Few answers after 'baffling' offensive showing
Mike McCarthy admits he didn't see this one coming. Tom Clements didn't admit much of anything.
When the dust settled, everyone in the Green Bay Packers' locker room had his own reaction to the team's 21-13 loss to the Buffalo Bills Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium, a game in which the Packers entered as 5½-point favorites to take home their 11th victory of the season.
Only that didn't happen. Aaron Rodgers finished with a career-low 34.3 passer rating, receivers dropped upwards of seven passes and issues on special teams delivered Green Bay a hard dose of reality.
The one thing that seemed to go right for the league's second-highest scoring offense was the play of injured running back Eddie Lacy and the team's offensive line.
Clements, the team's third-year offensive coordinator, didn't shed much light on what exactly went haywire against the Bills when asked Monday afternoon. When pressed, he was curt in his responses.
Where was the disconnect in the passing game? "Don't have an answer," Clements retorted.
Why wasn't Rodgers his usual MVP self? "He was himself. He was Aaron Rodgers."
Why didn't the offense run the ball more? "Just the way the game went."
McCarthy's thoughts were a bit more substantial and corroborated with what he saw on film. It came down to too many mental errors in all three phases of the game. It was true. Pre-snap penalties, costly drops and repeated miscues gave Bills the opening needed to augment their limited offense.
Regardless, the most puzzling development was the inconsistency of an offense that has been among the NFL's most efficient units in terms of points and production.
"Offensively, our performance clearly wasn't what it's been over the last month-and-a-half," McCarthy said. "Execution was clearly not what we thought it would be. I thought we matched up very well with Buffalo. I thought we were poised for a big day and it didn't happen. It was not our day."
It was the largest speed bump the offense has hit since its Week 3 loss to Detroit when the Lions' defensive front went a long way in containing Green Bay to seven points and only 223 total yards of offense, including 147 through the air.
Unlike the Lions' game, the Packers were able to effectively run the ball against the Bills. Lacy and James Starks combined for 19 carries for 116 yards and accounted for the offense's lone touchdown of the day, but the Packers kept the ball in Rodgers' hands.
Nine times out of 10, that's undoubtedly the right play, but the running game took a back seat in the second half. Lacy carried the ball only five times in the final two quarters, while Starks didn't even register a touch.
The offense did receive a spark with the insertion of receiver Randall Cobb for a pair of fourth-quarter series. His 15 rushing yards and a 19-yard Rodgers scramble brought the ground total to 25 carries for 158 yards (6.3 yards per attempt), the second-most Buffalo has allowed to a rushing offense this season.
But could it have been more?
"I thought we had good balance running it and throwing it," McCarthy said. "I thought reviewing the game, there's probably one or two calls that I wish I had back but I thought we put our guys in position to make plays, particularly against the defensive call that was called throughout the game, particularly in the personnel groups."
There was something noticeably off with Rodgers and his receivers from the start Sunday.
The protection seemed ample from the offensive line. Buffalo, which leads the NFL with 48 sacks, got to Rodgers only once. Still, the passes weren't as crisp as they've been, especially at Lambeau Field, where the Packers are 7-0 and averaging more than 40 points per game this season.
Many attempts off crossing routes either buzzed behind receivers or flew over their heads. The two sides also seemed to be going in different directions on back-shoulder throws that usually are a vaunted staple of the offense.
When Rodgers put passes on the button, the receivers didn't catch them. One ball bounced off Jarrett Boykin's hands in the fourth quarter and turned into an interception. Another pass intended for Jordy Nelson would have gone for a 94-yard touchdown if the likely Pro Bowler hadn't dropped it.
Nelson came wide open on the previous series off the same play, but Rodgers went to his first option (Cobb) on that occasion, resulting in an interception.
"It's baffling. Didn't get it done. That's all it is," Nelson said. "I haven't experienced one that bad — ever. We'll see. Need to get to a game."
Despite the inefficiency, McCarthy lauded Rodgers for his decision-making at the line of scrimmage, going so far to say it was "probably his highest grade" for his in-game adjustments.
The numbers remain historically gaunt. His 40.4 completion percentage and 25 incompletions were the worst during his time as a starter. It was also the first time in his career he threw multiple interceptions in a contest without scoring at least one touchdown.
The execution of the offense was off, but McCarthy contends the ideas were in the right place. Clements seemed to agree with that assessment in so many words.
"I'm not going to talk about his accuracy or your perceived inaccuracy of his play," Clements said. "It was a game where we weren't productive as an offense. We're looking to correct it and be better this week."
The Packers lost some footing in their quest for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but will have a chance to recover this Sunday against the 2-12 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Green Bay then closes the regular season against the Lions, who moved into a tie with the Packers atop the NFC North with their 16-14 comeback victory over Minnesota.
Historically, Rodgers has done some of his best work after his worst performances. Still in the thick of the MVP race, McCarthy even added: "I look for him to have a big game in Tampa."
Whatever went wrong against the Bills likely will be conversations left in the film room, but if the Packers want to get back to the Super Bowl, they'll need to get past strong four-man fronts with physical defensive backs.
There's no question Sunday was a letdown. Now, McCarthy wants to see how his team will respond?
"I was confident going into the game and thought we had a good plan, we had a good week of preparation," McCarthy said. "We hadn't had a performance like that in a while for four quarters. I think this is something that can make us better in the end."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.