Worst Loss Ever?

Sunday's loss at Seattle made grown men curse and young boys cry. Was it the worst loss in Packers history? Our W. Keith Roerdink takes an unpleasant trip down the memory lane of gut-wrenching playoff failures. (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY)

The words stare back from the page, emotionless on their own. Cold and unflinching. Spoken aloud, each word gets pushed out through gritted teeth, a harder punch to the gut than the previous one. Worst. Loss. Ever?

Green Bay’s 28-22 overtime defeat at Seattle in the NFC Championship Game last Sunday was as sudden as it was stunning. Surreal, and far too real, simultaneously. It was an epic collapse of something amazing and unexpected, carefully constructed over 56 minutes. Not perfect, but perfectly beautiful, the result of determination, hard work, lessons learned and even mistakes overcome.

Go back for a moment. Close your eyes. Allow yourself that feeling again — just for a second — of a 19-7 lead with 5:04 to go after Morgan Burnett snagged Russell Wilson’s fourth — yes, fourth — interception of the game. Green Bay’s going to the Super Bowl. You thought it. They thought it. Hell, even most of the Seahawks’ fans thought it. Maybe some of their players, too. To be sure, Burnett should’ve stayed on his feet, even as Julius Peppers signaled for him to go down. While it’s possible Burnett might have fumbled, there were 20 yards of open field between him and the closest Seahawk — a lineman, mind you, and conceivably only Wilson to beat for a touchdown. At a minimum, Burnett would have put Green Bay within Mason Crosby’s field goal range. But despite that — Green Bay had the ball, the lead and all the momentum. Even after the Packers went three-and-out and Wilson shot through from 1-yard out on the ensuing drive with 2:09 remaining, Green Bay still seemed like it was in control, up 19-14.

The Packers were going to the Super Bowl. Weren’t they?

Now, breathe in and open your eyes. This isn’t going to be pleasant. This is the red pill. Reality. The agony of defeat. You don’t get to go to the Super Bowl for winning the first quarter or a half. Or even at the end of regulation. You don’t go for getting five turnovers, being plus-three in turnover differential or holding the opposing quarterback to a passer rating of 0.0 through the first half. You go when the game is over. And, of course, only if you’ve scored more points. That Green Bay didn’t win — that it inexplicably pulled defeat from the jaws of victory — will be a ghost that haunts every player on that roster for the rest of his career. These opportunities are rare, the chances fleeting. And Sunday’s loss at Seattle will be forever drenched in regret.

This misery, however, has company. There are other memorable defeats that, at the time, bore the mantle of “Worst Loss Ever.” Losses that cut deep. That burned. That put that taste of bile in your throat and a knot in your stomach. These were losses — like last Sunday’s — that woke you up at night from a dead sleep with the words “if only” in your head. And if it’s this bad for the fans — bad for the people wearing jerseys with Rodgers, Nelson, Cobb, Matthews or Lacy on the back of them (or Favre, Green or Driver before them) — imagine how hard it is for the players. Imagine the “what-ifs” they struggle with after coming up short of the goal line twice. From touchdowns on fake field goals to costly interceptions in field-goal range. From giving up a late-game, third-and-19 pass, to watching your opponent put up 15 points in 44 seconds to take the lead, including a “you’ve got to be kidding me” two-point conversion, followed by an attempted catch of an onside kick in lieu of a blocking assignment. And then there’s that game-winning catch in overtime.

This latest loss didn’t just make grown men curse and young boys cry, it made the men who wear the green and gold — who literally bleed and sweat for those wins — do the same. No matter the depth of your allegiance, rest assured, the players and coaches feel your pain tenfold. Maybe more if you’re Brandon Bostick.

But time heals, eventually. And it provides perspective. Unfortunately, time also provides opportunity for new candidates to vie for a “Worst Loss Ever” title no fan really wants to crown.

So just where does this meltdown in the Emerald City rank on the Packers’ pain scale? Was this really the Worst Loss Ever? In an exercise more masochistic than cathartic, let’s wallow in our sorrow and examine the contenders.

