Packers missing their equalizer

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Sunday provided our first full look at the Green Bay Packers in the raw. The results were predictable. Unvarnished and now unprotected by their cocoon, the Packers appear headed where most NFL teams would land in their situation: an early exit from playoff contention.

The Packers didn't simply lose their starting quarterback when Aaron Rodgers fractured his collarbone on Monday. They lost their crutch and, in a secular sense, their savior in games exactly such as Sunday's 27-13 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Don't act like we haven't seen a few of these over the years. This isn't the first time that a Packers defensive back has tipped the ball into the hands of an opposing receiver for a touchdown, as Tramon Williams did for DeSean Jackson to open the scoring. And, please, we've seen plenty of opponents score against a busted Packers coverage, as Riley Cooper did on a 32-yard play in the third quarter. Oh, and we've seen Mason Crosby miss two field goals in a game before, as he did Sunday.

In most cases, players stood in the postgame locker room and, in one way or the other, acknowledged that Rodgers had bailed them out. I wish I had a dime for every time I've heard a Packers player say something like, "It helps to have 12 back there," over the past six years.

A few times, veteran Charles Woodson suggested the Packers couldn't win consistently with such imbalanced production. They did, but more often than not, it was because Rodgers compensated in ways that catapulted him to the top of the NFL's quarterback rankings.

"You're not going to sit there and pout because someone got hurt," offensive lineman T.J. Lang said. "You can bitch and complain, but you've got to go out there and play. ... Injuries suck. They are part of the game. But we have enough guys on this team that we can still win football games. You have to step up and fill the spot and play."

Lang is one of the Packers' straightest shooters, but I think we're finding that the Packers -- like most NFL teams -- are an average team at best without their starting quarterback. They'll need a midseason change in identity to be better than average.

Sunday's situation was absurd even by Packers standards, of course. Starter Seneca Wallace injured his groin on their opening possession, thrusting former practice squad player Scott Tolzien onto the field for his first NFL action. Center Evan Dietrich-Smith and right tackle Don Barclay were both sidelined by knee injuries, forcing Lang to make his NFL debut at center and throwing rookie Lane Taylor onto the field at guard.

But I can't blame Wallace's injury, nor any of the other personnel issues, for Sunday's loss. Tolzien played at least as well as, if not better than, anyone could have expected Wallace to perform. Tolzien made one ghastly throw, behind Jordy Nelson that resulted in an end zone interception, but otherwise was accurate and by all accounts fluent in the Packers' complex offense. McCarthy immediately named him the starter for next Sunday's game against the New York Giants, an obvious decision that could help the Packers steal a game in Rodgers' absence but isn't likely to be a long-term success.

The real issue, frankly, is the Packers aren't equipped -- or they're not mentally ready -- for another part of their team to step forward. Nowhere is that more evident than in the way their defense has collapsed in each fourth quarter since Rodgers' injury. The Eagles ran out the final nine minutes, 32 seconds of Sunday's game in a two-score game. Combine that with the Chicago Bears' game-clinching drive last week, and the Packers' defense has allowed 177 yards on 40 plays, with a combined time of possession of 21:27, in their past two fourth quarters.

"I've never been a part of something like this," defensive lineman B.J. Raji said, "where we can't stop a team in the last two weeks. Need the ball back for your offense, and whatever they ran worked. I've never been a part of something like this. Live and learn and just move on."

Added linebacker A.J. Hawk: "We haven't really helped [the offense] out like we should. They've been helping us out forever, it seems like, and we just haven't -- the last couple weeks especially, but this whole season."

McCarthy referred to a "recurring issue" that he refused to elaborate on, but I think we're safe in assuming it relates to fourth-quarter defense.

"We'll get on that tomorrow," he said. "I'm not going to get into that right now."

It would be nice if McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers could snap their fingers and tighten up their defense. But is that even fair to expect at this moment? Over the years, the Packers have won despite as many things as they have won because of. That's just how it is, and how it figures to be, for a while.