This is going to hurt: Has the franchise with the most world championships also endured (with its fans) the most postseason heartbreak?
Much as you might try, it’s hard to remember last season before the Sunday in Seattle in the middle of January. It still hangs like a foggy dream sequence combined with the punch of an instant, vivid moment in time. A mudslide crumbling beneath the base of a house, and that house slipping down the hillside, piece by agonizing piece.
Green Bay’s NFC Championship game loss to the Seahawks is, to us, the worst defeat in 95 years of Packers history. But it also led to us wanting to wander back through time and wonder: For a team as successful and revered in football history as the Packers, does any other team have the barrels of postseason heartbreak Green Bay has stored away in its archives?
Cleveland is Cleveland, meaning a sad story almost always follows any sentence beginning with the mention of Cleveland sports. The Philadelphia Eagles lost three straight NFC title games from 2001 to 2004, lost a Super Bowl, then lost one more NFC crown to the Cardinals in 2008. The best title hopes in Minnesota have gone down in some truly spectacular, Viking funeral-level, flames. But has any team not only lost in the playoffs, but lost as memorably and gut-wrenchingly as Green Bay has throughout history? For some reason we decided to find out. Our hope is that we can get through this together. And doing so will make last season’s end feel a little bit better in the grand scheme of things.
Our hypothesis: It probably won’t. But it’s still better than talking about the scouting combine.
The Packers have lost 19 playoff games, all-time. To go through the really bad ones we can start by pruning away one-sided losses. (We of course begin with the understanding that all postseason defeats are no fun. But we’re going for a little more detail, here.)
Anyway, of those, we can throw out four games against Dallas, one in ‘82 and the rest from 1993 to 1995. The latter three were part of Green Bay’s growing up process. They were not all blowouts, but there was rarely a feeling the Cowboys were anything but the team in control of the proceedings. The 33-14 loss to Chicago in 1941 sure feels one-sided. Vince Lombardi’s lone postseason loss to the Eagles in 1960 now feels more like a precursory Chapter 1 of the Lombardi Saga, and the long and prosperous journey that followed.
We should note next that a Super Bowl defeat goes into its own category. It’s brutal in the singular way losing a world championship has to be. (This coming from a guy that, as a child, wept openly at a Super Bowl party after the loss. So trust me: I know.) Green Bay’s loss to the Broncos was close and, based on pregame speculation, not supposed to be that way. Adding to the misery, to be sure. Plus, it came down to the very end; always a major ingredient for sport-induced nausea.
Next up: The Packers’ 16-3 loss to Washington in 1972. It was a disappointing result after an NFC Central division crown that season. But there are few true heartbreakers that end with three total points scored.
A 45-17 drubbing by the St. Louis Rams in 2002 was aided immensely by six Brett Favre interceptions and eight total Packers turnovers. A game like that hardly warrants further explanation. Losing by 14 at home to the Minnesota Vikings in the 2004-05 campaign – after sweeping the regular season series – certainly stings something fierce. Still, it’s not quite achingly bad because it didn’t exactly come down to the wire. And the Packers always had problems with Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss.
There are the games that ended in relative blowouts but still carry with them aching memories because of how quickly or unexpectedly play, and the season, spiraled out of control.
The first postseason loss at Lambeau in a clear, unquestionably dominant 27-7 Falcons victory in 2003 – Atlanta was up 24-0 at halftime – was shocking, yes. But by the time it was over, there was little question who the better team was on that night. If you have time to rationalize a loss during said loss, it’s certainly bad; but not an unexpected stomach punch of a defeat. Odds say that Green Bay’s insane unbeaten-in-the-postseason-at-Lambeau streak had to end at some point anyway. It just did.
Two years ago, the Packers got a pick-six from Sam Shields to start the NFC Divisional game in San Francisco. They trailed by only three at halftime. And now, this contest will be forever remembered only as the Colin Kaepernick Destroys The World game. It ended 45-31, and it was not even close to being that close. The way the defense was so quickly reduced to tattered pieces of white and yellow mesh material was beyond appalling. But there was also, like the Falcons game, no question about said terribleness. About how far behind the Packers seemed to be from the 49ers on that night. In every sense of the word.
That distance was evident again at the end of the 2013-2014 season, though it was felt a little differently. Green Bay’s 23-20 Wild Card loss to San Francisco in the final seconds came on the heels of an 8-7-1 regular season. Aaron Rodgers was playing his second game since missing a bulk of the season with a broken collarbone. It was frigid to a stupid degree. Certainly the Packers weren’t a juggernaut. But the pain from this one was more of a deep, depressing pit in the gut. The Packers played pretty well – mostly tough, smart, sound. They seemed to know this time around what it’d take to beat a physical monster like San Francisco. How to better contain Kaepernick. They outplayed the Niners for long stretches. Then Green Bay came up a few plays short of moving past the first of two NFC West boulders they still can’t quite get around.