The Fourth-and-26 Game at Philadelphia

This is the game that comes to mind when talk turns to gut-wrenching losses by the Packers. It was Jan. 11, 2004, and Green Bay traveled to Philadelphia for the divisional round of the NFC playoffs. A week before, Green Bay shut down Seattle in overtime after the infamous “We want the ball and we’re going to score!” line was uttered by former Brett Favre backup turned Seahawks signal-caller Matt Hasselbeck. Of course, Packers cornerback Al Harris picked off Hasselbeck’s pass 4:25 into OT and ran it back for a 52-yard, game-winning touchdown. For further context, this was a Packers team that seemed destined to get to the Super Bowl, with Favre’s father, Irv, passing away suddenly a month earlier and Favre playing an emotional “Monday Night Football” game at Oakland, where he was nearly flawless with five touchdown passes.

The Eagles were simply the next team in the way of the Packers, and it looked as much after two Favre-to-Robert Ferguson touchdowns put Green Bay up 14-0 near the end of the first quarter. The first score was a 40-yard pass to Ferguson immediately following a Donovan McNabb fumble that Packers linebacker Nick Barnett recovered. Philly answered with a second-quarter scoring drive that included five consecutive passes — one of which was a 45-yarder to Todd Pinkston and the last of which was a 7-yard toss to Deuce Staley that cut the lead to 14-7.

Green Bay took the ensuing kickoff and drove 67 yards to the Eagles’ 1. The highlight of the drive was a 33-yard run by Ahman Green. But after 2- and 1-yard runs by Najeh Davenport, Green Bay went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1. Green tripped over the leg of guard Mike Wahle and the Eagles took over on downs. That decision to go for it would loom large.

Fast forward to the start of the fourth quarter, when the Eagles capped an eight-play, 88-yard drive with a 12-yard strike to Pinkston that tied the game at 14. Green Bay regained the lead shortly thereafter on a 21-yard field goal by Ryan Longwell that made it 17-14.

With 2:21 remaining in the game, Philly began its fateful drive with a 22-yard run by Staley to the Eagles’ 42. McNabb threw an incomplete pass on the ensuing first down and was sacked for a loss of 16. Another incomplete pass set the table for what a week ago was likely the consensus Worst Game Ever. With 1:12 on the clock and no timeouts remaining, the Eagles lined up for fourth-and-26. For Packers fans, it might as well have been fourth-and-forever. Or so it seemed at the time.

McNabb called “74 Double Go,” which was a slant route to receiver Freddie Mitchell. Green Bay was playing Cover-2 in the secondary but two players failed miserably in their assignments. Barnett, who was responsible for shallow coverage of Mitchell, decided to drift toward the tight end. Safety Darren Sharper, who was partially responsible for deep coverage of Mitchell, set up beyond the first-down marker. And the only player close enough to Mitchell to make a play was safety Bhawoh Jue, who was playing the sideline and came streaking across a split-second too late. McNabb delivered a strike to Mitchell, who made a leaping grab at the Packers’ 46 as Sharper and Marques Anderson made the tackle, giving the Eagles a 28-yard completion and, more importantly, a first down. McNabb scrambled for another first down to set up David Akers’ 37-yard field goal to put the game into overtime.

In the extra period, it went from bad to worse. After the Packers’ defense forced the Eagles to punt, Favre was blitzed on first down and let loose one of the worst throws of his illustrious career — a deep pass, 5 yards beyond Javon Walker, into double coverage. Eagles safety Brian Dawkins made the easy pick and returned it 35 yards, setting up Akers’ 31-yard game winner. Philadelphia went on to its third straight NFC Championship Game, losing to the Carolina Panthers, who then lost 32-19 to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

2007 NFC Championship Game OT loss to the Giants:

Another crushing overtime loss with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, Green Bay lost 23-20 when Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes hit from 47 yards 2:35 into the extra period. This game comes with its share of present-day tie-ins. Green Bay had defeated the Seahawks the week before in the divisional round in the “Snow Globe Game,” in which Ryan Grant overcame two early fumbles to rush for 201 yards (Green Bay had 235 as a team) en route to a 42-20 victory. Green Bay was the No. 2 seed, but wound up hosting a frigid title game thanks to New York’s upset over No. 1 seed Dallas the week before.

