GREEN BAY, Wis. — Quarterback Aaron Rodgers said his piece shortly after the cruel turn of events: “This one’s going to hurt for a while because of the close proximity of feeling that feeling when the clock hits zero and you’re ahead. We gave it away.”
Fast forward about 2,000 miles, two time zones and about 18 hours, left guard Josh Sitton was no less stinging with his reaction to the Green Bay Packers’ season-ending 28-22 loss in overtime at the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday.
“Any time you feel like you should have won, it’s tough to get over. And, when it’s the last one, it’s very difficult to get over,” Sitton said Monday morning. “You feel like it’s a waste of seven, eight months. What’s the point of getting this far? I’d have rather not even made the playoffs.”
To the utter dismay of the players, they were left to clean out their lockers at Lambeau Field, go through exit physicals and talks with their coaches and sit through one final team meeting led by coach Mike McCarthy.
Instead of enjoying another “Victory Monday” and looking forward to packing their bags to fly to Arizona this weekend as participants in Super Bowl XLIX, the Packers were stewing as they started the offseason.
“I think it’s still shock,” receiver Randall Cobb said glumly. “I just can’t wrap my mind around it. It’s going to take some time. This is a rough one to get over.”
The 2014 Packers put themselves in the NFL record book for the wrong reason. Up 16-0 at halftime, they coughed up the biggest second-half lead in a conference title game.
Worse yet, Green Bay couldn’t preserve a 19-7 advantage with a little more than two minutes left in the fourth quarter. The top-seeded Seahawks sprung to life after a horrendous performance in front of the raucous home fans at CenturyLink Field by scoring two touchdowns to briefly take the lead at 22-19, before the Packers forced overtime with the fifth field goal of the game from Mason Crosby, with 14 seconds left.
Seattle never allowed the Rodgers-led Packers offense back on the field, going 87 yards in just six plays in the first possession of the extra period and ending the game on Russell Wilson’s 35-yard touchdown throw to Jermaine Kearse.
“We just fell apart,” Cobb said. “You look up with five minutes left, you say, ‘There’s no way you can lose this game.’ And, it just seems like we did everything to lose that game in that last little bit.”
Besides a faltering defense that had four interceptions of a previously inept Wilson, Green Bay’s offense failed to get a first down in two straight series preceding the Seahawks’ flurry of scoring. What’s more, an error in judgment by Brandon Bostick resulted in a muffed onside kick that Seattle recovered to set up a go-ahead touchdown run by Marshawn Lynch with less than 90 seconds to play.
Green Bay’s monumental collapse left it ending the season in the same venue where it started the league schedule with a 36-16 loss to the Seahawks on Sept. 4.
There was no consolation for the second-seeded Packers, who were underdogs by a touchdown, pulling off the near-upset in the rematch with the defending league champions.
“I tried to watch the film last night, but I didn’t,” Sitton said of what was an eerily quiet flight from Seattle to Green Bay late Sunday night. “I couldn’t watch it. I knew what happened. We kicked their ass up front. We handled them all day. We should’ve won the game.”
Visibly dejected in his postgame news conference, Rodgers concurred as the Packers still haven’t returned to the Super Bowl since winning it in the 2010 season.
“It’s going to be a missed opportunity that we’ll probably think about for the rest of my career,” the 10th-year pro said. “We were the better team (Sunday), and we played well enough to win, and we can’t blame anybody but ourselves.
“Losses are bad either way, but the way we lost it — we were sitting there up two scores late in the game with the ball,” Rodgers added. “You expect to put that thing away.”
