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The Playoffs, Heartbreak, and the Green Bay Packers
By Matt Horkman

The NFC Championship between Seattle and Green Bay is why we’re football fans. The game was a classic, an epic story told over 60 minutes. The result saw the Seahawks march to the Super Bowl in inconceivable fashion and the Packers return home dejected. 

This isn’t uncharted territory for Green Bay and its fans. They’ve played in 33 playoff games since 1992, the year Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre landed in Green Bay. They boast an 18-15 record in those 33 games, including victories in Super Bowl XXXI and Super Bowl XLV. Despite having added two Lombardi Trophies to their trophy case, the Packers have experienced as much playoff heartbreak as any franchise has since the 1990s.

Most fan bases, particularly those in Minnesota and Detroit, feel as if Green Bay fans are spoiled and maybe a little entitled. Some of that is true to an extent. What hurts more, though? Knowing your team will stink ever year or coming so close to the top of the mountain only to fall and crash before hitting the ground. They’re still talking about “The Drive” and “The Fumble” in Cleveland. Vikings fans have already moved on from their tough fourth-quarter against Miami last December. They certainly haven’t forgotten Gary Anderson’s missed field goal in the ‘98 NFC Championship or Brett Favre’s interception in the ‘09 NFC Championship.

It’s like being on the cover of sports illustrated, but instead of being the star running back that ran for 225 yards and three touchdowns; you’re the defender diving fruitlessly at the running back’s feet. It’s true, that in this analogy, Green Bay’s been the star running back twice. However, too often they’ve been the helpless defender. What could’ve been a dynasty that mirrored the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s and 1990s is turning into an era of underachievement. 

Here’s a look back at some of Green Bay’s bitterly close playoff defeats over the last 23 years:

Super Bowl XXXII: Broncos 31 Packers 24

Super Bowl XXXII wasn’t as transformational as Super Bowl III or Super Bowl XLII, but it was an entertaining game featuring two of the NFL’s marquee franchises of the ’90s. Watching John Elway win his first title captured the attention of the sports world, and nobody denies the courage by Terrell Davis, who rushed for 157 yards and three touchdowns despite battling migraines. The Packers, double-digit favorites heading into the game, leaned heavily on the pass instead of the run. Brett Favre attempted 42 passes that night, while Dorsey Levens rushed the ball just 19 times. Denver's blitz wreaked havoc on Favre, causing two turnovers. Simply put, Mike Holmgren got out-coached. That was the sentiment in Green Bay following defeat. It’s a sentiment apparently shared by former general manager Ron Wolf, who criticized Holmgren's failure to adjust a decade after the game. He even called Holmgren pig-headed. He later regretted his comments, but Packers fans are still incline to agree with them.

John Mobley

1998 NFC Wild Card: 49ers 30 Packers 27

Dubbed “The Catch II” by NFL historians thanks to the late-game heroics of Steve Young and Terrell Owens, the ‘98 NFC Wild Card game is the “The Jerry Rice Fumbled Game” in the state of Wisconsin. Four plays prior to Owens making his remarkable catch, Jerry Rice fumbled. There’s no debate about it. He caught the ball, fumbled it, and a Green Bay defender scooped it up. The officials ruled Rice down, though. The most frustrating aspect about the play is how obvious of a fumble it was. Even Pat Summerall and John Madden had to comment it. “That’s another vote if there is one in the off-season for instant replay,” said Summerall. The NFL adopted replay the following season.

2003 NFC Divisional: Eagles 20 Packers 17

Before Mike McCarthy played not to lose in Seattle, Mike Sherman did the same against the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2003 NFC Divisional Playoffs. Leading 17-14 with 2:30 remaining and facing a fourth-and-1 from Philadelphia’s 40-yard line, Sherman decides to punt instead of having faith in what was the NFC’s No. 1 rushing attack. His defense still managed to be in position to win the game, despite his bone-headed decision. Then fourth-and-26 happened. Donovan McNabb dropped back to pass and connected with Freddie Mitchell for a gain of 27 yards. It was a first down for the Eagles. Later, David Akers booted a 37-yard field goal to force overtime. The Eagles received the kickoff, but did nothing with it, so the Packers got the ball with decent field position. On their first play of overtime, Favre heaved the ball into double coverage and Brian Dawkins came down with it. He returned the ball inside Green Bay’s territory, setting up Akers with the game-winning field goal. Sometimes I still think I’m having a nightmare, and I’ll awake to find the Packers preparing to play in Carolina for the NFC Championship. Because there’s no way Freddie freakin Mitchell beat us for 27 yards with less than two minutes remaining. That just doesn’t happen!

