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TNF TAKEWAYS: ‘Hail Rodgers’ Play Caps Pack Comeback in Detroit

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Another primetime game, another walkoff in the National Football League, and this one might have been the most unbelievable of them all.

Left for dead time and again, down 17-0 at halftime, 20 early in the second half and still in need of a miracle with six seconds left, the Green Bay Packers fought throughout the evening — and with some help from the Detroit Lions and the officials — got one last chance, which they delivered on in epic fashion.

A questionable facemask call on Lions defensive end Devin Taylor, on what would have been the last play of the game, gave Green Bay new life and one last untimed play from their own 39-yard-line. With zeroes on the clock, Aaron Rodgers avoided a pair of rushing defenders, got a running start and heaved the ball high and deep in the air to the goal line, where it was inexplicably hauled in by Packers tight end Richard Rodgers for the game-winning walkoff touchdown that gave Green Bay a 27-23 victory.

“Most amazing game of my life, to be a part of that, to never give up,” Aaron Rodgers told CBS’ Tracy Wolfson after the game. “I can’t believe Richie caught it…when he caught it I blacked out. I don’t know what happened. I know it was the greatest feeling I’ve had on the field in a long time…greatest moment I’ve been a part of, minus the Super Bowl.”

It’s a moment that never should have happened for a number of reasons. Detroit flat-out dominated the game in the first half, building a 17-0 lead at the break that seemingly had them well on their way to a fourth straight win. Green Bay got some momentum back during a two-minute span in the third quarter when they scored two touchdowns under fortunate circumstances, but the Lions managed to keep them at arm’s length despite that. Detroit held a nine-point lead with under five minutes to play and even after Rodgers broke contain for a 17-yard touchdown run to make it a two-point game with just over three minutes to play, the Lions maintained control, picking up a big first down on the ensuing possession that allowed them to wind the clock down inside 30 seconds before punting.

Green Bay took over at their own 21, and back-to-back incomplete passes left just six seconds on the clock with nearly 80 yards to gain. Rodgers fired over the middle to James Jones and the Packers started an ill-fated lateral play that ended up with the ball back with Rodgers for some reason. With no one left to lateral to, Rodgers put his head down and braced for a final tackle from two Detroit defenders. As he did so, Taylor’s hand grazed Rodgers’ facemask before grabbing his shoulder, by which he yanked Rodgers to the turf. In real time, it looked like an easy facemask call.

But instant replay showed what, by the letter of the law in the NFL rulebook, is not a facemask penalty. The fact that Taylor’s hand went to the face of the quarterback was irrelevant in this situation because Rodgers was a runner, no longer protected by the league’s quarterback rules. It was another in a long line of examples of why replay should be used at all times in such important situations to get the call correct. Instead, the incorrect real-time call was forced to stand and the Packers got their last chance.

Of course, the Lions had a last chance too. All they had to do was make sure the Packers didn’t score a 61-yard touchdown on the last play of the game and that they didn’t commit another defensive penalty to extend the game again. Seems easy enough. But Detroit, perhaps in a state of shock that they had to play one more down, had the play wrong from the outset.

In addition to the three-man rush that allowed Rodgers to roll right, the Lions put two defensive backs on the line of scrimmage for some reason and five players between the 45 and 35 yard lines. That left just one player back at the goal line, the only part of the field that mattered.

Of course, by the time the play developed, all five of those players in the middle of the field had reached the end zone as well. But they were in disarray, unclear of their roles, and that’s why they all ended up behind where the ball actually landed, boxed out by each other, while Richard Rodgers drifted into the end zone in front of them and was able to pluck the ball out of the air with little resistance. It’s mind-boggling that a team could so badly botch a play they practice. Furthermore, the Lions didn’t even have the right personnel on the field. Calvin Johnson is made for plays like that and he was left standing on the sideline doing his best Mario impression as the game ended in another crushing Lions loss.

So while the Lions are in many ways right to point their fingers at the officials for the result of Thursday’s game, the second time this season a last second call has robbed Detroit of what should have been a win in primetime, they also need to take a look in the mirror and realize that situation was avoidable and the outcome of Thursday’s game was largely their own doing.

THE PACK STILL ISN’T BACK

The win pushed the Packers to 8-4, back to just half a game behind the Vikings in the NFC North pending the result of Minnesota’s meeting with the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.

It also solidified their playoff position regardless of the division outcome. A fifth loss would’ve put the Packers in a spot where Seattle and Atlanta could tie them in the Wild Card race with a win Sunday. Instead, the Packers will maintain a firm grasp on a playoff spot regardless of Sunday’s outcomes.

But there is still plenty to worry about in Green Bay.

Even in the midst of a month of November when they went 1-4 after a 6-0 start, it has always seemed unlikely that this Packers team would miss the playoffs. Last night’s result wouldn’t have changed that either way. Green Bay is still one of the most talented teams in the league, and other competitors haven’t exactly been knocking down their door for that spot in the NFC playoff picture.

Their closest current competitors for a playoff spot are a Seahawks team that has been up and down all season and a Falcons club in a similar freefall record-wise, but in even more dire straits in terms of on-field performance. Behind those two teams is a mish-mash of sub-.500 clubs like the Bucs, Bears, Giants and Redskins, unlikely to pose a real threat to Green Bay for the spot. Their playoff position has been and continues to be pretty secure.

But it’s become more and more obvious as this season has worn on that this is a deeply flawed Packers team, one more likely to lose in the Wild Card round than they are to make the Super Bowl run many anticipated for them at the start of the season. Thursday night’s game, up until the final inexplicable play, was just the latest example of that.

