If the Green Bay Packers are going anywhere in the NFC playoffs, they’ll have to do it on the road.
The Packers ditched their popular three-receiver sets in favor of packages with two tight ends and two running backs early on, but the offense's problems persisted in Sunday night’s 20-13 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in front of 78,412 at Lambeau Field.
The defeat ends the Packers’ four-year reign as the kings of the NFC North and forces them to travel to Washington (9-7) next weekend as the No. 5 seed in the NFC playoffs. Green Bay's 10-6 record isn't exactly what coach Mike McCarthy had in mind when his team started off 6-0 this season.
Mirroring last month's 30-13 win in Minnesota, the Packers conceded their limitations in the passing game when they heavily leaned on run-oriented packages. It helped in producing 70 yards on their opening series, but it wasn’t sustainable as the rushing offense finished with just 76 yards on 26 carries (2.9 yards per attempt).
As has been the case before, the offense went into hibernation after Mason Crosby’s 28-yard field goal capped the initial series. The Packers gained a mere 52 yards on their next six possessions in the second and third quarters. It took a 10-point, 223-yard fourth quarter to even make things interesting.
“Today we had one decent quarter of football,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “That’s less than the two we’ve kind of been averaging the last six or seven games. We’ve got to figure out the root of that and fix it quickly. We’re 16 games in, so you kind of are who you are, but we’ve got to find a way to put it all together for four quarters.”
With left tackle David Bakhtiari (ankle) missing his second consecutive game, the Packers made the somewhat surprising decision to start all-pro guard Josh Sitton in his place and bring in third-year reserve Lane Taylor in at left guard.
It was obvious from the start the Packers planned to run the ball. The grind-it-out approach worked on the first series, but offense nosedived after the first series with the Vikings selling out against the run. Running back Eddie Lacy was held to 6 yards the remainder of the game after rushing seven times for 28 yards on the first series.
Green Bay’s defense again did its best to keep the Packers in the game, following the same script from the first meeting with the Vikings in containing Adrian Peterson (19 carries for 67 yards) and keeping constant pressure on second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who was sacked three times.
The Packers would’ve held the Vikings to a single field in the first half if it wasn’t for their punt-return team biting on a fake on Minnesota’s first series that led an Adam Thielen 41-yard run. The defense didn’t allow another yard on the series, but Blair Walsh still made the 39-yard field goal.
The Packers went three-and-out to start the second half, but appeared to catch a break when defensive back Micah Hyde grabbed a one-handed interception off Teddy Bridgewater on third-and-4. The Packers’ offense crumbled instead of capitalizing.
Facing a third-and-12 after a Corey Linsley holding call, Vikings end Everson Griffen beat Sitton off the edge and hit Rodgers’ throwing arm to cause a fumble that cornerback Captain Munnerlyn returned it for a 55-yard touchdown to give the Vikings a 20-3 lead midway through the third quarter.
After the game, Sitton was asked if 6-0 felt like a long time ago amidst all the prolonged struggles. "Was that this year?" Sitton retorted.
The long offensive droughts have been commonplace since even before the bye week, but the defense's solid season - it finished 12th in scoring, 15th in total yards and sixth in passing - helped cover the blemishes early on. However, the offense never got back on track in finishing 23rd in yards and 25th in passing, its lowest marks in 24 years.
“We’ve dealt with a lot of injuries. It’d be (expletive) if I said that’s not part of it, but we just haven’t been the same offense we were,” Sitton said. "We haven’t found our identity. Typically, it takes us three or four weeks from the beginning of the season to find our identity, and it felt like we had it early and then kind of lost it, and got to it a couple times in the stretch. We just haven’t been consistent with it. we just haven’t played good on offense. It’s frustrating for the defense. I feel bad for those guys, because they’re playing their ass off week in and week out.”
Down by three scores, the Packers reverted back to their schoolyard offense late and again had success moving the ball. Aaron Rodgers hitting Richard Rodgers across the middle on a 16-yard touchdown pass cut the deficit to 20-10 to open the fourth quarter. After the defense forced another stop, deep connections to Davante Adams (17 yards) and James Jones (25 yards) help set up Crosby's 43-yard field goal to pull Green Bay back within a touchdown with 5:35 remaining.
The Packers were on the verge of giving up a big 71-yard return to Vikings receiver Cordarrelle Patterson before kicker Mason Crosby forced a fumble, which was recovered by Hyde. It rejuvenated the offense with Rodgers hitting Cobb (17 yards) before connecting deep with Jones for a 37-yard gain.
Green Bay charged to the Minnesota 10 after a 13-yard screen pass to fullback John Kuhn, but that’s as far as the Packers would get. A screen to Cobb for no gain, incompletion, sack and end-zone interception to Xavier Rhodes ended the threat.
"I think we’ve been close," center Corey Linsley said. "At times we show flashes of being who we want to be, who we are, who we believe we are. Other times, we don’t.”
The Packers’ defense earned another stop, giving the offense the ball back one more time at the Green Bay 42 with 58 seconds left. They got to the Vikings’ 38 before time expired and Rodgers unloaded a Hail Mary on fourth-and-2.
Unlike Green Bay’s remarkable comeback in Detroit earlier this month, Minnesota batted it down to seal the win and steal the division. Bridgewater finished with only 99 passing yards and a 45 passer rating, but Rodgers wasn't much better (80.8 rating). It was the 10th consecutive game since the bye week the NFL's reigning MVP failed to break 100 in the category.
“Disappointing, but as I told the football team, it was important to, obviously being so late, we need to turn the page,” McCarthy said. “Playoff season is here. We know how to win. We know what it takes to win. And we have a clear understanding of the things that you can’t do to win. So as we’ve completed our regular season, we gear up to turn the page and get ready for Washington in the playoffs.”
Sunday’s loss ends a strange year for the Packers against the NFC North. It marked the first time in franchise history Green Bay has lost all of its home games to division opponents, but swept them on the road. It’s the first time the Packers have been swept at home by the division since 1968 period.
As they prepare to face Washington next Sunday at 3:40 p.m. Central Time, all the Packers can do now is take solace in a 5-3 record on the road this season.
“It’s very odd,” cornerback Casey Hayward said. “We shouldn’t lose home games, but we did. We lost three division home games, but at the end of the day we’re still in the playoffs. We have another chance to go out and prove again why we deserve to be in the playoffs.”