Tom Oates: Packers stumble during difficult road stretch, leaving playoff hopes in serious jeopardy
MINNEAPOLIS — The Green Bay Packers knew what the degree of difficulty was.
A mid-season stretch in which four of the five games were on the road — all in difficult places to win — figured to make or break their season.
If the Packers could somehow squeeze out a victory or two in roadies against the Los Angeles Rams, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings, they might put themselves in position to make the playoffs after underachieving in their first six games.
They started each road game during that stretch like the knew what was at stake, too. They moved to double-digit leads in the first half against the Rams and Seahawks only to see those leads slip away as they lost by two and three points, respectively. They battled the Patriots to a 17-17 tie before collapsing in the fourth quarter.
The Packers’ last chance to salvage something from the difficult stretch — and likely their season — came Sunday night at U.S. Bank Stadium against the Vikings, another team that had fallen short of expectations. Amazingly, the Packers’ 4-5-1 record entering the game not only hadn’t eliminated them from playoff contention, it gave them a chance to jump right back into the mix for the two wild-card spots with a victory over the Vikings, who came in with a 5-4-1 record.
At 5-5-1, the Packers would have been been behind three 6-5 teams in the race for the two wild-card spots. A loss, on the other hand, would put them behind nine other teams in the race for six NFC playoff berths.
Alas, the Packers couldn’t deviate from the script they followed in the first three road games, dropping a 24-17 decision to the Vikings that left them in serious danger of missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season. Such an outcome seemingly would trigger major changes in Green Bay, starting with coach Mike McCarthy, whose has an offense that has lost its sizzle and a team that no longer has the talent to go on the road and beat good opponents.
Green Bay is 0-6 on the road this season, its worst start away from Lambeau Field since coach Bart Starr’s team lost its first seven in 1979. Even in the NFC, where the standings have a sizable bulge in the middle, the Packers are almost finished, especially with a road game against the NFC North-leading Chicago Bears still on the schedule.
“We’re 4-6-1,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “Gotta win our last five, and even that might not be enough.”
The Packers began Sunday night’s road game much like they had started the first three. Moving the ball sharply and this time with hints of newfound creativity, they took leads of 7-0 and 14-7. Each time, however, the Vikings responded in lightning-quick fashion, twice moving 75 yards for touchdowns.
Green Bay’s beleaguered defense was on its heels from the start as Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins took advantage of near-perfect pass protection to pick apart a secondary decimated by injury. At halftime, Cousins was 22-for-26 for 254 yards. Only a couple of gritty third-and-1 stops and two missed field goals by the Vikings kept the score at 14-14 at halftime.
The problem, of course, was that the offense disappeared after its fast start, again following an all-too-familiar script. The Vikings, ranked No. 1 in the NFL on defense last season and still No. 5 this season, had a lot to do with that. They stymied running back Aaron Jones’ between-the-tackles rushes and turned up the heat on Rodgers in the second half.
Two plays into the first quarter, the Packers had 119 yards and a 14-7 lead. From that point until 4 minutes remained in the game, they gained a paltry 62 yards.
As in those earlier games, the Packers just couldn’t sustain any offense once the opponent figured out what they were doing. That put the game entirely on Rodgers’ shoulders and he couldn’t get it done, in part because he didn’t have enough time behind a banged-up line. After Minnesota took a 17-14 lead late in the third quarter, Green Bay’s next two possessions ended with third-down sacks that happened so fast Rodgers barely had time to look downfield.
McCarthy tried to change things up with one desperate decision in the second half. After being roundly criticized when the Packers never got the ball back after he chose to punt on fourth-and-2 from his own 33-yard line down three with 4:20 to play against Seattle, McCarthy did the opposite against the Vikings.
Facing a fourth-and-1 from his own 45 with 7:28 to play in the third quarter of a tie game, he went for broke and the first down. Jones smashed into the line but couldn’t gain an inch, giving Minnesota a short field. The Vikings ended up kicking a field goal for a 17-14 lead they never came close to losing.
At least McCarthy and the Packers went down swinging this time. Of course, they still went down and now they are just about out.
“We’re that close in all these games,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “Unfortunately, like I said last week with Seattle, close doesn’t really count. ... We battled, but that only counts for so much. Ultimately, they came out on top. It’s disappointing. I’m not sure where that puts us in any postseason hope, but it’s a tough one. Definitely a tough one, especially (when) we thought it was going to go a different way with our preparation and how we started. We just didn’t do enough, especially in the fourth.”
Some will blame coaching for that and coaching certainly shares in the blame. But if you’re going to blame coaching for losing the leads, then you have to credit coaching for getting the leads in the first place.
So whether it’s coaching, injuries, inconsistent performances by key players, an overall shortage of talent or all of the above, the Packers just don’t have the wherewithal to stick with good teams on the road for 60 minutes. The fact that all four games played out in similar fashion proves it.