Do the Packers have the killer instinct to go all the way?

Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy walks the sideline in the second quarter against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts on December 19, 2010. The Patriots defeated the Packers 31-27. UPI/Matthew Healey

Honestly, this has been bothering me since Mike McCarthy took over as head coach of my beloved Packers, so the title of this post could easily read “Does Mike McCarthy have the killer instinct to go all the way?”

My historical evidence is purely anecdotal, but during the Holmgren/Favre Super Bowl years, it seemed like the Packers didn’t change their offensive strategy until they got up by three scores. Only then would they get a little more conservative and start working the clock with the running game. Several times over the past three seasons the Packers have had semi-control of a game only to let things slip away by playing too conservatively with a substantial amount of time remaining.

Case in point, towards the end of the second quarter of Sunday’s win over Philadelphia, leading 14-0, Green Bay just stopped the Eagles on a third-and-7. There was almost two minutes on the clock when Jason Avant was tackled on the Packers’ 11-yard line. With two timeouts remaining, McCarthy sat on his hands as the Eagles ran the clock down to 1:15 and kicked a field goal to cut the lead to 14-3.

After taking over on their own 20-yard-line, McCarthy called the ol’ delay handoff to Brandon Jackson, who ran for five yards. This play burned 0:22 off the clock leaving Aaron Rodgers with just 0:45 left when he hit Andrew Quarless for a first down. Then the Packers finally took their second timeout with 0:37 remaining at their own 37-yard line.

Here’s where McCarthy deserves some credit. On the ensuing play, Rodgers took a shot deep, but James Jones’ drop took some steam out of the drive. Even after a delay of game penalty and an 11-yard completion to Jackson (setting up a third-and-4 at their 43-yard line with more than 0:20 remaining), the Packers elected not to call their final timeout and instead let the second quarter expire.

Maybe they were afraid of a turnover, but Rodgers is one of the best in the game — doesn’t McCarthy trust him? Maybe they were afraid of failing on a third-and-4 (unlikely given the loose defense the Eagles were playing, but possible) which would have set up a punt and given the ball back to Vick and Co. with a few ticks remaining. Obviously, it would have been disastrous for the Eagles to score again before halftime, but what were the odds of that happening compared to the odds of Green Bay putting up a field goal or touchdown when they had possession of the ball and a pretty potent aerial attack? Another score would have demoralized the Eagles after they took some of the momentum back with the field goal.

Green Bay Packers Aaron Rodgers and head coach Mike McCarthy talk during a time out in the fourth quarter against the New York Jets in week 8 of the NFL season at New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey on October 31, 2010. UPI /John Angelillo

Nope, Green Bay was content to run out the second quarter and receive the ball first after halftime, where they promptly turned the ball over in their own territory and allowed a quick Philly TD. McCarthy was afraid of that happening on the final possession of the first half, but it instead happened on the Packers’ first possession of the third quarter. The point? Turnovers can happen at anytime. A team should not waste almost two minutes sitting on a lead when there are points to be had. That’s the killer instinct that I’m talking about.

This reared its ugly head late in the fourth quarter after the Eagles scored a TD with 4:08 remaining to cut the lead to 21-16. Green Bay took over on its own 22-yard line and proceeded to run James Starks four straight times. Granted, the second rush was a nice one that went for 12 yards and a first down, but still, McCarthy put the ball in a rookie’s hands four straight times and only used his MVP-caliber QB when the Packers got into a third-and-10 situation. (He was sacked because the Eagles were keying on the pass.) Four minutes is a lot of time to burn in that situation if the defense knows you’re going to go run-run-pass or run-run-run. A Super Bowl team would put the game away either with a terrific running game or a mix of run and pass. Play action works especially well in this situation since the defense is keying on the run.

The Packers failed to convert a second first down, so they punted and the Eagles drove it all the way down to the Green Bay 27-yard line before Vick threw an interception to end the game. Without Tramon Williams’ pick (or David Akers’ two missed field goals), the Packers might be watching the divisional round playoff from home…all because they don’t know how to put a team away.

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