“We’re at a point now,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said, “where the margin for error gets real small.”
Or doesn’t exist.
The Packers, currently 8-6, can lock up a playoff spot by winning their last two games, against the Giants and the Bears, both at Lambeau Field. Technically, they don’t need any more help because they’ve now received it. A 10-6 record gets the Packers in the playoffs by virtue of various tiebreaker scenarios.
But in the wild-card picture involving current second-place teams, the New Orleans Saints already have 10 wins and the Giants already have nine, so the Packers must beat the Giants on Sunday to stay alive. It’s an elimination game, at least for Green Bay.
Lose to the Giants, and the Packers have no chance to get to 10 wins, while New Orleans and New York both will be at that mark, preventing anyone without a shot at 10 wins from staying in the playoff hunt.
But beat the Giants, and the Packers will still control their own destiny, needing then to beat the Bears in the regular-season finale to qualify for a playoff spot in the NFC.
“The most important thing right now, because the Giants and us are in the same situation, we’ve got to go out and play our best game,” Capers said. “It’s got to be a great week of mental preparation. I’m glad we’re playing at home. Hopefully our fans will come and we can get them into the game, and hopefully that works to our advantage.”
The Packers’ hopes for the NFC North Division title died Monday night when the Bears beat the Vikings. Chicago has now clinched the division.
In looking back at the Packers’ final drive to try to win Sunday’s game at New England, Head Coach Mike McCarthy didn’t have a problem with the time management or the way quarterback Matt Flynn handled the final fourth-and-1 play with the clock winding down.
McCarthy said the Packers were trying to use as much time as possible so as not to give Patriots quarterback Tom Brady a chance to retaliate with another score of his own. He also said on the final play, Flynn set the protection, recognized the coverage, and did what he needed to do in moving out of the pocket to buy some time, before he was sacked to end the game.
But what McCarthy kept pointing back to was the first-down play on that final series from the New England 24-yard line with just over a minute left. On that play, Flynn was sacked for an 8-yard loss by blitzing linebacker Dane Fletcher when the right side of the offensive line failed to pick up Fletcher.
“Obviously we don’t draw up protections where we let a guy go like that,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “I’m not sure exactly what transpired, but we obviously have to block that guy.”
The sack not only put the Packers in a difficult down-and-distance situation – suddenly needing 18 yards in their next three plays to keep the drive alive – but it also forced them to burn their last timeout.
Having used their second-to-last timeout after a third-down conversion on the previous play, the Packers had everything with the time management and the situation where they wanted it. They were 24 yards from the game-winning touchdown with 1:05 on the clock and a timeout in their pocket. But a negative-yardage play messed it all up.
“What threw the drive out of whack was the sack,” McCarthy said. “At that particular time, it’s hard to overcome.”
Added Philbin: “I thought we were in great shape. In hindsight, had we known we were going to get sacked, we may have sped things up a little bit, but I thought we had plenty of time.”
After the final timeout, Flynn completed consecutive passes to James Jones and Donald Driver for 17 of the requisite 18 yards. But the clock was running throughout both of those plays, and the long-yardage situation didn’t allow for a spike to stop the clock, because the offense couldn’t afford to waste a down.
The time that elapsed following Driver’s completion to the next snap was spent getting everybody aligned and the call communicated, which left the offense with just the one final play on fourth down.
“When you’ve got guys running vertical routes down the other sideline, you have to get guys back in position before you can snap the ball,” Philbin said. “It may have looked like a ton of time transpired, but when you don’t have timeouts, you can’t clock the ball and you’ve got guys running down the field, it’s going to take a little bit of time to get the next play off.”
Production on the ground
McCarthy said on Monday there were several pieces of impressive film from Sunday’s performance, and he pointed to the running game as one of those.
The Packers’ 38 rushing attempts were a season-high and the 143 rushing yards were second most this season, behind the 157 at Washington in Week 5. Brandon Jackson had a season-best 22 carries for 99 yards (second only to his 115 yards at Washington) while John Kuhn added 21 yards on the ground and 27 receiving on short passes.
“I thought our backs ran extremely hard,” McCarthy said. “I thought the run-blocking was better. But I thought Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn ran with a different level. They broke a lot of tackles. I thought John Kuhn played his best game as a Packer, in my opinion.
“We definitely had a lot more productivity out of the run game and obviously that is the way you like to play in a game, especially with the type of offense the Patriots have. The time of possession and the converting of the third downs, that was all part of the plan going into the game.”
The Packers converted 11-of-19 third downs (58 percent) and held the ball for more than 40 minutes for the first time all season.
“There are a lot of positives,” McCarthy said. “We didn’t win the game, and that’s the bottom line. Our standard of play is high. We just have to get it higher to win these types of games.”
The forgettable 71-yard kickoff return by offensive lineman Dan Connolly the Packers allowed on Sunday night featured two key breakdowns.
First, the back side of the Packers’ coverage unit was sloppy and lost containment to that side, which permitted Connolly to get outside and find some open space. Then, instead of diving at his legs to take him down, safety Charlie Peprah went after Connolly up high to try to strip the ball at around the Green Bay 35-yard line.
“On a 300-plus-pound man going down the sideline, you don’t high tackle a player in that situation,” McCarthy said.
The return was already a 40-yarder by then, but a regular form tackle would have been far preferable than seeing the return rupture into a 71-yarder down inside the 5, setting up an easy touchdown.
“What we should have done, the right side should have contained it, and we should have tackled him pretty much immediately,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “We had a couple players run into one another, which was unfortunate, and once the ball broke out, our safety should have chopped him down, cut his legs out on a low tackle instead of staying high and trying to strip the ball, and get him down immediately, and we didn’t do that.”
Slocum said the two players who ran into each other – Quinn Johnson and Diyral Briggs – did so because Johnson was pushed in the back and into Briggs just as both players were getting to the ball.
Still, Slocum acknowledged the coverage unit didn’t maintain the focus needed throughout the play to take care of it accordingly.
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘let up,’ (but) I think there’s a certain intensity that you cover a kickoff with when Brandon Tate has the ball in his hand, as opposed to, … I think it’s natural you see a big lineman and you think he’s going to go down,” Slocum said. “It happens. The guy gets the ball, they go down. Well, this time, that didn’t happen. The guy made a play, and we didn’t perform on the play.”
As he said on Sunday, McCarthy reiterated that he won’t have an update on quarterback Aaron Rodgers (concussion) until Wednesday.
McCarthy said the rib injury to safety Nick Collins is not as bad as initially thought, and he gave Collins a chance to play this week. Collins had X-rays on his ribs on Sunday night that were negative.
Also, McCarthy gave linebackers Frank Zombo (knee) and Briggs (ankle) a chance to be ready as well. Zombo missed the New England game while Briggs re-injured his ankle.
Defensive end Cullen Jenkins, however, doesn’t appear likely to play this week. The regular-season finale against Chicago is being targeted for Jenkins’ return.