PHILADELPHIA – It could be argued this all started with just over three minutes to go in Atlanta on Oct. 30.
On first-and-10 near midfield, with the Packers trying to protect a six-point lead, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan made a bad decision against a blitz and threw hot to his left toward receiver Mohamed Sanu.
Packers cornerback LaDarius Gunter jumped the route and arrived at Sanu just as the pass did, getting at least one if not two hands on the ball. Unfortunately, Gunter wasn’t able to haul it in for a game-saving interception, or perhaps even a pick-six.
Eight plays and 53 yards later, the Packers left the Georgia Dome with a gut-punch of a one-point loss, the beginning of what is now a season-altering four-game losing streak.
This is not to lay all the blame on Gunter, but his missed opportunity became the first example of what the Packers’ defense has been missing as a whole over the past month – a big play in the latter stages of the fourth quarter to change a game.
In three of the four losses during this streak – Atlanta, Indianapolis and Washington – that’s all it might have taken for Green Bay to notch a victory, and it’s not as though the Packers didn’t had their chances.
Five snaps after Gunter’s near-miss against the Falcons, a red-zone seam throw was juggled as receiver Julio Jones tried to make a sliding catch, but safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix couldn’t quite get his hands on it.
Against the Colts, Clinton-Dix will forever rue his missed sack of Andrew Luck on third-and-10 with just over three minutes left and Indy hanging onto a five-point lead. The Packers’ offense had driven 155 yards in 13 plays for two touchdowns the last two times it had the ball and just needed one more shot.
Three plays later, the defense’s last chance was on third-and-2 with 2:21 left, but Luck found receiver T.Y. Hilton for 27 yards and the losing streak was at two.
The Tennessee game was the outlier, with Green Bay never getting within 16 points in the fourth quarter, but in Washington, opportunity knocked once again.
The Packers’ offense was rolling, scoring two TDs the last two times it had the ball, and the Redskins led, 29-24. Get Aaron Rodgers the ball back, and the odds were pretty good he’d put the Packers in front.
But on third-and-3 from the Washington 26, linebacker Blake Martinez was flagged for pass interference. Then on fourth-and-1 from the 41, Redskins QB Kirk Cousins converted with a sneak. Then on second down from the 46, a quick flip was deflected by receiver Pierre Garcon, but linebacker Carl Bradford couldn’t get his hands on it. One play later, on third-and-7, Cousins beat a blocked-up blitz with a deep ball to receiver Jamison Crowder, mismatched on linebacker Joe Thomas.
How many chances can one team ask for?
“I can name 10 different plays we could have possibly done the last game that would have been huge, but it’s just a matter of making them,” defensive back Micah Hyde said. “We haven’t yet, but we have the mindset that we will, and it’s just a matter of time.”
Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. was adamant late last week that the time is now. He was speaking about his position group in particular, but his thoughts certainly apply to the entire defense when it comes to crunch-time moments.
“It’s time to make plays,” Whitt said. “It’s time to get it done and we can do it. If we want to have the success that we’re going to have, then we better do it. It’s as simple as that.”
It’s as simple as one clutch defensive play in any one of those three games, and the Packers could be 5-5 right now, playing to stay one game back of a division leader they face again in Week 17. Instead, they’re heading into one of the most hostile of venues in Philadelphia in prime time, fighting to keep their season alive.
But they are where they are, and for a number of reasons. The offense owns its share of responsibility, too, with just one total first down on the first three drives of each of the last two games, putting the team behind from the get-go.
Rodgers spoke last week about the offense starting faster and setting the tone early, and about himself being “sharper from the start.”
That would all help, but nothing would help more than the team’s most struggling unit providing a well-timed jolt when the team needs it at a crucial juncture. Whether it’s with a turnover, a sack, or a quick three-and-out when the offense is hot, the late fourth-quarter narrative on the defensive side needs to change for the team’s results to change.
“The positive thing about this league is, whatever happened last week, that’s done,” safety Morgan Burnett said. “Now it’s time to move forward.
“You don’t want to lose. No one around here likes losing. Anytime you have an opportunity to redeem yourself, you want to do that.”
The Packers have to, now. Their season depends on it.