For the past four postseasons, the Green Bay Packers have tried and failed. In a town defined by and in some ways spoiled by championships, just making the playoffs is simply not good enough. Ask Aaron Rodgers, who has a legacy on the line. Or Josh Sitton, who would describe an otherwise great season a waste. Or Mike McCarthy, who, with one more Super Bowl, would take the next step toward immortality in Green Bay.
Four days removed from one of the most crushing collapses in team history, only a tragedy for the family of the Packers’ head coach is giving the NFC Championship loss in Seattle some perspective. Because, in many ways, the ending of the game Sunday when compared to the rest of the game was the only perspective Packers fans could see.
Four years ago, the Packers ran through the NFC playoffs, all on the road no less, to a Super Bowl championship. Never mind that before that run few even considered the Packers a team worthy of the NFC’s elite.
They parlayed a Super Bowl title into a franchise-best 15-1 regular season the next year before getting punched out in the divisional round of the playoffs. Never mind that the Packers seemed destined for another Super Bowl run, they never had a chance that day against the New York Giants, losing 37-20 in an outcome that felt much worse.
Over the next two years, the Packers posted winning seasons and won division titles. But as they were doing this, they were being passed by in the NFC. The San Francisco 49ers got better, much better under Jim Harbaugh, advancing to a Super Bowl. The Seahawks won a Super Bowl. And against all teams who qualified for the playoffs, the Packers were a telling 3-9 with two of those wins coming against the Vikings, one with Christian Ponder at quarterback and the other with Joe Webb at quarterback.
A similar narrative played out through the early part of 2014. There was a 20-point loss to eventual No. 1 seed Seattle to open the season and a 12-point loss to the playoff-bound Detroit Lions before Rodgers told everyone to R-E-L-A-X and the season started to turn around.
After some bye week changes – particularly on defense – the Packers put together back-to-back 50-plus point performances against the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles that resembled some of the 2011 team. Weeks later, McCarthy out-foxed Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots for a signature win and then closed the regular season by out-bullying the best Lions team in 23 years to win the NFC North. Then came the playoff win against the offensively potent Dallas Cowboys at Lambeau Field, giving the Packers in six games wins over three playoff teams, the same number they had beaten in the last two years.
This was clearly a different team, one that took a back seat to no one.
Offense and defense combined, McCarthy had his most well-rounded team since 2007, more diverse even than the 2010 and 2011 versions. The 2014 squad ran the football with power and production. It posted two Pro Bowl wide receivers and arguably the best offensive line of the McCarthy era. It improved stopping the run. It was deep with skill in the secondary covering the pass.
Home-field dominance and comeback wins offset the occasional blip-on-the-radar losses. This team could win a physical game or a matchup one. And perhaps most importantly, its quarterback was at the peak of his career.
For 55 minutes last Sunday, there was no doubt who was the better team. How many teams who have played the Seahawks over the past two years can say that? The Packers, with a quarterback playing on one leg, no less, took it to the defending champions. They had a 16-0 lead into the third quarter and led 19-7 late in the fourth playing in the league’s most hostile environment where only two opposing teams had won in the previous 27 games. Russell Wilson had never looked worse.
Of course, all of that proved to be of little consolation because the Packers failed to finish. They lost the situational battles they should have been easily won — Morgan Burnett took a dive after an interception; there was a failure to get a first down in the four-minute offense; then came the botched onside kick recovery and a horribly defended attempt at a “Hail Mary” two-point conversion; and earlier, the Seahawks converted a fake field goal for a touchdown.
What a dirty shame. What a way to end a rise back to the top, a spot the Packers certainly proved worthy of in 2014.
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org