Monday, November 29, 2010

Packers Cut Selves in Another Close Shave

This is becoming like a broken record.

For the fourth time this season, the Green Bay Packers played a game decided by exactly three points. For the fourth time, the Packers lost.

Like earlier defeats at the hands of the Bears, Dolphins, and Redskins, Sunday's 20-17 loss to Atlanta was filled with a large number of critical errors made by people who should know better.

Unlike the Bears game, the Packers didn't single-handedly kill themselves with bad penalties, but the facemask foul on Matt Wilhelm during a late Atlanta kickoff return was hella costly, because it meant Matt "Matty Ice" Ryan only had to move the Falcons around 20 yards to get them in field goal range.

If that wasn't enough, head coach Mike McCarthy (again) completely abandoned the running game in short-yardage situations, leaving Aaron Rodgers to make plays against a defense that knew damn well their opponent would be throwing. That was totally like the Bears loss, a game Green Bay appeared to have well in hand until the offense started self-destructing under the weight of penalties and the lack of any attempt at a run game.

The defense played their guts out despite being short-handed because of injuries, and it was nice to see guys like Frank Zombo get their moment in the sun after all they've given this team this season. However, like the Miami game, the defense couldn't get the critical stops in the second half. It's not a fair criticism, because they played well in many ways, but at the same time, when your offense is struggling, you need the defense to pick things up. These guys didn't do enough of that.

Rodgers was good, especially on the last drive, but he again left too many points on the board. His audible to a keeper play near the goal line late in the second quarter was a bad decision, and his sneak play was terribly executed on all fronts on the next down. Earlier, he missed a first down on the Packers' opening drive when he slid too soon. The lack of a rushing attack puts a lot of pressure on Rodgers, so again this isn't totally fair, but he has to avoid mistakes that leave points on the board.

McCarthy takes a lot of the blame, though. He simply can't abandon the run like he did on Sunday, and while it's okay to go empty once in a while in short-yardage situations because it keeps the defense thinking, it's not acceptable to do it as often as Green Bay did on Sunday.

The head coach also has to absorb blame for not challenging a fourth-down "catch" by Tony Gonzalez that led to Atlanta's first touchdown. It wasn't a catch, and McCarthy -- armed with two timeouts he would end up not using -- chose to let play continue. At the worst, he should have called a timeout to allow his assistants upstairs to get a look at the play. They might not have been able to tell definitively if Gonzalez caught the ball, but they would have set McCarthy up with enough information to make a good decision. If -- even after a timeout -- McCarthy challenges the call and is successful, the Packers get the ball with good field position and a timeout. If he misses, the Falcons keep the ball, and the Packers are out two timeouts that they ended up not using anyway.

No harm.

The most chilling stat is that Green Bay's four losses have all been by exactly three points each. The Packers have won close games against Philadelphia, Detroit, and Minnesota, and they have used both the offense and defense to close them out. But they've also missed a number of opportunities to separate themselves from the pack in the NFC.

Now, instead of coasting to the playoffs, the Packers have to fight just to get in the proverbial tournament.

They only have themselves to blame.

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