No one was going to say so afterward. Certainly not after the ugly final score – New York Giants 38, Green Bay Packers 10, the MetLife Stadium scoreboard read – and certainly not after the stir created this offseason when Clay Matthews suggested that the better team didn’t win their playoff meeting last January.
But the fact of the matter was this Sunday night: The Packers (7-4) loss to the Giants (7-4), in the grand scheme of things, did not matter.
Oh, winning certainly would have been preferred, but it was hardly essential to the Packers’ long-term goals. If you don’t believe that, consider the cautious way coach Mike McCarthy approached the game injury-wise (not playing wide receiver Greg Jennings despite Jennings’ Friday claim that he was “ready,” not pushing Matthews to return from his hamstring injury) and the fact that the Giants lost last year’s regular-season meeting here (38-35 on Dec. 4). With that result, the Packers improved to 12-0 and the Giants fell to 6-6 … and went on to beat the Packers in the playoffs and win Super Bowl XLVI.
So maybe the Packers’ quality of play reflected that relative unimportance?
“Maybe it’s a good reminder of what happens when you don’t come to play,” veteran defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. “I’m telling you, we’re going to take this as a positive. We didn’t have enough energy. They played harder than us. That’s not going to happen again. If we lose, it’s not going to be because a team played harder than us.
“That’s just not going to happen. It’s not acceptable around here. It definitely won’t happen again. This will be motivation for us the rest of the year.”
It should be, given what the rest of the year holds. While the loss ended the Packers’ five-game winning streak and dropped them one game back of the Chicago Bears (8-3) in the NFC North division race, four of the Packers’ final five games are against division opponents, including home games next Sunday against Minnesota and Dec. 9 against Detroit and a road game at Chicago on Dec. 16. The Packers enter that three-game stretch at 2-0 in division play, thanks to last week’s 24-20 victory at Detroit and their Sept. 13 23-10 victory over the Bears at Lambeau Field.
“Yeah, this is a disappointing loss, but when you look at the last two games, we played two good opponents on the road. You want to win every game, but to be able to split those two, we put ourselves in position,” said quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who finished the night having completed 14 of 25 passes for 219 yards, with one touchdown, one interception, five sacks, one lost fumble and an 81.9 quarterback rating.
“In December, we have five games and we’ve got to make the most of them. We have three of them at home, four division. It all lays out right in front of us. This team is going to stick together. We’re going to regroup and go back home and hopefully get some home cooking.”
Now, the way the Packers played – that did matter. It wasn’t pretty, from just about any angle. And it’s hard to dispute the notion that the Giants, whose 37-20 throttling of the mistake-prone Packers in that Jan. 15 NFC Divisional Playoff Game at Lambeau Field – appear to currently have the Packers’ number, despite Green Bay’s 2010 and 2011 regular-season victories over them. Even with the Packers’ injuries (Matthews, Jennings, Charles Woodson, Sam Shields were all inactive) and the Giants coming off a bye, the game shouldn’t have gotten so out of hand.
“We were thoroughly beaten this evening. Congratulations to the New York Giants,” McCarthy said. “We were beaten in every facet, really starting with myself. I feel when your team performs that way, it starts with the head coach. We had mental errors, penalties. It was out of character for our football team. A very disappointing loss on Sunday Night Football (in) a big NFC battle.
“I think this is a game that really makes everybody look inside and find out what you're about. I believe in what we're about as a football team. I haven't felt like this probably since the first game I coached as a Green Bay Packer head coach. We were beaten very thoroughly tonight. It doesn't taste good. It doesn't feel good.
“We'll get ready for Minnesota. Everything we want to accomplish is still in front of us and that'll be our focus."
The loss was the Packers’ most lopsided defeat since a 35-7 loss at Chicago on Dec. 23, 2007. It was the worst loss the Packers have absorbed since Rodgers’ ascension to the starting quarterback job, surpassing a 51-29 loss at New Orleans on Nov. 24, 2008. It tied for the second-largest losing margin of the McCarthy era, behind a 35-0 whitewashing by New England on Nov. 19, 2006 – McCarthy’s first season – and tied with the ’07 loss in Chicago and a 38-10 loss to the New York Jets on Dec. 3, 2006. In McCarthy’s debut in 2006, the Packers lost 26-0 at home to the Bears.
“It’s terrible. I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of a game like this before. It’s been a long time if I have,” said inside linebacker A.J. Hawk, who entered the league in 2006. “I think our plan can still work. We’re still intact if we figure out a way to bounce back from this. We can still get to where we want to go.
“It was a really weird, bad feeling on the sideline late in the game. Just not something we’re used to, that’s for sure. I don’t know. But what’s our option? We have to. We have to bounce back.”
