New York Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks (88) scores a touchdown on a Hail Mary pass at the end of the second quarter against Green Bay Packers safety Charlie Peprah (26) and cornerback Charles Woodson (21) during an NFC divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field on Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012. Dan Powers/Gannett Wisconsin Media
Every Friday in practice, the Green Bay Packers rehearse what they call “the last eight plays.”
They’re the improbable, unexpected things that can end a half or a game.
The Hail Mary is part of it every week.
So when the New York Giants lined up at the Packers’ 37-yard line with 6 seconds left in the first half of Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field, everyone on defense should have known exactly what to do. Yet somehow, Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks was the one who came up with Eli Manning’s desperation heave toward the north end zone. The result was a deflating touchdown that gave the Giants a stunning 20-10 halftime lead on their way to a 37-20 upset of the Packers, who had lost just once in 16 regular-season games.
One play didn’t end the Packers’ season, but that one play did more to contribute to their demise than any other.
“I wouldn’t call it deflating,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “It was 13-10. It’s obviously a play that you practice on both sides of the ball. The defensive call was the right call. The alignment shows you what was getting ready to occur. It’s about making plays. It’s about big-play opportunities in big games. That was a big play, obviously, for the Giants. It was a 10-point game at halftime, and we had the ball coming out. It was a big momentum play for them, but we were not deflated as a football team.”
But many in the crowd of 72,080 sure seemed that way.
Perhaps they should have expected this from a defense that finished last in the NFL in total yards and passing yards allowed during the regular season.
Still, Hail Marys aren’t supposed to happen.
The Packers rushed three and dropped eight into coverage. Nicks and another Giants receiver, Victor Cruz, ran go routes down the left side. The Packers had three defenders — cornerbacks Jarrett Bush and Sam Shields plus safety Charlie Peprah — to cover those two. Another cornerback, Charles Woodson, who was covering receiver Devin Thomas in the middle of the field, arrived in time to help. More than anyone else, it was Peprah’s play to make as the deep safety, but he allowed Nicks to box him out like a basketball player trying to secure a rebound.
“You’ve just got to get the ball out,” Peprah said. “It can get tipped, you can get boxed out or you can get bodied. Usually plays don’t go that way, but it happens sometimes. They made the play, and we didn’t.”
Woodson tried to get there to make a play on the ball but couldn’t.
“That’s just a play that shouldn’t happen,” Woodson said. “We shouldn’t, as a defense, allow a play like that to happen, to allow a guy to get up there and get the ball on a Hail Mary pass. But they did, and they went up 10 points going into halftime. It was certainly momentum for them.”
Shields and Bush, who were trailing in coverage, probably should have been deeper because neither had a realistic shot to break up the pass.
“We should have a guy riding underneath,” Peprah said. “Regardless, there’s two guys there to make the play.”
The play never would have happened had Peprah kept running back Ahmad Bradshaw in bounds on the previous play. With no timeouts remaining, the Giants ran a toss to Bradshaw on third-and-1 from their 40-yard line and 15 seconds to play. Bradshaw went left and cut back to his right. Peprah took a terrible angle and missed Bradshaw at the Packers’ 45-yard line. Had Peprah taken him down there, the first-half clock would have expired. Instead, Bradshaw was able to turn the corner and get out of bounds at the Packers’ 37 with 6 seconds left on the clock.
“I didn’t want to (dive) and miss,” Peprah said. “I didn’t know where the pursuit was, so I was trying to stay on my feet at that point because if I were to try to go for him and miss, I didn’t know if he’d be out of the gate, so I just had to force him out of bounds. He made a good play to get out of bounds.”
Peprah also missed a chance to tackle Nicks on his 66-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter.
Those big plays helped Manning throw for 330 yards and three touchdowns. The Packers, who had more interceptions (31) than sacks (29) in the regular season, managed just one of each against Manning. Nicks had seven catches for 165 yards.
Sunday’s game was perhaps the most telling example of how much the Packers missed Nick Collins, the three-time Pro Bowl safety who sustained a season-ending — and possibly career-ending — neck injury in Week 2 at Carolina. The Packers missed Collins’ range and sure-handed tackling in the back end all season. That, combined with their lack of a pass rush, probably contributed to most of their defensive woes this season.
“I definitely could’ve played better,” said Peprah, who was Collins’ replacement. “I missed a tackle that went for a touchdown. I could’ve gotten the ball out on the Hail Mary. But it’s more than that that loses the football game. But you never want to contribute to that. It definitely wasn’t my best performance. But we all played hard. That’s all you can ask for.”
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