PITTSBURGH - There are no moral victories in the NFL.
The Green Bay Packers had a chance to turn around their season and pull off one of the biggest upsets in the NFL this year as 14 ½-point underdogs against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night.
They didn’t quite have the punch on either side of the ball to pull it out in the end, though, taking the Steelers to the brink only to lose 31-28 on a 53-yard field goal at the buzzer.
If coach Mike McCarthy’s team had finished what had been its best performance since Aaron Rodgers’ injury, the Packers' flagging playoff hopes suddenly would have been reborn. Rodgers’ throwing session on Heinz Field in warm-ups was the latest sign that their quarterback has a real shot at returning from his broken collarbone before the regular season ends.
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BOX SCORE: Steelers 31, Packers 28
The loss doesn’t knock the Packers (5-6) from the playoff hunt, but the odds are getting longer by the week. They’re mathematically still in the race in the NFC North but that’s a non-starter, because they’re four games behind the Minnesota Vikings (9-2) with five to play.
In the wild-card race, the simplest way to put it is that seven NFC teams have at least seven wins. Only six teams get into the playoffs, so the Packers are two games behind two teams for the final spot there as well. It’s not insurmountable, but they’ve lost five of six games since Rodgers’ injury and are looking at playing two or maybe even three more games without him. They almost surely have to beat Tampa Bay and Cleveland with Brett Hundley at quarterback the next two weeks to still have a chance.
One thing you can say is that the Packers didn’t quit after a humbling and horrible performance in a shutout loss to Baltimore last week. Hundley’s limitations are real, but he protected the ball (no turnovers), made a few good throws and took his team to the game-tying score in the final nine minutes. That’s not nothing.
They also lost to a real AFC contender – Pittsburgh is tied with New England for the conference’s best record at 9-2 – that has what every NFL team is looking for on offense: a top quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger), a top running back (Le’Veon Bell) and a top receiver (Antonio Brown). And those three stars are the players who pulled out this game in the end.
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Hundley actually had the better passer rating (134.3 to Roethlisberger’s 106.8), but the difference between them was the Grand Canyon in Roethlisberger’s favor. His pocket presence is second to none, he routinely stepped up in the pocket to make throws that kept drives alive and he almost always put the ball on the money.
Brown might be the second-best receiver in the game, behind only Atlanta’s Julio Jones, and he showed it Sunday night. He caught 10 passes for 169 yards, and his two catches for 37 yards in the final 17 seconds basically won the game by setting up Chris Boswell for the game-winning kick. His 23-yard toe-tap reception along the sidelines with 13 seconds left in the game was about as good a throw and catch as you’re ever going to see.
And Bell (183 yards on 32 touches) kept the chains moving in the second half with a slippery running style that makes him one of the top three or four backs in the game.
Still, at least for a week, this should stop the talk that the Packers have quit on McCarthy and that Joe Callahan should take over for Hundley. McCarthy called the kind of game he has to with his backup, and it kept his team in it. McCarthy stuck with the run (24 rushes to 30 passes and sacks combined) and did what he could to take the onus off Hundley with a steady dose of screens, quick hitches and bootlegs.
The coach also threw a lot of personnel groups at the Steelers – using tackle Ulrick John as a third tight end, playing Aaron Ripkowski at fullback more liberally than he had all season. But those things get you only so far.
With a chance to win the game in the final 1:20, Hundley simply didn’t have enough pop to get even a sniff of scoring. He went three-and-out, which gave Roethlisberger just enough time to pull this one out before having to go to overtime. The Packers now know what it’s like to be on the other side of a late Rodgers score.
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McCarthy deserves credit for rallying his team a week after the debacle against the Ravens. The Packers showed they haven’t quit on him and fought from start to finish – their defense forced three turnovers, including a Bell fumble early in the fourth quarter with the game tied at 28.
But for all McCarthy did right Sunday night, he also made a costly decision in the third quarter when he had Mason Crosby try a 57-yard field goal after Blake Martinez had intercepted a tipped Roethlisberger pass. McCarthy could have flipped the field position by punting. Instead, Crosby missed short and wide, and the Steelers were set up in great field position for a tying touchdown.
Rodgers’ pregame throwing session was noteworthy because he’s barely more than five weeks removed from surgery. This wasn’t just a case of him playing soft toss – he threw the ball for real. That has to fuel the Packers’ hopes that he can make it back for a couple games if they’re still in the race.
But to do that they’re going to have to win their next two, hope some of the teams ahead of them stumble, and go from there.
If nothing else, they showed Sunday night that with Hundley they can go toe-to-toe with a good team on the road. But almost doesn’t get you into the playoffs.