Packers familiar with postseason heartbreak

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY – When the Green Bay Packers have won in the postseason under coach Mike McCarthy, they have mostly been able to take a knee at the end of the game and let those final seconds be their closing argument regarding which team was better.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) is sacked by New York Giants linebacker Michael Boley (59) in the fourth quarter during a 2011 NFC divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field.

When they have lost, however, more often than not it has been a major meltdown in which their ticket to the offseason was delivered on the final play of the game.

Five of McCarthy’s seven playoff losses have occurred that way, four of them in overtime, and one in each of the last three seasons. Since sweeping through the NFC on their way to a Super Bowl XLV victory in 2010, they have gone 3-5 in the postseason.

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They are the No. 4 seed this year. They were No. 5 last year, No. 2 in ’14, No. 4 in ’13, No. 3 in ’12 and No. 1 in ’11.

They have known postseason failure almost as much as they’ve known regular-season success (eight straight playoff appearances, five NFC North titles in six seasons). As they head into their playoff opener against the New York Giants on Sunday at Lambeau Field, they carry a heavy burden on their shoulders, made all the more burdensome by their recent history against the Giants.

The Packers were upset by the Giants in the 2011 playoffs after also having been ousted from the postseason by New York four years earlier, in what would be Brett Favre's last game for Green Bay. Both losses came at Lambeau Field.

“To be in the playoffs for eight years now and only have one ring, we’ve had some bad feelings in postseasons prior,” guard T.J. Lang said this week. “So this is definitely the one that you don’t want to let that feeling slip through your fingers any longer.

“These moments, they’re limited. They’re not going to come around too often the older you get.”

This is the first time in McCarthy’s tenure that the Packers have entered the playoffs on a six-game winning streak. Working backward from 2015, their record in their last six games regular-season games during McCarthy’s nine playoff seasons is 3-3, 5-1, 3-2-1, 4-2, 5-1, 3-3, 5-1 and 4-2.

Most fans think of the spirited run the Packers made to win Super Bowl XLV, but they finished the regular-season 3-3 and only made the playoffs after beating the division champion Chicago Bears in Week 17.

They also clinched the NFC North in the final week of the season this season, although they would have been in the playoffs win or lose. For as impressive as their six-game winning streak has been, the best it likely gets them is one home playoff game, so they’re going to need to be road warriors again.

Having been in playoff mode since being 4-6 and three games behind the Detroit Lions, they are no strangers to pressure. The question is whether they have exhausted their energy or are generating more as they go along.

“To rattle off six in a row, we needed to do that, and we've been treating every game like a playoff atmosphere mentality,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “Hopefully this game is no different. In reality, we do know that this is a different game, a different mentality, everything about it kind of cranks up a little bit.

“As a veteran, we try and relay that message to the younger guys and hope that we don't squander an opportunity.”

Here’s a look at their playoff losses since the Super Bowl XLV victory:

Jan. 16, 2016 | Divisional Playoff: Cardinals 26, Packers 20, OT

The Packers limped into the playoffs, losing their final two games, including a home game against Minnesota that decided the NFC North title

After gaining some traction offensively against Washington in a wild-card victory at FedEx Field, the Packers traveled to face the Arizona Cardinals for the second time in three weeks. In the previous meeting, they were destroyed 38-8 as quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked eight times playing without tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga most of the game.

In the rematch, the Packers held the Cardinals to just 10 points in the first 56 minutes and Rodgers was able to throw for 261 yards and two touchdowns despite losing receiver Randall Cobb (lung) in the first quarter.

As in so many of the Packers’ playoff losses under McCarthy, one play would have made the difference. Cornerback Sam Shields dropped an interception that would have ended Arizona’s go-ahead touchdown drive late in the fourth. Cornerback Damarious Randall deflected a pass in the end zone that receiver Michael Floyd retrieved to give Arizona a 20-13 lead.

Then after Rodgers’ Hail Mary touchdown to Jeff Janis sent the game into overtime, Randall blew coverage on the first play, allowing receiver Larry Fitzgerald to ramble 75 yards on the first possession of overtime and set up his game-winning touchdown.

“It sucks,” Matthews said afterward. “You play this game to win Super Bowls and that is what greatness is defined by in this sport. Losing in that fashion, especially with the offense pulling that out, another Hail Mary, is unbelievable.”

