ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Green Bay Packers' infallible offense crashed back to earth Sunday afternoon at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
It took the worst statistical game of quarterback Aaron Rodgers' career and a litany of drops from his receivers to make it happen, but the Packers paid dearly for their shakiest offensive performance of the season in a 21-13 loss to the Buffalo Bills and their fifth-ranked defense.
The loss has consequences, pulling the Packers back into a tie with Detroit for first place in the NFC North with two weeks remaining in the regular season after the Lions rallied to beat Minnesota 16-14 at Ford Field.
It wasn't for lack of opportunity. The Packers stayed in the game because their defense responded after their offense turned over the ball and because of Kyle Orton's bland style of quarterbacking. But uncharacteristic offensive struggles and poor special teams play short-circuited every attempt to rebound.
Rodgers' stat sheet wasn't pretty. He finished with a career-low 34.3 passer rating off 17-of-42 passing for 185 yards and two interceptions. His 25 incompletions were the most in his seven years as the Packers' starting quarterback, though his receivers didn't do him many favors with at least seven drops.
"I couldn't tell you," said Packers coach Mike McCarthy when asked if this was among Rodgers' worst outings. "I don't think this is all about Aaron's performance. We'll look at it, he'll be the biggest critic of himself, so as far as the things that went on, you really need to get back to the video. We weren't sharp, there's no doubt about it. The passing game, that's not the kind of numbers we're used to producing."
The offense looked out of sync from the start, failing to connect early on their bread-and-butter passes off stop routes and back-shoulder throws. The Packers were forced to punt on three of their four first-quarter possessions.
Rodgers completed only three passes for 19 yards in the first quarter, while Eddie Lacy did a majority of the heavy lifting on a bad hip. The offense's best series came early in the second quarter when the second-year back had consecutive gains of 15, 17 and 22 yards before eventually bulldozing in for 1-yard touchdown.
Lacy's performance removed the sting from the punt team allowing Bills returner Marcus Thigpen to break free for a 75-yard touchdown on the previous series, but it couldn't help rescue the offense from its problems in the passing game.
Jordy Nelson, Jarrett Boykin, Randall Cobb, Richard Rodgers, James Starks, Davante Adams and Andrew Quarless all had a drop during the game. Boykin's resulted in a turnover, Nelson's killed a big-play opportunity, but each one stymied momentum.
"You've got to show up every week and we didn't show up today, or some of us didn't," Nelson said. "I think the offensive line and running backs played extremely well. They ran the ball extremely well. But I didn't do my part at all. I need to do a better job."
Nelson's and Boykin's gaffes occurred on the same second-half series. One series after not seeing Nelson spring open on a shot play and throwing an interception toward the other side of the field, Rodgers went back to Nelson with the offense pinned against its 6-yard line late in the third quarter.
Rodgers led him with a perfect pass, but Nelson dropped what could have been a 94-yard touchdown. The drive continued for 10 more plays but was interrupted when Boykin batted a drop into the air.
The ball fell into the arms of Bills safety Bacarri Rambo, who also had picked off Rodgers on the previous drive.
"Everybody is quick to blame the quarterback," Quarless said. "But I think the receivers, tight ends and the running backs didn't make the plays. He put the ball in a lot of good positions for us to make plays, and I don't think the receiving corps stepped up. It's more on us."
Rodgers wasn't his usual impenetrable self, though. He threw arguably his worst pass on the offense's fourth series when Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore jumped a receiver screen to Nelson. It would've been an easy pick-6 if Nelson hadn't got his arm in.
While McCarthy favored the pass, the Packers had more success on the ground. Lacy and James Starks combined for 19 rushes for 116 yards (6.1 yards per carry). Factor in four Rodgers scrambles and one series of Randall Cobb and that number jumps to 25 carries for 158 yards (6.3).
The Packers might have had a chance at a comeback if they would've been able to finish off drives. The offense stalled deep in Bills' territory multiple times. At best, it resulted in points off Mason Crosby field goals from 35 and 45 yards. At worst, there was an interception and a blocked 53-yard attempt.
Meanwhile, the Packers' defense responded after allowing 30 points and 304 yards to Atlanta's offense in Monday's 43-37 win over the Falcons. They contained Buffalo to 253 total yards with only 140 through the air and didn't allow a touchdown. Dan Carpenter made good on all four of his field-goal tries.
The Bills took over at the Packers' 29-yard line after Rodgers' first interception in the third quarter, but a holding call and one of Clay Matthews' two sacks of Orton put Buffalo out of field-goal range and forced the Bills to punt.
Cornerback Tramon Williams still wasn't entirely happy, especially after he missed a chance at recovering an Anthony Dixon fumble with 3:17 left in the fourth quarter. Green Bay got the stop, but the Bills were able to drain another minute from the clock after the recovery.
"We should have figured out a way to win this game," Williams said. "We should have won this game. They came out and they competed, but we should have won the game."
The Packers got the ball back at their 10 with 1:58 remaining and no timeouts. With Bryan Bulaga out with a concussion, Bills defensive end Mario Williams beat replacement right tackle JC Tretter around the corner to force an Aaron Rodgers fumble and a safety to seal the Packers' fate.
"We weren't able to get anything going on offense, penalties, drops, you name it," right guard T.J. Lang said. "Didn't play very good on offense. The defense I thought played well enough to win the game. But the special teams and offense, I felt like this loss was definitely on us."
The Packers remain 7-0 at Lambeau Field, but fell to 3-4 on the road while being outscored 182-148. That 21.1 points per game average is nearly half of the 41.1 points they're averaging at home.
They'll have one more chance to make up for it next week against a woeful Tampa Bay team that fell to 2-12 following a 19-17 loss to Carolina on Sunday. Now 0-6 all-time in Buffalo, the Packers know they must look within to figure out what went wrong.
It starts with the quarterback who had been nearly flawless until facing the Bills, whose front was able to get pressure with a four-man rush and a secondary that played a physical brand of defense.
"This is an important time for us to see what kind of chemistry we have on our team," Aaron Rodgers said. "If adversity like this tears us apart or if we can stick together. If we stick together, we've got a great nucleus of guys and the opportunity to do something special. But if we let this tear us apart, it's going to be something that's going to stick with us for too long."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.