GREEN BAY, Wis. – A bitter wind, with the promise of even more bitter winds to come, whipped across the parking lots and deserted neighborhood streets surrounding Lambeau Field on this dark Sunday night. Only flying papers, tailgate remnants and empty Miller Lite bottles were left to feel its bite.
"We play to win championships," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "We had a championship-caliber regular season.
"We didn't play well tonight."
The how is obvious: a season-high four turnovers, a season-high four sacks (tied) and (presumably) a season-high in mental errors, dropped passes and botched plays.
The menacing Giants defense, not to mention their surging offense, deserves much of the credit. This is what full-throttle New York can do to you, especially in the playoffs.
Still the thud of this performance will reverberate around Wisconsin all winter long. And while the defense had plenty of gaffes – such as poor coverage on an end of the half Hail Mary – it was the offense that had seemed unstoppable getting stopped flat, scoring 15 points below its season average.
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And coach Mike McCarthy didn't think it was all Giants influenced.
"Frankly, I think the biggest thing was the self-inflicted wounds, the dropped balls," McCarthy said. "We left some yards on the field."
So the question is why?
"We didn't get on a roll," said wide receiver James Jones. "We never could get in a rhythm. That hasn't been us as an offense and it showed up today. I don't know how. I don't know why. It just happened."
Here's the knee-jerk reaction: the Packers were off-kilter after sitting Rodgers in the season finale and then having a bye week. The first-team offense hadn't been together since Christmas night against the Bears at Lambeau, where Rodgers went 21-for-29 for 283 yards and five touchdowns.
It serves as the latest example of why in the NFL you should never, ever let up on the throttle, because the playoffs are an unforgiving place to try to shake off even the slightest bit of rust.
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Here's the knee-jerk counter reaction: the above is ridiculous and there'd be even greater second-guessing if Rodgers had been injured in the meaningless season finale against Detroit.
And here's reality: no one knows. And no one ever will.
All they can do is wonder: if you're going to go down in the cutthroat NFL tournament, wouldn't you rather do it swinging (or, in this case, throwing)?
There's no proof either way. Any anecdote offered for playing your stars in Week 17 can be countered (the Indianapolis Colts rested them in 2009 and still made the Super Bowl).
Any mathematical work can't possibly be applied to a specific example or account for some brute like Osi Umenyiora.
There is nothing but the lingering doubt that something suddenly broke, that something derailed the bullet train.
Rodgers dismissed the assertions of James Jones, other Packer players and myriad talk radio hosts that Green Bay was out of sync.
"I felt we had pretty good rhythm," said Rodgers, who went 26-for-46 for 264 yards and two touchdowns. "I think our third-down [efficiency] was 50 percent [6-of-12], so we converted pretty well on that."
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Meanwhile, McCarthy didn't want to hear about corrosion. He made a point of practicing in pads during the off week to maintain physical intensity and sharpness.
"No, no excuses," he said. "We practiced well. I thought Wednesday's practice was as good a practice as we've had. There was nothing in preparation that had led me to believe this was going to occur today."
Only it did occur.
Rodgers' longest pass was just 21 yards, again a season low. The accuracy and timing on deep passes wasn't there. That was first evident on the Packers' opening drive when Rodgers badly overthrew an open Greg Jennings for what could've been a touchdown.
That was one reason Green Bay spent most of the game playing from behind, something that McCarthy said caused the Packers to pass more than they would've liked, making things even tougher.
And while everyone had to deal with the tragic death of offensive coordinator Joe Philbin's son, this looked like a failure in timing and precision, not scheme or play-calling. The team was prepared; the Packers just didn't make plays.
Whatever it was, something wasn't right. Green Bay even benefitted from a friendly whistle – getting a fumble ruled otherwise and a gift roughing the passer on its two touchdown drives, respectively.
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Maybe it was inevitable. Maybe the Packers were due (although they struggled even worse in their Week 15, 19-14 loss at Kansas City). Maybe it was that gusting winter wind.
Maybe playing Rodgers in the season-finale – where the Packers scored 45 behind backup Matt Flynn – wouldn't have mattered.
Maybe it would have though. Maybe two weeks off is better than three. Maybe you don't tempt it in the modern NFL, where winning is so difficult that since 1998 only one defending Super Bowl champion has gotten out of the divisional round (the 2004 New England repeated as champs).
There's no way to know.
There's only an early winter in Wisconsin, plenty of time to wonder if the stunning collapse of the greatest offense in the history of this storied franchise was at least partially self-inflicted, plenty of time to wonder if it isn't better to go down gunning.
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