Getting over the hump at Lambeau

Unlikely hero John Kuhn and the Packers salted away the final 6-plus minutes for a division win. AP Photo/Mike Roemer

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Two thoughts swirled in my head Sunday afternoon as I walked to the postgame interview area at Lambeau Field. I was trying to remember the last time a late game-management decision had mattered for the Detroit Lions, much less been questioned. I was also trying to make sense of how a converted fifth-year fullback who entered the season with 18 career carries was among the biggest reasons the Green Bay Packers avoided a disastrous home loss.

Unlike most of the past two decades of Lions-Packers games in the state of Wisconsin, this contest came down to the final 6 minutes and 32 seconds. And here's what we learned: Lions coach Jim Schwartz overestimated how close his admittedly competitive team is to pulling off a franchise-changing upset. The Packers, meanwhile, could walk off Lambeau Field knowing that their previously weak running game consumed the rest of the game and prevented the Lions from regaining possession in a 28-26 victory.

The Packers have their share of remaining concerns. Players were so glum after squeaking by the Lions for the 19th consecutive time at home that coach Mike McCarthy "had to remind us twice in the locker room that we did get a win," tailback John Kuhn said. Meanwhile, as we discussed earlier, quarterback Aaron Rodgers offered some pointed postgame analysis of his team's game plan.

The Packers held the ball for only 22:23 of the game and got off only 40 offensive plays, about half of what the Lions ran. But once Schwartz made the debatable decision at the 6:23 mark to trust his defense and punt from the Packers' 37-yard line, the Packers looked like a different team.

Kuhn carried on seven of their final 12 plays, amassing 34 yards and accounting for three first downs to keep the clock moving. The game ended when Kuhn ran eight yards on 3rd-and-7 with 55 seconds remaining after the Lions had used their final timeout.

"That's what you look for," McCarthy said. "... That's the toughest time in the game -- it should be -- to run the football. We lined up and it was real football. I can't say enough about our run-blocking unit. ... To finish the game right there, I thought that was a real statement for our offense."

We've spent plenty of time addressing the Packers' post-Ryan Grant running game, but after halftime Sunday, their entire offense went dark. It didn't score and ran only 10 plays before that final possession, the byproduct of three turnovers and Charles Woodson's interception return for a touchdown. Rodgers had a perfect passer rating at halftime, but in the second half threw as many interceptions (two) as he completed passes to his own team before that 6:23 point.

"That was pretty frustrating," center Scott Wells said. "As an offense, we want to be able to control the game. We want to run 70-plus plays and we're nowhere near that."

If you're a Packers fan, you were understandably biting your lip as they protected that two-point lead. It was time for what football people call the "four-minute drill," where the play-calls and tempo are designed to run out the clock. But after netting 156 rushing yards in their two games after starter Grant's injury, the Packers hardly seemed a team capable of eating that much time.

But Kuhn, at 250 pounds, might be built perfectly for such situations. He rumbled for seven yards on his first carry, five on his second and suddenly the Packers were rolling.

"To be able to end a game like that is always nice," Kuhn said.

Added Wells: "There's some satisfaction with that, yes. I feel we shouldn't have been in that situation to begin with. But at the same time, when the game is on the line ... to go out there and be able to run the ball effectively, that was a positive. We were able to secure a game, and that matters."

If a below-average running game can chew up 6:32, with some help from a quarterback with quick feet and good decision-making, is that enough? The Packers soon will let us know.

The Packers would not have been in that situation, however, had the Lions taken a different path at the end of their final possession. As they broke into Packers' territory, Schwartz's options included:

  1. Calling a third-down play, perhaps a run, with the intention of going for it on fourth down or getting better field position for a field-goal attempt.

  2. Going for it on fourth down regardless, even if it was 4th-and-9.

  3. Attempting a 55-yard field goal by Jason Hanson, who had earlier converted from 52 and 49 but been far short from 55.

  4. None of the above.

Schwartz decided on the fourth option. Quarterback Shaun Hill threw incomplete toward Calvin Johnson on third down. On fourth-and-9, Nick Harris kicked a 24-yard pooch-punt, and the Lions never got the ball back.

As we discussed last week, it's a measure of progress to be discussing individual Lions' decisions rather than global incompetence. And I'm not ready to say Schwartz made the wrong call. What it did tell us, however, is that Schwartz placed too much trust in a defense that had played well in the second half but overall is still far from a finished product. When it came time to stop a team that hasn't run the ball well all season, the Lions didn't come close.

Schwartz said afterward that he thought the wind was "fairly significant" and made it too difficult of an attempt. He added: "I thought it was a little bit too long to make and we decided to try to punt and pin them down. We had a lot of momentum on defense. It's a one-score game. If we try that field goal and miss it ... field position drastically changes."

The Lions, Schwartz said, are "very, very close" and "it's our job to get over the hump." You could suggest that the Lions, losers of 23 consecutive road games and 10 consecutive against the Packers, needed an aggressive boost at that point to get to the other side of that hump. But Schwartz would have none of it.

"We're not going to make any decisions based on what our record is," he said. "We're going to make decisions that are best within the game. If it's a field goal we think Jason can make, we're going to put him out there."

Schwartz coached as if he has a playoff-caliber team rather than one that clearly doesn't know (yet) how to handle close games at the end. Already this season, the Lions have lost three games by five or less points.

"When we [get over the hump]," Schwartz said, "we're going to get on a roll and play really good football."

Sunday, at least, the Lions demonstrated they're not there yet. Instead, it was the Packers who found a way over their own personal hump. Lesson learned.