The Green Bay Packers haven't gotten into frequent penalty trouble in 2013, but when they have committed them, it's often been directly tied to a loss.
Committing an average of just 5.4 penalties per game, the Packers have the seventh-fewest this season. And clearly quantity of penalties isn't directly correlated with losses; the Seattle Seahawks, who lead the league with penalties per game, at eight, are tied with the Denver Broncos for the best record in the NFL.
Still, it hasn't been the quantity of penalties Green Bay has had issues with—it's been the timing and the impact on the game. Just look at Don Barclay's false start with 20 seconds left to go against the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday.
While it may be true that if a team is in position to lose a game because of mental mistakes it hasn't done a great job setting itself up to win overall, costly penalties are often the point of no return.
If the Packers are to have a chance at the division title in Week 17 in Chicago, they'll have to avoid them.
On 3rd-and-6, Kaepernick scrambled for a first down and ran out of bounds short of the marker. As Kaepernick ran out, Matthews lunged at him and was flagged for a late hit—while, at the same time, Joe Staley was called for unsportsmanlike conduct for an altercation with Matthews.
The penalties offset, and San Francisco re-played the third down and subsequently scored on a touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin. Initially, it seemed as though the Packers had been wronged by the officials, in that San Francisco had the opportunity to try the third down again, rather than the penalties, which were called after the play was over, bringing up fourth down.
However, after officially reviewing the play, the NFL asserted that Staley never should have been flagged in the first place, as reported by Pro Football Talk. That means that Matthews' costly mistake technically should have given the 49ers a fresh set of downs.
Of course, it couldn't have played out any worse than it did in actuality; San Francicso scored on the re-played third down and ended up winning the game 34-28, by just six points. The "what if" game is hardly ever productive, but it's tantalizing to think that if Matthews had simply let Kaepernick run out of bounds untouched, the Packers would have won by a score.
It was a mental mistake on Matthews' part, the result of a game played with a chippiness left over from the two teams' playoff matchup nine months earlier. Matthews did not admit that emotions got the better of him, instead only quipping, "I'm an awesome player, I'm not a dirty player," per the team's official website.
Though Matthews did get the $15,000 fine he received for the hit reduced by the league, the fact remains that it made winning that game a whole lot harder for his team.
There's another costly mental mistake that may very well have cost Green Bay a win came in the fourth quarter against Cincinnati. The Packers were up by nine points, 30-21, in a game that had been wild to that point, including two interceptions from Aaron Rodgers and four Bengals turnovers.
The Bengals were 3rd-and-8 at their own 38-yard line when Andy Dalton completed a pass to Marvin Jones, who was pushed out of bounds by Tramon Williams. Williams was called for unnecessary roughness, enforced at Green Bay's 40-yard line, giving the Bengals a first down with the ball at the 25.
The Bengals easily scored in two more plays, bringing the score to within a field goal.
Of course, it's rare that a single penalty alone decides a game, and it was no different against Cincinnati. The real dagger came when Johnathan Franklin fumbled the ball on the Packers' next possession, which resulted in a touchdown and a Bengals lead.
Green Bay would not score again before the game's conclusion, but neither would Cincinnati. Williams' penalty endangered the Packers' lead, but Franklin's fumble removed it. Had Williams not pushed Jones out of bounds—a completely unnecessary move—perhaps Green Bay would have come out on top despite the fumble.
Similarly, the two penalties committed by Nick Perry and Don Barclay at the end of last Sunday's matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers were made all the worse by a Matt Flynn fumble just minutes before, with the game tied at 31-31.
However, Flynn fumbled at Green Bay's own 10-yard line, and it's a stretch to argue that the team would have sustained a 90-yard drive resulting in points had he not. On the other hand, Perry and Barclay's penalties snatched victory from just within the Packers' grasp.
