Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers looks at the replay screen from his knees during the third quarter of Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game against the New York Giants at Lambeau Field. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
The Green Bay Packers’ spectacular 2011 regular season went poof in little more than three hours Sunday.
For the second time in four years, the underdog New York Giants swaggered into Lambeau Field in the playoffs and crushed what appeared a seemingly inevitable Packers’ ride to the Super Bowl.
Coach Tom Coughlin’s Giants, who won the NFC championship game here in January 2008, upset the Packers again by winning the battle at the line of scrimmage, forcing turnovers from a team that rarely turns the ball over and exploiting a defense that up to now had taken away the ball enough to overcome its glaring shortcomings.
On a night of surprises, the Giants produced the rarest of sights: Fans decked out in blue lined the first several rows of Lambeau, stretching nearly the length of the field in seats vacated behind the Giants’ bench in celebration of their team’s 37-20 win over the Packers in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.
“Fifteen-and-one was fun, but it doesn’t mean anything,” cornerback Charles Woodson said in summing up the shocked and empty feeling in the Packers’ locker room. “We play this game for one reason. It’s not for the individual things you do, it’s not for the records. It’s for the Lombardi Trophy, and we fell short.”
The Packers were 7½- to 8-point favorites to win this game and substantial favorites to advance to and win the Super Bowl in Indianapolis in three weeks after ripping through their regular-season schedule with win after win after win behind an offense that for much of the season appeared able to score almost at will.
But the Giants’ peaking defense kept the Packers from dominating offensively and ended several promising drives by prying four turnovers — an interception by quarterback Aaron Rodgers and fumbles by halfback Ryan Grant, fullback John Kuhn and Rodgers — from a team that had turned the ball over only 14 times all regular season.
By the time the poised Eli Manning hit Mario Manningham for a 4-yard touchdown the first play after Grant’s fumble, the Giants had a staggering 30-13 lead with 6:48 to play. The Packers would have needed a near miracle to keep the team’s first 15-win regular season from going for naught.
“We play to win championships,” Rodgers said. “You win a championship and you’re kind of at the top of the mountain, and you forget kind of how bad this feeling is. Had it after the 2009 season when we lost to Arizona (in the playoffs), and it sucks. This team, this organization, this fan base expects championships. We had a championship-caliber regular season and didn’t play well today.”
The Packers can point to several things that went terribly wrong in this defeat, starting with that turnover differential that had been its greatest strength all season.
Kuhn’s fumble on a run up the middle in the second quarter set up the Giants at the Packers’ 34 for a field goal that put them up 13-10.
Defensive end Osi Umenyiora’s strip sack of Rodgers after splitting a double team by left tackle Chad Clifton and left guard T.J. Lang stopped the promising Packers’ drive to open the third quarter at the Giants’ 30, with the Packers badly needing to cut into a 10-point Giants lead.
When safety Antrel Rolle punched the ball out of Grant’s arm with just under 7 minutes to play, the Giants’ 10-point lead ballooned to an insurmountable 17 points.
The Packers were fortunate a fourth fumble wasn’t called on a replay challenge in the first quarter when receiver Greg Jennings appeared to lose the ball just before his leg hit the ground, though referee Bill Leavy disagreed.
“The turnover ratio is something we take a lot of pride in, something we spend a lot of time on,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “We’ve been excessive, frankly, in handling the football in the winter weather preparing for the opportunity in playoff games, and we did not do a very good job handling the football. Turnover ratio is something that we don’t lose very often. Quarterback (passer-rating) differential, we were plus-42 for the season. So, we did not play to our identity.”
The Packers also can point to the kind of mistakes they rarely made in finishing as the NFL’s highest-scoring offense in the regular season.
They dropped at least five passes, possibly six, depending on how you view receiver Greg Jennings’ miss on a difficult catch in the corner of the end zone on a third down that left the Packers kicking a field goal that cut the lead to 20-13. There also was Rodgers’ rare misfire when he improvised, then overthrew Jennings for a possible 29-yard touchdown on the Packers’ first drive, which also ended with a field goal.
Rodgers’ counterpart outplayed him for the first time this season. His passer rating of 78.5 was his lowest of the season; Manning’s was 114.5. The Giants put more pressure on Rodgers than Manning faced. Their four-man rushes and occasional blitzes collapsed the pocket, and Rodgers’ mobility kept several drives alive on seven runs for 66 yards. The Packers put up 388 yards total, but that wasn’t nearly enough to overcome the turnovers.
“The protection — those are things that, based on where I was standing on the field, I thought (Rodgers) played like he normally does, just the plays he was making with his feet,” McCarthy said. “Yeah, we missed some opportunities, one to Greg and this and that, but I thought Aaron made a lot of plays.”
The Packers also can point to their greatest source of problems all season, a defense that gave up long gainers on an almost weekly basis. The last time the teams played, in December, the Packers blitzed regularly but were scorched by Manning for 347 yards passing and 447 yards total in their last-play 38-35 win.
So this time, defensive coordinator Dom Capers often rushed four or even only three players and played more coverage, but to little avail. The pass rush that has been absent most of the season again was nearly nonexistent, and Manning threw for 330 yards. Most telling was that on third downs he was 7-for-11 passing, with all seven completions converting the first down.
There also were the two egregious errors that led to 14 points by the Giants in the first half.
The first was safety Charlie Peprah’s failure to bring down receiver Hakeem Nicks with a straight-on hit that turned about a 20-yard gain into a 66-yard touchdown that put the Giants up 10-3.
The second was Manning’s backbreaking Hail Mary pass for a 37-yard touchdown when Nicks leaped over Woodson and Peprah, with Jarrett Bush and Sam Shields standing in front of them, that provided the Giants a huge psychological lift and 20-10 halftime edge.
“Three-man rush is tough; you’re probably not going to get to the quarterback,” Woodson said. “But with that being said, you’ve got a lot of men in coverage, so you’ve got to feel pretty confident about not letting the receivers get the ball, and we did. (Manning) having time back there to sit and pat the ball and find the open guy was kind of deflating a little bit when you have a third-and-long situation where you should be able to get off the field.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.