Agony lingers as season of promise evaporates
As the Green Bay Packers cleaned out their lockers Monday morning, the shock still hadn't worn off.
If the circumstances were different, players might have been breaking down film or taking an early look at the New England Patriots. Instead, the Seattle Seahawks are the team preparing to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
The Packers have to live with that reality, dispatched into the darkness of the offseason following a colossal fourth-quarter collapse in Sunday's 28-22 loss at CenturyLink Field. Afterward, some players watched the film. Others said they couldn't bear revisiting the opportunity that slipped through their grasp.
There will be no catharsis in the months to follow. The fact remains the Super Bowl will see the Lombardi Trophy contested between a team Green Bay beat (New England 26-21 on Nov. 30) and one most of the locker room feels they did Sunday.
"Anytime you feel like you should have won, it's tough to get over," left guard Josh Sitton said. "And when it's the last one, it's very difficult to get over. 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."
Receiver Randall Cobb found it difficult to sleep after the team returned to Green Bay late Sunday night. He doesn't know what it's like to win it all. Arriving a year after the 2010 run, this feeling has become all too familiar for the fourth-year receiver.
After three quick playoff departures, it seemed like things would be different this year. The team was the healthiest it's been in Mike McCarthy's nine years as head coach by a wide margin. The defense wasn't a world-beater, but offseason changes finally took shortly after the bye week.
The Packers' dynamic aerial attack had a capable rushing counterpart with Aaron Rodgers and Eddie Lacy healthy for most of the season. The offense lost some of that explosiveness when Rodgers strained his calf against Tampa Bay, but still was strong enough to topple Detroit and Dallas with the help of Lacy.
The Packers captured their fourth consecutive NFC North title after winning 12 of their last 15 games, but it still wasn't enough to slay the Seahawks, who have won the teams' last three meetings since 2012.
"It's just an emotional roller coaster," Cobb said. "I didn't really get much sleep last night. It felt like a nightmare whenever I did fall asleep, then wake up in the middle of the night and think that things didn't (turn out) the way they did.
"And for us to be done with the season," said Cobb, pausing for a moment. "It's kind of blind-siding."
It's difficult to imagine Brandon Bostick got much rest, either.
In trying to make a play, the Packers tight end relinquished his blocking assignment and went for the ball on a Seattle onside kick in the final minutes of Sunday's game. With Jordy Nelson steps behind him, the ball bounced free of Bostick's hands and into the arms of Seahawks receiver Chris Matthews, who made the recovery.
It wasn't Green Bay's only breakdown, but it was the most obvious. It's a moment Bostick admits he continues to rehash "in his mind over and over." Four plays later, Seattle scored to take its first lead of the game with a little more than a minute left in regulation.
"I'm human. I made a mistake," Bostick said. "But if I would've made the play, we wouldn't have been in this (situation) or if I would've made the block, we wouldn't be talking about this. But it's over now, so I'll just try my best to get over it."
Bostick, who faced the media after Sunday's game and again Monday morning as the team cleared out of the locker room at Lambeau Field, added that he probably won't turn on his TV for a while or watch the Super Bowl.
The former Newberry College standout said many of his teammates, including Cobb, were supportive on the sideline. Former teammates Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley also offered words of encouragement on Twitter, helping drown out early backlash on social media.
"It definitely means a lot," Bostick said. "I'm at a low point right now. The whole world is on my back about this thing, but my teammates are here to pick me up. They know it's just a mistake, and they've been on my side."
Like many of his teammates, Bostick said he planned to return home to South Carolina after his exit interviews wrapped up. Many say they'll do so with knowledge the better team didn't win Sunday. Veteran Jarrett Bush said he "feels strongly" about that.
That's what makes the loss all the more painful.
"I'll say 30 years from now, we'll feel like we were a better football team than what they were (Sunday)," defensive back Micah Hyde said. "I think that's a given. But the best team doesn't always win."
Sitton was one of the players who said he tried to watch the game on the four-hour flight home, but just couldn't. The hardest part for the veteran guard was seeing teammates pack up their bags. Clothes and personal items were thrown into boxes and garbage bags. Old shoes and cleats placed into collection bins for charity.
Sitton, who has two years left on his contract, will be back next year. However, others left the locker room Monday never to return. That's how things are in the NFL. Not every one of the 73 players who ended the season under contract will be back for 2015.
Eleven players are unrestricted free agents, including Cobb, fullback John Kuhn, cornerback Tramon Williams and right tackle Bryan Bulaga, Sitton's linemate for five seasons.
"There's going to be a lot of people who aren't going to be on the team — a lot of people we can't pay," Sitton said. "This team, I don't think we can be this good for a while. It's going to be tough, anyway."
So this is where the Packers' season ends. They returned to the NFC championship game for the first time since the Super Bowl year, but were unable to claim the ultimate prize. They trounced the Seahawks until a 12-point lead with 4 minutes remaining disintegrated.
The team will reassess and regroup, but this loss won't be forgotten. Given the choice, Sitton said he would have preferred to "not even make the playoffs" or been "blown out and known in the first quarter it was over."
Instead, the Packers must live with the knowledge they were as close as you could get to the Super Bowl without actually making it.
"We kicked their (butt) up and down the field all day," Sitton said. "And there's no reason we shouldn't have won the game. Literally one of 10 plays you can pick that if we get it, we win the game. It's frustrating when you should have won the game and you're the better team and I thought we were the better team all day except for three minutes."
— Todd McMahon, Scott Venci and Andrew Pekarek contributed.