Aaron Rodgers gave us plenty of reason to believe in the supernatural over the last two months. The Packers went from 4–6 to within a game of the Super Bowl, thanks to an eight-game win streak in which Rodgers threw 21 touchdowns and just one interception. Yes, we could try to explain the logic and reason behind Rodgers’s impossible things — his improvised play to beat Dallas, his talent for throwing Hail Marys — but much of it came down to this: When Rodgers hurled the ball up randomly, it landed in one of his teammate’s arms more often than it did anybody else’s. The only explanations were magic or that one guy had enough talent in his arm and smarts in his brain to beat the NFL’s best all by himself.
The second proved untrue in the NFC championship game on Sunday. Green Bay’s defense couldn’t stop Atlanta’s NFL-best offense in a 44–21 loss. Rodgers eventually had three touchdowns, but he didn’t throw one until the Packers were already down 31–0.
The Packers’ dysfunction and misery reached levels witnessed by few teams all season in the blowout loss. Some of their problems were preventable, like a delay of game penalty on a kickoff after a late touchdown even after a minutes-long commercial break. Others weren’t: By the end of the game, the team had only four offensive linemen left due to injuries, forcing them to play a defensive player, nose tackle Letroy Guion, at guard for their final drive. The Super Bowl was still hypothetically on the line — Atlanta was up by 23 — but the Packers subbed out Rodgers for backup Brett Hundley, rather than risk injury to a franchise star playing behind a makeshift offensive line.
It’s news to nobody that the Packers were flawed; we did see them start the year 4–6, after all. Their run attack was made up of converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery, Seahawks castaway Christine Michael, and fullback Aaron Ripkowski. Montgomery was gimpy against Atlanta, Michael averaged less than 2 yards per carry, and Rodgers ended up as the team’s leading carrier for the day. And we knew Green Bay’s defense was really shaky, especially in the secondary. It had no chance against Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, perhaps the best QB-WR battery in the NFL.
There’s no such thing as a one-man team in football — for starters, no one plays both defense and offense — but this version of the Packers often seemed like it was. Their running backs aren’t good, their wide receivers aren’t spectacular, their offensive line is often aided by Rodgers’s ability to make plays while scrambling, and their defense is mediocre, perhaps even bad.
In that sense, the Packers’ run to within a game of the Super Bowl was incredible — a stretch of awe-inspiring individual play that should be remembered. But it also has to be depressing for Green Bay fans. What if Rodgers’s 52 teammates were roughly as good as the guys they were matched up against?
Injuries were a problem all season long. Their run game was down to Montgomery and Michael because of earlier injuries to Eddie Lacy and James Starks. Their secondary was hurt by the loss of cornerback Sam Shields as well as one of his backups, Demetri Goodson. But the Packers also handicapped themselves to some extent. The front office has long stuck to a unique strategy of developing almost every player on the roster in-house rather than courting big free agents. This might be enough to build a nice team of frontline starters, but it left the Packers with one superstar and little depth once the guys at the top of the depth chart got hurt.
The team has to find a way to succeed besides depending on Rodgers and his wizardry to keep producing inexplicable magic forever. And while he’s great enough for this strategy to work for weeks at a time, Sunday showed that it probably isn’t enough for a Super Bowl.