The knee-jerk reaction would be to blame the defense for the 15-1 Green Bay Packers being KO’d in their first game of the playoffs.
But that would miss the mark.
As it did all year, the defense missed too many tackles, Charlie Peprah’s being the most egregious on Hakeem Nicks’ 66-yard TD, and failed to get enough pressure on the quarterback at times. And, clearly, its biggest sin of all was allowing a Hail Mary touchdown on the final play of the half.
But thanks largely to the stout play of Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji, it also put the clamps on the New York Giants’ bruising running game, allowing only 63 yards on 21 carries until the four-minute mark when the game was virtually over. And it gave up a mere two field goals on four Giants’ possessions that started with favorable field position due to a failed onside kick, two lost fumbles and a fourth-down sack.
No, this game was lost by the Packers’ supposedly high-powered offense.
In the first 53 minutes of the game, it scored one touchdown and failed to complete a single pass of 20 yards or more. The Giants took away Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson by playing a lot of tight man coverage underneath with two safeties over the top – the two playmakers combined for 7 catches for 79 yards – and that left the Packers with one weapon: Aaron Rodgers’ feet. He ran for six first downs, including three of the Packers’ six third-down conversions.
For the first time all season, he looked rattled. It looked like he started pressing when things weren’t going well. He was playing his tail off, but he didn’t have that look of calm that we’ve come to expect. On the first drive of the game, if he doesn’t make the poor throw to Jennings that would have been 6 points. He also missed the third-down pass to Jermichael Finley that would have kept another possible scoring drive alive early in the fourth quarter.
The elite tight ends all showed up big over the weekend: Rob Gronkowski, Vernon Davis, Jimmy Graham. Not Finley. Balls just keep bouncing off his hands. Maybe what he should do is keep his mouth shut and quit putting pressure on himself -- concentrate instead on playing football and having fun doing it.
In each of the last four regular-season games, Ryan Grant got into the open field untouched and popped a big play or two. Against the Giants, he ran through a big hole for a 19-yard gain on the first play. He gained 5 on his next run. Then he gained 9 yards on his final six carries, including three no gains even though the offensive line was holding its own against the Giants’ front seven.
There were seven other teams playing last weekend and at least 10 better backs than Grant, including two apiece on Houston, New Orleans, San Francisco and the Giants. The Packers don’t need a back to carry 20, 25 times a game, but they’ve accepted mediocrity at that position and that’s what they get in the way of performance.
Also, Grant’s fumble was the deathblow Sunday and he simply had the ball swatted out of his hands. He’s a 29-year-old pedestrian back who never makes anybody miss.
James Starks might not be anything special, either, but he played a big part in last year’s run to the Super Bowl. This season, even when healthy, he was never given an opportunity to get in the same groove.
He was shutout in the first half then made three nice catches against a safety and two linebackers in the second half. Those are the kind of mismatches that offenses salivate over hoping to hit home runs, not just 15-yard catches when nobody else is open.
The Packers had a dynamic, young receiver in Randall Cobb, and he basically rotted on the bench this season behind a 36-year-old veteran. Maybe Cobb could have been the added piece that the Giants’ secondary couldn’t handle if the Packers had gotten him ready to play.
He gave up the sack on the first series of the third quarter that caused Rodgers’ fumble. There was nobody within 10 yards of Jennings on that play. It had touchdown written all over it and could have been the springboard to a Packers’ second-half comeback. That play was a killer.
Marshall Newhouse got beat by Jason Pierre-Paul on a fourth down play and later on a garbage-time sack by Osi Umenyiora, but finished the game for Clifton, who is 12 years his senior, for good reason.
Look at the defensive stat sheet: He had 0 tackles, 0s across the board except for one tipped pass in the middle of a scrum. Last year when the Packers switched to the nickel as their base defense, Woodson had a Troy Polamalu-like year. This season, he intercepted 7 passes, but at age 35 he wasn’t the same force coming off the edge and around the line of scrimmage.
A season ago, the Packers lost more than half-a-dozen older, marginal veterans, wound up finding younger, better players to replace them and, as a result, kept improving week to week and won a Super Bowl. This season, the Packers were a better team in September than they were in January.