LOS ANGELES – The Green Bay Packers had the chance to shake up their season.
They had the NFC’s best team on the ropes in its own stadium, though there very well might have been more Packers fans than Rams fans in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sunday afternoon.
And then, with the game on the line, they blinked.
Their defense did enough to win. Of course, Ty Montgomery will have to bear a lot of the responsibility for fumbling away the Packers’ chance to win the game in the final two minutes.
But really, Mike McCarthy’s and Aaron Rodgers’ offense had to win this game for the Packers and didn’t come through. They had their chance in the fourth quarter, with the ball at their own 21, 6:49 to play and a 27-26 lead.
Their defense had done the job with a huge stop. Now they needed points. Even a field goal would have given them some daylight, and a touchdown would have really put the pressure on the unbeaten Rams.
Instead, the Packers went three-and-out.
It started with McCarthy’s questionable decision to trot Montgomery out on first down instead of Aaron Jones. Jones was having a big day, and if ever there was a time to have the threat of play action, that was it. Instead, the drive started with an incompletion to Montgomery.
Jones picked up four yards on a run the next play. And then, in case anyone was wondering how valuable great players are in this league, and especially great pass rushers, Aaron Donald showed up. He bulldozed Lane Taylor and sacked Rodgers to bring the possession to a quick end.
For my money, that was the Packers’ best chance to win. They have do it with offense, it’s the way they’re built, and the game was in their offense’s hands.
“I’m disappointed because our defense really played well,” Rodgers said, “and we were just really slow going in the first half and couldn’t get a lot of things going. By the time we got back up ahead, we just had one drive to finish the game off and didn’t come up with it.”
Don’t get me wrong: Montgomery’s gaffe was huge. Why he decided to bring out the return from a couple yards deep in the end zone is beyond anyone. McCarthy said the return man was instructed not to – you don’t want to waste valuable time in the final two minutes to return a ball where he’d be lucky to get to the 25 anyway.
So of course, Montgomery’s lost fumble settled the matter. There’s no denying that. It reeked of Brandon Bostick’s decision to try to catch the onside kick in the NFC Championship game a few years ago. That one cost the Packers a trip to the Super Bowl. This one cost Rodgers the chance for another last-minute comeback and upset win over the Rams.
But as bad as Montgomery’s mistake was, it takes points to win in this wide-open passing league, and the Packers, an offensive team if there ever was one, didn’t get a score when they needed one.
So they come away from their 29-27 loss at 3-3-1. No surprise there. They went into this one as 9 ½-point underdogs and played their best, most complete game of the season. Considering how they’d played through their first six games, in some ways they can look at this as a step forward.
Their defense, even in giving up 27 points, was good enough. Their young cornerbacks showed that when they’re healthy, they can really cover. Jaire Alexander (five pass breakups) had about as good a game as a cornerback can have without getting an interception. To win in this league you need guys who can cover great athletes in open space, and Alexander did that play after play.
Likewise, Aaron Jones proved yet again he’s an explosive runner. He had a 7.2-yard average on 12 carries, which is reason enough to get him on the field more. He might not protect Rodgers well as a blocker, but he sure does as a runner.
After watching Montgomery tentatively pick a hole on his two carries for the day, it’s time to shrink the running back rotation to two, Jones and Jamaal Williams. Nothing wrong with putting Montgomery out there on third downs, or for a play here and there. But there’s no reason to give him an entire series unless it’s in two-minute mode.
Regardless, there are no moral victories in the NFL. This one goes in the “L” column. Coming off the bye and playing on what really was a neutral field, the Packers had the chance for a big upset and didn’t come through.
“The urgency has to pick up, so maybe (this game) does that,” Rodgers said, “but there’s no momentum gained from a loss, in my opinion. We can play with anybody, but we knew that before this game. It wasn’t like there was some revelation, ‘Oh, OK, now, yeah, we can probably play with the Rams.’ No, we can play with anybody.”
In any game that goes down to the wire like this, you can pick out a play here or decision there that was costly. One of the killers for the Packers, of course, was the late second-quarter safety that effectively erased their excellent first half and 10-0 lead.
You have to wonder why McCarthy, from inside his own 1, ran straight into the guts of a defense that includes Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh, though Bryan Bulaga also blew it when he double teamed defensive end Michael Brockers rather than pick up linebacker Mark Barron shooting the gap.
Of course, the Rams go through and find some mistakes that cost them, too.
But when you get down to it, the Packers have to win with offense, and on this day, against a good team, when they really needed a score they didn’t get it. It really was as simple as that.