First it was the San Francisco 49ers. Now it's the Seattle Seahawks.
For three years, the Green Bay Packers' path to the Super Bowl has been blocked by a defensive-oriented team with a running quarterback from the NFC West Division.
Including the regular season, the Packers are zero for their past seven games against the 49ers and Seahawks combined, though they enter this offseason with a different feeling than the previous two. The 49ers clearly were superior when they knocked the Packers from the playoffs in the 2012 and '13 seasons, whereas the Packers' collapse in the final 4 minutes of the NFC championship game, as much as anything, opened the door for Seattle's win this year.
That's not selling the Seahawks short. They made plays with the game on the line and played the full 60 minutes to push the game into overtime. Their best players (Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas) in the end outplayed the Packers' best (Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers). But the game also suggested there wasn't much difference between the teams by season's end.
Now the next few months of re-signings, free agency and the draft will determine whether the Packers are an ascending team ready to surpass Seattle for supremacy in the NFC, or simply a team with a top quarterback whose title chances will vary from year to year based on the vagaries of the NFL.
"I'm very proud of what was accomplished there," coach Mike McCarthy said of his team at his season-ending news conference Wednesday. "With that, my thoughts on the NFC championship game: A very disappointing loss. Definitely a game like we felt like we had plenty of opportunities to win, and I felt like we let it get away."
There were several takeaways from the Packers' 2014 season, though the biggest news early in the offseason was McCarthy firing his friend and special-teams coach, Shawn Slocum, on Friday.
The move was hardly a surprise. The Packers' No. 32 ranking in the Dallas Morning News' aggregate special-teams rankings was bad but not a killer. However, special-teams coaches just don't survive game-costing performances in the playoffs on top of that. Seattle's touchdown off a fake field goal and Brandon Bostick's botched onside kick recovery will haunt this team for years.
While the move had to be difficult for McCarthy personally — he and Slocum go back to 1990, when both were grad assistants at the University of Pittsburgh — it certainly will get the attention of the players and coaching staff. That's the point. The people who run teams want everyone to feel a little uncomfortable about their jobs.
Looking back on the season, the combination of Rodgers and halfback Eddie Lacy playing together for 16 games produced the kind of offense you'd expect, even if it took until Week 4 for McCarthy to find his play-calling rhythm. Once he abandoned forcing the run, his offense took off and finished No. 1 in the NFL in scoring.
But one avenue of catching Seattle is for that offense to become what the Seahawks have been on defense the past two seasons.
Essentially, NFL defenses this year in the league can be divided into two groups: Seattle and the rest. The Seahawks, who allowed the fewest points and yards this season, are the one team capable of shutting down every opponent they face.
The Packers, on the other hand, were the league's top-scoring offense but still had some trouble on the road against the best defenses they faced. In two games at Seattle and one each at Buffalo (No. 4 in scoring defense) and Detroit (No. 3), the Packers averaged 15.5 points a game and topped the 20-point mark only once — with 22 in the NFC championship.
To go from the top-scoring offense to a juggernaut, the Packers will have to upgrade their weakest position on that side of the ball, tight end. That could come two ways.
One, if third-round draft pick Richard Rodgers makes a big jump in the offseason. It's possible. He lacks the athleticism to be the threat down the middle seam like Jermichael Finley was before his neck injury. But Rodgers' big body (257 pounds) and good hands at least give him a chance to be an effective target in the middle of the field, something the Packers lacked this season.
The other chance for an upgrade at tight end is via the draft or mid-tier free agent signing. General manager Ted Thompson's history suggests his attempt is far more likely to come from the former. This is a position of great need, and depending on the defensive players available at the end of the first round, it wouldn't at all be a surprise if Thompson drafted a tight end with his first pick.
On defense, the season showed that the run-stopping issues from the second half of 2013 through the first half of this season were in large part because of shortcomings at inside linebacker. After Clay Matthews moved to that position in place of Brad Jones, and Sam Barrington became a starter ahead of A.J. Hawk, the Packers' run defense improved tremendously.
The signing of Peppers proved to be inspired. He was a difference maker, and the Packers basically have to cross their fingers and hope that at age 35 he has one more season in him approaching that level of play.
But Thompson still very much needs to hit on a defensive draft pick. The Packers still are short of difference makers on that side of the ball, especially if Peppers drops off. They're also in danger of losing two cornerbacks in free agency (Tramon Williams and Davon House), which would weaken the defense's deepest position group.
So now the Packers have an offseason to regroup and retool after their incredible meltdown in Seattle with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. If these players are worth anything, that will serve as a burr in their backside all year.
This franchise has won four straight NFC North Division titles since their Super Bowl win in the 2010 season, and there's every reason to think they should do so again next year.
Looking at their division rivals, Detroit is on the rise but has two key unrestricted free agents in defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley.
Minnesota's prospects look brighter under new coach Mike Zimmer, though it's probably going to be another year before the Vikings know whether Teddy Bridgewater can be their long-term quarterback.
And the Chicago Bears look like they've run their course with Jay Cutler at quarterback, so they could be in for major rebuilding under new coach John Fox.
The Packers, in the meantime, have the division's best quarterback and offense, by far. But with Aaron Rodgers in the second half of his career, this franchise can't be about division titles. It has to be about winning another title, ASAP. And for now, the team that stands in the way is Seattle, which is playing for back-to-back Super Bowl championships Sunday.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty