Sunday's 23-20 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins at Lambeau Field was the Packers' third loss in their last four games, all on last-play field goals and the last two in overtime. The defeat drops the Packers to 3-3, not at all where they envisioned sitting after a 2-0 start.
"I wouldn't say it's deflating, but I think it's one of many reality checks that we need to tighten up, obviously," linebacker Brad Jones said. "We can't have any more losses. We can't lose to teams that we should beat. Miami is a good team, but we know what type of team we have, and even with all the injuries we do have, we still know what type of team we are, and we shouldn't have losses like that."
That's been the refrain after each of the three close defeats, all by three points – at Chicago on a Monday night, at Washington in overtime last week, and then at home against Miami following an intense and physically and emotionally draining fourth quarter and overtime session on Sunday.
The Packers needed to overcome a huge, momentum-turning call by the officials to give themselves a chance to win this one.
Midway through the fourth quarter with the game tied at 13, the Dolphins punted on fourth-and-2 from the Green Bay 43-yard line. But following a commercial break, the officials determined that Packers linebacker Robert Francois was lined up directly over the center and right on the line of scrimmage, penalizing the Packers 5 yards due to a new rule put in place this year for the safety of long snappers.
The Packers contended that Francois was lined up more than a yard off the line of scrimmage, and was therefore legal, but the argument went nowhere. The Dolphins were given the ball back following the penalty and had a first down at the Green Bay 38.
Four plays later, Miami quarterback Chad Henne caught the Packers in a blitz while rolling to his right and executed a perfect throwback screen to tight end Anthony Fasano, who was wide open. Fasano waltzed into the end zone untouched for a 22-yard TD and a 20-13 Miami lead with 5:10 left in the fourth.
"That's one of those mysterious things you just have to play through," said defensive end Cullen Jenkins, one of many players in the locker room afterward who was careful with his words so as not to draw a fine from the league. "You have to overcome it."
The Packers nearly did, driving 69 yards in 12 plays to get the tying touchdown with just 13 seconds left in regulation. The drive included two receptions for 37 yards by Jordy Nelson and a 20-yard catch by Greg Jennings to convert a fourth-and-7 at the 2-minute warning and make it first-and-goal on the 9.
After quarterback Aaron Rodgers scrambled for 8 yards down to the 1, running back John Kuhn was then stuffed on both second and third down, setting up fourth-and-goal. After both teams called timeouts, Rodgers came out in shotgun but with an eye on the Miami defensive front, because the Dolphins had left the center uncovered on the previous play, increasing the odds of a successful quarterback sneak.
Miami made an adjustment, but Rodgers saw the opening he needed anyway and proceeded to very cleverly fake out the Dolphins defense, stepping forward as though he was calling an audible. Only he put his hands under center, took the snap and walked in over left guard standing up to tie the game.
"They lined up with a guy over the center, but the next guy out was outside the tackle on the left side," Rodgers said. "So I told (the offensive linemen) I was going to act like I was changing something and then just went up there and quick snapped it and got it in there."
The Dolphins won the overtime coin flip, went three-and-out, and the Packers did the same. Green Bay punter Tim Masthay then hit a poor 37-yard punt that Davone Bess fair-caught at the Miami 48, and the Dolphins took advantage of the field position with a seven-play drive that ended with Dan Carpenter's game-winning 44-yard field goal six minutes into OT.
But afterward the Packers weren't putting this loss on their defense, which has been devastated by injuries and lost outside linebacker Brady Poppinga to a knee injury in the first half. That left a unit already missing Pro Bowler Clay Matthews with just Jones, rookie Frank Zombo and former practice-squadder Francois to play outside linebacker the rest of the game. Meanwhile, the banged-up defensive line, missing Ryan Pickett and Mike Neal, was rotating rookie C.J. Wilson and second-year man Jarius Wynn in and out as two of the four viable linemen.
Still, the cobbled-together group held the Dolphins to just 20 points in regulation despite Miami's 150 yards rushing and receiver Brandon Marshall's 10-catch, 127-yard day. The defense struggled to pressure Henne (23-of-39, 231 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 82.3 rating) but got an interception from Tramon Williams that preceded an 86-yard TD pass from Rodgers to Jennings (six catches, 133 yards) in the first quarter, and a key fourth-down stop at the Green Bay 27-yard line late in the third quarter.
"I thought they were hanging in there, bend do not break, keep them out of the end zone," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. "I thought our defense played well enough for us to win that game based on the position they were in."
But the offense didn't. A second straight abysmal day on third downs (3-for-13, after going 2-for-13 last week at Washington) and five sacks of Rodgers (18-of-33, 313 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 84.5 rating) led to a nearly 10-minute disadvantage in time of possession (37:56 to 28:03).
The offense came up empty on two consecutive drives that crossed midfield in the second quarter and then couldn't generate a single first down with the game tied at 13 in the fourth quarter or on its overtime possession.
"All of it, all of it," Jennings said when asked what was wrong. "He (Rodgers) is getting hit too much, we're not putting ourselves in position to be successful on third down, which means we're not doing the things we need to do on first and second down. It's collective. There's no one position, none of that. It's everybody."
Added Rodgers: "We have to figure something out offensively and help our defense out a little bit. I think they've played well enough to win the last two weeks and we just haven't gotten the job done. When your defense is holding them to 16 last week and 23 this week, we feel like we should win those games."
But the Packers haven't, and instead of pulling into a first-place tie in the NFC North on Sunday with the Chicago Bears, who also lost at home, they're .500 and still trying to catch a break.
As many players noted after the game, there are still 10 games left in this long season, and everyone remembers how the Packers were 4-4 at the midway point last year before putting things together to go 7-1 down the stretch and make the playoffs.
But as Rodgers said, this was supposed to be the game the Packers regained some momentum heading into a week when cornerback Al Harris and safety Atari Bigby are eligible to come off the physically-unable-to-perform list and could provide some reinforcements for the depleted defense.
"We're getting hopefully two studs back this week on defense, three if you count Clay," Rodgers said. "We need those guys back. We need to be at full force."
But there's no telling what a win or two these last couple of weeks without them may have meant for the season going forward. The Packers can only hope they won't end up looking back and lamenting the missed opportunities.
"We have a little time, but time is of the essence," Jennings said. "Every win is important. When it comes down to it end of the year, these are the type of games -- this week, last week, Chicago -- those are the types of games you look back and say, 'Man, if we could have got that one, where would we have possibly, potentially been?'"