THE BIG PICTURE
So this is where the Green Bay Packers’ 2015 season ended up dying, in the Arizona desert at the hands of a Cardinals team that manhandled them last month. And what a painful way to lose: 26-20 in overtime, the second straight season the Packers exited the playoffs with an OT loss. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers fought valiantly despite losing wide receiver Randall Cobb early in the game to an injury and miraculously sent the game into overtime with yet another final-play Hail Mary. But in the end, the Packers never could overcome the preseason loss of wide receiver Jordy Nelson. James Jones’ return provided a boost early and Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis delivered late, but it wasn't enough as a defense that had been heroic during most of the regular season came up short against the Cardinals. Now, it’s time to turn our attention to the offseason and the changes that will be forthcoming.
Two stunning plays in succession flipped the game back and forth but ultimately spelled victory for Arizona. First, it was Hail Mary II, the Sequel: With the Packers trailing 20-13 and down to their final play on Arizona’s 41, Rodgers threw back across his body and heaved the ball toward the goal line. Somehow, Janis came down it. The catch was upheld on replay and the Packers had miraculously sent the game into overtime. The Cardinals won the coin toss for overtime and on their first play, Carson Palmer found a wide-open Larry Fitzgerald for a 75-yard gain down to the Green Bay 5. Two plays later, a shovel pass to Fitzgerald scored the touchdown that ended the Packers’ season.
Aaron Rodgers started to look more like himself in Washington, and against Arizona on Saturday, he again showed why he remains one of the NFL’s most deadly efficient quarterbacks. Utilizing his pinpoint short-passing skills, Rodgers orchestrated two time-consuming drives (one eating up 7:31, the other 7:35) that produced two Packers field goals and, more importantly, kept the Cardinals’ offense off the field for almost the entire second quarter. In the third quarter, on third-and-goal from the Arizona 8, Rodgers kept the play alive with his feet before finding Janis in the end zone for a touchdown. And of course, at the end it was pure magic: a 41-yard game-tying Hail Mary. But this time, it was not to be as Rodgers didn't get a chance to touch the ball in overtime.
NFL scouts were in agreement leading up to the game: The Packers’ only hope of containing the Cardinals’ dynamic passing attack was for the pass rush to bring the heat against Palmer. And the Packers did just that, chalking up three first-half sacks (Nick Perry, Julius Peppers and Mike Daniels). Meanwhile, the secondary got a boost with the return of top cornerback Sam Shields (who had missed four games with a concussion). That helped limit Palmer to 74 first-half passing yards. Then, early in the fourth quarter, rookie Damarious Randall intercepted Palmer in the end zone. But the game turned after Shields dropped what looked like a sure interception late in the fourth quarter, and the wheels came off on the first play of overtime when a wide-open Fitzgerald caught a pass and scooted 75 yards down to the Green Bay 5. He caught the winning shovel pass two plays later.
RANTS AND RAVES
RAVE: Just the Packers’ luck: Davante Adams finally has a big game against Washington and he sustains a knee injury, knocking him out of the next round. The Packers could have used him Saturday against the Cardinals, particularly after Cobb was sidelined for the rest of the game by a first-quarter chest injury. That increased the workload for Abbrederis (four first-half catches for 55 yards) and forgotten man Janis (four first-half catches for 36), both of whom made clutch third-down catches to keep drives alive. Janis made his first career TD catch early in the third quarter and then topped it with the Hail Mary catch that sent the game into overtime.
RANT: After a sluggish first half in Washington, the Green Bay ground game came to life behind the trio of Eddie Lacy, James Starks and Cobb. Arizona had some difficulty stopping the run during the regular season, but Saturday, the Packers found it slow going early. Green Bay rushed for only 38 yards in the first quarter, 19 of them on a Rodgers scramble. The Packers consistently went nowhere with first-down rushes. Then early in the third quarter, Lacy finally broke loose: consecutive runs of 14 and 61 yards, taking the ball down to Arizona’s 8 and setting up Rodgers’ TD pass to Janis for a 13-7 lead. But take away those runs and the ground game produced little (135 yards total).
RAVE: With left tackle David Bakhtiari finally back in the lineup after missing three games with a sprained ankle, the Packers’ offensive line was a sure bet to fare better than it did in the first Arizona game (nine sacks allowed). The line did hold up much better, allowing Rodgers time to look and scramble and find open receivers. Rodgers was not sacked until the Packers’ final, desperate drive and rarely was he hit. Time and again, Rodgers was given ample opportunity to scan the field for targets as the line atoned for the December debacle.
RANT: When you’re a seven-point road underdog in the NFL playoffs, it goes without saying that you need to make your own breaks and get some unexpected contributions. Those kind of game-changing plays often are made on special teams, but Saturday against Arizona, a costly holding penalty on Nate Palmer wiped out what would have been good field position on the Cardinals’ first punt. Instead, the Packers were backed up and Arizona wound up tilting the field, setting up their first touchdown. On Arizona’s next punt, Micah Hyde chose to let the ball bounce rather than making a fair catch around the 20 and it rolled down to the 5, pinning the Packers again.
DID YOU NOTICE?
» Rodgers entered Saturday’s game needing a 100-plus passer rating to move ahead of Bart Starr for second place with seven on the Packers’ career postseason list. Brett Favre leads with nine. Rodgers came in with a cumulative postseason passer rating of 100.3, which ranked fourth in NFL history behind Starr (104.8), Kurt Warner (102.8) and Drew Brees (100.7). Rodgers finished the game with a 77.9 rating.
» The Packers, who led 13-10 entering the fourth quarter, were 9-0 when entering the final period with the lead this season (including playoffs). The Cardinals were 0-3.
» Green Bay and New England were the only NFL teams to make the postseason in each of the last seven years. The Packers lead the NFC with eight postseason trips since 2006. While Green Bay advance was eliminated Saturday, the Patriots moved on by beating the Kansas City Chiefs 27-20.
» The Packers made the playoffs as a No. 5 seed for the third time since 1990. They also three times have been a No. 2 seed or a No. 3 seed. They’ve been a No. 4 seed four times and twice have been a No. 1 or a No. 6 seed.