We saw a lot of history made on Championship Sunday, and it started with the Green Bay Packers loss in Seattle. After leading 16-0 at half, and then having the ball with less than five minutes left and a 19-7 lead, the Packers lost. It was the largest second-half comeback in a conference championship game, an epic collapse in the closing minutes and it completely stole the show from Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, as the New England Patriots duo became the first coach and quarterback to reach six Super Bowls.
The acrimony started in Packer Nation–where I live, in southeastern Wisconsin, though I’m neither a fan nor foe of the team–by early evening. Was it the worst loss in franchise history? Where does this fit in the realm of terrible losses?
I’ll leave the questions of who’s to blame for another time, if it all. Green Bay nearly upset the defending Super Bowl champions in a game where Aaron Rodgers was playing at 50 percent strength, and that might be generous. I hope in time that stands out more to Packer fans who are right now understandably too crushed to see much beyond how close they were. Instead, let’s focus on putting the devastation of this loss in some historical context.
The answer to the first question above–was it the worst loss–is indisputably yes. We are, of course defining “worse” by measure of how much heartbreak was involved. This is a franchise that has been mostly spared angst. Like any team, they’ve had their tough losses.
But compared to teams like their division rival Minnesota, the Cleveland Browns and the Kansas City Chiefs, the Packers have had a charmed life. It’s hard to be in the playoffs every year and not drop at least a couple tough ones, but only one other game in Green Bay Packers history even comes close and it’s remembered by a simple down and distance–4th and 26.
That game was in 2003 in Philadelphia, and the Packers were on the verge of upsetting Donovan McNabb’s top-seeded Eagles in the divisional round. Leading by seven late, McNabb converted a 4th-and-26 and led a tying drive. Brett Favre threw the most insane pass of his entire career in overtime that was intercepted and set up the Eagles’ winning field goal.
If that game takes place one round later, it would trump what happened yesterday in Seattle. Allowing a 4th-and-26 is a lot more unlikely than giving up an onside kick, in an era when kickers master new arts of putting extra English on their onside attempts. But the loss in Philadelphia still didn’t cost Green Bay a Super Bowl trip, at least not directly. Yesterday did, and by that standard alone, it marks the worst loss in Packer history.
There are only two other games in the long history of Championship Sunday that I would put on a par with this one. The 1998 Minnesota Vikings and 2011 Baltimore Ravens currently hold the top two spots on my list of conference championship heartbreaker. Here’s a brief primer on the agony those fans went through…
*The 1998 Vikings blasted through the regular season with a 15-1 record and looked unstoppable. They didn’t play to those standards in the NFC Championship Game, but led the Atlanta Falcons 27-20 in the fourth quarter. Gary Anderson, as reliable a kicker as there was, lined up for a field goal that would ice it. He inexplicably missed. Atlanta tied the game and won it in overtime.
Given the quality of this Viking team, the fact the franchise never had won a Super Bowl, nor even been there since 1976, and the sheer unlikelihood of Anderson missing a makeable kick indoors, this loss has always been the gold standard for sheer championship heartbreak. And as tough as the Packer loss was yesterday, I still give the Vikings the top spot here.
*The 2011 Baltimore Ravens didn’t blow a lead–in fact, they were coming from behind, trailing 23-20 in a game in New England they had mostly controlled. In the closing seconds, Joe Flacco threw a pass to Lee Evans in the end zone that Evans had his hands wrapped around and was then stripped. It was a nice play by the defensive back, but a professional receiver has to wrap that up. In fact, it was still close enough to being a catch that I remain surprised it wasn’t reviewed by the booth.
Either way, the Ravens could still tie it with a field goal. Instead, Billy Cundiff missed what was nothing more than a glorified extra point.
This loss came when the key Baltimore players–notably Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were getting older and you felt the window closing. At the time, head coach John Harbaugh had not won a Super Bowl and the team had already lost playoff heartbreakers to Pittsburgh in 2008 and 2010. Between the Steelers and the Patriots, the Ravens seemed to be hitting a wall.
It’s easy to say now, because we know that the next year the Ravens broke through and won it all, but even in the moment, I still think Green Bay’s loss yesterday was worse, and for this simple reason–there was never a point when you thought Baltimore had the game won, since their blown plays came when they trailed.
Yesterday in Seattle, this game by rights was over with five minutes with left. I had already mentally tuned out and was telling my mom, who owns a condo in Phoenix, to figure out what price she wanted to charge if any locals here wanted to rent it out for a Super Bowl trip.
So the 2014 Green Bay Packers rank second on the list of conference championship game heartbreak, a list that now includes 98 games.
The question going forward is how the Packers are going to respond. The ’98 Vikings were able to make another NFC Championship Game a couple years later and lost again, but they really never produced a true championship-quality team until Favre went there in 2009 and they suffered another loss that ranks on the list of championship-game heartbreakers.
Contrast that with the Ravens who came back one year later, went right back into Foxboro and took out the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game en route to a Super Bowl title. The current Seattle team isn’t going anywhere and Green Bay will likely get its own chance at this kind of redemption.
We can crisscross sports for other stories of heartbreak and response (or lack of response). In 2003, the Red Sox and Cubs each came within five outs of the World Series and got their hearts ripped out. The Cubs fell apart. The Red Sox won three championships in the next ten years.
Or the San Antonio Spurs, who melted down in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals and lost a title-clinching chance when Ray Allen nailed an epic three and the Miami Heat won in overtime. Two nights later, Tim Duncan missed a bunny layup that would have tied Game 7 late and the Heat won the championship. The Spurs, filled with older players could have folded up. Instead they came back and buried Miami in the Finals this past June.
Will it be redemption or caving for the Packers? That’s the choice everyone in the organization has to make with their actions, starting today as a long offseason begins.