January 18, 2015 | Seahawks 28, Packers 22, OT

The Packers led at halftime, 16-0, and at the end of the third quarter, 16-7. They were 15 minutes away from going to the Super Bowl when the bottom fell out. This team had won five of its last six regular-season games, including an NFC North-clinching decision over Detroit at home and then played like it meant business in a home victory over Dallas in the divisional round.

Like the 2016 team, it got hot at the end, winning seven of its last eight. Like the ’16 team, Rodgers pulled a calf muscle late in the season but played brilliantly after doing so until meeting up with Seattle’s dominating defense.

The Packers intercepted quarterback Russell Wilson four times and sacked him five. The game was there for the winning, but a series of critical mistakes — a botched onside kick, two failed trips inside the 5-yard line, safety Morgan Burnett’s decision to give himself up after an interception instead of trying to score, a touchdown allowed on a fake field goal, a stupid taunting penalty on Mike Daniels — all added up to defeat.

It was fitting that on the final play, veteran cornerback Tramon Williams allowed receiver Jermaine Kearse to beat him to the spot he was supposed to protect under any circumstance for a 35-yard touchdown.

“We were so close and we let it go,” linebacker Sam Barrington said afterward. “Let it be understood that Seattle is not better than we are. We gave them what they’re out there celebrating right now.”

January 5, 2014 | 49ers 23, Packers 20

Once again, the Packers won the NFC North on the final week of the season, this time with a miracle Rodgers-to-Cobb touchdown pass in the final minute in Chicago.

Once again, Rodgers was coming off an injury — a broken collarbone that cost him seven games. But the Packers earned a home game against the San Francisco 49ers and caught a break when frigid weather moved into the area to greet their West Coast foe.

Only 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick seemed unaffected and the 49ers' defense kept Rodgers in check. In the final minutes, the Packers made critical mistakes that cost them the game.

With just over 6 minutes left, McCarthy outsmarted himself by calling on Cobb instead of Eddie Lacy to carry the ball on first and goal at the 9. He gained 1 yard and the drive went no further. Instead of going up 24-20, the Packers tied the game.

That left the door open for Kaepernick to drive the 49ers 65 yards in 14 plays for Phil Dawson’s game-winning 33-yard field goal as time expired. During that drive the Packers twice had opportunities to turn the game back in their favor, but cornerback Micah Hyde dropped a sure interception and cornerback Jarrett Bush failed to bring Kaepernick down in the backfield and allowed him to run for a first down on third and 8.

“You’ve got to make one more play than the opponent,” McCarthy said afterward. “The team that usually has the ball last wins in the playoffs. We came up short.”

January 12, 2013 | 49ers 45, Packers 31

Kaepernick’s coming-out party came after the Packers won four of their last six in the regular-season to win the North. They beat the Vikings at home in the wild-card round and then were destroyed in every which way at Candlestick Park.

It was McCarthy’s worst playoff loss.

The defense gave up 579 yards, including an NFL-record 181 quarterback rushing yards.

“Maybe we have to get bigger and faster,” safety Charles Woodson said afterward.

January 15, 2012 | Giants 37, Packers 20

In the 2007 postseason the Giants had come to Lambeau Field and made Favre’s last game as a Packer a forgettable moment. Quarterback Eli Manning completely outplayed Favre and the Giants proved too physical and too well-coached to let the Packers beat them.

This time, coming off a 15-1 regular season, the Packers had home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but they were flawed. Much like 2016, their defense was a weakness, ranking 32nd in the NFL. The only thing that had saved it throughout the year was a league-leading 31 interceptions.

But once again Manning was almost flawless, completing 21 of 33 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.

The back-breaker was a 37-yard Hail Mary completion to Hakeem Nicks that gave the Giants a 20-10 lead just before halftime.

“No one is going to remember the 15-1,” nose tackle B.J. Raji said. “I mean, they will, but for now all they’re going to talk about is the great letdown — at home, in front of your home fans that love you and support you.”

Seattle Seahawks' Jermaine Kearse celebrates after catching the game-winning touchdown during overtime of the NFL football NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers Sunday, Jan. 18, 2015, in Seattle. The Seahawks won 28-22 to advance to Super Bowl XLIX. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
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