The second half of the Packers' season is no longer about driving for a division title or chasing a playoff berth.
In the wake of a stunning 38-28 loss to previously winless Tampa Bay Sunday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium, the remaining eight games on Green Bay's schedule will be a battle for survival and a referendum on the team's leadership, specifically head coach Mike McCarthy.
As unconscionable as it was to lose a game as a 10-point favorite to a rookie quarterback (Josh Freeman) making his first pro start, the Packers compounded their woes with horrific special teams play and costly penalties -- which have become unofficial calling cards -- as well as questionable play-calling, an impotent pass rush and shaky quarterback play.
As is often the case in the NFL, Aaron Rodgers will receive a lot of scrutiny. Given two chances to force overtime or lead his team to victory, Rodgers presided over two "drives" that went backward.
But, how many quarterbacks have you seen lead miracle comebacks at the end of a half in which they are sacked six times? Though he looked unsteady after missing practice during the week due to foot injuries, Rodgers -- on pace to be sacked more than any quarterback in NFL history -- produced a gutsy 12-yard touchdown run that put Green Bay ahead, 28-17, with just less than 13 minutes left.
That should have been it.
That should have been enough to negate the Packers' lack of a pass rush and shaky offensive line play. It should have been enough to lessen the impact of John Kuhn's missed block, which led to a blocked punt and a touchdown.
Mason Crosby, under orders to kick the ball to the left, apparently misjudged the wind and sent the ensuing kickoff to the center of the field. Clifton Smith fielded it and ran 83 yards to the Green Bay 17, setting up an easy touchdown.
The Packers lost momentum on that play and never got it back.
Special teams hampered the Packers last year and led to Mike Stock's firing. The units have not improved -- and likely have regressed -- under Shawn Slocum.
If McCarthy truly wants to create an air of accountability -- and not just pay lip service to it -- Slocum will be replaced today.
Don't hold your breath.
Cornerback Jarret Bush, who had a hand in the long kick return and may have blown coverage on the winning touchdown, is on the team despite a string of mistakes. Rather than call out a player or coach, McCarthy will say something to the effect of "We've got to clean that up."
He's been saying that for weeks now, but the spills continue.
The Packers defense did nothing to confuse Freeman, who looked like a five-year starter in guiding a team that hadn't scored more than 21 points in a single game all season to three touchdowns in the final 12 minutes.
The game, and possibly the Packers' season, turned on a fourth-and-4 play from the Packers' 7 yard line. Trailing by 28-23, Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris went for broke. Freeman dropped back and floated a perfect pass to Sammy Stroughter, who had ditched Bush on a corner route.
Green Bay's offense was nearly dominant in the running game (170 yards, two touchdowns), but McCarthy, continued to explore passes from deep drops in search of a big play.
Once the Packers trailed, they failed. Neither of their final two possessions generated a first down. James Jones dropped a pass. Daryn Colledge, who may have had the worst game in a dismal season by a dreadful offensive line, was called for a penalty and gave up a sack. Rodgers threw his third interception -- surpassing his total for the first seven games -- and saw it returned for a touchdown.
As the Buccaneers celebrated their first victory of the season, Packers fans fired cheese curds at television screens across Wisconsin and wondered if what they saw was a season circling the drain.
Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.