GREEN BAY – The admissions came immediately after the game, confessions that he and his team had let up after building a seemingly insurmountable lead.
“I kind of took my foot off the gas there,” Mike McCarthy had said. Then, “We have to do a better job as a team putting teams away.”
By Monday, the Green Bay Packers coach – while still feeling good about his team and its not-as-close-as-the-score-indicated 38-20 victory over the Washington Redskins at Lambeau Field – was still bothered by his team’s failure in that department.
McCarthy hadn’t forgotten what had happened to his team after taking a 28-24 lead over the San Francisco 49ers with 8 minutes, 26 seconds left in the fourth quarter in the regular-season opener the previous Sunday. It had taken the defense less than three minutes to give the lead right back with a five-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, and it only got worse from there, as his kickoff return team failed to execute simple blocking that left returner Jeremy Ross tackled at his own 9-yard line, and his offense had gone three-and-out, forcing a punt. By the time Aaron Rodgers & Co. got the ball back with 26 seconds left, the damage had been done. They lost, 34-28.
And while the situation wasn’t completely analogous this time – the Packers had built a 31-0 lead on the Redskins with 8:16 left in the third quarter – McCarthy still was bothered by what followed: The Redskins scoring 20 points and rolling up 208 of their 422 yards on back-to-back-to-back touchdown drives.
While Washington may not have had enough time to mount a more threatening comeback, had Rodgers not hit James Jones for a 12-yard gain on third-and-9 from the Packers’ 14-yard line with 7:21 left in the game, well, things might’ve gotten even more interesting.
After that completion, the offense chewed up every last second that remained on the clock, finishing with Rodgers’ kneel-downs at the Washington 10-yard line. Still, McCarthy was perturbed.
“(The) fourth quarter is really something that I don’t like for our whole football team. That’s two weeks in a row we haven’t performed in all three phases the way we need to,” McCarthy said during his customary day-after-the-game press briefing Monday. “The offense got better this week with the (final) drive, but defensively and special teams we need to perform better. That was also the case in Week 1.
“Defense, they had a great start. (Washington) didn’t convert a third down until the score was 31-0 but we gave up 20 points down the stretch. It’s just unnecessary production when you look at the tape. To play at the level we performed at for a large part of the game and then to give that up, it’s something that probably looks worse on the stat sheet than the reality of the football game.
“You have to look at that. It’s still tape and you’ve got to compete and that’s why you play four quarters, and that’s why you finish.”
Perhaps McCarthy is longing for 2011, when the Packers never trailed in the fourth quarter during their 19-game winning streak that spanned the final two games of the 2010 season, three NFC playoff victories, Super Bowl XLV and a 13-game winning streak to start the 2011 season.
In truth, the Packers have been pretty good at closing games when they enter the fourth quarter with a lead. Since McCarthy took over in 2006, the Packers are now 65-11 in regular-season games where they entered the fourth quarter with the lead, a winning percentage of .855. Since their modern renaissance began under coach Mike Holmgren in 1992, and under Ray Rhodes (1999), Mike Sherman (2000 through 2005) and McCarthy, the Packers are 185-26 (.877).
Since going 9-4 in such games during the 2010 season, when they blew fourth-quarter leads in losses at Chicago, at Washington, at Detroit and at New England, The Packers are now 24-1 when entering the fourth quarter with the lead. The lone blemish? A 30-27 loss at Indianapolis last Oct. 7 after they’d built a 21-3 halftime lead and still were up 21-19 entering the final 15 minutes.
At the NFL Meetings in March, Colts coach Chuck Pagano, who was in a nearby hospital undergoing chemotherapy treatments for leukemia as the Colts rallied under interim coach Bruce Arians, said he still points to that game as one that changed everything for his team. The Colts wound up going 11-5 with rookie quarterback Andrew Luck – after going 2-14 the previous year – and lost in the AFC Wild Card playoffs to the eventual Super Bowl-champion Baltimore Ravens.
“You can always look to one game and point and say, ‘That was a defining moment in our season,’ and you look at the timing of it – my first game away, and I’m watching from the hospital bed and see us come back from a 21-3 deficit at half and beat a really, really good football team, I think you can look to that game from a confidence standpoint,” Pagano explained. “A rookie quarterback a ton of rookies on offense that are playing, a brand new defense, a new scheme/new system. I think from a confidence standpoint, it probably just injected a big dose of that where the guys as a team knew that if we played as a team and we played 60 minutes … I think they just carried that motto week-in and week-out. Definitely a game you can point to.
“It’s an emotional game played by emotional players. There’s a certain point where you’ve got to be able to control those emotions, because you can get over the top and get carried away and lose focus on what your job is and down-in and down-out, but emotion’s always going to play a part in every ballgame. I don’t think you can ever discount it.”
What McCarthy wants his team to do, in turn, is to take away opponents’ hope when the fourth quarter begins. In their opener against Philadelphia, the Redskins had fallen behind 33-7 early in the third quarter before storming back before losing, 33-27.
While the Redskins never got that close, they got closer than they should’ve, the Packers felt.
“I think the last 7 1/2 minutes of the fourth quarter we played pretty well,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said of his side of the ball. “But as a team, that’s something we’re going to focus on. An earlier drive in the fourth quarter, we went three plays and out, so that’s not good. But we’re moving in the right direction. That’ll be a focus of the entire team – the fourth quarter. You’re generally in a game that’s tight and you’re going to have to either play well to preserve a lead or play well to take the lead. So that’s a focus of ours.”
That’ll especially be the case on defense, where defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ guys may have given up the most yards in the NFL in 2011 – when the Packers went 15-1 – but never gave up a fourth-quarter lead and usually supplied radio play-by-play man Wayne Larrivee with his requisite Dagger! calls.
“You’re going to play a different style, no question,” Capers said when asked if a big lead requires a different defensive approach. “You’re going to play a little different style, you’re probably not quite as aggressive as you have been. Although, I think you have to evaluate if your pressure play has been good for you, then you certainly don’t want to get away from it.”
The Packers defensive approach certain had been working. Before the Redskins’ final three series, they’d been 0 for 7 on third down conversions. After that, they were 3 for 4, making up for their one third-down failure with a fourth-down touchdown.
“You saw the first eight series, we make plays on third down. We had disruptive pressure, we had tight coverage,” Capers explained. “And in those last three series they converted the third downs – I think every one of them was contested – but they hit a couple bigger plays on us, they got a little momentum going. That’s something that always concerns you when you get into those 2-minute situations when you’re up, people (are) playing free, they know they’ve got to throw the ball to get back into the game.
“To do the things we want to do, (the fourth quarter) is where you’ve got to be at your best. You’ve got to keep your foot on the gas and not let up and relax, because in this league these games change around so quickly.”
But for McCarthy, there seems to be more to it than that. Amid his postgame admissions Sunday afternoon, he’d also said that his team “This team has a chance to be really good.” For that reason, McCarthy is treating Sunday’s fourth quarter as a teachable moment.
“That’s something that we can learn from, that victory,” he explained. “That was a sound victory for our football team, but there’s definitely things that we need to take away from that game, and that’s what I’m excited about it. I think our football team has a lot of growth. I like the way we’re playing in a physical aspect of it, but our mental performance isn’t even close to what it needs to be.
“Our mental performance and our fourth-quarter production (are) our two emphases for the week.”
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.