SEATTLE — The Green Bay Packers' locker room was a scene of grim and shell-shocked faces.
Fifteen minutes after the Packers' stunning collapse in the NFC championship game against the Seattle Seahawks, backup tight end Brandon Bostick, who failed to catch the late onside kick, sat in his locker trying to hold back tears.
Rookie receiver Davante Adams was curled up in his locker like it was a cubby hole, staring at his phone.
Coach Mike McCarthy stood stone faced against the wall waiting to do his contractually obligated postgame radio interview with former Packers center Larry McCarren.
The Packers had outplayed the 7 ½-point favorite Seattle Seahawks in almost every way at CenturyLink Field for 56 minutes Sunday, yet had just given away a trip to the Super Bowl by blowing a 12-point lead in the final 4 minutes.
It's as bitter and devastating a defeat as the franchise has seen. It surpasses in more recent history the fourth-and-26 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round of the playoffs in the 2003 season, and the Terrell Owens game-winning touchdown catch in a wild-card round loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the 1998 season.
But those games were earlier in the playoffs, with no guarantee those Packers teams would advance to the Super Bowl. This time their Super Bowl ticket was all but punched when they got the ball back with 6:53 left and ahead by 12. But they failed to put the game away when they had not one but two chances to kill the clock in the fourth quarter, and later botched the critical onside kick recovery that set up their staggering 28-22 overtime defeat.
So all that's left now from their 2014 season are recriminations and what-ifs about an NFC championship game they had in hand.
"We had some chances early, we had some chances late to do some things and didn't do it," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "You go back and think about it, think about the times we weren't playing as aggressive as we usually are."
Rodgers declined to elaborate, so it was unclear whether he was talking about McCarthy's decision to kick field goals rather than go for touchdowns on two fourth-and-goals from the 1 in the first quarter; or McCarthy's decision to go conservative rather than for the win, and run the ball on five of six plays on the two late fourth-quarter series that failed to produce a first down with the Packers still ahead by 12; or the defense giving up a couple of big plays while sitting back in coverage in the final 4 minutes.
"Losses are bad either way," Rodgers said, "but the way we lost. We were sitting there up two scores late in the game with the ball. You expect to put that thing away."
McCarthy said he kicked the two field goals early because he went into the game thinking points would be at a premium playing against the NFL's top-ranked defense in points and yards allowed.
"I would have liked to have gone for it there on fourth down," McCarthy said, "but based on what we saw, on second and third down, I just felt that you had to take points. I didn't think it would take a lot of points to win this game."
The Packers did just about everything they needed to win against the hottest team in football – the Seahawks had won seven straight games coming in – and at a venue that's as difficult a place as there is to play in the NFL because of its noise and Seattle's stifling defense.
The Packers intercepted Russell Wilson four times — he'd thrown only seven all season — and forced a turnover on a kickoff return. But they lost out on eight possible points by failing to score touchdowns on those two goal-line possessions in the first quarter. And then their special teams, which had been a weak link all season and allowed seven blocked kicks (punts, field goals and extra points) in the regular season, cost them 14 points.
Seven came when the Seahawks, who had done next to nothing on offense for 2 ½ quarters, scored a touchdown on a faked 37-yard field goal. Their holder, former Packers punter Jon Ryan, threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to tackle Garry Gilliam.
The touchdown especially hurt because the Packers left their defense on the field for just such a play. But linebacker A.J. Hawk appeared to make the key mistake by racing up to try to tackle Ryan on his rollout left, which allowed Gilliam to run uncovered to the end zone.
Then there was the onside kick with 2:09 left, which in the end was the play that cost the game. All the Packers needed was their hands team to recover and the game almost surely was over, because the Packers led 19-14, and the Seahawks had only one timeout and the 2-minute warning left to stop the clock.
But Bostick, who became a forgotten player this season as the No. 3 tight end, muffed the high-bounced onside kick, and Seattle recovered. Bostick was on the front line, and his primary job was to block while Jordy Nelson, who was standing a couple yards behind as the designated catcher, made the play on the ball. Front liners have the option of going for the ball, but if they do they absolutely have to catch it.
"You get that football there and we're having a different press conference," McCarthy said.
Said Rodgers: "You can't let them complete a pass for a touchdown on a fake field goal. You can't give up an onside kick, and you can't not get any first downs in the fourth quarter and expect to win. And that's on top of being really poor in the red zone in the first half. Put it all together and that's how you lose games. This was a great opportunity. We were right on the cusp."
So now the 2014 Packers will know what it's like to be on the wrong side of an epic game. This will go down as one of and maybe the most memorable win in Seahawks' history, considering what was at stake and their remote chances of pulling off the comeback down by 12 in the last 4 minutes.
"This has got to be one for the ages," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "A fantastic day to celebrate your Seahawks."
Said Rodgers: "(It's) a missed opportunity that we'll probably think about for the rest of my career. We were the better team today and we played well enough to win, and we can't blame anybody but ourselves."