Throughout the regular season, the Green Bay Packers excelled in two key areas that led them to an 11-5 record and a Wildcard berth in the playoffs. Those areas, turnover margin and pass defense, were staples of the team and categories in which the Packers found themselves near the top of the league for the majority of the year.
However, in Sunday's 51-45 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, the Packers were careless with the ball and allowed quarterback Kurt Warner to pass for some of the best stats in his storied playoff career. Turnovers and pass defense, the two areas the Packers thrived in during the year, killed the Packers' chances and were ultimately the reason the Packers packed for home instead of New Orleans.
In the 2009 regular season, the Packers finished with a +22 turnover margin, meaning they took the ball away 22 more times on defense than they gave it away on offense. The number was the highest since San Diego's +24 mark in 2007, and the third highest in the NFL since 2002. The second closest team was Philadelphia, who had a +15 turnover margin.
The Packers had a league-low of 15 giveaways in the form of just seven interceptions and eight fumbles, and were second to just the Saints in takeaways with 37. The combination of Aaron Rodgers taking chances only when necessary with the playmaking abilities of Charles Woodson made a perfect recipe for turnover margin.
Sunday, the Packers failed to take care of the ball and offense and, outside of a couple forced fumbles, never put the Cardinals in situations where they would have turned the ball over. Nothing should be taken away from Aaron Rodgers, who performed admirably and grew from inexperienced passer to professional quarterback in the span of three and a half hours, but his interception to start the game turned the momentum completely.
Hopefully it will be a trivia question one day when Rodgers is in Canton, but for now the careless interception marks a swing in a game that came down to who had the ball last. The weirdest part about the interception was that it was so anti-Rodgers, on the run forcing a throw into traffic instead of living to fight another day. After throwing just seven interceptions on 541 pass attempts, it was confusing to see that play.
Then came Donald Driver on the team's next possession, who caught a pass from Rodgers but was stripped by Karlos Dansby (who tipped the ball on Rodgers' interception). Driver started off the year on a tear but dropped passes and fumbles (he lost two on the year) cost the Packers, especially against the Cardinals, who wound up getting seven more points out of the fumble.
The last turnover of the game for the Packers was clearly the most costly, as Rodgers was hit and sacked by cornerback Michael Adams, before (guess who?) Karlos Dansby ran the returned fumble 27 yards for the game-ending touchdown.
While it wasn't Rodgers fault for the stellar defensive play, it marked the Packers' third turnover compared to the Cardinals' one, a fumble by Larry Fitzgerald on an outstanding play by Charles Woodson that was returned by Clay Matthews. The rookie from Southern California also stripped Kurt Warner on a botched flea-flicker, but the ball was recovered by Arizona.
While the Packers failed to intercept Warner in the game, it was their inability to stop him in any sense that left the Green Bay faithful scratching their heads wondering if they were watching the same defense. The old saying in football is that in order to win in January, you have to run the ball. Well, in Sunny Glendale with a roof over your head, Warner and the Cards found out passing the ball is what wins games.
Don't forget the Cardinals were able to reel off 156 rushing yards in the game, but the real story was the Packers failing to stop Warner through the air. By the end of the game, Warner had more touchdowns (five) than incompletions (four). He passed for 379 yards and a ridiculous 11.5 yards per attempt, and it would have been higher had Beanie Wells not had his way on the ground.
When playing against a defense like the Packers, having a quarterback who is both poised and accurate makes for a perfect combination. When pressure came to Warner, he knew exactly where to find his check-downs and hit them right in stride. Knowing for jumping routes, the Packers' secondary could not do so against Warner's precise passes that beat them up for four quarters.
For the last six weeks of the regular season, the Packers seemingly forgot about Al Harris because of how well the defense was playing. But against a Hall of Fame quarterback at home in the playoffs, the likes of Jarrett Bush, Brandon Underwood, and even starter Tramon Williams were no match, regardless of how much pressure was brought at the Arizona signal-caller.
Atari Bigby leaving with a hamstring injury only made things worse for the pass defense, as Matt Giordano, a special teamer, was asked to stop Warner's hot hand at strong safety.
Two aspects that made the Packers one of the most efficient teams in the league were the same things that led to their demise in the playoffs. One has to consider the playoff game a hiccup rather than the whole season a fluke because of the consistent numbers put up by the defense, but it's still a shame to see a once confident defense end the season with their tail between their legs.