On offense, the Packers yet again saw a virtually non-stop two-shell defense with the Giants playing both their safeties back and couldn’t solve it. They finished with 317 yards; running backs Alex Green (10 carries, 30 yards) and James Starks (eight carries, 35 yards) were unproductive; the line couldn’t handle the Giants’ fearsome front four (five sacks, now 37 on the year); and the turnover-allergic Rodgers lost both the fumble and threw his seventh INT, surpassing last year’s total with five games to play.
“We had a plan. We didn't execute it very well. We got away from it,” McCarthy said. “We went to some spread things and that wasn't the answer. That was probably poor play selection on my part. But they did a hell of a job tonight. They were dynamic, very talented and very productive."
Added Rodgers: “They did a lot of the things that everybody else has done against us — two-high for most of the game and we didn’t execute very well. We talked about doing some different things but we came out and didn’t really do those things. Didn’t execute, didn’t allow ourselves to do some of the adjustments that we wanted to do and didn’t score any points."
The defense, meanwhile, surrendered a whopping 390 yards, including 147 on the ground. The unit managed next to no pressure on quarterback Eli Manning (16 of 30, 249 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions, 114.4 rating), who was sacked only once (by Dezman Moses) and snapped a three-game touchdown-less streak.
“You have to stop the run, you have to pressure the quarterback,” Hawk said. “A guy like Eli, you’ve got to get in his face and try to get some turnovers. We didn’t get any. It’s tough to win when you don’t do that.”
Things did not start well. Four plays in, the defense allowed Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw to sprint through it for a 59-yard gain on a screen pass. Two plays later, Andre Brown plunged in from 2 yards out for a 7-0 lead.
The Packers got the touchdown back on a terrific 61-yard Aaron Rodgers-to-Jordy Nelson stop-‘n’-go touchdown down the right sideline that stood up to replay review and tied the game at 7-7.
Alas, there endeth the highlights.
The defense forced a three-and-out on the ensuing possession, but the offense took over and couldn’t get a first down, settling for a 55-yard field-goal attempt from scuffling kicker Mason Crosby, who missed wide left.
The Giants then took the ball and drove 55 yards in eight play, capping the drive with a 16-yard Eli Manning-to-Rueben Randle touchdown behind cornerback Davon House and safety M.D. Jennings. On the next play from scrimmage, veteran cornerback Corey Webster came off his man (James Jones) and jumped a quick Rodgers pass intended for Randall Cobb and picked it off at the Packers’ 33-yard line. Even though the Giants had to settle for a 43-yard Lawrence Tynes field goal, the tone was set.
The Packers went three-and-out on their next possession, which began with an 8-yard sack by Chase Blackburn on first down, and the Giants offense went back to work. A 25-yard Manning-to-Hakeem Nicks completion led to Victor Cruz’s 9-yard touchdown catch, pushing the lead to 24-7.
The ensuing drive stalled out at the Giants’ 20-yard line when tight end Jermichael Finley dropped a pass, and while Rodgers went right back to him for a 9-yard gain, the Packers settled for a 28-yard Crosby field goal that made it 24-10.
When the defense forced a three-and-out punt again, the Packers actually had their chance to make a game of it again. With the ball and 1:50 left in the first half and set to receive the second-half kickoff, touchdowns to end the second quarter and start the third quarter would’ve forged a 24-24 tie.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, on first-and-10 from the Packers’ 39, Osi Umenyiora beat left tackle Marshall Newhouse and forced a Rodgers fumble that Jason Pierre-Paul recovered. Two plays later, Bradshaw rumbled in from 13 yards out to make it 31-10 at halftime.
The Packers managed only one first down on the opening drive of the second half – on a 16-yard catch by Finley that happened after Rodgers was hit by Justin Tuck and the resulting fluttering pass went off Pierre-Paul’s hands on what should’ve been an interception – and had to punt. By the time Manning hit Nicks for a 13-yard touchdown with 3:36 left in the third quarter, the issue had already been decided.
“It’s one game,” said Rodgers, who gave way to backup Graham Harrell for the final 4:53. “(We) had a good opportunity to put ourselves in a better position than we’re in right now and didn’t do that. We’re going to be disappointed watching this film. (But) we have to move on.
“We’ve got to get a couple things shored up. When you win five in a row, everybody’s happy but, like I said last year during the (undefeated) run, there’s things that kind of go under the radar that need to be handled. Sometimes it takes a loss to handle those things.
“Now, that being said, I’ve never been on the side of this kind of loss before. But I know if you play long enough that at a certain point you will. Hopefully, we’ll remember this feeling and not let this kind of embarrassment to happen again.
“We’re better than this. We’re going to regroup.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.