REPORT CARD VS. SEAHAWKS
–PASSING OFFENSE: C-minus — Even with better movement on his lingering strained calf, quarterback Aaron Rodgers had an underwhelming performance in what shockingly turned out to be Green Bay’s season-ending game. Rodgers’ wobbly 19-of-34 accuracy included just his sixth and seventh interceptions in 18 games this season. Both takeaways for Seattle came on miscalculated decisions by Rodgers. In the game-opening series, Rodgers guessed wrong that he had a free play on a would-be Seattle penalty and took a deep shot into the end zone, only to have All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman glide in front of rookie Davante Adams for the pick. Later in the first half, an apparent miscommunication between Rodgers and intended receiver Randall Cobb, who broke off his route coming out of the slot, resulted in an uncontested diving interception by Byron Maxwell in another Green Bay drive in Seattle territory. The Packers managed only 16 points in six straight drives that went inside the Seahawks’ 35-yard line in the opening two quarters, highlighted by Rodgers’ lone touchdown pass, on a 13-yard strike to a wide-open Randall Cobb in the back of the end zone. Rodgers’ 178 passing yards and 55.8 efficiency rating were his third and second lowest, respectively, of a likely NFL MVP season. The big two of Cobb (seven receptions, 62 yards in 10 targets) and Jordy Nelson (five catches, 71 yards in eight targets) put up decent numbers as Rodgers threw as little as possible Sherman’s way. A week after a breakout performance in the divisional-round win over the Dallas Cowboys, Adams was almost a nonfactor, with just one catch for seven yards in three targets, thanks in part to having Sherman on him a lot. Green Bay’s offensive line was as stout as advertised, with Rodgers’ taking only one sack.
–RUSHING OFFENSE: C — The Packers ended the season with 10 straight games of at least 100 yards on the ground. They had 135 against Seattle’s tenacious and unyielding defense. Still, Green Bay didn’t come up with the big runs at crucial times. Its second and third possessions of the game stalled at the Seattle 1 and resulted in field goals. Fullback John Kuhn and generally unstoppable featured back Eddie Lacy were dropped for no gain on back-to-back runs up the middle on second and third downs in the initial series. Then, in the latter, Lacy managed only a yard on first-and-goal from the 7, leading to two passes from Rodgers that generated just five yards. As critical to Green Bay’s meltdown for the ages, James Starks and Lacy failed to come through running the football in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter in two straight three-and-out series that kept the Seahawks’ comeback hopes alive. Lacy averaged only 3.5 yards per touch, finishing with 73 yards on 21 carries (long of 13 yards), ending his streak of two 100-yard games. Starks (five carries, 44 yards) had the longest run for both teams — a 32-yard burst off left tackle. Rodgers, though gingerly, scrambled once for 12 yards.
–PASS DEFENSE: B-minus — An undeniable A-1 effort by Green Bay’s defense, its best of the season given the opponent, disintegrated in the fateful final seven minutes of the game, spanning the end of the fourth quarter and the overtime period. The Seahawks’ explosion of 21 points after they previously had zero from their anemic offense started with Russell Wilson lofting a pass to halfback Marshawn Lynch on a wheel route down the right sideline. That play, which exploited the lax coverage by inside linebacker Sam Barrington, went for 26 yards and set up the first of three straight touchdowns for Seattle. With his four interceptions in the game a distant memory, Wilson hurled the Seahawks back to the Super Bowl with back-to-back completions of 35 yards to Doug Baldwin (six catches, 106 yards in nine targets) and Jermaine Kearse, the latter the game-winner as cornerback Tramon Williams was beaten in one-on-one coverage up the post on Wilson’s perfectly placed ball into the end zone. Rookie safety Ha Clinton-Dix dropped what would have been his third interception of the game late in regulation and also inexplicably allowed a hurried Wilson’s rainbow throw back across the field to be completed to tight end Luke Willson for a critical two-point conversion. Despite his heroics, Wilson had an awful passer rating of 44.3 on just 14-of-29 accuracy. Two of the interceptions were on him for bad decisions, and the other two were off the hands of Kearse, whose only catch came on the game-winner. Safety Morgan Burnett (two) and outside linebacker Julius Peppers (1 1/2) led Green Bay’s five-sack assault on Wilson.