While Green Bay’s divisional battle in 2015 with the Cowboys was mislabeled “Ice Bowl II,” it was the 2007 game against the Giants that was the second-coldest game in Packer history — minus-1 at kickoff, and minus-23 with the wind chill. Only the Ice Bowl was colder. And Green Bay’s punter that frigid day? That would be Jon Ryan, the red-headed Canadian who later signed with Seattle and on Sunday threw a touchdown on a fake field goal that put Seattle on the board at 16-7.

More often than not, this loss to the Giants gets hung exclusively around the head of Favre. It shouldn’t. After winning the coin flip in overtime, the Packers seemed poised to go down and score, buoyed by not one but two misses by Tynes at the end of regulation. Luck, it seemed, was on Green Bay’s side. But it made a quick exit. Favre took a deep drop on second-and-8 and underthrew a sideline route to Donald Driver. Giants cornerback Corey Webster plucked it out of the cold night sky and returned it 9 yards to the Green Bay 34. Three plays later, Tynes booted the game-winner to send the Giants on to Super Bowl XLII — in Glendale, Ariz., also the site of Super Bowl XLIX against — of all teams — the Patriots, this year’s AFC representative.

In the game’s aftermath, Favre was labeled “old and cold.” But what many fans conveniently ignore is that this game was going the Giants’ way long before Favre’s ill-timed INT. Eli Manning and the Giants’ offense jumped out to an early 6-0 lead behind two field goals from Tynes. While Favre would connect with Donald Driver on a 90-yard catch and run past Webster for a 10-6 lead, the Giants were dominating the line of scrimmage and dominating the time of possession with a 17.5-minute edge by game’s end. Along with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw chewing up 134 yards on the ground, receiver Plaxico Burress was burning Packers cornerback Al Harris in an attempt to stay warm. He’d finish with 154 yards on 11 receptions.

New York opened the second half with a 16-play, 69-yard scoring drive aided by two killer penalties. Harris had an illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty on a third-down incompletion, then, on the ensuing third down, Nick Collins was flagged 15-yards on an incompletion for roughing the passer. Jacobs ran in from 1 yard to make it 13-10.

The Packers answered with a 49-yard kickoff return by Tramon Williams. Six plays later, Green Bay regained the lead when Favre found tight end Donald Lee for a 12-yard score that put Green Bay back on top, 17-13, but Green Bay was unable to move the ball on the ground. A week after Grant powered the Packers’ rushing attack, they’d gain just 28 yards on the day.

Manning led another New York march down the field that culminated with a Bradshaw touchdown run that put them back on top, 20-17. Mason Crosby hit a 37-yarder with 11:51 left in the fourth quarter to tie things up. But Tynes ultimately got redemption for his two fourth-quarter misses after Favre’s overtime interception. In the end, it wasn’t meant to be for Green Bay. New York took on the 18-0 ,Tom Brady-led Patriots and defeated them 17-14 in a game that featured the David Tyree “helmet catch” and is considered one of the best Super Bowls ever.

1998 NFC Wildcard Playoff Loss at San Francisco:

In a back-and-forth battle between two of the decade’s superpowers, the 49ers defeated the Packers 30-27 on a 25-yard dagger from Steve Young to Terrell Owens with 8 seconds remaining. Owens dropped the ball four times in the game, along with fumbling it away in the first quarter. But that wasn’t the fumble that fans remember. The immortal Jerry Rice clearly lost the ball on his first reception of the game, which came on that final drive. The use of instant replay challenges was still a year away, and while television replays clearly showed Rice losing the ball, he was ruled down by contact. The drive continued behind Young, who completed 7-of-9 passes on a 76-yard drive that culminated with Owens game-winning grab.

