When the Packers won the coin toss in overtime Sunday night, fans around the country likely had a similar reaction: Game over. The way both teams had moved up and down the field offensively, it seemed like it would only take one possession to win the ball game with the league’s sudden death rules. Anyone who had that reaction was right. Packer fans wish they hadn’t been.
Three plays later, there was a sea of red in the end zone and the Green Bay Packers were on the wrong end of one of the greatest playoff games of the decade, maybe ever.
Down by as many as 21, the Packers hung 35 second-half points on the Cardinals and almost completed one of the biggest comebacks in NFL history. Instead, the Packers season fittingly ended the way it began, on a play where Green Bay couldn’t protect the most important player on the field.
That player, Aaron Rodgers, was brilliant in the second half, tossing four touchdowns and a Packer-record 422 yards. But he’ll go to bed tonight thinking about two throws. The first was his first as a playoff quarterback, a tipped ball that wound up in the hands of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, leading to the first score of the game.
The second was a pass he zoomed by Greg Jennings on the second play of overtime for what would have been a walk-in walk-off touchdown.
Had the Packers pulled out a W, Aaron Rodgers, in his first playoff game would have done something Brett Favre has, to this day, never done: brought his team back from 17 or more down.
But this game was about more than just Aaron Rodgers trying to rise out of the shadow of Brett Favre.
We learned some important things about the Green Bay Packers team as it’s currently constituted.
The first, and perhaps most important is the Packers have one of the best quarterbacks in football and the bright lights were no match for the unflappable Aaron Rodgers. This offense with Jennings, Driver, Finley, is every bit as talented and explosive as its Arizona counterparts.
Head coach Mike McCarthy may not be utter incompetent. He dialed up play after play that killed the Cardinals in the second half. The onside kick was an outrageously gutsy call that paid off. Playing their starters for three quarters didn’t make the Packers lose this game. They were a play here or there from pulling this one out.
It is worth pointing out though, that a penalty killed the drive in overtime that lead to the fumble. The penalty problems must be addressed and discipline restored on both sides of the ball.
But remember, it was McCarthy ripping into this team after their loss to Tampa which forced the team to re-evaluate their position and go on a tear in the second half of the season.
It is painfully clear where the Packers absolutely must get better next season: pass defense. Losing Al Harris we knew would be a huge blow, but depth at the safety position also remains a concern as the Cardinals did most of the damage down the seam, in the middle of the field.
The Packers need a cornerback and you have to wonder, with former Packer Mike McKenzie recently released from the Saints on the market, why Green Bay wouldn't take a chance on shoring up their thing secondary.
Getting to the quarterback with only four is the best way to beat a team with a quarterback the caliber of Kurt Warner, because he will hot-read you to death if you blitz him. The Packers have one-and-a half effective pass-rushers in Clay Matthews and Cullen Jenkins.
To compete again next year, the Packers need to see significant pass-rush improvement from Brad Jones, or find an upgrade.
The real problem however, is this defense is neither a big-game nor a clutch defense by any means. And that falls on Dom Capers.
Tough to give Charles Woodson the Defensive Player of the Year Award, when Kurt Warner has a career game and his defense gives up half a hundo in a win-or-go-home game.
Jarrett Bush might as well clean out his locker, he'll be selling cars by Valentine's Day. Woodson is in a category by himself, but he needs some help badly.
This defense is a player or two away from being the kind of consistently dominating defense it showed flashes of during the season.
Fifty-one points is too many, there is no question. But Dom Caper's 3-4 car needs a tune-up not to be scrapped. They can be dominating, or demoralizing. Capers must find a way to avoid the latter by getting more consistency from his players.
If the Packers play the Cardinals 10 times, each team probably wins five games. Without question, these are two of the top teams in the NFC.
Green Bay will head into next season again one of the youngest, most talented teams in the NFC. With or without Favre in Minnesota, Green Bay has to be a favorite to reach the postseason again next season.
And you have to imagine they will be as long as No. 12 is under center in Green Bay.
But you score 45 points on the road in the playoffs and you have to win. Dom Capers and his defense didn’t show up in big games, or on drives where the Packers absolutely had to have a stop.
You have to be put in these kinds of pressure situations to understand how to react to them. There is just no substitute for experience.
The Cardinals had been there before, and in a game of two evenly-matched teams, that was the difference Sunday.
Next year, the Packers will have the experience, and no excuse.
It was a great comeback, a great game, and great season. Aaron Rodgers and this team didn't get the win, but showed this could be the beginning, not the end of something great.
Until then, the team cannot be satisfied. The fans certainly won't be.