Green Bay Packers quarterback Matt Flynn stands in disappointment as Pittsburgh Steelers players celebrate their 38-31 victory against the Packers on Sunday at Lambeau Field. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media
The fourth-quarter comeback, the late-game errors, the wild finish and the seemingly crushing last-second defeat all counted for nothing Sunday.
After their chaotic 38-31 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday evening at Lambeau Field, the Packers were in the same position they were going into the day: If they win at Chicago next week, they’re in the playoffs as the NFC North Division champion. If they lose or tie, the Packers’ season is over.
The Packers can thank the Chicago Bears for their reprieve. The Bears could have wrapped up the division title by winning at Philadelphia on Sunday night after the Packers lost. But Chicago was hammered by the Eagles in a nationally televised Sunday night game.
So coach Mike McCarthy’s Packers have a shot at the postseason after all, even though their chances of doing much in the postseason look especially poor. By all appearances, they won’t have quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose broken collarbone has sidelined him for seven games with no indication his return is imminent. And now they probably have lost their best defensive player, Clay Matthews, who reinjured his broken thumb in what likely will be a season-ending injury for him.
Neither McCarthy nor his players knew their fate when they talked to reporters after their loss, so for all they knew, they’d be playing out their season at Soldier Field this week. All they could do was lament the turnovers, crunch-time penalties and missed final pass that cost them a game a week after their season-saving, exhilarating, epic comeback win from 23 points down at Dallas.
“Last week was the highest of highs, an amazing comeback,” left guard Josh Sitton said. “And then tonight we were kind of in a similar situation, down 10 in the fourth quarter, came back. That we had a chance to win it, we were confident we could win the game. So it was definitely frustrating and disappointing.”
So even in defeat, it will be hard not to blame these Packers for believing in minor miracles. To be 7-7-1 and still able to secure a playoff berth with a win in the regular-season finale is more than any NFL team has a right to hope for.
They control their fate in part because the Detroit Lions (7-8) bungled away their playoff chances with a loss to the New York Giants at home in overtime. Still, the dejected Packers weren’t exactly bursting with confidence in their postgame locker room that Chicago would lose. But the Bears did, in a huge way.
“If they lose, it’s a big game next week,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “Simple as that.”
The Packers could have avoided an anxious Sunday night if they’d put on a cleaner performance through the gamelong snow flurries that didn’t accumulate but kept Lambeau’s turf slick.
With running back Eddie Lacy pounding the Steelers’ defense for a 5.6-yard average (84 yards on 15 carries), McCarthy and quarterback Matt Flynn orchestrated a dink-and-dunk passing game that kept up with the Steelers. Flynn had only a 69.6 rating but led an offense that outgained Ben Roethlisberger’s Steelers 370 yards to 343.
What ultimately cost the Packers were two critical turnovers by Flynn, two penalties in the game’s last 95 seconds and a failed do-or-die play on the game’s final snap from the Steelers’ 6.
One turnover was an interception on a run-pass option on which tight end Andrew Quarless bumped Flynn while executing a run block, which caused the quarterback’s throw on a quick hitch to float. Cornerback Cortez Allen returned the easy interception 40 yards for the touchdown that put the Steelers ahead 31-21 with 1:37 left in the third quarter.
“Actually when I think about it, I may have been a little fast,” Quarless said. “It’s just my guy was almost in the hole, I had to get to him. I have to definitely look over it on film and see what really happened. It may have been my fault, it may have been (Flynn’s) fault, I don’t know.”
Flynn later carried the ball too loosely on a third-down scramble and fumbled on a strip by safety Troy Polamalu, which set up the Steelers at the Packers’ 17 for their game-winning touchdown. The Packers could have held that possession to three points, but on the field goal attempt Nick Perry jumped offside, which gave the Steelers’ first-and-goal at the 5. McCarthy ended up letting the Steelers score the touchdown from the 1 so he could save the final 1:35 for Flynn to tie the game.
Flynn got that chance after Micah Hyde returned the kickoff 70 yards. But when right guard T.J. Lang jumped the snap on second-and-goal from the Steelers’ 1 with only 22 seconds left — referee Carl Cheffers announced the penalty was on right tackle Don Barclay, but replays showed it was Lang — the game’s final seconds ended in chaos.
The penalty carried with it a 10-second runoff, with the clock restarting after the officials spotted the ball. The Packers appeared close to ready to snap the ball immediately with 10 seconds left, but after the officials held the clock and delayed them momentarily, Flynn still took several seconds to relay a hand signal and call his cadence. That would be their final play.
To his left, Flynn had Jordy Nelson in the slot and Jarrett Boykin wide, both running slant routes. Each was covered by a defensive back, while Polamalu, lined up as a linebacker, roamed in front of them reading Flynn’s eyes. Flynn looked outside to Boykin, and when Polamalu read the quarterback he jumped the route. That opened Nelson inside, but Flynn didn’t see him and threw high to Boykin, who could get only a hand on the ball.
“I don’t know what really happened,” Flynn said. “I was watching the official spotting the ball and then all of a sudden I look up and I’m calling the snap count and the clock had already been winding. We thought we’d get two plays off and we didn’t.”
Said Nelson: “You never know where Troy (Polamalu) is going to go. That’s the way he plays the game, and they design it that way to let him read the quarterback’s eyes. Matt made a great check, and we just weren’t able to complete it.”