Afterward, Charles Woodson went from one end of the Lucas Oil Stadium visitors locker room to the other, trying to find the exit to the team bus. The Green Bay Packers veteran safety had showered and dressed at one end of the room, headed one direction, then doubled back before finally asking defensive line coach Mike Trgovac for help.
“Hey,” Woodson said to Trgovac. “Which way we going?”
The question – and the confusion – served as the perfect metaphor for Woodson’s team in the wake of Sunday’s 30-27 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Two years removed from a Super Bowl XLV title and one year after a franchise-best 15-1 regular-season, the Packers simply look lost in blowing an 18-point halftime lead to lose to a team that went 2-14 last year.
And where the Packers and their 2-3 record are headed from here, with a Sunday night date at undefeated Houston up next on the docket, is anybody’s guess.
“[Expletive], you’ve got to win the next one. It’s not really rocket science,” Woodson said. “We’ve got to win the next one. We’ve put ourselves in a hole. The only thing you can hang your hat on is that it’s still early in the season and you’ve got a long way to go. But when you have teams down 21-3, you can’t lose. And that’s the bottom line.
“That’s a tough loss, a tough way to lose. But at the same time, it’s still a long season. We’ve just got to find a way to put a team away.
“Last year, we knocked teams out offensively. We didn’t defensively. We were up. Forget about what the offense did. We didn’t keep them out of the end zone and they went down and scored points, scored touchdowns. That’s on our heads.”
From a pass-heavy offense that once again became imbalanced once it lost workhorse running back Cedric Benson to a defense that gave up 464 total yards and isn’t getting the takeaways that once saved it from itself to kicker Mason Crosby’s potentially game-tying kick that knuckleballed wide left with 3 seconds left, nothing seemed to go right for the Packers after halftime.
In fact, the 18-point lead the Packers squandered was the biggest halftime lead they’d wasted since a 24-3 lead turned into a 30-27 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in Milwaukee on Nov. 17, 1957.
“It’s obviously disappointing. Every time we kind of had a chance to put them away, they made a big play, it seemed like,” inside linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “You let a team back in the game like that, at their place, their fans got into it and they took the momentum of the game. You can’t let that happen.”
Playing without first-year head coach Chuck Pagano, who was diagnosed with leukemia during the team’s bye week, the Colts suddenly tapped into their emotions in the second half, as they chipped away at the lead – from 21-3 to 21-10 to 21-13 to 21-19 – before Adam Vinatieri’s 28-yard field goal with 8:04 left in the game put them ahead, 22-21.
“We got together at halftime (and) there was no panic. It was just, ‘This is what we have to do, and let’s get it done,’” said Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who is serving as the team’s interim head coach. “We just tried to keep (the emotions) out and just play football. This game is emotional enough without adding more pressuring emtoins, trying to do something that you’re not capable of doing or more than you need to do. Just do your job. The guys did it. I think the emotion built from the crowd.”
Added Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, who completed 31 of 55 passes for 362 yards with two touchdowns and an interception (81.0 rating): “We all wanted to do it for Chuck more than anything else. To see all the emotions – (from) (owner Jim) Irsay, (Arians’), the coaches, the players, it was very special. And I’m just very glad to be a part of it. This was one of the greatest athletic moments I’ve ever been a part of.”
From the Packers’ perspective, it should’ve never happened. After stuffing Luck on a fourth-and-inches sneak midway through the first quarter, the Packers scored on three of their next four possessions – and should’ve had more.
After John Kuhn’s 2-yard plunge and the first of James Jones’ two touchdown catches made it 14-0, Rodgers overshot Jordy Nelson on third-and-9 from the Green Bay 33 on a play that should’ve been a 67-yard touchdown. The Colts answered with a field goal, but Randall Cobb’s 31-yard catch-and-run on the ensuing possession pushed the lead to 21-3. Then, when Vinatieri missed from 53 yards out, the Packers got the ball back at their own 43-yard line with 1:17 left in the half.
But a second-and-4 drop by Nelson followed by a third-and-4 drop by tight end Jermichael Finley forced a three-and-out punt, and the opportunity was wasted. Then, the Packers got the ball coming out of halftime and on third-and-2 from their own 28, Rodgers was intercepted by Jerraud Powers on a pass to Jones. That led to Colts tight end Dwayne Allen’s 8-yard touchdown grab to cut the lead to 21-10 with 11:06 left in the third quarter.
“It was definitely a momentum changer. There’s always a number of momentum plays in a game so that was definitely a big one for the Colts,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “I just think our production as a whole … that’s what I told the team. We’re not playing with clarity.
“We’re not taking advantage of clean plays. When you have a clean play, you expect execution and productivity and we didn’t get it done.”
Still, even after Luck’s 3-yard touchdown run and Vinatieri’s go-ahead field goal, the Packers – despite squandering such a lead – had ample opportunity to leave with a victory. Rodgers was sacked on back-to-back second- and third-down plays on the next drive, but the defense forced a three-and-out and got the offense the ball back. On the very next play, fill-in running back Alex Green exploded for a 41-yard run, and Rodgers followed that with an 8-yard touchdown to Jones to reclaim the lead at 27-22. Even after Rodgers threw incomplete to Donald Driver on the unsuccessful two-point conversion, all the defense needed was one more stop.
It failed, of course. Luck, who had been 0 for 8 on his previous eight passes on third down, found Reggie Wayne for a 15-yard gain on third-and-9. Then, on third-and-12 from the Packers’ 47-yard line, Luck somehow shrugged off what appeared to be a sure Clay Matthews sack and found Wayne again for another 15-yard gain and another third-down conversion. And on third-and-7 from the Packers’ 11, he scrambled up the middle and got just enough to convert another first down. On the next play, he hit Wayne for the 4-yard game-winning touchdown.
The Packers were left with 35 seconds when they took over at their own 20, and after 7- and 26-yard completions to Cobb and a 14-yarder to Driver, Crosby lined up for a 51-yarder that could’ve sent the game into overtime. Instead, he shanked it, and that was all she wrote.
“We’re not the same team as last year, obviously,” right guard Josh Sitton lamented. “We’ve got to figure out a way to win these games. We know it’s not easy to win in this league. That’s pretty obvious. When you’re up a few scores, we’ve got to close out the game. (It was) just poor execution in the second half. We’ve got to find a way to have a complete game.
“We’ve got to go out there and be able to perform in the second half. We talked about putting a complete game together, and we obviously didn’t do it.”