Prior to that, it had been a back-and-forth affair, with both teams capitalizing on early turnovers. After Owens’ early fumble set up a Ryan Longwell field goal, Packers running back Dorsey Levens fumbled to set up Young’s touchdown toss to tight end Greg Clark. Green Bay responded with a nine-play, 62-yard drive that included Levens’ 22-yard run on fourth-and-1 and ended with Favre’s touchdown to Antonio Freeman. San Francisco scored another field goal, only to watch the Packers drive 83 yards and a 17-10 halftime lead after Levens ran it in from the 2.

The Niners scored 10 points in the third, aided by a Favre interception, to take a 20-17 lead into the fourth quarter. After trading field goals, Green Bay took the ball back at their own 11-yard line with 4:19 remaining and went 89 yards — with 47 of those coming on a pass to Corey Bradford. Favre hit Freeman from 15 yards for what seemed to be the game-winner at 27-23 with 2:00 remaining. But Young took over, leading his team on a drive that would put San Francisco into the divisional round and send Green Bay home. The Niners’ Garrison Hearst led all rushers with 128 yards, while Levens had 116. Favre threw for 292 yards with two touchdowns, while Young passed for 182 yards and three scores. Both signal-callers were intercepted twice and Packers receiver Roell Preston set a postseason franchise record with 198 kickoff return yards.

After beating Green Bay, San Francisco would lose to Atlanta 20-18. The Falcons would then beat Minnesota 30-27 in overtime, eventually losing to the Denver Broncos 34-19 in Super Bowl XXXIII, as they won back-to-back championships.

For Green Bay, it was the end of an era, as Mike Holmgren went to Seattle as coach and general manager.

1997 Super Bowl XXXII Loss to the Broncos:

Other than the Jewell singing the National Anthem and a flyover by a stealth bomber, this game was a major disappointment for a team looking to establish a dynasty with a return trip to the big game. Green Bay was an 11.5-point favorite but was dealt a stunning upset at the hands of running back Terrell Davis and the rest of the Broncos. The loss snapped a streak of 13 consecutive victories by the NFC — including the Packers’ 35-21 victory over the New England Patriots a year earlier.

The defending champion Packers scored on their first possession with an eight-play, 76-yard drive capped by a 22-yard pass from Favre to Freeman. But it would be the last time Green Bay would lead in the game. Denver responded with a 10-play, 58-yard drive, capped by a 1-yard Davis run. Favre was picked off by Tyrone Braxton and fumbled on a sack by Steve Atwater on back-to-back possessions, as Denver jumped out to a 17-7 lead early in the second quarter.

Green Bay went on a 17-play, 95-yard drive at the end of the half, with Favre finding Chmura in the end zone to close the gap to 17-14, then added a field goal to tie it at 17. They’d trade scores again to tie at 24, before Davis would lead the way on a final touchdown drive.

Despite missing the entire second quarter with a migraine, Davis was the game’s MVP with 157 yards and a Super Bowl-record three rushing touchdowns on 30 carries. He pounded the right side of the defense, where defensive end Gabe Wilkins had left with a knee injury and been replaced by defensive tackle Darius Holland. Paul Frase, a veteran defensive end who had been a clutch performer that season, was a surprise game-day inactive as the team opted to keep an extra defensive back active. Holland was manhandled by Broncos All-Pro tackle Gary Zimmerman and not only finished the game without a single tackle, but picked up a 15-yard facemask penalty on the final drive that turned a 2-yard run by Davis into a 17-yard gain.

Green Bay drove to the Broncos’ 35-yard line with 1:04 to play but, after a 4-yard pass to Levens, Favre threw incomplete to Freeman and Robert Brooks on second and third down. On the Packers’ final play, Favre looked for Chmura in the left flat, but Denver linebacker John Mobley knocked the pass away.

After the game, then-Packers general manager Ron Wolf declared ‘We’re a one-year wonder, just a fart in the wind.’ For the Packers and their fans, the game definitely stunk. Elway was 12-of-22 for 123 yards with an interception, and a diving, helicoptering first-down run that is shown ad nauseum leading up to every Super Bowl broadcast. Favre was 25-of-42 for 256 yards and a touchdown with one interception. Freeman had nine receptions for 126 yards.