Outside of Aaron Rodgers, who is the league’s best at the quarterback position, the Packers are lacking playmakers and they miss injured wide receiver Jordy Nelson more than seemed possible at the beginning of the season. Randall Cobb, who signed a four-year, $40 million contract this offseason to be the team’s second receiver and was expected to step up to the top spot when Nelson went down, has been a disappointment. Thursday marked Cobb’s fifth game this season with less than five receptions, he’s had just one game with more than 100 yards receiving this season and has score just six touchdowns, three of which came in one Week 3 win over Kansas City.

Behind him in the receiving corps, there are reliable players like Richard Rodgers and James Jones, but not a single dynamic playmaker teams will have to gameplan for. When this Green Bay team matches up with some of the best secondaries in the league come playoff time, Rodgers’ options will be limited.

Making matters worse for the Packers is the fact that they continue to struggle so mightily in the running game. On Thursday, it was Rodgers who led the team in rushing yards with 27, and 17 of those were gained on his fourth quarter touchdown scamper. After back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances the last two weeks, running back Eddie Lacy appeared primed to breakout and finally balance the Green Bay offense. Instead he rushed for four yards on five carries Thursday night. The team’s second leading rusher behind Rodgers was newcomer John Crockett, who was promoted from the practice squad hours before the game. That Crockett out-rushed Lacy and James Starks combined, on a third of the carries, speaks volumes about where Green Bay’s rushing offense is at the moment. And it’s been like this all season making it hard to believe the ground attack will suddenly get going in time for the playoffs.

The Pack is also fighting a war of attrition on the offensive line. The latest to go down were center Corey Linsley, who has been fighting a ankle injury that knocked him out again in the second quarter Thursday, and left tackle David Bakhtiari, who left Thursday’s game with a leg injury but did return. Green Bay was already without right guard T.J. Lang and right tackle Bryan Bulaga going into Thursday’s game. At one point during the contest, with both Linsley and Bakhtiari sidelined, the Packers ran out a quintet of Josh Walker, Josh Sitton, JC Tretter, Lane Taylor, Don Barclay. Rodgers was sacked on the very next play. Needless to say, Green Bay needs help, and health, up front to survive this season.

Fortunately for the Packers, they have an opportunity in front of them to get healthy. After a 10-day reprieve following back-to-back Thursday night games, they host the down and out Cowboys at Lambeau Field next Sunday. Then they head to Oakland to meet the Raiders. Those two games offer Green Bay a golden opportunity to improve their play, improve their health, and get to 10 wins before closing the season with games against the Cardinals and Vikings.

The Packers still have the potential to make some noise in the postseason, but it’s about time for us to see some proof that they can get even close to their ceiling.

A LOT TO LIKE ABOUT THESE LIONS

It’s a depressing Friday morning in Detroit after the Lions invented yet another agonizing way to lose in front of their faithful fans, but not all is lost for the franchise.

After starting out the season 1-7, this Lions team wasn’t going to make the postseason. Any thoughts to the contrary were a pipe-dream that went up in smoke last night. But if you look beyond the catastrophic finish to Thursday’s game, there are a lot of things to like about the state of the Lions going forward.

For NFL teams, the fate of the franchise starts at the quarterback position and there have been a lot of positive signs from Matthew Stafford over the last several weeks. Thursday marked his third straight game without an interception and two more touchdown passes brought his season total to 22, tying his mark for all of last year. Most impressive about Stafford’s performance on Thursday was the throw he made late in the game that nearly ended it. On 3rd and 12 with 2:54 to go, Stafford hit receiver T.J. Jones in stride over the middle for 29 yards to extend the Lions drive and allow them to nearly wind all the remaining time off the clock. It was Stafford’s last opportunity to have an impact on the game and he delivered big time. After that play, the Lions ran the ball three times to take time off the clock, leaving him helpless to stop the game from playing out as it did.

While running the ball to waste time is the safe play, the time has come for Detroit to put their trust in Stafford to get one more first down with his arm in that spot and truly put the game away. He’s looked more comfortable and more in command since Jim Bob Cooter took over the offense at mid-season, and their budding OC/QB relationship could be a boon for Detroit down the road.

Aiding Stafford’s revival has been the return to relevance of Calvin Johnson. After ending a three-game scoring drought with a trio of touchdown catches on Thanksgiving Day, he added another one Thursday with an excellent catch that extended Detroit’s lead to 17-0. Stafford and Johnson nearly connected again later for a touchdown that likely would have put the game away and the fact that they didn’t means things are still a little bit off. Johnson’s three catches for 44 yards Thursday speak to that as well, but one of the best tandems in the league is getting back on track. Also, like the Packers, the Lions certainly need to get more out of their running game to balance that offense, but Ameer Abdullah showed some more flashes on Thursday and they have depth at the position that could go a long way.

The biggest building block for the Lions, however, is on defense, where they limited Green Bay to just 78 total yards in the first half on 33 plays. Things broke down in the second half, aided by some mistakes all over the field, but on most nights when you can hold Rodgers under 300 yards passing, pick him off and limit an entire team’s rushing attack to just 67 yards on the ground, you’re going to win.

Freakish late-game circumstances and heartbreaking finishes aside, Detroit has to like what they’ve seen out of their team over the last month. They’ve come a long way from their 1-7 start and the pieces are in place for a bright future in the Motor City, even if it does look gloomy right now in the light of Thursday’s result.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys