Well, I didn't see that coming. Neither did almost any of the legions of pundits, homers and bloggers like myself who predicted that the Packers would surpass their opponents all the way to the Super Bowl by virtue of an unstoppable offense, talented receivers and an unbelievable quarterback who never misses a throw.
There'll be plenty of time to dissect the minutiae of the Packers' most disappointing playoff loss since Fourth-and-26, and I'm not even going to go there today because I only saw half the game (being on the road for 21 hours straight will make you miss some things). I can, however, at least direct your attention to one general trend.
2011 was supposed to be the Year of the Quarterback. Fueled by offense-favoring rules, the emergence of unstoppable tight ends and a generally transcendent level of quarterback play, signal-callers had arguably the best statistical year ever. Two QBs - Tom Brady and Drew Brees - broke Dan Marino's all-time record for passing yardage, and Matthew Stafford came within 47 yards of it. Ten quarterbacks threw for over 4,000 yards, the most in league history, and five threw for 30 or more touchdowns (Aaron Rodgers, Brees, Brady, Stafford and Tony Romo). Talking heads nattered incessantly about whether the running game and playing good defense even mattered anymore. Quarterbacks, the traditional franchise players, were now elevated to being the absolute rock on which the franchise depended. With a good quarterback, a team could overcome just about anything.
That was the theory, anyway. But of the NFL's Final Four teams, three of them got there largely by virtue of a suffocating defense. The NFC Championship matchup of Rodgers vs. Brees that NFL observers were looking forward to, literally since the first day of the season? Nope. The Saints' offense (five turnovers) and the Packers' (four, plus six drops) self-destructed. Meanwhile, Alex Smith and Joe Flacco are no slouches, but they didn't carry their teams to the playoffs the way Rodgers or Brady or Brees did.
If the divisional round of the 2011 playoffs proved anything, it'd have to be the oldest adage in football: "Defense wins championships". The Giants held the Packers to 20 points a week after shutting out Atlanta's offense. The Ravens squashed the life out of the Texans in a 20-13 win. The 49ers needed an air show from Smith to beat Brees and company, but the five turnovers they forced made Smith's game-winning drives possible. Defense, defense, defense.
And where are the record-setting quarterbacks? Brady is still in the mix, and Eli Manning and his 4,933 passing yards remains in. But Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford? Gone, gone, gone. The Year of the Quarterback, when it comes down to it, was just another regular-season mirage. Defense, not having the shiniest offense or the most talent or the MVP quarterback, is what wins championships. The Packers must approach the offseason with this in mind.