As you read this, Green Bay Packers players are scattering around the country, having vacated Lambeau Field weeks earlier than anyone expected. Instead of game-planning for the NFC Championship Game, coaches are reviewing the season and in some cases interviewing for jobs elsewhere. Rather than finalizing plans for an early-February trip to Indianapolis and Super Bowl XLVI, fans are canceling hotel reservations and blocking off training camp dates on their long-term calendars.
How did we get here? How did the Packers become the first 15-win team in NFL history to lose their opening playoff game? Why won't the best team of the 2011 regular season get a sniff of defending its Super Bowl title?
We came down pretty hard on a series of mistakes by the Packers offense Sunday. With a few days to reflect, let's acknowledge some additional factors that sparked a 37-20 loss to the New York Giants.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers scoffed at the notion last week. "Not worried about it," he said. "Still not worried about it. Don't believe in it."
But here are the facts: Rodgers hadn't played in a game in 21 days, which was also the last time the Packers had a game with future implications. Receiver Greg Jennings hadn't played in five weeks. Overall, the Packers dropped six passes, tied for the most by any team in any game this season, and committed a season-high four turnovers.
To be sure, Rodgers was not at his sharpest Sunday. Through three quarters, he had barely completed 50 percent of his passes. Obviously the drops hurt his percentage, but he also missed two throws -- a first-quarter pass to a wide-open Jennings, and a fourth-quarter pass to tight end Jermichael Finley on third down -- that he routinely makes.
As the chart shows, five No. 1 seeds have rested their quarterbacks in Week 17 since the current postseason structure was implemented in 2002. Only one of them, the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees, won the Super Bowl.
With that said, I think it would be too convenient to say simply that Rodgers should have played in the Packers' Week 17 game against the Detroit Lions. I wonder if the missing element is not the act of playing but the weekly urgency of a playoff chase. Rodgers and the rest of the Packers offense wouldn't have benefited from that vibe even if he had been in the lineup.
Rodgers had an exceptional game as a scrambler, converting five of his six runs into first downs. But as a passer, it was his lowest-rated game of the season (78.5).
Conclusion: Reasonable people can disagree on this issue. But whether you attribute it to inactivity or unfortunate coincidence, the Packers were sloppy with the ball, less precise and in many cases a step slower than the Giants on Sunday. If they weren't rusty, they sure weren't sharp.
Theory: Ineffective pass rush
The Packers finished the season with more interceptions (31) than sacks (29), a sign of year-long pass rushing issues. So in one sense, it's difficult to blame an aspect the Packers had overcome for 15 victories this season.
On closer inspection, however, we see that the Giants made most of their big plays when the Packers either played back in coverage or were otherwise unable to pressure quarterback Eli Manning.
All three of Manning's touchdown passes came on plays the Packers sent four or fewer pass rushers, according to ESPN Stats & Information. All told, Manning was under duress -- defined as a play where the quarterback has to move or alter his throw because of pressure -- on only 10 of his 33 passes.
On two of the three touchdowns, the Packers compounded their lack of pass rush by poor play in the secondary. Safety Charlie Peprah missed a tackle on Hakeem Nicks' 66-yard touchdown, and neither Peprah nor cornerback Charles Woodson were able to knock down the Hail Mary pass Nicks pulled in just before halftime.
The Packers had hoped to beat Manning with coverage, but he picked them apart every time they gave him an opportunity.
"When you're only rushing three [or four], and you have eight guys in coverage, you'd like to think you're pretty good on that," defensive lineman B.J. Raji said. "That wasn't the case."
Conclusion: This was a rare game when the Packers offense couldn't compensate for the defense's shortcomings. That places a portion of the blame with the defense.
Theory: The Packers are a different team in winter weather
As we discussed during the 2010 playoffs, the Packers excel and in many ways favor the fast track afforded by indoor stadiums at this time of year. They managed to grind out a victory at Philadelphia in the wild-card round (21 points) and another over the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship Game (21), but by far their best offensive performances came in the Georgia Dome (48) and at Cowboys Stadium in Super Bowl XLV (31 points).
During the 2011 regular season, the Packers played three games indoors. Rodgers averaged 10.1 yards per attempt in those games and 9.0 yards per attempt in the 13 outdoor games. That's not exactly a smoking gun, and the it's only fair to point out the Packers scored 80 points in their final two regular season home games.
The temperature Sunday at kickoff was 31 degrees and there hadn't been precipitation for more than 24 hours.
Conclusion: It's tough to blame the weather for the Packers' offensive problems. That said, history tells us they would have been better off playing indoors.
And a few more quick hitters:
Theory: Finding motivation as a defending champion is tough
Via Twitter, @unwantedopinion wrote: "I think a major problem was recreating the motivation they had last season. When you're SB Champs & 15-1, what drives you?"
Conclusion: You would think motivation is more likely to be an issue during the regular season. But there is no doubt the Giants had a bounce in their step the Packers never demonstrated. Does it take a year or two of disappointment to build the fire necessary to mount a playoff run? I might buy that.
Theory: The Packers were distracted and/or sapped by the impact of offensive coordinator Joe Philbin's family tragedy.
Conclusion: There is little doubt the Packers struggled mid-week with the death of Philbin's son. Did it take some of their edge away? Too convenient, in my opinion. Even if it did, shouldn't they also have received a bounce from Joe Philbin's return to the team?
Theory: The Packers, their fans and much of the media came to expect a level of precision that isn’t sustainable.
Conclusion: We all shook our heads at some of the passes Rodgers completed this season to receivers who appeared blanketed. It stands to reason that a playoff opponent might be better equipped to defend such passes. Perhaps everyone, including the Packers, came to assume they could keep making plays that no one else could.
Theory: The Giants presented a unique matchup.
Conclusion: The most sustainable defensive model in 2011 is to field four strong pass rushers up front and devote everyone else to coverage. The Giants did that Sunday better than any Packers opponent this season. The Packers were forced to work underneath, eliminating their chances for an easy touchdown and increasing the opportunities for mistakes.
Your thoughts? I'm sure they're coming….