GREEN BAY, Wis. - Taking a closer look at the Green Bay Packers' 38-31 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lambeau Field, a loss that could have ended their season had the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears not been so cooperative:
Thumbs up: In a game where the special teams nearly ruined the day, Micah Hyde nearly saved it. The Packers' fundamentally inept kickoff return unit, which entered the day as the worst in the 32-team NFL, saw the rookie cornerback deliver the longest return of the season – three times. His 33-yard return on the opening kickoff was the Packers' longest of the year. Then his 39-yard return after the Steelers took a 24-21 lead with 1 minute 55 seconds left in the third quarter became the longest. And then, with the Packers down 38-31 and needing a miracle, Hyde delivered a 70-yard kickoff return that gave the Packers the ball at the Pittsburgh 31-yard line with 1:25 left.
Hyde, who injured his shoulder on the play, almost singlehandedly made up for a special teams group that got a punt blocked (and were fortunate that they retained possession after it), gave up a pair of big returns, allowed a fake punt to go for 30 yards (with a 15-yard Jake Stoneburner penalty added on) that led to a touchdown and watched second-year linebacker Nick Perry commit a stunningly foolish offsides penalty in the decisive closing moments.
"Obviously it's tough," Hyde said. "We felt like if we could win this game. I don't think we looked past this game by any means. But we felt like we had this one, and we let it slip away. All you can ask is we go out next week and handle our business and hope that things play its course."
Thumbs down: Perry's penalty was absolutely inexcusable and may very well have cost the Packers the game. After quarterback Matt Flynn's stunning fumble with 1:51 to play gave the Steelers the ball at the Packers' 17-yard line and the game tied, 31-31, the defense rose to the occasion and – with the help of a second-down pass play that saved them a timeout – got the stop they needed. On fourth-and-3 from the Packers' 10-yard line with 1:35 left, the Packers had one timeout. Even if Shaun Steelers kicker Suisham makes the 28-yard field goal, the Packers offense would have had roughly 90 seconds and a timeout to work with to get either a game-tying field goal to force overtime or the game-winning touchdown.
Instead, Perry inexplicably jumped, was called for encroachment, giving the Steelers the first down. That forced the Packers to burn their final timeout and let the Steelers score in hopes of getting the ball back and having their offense force OT with a touchdown.
"It's an undisciplined play. I jumped, and they capitalized on the play. You know, I've got nothing. It's a bum play," Perry said. "It happened."
Of course, Perry's mistake wasn't the only undisciplined play that cost hurt the Packers, as right guard T.J. Lang committed a false start penalty in the final seconds on offense that hurt them, too. (Referee Carl Cheffers erroneously cited right tackle Don Barclay on the play.)
But thanks to the Philadelphia Eagles' victory over the Bears Sunday night, Perry's mistake wasn't devastating.
"We can only control what we can control, and we didn't get the job done today," a dejected Perry said. "So now everything else is in everybody else's hands."
Perry said he saw Steelers long-snapper Greg Warren move the ball, which was why he jumped, but it was hard to see any movement on a replay of the play.
Player of the game: Where in the world would the Packers be without Eddie Lacy? Well, they better hope they don't have to find out in next Sunday's NFC North Championship Game, since Lacy re-injured the sprained right ankle that has been troubling him ever since he initially hurt it at the end of the first half against Atlanta on Dec. 8. Lacy finished the day with 15 carries for 84 yards (5.6-yard average) and set the franchise record for rushing yards in a season by a rookie, breaking John Brockington's 1971 record. He had a pair of touchdown runs to boot, giving him 10 rushing TDs on the year. But now the Packers must hope that Lacy can recover from his injury, which occurred with 1:08 to play in the game.
"[I] just get ready for next week. We've got a game left, so I guess try to put this one behind us and finish the season off," Lacy said. "I'm definitely going to do everything I can do to get it feeling as good as I possibly can, so I can go out and be with my team next week."
Play of the day: If A.J. Hawk has made a better play in his eight-year NFL career, it does not spring immediately to mind. On the final play of the third quarter, with the Packers trailing 31-21, Hawk leaped high into the air, got his right hand on Ben Roethlisberger's pass and hauled it in for an interception. Even though the Packers only got a field goal off the turnover, it altered the tide of the game completely.
