GLENDALE, Ariz. – Another postseason. Another heartbreak for the Green Bay Packers.
The stage was set for one more monumental comeback in what’s been an unorthodox 2015 season for the Packers. Aaron Rodgers pulled one more rabbit of his helmet in heaving a 41-yard Hail Mary to Jeff Janis at the end of regulation to tie Saturday night’s divisional playoff against the Arizona Cardinals.
Everything seemed to be veering toward a storybook ending for a Packers’ team that had lost by 30 on the same field at University of Phoenix Stadium only three weeks before. Instead, things only got more bizarre once overtime began.
Arizona started with the ball after a confusing coin toss where the initial attempt never actually flipped. Then, on the first play, a breakdown in coverage allowed Carson Palmer to find a wide-open Larry Fitzgerald on what turned out to be a 75-yard catch-and-run.
Two plays later, the veteran receiver caught a 5-yard shovel pass and plowed into the end zone to hold off the Packers 26-20. As quickly as the Packers mounted their comeback, their season was over.
“Heartbreaking loss here this evening,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “It’s tough to swallow. I thought that our team came in here, preparation was excellent, just the energy and just the focus, all the way through the team meeting this morning at the hotel. There wasn’t a doubt in our mind that we were going to win the football game. I think the game tonight was pretty much a microcosm of our season. Adversity, time and time again, our guys just fought through it.”
The loss was eerily similar to last January’s 28-22 overtime loss to Seattle in the NFC title game after the Packers had coughed up a 13-point lead in the final 5 minutes of the game. It was by far the grittiest performance of the year for Green Bay and yet the outcome remained the same.
Three weeks removed from a humiliating 38-8 loss to the Cardinals, the fifth-seeded Packers lost starting receiver Randall Cobb to a chest injury on the final play of the first quarter, leaving Rodgers to make do with veteran James Jones, Jared Abbrederis and Janis.
Rodgers made the most out of his diluted weapons. The game appeared to be over when Janis hauled in a 60-yard pass on fourth-and-20 from the Green Bay 4 with 55 seconds remaining and Green Bay trialing 20-13. A few plays later, he caught a 41-yard Hail Mary from Rodgers to force overtime.
Many teammates in the locker room said the play was a spitting image of last month’s 27-23 win over Detroit when tight end Richard Rodgers caught a Hail Mary with no time remaining. Janis finished with seven catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns.
He has only four catches for 95 yards in 19 career regular-season games in his first two NFL seasons.
“We felt pretty confident that anybody in our room could step up,” Janis said. “It’s unfortunate when someone gets hurt. When your time comes, you’ve just got to step in and act like you’ve been there.”
Offensively, the offense took time to get going. Abbrederis and Cobb dropped passes early on before it things started to click on the third series. Down 7-0, Green Bay used a 17-play, 85-yard drive that ate 7 minutes, 31 seconds off the clock to get on the board with a Mason Crosby field goal.
The Packers endured a heart-stopping moment on the series when Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson picked off Rodgers on third-and-goal from the Green Bay 4. He would have returned it for a touchdown if defensive lineman Frostee Rucker wasn’t flagged for illegal hands to the face.
They didn’t get through the series without cost, though. A Packers’ offense already playing without Davante Adams (knee) then lost Cobb on the final play of the first quarter when he sustained a chest injury on what would have been a magnificent 45-yard completion if an illegal shift penalty on Bryan Bulaga didn’t wipe it out.
With Peterson shutting down Jones, Abbrederis and Janis became Rodgers’ go-to receivers with 11 catches on 23 targets for 200 yards and two touchdowns.
“We had guys in spots that hadn’t been in spots all season and running routes they hadn’t run all year, even in practice,” Rodgers said. “We had such a package for Randall. We didn’t have Abbrederis run a lot of the stuff, even in practice, and he gets out there and does a great job for us and made a lot of plays.”
