GREEN BAY – It was going to be tough enough to score points against one of the top-ranked defenses in the NFL on Saturday night.
But the Packers certainly didn’t help themselves.
At least a half dozen dropped passes, many at critical junctures, prevented Green Bay from getting back into a game it eventually lost to Minnesota, 16-0, at Lambeau Field.
The NFC North champion Vikings improved to 11-3 and put themselves in strong position to earn a first-round bye in the upcoming playoffs, but the Packers could have made this one a lot harder for them.
While trailing by no worse than two scores, Green Bay had three drives into scoring range that came up empty. A red-zone interception by quarterback Brett Hundley and two fourth-down failures led to Green Bay’s second home shutout in the last six games.
All three drives featured dropped passes that would have moved the chains. Single-digit temperatures made catching the ball a chore, but the Packers clearly struggled dealing with a frozen football more than the indoor-bred Vikings did.
“We had a lot of opportunities tonight, and we didn’t make the plays,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said after his team fell to 7-8. “It’s disappointing. Minnesota is a very good team. To keep them to 16 points – really 13 points (until) there at the end…
“I expected more. I thought we’d play much better.”
All the missed chances led to an ugly night statistically for Hundley (17-of-40, 130 yards, two interceptions, 30.2 rating), who deserved better while managing an offense that had regulars leaving with injuries and young players taking on larger roles.
Already with five starters on the game-day inactive list, Green Bay saw injuries keep coming. Right tackle Jason Spriggs went down on the game’s first snap with a knee injury that McCarthy called “pretty bad.”
Later, receiver Jordy Nelson (shoulder), tight end Richard Rodgers (shoulder) and running back Aaron Jones (knee) also exited. The loss of Rodgers eliminated all the double-tight-end sets in the game plan, and the one healthy tight end, Lance Kendricks, had two of the key drops with the offense in scoring range, both on third down.
Green Bay’s best chance to make a game of it came late in the first half, down only 10-0. But on third-and-3 from the Minnesota 15, Hundley locked onto Kendricks too long over the middle, and safety Harrison Smith jumped in front for first of his two interceptions.
Hundley called it both a “bad read” and a “bad throw.” He later tried to go to undrafted rookie receiver Michael Clark on the two fourth downs in scoring territory. The second one, from the Minnesota 13, looked like a good back-shoulder throw to the front pylon of the end zone, but Clark couldn’t haul it in against tight coverage from Pro Bowl cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
“The interception down there tight in the red area, the fourth-down calls, those are big plays in the game,” McCarthy said. “One of those plays could change the course of the game potentially, but it didn’t happen. No excuses. We didn’t play well enough to win.”
The defense got off to a rough start, allowing a field goal and touchdown on two of the Vikings’ first three drives. Receiver Stefon Diggs (five catches, 60 yards) drew a 39-yard pass interference penalty on second-year corner Josh Hawkins and then two plays later beat Hawkins for a TD pass from Case Keenum (14-of-25, 139 yards, 85.2 rating).
But six punts on Minnesota’s next seven possessions, helped by a pair of sacks from second-year defensive lineman Kenny Clark, gave Green Bay’s offense its chances.
But too many slipped through the Packers’ hands and into a cold, dark night.
“It hurts,” Hundley said. “You have to find a way to win. We just didn’t make the critical plays.”
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