And the Winner (Loser) Is …

All five games are painful ends to the season. The loss to the 49ers on a 25-yard pass to Owens has some shades of the overtime touchdown to Jermaine Kearse. But given it was the Wild Card round, this Niners game can’t quite compare.

The 2007 NFC Championship Game was a horrible loss. Despite everything that had gone wrong, Green Bay won the coin flip in overtime and seemed to have a new lease on life after the missed kicks by Tynes at the end of regulation. But, to be honest, the Giants dominated everywhere but the scoreboard, and if not for the missed kicks, would’ve won outright. It’s awful to lose at Lambeau Field, and a trip to the Super Bowl was on the line. But this wasn’t worse than last Sunday.

“Fourth-and-26” had long been held up as the reigning Worst Game Ever, and with good reason. It contained two of the most ridiculous postseason plays in Packers history, with the blown coverage on the Mitchell catch, followed by Favre’s interception in overtime. It comes closest to the Seattle loss in that it was a game that Green Bay seemed to have won. At least until that fateful fourth-down pass. Gut-wrenching? Without a doubt. Curse-worthy? Absolutley. But the worst ever? No, not quite.

So that leaves just one more contender: Super Bowl XXXII. Arguably overconfident coming into the game, the Packers drew first blood on the opening drive but never led again. This game was all about Davis and the Broncos’ offensive line dominating a bigger and much more hyped Packers defensive line. Broncos All-Pro tight end Shannon Sharpe took Packers safety Leroy Butler out of his game plan, and Elway finally got his ring. But to come up short on Denver’s 31-yard line with a three-time MVP quarterback getting his pass to his Pro Bowl tight end knocked away is a bitter pill to swallow. This wasn’t a loss to get to the Super Bowl — this was the Super Bowl. And a win would’ve framed the Packers of the mid-1990s in historical context. Despite a feeling early in the game that it wasn’t meant to be, this loss was devastating, to be sure. But there was nothing fluky about it. It was a hard-fought battle with long drives, big hits and defensive takeaways. Denver’s return to the Super Bowl the following year — another championship — further legitimized its win in Super Bowl XXXII against Green Bay. No, this game was not the Worst Loss Ever.

Which brings us back to last Sunday.

It’s how quickly things feel apart in Seattle that hurt the most. It was how suddenly a win became a loss. How quickly a sure thing became a “What just happened?” The game was seemingly over. But it wasn’t just the botched play by Bostick on the onside kick, though that was clearly the most glaring, or the improbable two-point conversion that led to the loss. There were at least a half-dozen other plays, from John Kuhn and Eddie Lacy coming up short at the goal line, to Jordy Nelson’s failure to gather in a touchdown pass that was a little ahead of him on second-and-goal from the 7, to Randall Cobb hitting the ground a yard shy of the goal line on the following play. It was the fake field goal and the blown coverage on a third-and-19 conversion by the Seahawks, and Burnett’s decision to slide to the ground. (Clearly, he’s never seen the clip of Harris’ 52-yard pick-six vs. Seattle.) All plays count the same. First quarter to overtime. Lacy getting stopped short, Casey Hayward giving up a long completion, four missed tackles on Beast Mode’s touchdown run and, finally, Tramon Williams getting beat deep down the middle for the game-winner.

We’ll spend the next two weeks trying not to see the replays splashed across ESPN and the NFL Network, trying not to re-live it, to re-feel it.

But it was there. You could taste it. Green Bay was going to Super Bowl XLIX. Until it wasn’t. It had overcome so much. Transformed itself on defense, come together on offense and persevered through a calf injury to its MVP quarterback. This team had a shot to beat whoever came out of the AFC. That it ended up being the Patriots — a team it beat on its home turf in November — would have only made the match up even sweeter. If only.

Worst Loss Ever. I’m now convinced.

You can remove the question mark.

W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at karoer@msn.com.

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