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Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012

A Season Turns Over Too Soon

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The Observers faced their biggest challenge, short of a Brewers-Yankees World Series: a playoff game between the football teams they've loved for more than 50 years. There was no way they could watch Packers-Giants in the same place.

But true to the codes of journalism and friendship, they were still on speaking terms after the Giants' 37-20 victory—and a suitable cooling-off period.


Frank:
Now Big Blue and I have our payback for the 1961 and '62 NFL championship games. I took extra pleasure in the Giants' matching the 37 points from the '61 shutout that devastated my 11-year-old self.

Artie:
Better... not... push... it.

Frank:
Right. Follow the Golden Rule of sports fandom: Gracious in victory, gracious in defeat.

Artie:
I have to say that was the most awful experience I've ever had with the Packers. I thought it was Halloween; who was that 4-12 team masquerading as the 15-1 Pack?

Frank:
Of course I'll always remember what the G-Men did right and you'll remember what the Packers did wrong.

Artie:
It wasn't just the loss; right from the get-go there was just a bad vibe. All day long, those turnovers and dropped passes, some of which might as well have been turnovers!

Frank:
Each team had an interception, but the Packers lost three fumbles. Two led to 10 New York points, and when Aaron Rodgers was stripped he had Greg Jennings wide open for a likely touchdown. And, I add graciously, they should have had another fumble on the Jennings play in the first quarter when one official overruled another, then the challenge was rejected, even though the FOX guys said it was a fumble. That kept a TD drive going. But we'll let that, um, drop.

Artie:
On the very first series the Pack stuffed two runs, after the Giants' running game had gone through Atlanta like water through a sieve, so I thought, “OK, this is looking good.” But the third-and-long pass up the sideline was too damn easy.

Frank:
One of three plays of third-and-eight or longer that Eli Manning made in the first quarter, helping the Giants get 10 points.

Artie:
The Pack kept 'em out of the end zone on the first drive, and then matched the field goal, but Rodgers overthrew Jennings on what could have—should have—been a TD.

Frank:
That was part of the formula for beating Green Bay—a day when Rodgers was off his game just enough to be human. Mike McCarthy said having the first-round bye didn't hurt his team, but do you think Rodgers had some rust?

Artie:
Remember, he hadn't played since Christmas night against Chicago. And Jennings had missed a few weeks with injury. I think it's becoming a real issue with teams that get the bye; they'd probably rather play than take a week off.

Frank:
The Packers are the fourth out of the last five No. 1 seeds in the NFC to lose in their first game. They bounced Atlanta last year.

Artie:
Anyway, it wasn't just bad throws. All those drops! The one I'll always remember is Tom Crabtree's in the second quarter—nobody near him and right in his breadbasket!

Frank:
That was right after a drop by James Starks, and would have set the Packers up for a score to break a 10-10 tie.

Artie:
The other terrible miss was early in the fourth quarter when Rodgers couldn't connect with a wide-open Jermichael Finley.

Frank:
Rodgers may have led him too much and fired it too hard, but it was still off Finley's hands. At that point it was 20-13 Giants, and Rodgers was sacked on the fourth-down play.

Artie:
The Pack's defense was pretty crummy, like it's been all year. But it was the offense that killed them this time! It's like the old “Pogo” axiom: “We have met the enemy and they are us.”

Frank:
I'd like to say a bit about what the Giants did right. I've never been a big Eli fan, but he was fabulous, especially on third downs. His last TD throw, which made it 30-13, was a laser—like a fastball "on the black."

Artie:
It didn't hurt Manning that the Pack had almost zero pass rush.

Frank: But several times he made nice throws with someone zeroing in on him. And on the Packers' one sack he smartly held the ball and didn't make a panicky throw. They were still able to kick the field goal that made it 23-13.

Artie: The Giants played well, but not spectacularly. Their running game was effectively curtailed, except for the very end and the long one that set up their stinkin' Hail Mary pass right before halftime.

Frank:
Two classic botches by the Packers' defense. On the long run by Ahmad Bradshaw there was no containment when he bounced back to the right side. And the Hail Mary to Hakeem Nicks, well, as McCarthy said, they knew it was coming from the formation.

Artie:
I was thinking, “OK, it's only 13-10 and they get the second-half kickoff, so there's a modicum of hope.” Then they let them get the long run and stop the clock. And then they turn into the Badgers and let the Michigan State/Ohio State thing happen! Just ridiculous.

Frank:
There also was the usual poor tackling, in particular on the Giants' first TD when Charlie Peprah caromed off Nicks and he went all the way. But a word about the Giants' defense; they were able to apply enough pressure on Rodgers, usually with just the front four, which is another part of the formula for beating the Packers.

Artie: I hardly ever heard Jason Pierre-Paul's name, but they must have been getting good pressure or great coverage because Rodgers had to run so much.

Frank: He made some first downs, but generally it ain't good if your leading rusher is the quarterback. And I heard something interesting from Trent Dilfer on ESPN. He noted that the Giants got solid pressure up the middle, and said that probably messed up Rodgers' lanes of vision. Dilfer said that can make a QB's “progression,” his series of reads, take longer and screw up the timing.

Artie:
I suppose. But still, all those drops! It's almost a cliche—no, it is a cliche—but it wasn't so much that the Giants won the game as the Pack lost it.

Frank:
We'll always disagree on that, the way two opposing fans always do. But I will say there was an echo of the Brewers' season here. The Brew Crew played two of their worst games of the season in the final two playoff games against St. Louis. And the Packers played their worst at the worst time.

Artie:
Even worse than in Kansas City, because this meant everything. And worse than four years ago, when Eli outplayed Brett Favre, because that was close all the way.

Frank:
Things always look inevitable after a season ends badly. We all said the Brewers' shaky defense would bite them, and it did in Games 5 and 6. And here the Packers' defense stayed lousy in terms of yardage but didn't get those turnovers in the red zone.

Artie:
I was asking myself whether it's worse to lose this way or like the Saints did to the 49ers—going ahead twice in the final minutes but handing it back.

Frank:
And your verdict?

Artie:
Neither is worse. It just stinks to lose.