The Green Bay Packers had no business keeping Sunday night's contest interesting. Their opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers, had won five consecutive games and had lost only once at home all season. Conversely, the Packers had produced just one victory since Aaron Rodgers fractured his collarbone back in Week 6. On paper, they should have fallen by double digits.
Yet Green Bay delivered one of its finest performances of the year. Brett Hundley, fresh off the worst game of his career, avoided turnovers and produced three touchdowns of 39 yards or more, completing 17 of 26 passes for 245 yards. Meanwhile, Green Bay's defense forced three takeaways. Second-year linebacker Blake Martinez perhaps shined the brightest, registering two of those turnovers (one interception, one fumble recovery) and a game-high 15 tackles.
The combined efforts of Hundley and the defense should have given the Packers the win. They held even with the Steelers at halftime and pulled ahead early in the third quarter. The Steelers spent much of the game shooting themselves in the foot, either committing an untimely penalty (five in total at a cost of 45 yards) or one of their multiple turnovers. Outside of Antonio Brown, who caught 10 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns and crossed the 1,000-yard threshold on the season, little went right for heavily favored Pittsburgh.
But two critical mistakes during the second half doomed the Packers' chances of pulling off the upset, squandering a golden opportunity for the team to claw its way back into the playoff race.
Faced with fourth-and-18 at the Pittsburgh 39-yard line, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy opted to send out the field goal unit rather than punt. A successful attempt would have extended Green Bay's lead to 10. However, in the notoriously kicker-unfriendly confines of Heinz Field, no one in NFL history had ever converted a field goal longer than 53 yards, a full four yards shorter than the task facing Packers kicker Mason Crosby.
Crosby did not make history, missing badly and setting up the Steelers offense at midfield as a result. Six plays later, Brown scored his first touchdown of the night, tying the game at 21. The quick score, expedited by the Green Bay's confounding decision to attempt the field goal, preserved valuable time Pittsburgh would capitalize on later.
With less than two minutes remaining, the Packers found themselves with the ball inside their 20-yard line with the chance to notch a game-winner. After a six-yard sack, rookie running back Jamaal Williams caught a short pass and inexplicably ran out of bounds to stop the clock. The Packers failed to convert on third down, and the Steelers called a timeout to preserve nearly 30 seconds for Ben Roethlisberger to orchestrate one final drive. That time, along with one of the all-time great sideline catches by Brown, set up Pittsburgh kicker Chris Boswell for a game-winning field goal. Unlike Crosby, Boswell converted, nailing the 53-yard attempt as the game clock expired.
While the Packers performed more than admirably, considering their opponent and circumstances, the loss still stings considerably. Now 5-6 on the year, they find themselves even further outside the playoff field. In addition to the fifth-seeded Panthers and sixth-seeded Falcons, Green Bay trails the 7-4 Seahawks and 6-5 Lions, the latter of which currently holds the head-to-head tiebreaker. As such, the Packers could run the table as they did to close out the 2016 regular season and still miss the playoffs.
Their upcoming schedule offers at least some reason for optimism. Over the next two weeks, the Packers play the reeling Buccaneers and the still-winless Browns. At that point, Aaron Rodgers can officially come off injured reserve and try to salvage the season if his fractured collarbone has adequately healed.
Still, any margin for error the Packers had to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008 likely disintegrated the moment Boswell's kick went through the uprights.