have it bounce up off his foot and into a the grasp of lDansby, who roared 17 yards for the winning points. It was a crushing end to an amazing comeback that no one could've anticipated after Green Bay turned the ball over on two of its first three offensive plays, including a tipped-ball interception on the first play that Rodgers never should've thrown.

In between that play, which Dansby got a hand on, and the final play, which Dansby ran in, Rodgers put on a performance that was nothing short of amazing. Most of the fireworks came in a second half when the Cardinals apparently played the same "Cover No One" scheme as the Packers.

After going just 9-for-14 and 104 yards in the first half, when Rodgers got sacked four times and missed some open receivers, he got the ball with 11:15 left in the third quarter, down 31-10, and rewrote a blowout into one of the greatest comebacks in NFL postseason history. Rodgers led Green Bay on an 11-play drive that ended with a 6-yard score by Jennings, who needed just one hand to pull it in. One of the best-executed onside kicks you'll ever see gave Rodgers the ball right back, and he took Green Bay 57 yards for another score that closed the gap to 31-24. Jordy Nelson made it past the pylon on a 10-yard score, but it was a 43-yard catch-and-run by man-child tight end Jermichael Finley that set up the play. Just 22, Finley set a Packers postseason record with 159 receiving yards.

Another Warner-to-Fitzgerald touchdown was answered by a  Rodgers-to-James Jones 30-yard score minutes later. When the Packers' defense forced the Cardinals to punt for the first time, Rodgers passed for 66 yards in two plays to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by John Kuhn that tied things at 38. Each quarterback would score one last time, with Warner finding a wide-open Breaston deep down the middle to push it to 45 points, and Rodgers firing to modern-day "Toolbox" Spencer Havner, Green Bay's third tight end, to knot it again. That last score was fueled by a 22-yard sideline reception by Jennings that might have been even more impressive than his one-handed touchdown grab earlier. Kicker Neil Rackers' odd, high-speed miss from 34 yards on the ensuing drive sent the game into overtime.

Rodgers finished with a team-record 422 passing yards and franchise playoff-record-tying four passing touchdowns. He also had a second-quarter rushing touchdown. Those 422 yards were 90 more than Lynn Dickey's previous mark, set on Jan. 16, 1983, at Dallas, and stands as the sixth-highest total in NFL playoff history. While that first interception and last series of the game will no doubt lead to some insomnia for Rodgers, Packers fans should sleep well knowing that No. 12 will be running one of the league's most explosive offenses for years to come.

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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at

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