SEATTLE — Five minutes, 4 seconds. That's all that stood between the Green Bay Packers and a sixth Super Bowl appearance.
Safety Morgan Burnett had just intercepted Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson for an unprecedented fourth time. Teammates mobbed him on the field. The 12th man began funneling out of CenturyLink Field in droves.
What happened next will be dissected for years to come. A botched onside recovery, two touchdowns allowed in 44 seconds and questionable play-calling gave the Seahawks the small sliver of hope they needed to deliver a monumental 28-22 overtime comeback in front of a record crowd of 68,538.
The Packers could only watch as a 16-point halftime lead crumbled to nothing. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was limited with his calf injury, but Green Bay still controlled the tempo from the start behind perhaps the finest defensive performance of the season.
Through the first 55 minutes.
Wilson, who completed more passes to the Packers than his own offense in the first half, pulled things together when the game was on the line. All three of the Seahawks' touchdowns and 206 of their 397 total yards came on their final three possessions, enough to usurp the NFC championship from Green Bay's grasp.
"I'm at a loss for words," receiver Randall Cobb said. "To be so close, to be right here and see everything that you've worked your butt off for to get to this point and not be able to capitalize on your opportunity, your opportunities come few and far between. We didn't get done what we needed to get done."
It was the Packers who needed a 48-yard field goal from Mason Crosby to force overtime after leading for all but the last 1 minute, 25 seconds. It would have been difficult to imagine such a scenario playing out after Wilson completed only 2-of-9 passes for 14 yards and three interceptions in the first half.
None of that mattered late. The Seahawks, down 16-0 at halftime, finally sparked with 4:50 left in the third quarter when former Packers punter Jon Ryan caught Green Bay off guard with a fake field-goal attempt on fourth-and-10.
Linebacker A.J. Hawk said he saw offensive lineman Garry Gilliam come free, but decided to contest Ryan's run. He used the opening to lob a 19-yard touchdown to get the Seahawks on the board 16john-7. In spite of the mishap, the defense responded by forcing Seattle to punt on its next two possessions.
Crosby, who went 5-for-5 on field goals, even made a 48-yarder to extend the Packers' advantage to 19-7 at the start of the fourth quarter, a lead that appeared to be sufficient when Burnett picked off Wilson on the first play of Seattle's series with 5:04 remaining.
It appeared like Burnett could have turned up field for a significant gain, but he opted to slide at Green Bay's 43-yard line. The Seahawks still had all three of their timeouts. It was one of a series of conservative decisions that came back to bite the Packers.
"You want to run more time off the clock," Williams said. "At that point in time, I don't think we understood the situation. We knew that we probably would have to go back out on the field and we did and those guys kept fighting and everything kind of turned for them."
The Packers ran the ball three consecutive times on the next series with Eddie Lacy, getting knocked back for negative yards on the first two.
Seattle burned two of their timeouts, but still had 3:52 left to trim the deficit. Linebacker Clay Matthews, who was Wilson's kryptonite for most of the game, was forced off the field with an apparent leg issue.
That's when the bleeding began. The Seahawks needed only 1:39 to drive 69 yards on seven plays, including a 35-yard pass from Wilson to Marshawn Lynch on a wheel route. Moments later, Wilson ran in for a 1-yard touchdown on third-and-goal to cut the deficit to 19-14.
With Seattle preparing for an onside kick, the Packers lined up three tight ends, receiver Jarrett Boykin and fullback John Kuhn on the left side of the field to block for receiver Jordy Nelson. Except Brandon Bostick jumped in front and couldn't bring it in.
As the crowd roared, the Seahawks needed only four plays and 42 seconds to get back into the end zone with Lynch rushing for the 24-yard touchdown to take the lead with 1:33 remaining. The bullying back produced 146 of his 183 yards in the second half.
"In the fourth quarter, their momentum kind of picked up," Williams said. "We just didn't get it done at that point in time. We squandered away every opportunity for us to put that game away and really there's no excuse for that."
The Packers could have minimized the damage on the two-point conversion, but Wilson's pass to tight end Luke Willson over safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix proved to be the difference. So instead of Crosby's 48-yard field goal at the end of regulation being the game-winner, it was only good for the tie.
The Packers got Matthews back in overtime, but still couldn't stop the Seahawks. After losing the coin toss, Wilson hit Doug Baldwin for 35 yards on third-and-7. Wilson then hit Jermaine Kearse over Williams for another 35-yard gain.
This one ended the Packers' season.
"You come so far during the season, put in so much hard work, you're that close to getting back to the Super Bowl, and then you fall short in an overtime thriller," Matthews said. "It's difficult because you put in so much work during the offseason, during the regular season and the playoffs. To come up short like that is devastating."
Offensively, Rodgers wasn't himself. He threw two interceptions in the first half, but the way the Packers' defense was playing it didn't look like it was going to matter. When they needed an answer, Rodgers hit Jordy Nelson and Cobb for two 15-yard completions to put Green Bay in field-goal range.
The Packers weren't able to overcome their early inability to score in the red zone. The offense had two drives stall at the Seattle 1-yard line on back-to-back series in the first quarter, resulting in Crosby 18- and 19-yard field goals.
The Packers' only touchdown came when Rodgers bulleted a pass to Cobb in the back of the end zone at the end of the first quarter. Strong at sustaining four-minute drives all season, Green Bay struggled to move the ball when it needed to in the second half.
"You're in that situation and you know you're ahead, of course, you think that it's in the bag," said Cobb, who led the Packers with seven catches for 62 yards. "Just let the clock run out and find a way to hold onto that lead."
The offense wasn't spectacular in the Packers' last NFC championship game, either. However, the defense was able to contain the Chicago Bears enough for a 21-14 to send them to Super Bowl XLV. They weren't able to replicate it Sunday despite forcing five turnovers.
Clinton-Dix had two first-half interceptions. Brad Jones forced a fumble recovered by Burnett on the Seahawks' first kickoff return. Sam Shields picked off Wilson in the end zone on the Seahawks' only first-half drive.
But as has been the case for most of the season, the Packers' defense wilted in the fourth quarter.
"We let it go. That's all I can say right now," defensive back Micah Hyde said. "You can't put it into words. We let it go."
This loss will be talked about with the likes of Terrell Owens' game-winning touchdown catch against the Packers in the 1998-99 playoffs at Candlestick Park and the fourth-and-26 debacle against Philadelphia in 2004.
Wilson's 44.3 passer rating was putrid, but his production late is what's sending Seattle back to the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year. Meanwhile, it gives the Packers something to think about for the rest of the offseason.
And possibly long after that, as well.
"Go this far, battle for 18 games, knowing that the season is over is tough to think about," right guard T.J. Lang said. "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. 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."