GREEN BAY - You start losing as a touchdown favorite at Lambeau Field, you start losing everything.
That’s becoming a habit, a very bad habit, for coach Mike McCarthy and the Green Bay Packers. The latest failure came Sunday on a postcard-perfect afternoon for football that was won by the dogged Indianapolis Colts, 31-26.
An executive in personnel for a team that played the Colts in the past month said Indianapolis was the worst team they had played all year. Last week, coach Chuck Pagano’s club was overrun at home by Kansas City, 30-14.
The Packers went into the game as a seven-point favorite and got bushwhacked. Last year, they were beat at Lambeau as a 10 ½-point favorite by Detroit on Nov. 15 and 11 days later as a nine-point favorite at Lambeau by Chicago.
McCarthy’s teams had been immune to such crushing home defeats in his first seven seasons. From 2006-’12, his Packers had lost merely three times in Green Bay when favored by a touchdown or more.
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In 2013, Chicago beat the Packers at Lambeau but Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone in the first series. The Packers continued to take care of business until now, when the impossible has happened: three home losses as a prohibitive favorite in their last nine games at Lambeau.
“That’s two home losses,” said McCarthy, whose team failed even to compete against Dallas three weeks ago in a 30-16 drubbing. “I’m disappointed. I’m irritated with the fact we were not sharp as a football team. We need to play better than that.”
Regarded in many quarters as the best bet to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, the Packers at mid-season find themselves in third place in the NFC North Division with a 4-4 record, which is tied for eighth best in the conference.
In other words, the Packers’ streak of seven straight playoff appearances would end if the post-season were to start Monday.
“We’ve got a lot of talent,” guard Lane Taylor said. “We hope to win it all. We just need to execute.
“No matter what time it is, where it’s at or who it is. You don’t want to lose four games and be 4-4, but if we execute we’ll be all right.”
It’s always dicey to suggest one team wasn’t ready to play, lacked energy or was looking past an opponent.
When a team gives up a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to start the game, a 61-yard return to start the second quarter and turns in a tepid first half in general, suspicions arise about a team’s mental approach.
“I don’t think we played very well as a football team in the first half, and you can’t do that in this league,” said McCarthy. “I don’t care where you play or who you play or when you play them.
“We were behind 14 points at halftime and we were plus-2 in the turnover ratio. What does that tell you?”
The Packers should have known what was coming. After the collapse against the Chiefs, coach Chuck Pagano said Green Bay would be the defining moment of the Colts’ season.
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For 60 minutes, they laid it all on the line despite the absence of five starters due to injury (the Packers were missing six). Several Colts said it wasn’t cliché at all to describe it as a supreme effort.
“Definitely,” nose tackle David Parry said. “It was like our backs were against the wall. We’ve got a bunch of fighters on this team. That’s what we came and did.”
Parry went on to say the Packers “brought it, too. They made that late surge. Those guys fought to the end as well.”
After the Packers fell behind, 31-13, with 9 ½ minutes left, it became the typical NFL game of today in which one team throws on every down and the other plays a prevent defense.
The Packers mounted touchdown drives of 75 and 80 yards to make it five-point game, but that’s almost to be expected nowadays.
“(Expletive), we knew they’d make a run,” said linebacker Erik Walden, the former Packer. “They’ve got Aaron Rodgers.”
The Colts (4-5) started from the 25 with 3:29 left knowing they needed to gain at least one first down because the Packers had two timeouts. They did one better, converting a pair of third downs when offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski got the better of defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix zoomed off the edge on third and 10 but couldn’t drag down Andrew Luck, who slipped away and found tight end Jack Doyle for 20.
“Awesome, he’s resilient and he’s Andrew,” Doyle said, referring to the fifth-year quarterback. “He’s our fearless leader. We can all lean on him. He’s got leadership qualities that are amazing, really.”
