The Green Bay Packers are undefeated at 3-0 to open up their 2011 NFL season, with wins against the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears. While the Packers are sitting atop the NFL standings, a pattern has developed in the first three weeks: In each game, the Packers have been leading by at least 14 points and allowed their opponent to hand around and get back into the game.
The Packers beat the Saints by eight, the Panthers by seven and the Bears by 10, but could have won each game by two touchdowns or more. A strong defense and clutch Aaron Rodgers passes have saved the Packers, but how long can they rely on late timely plays when they should have put games away?
Against the Saints, the Packers used a John Kuhn touchdown with 11:50 remaining in the fourth quarter to take a 15-point lead at 42-27. After forcing a punt, the Packers got the ball back with 10:27 left in the game and a chance to put away the Saints.
On the ensuing drive, the Packers got one first down on seven plays that gained 17 yards, but did take a nice chunk of change off the clock. Forcing a 2nd-and-9, a Rodgers sack ended hopes of another first down. A short pass kept the clock moving, but the Packers were forced to punt after milking four minutes and 44 seconds off the game clock.
Following a Saints touchdown and an onside recovery from Donald Driver, the Packers had a chance to guarantee an opening day win with a first down. The Packers gained only six yards on three plays and took just 59 seconds off the clock.
The Saints got the ball back and looked to take advantage of the Packers' inability to close with a touchdown and game-tying two-point conversion. Saints RB Mark Ingram was denied at the goal line with no time remaining and the Packers escaped.
In Week 2, the Packers took a 23-13 lead into the fourth quarter, but failed to move the ball after the Panthers added a field goal to bring the game within seven points. The Packers got the ball back with 10:05 in the game and a chance to add more cushion.
A first down holding penalty on Bryan Bulaga doomed the Packers drive as they struggled to regain the yards and failed to convert on third down and short, giving the ball back to Carolina for a chance to tie the game.
The defense came up big with their backs against the goal line as they stuffed Cam Newton's fourth down scramble to maintain their seven-point lead with 3:09 remaining. A 12-yard James Starks run on first down provided the Packers flexibility on their next play, which resulted in an 84-yard touchdown pass to seemingly put the game away.
The well-timed touchdown proved to be quite necessary, as the Packers defense folded in allowing Newton to march his Panthers down the field for a touchdown to bring his team back within seven. With 37 seconds left in the game, the Packers faced another onside kick. Green Bay recovered, kneeled and hurried out of town with the win.
Last week against the Bears, the Packers used Jermichael Finley's third touchdown of the day to take a 27-10 fourth quarter lead against the Bears. On the following Bears possession, Jay Culter threw an ill-advised pass that was intercepted by Morgan Burnett with 12:02 remaining.
Instead of a lengthy drive that would break the Bears' backs, James Starks fumbled the football on first down, turning possession over to the Bears with great field position. Cutler immediately took advantage of the blunder with a touchdown pass to Kellen Davis to cut the Packers lead to 10.
On the next Packers drive, they picked up a big first down before Rodgers was intercepted for the first time of the season by LB Brian Urlacher. The Bears were unable to convert the turnover into points and the ball was returned to Green Bay. The drive stalled due to another penalty and the Packers went three-and-out on their final series of the game.
The Packers are missing the killer instinct to put teams away for some comfort towards the end of games. The inability to close out the first three games have left the Packers susceptible, but luckily they came up with just enough plays to pull out wins.
This is something the Packers will need to carefully address as the season progresses. They cannot rely on clutch plays each week to save a win. Talented enough to blow out many teams in the NFL, the Packers need to do so and move along.
In the first three weeks of the season, the Packers could have won each game by multiple touchdowns, but two games came down to onside kick attempts in the final three minutes of ball games.
As a team, the issue falls on head coach Mike McCarthy's play-calling and the players' lack of focus. The fourth quarter penalties and turnovers need to be eliminated as the Packers get deeper and deeper into their season.
Unfortunately for the rest of the NFL, the problem is correctable, and if the proper adjustments are made, the Packers become even more dangerous and tougher to beat.