At the expense of repeating myself, this was another one of those games the Green Bay Packers could have and should have won. Yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a bona fide playoff contender. But the Steelers limped into Lambeau Field with an injury report that swelled to 16 players, including most notably quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Jerome Bettis. If ever the Steelers were ripe for the picking, Sunday was the time. But the Packers couldn't make it happen and now they find themselves at the bottom of a 1-7 abyss.
Once again, opportunity knocked and the Packers failed to answer. Early in the second quarter after linebacker Robert Thomas made a nice interception of a Charlie Batch pass, the Packers drove all the way down to the Pittsburgh two-yard line. But instead of punching it into the end zone to take the lead, disaster struck. Two straight false start penalties pushed Green Bay back to the 12-yard line. On the next play, Brett Favre was hit on a blitz. Favre fumbled, and Troy Polamalu scooped up the ball on his way to a 77-yard touchdown. Just like that, the Packers were on the wrong end of a 14-point swing. That was huge and, in my mind, was the turning point in the game.
There were others, too. Ryan Longwell missed a 31-yard field goal. A bad snap by Mike Flanagan on a third-and-six play resulted in a 17-yard loss and stalled a drive. A Favre pass to Donald Driver bounced off his hands and into the waiting arms of Steelers free safety Tyrone Carter at the Packers 20-yard line. Four plays later, Duce Staley strolled into the end zone with the clinching touchdown.
When we talk about the really good teams and the not-so-good to average teams, it often comes down to just a few plays that spell the difference. The good teams always seem to find a way to make those few plays to turn a game around and result in a win. This season the Packers haven't been able to make those few plays and to capitalize on the opportunities that have come their way. The results have been disheartening to the players, the coaches and to Packers fans everywhere.
When Vince Lombardi said, "Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing," he was absolutely right. Until a team can put together a string of victories and prove to themselves that they can win consistently, it's hard to build the confidence they need. I'm not saying the Packers expect to lose, but a lot of times they don't expect to make the plays they need to make. That's the difference between this year's team and the Packers teams of recent years. In years past these guys expected to make key plays to influence the outcome of the game. This year, when things go wrong, they're looking at themselves and saying, "Here we go again." They don't have the confidence they once had.
To the Packers' credit, there hasn't been a lot of finger pointing. This is a tight-knit group, and that speaks volumes for the character of this team, the head coach and everybody in the organization. The team is sticking together, and I can tell you from personal experience that in times like this, it's so easy to have a lot of dissension. In that sense fans can be proud of this team, and the players can be proud of themselves. They have so many young players that the only way they can improve is to work as hard as possible. Sooner or later they will start to get some breaks that will result in a win and get their confidence level back where it needs to be.
With all of the injuries and personnel changes, it's obvious that the Packers have virtually no margin for error. They have to play flawless football to get into the end zone and they have neither the ability nor the personnel to overcome critical mistakes. We've seen what they can do when they play smart, error-free football like they did in their victory over the New Orleans Saints and in their dominating first half against the Minnesota Vikings. They moved the ball well and played solid defensive football. But they haven't been able to sustain that type of play, and it has cost them dearly.
So now the Packers find themselves preparing for another tough opponent on the road -- Mike Vick and the Atlanta Falcons. The turf in the Georgia Dome is very fast and it's truly a hostile environment. Vick is so athletic and is unlike any other quarterback in the NFL. His running ability makes it extremely hard for any defensive coordinator to prepare a game plan that will stop him. The scout teams in practice can't simulate the way Vick plays. I think Vick is way behind in his development as a passing quarterback, but he just seems to do whatever it takes to allow his team to win. If that means scrambling out of the pocket and combining that style with a strong running attack, that's what Vick will do. The Falcons also have a stout, aggressive defense and good, solid special teams.
The only way the Packers will have a shot at winning this game will be to play error-free football for four quarters. So far, that's something that's been out of their reach.
Don "Majik" Majkowski was inducted into the Green Bay Packer Hall of Fame earlier this year. His career for the Packers spanned six seasons (1987-92), including being named to the Pro Bowl in 1989 when he led the NFL in passing yards. In addition to his duties with Packers.com, Majik provides football analysis for WSSP-AM, SportsRadio 1250 in Milwaukee, WDUZ SportsRadio 107.5 & 1400 The Fan in Green Bay, WTSO - ESPN 1070 in Madison, WDEZ in Wausau, and WIZD in Stevens Point. Visit Majik's Web site, www.majiknetwork.net, for more information.