January 2, 2011 – Lambeau Field, Green Bay Wisconsin
So here it was. The final game of a season that had featured more twists & turns than a mountain-side road. There were no subtle permutations, no weird NFL tie-breaker rules to interpret. There would be no controversy and no question about what would happen & how things would shake out.
If the Packers beat the Bears, they would grab the final NFC wild-card playoff berth & keep playing the following week. If they lost to the Bears, they’d have to hope the Giants lost their final game to the Washington Redskins (which they did NOT!)
The Bears, champs of the NFC North ,had a first-round playoff bye no matter what, but they did not plan to make life easy for the Packers. Many teams already set in the playoffs might have chosen to rest at least some of their starters to avoid needless injury. Not the Bears & certainly not against the Packers. No these Bears did not want Green Bay in the playoffs & they would play a full 60 minutes of football with their starters.
“Everyone will play,” said Bears coach Lovie Smith, whose first order of business when he took over in Chicago 7 years ago was to consistently beat the Packers. With everything the Packers had dealt with during the season, why would they expect anything less?
December 26, 2010 – Lambeau Field, Green Bay Wisconsin
The Packers may have felt they had more than their share of bad luck this season. However, a couple games one week ago helped set the Packers path in stone. The Giants lost to the Eagles 38-31 after having a 31-10 lead in the 4th quarter. The other game was the Packers division rival Detroit Lions hanging tough with the young, up & coming Buccaneers. Former Packer kicker Dave Rayner tied the game with a 28-yard field goal at 1:39 remaining in the game, for the Lions. Then, in overtime, the Lions took the opening kickoff and drove 63 yards – covering most of the distance on two big runs and a 12-yard reception by Calvin Johnson on a third-and-8 play — to set up the game-winner a 34-yard FG to win the game 23-20.
Outsiders may have felt the Packers were lucky but no, this Packer team makes their own luck and they were determined to not let the opportunity slip by. The Packers path was set. The math was simple, every game from here on out would be a playoff game. Lose and you go home wondering “What if?” Win and you continue on. The Packers would not quit. They must beat the Giants, then the Bears to finish the season at 10-6. Then, of course, anything could happen after that. Truly, there was no room for error and if they did stumble, they would have the distinction of being one of the most talented teams not to make the playoffs.
December 19, 2010 – Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusettes
There were no flowery pre-game speeches for this one. Nothing Knute Rockne-esque or Vince Lombardi-like about what the Packers needed to do or what the future held.
This was backs-against-the-wall-time for the Green Bay Packers & they knew it better than anyone. They had to travel to Massachusettes and face the hottest team in football, the New England Patriots. It would be a tough assignment even with all their pieces in place.
The Packers would have to play without Aaron Rodgers, their leader and best offensive player. Rodgers suffered a concussion the week before against the Lions and had not passed the NFL-mandated tests required to go back on the field.
So that was that. The Packers wouold go to war with Matt Flynn, a capable backup with the heart of a lion but no meaningful experience. In public, the Packers spoke glowingly of Flynn, a smart guy who had the moxie to lead LSU to a national championship 3 seasons earlier. Privately no one really knew how he’d perform on a national stage.
December 12, 2010 – Ford Field, Detroit Michigan
Everyone knew it but no one talked about it. As it had been for all those years with Brett Favre, so it was now with Aaron Rodgers. These Green Bay Packers would go as far as their quarterback would take them. If he got hurt…well…that thought was too awful to contemplate.
But that couldn’t happen–could it? Rodgers, who had been criticized in 2009 for holding the ball too long and absorbing too many sacks, had grown a lot smarter in 2010. He was getting rid of the ball quicker, eluding tacklers better & throwing the ball away when necessary. All was good, right??
There was 1 thing Rodgers still hadn’t learned or at least would not do with any consistency–at the end of a scramble, he needed to give himself up with a feet first slide. Too often, he’d dive headfirst and take a blow he didn’t need to take. Coach Mike McCarthy, a one-time QB coach, harped on his star to follow the standard procedure but either Rodgers forgot or didn’t care for the policy.
Ultimately, Rodgers hubris caught up with him on the unforgiving artificial turf of Ford Field in Detroit Michigan.
Under 2nd year coach Jim Schwartz, the Lions were developing into a pretty good team. Though they had won just twice in 2010, they had played hard every week & were a break or 2 away from becoming a team to reckon with. The Packers needed no more evidence of this than their 1st meeting in early October when they escaped with a 2 point win.
December 5, 2010 – Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisconsin
From the moment starting tailback Ryan Grant went down with a season-ending ankle injury in the season opener vs. the Philadelphia Eagles, the Packers knew they would, eventually, have to deal with the issue of their crippled running game.
Conventional NFL wisdom has always stated that teams do not advance (or at least don’t advance very far) in the playoffs without some semblance of a rushing attack. Balance is required, if for not other reason than to give an opposing defense something else to think about besides a QB dropping back & looking for an open receiver.
For 11 games, the Packers had been getting by with a rushing game bound together with chewing gum & chicken(boy) wire.
Brandon Jackson tried but lacked the power & speed to be a true breakaway back. John Kuhn was a fullback first, last and always, though he did his best. Indeed, quarterback Aaron Rodgers was probably Green Bay’s best option running the ball. He could scramble but, more to the point, he was elusive in the pocket & had slipped away from more tackles than anyone could count. However, a running QB is a recipe for disaster.
November 28, 2010 – Georgia Dome – Atlanta, Georgia
Through their 4 game winning streak, the Packers had met two teams that were the very definition of dysfunction–the Minnesota Vikings & the Dallas Cowboys. The third team, the New York Jets, possibly didn’t take the Packers all that seriously and it cost them.
Such was not going to be the case against the Atlanta Falcons, an exciting young team that was playing with as much, if not more, confidence than the Packers. The Falcons featured an unflappable 3rd year quarterback in Matt Ryan, who had lost only once in the Georgia Dome. Sitting at 8-2 and all but assured of a playoff spot, the Falcons were positioning themselves for an NFC South title, the best record in the NFC and a critical first-round playoff bye.
There was not a whiff of turmoil with Mike Smith’s team, and they took the Packers very seriously. The result was a terrific game that offered a glimpse of what might come in the post-season. It was a game that encompassed all that was going well with the Packers in recent weeks. However, it also revealed a few nagging issues that kept Green Bay from attaining the elite status it was looking for.
The Falcons grabbed a quick 3-0 lead on a Matt Bryant field goal. The Packers responded with a nice drive from their own 15 to the Atlanta 4 that ended in a Mason Crosby field goal.
Then came a turning point and the first sign that what had been going so well the previous month might be absent on this day.