At the time, the Steelers had taken a 10-point lead on Cortez Allen's 40-yard interception return for a touchdown, and on the ensuing possession, the Packers offense had gone three-and-out.
Then, on a pass that was intended for tight end Heath Miller, Hawk, who hadn't intercepted a pass since Dec. 26, 2010 against the New York Giants, made the play.
"I'm just glad to finally get one. Could've used a few more of those," Hawk said. "Turnovers, I always say, are the biggest thing to get the crowd going, to get the momentum shifted your way, and that time was a good time to do that."
Inside the game: The Packers cannot put the loss on the officiating – especially after Cheffers' crew appeared to blow the call on the blocked field goal – but the final 10 seconds were a point of contention afterward. On second-and-goal from the Steelers' 1-yard line with 22 seconds left, the Packers were flagged for a false start. Cheffers announced the penalty as being on Barclay, but on replay it was clearly on Lang. (Center Evan Dietrich-Smith, though, took the blame for the penalty for not snapping the ball on time.)
By the time the whistle blew the play dead, the Lambeau Field clock showed 20 seconds, and because the penalty came inside the 2-minute warning, the Packers not only were penalized 5 yards but NFL rules also call for a 10-second runoff. That left 10 seconds on the clock.
That's when confusion set in, as umpire Undrey Wash stepped away from the ball and back into the Steelers' defensive zone in anticipation of Cheffers blowing his whistle and starting the clock. Cheffers and Wash then spoke to each other, and Dietrich-Smith was told to take his hand off the ball. Once the clock began to run, Cheffers ran in behind Flynn as if to tell the quarterback that the clock was running.
Whatever happened, Flynn didn't get the ball until 3 seconds remained, and by the time his pass to Jarrett Boykin sailed high and incomplete, there was no time left on the clock.
"We knew the clock was going to run and so we got everybody lined up. We should have been able to get two plays off," said Flynn, whose offense was in position with 10 seconds left, awaiting Cheffers' whistle. "We thought that the operation, getting the ball down and the clock started was a little bit weird. But we should've been able to get two plays off. We went as fast as we could."
"I don't know what happened, really. Everything just, the operation seemed kind of weird right there."
Said Dietrich-Smith: "(The umpire) backed up, we were ready to go."
Packers coach Mike McCarthy thought Wash was standing over the ball when the clock started to run, but based on the CBS feed, he was not.
"Not when the umpire is standing there and the clock is running," McCarthy replied when asked if Flynn could have snapped the ball sooner. "I don't know what you can ask Matt Flynn to do, or Dietrich-Smith."
According to Jordy Nelson, who appeared more open than Boykin on the final play, Flynn checked the play at the line of scrimmage, which also burned a few seconds.
"Just the communication of the officials holding us and then all of sudden blowing the whistle and being able to snap it (was off)," Nelson said. "All sorts of things were going on, but I think Matt did a good job of getting us down there. Matt made, I think, a great check (on last play) with what he saw in the defense and gave us a shot."
Said tight end Andrew Quarless: "I don't know, man. I don't want to blame the refs, but they were a little all over the place."
Quote, unquote: "Really, the message in the locker room, frankly I'm embarrassed by it; I didn't know Detroit lost the game, so my message was different when I talked to the team. But this team, ‘Team 93' as I refer to them, they refuse to lose. A ton of fight in them. We needed one more play tonight." – Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who came into the locker room after the game and apparently acted as if the Packers had been eliminated from playoff contention in his post-game comments to his team.
Injury report: Outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who missed four games and had pins inserted into his broken right thumb after suffering the fracture on Oct. 6 against Detroit, reinjured his thumb Sunday while sacking Roethlisberger. He did not return and appeared to know immediately that the injury was bad.
Inside linebacker Brad Jones, who has been battling an ankle injury for over a month, reinjured the ankle twice during the game. While he was able to return to action in the second half after the first time he hurt the ankle, he did it again and could not continue during the fourth quarter.
