It is a place where I warned few would go if the Packers were to fall at home to the New York Giants, thus going one and done in the playoffs after a 15-1 regular season.
That is, how much of a distraction did the events involving the tragic loss of Offensive Coordinator Joe Philbin’s son play into preparing for the Divisional Playoff?
If there was, no one in the Packers organization is going to dare admit it, which would be well played. For anyone on the Green Bay payroll to suggest as such would serve as a disrespect to the Giants and even a trivialization of the tragedy.
The Packers did not just lose. They had their faces stomped on with a hob-nailed boot. As recently as a few days ago, writers were still debating whether the 2011 Packers should be ranked as the best team in franchise history.
First off, the team actually had to repeat as World Champions before even presenting such an argument. Also it is impossible to compare apples to oranges – or this year’s team to a 1960’s Lombardi era team.
But even before Sunday I was having a hard time convincing myself that a team that finished a dead-last 32nd in total defense could be the franchise’s best team ever, 15-1 regular season record or not.
Credit the Giants for making that conversation mute for good.
It was figured that the worst case scenario was that the Giants would light up Green Bay’s D again, but that Aaron Rodgers and company would keep pace and the game would be a high-scoring shootout decided in the final minutes.
Except it didn’t turn out that way.
The Packers’ offense came out flat with their worst performance of the season at obviously the wrong time. Aaron Rodgers finished the game with a season-low 78.5 QB rating. Obviously his rusty receivers didn’t help his cause. Jermichael Finley (whose stock clearly dropped this year) dropped several passes, Randall Cobb nearly fumbled on a kickoff return, Greg Jennings DID fumble following a reception (despite Instant Replay not reversing the call). The Packers came away a -3 in turnover differential; the team made more than enough miscues to lose the game to a talented and well-coached opposition.
And then there was the failed on-side kick attempt early in the second quarter, which screamed of a team in desperation and sent a message that the brain-trust didn’t figure they could beat Big Blue straight up. The well-disciplined Giants held their water and recovered, and Green Bay was fortunate that it didn’t result in points.
There was not one moment following the opening kickoff that I felt good about Green Bay’s chances, but I held hope when it appeared they would head into the locker room down only 13-10. To be only down by three, and receiving second half kickoff, after playing terrible in the first half – there was plenty of reason for hope.
That was before (1) failing to tackle Ahmad Bradshaw before he got out of bounds, and then (2) the Hail Mary.
Hakeem Nicks had his defender boxed out, and in all there were three Giants players to the Packers two. As the ball was still in the air, I knew what the result was going to be. Never has a Hail Mary been converted so easily. That little two play sequence was not just on the defense (two of them currently appearing in State Farm spots) but the coaching staff as well – a psychological as well as physical dagger.
Then there was Rodgers getting sacked on fourth and five with the score still just 20-13 early in the fourth – and suddenly a punt into the end zone didn’t seem so bad compared to the Giants getting it at the 45, bleeding clock and eventually scoring a FG.
When the Pack turned it over yet again on the next series deep in their own territory, the culmination of mistakes officially became un-survivable.
But going back to the rust the team showed, and the possible distraction leading up to the game in light of the Philbin situation. There is one prior parallel we can go back on, the 2005 Indianapolis Colts.
Like this year’s Packers, the ’05 Colts won their first 13 games and clinched the #1 seed in the AFC, and the debate became would Tony Dungy’s team elect to chase a 16-0 record, or rest Peyton Manning and many of the team’s other starters.
Playing all of the regulars, the Colts lost at home in Week 15 to the San Diego Chargers, which broke up the perfect season and made Dungy’s decision to rest Manning and others somewhat easier.
But on December 22, 2005, the Colts organization and the rest of the NFL fraternity was shaken by the news that Tony Dungy’s 18-year old son had been found dead in a Tampa, FL apartment. Dungy immediately left the team and then-assistant Jim Caldwell assumed the team’s coaching duties for the Week 16 game in Seattle.
The Colts lost that game, then Dungy returned for the team’s Week 17 game at home v. Arizona, which the Colts won to finish 14-2. Peyton Manning only played sparingly in both games.
But then came Indy’s home divisional playoff game versus the sixth-seeded (and eventual Super Bowl champion) Pittsburgh Steelers, where the Colts fell behind 21-3 and a late rally fell short in a 21-18 loss. That was the game best remembered for the Jerome Bettis fumble and Ben Roethlisberger saving the ensuing return from going for a touchdown, and then Mike Vanderjagt becoming the convenient scapegoat after missing a potential game-tying field goal.
The similarities between the ’05 Colts and ’11 Packers are obvious. Both chased the possibility of a 16-0 record much of the season. Both endured a horrible tragedy involving a coaching staff member late in the year. Both teams were in position to rest starters in Weeks 16/17 (or in the Packers case Week 17). And both came up flat and were one and done at home against an opposition riding a wave of momentum – and it will not surprise me at all if the ’11 Giants follow the path of the ’05 Steelers/’07 Giants/’10 Packers and win it all.
How much does the blame go on rust and how much on the obvious distraction that put the game of football in its proper perspective?
Probably a combination of both, in both cases.
I don’t question Mike McCarthy’s decision to keep Aaron Rodgers on ice for Week 17. Matt Flynn deserved an audition, and it was also a classic damned if you do/damedn if you don’t dilemma. What if Rodgers plays two series and got hurt? The second-guessing would be ten-fold what it is now.
And Joe Philbin found a need to return to the press box for the Division Playoff, citing the fact that his team is his family too. I’m sure that it in a small way it also serves to begin the healing process, as painful as it may be. It would have been even more painful for Philbin to be at home helplessly watching on TV.
Fact is, last year’s Packers peaked at the right time, while this year’s squad slowly became flawed and their weaknesses more apparent towards the end of the campaign. What looked like an odds-on bet to repeat for most of the season became anything but.
The good news is that the Packers window is far from closed. Aaron Rodgers is at the peak of his career. The team knows what needs to be addressed in the draft: offensive line, featured running back, defense, secondary in particular. And Nick Collins’ injury way back in Week 2 proved huge.
What concerns me more is the Pack’s recent playoff record at home, now losing four of their last six. Lambeau Field is supposed to be as intimidating as any venue, especially at playoff time. Before 2002 the franchise had never lost at home, now they have lost four of their last six. Remember Michael Vick in the snow? Randy Moss and the moon? And now the Giants twice. The only two wins have been versus Seattle, the Al Harris interception after the ’03 season, and the divisional playoff win four years later.
As has been seen with other recent contenders such as the Colts, Steelers, Patriots, etc., not everything breaks right – especially with 11 other teams in the playoffs.
The timing of the Philbin family tragedy did hurt, but this team still isn’t far off – there will be other chances.