Seahawks 28, Packers 22: Speechless

Rodgers had little to say after loss

Afterward, Aaron Rodgers searched for the words. He found very few – or, perhaps, chose not to say some of the ones running through his head.

Just two days earlier, back at Lambeau Field, Rodgers had had plenty to say about his vision of the Green Bay Packers’ future. He’d been asked about the idea of winning another Super Bowl, to go along with that Super Bowl XLV title from four years ago, and the way Rodgers figured it, everything was in place.

After all, he’d signed a contract extension two years ago that runs through the 2019 season. General manager Ted Thompson had signed a new contract that runs through the 2019 draft. And not long after that, coach Mike McCarthy had gotten a new deal that runs through the 2018 season.

“You’d like to win a couple more, because that’s when you really kind of cement your legacy and do something really special,” Rodgers said. “You look at some of the stuff we’ve done this fall – re-signed Ted, re-signing Mike – it’s set up to really do something special, [with] the three of us working the majority of our careers together. It would be great to add a couple more trophies.”

Roughly 48 hours later, after perhaps the most demoralizing, devastating losses in the franchise’s 94-year history, it was impossible not to wonder not only they’ll ever add those trophies, but if this triumvirate will ever get this close again.

In a 28-22 overtime loss to the Super Bowl XLIX-bound Seattle Seahawks, the Packers had squandered the biggest lead in NFL history in a conference championship game – 16 points. But more than that, they had had complete control of the NFC Championship Game and inexplicably stopped playing with the confidence, fearlessness and temerity that had gotten them the lead in the first place — and left Rodgers to not-so-subtly wonder aloud why that had happened.

“It’s going to be a missed opportunity that we’ll probably think about for the rest of my career,” Rodgers said. “We were the better team today, and we played well enough to win. And we can’t blame anybody but ourselves.”

NFL history – not to mention recent Packers history – is littered with teams and coaches and players who lost life-changing games and never recovered. Mike Sherman, once the Packers coach and GM, lost the infamous Fourth-and-26 game in the 2003 NFC Divisional Playoffs and was out of a job two years later. Quarterback Brett Favre threw an interception in overtime of the 2007 NFC Championship Game at home and never played another down for the team he’d come to embody.

A decade from now, will we look back on Sunday and view it as the day that was the beginning of the end of the Thompson-McCarthy-Rodgers Era?

That is probably a question for another day. The more immediate question was this: How did a team that had so brazenly come into the same CenturyLink Field where it’d played so scared in the regular-season opener and punched the defending world champions in the mouth wind up KO’d in the corner by game’s end?

“We gave it away,” wide receiver Randall Cobb said.

Russell Wilson’s 35-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse with 3 minutes 19 seconds elapsed in overtime was the knockout punch. But things had begun falling apart before that, after the Packers had built a 16-0 halftime lead and were in position to salt the game away up 19-7 and with the ball following Morgan Burnett’s interception with just over 5 minutes to play.

It was then that, it appeared, the Packers stopped playing to win and began playing not to lose.

“We had some chances early, had some chances late to do some things and didn’t do it,” Rodgers said. “When you go back and think about it, at times we weren’t playing as aggressive as we usually are.”

Oh, there was plenty of blame to go around. Brandon Bostick mishandling the Seahawks’ onside kick with 2:09 left – when he had been expressly instructed to block and let sure-handed Jordy Nelson worry about the catching – was inexcusable. Getting caught napping on a fake field goal that went for Seattle’s first touchdown midway through the third quarter was embarrassing. Burnett curling up in the fetal position after his interception instead of returning it with so much time remaining in the game was difficult to explain. And Rodgers himself throwing a pair of interceptions – and finishing with 178 yards and a 55.8 passer rating – was impossible to ignore.

“The special teams gave up seven points on the fake field goal, the onside kick was a huge momentum swing at a critical moment,” lamented McCarthy, who is now 7-6 in playoff games. “There were 2 minutes and 5 seconds left. You get the football there, and we’re having a different press conference.”

Said Bostick: “I just feel like if I was able to do my job – my assignment was to block – Jordy would’ve caught the ball and the game would’ve been over.”

But what was harder still to swallow was the way the Packers had come into the game brimming with we-can-do-this resolve and morphed into the team that had gone the entire Sept. 4 opener without throwing a single pass to Richard Sherman’s side of the field.

The Packers led, 19-7, and had just gotten the ball back after the defense had delivered a third-and-15 stop at midfield with 6:53 to play in regulation. On the ensuing three plays from their own 13-yard line, the Packers gained 1 yard on a James Starks run and then 5 more on another Starks run. On third-and-4 from the 19, Rodgers’ pass to tight end Andrew Quarles was broken up by linebacker K.J. Wright.

