The Green Bay Packers' tumble down the NFL standings, while disconcerting, isn't unusual.
For some teams, losing a conference championship game has been a springboard to success. Two years ago, the Patriots lost an AFC championship game. Last year, New England went 16-0 but lost in the Super Bowl. The 2004-05 Pittsburgh Steelers lost in the AFC title game. The next year, they won the Super Bowl. The 1995-96 Green Bay Packers lost in the NFC title game. The next year, they won the Super Bowl.
For other teams, though, losing a conference championship game has meant a big step back for a franchise. From the 2004-05 season to the 2006-07 season, four of the six championship game losers failed to make the playoffs, and Green Bay and San Diego are on track to make that six out of eight teams in the last four seasons. Detroit never has recovered from losing the NFC title game at Washington almost two decades ago.
Since the 1990-91 season, the first after the NFL expanded the playoffs to the current 12-team format, 13 of the 34 teams that lost a conference championship game failed to make the playoffs the following season.
Carolina, which Green Bay (5-6) hosts in a must-win game on Sunday, was one of them. Like the Packers' Mike McCarthy, the Panthers' John Fox was a second-year coach in 2003 when he guided Carolina to the NFC championship game. The Panthers lost, then stumbled to a 7-9 record the next season after three of the team's biggest star -- running back Stephen Davis, receiver Steve Smith and defensive tackle Kris Jenkins -- played a combined seven games because of injuries.
"I think, like everybody in this league, injuries can hurt you," Fox said in a conference call on Wednesday. "Injuries are the biggest bugaboo that hits that struggle, because you want to keep continuity. This is the ultimate of team games, and the injury bug can bite you."
The Packers' injury problems, while not that severe, have been well-documented. Their best all-around defender was Cullen Jenkins, who was lost for the season in Week 4. Standout linebacker Nick Barnett is out for the year, too. Minor injuries have disrupted continuity on the offensive line, projected third receiver James Jones can't shake a knee injury and it took running back Ryan Grant more than a month to shake off a hamstring injury sustained during training camp.
Those injuries are one key factor that has conspired against a team that went 13-3 in the regular season and hosted the NFC championship game.
"Sometimes," Fox said, "expectations are built on the outside. Then the team gets whacked by injuries, and it's ‘disappointing' and the ‘pressure got to them.'"
Since the Packers jumped from NFC title game losers to Super Bowl XXXI champions, only three clubs have reached the Super Bowl after falling one game short, so Green Bay's slip in the standings is more the rule than the exception. Then again, since the 1990-91 season, 21 of the 34 title game losers at least made the playoffs the next season and 10 reached another conference championship game or got to the Super Bowl.
"I think every season really has its own face and creates a whole different set of challenges for you," McCarthy said this week. "You've heard me speak on it before. The first time I stood in front of our football team, I told them their biggest challenge here in Green Bay will be handling success. And it's not only the ability of the individuals to handle success -- whether it's a new contract or recognition or having a winning season – it's really the challenges of how people now look at you and how they gun for you and all the different angles these challenges can come at you with. It's part of our business."
Springboard or falling off a cliff: NFC and AFC championship game losers, and what they did the next season
2007-08 losers: Green Bay and San Diego. Following year: Both are on track to miss the playoffs.
2006-07 losers: New Orleans and New England. Following year: Missed playoffs; lost Super Bowl.
2005-06 losers: Carolina and Denver. Following year: Both missed playoffs.
2004-05 losers: Atlanta and Pittsburgh. Following year: Missed playoffs; won Super Bowl.
2003-04 losers: Philadelphia and Indianapolis. Following year: Lost Super Bowl; lost divisional playoffs.
2002-03 losers: Philadelphia and Tennessee. Following year: Lost NFC title game; lost divisional playoffs.
2001-02 losers: Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Following year:Lost NFC title game; lost divisional playoffs.
2000-01 losers: Minnesota and Oakland. Following year: Missed playoffs; lost divisional playoffs.
1999-2000 losers: Tampa Bay and Jacksonville. Following year: Lost wild-card playoffs; missed playoffs.
1998-99 losers: Minnesota and N.Y. Jets. Following year: Lost divisional playoffs; missed playoffs.
1997-98 losers: San Francisco and Pittsburgh. Following year: Lost divisional playoffs; missed playoffs.
1996-97 losers: Carolina and Jacksonville. Following year: Missed playoffs; lost wild-card playoffs.
1995-96 losers: Green Bay and Indianapolis. Following year: Won Super Bowl; lost wild-card playoffs.
1994-95 losers: Dallas and Pittsburgh. Following year: Won Super Bowl; lost Super Bowl.
1993-94 losers: San Francisco and Kansas City. Following year: Won Super Bowl; lost wild-card playoffs.
1992-93 losers: San Francisco and Miami. Following year: Lost title game; missed playoffs.
1991-92 losers: Detroit and Denver. Following year: Both missed playoffs.
1990-91 losers: San Francisco and L.A. Raiders. Following year: Missed playoffs; lost wild-card playoffs.
Bill Huber is the Lead Analyst for Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.
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