Two minutes, 21 seconds remained when the Colts called a timeout to plot third and 2. With Capers selling out, Luck’s maligned offensive line that was short two starters held up so he was able to complete a 27-yard post pattern to T.Y. Hilton against LaDarius Gunter.
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“We didn’t finish,” linebacker Joe Thomas said. “There were certain big moments in the game we should have got off the field. The first half it seems like they outplayed us.”
In 9 ½ seasons Mason Crosby had just two kickoffs returned for touchdowns: Atlanta in the 2010 divisional playoffs, Chicago in the Packers’ 55-14 route in 2014.
The Colts’ return game had been in disarray since Quan Bray went on injured reserve after six games. Back to return the opening kickoff was running back Jordan Todman, who in 74 returns for three teams had never brought one back for a touchdown.
Crosby’s boot hung just 3.83 seconds and was fielded by Todman on the right hashmark at the 1. Crosby was at fault for not locating the kick closer to the right numbers, which he did on the 61-yard runback that hung for 3.97 and was six yards deep.
“It was a right kick,” Crosby said. “We have to fit better and get wider, better kicks.”
According to McCarthy, two players were out of position on Todman’s touchdown. “Our lane discipline was poor,” he said.
Indianapolis, which ranked 19th in kickoff-return average, had been fielding boots and running straight-ahead, said Crosby. The Colts crossed up the Packers when Todman brought it across the field on right returns.
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“Obviously, it was a little different than what they had done,” Crosby said. “We just kind of got out-leveraged.
“It hurts. We had a great week of work. Everything’s flowing right and we didn’t get it started off right. We can’t allow a touchdown on the opening kickoff.
“We gave them some hope there and kind of opened them up a little bit. You can’t do that here in Lambeau Field.”
Defensively, the Packers were unable to exploit a porous offensive line. They sorely missed Clay Matthews, who sat out a second straight game with a hamstring injury.
The game turned irrevocably toward Indianapolis late in the second quarter after Walden said he baited Aaron Rodgers into trying to run for it on third and 8 at the Colts 47.
“I made it seem like I was going to run the hoop,” said Walden. “That’s a coach’s pet peeve; they never want you behind the quarterback. I baited him and he stepped up and I was able to get him down (for no gain).”
It seemed not to matter because Jacob Schum’s punt pinned the Colts at the 4. Green Bay, which had scored 20 points this season on end-of-first-half drives, had three timeouts to end the half with a flourish.
Instead, the Colts cranked out seven first downs leading to an 8-yard touchdown pass to Donte Moncrief. Just 11 seconds were left, and the Packers departed for halftime with the three timeouts, their tails tucked between their legs, listening to lusty boos and facing a 24-10 deficit.
On offense, the Colts played their safeties back for most of the game daring McCarthy to run. He did, with his makeshift stable of running backs averaging 5.6 per carry (13-73).
But the ground game wasn’t going to beat the Colts, at least when the special teams permitted them to draw first blood. Until the late flurry, the passing attack stammered and stalled.
On the Packers’ first trip to the red zone, Rodgers was sacked when Richard Rodgers and Ty Montgomery blew a protection and he overthrew Jordy Nelson in the end-zone corner.
When Green Bay lanced inside the 30, three ineffective short passes fell incomplete and Crosby missed from 48.
In the third quarter, Rodgers threw back-to-back interceptions (just one counted), Randall Cobb fumbled out of bounds and David Bakhtiari was hit with a holding penalty to ruin a push inside the 35.
Crosby had to finish off another red-zone sortie after Richard Rodgers missed a run block at the point of attack and two passes went nowhere.
There were squandered shot plays all afternoon. Jeff Janis dropped a bomb off his face mask. Nelson was open deep and Rodgers missed him.
When a team is outplayed on offense, defense and special teams against a pedestrian opponent from the weak AFC South, and at Lambeau Field no less, something is very wrong somewhere.
McCarthy needs to figure out what that is in a hurry.