— They were healthy — Aaron Rodgers’ left calf notwithstanding.
— The offensive line had grown into a dominant unit.
— The defense had righted all of its wrongs from the first half of the season.
That formula took the Packers to Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at Seattle, and it had them 5 minutes from the Super Bowl after Morgan Burnett’s interception produced the Packers’ fifth takeaway of the game.
Then all hell broke loose. Seattle scored 15 unanswered points in barely three-and-a-half minutes, then finished the job in overtime for a stunning 28-22 victory.
“You’re in a little bit of shock and awe, just because of what just took place,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “Mentally and emotionally, physically drained. This one hurts, and it will for some time.”
For as bad as the Colts must feel after getting demolished by the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, the pain is excruciating for the Packers after letting one opportunity after another slip away.
“Very confident. Very confident we were going to win the game,” Rodgers said. “We started off and had some good drives, put some things together. Defense played great. They picked him off four times and forced another turnover on special teams. You can’t let them complete a pass for a touchdown on a fake field goal, you can’t give up an onside kick and you can’t not get any first downs in the fourth quarter and expect to win. And that’s on top of being really poor in the red zone in the first half. Put all of that together, that’s how you lose games. This was a great opportunity. We were right on the cusp.
Rodgers said this game might haunt him for the rest of his career. He played gamely on a bum left calf but his season ended just like it started — with a miserable game at Seattle. After going 23-of-33 (69.7 percent) for just 189 yards with one touchdown and one interception in a 36-16 loss, Rodgers was 19-of-34 (55.9 percent) for 178 yards with one touchdown and one interception. His Week 1 rating was 81.5; it was 55.8 on Sunday.
“This one’s going to hurt for a while because of the close proximity of feeling that feeling when the clock hits zero and you’re ahead. We gave it away,” Rodgers said.
The Packers had ridden their offensive line to victory a few times this season by putting together some punishing late drives. On Sunday, the Packers had the ball twice with a chance to run out the clock. Instead, on two those two possessions, the Packers ran the ball five times and gained 2 yards and had a third-down drop.
“Right now it’s definitely the worst,” guard T.J. Lang said. “Go this far, battle for 18 games, knowing that the season is over is tough to think about. Just the confidence that we had there with 5 minutes left in the game, there was nobody on our sideline that thought we could possibly lose that game. Just hurts that we know we had a chance to go move on and shot ourselves in the foot too many times. This one is going to hurt for awhile.”
Defensively, the Packers gave up 397 yards. On Seattle’s first 12 possessions, it gained 191 yards and 10 first downs. On the three final touchdowns, it gained 206 and 10 first downs. Marshawn Lynch ran for 157 — 120 after halftime. Russell Wilson, who threw three interceptions and completed only two passes, made all the key throws down the stretch.
“I don’t think you can (put it into words),” Clay Matthews said. “You come so far during the season, put in so much hard work, you’re that close to getting back to the Super Bowl, and then you fall short in an overtime thriller. It’s difficult because you put in so much work during the offseason, during the regular season and the playoffs. To come up short like that is devastating.”
So, now it’s back to the drawing board. Bryan Bulaga, Randall Cobb, John Kuhn and Tramon Williams are among the free agents. Julius Peppers, whose 35th birthday was ruined by the meltdown, might not be back, either, with a hefty second-year salary. Galvanized by a 1-2 start, a late win at Miami, a magical win over New England and back-to-back victories over Detroit and Dallas, this team looked like a legit Super Bowl contender.
And now, they have to start over.
“I felt our football team was a special group,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “They were awesome to coach throughout the year. And this is a hard one to swallow. We had opportunities, particularly at critical times, to make plays. And Seattle made some of those big plays to keep the game alive, so you have to give them credit.”
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