Through questionable coaching decisions and gut-wrenching mistakes on the field at the worst possible time, the Packers denied destiny, dropkicked karma and dissed divine intervention. Above all else, they squandered the kind of chance that doesn't come along that often. A chance they haven't had since the 1997 season. A chance to play in pro football's ultimate game.
There's no guarantee that Green Bay would've beaten Carolina this Sunday, had they held off Philadelphia to earn a trip to the conference championship. But it would've been nice to see them try. Instead, players, coaches – and yes, Packer fans – will start their off-season three weeks earlier than hoped after falling 20-17 to Donovan McNabb and Co. in overtime.
Last year's playoff loss to Atlanta, while stunning, didn't have the sting of this defeat. Despite the aura of invincibility Green Bay seemingly possessed at Lambeau Field, especially in the postseason, the 2002 Packers were an injury-riddled bunch that had just been blasted 42-17 by the Jets the week before. Their 12-4 record was better, but there's little doubt the 2003 incarnation was a superior group who were white hot in the second half of the season after a 3-4 start. They were a dark horse pick getting lighter by the minute and seemed to be the sentimental favorite of everyone outside of Philadelphia, the Carolinas and probably Minnesota to reach the big game.
Brett Favre battled through a broken thumb and a broken heart from the death of his father to lead the NFL with 32 touchdown passes and inspire his team to greater pursuits than most thought them capable of. Ahman Green overcame his early season fumble-itus and became one of the most dangerous runners in the game. The offensive line kept Favre off his back while blasting open Hummer-sized holes for Green, and even the forgotten trio of Donald Driver, Robert Ferguson and Javon Walker came to life and brought back the deep ball in a re-energized passing attack.
On defense, the mid-season addition of mammoth nose tackle Grady Jackson, along with role-players Larry Smith at tackle and Michael Hawthorne at cornerback, breathed new life into what had been an underachieving unit. Ryan Longwell kicking his way past the legendary Don Hutson was one of many milestones in a record-setting season for the Packers.
All of which made the loss to the Eagles that much harder to stomach.
To be sure, Sunday's divisional playoff game had its share of spectacular plays and performances, from Favre's 40-yard toss to Ferguson, to Green's 156 yards on 25 carries and eight sacks by the Packer defense. But given the result, the examination of what went wrong will always draw more attention than what went right.
That said, you could pull out the microscope for everything from missed tackles to poor punting. From failing to get the ball back in Ferguson's hands after two first quarter touchdowns to lining up with an empty backfield and getting sacked on third-and-three to start the second half. From giving up a key 10-yard pass to Todd Pinkston that turned a potential game-tying 47-yard field goal into a very make able 37-yarder to three whiffs at running back Duce Staley on an overtime run that positioned Philly for the deciding points. In a loss of this magnitude, every snap takes on a greater significance. Every misste p gets dissected. But when you boil it down, last weeks' heartbreaking loss in the City of Brotherly Love is really about four pivotal plays:
• 4th-and-1 at the Philadelphia one-yard line, just over two minutes left in the first half.
Against Seattle, Mike Sherman extolled the virtues of being aggressive, going for it on two fourth downs and converting both. On the road against a favored Eagles club, conventional wisdom says you take the three points and be happy. But conventional wisdom didn't have No. 30 in the backfield. The Packers went for it, but when Corey Simon knifed in on right tackle Mark Tauscher, pulling guard Mike Wahle tried to move around him and Green tripped over his leg, falling six inches short of the goal line. Whatever happened to the quarterback sneak that the Packers used so successfully in their Super Bowl runs of the mid-1990s? Regardless, you can hate the result, but don't hate the call. Sherman wanted to be aggressive and he stuck to his plan. At least until pivotal play No. 2.
• 4th-and-1 at the Philadelphia 41-yard line, 2:39 remaining.
Up 17-14, Green Bay needs just one-yard to book their flight to Carolina for the NFC Championship. After going for it at the end of the first half, surely Sherman would go for it here. Unless of course, he decides to try to draw Philly off sides, take a delay of game when that doesn't work, punt – into the end zone. Despite having their way on the ground the entire day, despite a visibly tired Eagles defense, despite the season being on the line ... Sherman opted to punt. He defended his reversal of strategy, pointing to the spot they were at on the field, but the look of relief on Eagles' Coach Andy Reid's face when it became apparent the Packers weren't going for it was all you needed to see. Still, Sherman said all would have worked out if not for pivotal play No. 3.
• 4th-and-26 at the Philadelphia 26-yard line, 1:12 remaining.
Stop the Eagles here and you're playing for a trip to the Super Bowl. They could've blitzed. After all, they'd sacked McNabb eight times. They could rush three and drop eight players in a classic prevent defense. Or they could line up with a four deep zone coverage. They chose the latter and they'll have six months to think about what went wrong. Middle linebacker Nick Barnett failed to drop into the deep middle as he should have. Hawthorne didn't force receiver Freddie Mitchell to alter his route and safeties Marques Anderson and Darren Sharper were playing BEHIND the first down marker. McNabb hit Mitchell for 28 yards and the Eagles went on to tie the game. But Green Bay wasn't done yet. That didn't happen until pivotal play No. 4.
• 1st-and-10 at the Packers 32-yard line, nearly two-minutes into overtime.
It wasn't a fourth down play, but it had a lot to do with the guy in the No. 4 jersey. Philadelphia won the coin toss, but Green Bay held them to three and out. When the Packers gained position, that crazy old conventional wisdom popped up again and said to run the ball past those Eagle beaks and right down their throats. But convention and wisdom were escorted off the field before this play. As Favre dropped back under pressure, he inexplicably lofted the ball high in the air in the vicinity of, but not that close to Walker. Safety Brian Dawkins made the easy interception and returned it 35-yards to set up David Akers game-winning field goal from 31-yards out.
With that, the Packers officially removed themselves from championship contention. Now everyone who plays for, coaches or roots for the Green and Gold will be left to re-live those fateful moves in their mind like some twisted version of Groundhog Day. Maybe next year will be the year they re-claim the Lombardi Trophy, spurned on by this year's bitter end. But if it is, they'll have to do it on their own. Destiny has left the building.
(W. Keith Roerdink is a freelance writer from Wausau, Wis. and a longtime contributor to Packer Report. Check back in February for the next installment of Hot Read.)