This headline of this article is a slightly modified reference to T.S Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men.” It’s an appropriate connection to make because in the final 10 weeks of the 2015 NFL regular season, hollow men are exactly what the Green Bay Packers played like. The team was collectively a shell of its former self; the self that followed up its Super Bowl XLV victory with four straight division titles, the self that lost just four home games in that span (and only in one of those was Aaron Rodgers healthy enough to play beyond the first quarter), the self that had such a lethal passing attack that it could usually compensate for its weaker defenses and ground games.
The Packers had such a firm grasp on the NFC North that it felt like they were headed for the same kind of near-automatic run of division titles that the Patriots have become accustomed to with Brady and Belichick in the fold. Instead, an ascending Vikings team came into Lambeau Field and flipped the script on them. Down 20-3 at one point, Green Bay mounted a furious comeback. The final score though? Vikings 20, Packers 13. As they would say in the Game of Thrones universe, there’s a new King in the North.
Green Bay’s season isn’t over. Plenty of teams have rebounded from disappointing Week 17 losses to advance deep into the playoffs. Some could even argue that the team helped itself by losing to Minnesota and getting matched up on Wild Card weekend against an unproven Washington squad instead of a rematch against Adrian Peterson and the Vikings (who now have to deal with the red-hot Seattle Seahawks). But this isn’t one of those situations that should be given a positive spin. It was absolutely in the Packers’ best interests to win that game. More pertinently, it was in their best interests to have played with a greater sense of urgency in the post-bye week portion of their season. As much as you can chalk up the broken division title streak to an unacceptable performance in game 16, Green Bay let itself unravel after the bye and couldn’t stop the bleeding in time to avoid ceding the NFC North to Minnesota. And regardless of short-term matchup advantages, that is extremely troubling.
Five years ago, this highly successful era of Packers football was kick-started with a ‘back against the wall’ mentality. Despite having never trailed by more than seven points all year, the 2010 Packers were on the brink of elimination with two weeks to go in the regular season. However, they regrouped and won out the rest of the way, an unlikely run that culminated in the Lombardi Trophy coming home to Green Bay—and erased what could have been an enormous disappointment of a year for an extremely talented team.
Since then the Packers have had some regrettable performances in do-or-die situations—losing at home in the 2012 playoffs to a 9-7 Giants team, coming up short against San Francisco two years in a row, letting Seattle pull off a miracle comeback in last year’s NFC Championship Game—but they always showed up when the division was at stake. Largely because of an injury to Rodgers that slowed down the Pack, the 2013 NFC North title came down to a winner-take-all match in Chicago. Returning to game action for the first time in eight weeks, Rodgers righted the ship and won the game with a long touchdown to Randall Cobb. He outdid himself the next year, putting the cherry on top of an MVP campaign by overcoming a nagging calf injury and holding off the Lions in another winner-take-all battle.
Sunday evening Green Bay had the chance to complete the winner-take-all NFC North trifecta, but it failed to come through in the familiar circumstances. In Week 7 with the Packers sitting at 6-0 in part due to wins against good teams like Kansas City and Seattle, nobody was expecting that type of a showdown to come in Week 17. After the Packers’ bye week though, things got rough. Never mind the blowout losses against top notch teams like Denver and Arizona, Green Bay’s most worrying issue was that it started exposing vulnerabilities that didn’t seem to exist before. Its Lambeau Field mystique of divisional impenetrability went down the tubes with home defeats against the far inferior Lions and Bears (Detroit hadn’t won there in 24 straight attempts!), the losses of Jordy Nelson and Ty Montgomery finally caught up to it in the passing game, and its supply of successful ‘back against the wall’ responses was finally exhausted.
Football fans in general will remember the ‘Miracle in Motown’ Hail Mary play that improbably gave Green Bay a win against Detroit, but Packers fans will be scarred by the four losses in 2015 that could’ve been avoided if the team had capped off comebacks by converted its scoring chances in the final minutes of play. One of those was a 52-yard Mason Crosby field goal attempt in the first Lions match, but the others were all red zone offensive sequences. With a full set of downs near the goal line against Carolina, Chicago, and Minnesota, Rodgers—the reigning MVP—failed to lead his squad to a game-winning/tying scores every single time.
Coming up short in the clutch is frustrating, but what’s worse is the events that led to those situations in the first place. There were simply too many instances where Green Bay struggled to come alive until late in the game—which overshadowed several great performances by the Packers’ defense. At the end of the third quarter in the NFC North title game, it really looked like Green Bay was going to go down with a whimper. It had failed to establish a consistent running game and it wasn’t able to make any real gains through the air.
Even though the green light eventually went on and the Packers put themselves in a position to win the game, the comeback was ultimately just another example of why 48 minutes of urgency is better than 12. Aaron Rodgers threw a red zone interception (prior to Week 5 he hadn’t thrown a pick at Lambeau since Dec. 2012) on a broken play, Richard Rodgers couldn’t haul in the Hail Mary this time around, and Green Bay went out with the bang that is usually reserved for its NFC North opponents.
With a healthy Jordy Nelson and a thirst for revenge, 2016 figures to be a better year for the Packers. It’s fair to imagine it could be the season that sparks another run of long-term divisional dominance. But there’s no dancing around the fact that 2015 was a major missed opportunity to sustain the current one. The little failures added up, and it was just enough to doom Green Bay in the biggest moment.