A missed chip-shot field goal by the opponent at the end of regulation.
A winning coin flip to secure possession of the ball in overtime.
A turnover on the first possession of the extra session leading to the season's sudden, stunning end.
The plot for the Packers in Sunday's 51-45 overtime wild-card playoff loss to the Cardinals could not have been more familiar. Two years ago, they blew a great chance in the postseason when a strikingly similar situation played itself out against the Giants, albeit with the higher stakes of in the NFC championship on the line.
Nonetheless, the Packers' most recent playoff failures hurt just the same and leave several questions — the biggest being, "How will the Packers respond in 2010?"
"There's only one team in my view that has success, and that's the team that wins the Super Bowl," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday at his season-ending news conference. "That's the ultimate success. One team shares that. But I think you do have different levels of success. I think we've had some successes. There's definitely a lot of opportunities we can learn from. I look at the type of games we played in during the course of the year. We played in more big games this year than we did last year, and the youth of our team will definitely learn from that. We have the playoff experience with the youth of our team that we can carry forward. We'll learn from that. I had an opportunity to go through the exit interviews with all the players, and I'll say this – we're a more mature football team this year than we were last year."
The Packers grew in leaps and bounds as a team in 2009 and have all the makings of a perennially contender. It starts at quarterback, the most important position on the field.
Had Aaron Rodgers not fumbled on the game's deciding play on Sunday and the Packers had gone on to win, his performance would be talked about as perhaps the greatest in Packers history for a quarterback. Rodgers came back from an interception on the game's first play to lead a 21-point comeback. In the process, he threw for 422 yards and four touchdowns.
It was the biggest statistical performance of the season for Rodgers, which says something considering Rodgers was remarkably consistent and productive in posting a 103.2 quarterback rating during the regular season, the best rating for a Packers quarterback since 1968.
Rodgers, having just completed his second season as a starter, gives the Packers a chance to win every week, even when the defense fails miserably like it did on Sunday. That was evident to McCarthy upon conducting exit interviews this week.
"There's a lot of positives that come out of the conversations, and in particular our locker room, the strength of our locker room, the level of leadership, Aaron Rodgers' presence in the locker room," said McCarthy. "A number of players commented on Aaron's leadership this year, so I think he's clearly taken over the identity of this being his team. That was very evident the last two days. Those are the types of things you look for."
Greg Jennings makes a play against Ralph Brown.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
This time, everything is different. Favre is in the rearview mirror, if not still to be contended with as an opponent — subject to change on a weekly basis this offseason — and the Packers' defense had more good than bad to build on under veteran coordinator Dom Capers.
Perhaps most importantly, this young Packers roster and coaching staff is battle-hardened, much tougher than the 2007 squad that experienced a magical season in many ways. The 2009 team could have folded after losing to the Buccaneers and dropping to 4-4, but instead it rebounded and made a statement by winning seven of its last eight regular-season games. That experience, more than anything, should carry over for a roster that might not change as much next season as it has in past seasons under McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson. That could also put an end to a three-year run as the youngest squad in the league.
"I haven't been in a personnel meeting where we sit there and look at the depth chart and say, ‘OK, we have to get this guy here and here to be the youngest team in the league.' It just kind of worked out that way," said McCarthy. "I know free agency is coming up and everybody wants to know if we're going to sign players. We're going to go through that process and try to get better. You have the CBA (collective bargaining agreement) out there. You have a whole different landscape that everybody's getting ready to try to navigate through. We'll deal with that. But our conversations from a personnel standpoint have always been about making our team better, and that won't change. Does that lead us to being the youngest team in the league next year? I don't think we will be. But you never know. Change is constant in the National Football League, and we're going to look to make the appropriate changes and try to get this team better. The answers to those questions are down the road."
After up-and-down seasons over his first four years in Green Bay (8-8, 13-3, 6-10, 11-5), McCarthy appears on track to make winning a constant. This figures to be a quiet offseason of evaluation for the team's brass keeping one goal in mind — a Super Bowl.
"Our goal will never change," McCarthy said. "You guys probably think I'm nuts when I sit up here and say it every year; that's just the way we go about our business. But the reality of it is expectations are, ‘What are we going to get done in the offseason program?' Every year is different, every football team is different. You need to rebuild, reload, restructure. We have a good foundation. We have a program, a blueprint that works, but we need to improve it because we did not get past the first round, and that is something that we'll identify with and so forth. No. 1, we need to have a very good offseason program. We've got a lot of younger players that need to take full advantage of individual-improvement opportunities in March, April and May. That will be our focus as a coaching staff as we go through our scheme evaluations getting ready for March when our players return. That's the way I view it. You've got to build it. You've got to stack those successes. We have some successes and some experience from this past year that we'll be able to carry over that we did not have last year, so I'm confident that will help us. But the goal will never change here."
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org