MINNEAPOLIS – The Packers’ 2018 season is truly on the brink now, if it wasn’t already.
A 24-17 loss to Minnesota at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday night has dropped the Packers to 4-6-1 with five games to play.
It was the Packers’ fourth loss in five games since the bye week – all on the road, where they are 0-6 on the season – so to talk about winning out just to have a shot at the playoffs doesn’t sound realistic, especially with how crowded the NFC wild-card race appears it’s going to be.
But it is the reality the Packers face in order to make something of their season, and even with a magic turnaround and late-season run, there’s no guarantee it’ll be good enough.
“We clearly understand where we are in the season, we clearly understand the importance of this game,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “We’re focused on the next five. It’s exactly the facts – we know we have to win all five.”
This game would have given the Packers at least a tiny margin for error, but it turned on Green Bay in the second half.
Tied at 14 after the two NFC North rivals traded a pair of touchdown drives in the first half, the Packers failed on both third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 from their own 44-yard line when running back Aaron Jones (17 carries, 72 yards, TD) was stuffed on consecutive runs.
“Once we burned the timeout, I stuck with the call,” McCarthy said of the decision to go for it on fourth-and-1. “You have two calls there, and hindsight is always 20/20. The second call would have been the better call there, but that’s football.
“We were trying to get something going there in the second half. I thought it was a clean play and we just didn’t execute.”
The Vikings took advantage of the short field to kick a field goal, and then used another short field after a defensive sack and strong punt return to drive for a touchdown and make it a two-score game. Adam Thielen’s 15-yard scoring reception made it 24-14 in the final half-minute of the third quarter.
As the Packers were shuffling some injured offensive linemen in and out of the game, Minnesota maintained the momentum with its pass rush.
Veteran defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson had two of the Vikings’ three second-half sacks of Aaron Rodgers (they had four total in the game), and the Packers never crossed the Minnesota 45-yard line in the second half until less than three minutes remained in the game.
“I don’t want to sit up here and make excuses. Their front played well,” McCarthy said. “I thought it was the difference in the game.
“Their defensive line, it’s the strength of their football team in my opinion. We just didn’t meet the challenge.”
As it has been all season, third down was the problem again for the Packers on offense, going just 2-for-10. After Jones converted a third-and-1 run midway through the first quarter, Green Bay didn’t convert another third down until Rodgers hit Davante Adams (five catches, 69 yards, TD) with a 36-yard pass on the Packers’ final drive for a field goal.
“Our third down has been our black eye,” McCarthy said. “Third down has been a constant for us. We just didn’t get it done.”
The late field goal brought the Packers within seven points with 2:20 left, but the Vikings recovered the onside kick. Kirk Cousins then finished his 342-yard night (28-of-39, three TDs, 129.5 passer rating) by hitting Stefon Diggs on a slant to convert on third down, and Minnesota ran out the clock.
Diggs, Thielen and running back Dalvin Cook each caught a TD pass for the Vikings, who stayed right in the thick of the division and wild-card races by improving to 6-4-1. Thielen finished with eight catches for 125 yards, his ninth 100-yard game of the season, and Diggs added eight grabs for 77 yards.
The Vikings piled up a lot of yards (416) but not a ton of points, as the Packers and their banged-up secondary got two key stops late in the first half that led to missed field goals. One final stop on fourth down, after yet another special-teams miscue gave the Vikings the ball in the red zone, allowed for the last-ditch effort.
But in the end it was what Rodgers called the offense’s “unfortunate, typical lull,” which lasted from early in the second quarter after the second touchdown until late in the fourth period that did in the Packers.
“The way our defense played tonight, with the injuries they had, to hold them to 24 points, we have to win this game,” said Rodgers, who threw for just 198 yards, a TD and a 94.0 passer rating. “We have to play better on offense.”
But they didn’t, and now their season is barely alive.
“This is where we are. We have six losses and one tie,” McCarthy said. “We need to get home and beat the Arizona Cardinals. That’s the job at hand. That’s what’s in front of us.
“We didn’t do enough. I didn’t give enough. I need to coach better. I’m proud of the way the guys battled, but we didn’t have enough tonight. They had more than we had.”