The Day After

As quickly as the Packers season ended Sunday afternoon in Arizona, I came to a sudden realization.

And no, it had nothing to do with a face-mask penalty that should have been called.

Nor did it have to do with how badly NBC has royally screwed themselves with this whole Jay Leno mess.

It had to do with the simple fact that I’ve been wrong about the Green Bay Packers all season.

Well, maybe I’m being too hard on myself. I did predict the Packers to have a strong season, but it’s hard to defend that when faced with the cold reality that I picked the god awful Bears to win the division.

After watching the Packers struggle early in the season, I decided that they were going to be as relevant in 2009 as Vanilla Ice, and I threw my NFC North love behind the division-leading Minnesota Vikings.

This, of course, I did just in time for them to go on their 7-1 tear, after which I declared them a virtual lock to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLIV.

And we all know now how prescient that was.

Along the way, I also criticized Packers games for being as stimulating as an infomercial for “Malt Shop Memories,” a position I took largely due to the inordinate amount of penalties the team committed, which often served to slow game action down to an insufferable crawl.

The Packers then went out and played in two of the most entertaining games of this or any year, on December 20 at Pittsburgh, and Sunday’s Wild Card playoff game at Arizona.

The two games had more in common then simply being entertaining. Both games came down to a deciding play. Both games featured two defenses that were as soft as a Larry King interview. And in both games, a seemingly wonderful performance by Aaron Rodgers was overshadowed by a better performance by an opposing veteran quarterback.

Is it fair to criticize a quarterback who turned in a team record-shattering performance like Aaron Rodgers did on Sunday?

Is it fair to criticize The Beatles for Magical Mystery Tour?

Well, it’s not fair, but neither was jumping all over Brett Favre when the 2007 Packers lost to the New York Giants in the NFC title game. (An on-line Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel poll shows that 80 percent of respondents think that Favre’s overtime interception was more costly than Rodgers’s fumble, even though Lawrence Tynes had to actually win that game whereas Rodgers’s turnover more directly gave the game away.)

There’s no doubt that for the most part, Rodgers played brilliantly on Sunday. But in a game where his receivers were running free all day, he missed badly on several critical throws, the most obvious coming on the first play from scrimmage in overtime where he missed a wide open Greg Jennings on a play that would likely have ended the game.

Rodgers also continued his habit of holding on to the ball too long, contributing mightily to his five sacks, the most times he had been sacked since the inexplicable November 8 loss to Tampa.

Worst of all, Rodgers committed those two massive turnovers.

The interception on the first play started the Packers down the hole that they didn’t start to climb out of until the third quarter.

And the fumble in overtime was inexcusable, regardless of how you felt about Michael Adams’s face-mask yank or the helmet-to-helmet hit that Bertrand Berry laid on Rodgers two plays earlier.

But clearly, anyone looking for goats for Green Bay’s quick playoff exit would have to look no further than the Packers’ pass defense.

The unit was awful, as Arizona’s receivers were shockingly wide open all day, particularly in the middle of the field. Yes, Kurt Warner is good, but not even Joe Montana lining up against the cast of High School Musical should be allowed to throw more touchdowns (five) than incompletions (four) for 13 yards per pass play.

The Packers’s sixth-ranked pass defense now looks like more of a result of who they faced (Daunte Culpepper, Matt Hasselbeck, Matt Leinart) than how stout they were. After all, Ben Roethlisberger piled up 503 yards on them, while Brett Favre torched them for 515 yards and seven touchdowns in two games. Hey, even Tampa rookie Josh Freeman got three of his year’s ten touchdowns in his win over Green Bay.

But the Packers lousy defense did not stop at pass coverage. The Cardinals were not afraid of running on the Packers and notched an impressive 156 yards on just 23 rushes for an average of 6.8 yards per rush. And the Packers tackling was atrocious, particularly on Early Doucett’s second touchdown, where several defenders converged on the second-year player only to collide in an embarrassing heap while Doucett strolled into the end zone.

It’s a testament to the talent on the Packers that their defense can play so poorly, the offense can make so many mistakes, and yet they found themselves in a position to win the game in the extra period.

(I’ll give McCarthy a pass: I hated the decision to have Mason Crosby kick a 54-yard field goal that Crosby predictably missed. The miss gave the Cardinals a great chance to go up 24-0 that only Charles Woodson’s strip of Larry Fitzgerald prevented. I also hated that he didn’t let more time run off the clock before the Packers tied the game at 45. With 1:52 left, Arizona marched right down the field and should have won the game on an easy field goal that Neil Rackers missed horribly. But I had major love for the onside kick in the third quarter that continued the Packers’ momentum.)

If there’s a silver lining, the Packers should enter the 2010 season with a chip on their shoulder that may eliminate the slow start that plagued them in 2009. If they can play 16 games next year at the level they played the final eight games this year, they will run away with the NFC North and make a deep playoff run.

Of course, when it comes to the Packers, I’ve been wrong before.


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