This isn't how it was supposed to be. With the Packers' remarkable 23-point comeback last week against the Cowboys, Aaron Rodgers was to return to lead Green Bay past the Steelers for a week 17 winner-takes-all showdown in Chicago. Yet so many things that were "supposed" to happen didn't this afternoon.
Behind replacement quarterback Matt Flynn, the Packers opened the game in the no huddle. While Green Bay's first possession stalled and nearly ended in disaster when Brett Goode snapped the ball at Tim Masthay's feet, Flynn led an impressive second drive that included big plays to Jarrett Boykin and James Starks. The latter included a devastating pull block by guard T.J. Lang that sprung Starks for an additional 10+ yards. Running back Eddie Lacy added a 14-yard run that temporarily knocked out Pittsburgh corner Ike Taylor. Deep in Steeler territory, Flynn threw a back-of-the-end-zone fade to Boykin who came down with the ball to put Green Bay up 7-0.
The Steelers, who would attempt David strategies throughout the game, tried a kickoff return reverse. This one didn't fool the Packers, however, and the Steelers began the drive deep inside their own territory. Pittsburgh's fortune quickly changed when Ben Roethlisberger connected with Antonio Brown for a 36 yard gain. Brown had sprinted past cornerback Tramon Williams along the sideline, a trend that would continue throughout the day. A few plays later, Roethlisberger found Emmanuel Sanders alone in the end zone to the tie the game.
The teams exchanged unfruitful drives until Pittsburgh found itself in Packers territory near the end of the first quarter. On a key third down, linebacker Clay Matthews managed to pin Roethlisberger down for a sack, but hurt himself in the process. As the Packers would soon learn, Matthews re-injured his surgically repaired right thumb. He would not return, and his status for next week is unknown.
When the Packers regained possession, Flynn once again looked sharp, completing big passes to James Jones and Jordy Nelson. However, the drive was a showcase for Lacy, who not only produced some trademark punishing runs, but created perhaps his first Sports Center number one top play on a twisting, spiraling touchdown leap that gave the Packers a 14-7 lead. Unfortunately for the Packers, they would give up a sizeable kickoff return immediately after, allow the Steelers to kick a field goal and reduce the deficit to four at the half.
The second half would prove to be a different monster for Green Bay. After holding the Steelers to what appeared to be a three and out, Mike Tomlin dialed up a punt fake that resulted in a 30-yard completion. A roughing the passer penalty added even more yards, setting up a Roethlisberger touchdown scamper just a few plays later.
The Packers offense played poorly on the following drive. Flynn overthrew receivers on consecutive plays and was sacked on third down. That play and another were wiped out by Steelers penalties, but ultimately Masthay would punt the ball away. Green Bay would get a break one play later when Le'Veon Bell fumbled the ball near his own goal line. After initially being ruled down by contact, the call was reversed via a Mike McCarthy challenge.
It was here that the referees gave the NFL its latest black eye. After three unsuccessful scoring attempts, the Packers opted for a field goal to tie the game up at 17. However, Pittsburgh blocked the kick and appeared to have recovered the ball. The referees never acknowledged that a Pittsburgh player had picked up the ball before another Steeler batted it out of bounds. As a result, the play resulted in a penalty for Pittsburgh, giving the Packers new life and a new set of downs. The Packers would capitalize on a Lacy touchdown run one play later.
As if to return the favor on the subsequent drive, Green Bay committed some silly penalties of their own to keep the Steelers on the field. As a result, a three and out turned into a touchdown to Matt Spaeth, giving Pittsburgh a 24-21 lead. The Packers mistakes didn't end there, however. Early during their next possession, Andrew Quarless ran into Matt Flynn as he made his throw. The pass wobbled through the air and was picked off for a touchdown by Cortez Allen. In less than a minute of football, the score changed from 21-17 to 31-21.
After several more unsuccessful possessions, the Packers put together a short drive that ended in a field goal. That drive didn't come without a price, as Lacy re-sprained his ankle and did not return. After holding Pittsburgh to another three and out, the Packers once again drove down the field on the backs of Jordy Nelson and James Starks. Starks would score on an off-tackle run to tie up the game at 31. Green Bay would force a punt on Pittsburgh's next drive, setting up a potential game-winning drive. Tragedy struck once again, as Flynn fumbled the ball away four plays later. The Steelers took possession already inside the Green Bay 10-yard line. Dom Capers defense initially forced a field goal, but an offsides penalty on Nick Perry gave the Steelers a first down. With no timeouts left, the Packers allowed Bell to run in for the score to put Pittsburgh up 38-31.
Yet the Packers gave themselves one more shot. On the subsequent kickoff, returner Micah Hyde dashed to the Steelers' 30-yard line. A play later, Starks plowed his way to the Pittsburgh two. However, the Packers offense then imploded behind a false start by right tackle Don Barclay. Barclay's blunder not only cost the Packers yards, but took 10 seconds off the game clock. With one play left, Flynn threw a fade intended for Boykin. This time, the receiver was unable to come down with the ball, and time expired.