No matter. On the very next play, Wilson threw across the middle for Kearse, and the ball caromed to Burnett for an interception with 5:04 to play.

“Just the confidence that we had there with 5 minutes left in the game, there was nobody on our sideline that thought we could possibly lose that game,” veteran guard T.J. Lang said. “[It] just hurts that we know we had a chance to go move on, and shot ourselves in the foot too many times. This one is going to hurt for a while.”

On first-and-10 from the Packers’ 43-yard line, the Packers came out with Eddie Lacy and John Kuhn in the backfield, tight ends Andrew Quarless and Richard Rodgers at each end of the line of scrimmage and Nelson the only wide receiver split out – and the Seahawks countered with nine defenders in the box. At the snap, Seattle’s Michael Bennett knifed in between left tackle and left guard, went right past Kuhn and tackled Lacy for a 4-yard loss and the Seahawks called their first timeout with 4:57 left.

On the ensuing second-and-14, the Packers went to their favorite personnel group – three receivers, a tight end and Lacy – and ran it again. Again, Bennett led the way and collapsed the left side of the Packers’ line, and Lacy was thrown for another 2-yard loss. Seattle called timeout again with 4:50 to go.

Facing third-and-16 at their own 37, the Packers gave it to Lacy again. When defensive end Cliff Avril beat Richard Rodgers off the snap, Lacy was swarmed after a 2-yard gain and the Packers had to punt. When Brett Goode’s snap flew back to punter Tim Masthay, 4 minutes remained – meaning the Packers had run only 64 seconds off the clock.

The same offense that had impressively closed out one-score games against Dallas (4:06), Atlanta (2:09), New England (2:40), Minnesota (3:23) and the New York Jets (3:31) could not do it with a Super Bowl berth on the line. In their victories over the Cowboys, Patriots and Jets, Rodgers had to complete a critical third-down pass to salt away the clock. On Sunday, the Packers didn’t take that chance.

“We’ve finished off games before in four-minute,” Rodgers said, parsing his words. “We had a chance to do some things; didn’t do it.”

Asked about his play-calling on those two drives, McCarthy replied: “Hey, if you want to question my playcalling… I’m not questioning it. I came in here to run the ball. The one statistic I had has as far as a target to hit was 20 rushing attempts in the second half, I felt would be a very important target to hit for our offense.”

Lacy, who’d run 13 times for 57 yards in the first half, ran eight times for 16 yards in the second. No. 2 running back James Starks, who didn’t have a carry in the first half, ran five times for 44 yards, including a 32-yarder, in the second.

“It’s always a tough situation, but it’s something we’ve thrived in throughout the year,” Lang said of the defense knowing the Packers would run the ball. “We had opportunities in that game, throughout the whole game, to really start to pull away. Just [with] a couple wasted possessions there in the fourth quarter, [we] let them hang around. And against a team like that, they’re going to cash in on those. It’s tough to deal with.

“Just a couple of really tough mistakes to think about there, especially late in the game when the most important thing is finishing. And we didn’t get it done.”

Things fell apart thereafter against a defense that had been dominant up to that point. It took Wilson just 1:43 to pull the Seahawks to within 19-14 on his 1-yard run after big completions to Doug Baldwin (30 yards) and Marshawn Lynch (26 yards). Then, four plays after Bostick botched the onside kick, Lynch broke loose for a 24-yard touchdown run to give Seattle the lead with 1:25 to go.

And as if that weren’t enough, with Julius Peppers, Sam Barrington and Nick Perry chasing Wilson all over God’s green earth on the 2-point conversion, Wilson launched a prayer into the end zone that rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix failed to make a play on, allowing tight end Luke Willson to catch it for a 3-point lead.

That meant Rodgers’ speedy 1:11 drive and Mason Crosby’s clutch 48-yard field goal with 14 seconds left merely forced overtime, where Wilson ended the Packers season with Rodgers stuck on the sideline.

“We had a good drive there and Mason made a great kick to put us into overtime,” Rodgers said. “You lose the toss and, the next thing you know, you’re out of it.”

And then next thing you know after that, you’re wondering what happens next.

“I have no regrets. I don’t regret anything. Hell, I expected to win the game, we were in position to win the game, and that’s football,” McCarthy said. “We had opportunities to get that thing done and we came up a little short. This is an excellent football team I had the privilege of coaching this year, and that ain’t going to change. Hell, that’ll never change.

“Hey, we had our chance.”

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