GREEN BAY, Wis. – Booed off the field at halftime by their own fans, the collapse of the once-perfect Green Bay Packers was as swift as it was complete.
The defending Super Bowl champions bumbled their way through Sunday's 37-20 playoff loss to New York with turnovers and drops, letting Eli Manning and the Giants rule every inch of Lambeau Field. Whether it was the bye last weekend or the shocking death of offensive coordinator Joe Philbin's 21-year-old son days earlier, the Packers were sloppy and sluggish.
"We play to win championships. You win a championship and you're kind of at the top of the mountain, and you forget kind of how bad this feeling is," Aaron Rodgers said. "We had a championship-caliber regular season and didn't play well today."
And all talk about Rodgers having one of the finest seasons in NFL history? Check with Manning on that. He's the one getting it done in the postseason.
The Giants now face the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship next Sunday night. The Packers, meanwhile, will be cleaning out their lockers for an offseason that came unexpectedly early. As the final seconds ticked down, Lambeau was silent except for chants of "Let's Go, Giants!" from the smattering of New York fans in the crowd.
"It's very disappointing. It's a locker room that expected a lot more, and rightfully so," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "It was an excellent regular season. But we clearly understand in Green Bay it's about winning championships. Just going to the playoffs is not enough."
The Packers have no one to blame but themselves for the dismal finish to a season that started with such promise.
Green Bay won its first 13 games, extending the winning streak that carried the Packers to their fourth Super Bowl title to 19 games, second-best in NFL history. Rodgers and the high-powered offense were piling up points by the bunches, more than enough to bail out the shaky defense, and the Packers seemed on their way to another Super Bowl.
But the defense, maligned all season for its penchant for giving up big plays, was even worse than advertised. It was powerless to stop Manning, who threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns and coolly moved the Giants down the field drive after drive. Hakeem Nicks made the secondary look downright silly with 165 yards receiving and two touchdowns, the second of which he plucked out of the air above a scrum of Green Bay defenders just before halftime, prompting Packer fans to boo as their team trotted of the field.
"It's about big-play opportunities in big games. And that was a big play obviously for the Giants," McCarthy said. "It was a 10-point game at halftime, and we had the ball coming out. It was a big momentum play for them, but we were not deflated as a football team."
And as was the case other times this season, the defensive players didn't seem to be operating from the same playbook. On one play, defensive captain Charles Woodson was still talking to another defensive back when the Giants snapped the ball. Woodson wound up covering the wrong receiver and the dangerous Victor Cruz was left wide open.
"Anything that you've seen through the regular season happened to us today: missed tackles, assignments, not getting to the quarterback," Woodson said.
The Green Bay offense has usually been potent enough to make up for the defense's shortcomings, scoring a franchise-record 560 points during the regular season. The offense had additional motivation, too, wanting to win for Philbin, who was away from the team all week to mourn the death of his son Michael. Michael Philbin's body was recovered from an icy river in Oshkosh on Monday; a preliminary autopsy found that he drowned.
"A lot of us wanted to get this one for him, give some happiness to him and his family during a tough week," said Rodgers, one of many players who went to Michael Philbin's wake and funeral.
But the offense wasn't much better than the defense. The Packers lost three fumbles and the receivers may as well have had rubber on the tips of their fingers for as many balls as they dropped. Jermichael Finley dropped one. James Starks dropped another. Tom Crabtree watched one bounce off his fingers. Despite having their regular starting offensive line in place for the one of the few times this season, Rodgers was sacked four times.
"I felt we had pretty good rhythm. We moved the ball pretty effectively," Rodgers said. "We just had some drops and then had some uncharacteristic turnovers."
It wasn't Rodgers' best game, either. He overthrew an open Jennings in the end zone on the very first drive, and lost his first fumble in a year when he was sacked in the third quarter by Osi Umenyiora. With the Giants secondary smothering the receivers as few defenses have this year, Rodgers was often forced to scramble or dump off for short gains. He finished with a team-high 66 yards on seven rushes, but was 26 of 46 passing and his quarterback rating of 78.5 was well off his 122.5 for the regular-season, an NFL record.
"If nobody's open, I'm going to try and extend the play. For whatever reason, that happened more than usual tonight," Rodgers said. "I tried to make the most of it, I ran for a few first downs. It's not something I was thinking was going to happen maybe as much going into the game, but their high volume of man coverage kind of dictated it."
The Packers did put together a nice drive in the third quarter, as Rodgers connected with Donald Driver for a 13-yard catch and Starks on a 12-yard reception as Green Bay marched to the Giants 17. But he failed to connect with Jennings in the end zone again, and the Packers had to settle for a field goal when they really needed a touchdown.
"We got beat by a team that played better," Rodgers said. "That's the reality of this league. (I've) been in the playoffs four times, and three times you lose your last game and you go home, and the one time you have that euphoric feeling that you keep fighting for. It's tough. I didn't think it was going to end tonight."