Steelers 38, Packers 31: Win and in
As they headed for the exit, A.J. Hawk and Tramon Williams hadn’t decided if they would watch. While the inside linebacker and cornerback are both veterans on the Green Bay Packers defense, they’re still early in their fatherhood careers, so they weren’t quite sure whether things on the home front would allow them to watch the Sunday Night Football game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears – even though their team’s postseason hopes hung in the balance.
“I may watch some of it,” Hawk said with a smirk. “It depends if my kids go down on time at bedtime or not.”
By the time Hawk got to his suburban Green Bay home, it was the Bears who were out for the night. Down three touchdowns before the end of the first quarter, the Packers’ NFC North rivals were well on their way to defeat.
And as a result, after all their misfortune and mistakes, all their injuries and ineptitude, all their catastrophes and comebacks – it all comes down to this for the Packers:
Win, and they’re in.
That’s right, everything that happened during their 38-31 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field – their fourth fourth-quarter rally in five weeks, backup quarterback Matt Flynn’s costly turnovers, a couple of excruciatingly ill-timed penalties and, in the end, a defeat that dropped them to 7-7-1 on the season – didn’t matter. The Bears and their 54-11 blowout loss at Philadelphia on Sunday night made sure of that.
“The only thing you know now is that the chance is still there, and with that chance still there, you can’t dwell on this,” Williams said after the Steelers snapped a 31-31 tie by turning Flynn’s late fumble into a 1-yard Le’Veon Bell touchdown run with 1 minute 25 seconds to play. “Obviously by the end of the night you’re going to know what the situation is. But we can’t dwell on it right now. The only thing we can do is hope of the best. And obviously right now, we hope Philly wins.”
And because the Eagles did just that , it all comes down to next Sunday at Soldier Field in what is basically the NFC North championship game. If the Packers win, they’ll clinch the division title and host an NFC Wild Card round playoff game Jan. 4 or 5 at Lambeau Field. If the Bears (8-7) win, they’ll wear the crown and the Packers and injured quarterback Aaron Rodgers can start worrying about 2014.
“Crazy game. Unfortunately we came out on the short end,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said after addressing his team – apparently under the misapprehension that they were out of the playoff picture – following the loss. “I’m not into drama. We wanted to control our own destiny. We let that opportunity out of our hands, and we have to sit and hope Philadelphia beats the Bears.
“It’s the reality of where we are in our season. We’re kind of a peak and valley football team, that’s the way our season’s gone, we’ve had a lot of challenges come our way. Good Lord willing, maybe the ball will bounce our way tonight.”
And, it did. The last time the Packers saw the Bears, they were altering the course of their promising season, with defensive end Shea McClellin’s sacking and cracking Rodgers’ left collarbone. The Packers went into that Nov. 4 game at Lambeau Field at 5-2 and starting to gather momentum. Including their 27-20 loss to the Bears that night, the Packers went 0-4-1 over their next five games without Rodgers – with Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Flynn all starting games for them – before back-to-back, come-from-behind victories over Atlanta and Dallas the past two weeks gave them control of their destiny again, knowing victories over the Steelers and Bears would give them the division title.
And just like that, they gave it up – and then the Bears gave it right back.
“The back and forth has been unbelievable. I haven’t been a part of too many games, too many seasons like this,” Hawk said. “But as players, we try to stick to our game and stay with it and try to find a way to pull games out like this. We felt like we could’ve today. But we came up short.”
Next week’s game wasn’t flexed into the Sunday Night Football time slot – the NFL and NBC opted for the winner-take-all NFC East title game between the Eagles and Dallas Cowboys – but will be played at 3:25 p.m. next Sunday and air on FOX Sports.
“It’s going to be a huge game in Chicago,” said rookie Micah Hyde, whose 70-yard kickoff return after Bell’s go-ahead TD nearly sent the Packers to overtime. “But we felt like we had this one, and we let it slip away.”
That they did. For the first time since Rodgers’ injury, the Packers actually went into halftime with a lead, at 14-10. The defense then forced a Pittsburgh punt on the opening series of the second half, only to see Steelers coach Mike Tomlin call for a fake and punter Mat McBriar hit tight end David Paulson for a 30-yard gain. A roughing-the-passer penalty on Jake Stoneburner on McBriar tacked on another 15 yards, and on the next play, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger scrambled for a 13-yard touchdown and 17-14 lead.
The Packers reclaimed the lead on an odd turn of events – although not the weirdest they’d see during the course of the game – when Bell fumbled inside his own 5-yard line. After the initial call was that Bell was down by contact, the Packers got the ball after coach Mike McCarthy’s successful replay challenge. But after three plays went next to nowhere, kicker Mason Crosby came in for a possible game-tying field goal.
Instead, Crosby’s 23-yard attempt was blocked, but the Packers retained possession when referee Carl Cheffers and his crew ruled that the Steelers had not gained possession after the block – even though it appeared safety Ryan Clark had the ball and lost it while trying to lateral to a teammate – and awarded the ball to Green Bay. On the next play, running back Eddie Lacy scored his second touchdown of the game to make it 21-17 Packers.
But the Steelers answered with a touchdown drive of their own – aided by a 15-yard personal foul on defensive tackle B.J. Raji when he was caught retaliating for a shove from Steelers guard Cody Wallace – and on the Packers’ next offensive play, Flynn threw for wide receiver Jarrett Boykin on a quick run/pass option and was picked off by cornerback Cortez Allen, who returned the pick 40 yards for a 31-21 lead with 1:37 left in the third quarter.
Just as they had against Atlanta and Dallas, however, the Packers rallied. Hawk’s leaping interception on the final play of the third quarter stemmed the tide, and after Crosby’s 22-yard field goal pulled them within a touchdown, the Packers’ defense got a three-and-out stop. Six plays later, aided by a 31-yard catch-and-run by Jordy Nelson, Kuhn crashed in from a yard out to tie the game at 31-31.
The Green Bay defense forced another punt on the ensuing series, and the Packers appeared to be headed at worst for overtime when Flynn scrambled on a third-down play and was stripped by Steelers former All-Pro safety Troy Palomalu, giving Pittsburgh the ball at the Packers’ 17-yard line with 1:51 to play.
The defense stiffened and the Steelers were about to settle for a chip-shot field goal and put it on their defense to stop Green Bay one last time, but while lined up on fourth-and-5 for a field-goal attempt, linebacker Nick Perry was called for encroachment. Bell scored from 1 yard out when the Packers defensive players decided on the field to let him score to get the ball back to the offense with a chance to tie.
That didn’t happen, though, as Hyde’s 70-yard kickoff return put the Packers in business. After a 7-yard completion to Nelson and a 19-yarder to Andrew Quarless set up first-and-goal at the Steelers’ 5-yard line, James Starks – in for an injured Eddie Lacy (ankle) – ran for 4 yards down to the 1. A false start on that play prevented the Packers from running a running play they were sure would work and cost them 5 yards, setting up confusion in the closing moments of the game and a Flynn incompletion to Boykin on the game’s final play.
“It’s disappointing. We came in, and you just look on the guys’ faces,” Raji said. “We put a lot of effort into this thing. We keep fighting. Today, we just fell a little short. But you’ve just got to keep fighting. Next week, regardless of what happens tonight (in Bears game), we’re going to keep fighting.”
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.