Silverstein: Too many 'ifs' lead to Packers' demise

Tom Silverstein
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers cornerback Josh Hawkins (28) misses a tackle on running back Le'Veon Bell (26) against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field Sunday, November 26, 2017 in Pittsburgh, PA.

PITTSBURGH – If is an empty word in the NFL.

Sort of like, if the Green Bay Packers use their gutty performance in a heartbreaking 31-28 defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers to muster five straight victories to close the season, they can finish 10-6 and still have a chance at the playoffs.

Sure, it could happen, but the reality is their season is over.

It ended with Chris Boswell’s 53-yard field at the end of regulation crushing the Packers’ hopes of winning on the road as 14-point underdogs and putting them hopelessly behind their competition in the NFC.

You could argue that if they beat Tampa Bay at home next week and if they win at Cleveland the week after and if they beat three teams (Carolina, Minnesota and Detroit) with a combined 23-10 record after that, they might have an outside shot at the playoffs.

But you might as well take the lessons from their three-point loss to the 9-2 Steelers and apply them to the rest of this season because just as their margin for error was nil against the Steelers, it is the same for finishing the year undefeated. 

“Any given Sunday, anything can happen,” veteran linebacker Ahmad Brooks said. “We just don’t control our destiny. We’re not in the driver’s seat. As long as we keep winning, hopefully we can squeeze into the playoffs. We just have to keep this thing rolling.”

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The problem with ifs is that they’re not any good unless they go your way and that was definitely not the case Sunday night.

Go ahead and play it out in your head.

The Packers might be 6-5 if:

» Coach Mike McCarthy punts the ball instead of ordering Mason Crosby to attempt a 57-yard field goal, which he misses badly, setting up the Steelers in prime field position for a game-tying touchdown late in the third quarter.

» Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt gets called for a helmet-to-helmet hit on quarterback Brett Hundley with 1 minute, 20 seconds left and the Packers on their own 18-yard line, practically guaranteeing the Steelers never see the ball again in regulation.

» Antonio Brown’s right foot lands another inch further toward the sideline, turning his miraculous reception into an incompletion, forcing the Steelers to go to overtime.

» Boswell’s 53-yard field goal attempt with no time left catches the wind that blew his earlier extra point wide left, resulting in the game going to overtime.

None of those things happened and so the Packers flew home having lost ground to their competition despite their backup quarterback playing the best game of his life and the defense causing offensive stars Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell to turn over the ball a combined three times.

If this were 2010 and the Packers had just lost to the New England Patriots, things might be a little different. For one, quarterback .

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Aaron Rodgers would be returning next week, making everyone feel there was a chance to run the table.

But back then the Packers were 8-6 and still in the running for the playoffs.

Right now, they are tied with the Arizona Cardinals for ninth place in the NFC playoff race. Somehow, they would have to jump the New Orleans Saints or Carolina Panthers (8-3), Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons (7-4) and Detroit Lions (6-5) in the next five weeks.

Two of their three final games are on the road: Carolina on Dec. 17 and Detroit on Dec. 31.

Even if Rodgers were to come back for say, the Vikings game on Dec. 23, and the Packers were to win their final two games, it’s questionable whether 10 victories would be enough to make the playoffs.

Not in a year when one team (Philadelphia) is already at 10, and three others are within two games with one of those three teams (Saints) holding a tiebreaker and the other (Panthers) playing host to the Packers on Dec. 17.

And the fact of the matter is they just lost. Their best wasn’t good enough to beat the Steelers, even if it did make a statement to McCarthy about the grit of his football team. He can be proud about that.

“I just can’t say enough about our football team coming in here,” McCarthy said. “They’re doing all the right things. They’re working their asses off. Their preparation was excellent all the way up until the final moment.

“We hit the target on the focus of how we wanted to play the game.”

It’s the first time that McCarthy has been able to say anything of the sort since Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone in Week 6. But it needed to be said after the New Orleans game or the Detroit game or even last week after the Baltimore game.

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The Packers easily could have beaten the Ravens if Hundley had played against them the way he played against the Steelers. He played it safe Sunday while at the same time sticking with his reads and completing 17 of 26 passes for 245 yards and three touchdowns (134.3 passer rating).

McCarthy smartly structured the game plan around running back Jamaal Williams, who touched the ball 25 times, carrying 21 times for 66 yards and a touchdown and catching four passes for 69 yards and a touchdown.

The defense gave up 462 yards, including Roethlisberger’s 351 passing and four touchdowns, but made a game of it with three forced turnovers. Special teams was once again a negative with penalties making a crucial difference in the final outcome.

It was an inspired performance for a team that had lost four of its last five games, but it stands alone and might not mean a lot moving forward. Who’s to say Hundley will play this well the rest of the season or the defense will continue to force turnovers?

It’s possible it was one last rally before all their energy was spent.

“I don’t see it as shooting our last shot,” guard Jahri Evans said. “We executed our game plan and we just fell short. We ran out of time. We can continue to get better. There’s things we need to work on and we’ll address them.

“We’re professionals and we need to get better every day.”        

The biggest challenge McCarthy faces is keeping his team from thinking this was its parting shot of the 2017 season, and keeping it playing as though there is something left for which to play.

Realistically, there isn’t, but McCarthy can continue to learn a lot about this team in the final five weeks of the season.

“I don’t question one person in this locker room isn’t confident,” safety Morgan Burnett said. “If they weren’t they wouldn’t be here. The record says 5-6, but it’s not over. We can’t get caught up about where we stand.”

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