Another fourth-down folly leads to another Packers road loss

MINNEAPOLIS -- Two fourth-quarter decisions in the span of 10 days might end up telling the story of the Green Bay Packers' 2018 season, which took another downturn in a 24-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

At the very least, they might help write the ending.

One week, coach Mike McCarthy punts on fourth-and-2 from his 33-yard line with 4 minutes, 20 seconds left and down three points at Seattle.

One game later, he goes for it on fourth-and-1 from his 44 midway through the third quarter of a 14-14 game against the Vikings.

Neither one worked.

In Seattle, McCarthy said: "We played the numbers."

Yet with only one timeout left (plus the two-minute warning), Aaron Rodgers never got the ball back.

In Minnesota, the floodgates opened after Aaron Jones failed to gain a first down, turning the ball over to the Vikings with a short field. Minnesota then kicked the go-ahead field goal, came up with a defensive stop and scored to take a 10-point lead into the fourth quarter. The Vikings nursed that to a victory at U.S. Bank Stadium, where the Packers haven't won in their past three tries.

Perhaps these were the numbers McCarthy was considering Sunday: Last season, he went for it nine times on fourth-and-1 -- tied for second-most in the NFL -- and made it on six of them. This was the first fourth-and-1 that McCarthy went for this season, and it failed.

McCarthy said he thought Jones had converted the first down on third-and-2 but was marked a yard short. He also was irate about the play clock starting early after third down, causing him to burn a timeout. But he didn't change his decision.

"I stuck with the call," McCarthy said. "I think like anything, when you call plays or you call defenses in this league, you have two calls there and hindsight's always 20-20. The second call would have been a better call there, but that's football. I was trying to get something going there in the second half and I thought it was a clean play. We just didn't execute."

When asked if he considered punting, McCarthy said: "Yeah, it's always an option. Yeah, definitely. It's field position."

Said Rodgers: "I like the call to go for it there. Just again, the execution."

Now, two games that could have given the Packers hope for this season have gone awry, and the Packers slipped to 10th in the NFC, at 4-6-1. Yes, they have five winnable games to close the schedule -- with the toughest coming in Week 15 at the division-leading Bears -- but they lost the tiebreaker with the Vikings (6-4-1), who currently hold one of the two NFC wild-card spots. If there's any solace for the Packers, it's that they are tied with the Rams for the easiest remaining schedule, based on opponents' win percentages, at .382.

Even so, it’s pointless to talk about the playoffs if the Packers can't win on the road. They’re now 0-6 away from Lambeau, with Chicago and the Jets their remaining road games. The Packers haven't gone winless on the road since the 1958 season. With the loss Sunday, the Packers' chances to make the playoffs dropped to 15 percent, according to ESPN's Football Power Index. The Vikings' chances jumped to 71 percent.

To be sure, neither the loss at Seattle nor Sunday night's defeat at Minnesota came down to the one fourth-down play. But that's how the games will be remembered.

The reality is the Packers don't have enough weapons on offense. All Rodgers can rely on is Aaron Jones to run it (17 carries for 72 yards and a touchdown) and Davante Adams to catch it (five catches for 69 yards and a touchdown).

Jimmy Graham was mostly ineffective trying to play with a broken left thumb, but really, he has been a nonfactor for much of this season. There was no Randall Cobb, who missed his sixth game because of a hamstring injury, or Geronimo Allison, who went on injured reserve earlier this month after abdominal surgery. The rookie receivers flashed occasionally. Equanimeous St. Brown had three catches for 53 yards, but Marquez Valdes-Scantling has been unproductive since he had 100-yard games twice in three weeks earlier this season.

Where to begin with the defense? Last year's top draft pick, cornerback Kevin King, missed his 12th game (out of 27), and in-season signing Bashaud Breeland, who moved into a starting cornerback role after King's hamstring injury, was inactive because of a groin injury. So was defensive tackle Mike Daniels (foot), which means Kenny Clark was the only opening-day starting defensive lineman available. Muhammad Wilkerson (ankle) is already on injured reserve, and high-priced outside linebacker Nick Perry (knee) joined him Saturday, ending a disappointing season.

Sure, every team has injuries, but with a roster that was set back by the last three drafts of the Ted Thompson era, new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine didn't have enough to win.

Unlike in seasons past, Rodgers hasn't played well enough to make up for the Packers' deficiencies, whether that be with talent or decision-making.

An example is the throw he missed to Adams in the end zone in the fourth quarter that would have been a 20-yard touchdown to pull to within 24-21 with 2:25 to play. Instead, Rodgers led Adams slightly too far and the Packers settled for a field goal.

"I say it a lot, but it's the execution, you know?" Rodgers said. "The difference is in the details, I think. And there's just a few plays that happened that we're just not as detailed with our assignment at times, and it's often crunch time or a time where if we do everything exactly right, there's a chance for a big play. But instead I've gotta throw it away. We're just not making the right plays at the right time. Third down, like I said, we've been pretty bad in comparison to how we've been over the last 10 years."