Perry's encroachment penalty on the Steelers' field-goal attempt gave Pittsburgh a fresh set of downs and turned a likely three points into a deferment of six. Faced with a quickly dwindling clock, the Packers let Le'Veon Bell score to stop the bleeding of the clock and attempt a matching seven points to force overtime.
It was the right move as, even if the Packers had managed to stop Pittsburgh from scoring, they likely wouldn't have had time even to get into field-goal position.
A 70-yard kick return by Micah Hyde got Green Bay into legitimate scoring position at the Pittsburgh 31, with 1:25 left to score seven points. Three plays later, they were at the 1-yard line with 25 seconds to go when Don Barclay got flagged for a false start, for five yards and a 10-second clock runoff.
Then, chaos ensued. If Don Barclay's penalty (actually, it was T.J. Lang who moved first) had never happened, the Packers, on 2nd down, would have had the opportunity to get two plays off and very possibly could have scored.
Even with the 10-second runoff, Flynn feels the team could have run two more plays, per Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. But clearly it was more difficult at that point, with no timeouts remaining.
After calling the penalty, referee Carl Cheffers announced the clock will start on his signal. The Packers got set, and then, according to the team, umpire Undrey Walsh stood in front of Evan Dietrich-Smith to prevent him from snapping the ball.
"Well, we were all up, we were all set, and then he came up and told Evan to take his hand off the ball," Josh Sitton said, per ESPN's Rob Demovsky.
Though Barclay thought Walsh was standing in front of Dietrich-Smith while the clock was ticking, per Demovsky, the above screenshot shows the clock had not yet started. Cheffers gave the signal to start the clock after Walsh had moved off; the whistle can clearly be heard as the clock starts ticking.
Then, however, Cheffers runs up behind Flynn and says something to him, while the clock was running. It's unclear what caused the Packers not to snap the ball until there were just three seconds left or if it had something to do with Cheffers' proximity to the line, but in any case, the Packers had just one pass attempt, and it was incomplete.
Were the Packers guaranteed to have scored with 20 seconds and two plays left, as they would have, had Barclay not been called for the penalty? No.
Was it likely they would have? Yes. In the last three weeks under Flynn, Green Bay has gone 11-of-16 on red-zone attempts, for an average efficiency rate of 69 percent.
Green Bay's red-zone efficiency rate on the season is just 51 percent. That's the sixth-worst in the league, while their percentage for the last three games is the ninth-best in that span.
So could they have scored a touchdown from the 1-yard line with 20 seconds and two downs to go? It's likely, but because of Barclay's penalty, we'll never know.
So the Packers lost because of a defensive penalty on Nick Perry and a false start on Don Barclay.— Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) December 23, 2013
Clearly, no one penalty can be blamed solely for a loss.
The Packers offense played well against San Francisco in Week 1, but the defense allowed 494 total yards. The Packers were in it until the end in Cincinnati but committed four costly turnovers and didn't score a single point in the fourth quarter. And to be honest, another penalty that went their way against the Steelers and resulted in a touchdown—the illegal batting—probably shouldn't have.
Still, those games have three things in common—mental errors in the form of unnecessary penalties.
The Packers are just one spot away from being worst in the league in offensive-holding calls, at 31st, with 24 on the season. The league average is 16.8. They're also tied for 27th in face-mask calls, with four, and 23rd in illegal contact, with two of those calls.
Mental mistakes perhaps aren't surprising for a team missing veteran leadership at the quarterback, tight end, left tackle and safety positions, but that doesn't make them any less costly. If the Packers have any chance of beating the Chicago Bears and earning a playoff bid next Sunday, they'll have to be almost perfect in that area.
Without Rodgers, the Packers offense simply is not equipped to make up for negative plays. In fact, even with Rodgers against San Francisco and Cincinnati, the Packers were unable to regain the momentum they had before those penalties.
A penalty called at the wrong time could likely keep points off the board, and going against a Chicago team scoring the third-most points per game (27.8), the Packers will need all the points they can get.
Stats are courtesy of Team Rankings and NFLPenalties.com unless noted otherwise.