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Mike McCarthy, Packers come up short in key moments in loss to Vikings

November 26, 2018

What a moment it must have been for Mike McCarthy. It was Green Bay Packers 14, Minnesota Vikings 14, midway through the third quarter Sunday night, and McCarthy faced a crucial decision.

Fourth-and-one foot maybe, and the Packers hadn’t yet crossed midfield, sitting at their own 44-yard line. The officiating crew took its sweet time spotting the ball after a third-down run by Aaron Jones, and it had to give McCarthy flashbacks to last week.

It was McCarthy’s decision to punt with four-plus minutes left — and one timeout — against the Seattle Seahawks and Aaron Rodgers never got the ball back. This situation against the Vikings was different, far earlier in the game, but it’s not as if fourth downs have been kind to the Packers this season.

Rodgers has converted 2-of-7 this season, one with his legs. He’s missed a few, including one at New England. The Packers had a punt blocked against Miami. Mason Crosby’s weird yips in a tie and a loss. It’s just been a crummy down for a coach who is facing the hottest scrutiny of his 13 year-tenure, and he was on the road, where the Packers had not won a game all season.

McCarthy also had previously punted twice in this game from inside Vikings territory, complicating things and perhaps raising the urgency. So while his head spun over what to do on fourth down, the play clock ticked … and ticked … and before he knew it, the ball was spotted with mere seconds left before they had to get a snap off.

Timeout, Packers. McCarthy tore into the officials. Not the best look all around.

Oh, but it got worse. Challenge the spot? No need, apparently. Instead, running back Aaron Jones was stuffed on an inside run, the exotic play that was conjured during the timeout they roasted while the play was not being challenged. They needed less than the length of the football for a first. The Vikings would take over and kick a field goal to take a 17-14 lead.

The Packers followed with one of their worst and most lifeless sequences — 2-yard run, incomplete pass, sack, punt and a penalty on the punt — before the Vikings put the game away. It took only 79 seconds and four plays for Kirk Cousins to find Adam Thielen, who pinballed his way into the end zone for a 24-14 Minnesota lead.

The Vikings would win, 24-17, dropping the Packers to 4-6-1 and now 0-6 away from Lambeau Field. Feel free to talk about what their playoffs chances are. But it might be more fascinating to see whether this of all seasons might produce the Packers’ worst record with Rodgers starting every game. They were 6-10 his rookie season, and topping that this year is no guarantee right now.

Rodgers was throwing darts early, but the Packers ran only 21 offensive plays in the first half. Thirteen of those were throws, and he tossed a few beauties, including a TD pass to Davante Adams and a pretty deep ball to WR Equanimeous St. Brown to set up that score. The Packers’ defense was having trouble with Cousins, but it was a 14-14 score after a herky-jerky first half.

Both teams punted to start the third quarter, and tensions were rising. That’s when McCarthy was faced with his fourth-down conundrum. It felt like a flashpoint of the season. Perhaps things had slipped too far for this team, with too much water under the bridge and too many close, painful losses. But a win here, and Green Bay would have been back over .500 and with a head-to-head edge over the Vikings with the same record.

Maybe he was tired of hearing the critics call out his way of “playing the numbers,” numbers many couldn’t find to support McCarthy’s causes. Or maybe he just saw something he liked in the spot. The decision to go for it certainly made logical sense. The play-clock debacle and the failed play choice were indefensible. Now it’s another knock against McCarthy.

This is a battered Packers offense, with Jimmy Graham coming in with a contraption on his broken thumb, and LT David Bakhtiari and St. Brown suffering in-game injuries. Perfection wasn’t a realistic goal in this game, especially against a tough defense that normally makes hell for opponents on third downs. McCarthy had a few things working against him, but he had to do it.

But even when he makes the right call, it comes with a caveat — or several. The bigger gripes might have been with why he didn’t consider going for the earlier ones. The Packers already had been given the gift of two missed Vikings field-goal tries, so they probably had to figure they weren’t going to get those pennies from heaven all night. The game was tied, but it felt like Green Bay was basically just hanging in there.

This Packers defense is not terrible, but it too has been saddled with key personnel losses, and it showed as Cousins completed 29-of-38 passes for 342 yards and three TDs. Dalvin Cook also looked quite healthy in the game, both as a runner and a receiver. All the more reason to be aggressive if you’re McCarthy.

Well, that and Rodgers, of course. But on this night, he really never had a chance. Rodgers attempted his 20th pass of the night a minute into the fourth quarter. Prior to the final drive of the game, Rodgers had completed 4-of-8 passes for 22 yards with two sacks in the second half. He led a field-goal drive but missed a chance to cut it to a three-point deficit when a wide-open Adams couldn’t haul in Rodgers’ rainbow pass with just under three minutes left.

The Vikings got the ball and ran out the clock to move to 6-4-1 and within nipping distance of the first-place Chicago Bears.

The missed Rodgers-Adams hookup might have been a snapshot of this team’s near-miss tendencies most of the season. But the lasting image of the night was McCarthy berating the officials, who might have spotted his ball too slowly. But there had been paralysis prior to that point on the coach’s behalf; basically, he should know it’s a got-to-go situation there right away.

Those are the little things. The little things that have cost the Packers wins this season. And the little things that could ultimately cost McCarthy his job.

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