GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — The Green Bay Packers walked off the field for the final time this season to a chorus of chants of "Let's Go, Giants!"
Hey, it was better than the boos they heard at halftime.
Fumbles, drops, missed assignments and blown coverages — Green Bay packed a year's worth of mistakes into a few hours Sunday, its dazzling season coming apart in a 37-20 loss to the New York Giants in the NFC divisional playoffs. Unbeatable only a month ago, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers had little response as Eli Manning and the Giants made themselves at home at Lambeau Field.
"We got beat by a team that played better," Rodgers said. "That's the reality of this league. (I've) been in the playoffs four times, and three times you lose your last game and you go home, and the one time you have that euphoric feeling that you keep fighting for. It's tough. I didn't think it was going to end tonight."
End, though, it did. Instead of rolling toward a second straight Super Bowl, the defending champs are clearing out their lockers and scattering for the offseason.
"No excuses," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, refusing to blame the bye week or the heartache that followed the shocking death of offensive coordinator Joe Philbin's 21-year-old son. "There was nothing in preparation that had led me to believe this was going to occur."
Green Bay picked up right where it left off last season, winning its first 13 games to extend the streak that carried the Packers to their fourth Super Bowl title to 19 games, second-best in NFL history. The high-powered offense piled up points with a team-record 560, and Rodgers played so well that conversations about the league's best quarterbacks could no longer start with Tom Brady and end with Peyton Manning.
But the defense was shaky, maligned all season for its penchant for giving up big plays, and its weaknesses were on full display against the Giants.
The Packers were powerless to stop Manning, who threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns and coolly moved the Giants down the field drive after drive. Hakeem Nicks made the secondary look downright silly with 165 yards receiving and two touchdowns, the second of which he plucked out of the air above a scrum of Green Bay defenders just before halftime.
"It's a hard play to swallow, a play that shouldn't happen," Charles Woodson said. "The defense has to slow those guys coming off the ball, so that they're not running down the field free with an opportunity to get a steal. That play shouldn't have happened."
As was the case other times this season, though, the defensive players didn't seem to be operating from the same playbook. On one play, Woodson was still talking to another defensive back when the Giants snapped the ball. Woodson wound up covering the wrong receiver and the dangerous Victor Cruz was left wide open.
"Anything that you've seen through the regular season happened to us today: missed tackles, assignments, not getting to the quarterback," Woodson said.
But in the regular season, the offense was always there to bail the Packers out. This time, they were every bit as much of a problem.
The Packers had hoped to win the game for Philbin, who was away from the team all week to mourn the death of his son Michael. Michael Philbin's body was recovered from an icy river in Oshkosh on Monday; a preliminary autopsy found that he drowned.
"A lot of us wanted to get this one for him, give some happiness to him and his family during a tough week," said Rodgers, one of many players who went to Michael Philbin's wake and funeral. "It didn't happen."
The Packers lost three fumbles and the normally sure-handed receivers may as well have had rubber on the tips of their fingers for as many balls as they dropped. Jermichael Finley dropped one. James Starks dropped another. John Kuhn watched one bounce off his fingers. Despite having their regular starting offensive line in place for the one of the few times this season, Rodgers was sacked four times.
"We hurt ourselves," receiver Jordy Nelson said. "Give New York credit for making those plays, but it wasn't up to our standards."
Even Rodgers had an off day. He overthrew an open Jennings in the end zone on the very first drive, and lost his first fumble in a year when he was sacked in the third quarter by Osi Umenyiora. With the Giants secondary smothering the receivers as few defenses have this year, Rodgers was often forced to scramble or dump off for short gains.
Rodgers finished with a team-high 66 yards on seven rushes, but was 26 of 46 passing. His quarterback rating of 78.5 was well off his 122.5 for the regular-season, an NFL record.
"I felt we had pretty good rhythm. We moved the ball pretty effectively," Rodgers said. "We just had some drops and then had some uncharacteristic turnovers."
The Packers did put together a nice drive in the third quarter, as Rodgers connected with Donald Driver for a 13-yard catch and Starks on a 12-yard reception as Green Bay marched to the Giants 17. But he failed to connect with Jennings in the end zone again, and the Packers had to settle for a field goal when they really needed a touchdown.
Green Bay had one more scoring drive, capped by Driver's 16-yard catch with less than five minutes left. All that did was change the final score, however, not the outcome, and soon the Packers were trudging off the field as the Giants celebrated around them.
"We play to win championships. You win a championship and you're kind of at the top of the mountain, and you forget kind of how bad this feeling is," Rodgers said. "We had a championship-caliber regular season and didn't play well today."
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