It’s no time for the Green Bay Packers and their fans to relax. Another run-the-table turnaround late in the season is looking ever more unlikely. It might be time to panic. The Packers could be on their way to wasting another year of quarterback Aaron Rodgers’s prime, as their season came unraveled with a loss Thursday night in Seattle that included some questionable late-game coaching decisions by Mike McCarthy.
The 27-24 defeat to the Seahawks dropped the Packers to 4-5-1. They could miss the NFC playoffs for a second straight year after eight straight postseason appearances, a run that included a Super Bowl triumph in the 2010 season. There is growing speculation that this season’s failures could cost McCarthy his job, and he did nothing Thursday night to quiet such talk.
It was the Seahawks, not the Packers, who bolstered their playoff chances. They evened their record at 5-5 in their season of transition.
The Seahawks’ winning touchdown came on a 15-yard pass from quarterback Russell Wilson to tight end Ed Dickson with a little more than five minutes remaining. The touchdown was set up by a 34-yard completion from Wilson to wide receiver Tyler Lockett, who made a tumbling catch near the sideline.
Or did he? Television replays seemed to show the football momentarily loose on the turf, out of Lockett’s grasp, as he slid along the ground. The officials on the field called it a completion. But Mike Pereira, the NFL’s former officiating czar and now a rules analyst for Fox, said on the broadcast that he thought a replay challenge by the Packers might have resulted in a reversal and an incompletion. New catch rule or not, the ball being loose on the ground is not a catch.
McCarthy never threw the challenge flag. The Packers had only one timeout remaining and would have lost it with a failed challenge. McCarthy said at his postgame news conference that the Packers never got a clear view of the play in time to issue a replay challenge. But that play was the game, as it turned out. The Packers couldn’t afford not to challenge.
Seattle’s touchdown left plenty of time for another Rodgers-led comeback. The Packers got the ball at their 25-yard line, facing a three-point deficit with more than five minutes remaining. It seemed inevitable that Rodgers would take the Packers down the field.
But there was no magic this time. The Green Bay offense went three plays and out. The Packers punted and never got the ball back, as the Seahawks got two first downs and ran the final four-plus minutes off the clock.
Again, McCarthy’s tactics could be questioned. The Packers faced a fourth-and-two at their 33-yard line with a little more than four minutes left. They had one timeout. They hadn’t stopped Seattle’s running game all night. There was a good chance that if they punted, they wouldn’t get the defensive stop they needed and they wouldn’t get the ball back. Wouldn’t it have been a better approach to leave the offense on the field and put the game in Rodgers’s hands?
McCarthy said after the game that the Packers “definitely” considered going for it on fourth down but, with the two-minute warning plus a timeout, they “played the numbers.”
McCarthy pressed all the wrong buttons on this night, and now the Packers face a steep climb to get back to the postseason. They’re winless on the road (0-5) and still face difficult games at Minnesota and at Chicago.
Remember when Rodgers famously instructed Packers fans to “R-E-L-A-X” after the team’s 1-2 start in 2014? That worked out fine. The Packers went 12-4 that season and reached the NFC title game.
Remember two years ago when Rodgers declared that the Packers, at 4-6 and on a four-game losing streak following an ugly defeat to the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field, could run the table? That’s exactly what they did, winning their final six games of the regular season on their way to another appearance in the NFC championship game.
But they have not been back to a Super Bowl since that Lombardi Trophy-winning season engineered by Rodgers and McCarthy in 2010. And now they could be out of the playoffs again. There was a viable excuse for last season’s 7-9 record, given that Rodgers missed nine games with a broken collarbone.
There is no such excuse this season. Rodgers was taken from the field on a cart on opening night with an injury to his left knee. But he returned to the field that night in Green Bay and orchestrated a comeback victory over the Bears.
He has stayed in the lineup all season. He has played well, with 19 touchdown passes and only one interception. He threw for 332 yards and two touchdowns Thursday night, including a 54-yard strike in the first half to fourth-string tight end Robert Tonyan.
But it’s still not working.
Rodgers said he is not giving up on the season, although he was not particularly eager to answer a reporter’s question during his postgame news conference Thursday about whether there is hope left.
“What kind of question is that?” Rodgers said. “I don’t even know how to answer that. I mean, come on. What am I supposed to say? Of course there’s hope. Of course we believe in each other. It’s just going to take one galvanizing moment. So whether that’s a speech or a practice or something happens in a game, something’s got to get this thing going. I thought we had moments tonight where that was the way we were going. . . . Guys battled. Nobody gave up hope. We just didn’t play well enough when we had to play well enough.”
But, realistically, that hope is slipping away.
Rodgers turns 35 in December. He certainly isn’t done. The Packers just made him the sport’s highest-paid player by signing him in August to a four-year, $134 million contract extension. He is under contract through the 2023 season, during which he will turn 40.
He and the Packers can only hope that, by then, they aren’t still waiting for that return trip to the Super Bowl that is proving so elusive despite the presence of one of the greatest quarterbacks the sport has ever seen.
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