It’s a game like this that leaves you questioning what it’ll take to beat a certain foe. And looking back it was nothing compared to how last season raised those same questions, louder and in a much more ridiculous fashion than before. The loss to San Francisco was a continuation of a yet-ongoing problem with two teams. In that sense it hasn’t been solved.
Though the Packers of two playoffs ago were certainly different from the team they were last year, or will be next season, the NFC West stigma will stay clinging like a rotten stench until different results provide new answers. The 2013-2014 Wild Card is a(nother) near-miss in those chronicles.
Green Bay has a special little subsection of horrors, courtesy the New York Giants. The 2007 NFC Title game ended in a state of empty, frozen shell shock after one of Favre’s worst all-time interceptions. A crusher. Then, the Packers’ 15-1 regular season in 2011 sunk like a stone in a 17-point loss at home that included a completed hail mary pass before halftime and four Green Bay turnovers.
The Giants ended two of Green Bay’s recent best chances at reaching another Super Bowl. Both at Lambeau Field. Both death blows delivered via Eli Manning, the always-confused look on his face doing nothing to make either loss feel more justifiable. Both upsets were improbable for different reasons. In the different, stunning, ways each game played out. And in the way they stopped promising postseasons cold with a snap – one on the Super Bowl’s doorstep, the other on the heels of one of the greatest offensive seasons ever. The Giants will always bring a nervous twitch to the surface from feelings long since suppressed away. They’re the team you never felt the Packers should fall to. Which made it all the worse when they did.
Now we’ve made it to the 100 percent no-questions-asked nightmares. The ones that are there one play – then in an instant, end. Just like that. Gone. Leaving a gaping void of shock, of What just happened? behind. Always, these are made worse because the game before the moment was tight, back and forth or distressingly narrowing in on this conclusion. Everything before the end symbolizing, afterwards, the warning signs ignored, the best-laid plans going awry, and no one turning them back around in time. These are the plays you don’t ever want to see again. The plays that stain entire games before them, forever.
The 51-45 loss to the Arizona Cardinals was so completely off its rocker that any ending would’ve qualified as insane. But that one? After Arizona kicker Neil Rackers missed a 34-yard game-winner in regulation? And after, on the third play from scrimmage in overtime, Rodgers overthrew Greg Jennings, who was as open down the field as the desert horizon is vast? It was neither of those almosts for the Packers that sealed it. Instead the highest scoring game (96 points combined) in NFL playoff history ended not on a delayed blitz and a strip. But on a fumbled football just catching the tip of Rodgers’ right cleat as he falls away. It hangs, fluttering into the hands of Carlos Dansby, who simply reacts more than anything else. He just happened to be there. In that perfect spot. His run to the end zone didn’t feel real.
There’s a quick shot of Donald Driver afterwards. His mouth is open and his eyes are wide, seemingly waiting for some other answer he knows isn’t coming.
Eleven years and seven days before that, the Mike Holmgren era in Green Bay came to an end. To the shouts of “Owens! Owens! Owens!”
The 1998 Wild Card game between the Packers and 49ers sometimes get remembered for Jerry Rice’s fumble.
(A fumble that definitely would have been reviewed and called one today – there’s even a case to be made for clear Packers possession after the fumble. Alas, sometimes the old ways were not the best ways.)
Or Green Bay’s soft coverage that allowed San Francisco to dink-and-dunk down the field, aided by timely Packers missed tackles. Favre’s touchdown teardrop to Antonio Freeman that would’ve been the game winner is hardly remembered. Same for Craig Newsome’s near-pick on the play before The Play.
All we are left with, really, is Terrell Owens in-between what still looks like between eight to 18 Packers defenders. He is making a catch, maybe, and falling into a crumpled heap. We’re left with the three seconds remaining. A cut to a goateed Brett Favre on the sidelines, staring into some imagined abyss. He didn’t know then what we know now. How much changed that day. The tank of a coach’s era, empty.
Sandwiched in the middle of shots of Owens crying on the sidelines, and the extra point try, there’s a quick cut to Packers defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur. He takes his hat off and scratches his head, his mouth is open like a seam. He looks like he just saw a dog walk by on two legs. Then the dog waved, robbed him blind, and continued on his way.
In our journey through awful endings we’re left with the two arguably worst. The NFC Championship game last year will never be fully recovered from. It just can’t be.
Why? The odds were against Green Bay. No one was supposed to dominate in that stadium. And the Packers did for a while. They did, but not to the extent they could’ve been. Still they were playing well; forcing turnovers, content with burning time. But make no mistake: From the field goals settled for in the first half to the touchdown pass that ultimately doused this game in infamy, Green Bay was in full Unravel Mode long before Brandon Bostick made a play on the ball when he shouldn’t have, giving the Seahawks the last resuscitating breath they needed to take Green Bay’s away.
