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Packers fumble away chance to prove they can take a punch in 34-31 OT loss to Colts

Green Bay hurt itself with sloppy first-half play, but kept fighting, building a 28-14 halftime lead despite a pair of turnovers. But a mystifying second half featured a blown lead, a Packers team looking shook, and a game-ending turnover in OT cost them a win.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Indianapolis Colts
With the ball in OT, the Packers fumbled literally and metaphorically with the game on the line.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Packers finally took a punch and fought back, but the Indianapolis Colts still knocked out Green Bay 34-31 after a tragic fumble by Marquez Valdes-Scantling in overtime. Sugar Ray Robinson, arguably the greatest counterpuncher of all time, once said of boxing, “Rhythm is everything in boxing. Every move you make starts with your heart, and that’s in rhythm or you’re in trouble.” Losses this season, seemingly spurred by inflection point moments, raised questions about the Packers ability to not only take a punch but punch back. It was, at its core, a question about their heart.

Aaron Rodgers tried to silence those questions, driving the Packers down 86 yards for the game-tying field goal with just three seconds left in the ball game. His offense, which hadn’t mustered a second-half first down until less than eight minutes were left in the fourth quarter, used a 47-yard bomb on 3rd-and-10 to push them back, a counterpunch in its own right.

Green Bay, entering halftime up 28-14, responded to myriad challenges by the Colts in the first half. A first-drive fumble on a bad exchange between center Corey Linsley and Rodgers scuttled a promising drive, but Raven Greene threw a literal hook, punching the ball out and giving Rodgers the ball back. They scored on a Robert Tonyan 25-yard strike to take an early lead, but the Colts came back swinging.

They matched 7-7, and Rodgers missed his spot on a hole shot throw, giving the Colts good field position. Still, Green Bay’s maligned defense stiffened, forcing a 50-yard field goal which rookie kicker Rodrigo Blankenship missed short, hitting the crossbar.

Matt LaFleur’s team had its combinations work, dialing up concepts the No. 1 yardage defense in the league couldn’t match, marching right back down the field to make it 14-7 on an Aaron Jones plunge and the Packers were now taking the match to the Colts, supposedly the bigger, more physical team.

All the questions about whether or not Green Bay could score on physical, well-coached defensive teams rang hollow as Rodgers diced up Matt Eberflus’ unit, top-5 in every category by DVOA including overall.

Christian Kirksey’s interception on the next possession had the Packers thinking haymaker. Four plays later, they had Rodgers’ second scoring toss, Davante Adams had his league-leading 10th touchdown but Green Bay had only just drawn blood. The Colts were hurt, but not out.

Philip Rivers fired back, finding the weak points in the in Mike Pettine’s defense at all. He answered with a 12-play drive to cut the Packers lead to 21-14, finished with a pinpoint throw to Trey Burton in single coverage against Preston Smith. The body blows started to wear on Green Bay, but they still had the ultimate weapon in Rodgers.

When he marched the offense down the field at will to close out the first half, a six-play 75-yard touchdown drive culminating in a walk-in Jamaal Williams score, the questions about whether or not the Packers could overcome adversity rang hollow like the piped-in crowd noise in Indianapolis. Green Bay played through a pair of ugly turnovers, taking it on the chin from the Colts and standing up to the task, all the while hitting back and finding ways to take the game to Indianapolis.

If fate is in the clinches in boxing, it’s in the bounce of the whimsey of the bouncing ball in the NFL. Two second-half fumbles, one by Darius Shepherd and the second on the game-sealing drive by MVS doomed the Packers. And once the ball starting rolling downhill, once the Colts got Green Bay breathing heavy, their legs gave out and their will started to break.

An opening-drive field goal cut the Packers lead to 28-17, but Rodgers and LaFleur found no answers. A 10-play, 55-yard touchdown drive trimmed the margin to just three after the Colts hit the two-point conversion. A second consecutive three-and-out took the power out of Green Bay’s swings. They were giving in ... again.

And after the Colts tied the game at 28-28, a seeming win to hold Indy to 3, Shepherd’s fumble seemed to break the Packers. Rivers, magnificent on the day, didn’t have to do much to give his team the lead.

To avoid cataclysm, the kind of seismic loss that reveals a team’s toughness and speaks to its heart as much as its rhythm, the Packers had to answer. Rodgers matriculated them down the field, in position for the game-tying field goal, but on 4th-and-1, LaFleur eschewed the tying points to try and get the go-ahead touchdown. The Colts, who played brilliant defense in the second half, sniffed out the play-action route the Packers wanted to get to, a cool counter of their own, and the game felt lost.

Green Bay’s defense, with some help from an avalanche of Colts offensive penalties, left the door open however. Indy, driving for the sealing first downs, couldn’t get out of its own way, committing holding penalties that kept them from field goal range. The Packers ultimately forced a punt, giving Rodgers and Co. the ball back with 1:25 on the clock and a timeout in their pocket thanks to a third-down throw that nearly ended in a scoop-and-score for Kirksey. Replay review correctly ruled it incomplete. Still, it stopped the clock and gave Rodgers a chance.

He found MVS on third down for a 47-yard bomb, hit Adams on a pair of lasers, and gave Mason Crosby a chip shot field goal to force overtime. This was it. Green Bay’s chance to do to another team what they’d watched happen so many times: go win the game without giving the opposing quarterback a chance to even touch the ball.

Fate is in the clinches.

Valdes-Scantling took a receiver screen, sliced back inside, and lost the ball after Julian Blackmon raked it out of his hands. The Colts recovered, ran it three times, and won it with a field goal. Had the ball bounced a foot to the right, maybe MVS can slide onto it instead of Deforest Buckner. Fitting a hit would knockout the Packers.

Whether or not this proves Green Bay can’t take a punch will no doubt be the topic of debate on talk shows and podcasts this week. For much of the second half, they floundered, and swung wildly, searching for answers and finding none. When they needed plays in the second half, Rodgers found them late. A fourth down conversion goes differently and maybe the Packers walk out with a win.

Even in the loss, Green Bay did show its offense will score on anyone, anywhere, especially with Allen Lazard back in the fold. They committed four turnovers on the road and still took a playoff team to overtime because they kept fighting. They’re going to rely on the big right hand (OK, arm) of Rodgers down the stretch and if they’re going to win a Super Bowl, the two-time MVP showed against Sunday he can still dictate games by sheer force of will.

They didn’t execute well enough on offense and the plan was once again baffling on defense. They never quite found their rhythm in the second half, but they finished with heart. It wasn’t enough, but in a week, Green Bay gets to take a swing at a team it loves to beat as much as any in the league, and still has a chance to flash the championship belt at the end of the season.