2007 NFC Championship: Giants 23 Packers 20

Vikings fans haven’t forgotten Favre squandering away their chances at wining an NFC title in ‘09 when he threw an interception. Remember Vikings fans, he was our quarterback first. Favre is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, and there was nobody more fun to watch play the game, but the guy just wasn’t a good closer. The ’07 season was a magical year for the Packers. While everybody talked about Tom Brady and the unbeaten Patriots, the Packers felt like the team of destiny. They were the youngest team in the league, and their aging quarterback was coming off back-to-back disappointing seasons. Not many people expected much of the team, yet they started the season 10-1 and ultimately finished with 13 wins. It was their best regular-season since they reached the Super Bowl in ‘97. Favre broke Dan Marino’s records for passing touchdowns and yards. He also broke John Elway’s wins record. The Giants upset the Cowboys in the divisional round, setting up a Giants and Packers NFC Championship game at Lambeau Field. The temperature at kickoff was minus-1, setting up the perfect story. Favre is going to win the NFC title at frigid Lambeau, slay the evil Patriots in the Super Bowl, and ride off inBrett Favre the sunset. The game was tight throughout, but never did I think the Packers were going to lose. Giants’ kicker Lawrence Tynes missed two fourth-quarter field goals, including one at the end of regulation. The Packers even won the coin toss. Everything was going our way. We were going to win, and then Favre threw another overtime interception. Minutes later, Joe Buck screamed, “And the Giants are going to the Super Bowl.” Another classic playoff game, and another Packers defeat. 

2009 NFC Wild Card: Cardinals 51 Packers 45

The ‘09 season was a rough year for Packers fans. We watched Favre beat the snot out of us both times, while donning purple. Still, the green and gold managed to make the playoffs, and were slight favorites over the Arizona Cardinals in the wild card round. The Packers got off to a terrible start. Aaron Rodgers threw an interception on their first possession, and Donald Driver fumbled on their next. Both turnovers led to Cardinals touchdowns. Kurt Warner could do no wrong in this game, throwing more touchdown passes (5) than incompletions (4). The Packers trailed 31-10 at one point, but Rodgers went on a tear, shredding the Cardinals defense for 423 yards and four touchdowns. The Packers rallied, scoring 28 of the next 35 points to tie the game at 38. The teams exchanged touchdowns before Arizona had a chance to win the game on a last-second field goal. Neil Rackers missed badly, sending the game into overtime with the score tied at 45. The Packers won the coin toss (oh-oh) and of course took the ball. On the first play of overtime, Greg Jennings beat the defender and was wide open for an 80-yard touchdown, but Rodgers overthrew him. Two plays later, he fumbled after Cardinals defensive back Michael Adams hit him. Karlos Dansby scooped the ball up and ran it in for the game-winning touchdown. Now that’s how you lose a playoff game.

2013 NFC Wild Card: 49ers 23 Packers 20

Following a satisfying victory over the Chicago Bears in week 17, the Packers hosted the 49ers in the wild card round of the playoffs. For the first time in the franchise’s history, they were underdogs in a home playoff game. Green Bay had a 17-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, but just as he did to the Pack in 2012, Colin Kaepernick took over. He burned them with his legs (98 yards rushing) and arm (227 throwing) on the final drive, setting up San Francisco with a chip shot field goal to win the game. Overshadowed in this game was just how close Micah Hyde was to forever cementing himself in Packers lore. With just over four minutes remaining, Hyde undercut a Kaepernick throw. The ball hit him right in the hands, yet he couldn’t make the play. Hyde had nothing but daylight in front of him, so it’s possible he would’ve scored. At the very least, the Packers would’ve been able to setup Mason Crosby with a chip shot field. Instead, Phil Dawson was true to form, advancing the 49ers to the divisional round.

2014 NFC Championship: Seahawks 28 Packers 22

Unless you went to Mars over the weekend, you know what transpired in Seattle on Sunday. The Packers, leading 19-7 with less than five minutes remaining, appeared well on their way to their second Super Bowl appearance of the Rodgers Era. What happened next is the kind of collapse that comes once a generation. Russell Wilson threw his fourth interception of the game, but Morgan Burnett inexplicably went to the ground instead of gaining extra yardage. McCarthy called three running plays, causing the Packers to go three and out. Seattle got a quick score after a bad punt, and recovered an onside kick. They steamrolled down the field to score again, taking a one-point lead. On their two-point conversion, Wilson heaved the ball in the air as if he was throwing a two-yard hail mary. Somehow, of course, Seattle’s Luke Wilson catches it. The Packers did force overtime before succumbing to the football gods when Wilson connected with Jermaine Kearse for a 35-yard touchdown. As a fan of football, I appreciate a good game when I see it. I can look back on most heart-breaking losses with gratitude that my favorite team made it far and was part of a playoff classic. Over the years, I’ve found that having a rooting interest in an epic playoff encounter beats being an impartial spectator. Maybe because it’s still fresh in my mind, but something tells me there’s no coming back from last Sunday’s game. Yes, winning Super Bowl XXXI softened the blow of losing Super Bowl XXXII. The heartache of ‘09 dissipated after the Super Bowl XLV victory. The collapse in Seattle feels different, though. The Packers should have won that game. Everything that needed to go wrong in the final five minutes went wrong. This one will linger. We’re never getting over it.

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