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National Columnist

Packers' division title celebration can't drown out Crosby questions

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CHICAGO -- Green Bay Packers kicker Mason Crosby has become a freak show, so unreliable that his coach now treats that side of the field like four-down territory. But don't tell that to Crosby, because he doesn't want to hear it. Won't acknowledge it. All but sticks his fingers in his ears and ...

Na-na-na-na ... I can't hear you.

That was Crosby's reaction, in various shapes and forms, to questions after the Packers overcame another of his brutal kicking days to beat the Bears 21-13 on Sunday for the NFC North title.

"I had a good week of work, just didn't make two kicks today," Crosby said. "But we won the game. We won the division. It's a team sport."

True, football is a team sport -- until it's not. Until it comes down to a field goal on the final play. And then this team sport boils down to one man attempting one kick. Sunday wasn't that day for Green Bay, but that day's coming. And in an era where the best kickers make close to 90 percent of their field goals -- eight are above that threshold this season -- Crosby has missed at least one kick in eight consecutive games.

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The timing is terrifying for the Packers, who have watched Crosby go from one of the better kickers in the NFL -- he was 24 of 28 on field goals last season, 85.7 percent -- to the absolute worst. Every full-time kicker but Crosby is hitting at least 70 percent of his kicks, but Crosby isn't even in the 60s. He's 17 of 29 (58.6 percent) ... and he isn't even that good. Not since the third week. After opening the season with five consecutive conversions, Crosby is 12 of 24.

The Packers are chasing their second NFL title in three years with a Super Bowl-caliber offense led by Aaron Rodgers, a Super Bowl-caliber defense led by Clay Matthews -- and a 50-50 proposition at kicker.

Although 50-50 kickers don't stay employed for long in the NFL, the Packers don't have much choice. There are only two regular-season games left before the playoffs, making this a dangerous time to try a new kicker off the street. If he's unemployed this late in the season, whoever he is, how good could an alternative kicker be?

That's where the Packers are right now. They're going to stick with Crosby -- because they're stuck with him.

"We are not changing our kicker, so you can write that down right now," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "He is our guy."

Even if they don't trust him. Three times Sunday, McCarthy turned down kicks in Crosby's usual range. And he's not happy about it.

"Mason needs to make those kicks," McCarthy said. "We left points on the field today. Also, you factor in some of the decisions you make after that ..."

Like the decision in the third quarter, when the Packers faced a fourth-and-6 at the Bears 26. Rather than go with his 50-50 kicker, McCarthy leaned on a quarterback completing 67 percent of his passes -- and Rodgers came through with a 12-yard pass to Randall Cobb. Minutes later Rodgers threw a 6-yard touchdown to James Jones, their third TD connection, and the Packers led 21-7.

Crosby didn't see a thing wrong with it. Going for it on fourth-and-6 from the 26? Made sense to Mason.

"Coach was trying to get us a two-touchdown lead," Crosby said.

Crosby is in his own world on this one, channeling that scene from Fight Club, where the first rule about Mason Crosby's struggle is you don't talk about Mason Crosby's struggle. The second rule about Mason Crosby's struggle is you don't talk about Mason Crosby's struggle.

Stupid me. I wanted to talk about his struggle. So I asked Tyler Durden Mason Crosby about it -- specifically, I asked him if he was worried the Packers might want to replace him before the playoffs -- and he looked at me like I was insane.

"I'm not going to think about that," he said. "That's not even on my mind. We just won the North division. I'm not going to think about that."

Kickers have to be that way, of course. They're like cornerbacks or closers, needing enormous confidence and no memory. Miss a kick, and it's gone. Forgotten. A kicker has to channel denial, and Crosby was channeling like a champ after a game in which he missed from 43 and 42 yards and had his coach turning down three other makeable opportunities.

It started when the doors opened to the Packers' locker room and about 50 media members headed toward Crosby's locker. Truth be told, his locker was only 10 feet from Jones' locker -- and seeing how he caught three touchdown passes, lots of the media were in the vicinity for the receiver, not the kicker.

That's what Crosby was thinking as he put on one dress shirt and folded another, folding it so well he could work at The Gap. He was meticulous with that shirt, is what I'm telling you, and after placing the shirt in his bag he headed for the exit when he walked right into me and another reporter. Wide-eyed, Crosby realized we were there to talk not to the receiver, but to the kicker. The questions came. So did the answers.

"We won the division," Crosby said.

"I've done some great things," he said.

"This is a team sport."

"Winning the game is all that matters."

On and on he went, treating his struggle like something that's real only if he acknowledges it. So he refused to acknowledge it.

A few lockers down, fullback John Kuhn was willing to talk about it. He was smiling until he realized the question was about Crosby, and then Kuhn started to wince. He likes Crosby. You can tell. He's not mad at the kicker, but concerned about him -- concerned about Crosby, and the team.

"It's really tough," Kuhn said. "We all support him tremendously. We love him to death, and want him to have great success. All we can do as teammates is stick with him and ride it out."

Some rides end early.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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