How Giants derailed Packers' budding dynasty

The 2011 Packers seemed too young and too talented not to win multiple Super Bowls.

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GREEN BAY – They were a burgeoning dynasty. Too young. Too talented. Too resilient not to win multiple Super Bowls.

In 2010, the Green Bay Packers brought the Lombardi Trophy home. Their encore was more impressive. Very few teams open their season with enough wins to see 16-0 on the horizon. The 2011 Packers were an exception.

They didn’t just beat opponents through September … October … November … into December. Blowouts were common. Especially inside Lambeau Field.

“My goodness,” former New York Giants linebacker Michael Boley said, “they had ballers all over the field on offense. Top to bottom, they had a squad. If you looked at them on paper, you were like, ‘Gosh, how does anyone match up with this team?’”

In 50 years, eight teams have won consecutive Super Bowls. The 2011 Packers, this group of “ballers” led by MVP Aaron Rodgers, expected to be the ninth. But they were imperfect. Their loss at Kansas City in mid-December foreshadowed problems to come.

Hardly anyone predicted their season’s abrupt end in the 2011 NFC divisional playoff game. From 15-1 to done.

Almost five years later, the Giants’ 37-20 win over the Packers isn’t their signature playoff game from the past decade. This week, quarterback Eli Manning recalled one of his “great memories of all time” coming at Lambeau Field. It was the 2007 NFC championship game, not their rematch four years later.

Yet no game in recent years has been more pivotal for two franchises. Manning isn’t a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback without it. Aaron Rodgers likely is.

On Sunday night, the Packers host the Giants in their first Lambeau Field reunion since the 2011 divisional game. This is an oral history of the loss that derailed a dynasty.

Origin of an upset

Before there can be an upset, there has to be belief.

The Packers were daunting. With the second-highest scoring offense in league history, two touchdowns was their average margin of victory. They also had history on their side.

Since NFL schedules expanded, the Packers were the sixth team to win at least 15 regular-season games. The previous five won their playoff opener.

The Packers could coast in the season’s final weeks. Their narrowest win came in early December, when they entered New York with an 11-0 record and edged the Giants by a field goal, 38-35. It started a downward spiral with the Packers’ lone loss – and their two closest wins – coming in the season’s final month.

Playoffs started early in New York. The Giants were forced to win their final two regular-season games just to earn a postseason bid. Their NFC East title led to a home wild-card game against Atlanta.

Inside the Giants’ locker room, the December loss to the Packers wasn’t forgotten before their trip to Green Bay.

Jordy Nelson, Packers receiver (3 catches, 39 yards): "We just lost a couple weeks before that game. And it was to a 1-15 team, I think. (The Chiefs went 2-14 the following season, finished 7-9 in 2011.) Not too invincible."

Michael Boley, Giants linebacker (team-high 2 sacks): "We looked at our first game with Green Bay. We watched the previous three or four games before that week, and then went back and looked at our game against them. Just to kind of see if there were any tips that could help us."

Deon Grant, Giants safety (6 tackles, 2 defended passes, game-clinching interception): "Our main thing was we were gonna meet up with Green Bay. We felt like we got cheated earlier that season when Green Bay actually went to New York. So we were anxious about going back to Green Bay and getting our revenge. … It motivated us, and we said, ‘We can’t wait until we see them again. Payback.’ So going into that divisional game, that was our opportunity to pay them back."

Bryan Bulaga, Packers right tackle: "They weren’t a bad football team. The crazy thing about it is, they reminded me a lot of us in 2010 when we snuck in as the sixth seed — and so did they."

Grant: "We knew that a team wouldn’t want to see us once we got into the postseason. So we had all the confidence in the world, and felt good about going to Green Bay. We didn’t have a doubt in our mind that we were going to come away with that victory."

The Packers prepared through grief. One week earlier, offensive coordinator Joe Philbin’s son, Michael, drowned accidentally in the Fox River. The funeral service was held Friday, two days before kickoff.

Bulaga: "It was definitely a tough week. The thing is, everybody handles it in a different way. You can’t speak for guys who weren’t here anymore, who were around the team. It was tough, obviously. I thought as a team, especially as an offense, I thought we did the best we could to get ourselves ready for the game and mentally get locked in and go out there and play. Once you hit the field, you’ve got to play football.

"Our first series, we started out moving the ball well. Then we stalled out, kicked a field goal, and it was just kind of one of those things that hadn’t happened to us all year that year. I’m not saying that foreshadowed the rest of the game, but I knew from that point it was going to be a battle."

Anatomy of an upset

The temperature was 30 degrees. Wind chill dipped to 19. Four years earlier, Giants coach Tom Coughlin’s face had turned tomato red in the NFC title game played in frigid conditions at Lambeau Field. Aside from wind gusts, these January elements were balmy.

Weather couldn’t be blamed, but the Packers’ offense had a sluggish start. In their first drive, Aaron Rodgers overthrew Greg Jennings on what would’ve been a touchdown. It was the kind of disconnect that rarely happened that fall. The Giants saw their game plan was working.

