As Matt Flynn marched — well, marched is too strong of a word; maybe nudged? — the Packers down the field in the final four minutes of last night’s game against the New England Patriots, I let a taboo thought of optimism enter my head for just a second.
What if this kid actually throws a touchdown in the final seconds to beat the Patriots at home? What does that mean? Are we finally ready to come up and win big games like a great team?
And immediately, another thought came into my head to bat it away.
It’s not going to happen. We don’t win these games. The Patriots do.
Praise Flynn all you want this morning — and there are certainly plenty of reasons to do that. Talk about the Packers’ defense’s inspired performance. Even credit Mike McCarthy for what was, for 59 minutes, one of his best and most inspired game plans in Green Bay. Heck, even talk about how this game didn’t do anything but nick the Packers’ playoff hopes, thanks to the Salvation Army-sized charity they got during the early games on Sunday.
But the reason I’m so upset this morning is because this game ended the way all the close ones seem to end for the Packers — especially the close ones against great teams:
They found a way to lose. The Patriots found a way to win. And that’s the problem.
Even with Aaron Rodgers on the sidelines and a half-dozen other key contributors on injured reserve, the Packers put more impact players on the field than the Patriots did last night. They discovered a running game, held the ball for 40 minutes, got a madcap performance from John Kuhn and hit back every time the Patriots hit them. Yet, this team is 8-6, having lost those games by a collective 20 points. And this has become enough of a symptom under Mike McCarthy that you have to think this is all the Packers are going to be.
They can put up points, blow out bad teams and give good ones a heck of a fight. But last night came down to intestinal fortitude, and the Patriots, with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, have more of that than any team in the league. Heck, they have more of it than most teams in NFL history. The Packers do not.
Watching this Patriots team demystifies much of what modern NFL coaches — McCarthy among them — would have you believe is so complicated about this game. They block and tackle well, for the most part. They don’t commit stupid penalties, and they do not turn the ball over, though Brady certainly should have had a pick or two. They are composed, humble and opportunistic, and they are doing more with less than they ever have in the great Belichick/Brady years.
Contrast that with the Packers, who are in danger of missing the playoffs with all this talent because of big moments where they blinked. They dropped interceptions, including an uncharacteristic muff from Charles Woodson that led to seven points. They blocked poorly for Flynn, who contributed to the problem by committing one of Aaron Rodgers’ fatal mistakes: holding onto the ball too long. James Jones stopped on a route that led to a Flynn interception the Patriots returned for a touchdown. And they again showed their gross negligence on special teams, allowing an offensive lineman(!) to rumble 71 yards with a kickoff, cradling the ball like it was a newborn baby and ensuring the Packers will be mocked on highlights for weeks, if not years.
There’s not a lot of mystery in this. The Packers don’t win these games because they are terrible at doing the little things well, and at times, they don’t seem hungry enough. They believe they’ll win on talent, to the point where they procrastinate and put their season on the line, and when all that pressure builds up, they can’t respond.
Back to the last drive of the game: Needing to go only 57 yards in an overly generous 4:22, the Packers got stopped on a second-and-3 that effectively led to another 45 seconds coming off the clock after a third-down conversion. Flynn threw underneath to Donald Driver on a third-and-4 to get a first down, taking a timeout instead of spiking the ball, and took a sack on first-and-10 after Bryan Bulaga blocked the wrong man, leaving Dane Fletcher uncovered on a blitz. That led them to take their final timeout.
At this point, the Packers were somewhat limited by Flynn’s arm strength; he hadn’t been throwing to the sidelines all night, and a downfield throw seemed too risky, particularly when he’d had a pick negated by a penalty earlier on the drive. But when they got to fourth-and-1, chaos reigned. McCarthy said Flynn played things correctly, calling a play at the line of scrimmage and rolling out, but once again, the Packers’ blocking collapsed at the worst time. And from Driver’s catch with 29 seconds left to Flynn’s snap with five seconds left, the Packers’ entire margin for a short throw and a spike went out the window.
Why wasn’t there more urgency to get to the line? Why did this offensive line, which was supposed to be fixed, make two unforced errors on the last four plays of the game? Those have been themes over and over with McCarthy’s teams, and it seems clear at this point the Packers won’t cross over the divide with him as the coach. The NFL’s labor situation makes a firing unlikely, but when this team has all the talent to win a Super Bowl, and should for the next two seasons, big questions have to be asked. And they’re being asked because of all the little things the Packers can’t do.
By most accounts, the Packers played admirably without their franchise quarterback in a game no one thought they could win. Once again, they proved they had enough talent to overcome the odds and get to the brink of victory.
The Patriots had enough gumption to win, in spite of whatever talent gap they had. That’s what counts, and that’s why the Packers are continually wishing and hoping they could get to where the Patriots are. And with McCarthy charting the course, I’m not sure they’ll ever arrive.