You could call the NFC Championship Game a great comeback by the Seahawks, or you could call it a horrendous collapse by the Packers. But this was something different.
The Packers didn’t so much cost themselves Sunday’s game by playing badly in the fourth quarter, and the Seahawks can’t just credit their comeback to great play in the fourth quarter. What really cost the Packers this game is that when they had a chance to finish the Seahawks, put them away, step on their throats, they didn’t do it.
As great as it seemed like the Packers were playing when they built their 16-0 lead in the first half, the reality is that they were keeping the Seahawks in the game with overly cautious play calling and poor strategic decisions, particularly on fourth downs. Here are the four fourth downs that ought to have Packers coach Mike McCarthy kicking himself this morning:
1. With the Packers facing fourth-and-goal at the six-inch line in the first quarter, McCarthy decided to send in kicker Mason Crosby for a field goal. Just so you know I’m not just second-guessing after the fact, here’s what I tweeted immediately following that field goal:
I hate Mike McCarthy kicking the field goal there. Not winning at Seattle being chicken.— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) January 18, 2015
2. With the Packers facing fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line on the very next possession, McCarthy did it again: He decided to kick the field goal. That made it 6-0, when the Packers easily could have led 14-0. And McCarthy wasn’t done.
3. In the second quarter, with the Packers facing fourth-and-1 at the Seahawks’ 22-yard line, McCarthy decided to kick yet another field goal. That made it 16-0. And it was about as disappointing a 16-0 lead as a team could have. The Packers were dominating the Seahawks. They could have been up 28-0. They have Eddie Lacy. They have John Kuhn. They have a team set up to run for short yardage effectively. And McCarthy didn’t give them the chance.
At halftime, McCarthy told FOX’s sideline reporter Chris Myers that you have to take the points when you can against a good defense like Seattle’s. McCarthy was looking at it exactly the wrong way. When you’re playing a great team like Seattle, you have to score all the points you can, not just settle for three when you’re inches away from seven.
4. Early in the third quarter, with the Packers still leading 16-0, they had a fourth-and-1 at midfield. Go for it and pick up a first down, and you’re closing in on starting the second half with a score that probably breaks the Seahawks’ backs and sends the Packers to the Super Bowl. So what did Mike McCarthy do? He punted. On the ensuing drive, the Seahawks scored their first touchdown to cut the deficit to 16-7.
If the Packers had gone for it and gained the necessary yard on just one of those fourth-and-1 plays, they likely would have won in regulation. Instead, they lost in overtime.
I don’t want to suggest that McCarthy’s fourth-down decisions were the only thing that cost the Packers this game. Any time you melt down like the Packers did on Sunday, there are any number of things that went wrong: Failing to recover an onside kick. A defense that played great for 56 minutes allowing more than 200 yards and three touchdowns in the last four minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime. Morgan Burnett sliding after an interception when he appeared to have room for a big runback. A lot of things went wrong for the Packers late in the game.
But my contention is that even early in the game, when it appeared that everything was going right, McCarthy was getting a lot of things wrong. That cost McCarthy and his team a trip to the Super Bowl.
Here are my other thoughts from Sunday:
The Seahawks’ defense remains great. Aaron Rodgers may be the best player in the NFL right now, but Seattle made him look ordinary. Rodgers finished 19-for-34 for 178 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions, for a passer rating of 55.8. That was just the second time in the last four years that Rodgers finished a game with a passer rating under 60. If the Seahawks have another great game in the Super Bowl, they have to be considered among the handful of greatest defenses in NFL history.
The Seahawks’ medical staff has some explaining to do. Russell Wilson took a hard helmet-to-helmet hit from Clay Matthews in the second quarter, and FOX’s Erin Andrews later reported that the Seahawks’ doctors only looked at Wilson for “two seconds” after that. Richard Sherman suffered an injury later in the game, went down in obvious pain on the sideline, and then went right back in without missing a single play. The sideline medical staff needs to explain why, with the NFL’s emphasis on player safety, those two players were allowed to keep playing without being thoroughly checked.
Russell Wilson has incredible luck. After picking up a fumbled snap on Sunday, Wilson has now fumbled 13 times in the regular season and postseason combined -- and the Seahawks have recovered all 13 of those fumbles. That’s remarkably good fortune; the bounce of a football is so unpredictable that when a ball is fumbled, it’s little more than a coin flip which team is going to recover. But Wilson or his teammates keep falling on his fumbles. Wilson had a generally awful game on Sunday, with four interceptions, and yet when it was all said and done he topped 200 passing yards and his team somehow won. Things just keep going Wilson’s way.
The Colts wasted two first-round picks. Colts pass rusher Bjorn Werner was inactive for the AFC Championship Game simply because he hasn’t been effective this season, and running back Trent Richardson was inactive because of a family emergency, although he was expected to be inactive anyway because he hasn’t been effective either. Werner was the Colts’ 2013 first-round draft pick, and Richardson was the player the Colts acquired by trading away their 2014 first-round draft pick. And neither of them is even good enough to be one of the 46 active players for a must-win game. That’s some terrible decision-making by Colts General Manager Ryan Grigson.
No great quarterback gets less help from his teammates than Andrew Luck. It’s painful watching the Colts sometimes: Luck throws great passes and they get dropped. Luck is forced to run for his life and takes a beating behind a patchwork offensive line. The Colts’ defense fails to get stops. The Colts’ special teams makes major mistakes. It says something about how good Luck is that the Colts made it to the AFC Championship Game, because the rest of that roster is not very good. Compare the 53-player rosters of the four teams that played yesterday, and you’ll have to agree that the Colts have by far the least talent of the four. When Luck doesn’t play well -- and he didn’t play well on Sunday in New England -- the Colts get blown out.
Tom Brady is in for a rough Super Bowl Sunday. Congratulations to the Patriots for getting to their sixth Super Bowl with Brady as their quarterback. Brady will join former Bills and Broncos defensive lineman Mike Lodish as the only players to appear in six Super Bowls. But Brady is in for a tough time, because the Seahawks may have the toughest defense he’s ever faced in his NFL career.
The two best coaches in football are meeting in the Super Bowl. Either Patriots coach Bill Belichick will earn his fourth Super Bowl ring, or Seahawks coach Pete Carroll will become the first coach ever to win multiple championships at both the college and professional level. These are the two best coaches in football right now. Mike McCarthy could learn a thing or two from them.