That’s what I keep telling myself. I’ve been in an absolute funk since Sunday. Terse, short-fused, monotone, punching couch cushions and kicking misplaced stuffed animals as if they were somehow responsible for the Packers’ uninspired 37-20 loss to the Giants. In the context of the Philbin family’s tragedy last week, it should be easy to put this loss into perspective. It just doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of life. Yet, it is gnawing at me and will for months, maybe years, to come.
Every season that doesn’t end up with a Lombardi trophy, I go through a remorseful period. Mad at myself for spending so much time and mental energy on the Packers, only to have them lose in the end. But this year’s recovery will take a particularly long time. The Packers became the first 15-win team ever to be ousted in the first round of the playoffs. The Lambeau mystique, regained for an 8-0 regular season record, remains entirely gone in the playoffs – where the Packers have gone a disconcerting 2-4 at home in the last decade.
Oddly, while the Packers were heavy favorites, this loss wasn’t that surprising. The Packers should have been prepared for the possibility of an upset. There were plenty of warning signs – the NFL-worst defense foremost among them. Other signs felt more like superstitions – the 2008 NFC Championship loss to these same Giants, the frightening example of the Saints giving up 5 turn-overs in their game, the statistically improbable fact that all the other home teams had won so far that weekend. Surely, McCarthy had been preaching ball security all week.
Yet, ball security was ultimately what doomed the Packers with four costly turnovers. Rodgers, who had just six turnovers all season, had two on Sunday. The fumbles by Ryan Grant and John Kuhn were just as uncharacteristic. And they were lucky not to lose a fifth with what appeared to everyone to be a fumble by Greg Jennings. No team ever wins games when they end up 4:1 in turnover margin. Add to that eight dropped passes, shaky offensive line play (Clifton was basically pulled from the game after allowing the forced fumble, a knockdown and three hurries, and Newhouse wasn’t any better in allowing 1.5 sacks), and a complete paucity of big plays (the longest completion was just 21 yards), and it’s easy to point to an offensive breakdown in searching for explanations for this loss.
But the defense was just as responsible. The Packers manufactured zero pass rush. They did a decent job containing the run, except when it mattered the most – Jacobs’ scramble to set up the hail mary before halftime, and in the final time-out-burning drive by the Giants. The Packers’ secondary was as inexplicably atrocious as its been all season. The Giants were able to pick up third-and-long plays up the middle at will. Peprah was particularly abysmal, repeatedly out-of-position and inadvertently busting Hakim Nicks for his long TD with a weak shoulder tackle.
Special teams has to be called out as well. What in God’s green one were they thinking with that onsides kick in the first half?!? Although that particular play wasn’t ultimately costly, since they managed to block the field goal attempt, it was indicative of a team playing outside its game plan. It was totally out of character. It felt desperate. And I think it was a turning point – causing the Giants to realize how nervous the Packers were that they would lose this game.
The reality is the warning signs of this kind of playoff meltdown have been apparent all season. The Packers were fortunate to be 15-1. I think we all knew deep down that this team had significant vulnerabilities on the defensive side. And that, if Rodgers and the offense ever failed to put up their usual 30+ points, we could be in trouble. This team felt like the team from the 2009 season who ended up losing the Wild Card game against Arizona in overtime giving up about 47 miles of passing yardage along the way.
It made me wonder what would have happened if this season had happened last year. What if the Packers had gone 15-1 only to flop in the opening game of the playoffs at home last season. Rodgers and McCarthy and Thompson would have faced withering criticism. Instead, with the Super Bowl under their belts, we’ll give them a break for this year’s disappointment, and look ahead to next season.
But next season will be different. Driver sounds like he could be gone. Clifton may be done as well, possibly Woodson? Finley is in a contract year. We’ll almost certainly lose key coaches, with rumors of Capers and Philbin both getting head coaching gigs, and Greene and other assistants possibly departing for bigger positions as well. Every year brings changes. But this season felt like a unique opportunity – a team that returned mostly intact (with the notably exception of Jenkins) and was healthy at the right time. A team that was playing at home. A team that was poised to do something extraordinary: repeat as Super Bowl champions.
Sadly, with one terrible game, that golden opportunity is lost. It doesn’t matter any more. The 15-win season doesn’t matter. The record-breaking year of the likely MVP doesn’t matter. The damn “discount double check” doesn’t matter (although it is pretty funny). None of it matters in the face of this loss. There will be no legacy, no dynasty. The season is over. And the Packers and their fans need to pick up the pieces and move on.