GLENDALE, Ariz. - The Green Bay Packers will be in the playoffs, but it’s hard to see them doing much damage.
For sure, when it comes to the NFL playoffs, you dismiss a team’s chances for a deep run at your own peril.
But how do you conclude anything else about the Packers after watching this offense for nearly the past three months?
Whatever signs that coach Mike McCarthy’s return to play calling might get quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his receiving corps back into a lively, point-producing unit are gone. The Packers’ 38-8 loss to Arizona on Sunday, on the heels of a weak showing in a win at Oakland, have seen to that.
I suppose you can never say never with a team that features a recent MVP at quarterback. But after watching the Cardinals bottle up the Packers with the same I-dare-you-to-beat-us-downfield game plan that defenses have been using successfully for weeks now, it’s clear: The Packers don’t have the playmaking to beat good teams.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, notably down after the Packers' win at Oakland last week, struck an entirely different tone after a blowout loss Sunday that has to be demoralizing for everyone in the franchise’s football operations. In his postgame news conference Rodgers was upbeat about the Packers’ prospects against Carolina and Arizona, the top two seeded teams in the NFC. But you have to think it was for show more than a reflection of his true feelings.
“This was a playoff-style game for us, and we obviously played terrible, so your question is warranted,” Rodgers said. “But we’ve won a lot of games here. When you play long enough, you’re going to be on the wrong side of it sometimes. But I have confidence in those guys and myself that when it matters for all the marbles, we’re going to show up.”
For more than a month now, I’ve resisted counting out the Packers as a threat for a deep postseason because there are too many examples of teams that seemed to come out of nowhere and win big. Good teams can play bad games or hit bad stretches in a long NFL season.
In recent history, the 2008 Cardinals were only 9-7 in the regular season yet came within seconds of winning the Super Bowl. That team lost even worse than the Packers in its 15th game – a 47-7 pasting at New England. But it also had an explosive offense that finished the regular season ranked No. 4 in scoring and yards. So it at least had shown in the regular season it could put up points with anybody in the league.
The 2011 New York Giants were another 9-7 team that got hot in the playoffs, and they won the Super Bowl. But those Giants at least had an uncommonly talented and deep defensive line that was able to take over games, got rolling in the postseason and carried the franchise to the title.
The 2015 Packers have shown nothing to hang their hat on like those teams. Its hope is that Rodgers and a couple of his receivers can get hot at season’s end and give the team an identity that has been missing all season. But there at least would need to be hints of that over the course of the last two or three months, and there haven’t been.
It was simply amazing to watch Arizona make the Packers look like a Pop Warner offense by crowding the line of scrimmage, playing press coverage on receivers Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and James Jones, and keeping only one safety deep. The Packers of the last five or six years would have loved that kind of look.
But Sunday it was almost painful watching Rodgers try to nickel and dime his way down the field in the first half. Nobody could make a play. Not Rodgers (66.2 rating), not Adams (three catches for 42 yards, a dropped touchdown pass), not Cobb (three catches for a five-yard average), not anyone.
At halftime, the Packers had only 70 yards in total offense to the Cardinals’ 260. The Packers were fortunate to be down only 17-0.
The game got out of hand in the second half because of turnovers — two Rodgers strip sacks were returned for a touchdown, and it’s almost impossible to win when that happens twice in a game. But that’s hardly been this team’s problem all season.
The problem is its inability to stretch the field or threaten defenses in any meaningful way. The way defenses are playing the Packers, they clearly aren’t afraid of Rodgers and his receiving corps hitting them for big plays.
“We have some things we haven’t done very well pretty much the whole year,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “These reoccurring things, we need to correct them and they’ll all factor in the outcomes of the games.”
McCarthy refused to answer the follow-up on what specifically plagues his offense.
“I have some real hard-core opinions,” he said. “I’ve done this long enough where you’ve got to watch the tape and take the emotion out of it. You sort through it and you evaluate it. You either change, adjust or emphasize.”
The problem is, the Packers have been changing, adjusting and emphasizing for weeks now, and without much to show for it.
On Sunday, the Packers’ offense consisted almost entirely of short, back-shoulder throws to Jones. You can’t win games when that’s your only decent play.
The only completions of note were a 38-yarder when no one covered Adams and a 28-yard Eddie Lacy screen for a touchdown late in the third quarter, when the game was already out of hand.
Rodgers isn't elevating everyone else's play, and his receiving and tight ends corps minus Jordy Nelson has been among the league’s worst.
So just where is the playmaking that's been missing most of the season going to come from in the next week or two?