That one instant can be a snapshot if you need it to be. It can even be a metaphor, if you want, for all the tiny things the Packers didn’t do well enough in the moment to win. But Bostick’s lone decision and play were just that. And that’s why this game will always, to me, be the worst. There is no one way out, no easy explainer or clear-cut, isolated incident. The Packers collapsed completely and totally. They did so after building for more than three quarters what was starting to look like one of the most impressive wins in recent league history. It wasn’t defeat getting snatched out of victory’s jaws. It was the Packers, so close and so hungry for this era-defining win, going stir crazy waiting for those precious seconds to tick away, eventually losing control and eating themselves alive. The Seahawks were left to clean the empty dishes of a team already finished.
And here’s the problem with calling the overtime loss to the Eagles in 2004 the “Fourth and 26” game: This was also the foundational collapse of a team. Much like last season’s meltdown in Seattle, the Divisional playoff in Philadelphia featured a Packers team jumping out to a lead (14-0 into the second quarter), then failing in almost every recognizable way late.
From missed opportunities to historically-awful plays at the worst possible times, both Green Bay teams were fraying before and after each game’s defining moments stole the narrative in hindsight.
In the second quarter, up 14-7, Mike Sherman elected to go for it on fourth and goal from inside the Eagles’ 1. With two minutes left in the half, Green Bay would’ve likely taken a 14-point lead into the break. But after getting tripped in the backfield, Ahman Green was finished off shy of the end zone. The game stayed close from there. The Packers defense allowed Donovan McNabb, who was sacked eight times, to get going late in the third and into the fourth.
On the first play of the fourth, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila missed a point blank sack. McNabb escaped and found a receiver in the near corner of the end zone to tie the score. Missed chances. The Packers offense is forgotten because of the defense’s clear and present failures, but they did next to nothing as the game wore on. Green Bay’s second half possessions go like this: Punt, punt, punt, field goal, punt, end of regulation. On their last actual drive, Green Bay opted to punt from Philadelphia’s 41 on a fourth and short. A first down would have essentially won the game and, as Cris Collinsworth says during the telecast, short yardage rushing was Green Bay’s strength with Green in the backfield all season long. (To be fair, Collinsworth did also say they should punt.) The ensuing punt was a touchback.
Later, on Green Bay’s first play of overtime – after the defense forced an Eagles’ three-and-out – the Packers are essentially finished when Favre throws another one of the ugliest interceptions of his career. Not prepared for a blitz on a broken play, he heaves a prayer deep into the middle of the field, well past the chances of Javon Walker, and into the waiting arms of safety-turned-center-fielder on this play, Brian Dawkins. Dawkins returned the pick to the Packers’ 34. Ballgame.
Now, obviously, allowing a conversion on fourth-and-26 means you probably deserve to lose. As Collinsworth notes during the broadcast, the Packers played a Cover 2, and didn’t have coverage in the middle of the field for two straight plays.
Then, no defender picks up Freddie Mitchell in the slot until he makes the catch. He is not guarded before that. All of Sherman’s various strategic choices were one long seemingly impossible play from working. But the ease in which that play was made was ultimately the lasting image. It was stunning, how simple it was.
So, yes: Favre’s interception doesn’t happen if Green Bay gets a stop. But they didn’t. And the Packers still had a chance, before and after, to win. It might not come down to a final drive if one of those fourth downs go another way, if the Packers offense hadn’t scored only three points in the second half.
A meltdown usually needs a cover page, a shot to remember it by. Fourth and 26 is that for this game. And it is a major reason for the loss. It is just not the only one.
Like I mentioned in the beginning, every team has its own annal where the heartbreak goes. Every fan base gets to band together through these brutal losses, hoping that eventually the hardship makes them stronger. That if we stick with it, someday our teams will make the pain – the agony of watching something you can’t control but love a lot careen into almost every form of defeat in football possible – worth it.
I can’t speak for other fan bases, or even this one. But I’d put Green Bay’s dizzyingly twisted array of losses against any other’s. And these are just, primarily, recorded in recent history. Fourteen of the Packers’ 19 total postseason losses have come in the last 20 years. The team isn’t always thought of for their pain tolerance. Of course, some of that is with good reason. The Vince Lombardi era, the Curly Lambeau reign, they still carry over. They are – combined with two more Super Bowl wins and plenty of recent success – still expected to wash some of these blotches away. When we are reflecting in the offseason in the hungover haze of a loss.
And they should! We should never take for granted the good times. These losses illustrate (terrifyingly so) the rarity of everything working out perfectly. Reaching the ultimate goal. But look at the Packers as Blank Slate Team X. Add in all the early glory and sport-shaping history. Mix in these playoff losses. The variety with which a season has come to an end. And