Inside the final minute of the first half, the Packers faced their first halftime deficit at home all season. The Giants were content to run out the clock on a three-point lead. Their plan changed when tailback Ahmad Bradshaw cut back 23 yards across the field, stepping out of bounds at Green Bay’s 37-yard line.

That left six seconds. Enough time for one more play.

Eli Manning, Giants quarterback (330 yards, 3 touchdowns): "I remember throwing a Hail Mary before halftime."

Hakeem Nicks, Giants receiver (7 catches, 165 yards, 2 touchdowns; caught the Hail Mary): "The play before that, I actually had a good block for Ahmad to run across the field and get out of bounds. I had a key block in that. Then once we lined up, I knew I was the jump man. So I was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to go get it.’ That was just my whole mentality. It was just me and the ball. I didn’t really see no defenders or nothing."

Bulaga: "I was just standing on the sidelines. I was behind the play. I was back kind of looking at it from their backfield, and I just remember the pass going up. I couldn’t see in the back corner of the end zone with all the guys on the sideline. I couldn’t see. Then I just heard our crowd go dead silent, like you could hear a pin drop. Saw their sideline go nuts, and you watch the play to see what happened. It was just a weird feeling. Because I don’t know how many times we’d been down in a game that year — besides Kansas City, that one game that we lost. So it was definitely a wakeup call.

"Kind of knew right there. That kind of put us down 10 (20-10) going into halftime. I think going in down 10 into the half, that kind of made guys very, hey, we need to pick up our game here."

The Packers had no problem lifting their game throughout 2011. Against the Giants, their finely-tuned offensive machine showed cracks. They finished with eight dropped passes and fumbled a season-high three times. Their four turnovers were stunning for a team that finished the regular season with 14.

Yet the Giants knew they had to keep scoring.

Nicks: "Move the ball up and down the field. That’s what we knew we had to do. And we had to stop Aaron Rodgers."

Boley: "They didn’t have many drops throughout the season, and I think part of that had a lot to do with us putting pressure on them. Us having guys constantly in their face at the line of scrimmage, and on them down the field. It tends to weigh on you a little bit."

Grant: "I’d say you could definitely give a lot of that credit to us frustrating them, us showing them different looks and being physical with them, and just throwing their timing off. We knew we had a great game plan. We were showing something that a lot of teams hadn’t seen over the years, as far as our three-safety package that could come down and play the run very well, and also play the pass and run with some of the speed receivers. We had a good scheme, and we had a good defensive line that can really get there if we’re making sure that we’re staying in coverage down the field."

Boley: "At that point, Jordy Nelson was really coming into his own. A lot of people were overlooking him because they still had Greg Jennings there, but it was like, ‘This guy’s a sleeper.’ He was one of the guys we concentrated on in our linebacker room."

Nelson: "Big plays on both sides of the ball. We didn’t make enough of them. It’s as simple as that. It was turnovers, big pass plays and missed opportunities. That’s what it came down to."

Bulaga: "We just got outplayed. That was the thing I think really sticks out. For how well we played all year, and how good of a team we were, we were outplayed that night. I think that was a hard one to deal with."

Aftermath of an upset

A Giants field goal early in the fourth quarter ensured the Packers still had life. They trailed 23-13 with possession when tailback Ryan Grant’s fumble deep in Green Bay territory ended any hope of a comeback.

Three weeks later, the Packers watched as the Giants won a Super Bowl title they expected to be theirs. In a repeat of Super Bowl XLII, Manning and company beat the New England Patriots. Their legacies were cemented.

The Packers have lost two games against the Giants since 2011, both at New York. They haven’t returned to the Super Bowl.

Boley: "Leaving that game, there wasn’t a doubt in our mind that we were going to win out. It wasn’t even an option for us. Guys knew. That showed us as long as we stick to our game plan, our style of football, we can beat anybody."

Nicks: "Once we got Green Bay out of the way, man, we felt like it was our time. We’re the team to be beat right now. We just knocked the Super Bowl team out."

Nelson: "You want to win the game, obviously. We wanted to make a run in the playoffs, and everyone had high hopes, but we saw the year prior what we did. … When it gets to that situation, obviously, we know it’s one-and-done. Obviously, we were disappointed, but that’s the way it works and I think over the years you’ve seen it that way, especially in that time. I think we did it, the Giants did it. The Giants did it a couple years before as a wild-card team, making a run. It happened before, and it happened again."

Manning: "Any time you have playoff wins, they’re memorable. But having two pretty big playoff wins in Green Bay, good memories."

Morgan Burnett, Packers safety (4 tackles): "All I remember is we lost. Losing is not a good feeling, but that was a long time ago. This is a different team. They’re both different teams now. We can’t really dwell on that. That was left behind us back then, and now it’s time to move forward and try to build our own history here this season."

rwood@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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