–RUSH DEFENSE: D — While Wilson redeemed himself in a huge way with his big-time passes in the one and only possession of overtime, the one player the Packers couldn’t allow to beat them did just that. After a slow start of 37 yards on nine carries in the first half, Lynch went off in “Beast Mode” style with the Seahawks’ reign as league champions so close to extinction. Green Bay’s early success of bottling up Lynch by swarming him with multiple bodies and gang-tackling him to the turf went awry. Lynch carried the football 25 times and set a team playoff record with 157 yards. The Packers’ previously resourceful defense wore down and allowed Lynch to bust through a multitude of arm tackles, particularly on his go-ahead 24-yard touchdown run off left tackle with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter. The dangerous Wilson (seven carries, 25 yards) didn’t have the room to think about trying to run for much of the game. Yet, he caused Peppers to bite on a read-option fake and tucked the football around right end for 15 yards on the first play of the quick touchdown drive that culminated with Lynch’s run. The Packers allowed 194 rushing yards, the highest they had yielded since the New Orleans Saints had 193 in Week 8.
–SPECIAL TEAMS: C-minus — A turnover created by Brad Jones’ strip of the football from Baldwin on a kickoff return seven minutes into the game was long forgotten after Green Bay’s mistake-prone special-teams units reared their ugly heads one last time. Former Packers punter Jon Ryan gained plenty of satisfaction by throwing a 19-yard touchdown pass to uncovered offensive lineman Garry Gilliam on a fake field goal late in the third quarter. That trick play, which Green Bay never saw coming, started the Seattle scoring and its comeback after it had trailed 16-0. Even when the Seahawks pulled within 19-14 with a little more than two minutes left in the fourth, Green Bay had a chance to cement the victory by recovering the ensuing onside kick. However, tight end Brandon Bostick will forever live in Packers infamy after he mistakenly jumped to make a play on the high-bouncing football instead of allowing a trailing Nelson, who’s part of the hands team in that situation, to catch it. Bostick’s muff was recovered by the Seahawks, leading to their go-ahead touchdown seconds later. Mason Crosby briefly bailed out Bostick by connecting on a 48-yard field goal (his second from that distance) with 14 seconds left to tie the score at 22. Crosby went 5-for-5 on field goals, setting a team record in the postseason for most kicks made. Punter Tim Masthay was subpar on five attempts, averaging 39.4 gross yards (long of 44) and 35.2 net yards. Green Bay’s coverage units were sound. Micah Hyde had mixed results on punt returns (average of 13.3 yards in three runbacks, long of 29) and kickoff returns (18 yards in his lone opportunity).
–COACHING: C-minus — Coach Mike McCarthy probably deserved plenty of the blame that was being spread far and wide across the country in the wake of the biggest second-half collapse by a team in a conference championship. For all of the confident talk McCarthy had going into the game that his team was well-equipped to go to Seattle and knock off the defending champs in their loud stadium, he went across the grain by getting conservative with his play calling. He took Rodgers & Co. off the field on fourth down at the Seahawks’ 1 in the back-to-back series early in the game. Then, when one first down was pretty much all that was needed in one of those successive three-and-out series late in regulation, McCarthy took the football out of Rodgers’ hand and insisted on running Lacy and Starks, to no avail. Like that, a sure trip to Arizona for Super Bowl XLIX went down the drain. Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ masterful game plan went by the wayside when the Seahawks pulled off the improbable comeback. Green Bay kept Wilson contained in the pocket, in part by employing a spy such as linebacker Clay Matthews, and had Lynch under wraps. Yet, with the game and the season on the line, the previously opportunistic defense wilted down the stretch. Capers gambled wrong on the final play by putting nine defenders in the box on first down at the Packers’ 35, enabling Wilson to audible to the game-winning deep ball to Kearse with Williams on a coverage island. As for longtime special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum, his future in Green Bay may be intrinsically tied to the egregious blunder by Bostick on the onside kick.
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