The Packers drove 71 yards on 17 plays in 7:55 before halftime, but again couldn’t punch the ball in the end zone. Instead, Green Bay settled for a 34-yard field goal from Crosby, which set a new NFL postseason record of 20 consecutive postseason made field goals.
Green Bay and Arizona traded interceptions to start the second half before Packers running back Eddie Lacy broke free for a season-long 61 yards to set up an 8-yard touchdown pass to Janis that gave the Packers a 13-7 lead.
That’s when the breakdowns started for the Packers’ secondary. First, Palmer hit Fitzgerald on a 32-yard pass over rookie Damarious Randall on a go route. The Cardinals eventually settled for a 28-yard field goal form Chandler Catanzaro after Shields couldn’t bring in a Palmer overthrow on third down.
The Cardinals drove to Green Bay’s 10-yard line to start the fourth quarter before rookie Damarious Randall picked off Palmer on an underthrown pass intended for John Brown in the corner of the end zone. After Green Bay stalled, Palmer marched Arizona right back down the field.
He capped a 14-play, 80-yard drive by finding Floyd on a 9-yard touchdown off a deflected pass. Shields, who played well in his first game back from a concussion, had a chance to end the threat, but dropped an interception a few plays before Floyd’s score that allowed Arizona to retake the lead 17-13.
The Packers’ pass rush got to Palmer early with all three sacks and four quarterback hits coming in the first half. Arizona struggled to run the ball (19 carries for 40 yards), but the 36-year-old quarterback got Fitzgerald going in the second half with 170 of his 176 receiving yards coming after halftime.
Obviously, his biggest play came on the final series of overtime.
“He made plays,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “He’s a seasoned veteran and he made plays when he needed to. Obviously they were going to go to him at the end … that’s the thing you look for in the post season is veterans to make plays and unfortunately he’s on the other team.”
The Cardinals are partially to blame for Green Bay’s rally. They would’ve had a chance to run the clock down to 1:20 in the fourth quarter, but they instead ran a shot pass on second-and-8 to Fitzgerald on a go route against Shields that fell incomplete.
Instead, the Packers got the ball back with 1:50 remaining after Catanzaro’s 36-yard field goal to give Arizona a 20-13 lead. After Janis’ score, the contention with the coin toss came when the coin not flipping during referee Clete Blakeman’s toss.
So he head official called a mulligan. It stayed heads – the Packers’ call of tails stood – and got Arizona received the ball first.
Like last year’s NFC title game, the Cardinals drove down the field and Rodgers never got another chance to touch the ball after his Hail Mary to Janis.
“You’re thinking here we go again. We’re giving ourselves a chance to win,” said left guard Josh Sitton. “It’s always extremely tough to lose the last one. You don’t get the same group back. Friends that you lose. It’s tough. We’re a tight bunch. It hurts and it hurts more and more every year.”
So the Packers, who sprinted out to a 6-0 start to the season, end their year 11-7. It was an abnormal year on a number of fronts, but especially for an offense that lost Pro Bowl receiver Jordy Nelson in August and then struggled for most of the year before starting to find itself in the postseason.
“It’s tough,” right guard T.J. Lang said. “It’s two straight seasons we’ve lost in an overtime playoff game. It’s hard as hell, man. These playoff games, they take everything out of you. I’m a guy, I’m not young anymore. I’ll be going into my eighth year next year. You realize these opportunities become more limited. It’s tough to get back. We had a tough road. I’m kind of running out of words to be honest with you. Just feeling a little numb.”
The Packers return a solid core on both sides of the ball, but that didn’t make the sting of Saturday night’s overtime loss any less painful. Now, the Packers have an entire offseason to think about how close they came to returning to the Super Bowl that’s eluded them for the last five seasons.
“Yeah, it's a really high, high there where you tie it up last play of the game and then have the debacle with the coin toss and then you don't get to touch the ball in the overtime,” Rodgers said. “So it's a pretty low, low there.”
Whatever redemption the Packers were seeking after last year’s collapse in the 2014 playoffs will have to wait another year.
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