Lacy, who has been wearing an orthopedic immobilizing boot during the week since hurting his right ankle against the Falcons, did not return after his injury.
Outside linebacker Mike Neal's neck/shoulder stinger left the Packers with only two outside linebackers – Perry and Andy Mulumba – for a time during the second half. But Neal was able to return.
The Packers never went back on defense after his 70-yard kickoff return, so it's unclear if Hyde could have gone back in after hurting his shoulder on the play.
> In his career, Aaron Rodgers has thrown one interception that was returned for a touchdown – in 2008, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In seven games without him, his replacements have now combined for three pick-six INT-TDs, with Flynn throwing his second one of the year on Sunday. While Flynn's first was on a fluky deflection against Atlanta, Sunday's came when on a run/pass option play he checked to a pass to Boykin, but collided with Quarless as he was throwing it. That allowed Allen to pick him off and go 40 yards the other way for the TD.
"It was what we call a run solution throw and the safety was down to our run side, so I was taking just the easy one-on-one matchup to the receiver," Flynn said. "I've got to do a better job of understanding where my tight end has to fill according to where his linebacker is and get out of his way. I was coming up and (Quarless) hit me on my left side, and turned me, and pulled the ball up. It was just one of those unfortunate plays and I definitely wish I could take that one back."
McCarthy said that if anyone deserved blame for the play, "it's probably more my fault. That particular play, we hadn't run that particular backside-blocking scheme until that point in the game. I had given Matt a reminder, we were in the run-pass selection; the safety came down late. That's probably a little bit of an example of a guy not having a lot of reps in that particular footwork, and it cost us. Andrew's doing his job. He's blocking the backside linebacker. Frankly, you can put that on me."
> McCarthy also absolved Flynn of his other costly turnover, a fumble on a third-and-8 scramble on which Flynn was trying to get a first down but was hit by safety Troy Palomalu and fumbled a yard shy of the marker on the Packers' sideline. Brett Keisel recovered, setting up the game-winning score.
"I'm fine with Matt's decision. I was standing right there. I saw what he saw," McCarthy said. "He thought he was going to be able to split (the two defenders) and get the first down. He's a good athlete, he's a good runner, he's competing. I have no problem with what he attempted there."
Said Flynn: "At the time, it was third down, I took off running and knew I had to go for the first down. I couldn't slide or anything like that. My plan was to try to split those guys and dive for it as hard as I could. Troy made a good play and got me wrapped around I couldn't do that. He got the ball. I've got to protect the ball. It's probably not my thing to go running and try to split defenders and things like that, but I've got to do a better job under the situation.
"At that time wasn't really thinking about ball security. I was thinking about trying to dive for the first down."
> Defensive end Johnny Jolly, who was placed on season-ending injured reserve Saturday with a neck injury he suffered last week against Dallas that McCarthy termed "significant," refused to talk about the injury in the locker room after the game.
"I don't want to talk about that. This is about the team," Jolly said. "Right now, we're focusing on the team."
Asked if he'll need surgery, Jolly replied, "I mean, all of that is not important right now. It's about this team and what we've got going on right now."
> The other bizarre play came when 23-yard field goal was blocked in the third quarter. It certainly appeared that Steelers safety Ryan Clark clearly recovered the ball and was trying to lateral it to a teammate when the ball came loose again, but Cheffers crew ruled that when Ziggy Hood intentionally batted the ball out of bounds, there had been no change of possession. Thus, the Packers got the ball and a first down, setting up Lacy's 2-yard TD on the next play.
"I felt like I slid a little bit on the field, and it just came out a little low. [Pittsburgh] got a hand up and blocked it," Crosby said. "Obviously just disappointed not hitting that kick, but we got a touchdown out of it, so it ended up being beneficial to us. I know batting is a penalty, but I didn't know that it would get us the ball back. Happy it did."
Cheffers told a pool reporter that the play was called as it was because "we ruled that the ball continued to be a loose ball throughout the play. … The discussion (among the officials) revolved around whether or not there was possession in the field of play (by the Steelers), and we ruled that there was no possession in the field of play. That's why we enforced it as a foul."
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.