They were trying to process yet another last-second, gut-wrenching defeat, their sixth of the season in the first 14 games by four points or less. They had played valiantly with backup quarterback Matt Flynn at the helm for an injured Aaron Rodgers, but they had come up short when Flynn was sacked on fourth down from the New England 15-yard line on the game’s final play.

They were upset, to say the least. Rodgers or no Rodgers, they felt they should have won the game, and by losing their second straight to fall to 8-6 with two weeks left, they couldn’t help but wonder where their playoff prospects stood.

What many players weren’t aware of in the immediate aftermath, but learned from some of their coaches and from reporters who came into the locker room for the usual post-game interviews, was that the outcomes of two NFC games earlier that day had changed everything.

Despite the heartbreaking loss that ended moments earlier, the Packers were finding out they had a new lease on life. By virtue of the opponents they were playing the final two weeks at Lambeau Field, and the league’s convoluted tiebreaker scenarios for playoff spots, the Packers needed only to beat the New York Giants and Chicago Bears in those last two contests to qualify for the postseason.

For the players, at the same moment that the season appeared lost, it was suddenly far from over.

“That was a lot of mixed emotions in there,” receiver Jordy Nelson said of that post-game locker room scene. “Obviously we lost so we weren’t too happy. We made enough mistakes to cost us the game.

“But we knew we still had a chance, and that’s all you want. We controlled our own destiny. We win out, we were in, and our playoffs started that day.”

The rest, as they say, is history, as the Packers won those final two games to earn the NFC’s No. 6 seed. Then they proceeded to win three playoff games on the road to reach Super Bowl XLV, and they’re just hours away from attempting to win the franchise’s fourth Lombardi Trophy.

The help they needed
Considering the developments since that night in the northeast nearly seven weeks ago, it’s worth revisiting just how the scenario fell into place so perfectly for the Packers.

First were those two NFC games from earlier that afternoon, which took place simultaneously and both went Green Bay’s way in dramatic fashion, finishing less than 15 minutes apart.

Roughly 185 miles to the southwest of the Packers’ team hotel in Providence, R.I., the Giants were hosting the Philadelphia Eagles in East Rutherford, N.J., in a game critical to the NFC East standings and Wild Card picture. Both teams were 9-4, but because the Packers were playing the Giants the following week with a chance to hand them another defeat, it would be to Green Bay’s advantage to see New York pick up its fifth loss before coming to Lambeau Field.

Midway through the fourth quarter, that looked like a pipe dream. The Giants scored a touchdown to take a 31-10 lead with 8 minutes, 17 seconds left. But the Eagles – behind dynamic quarterback Michael Vick, a successful onside kick, and a 65-yard punt return by the lightning-quick DeSean Jackson on the game’s final play – improbably rallied for 28 points in half a quarter for a 38-31 victory that many have called the NFL’s game of the year.

But that wasn’t all that afternoon. More than 1,100 miles down the Atlantic Coast from Eagles-Giants was Lions-Buccaneers in Tampa. The host Bucs were 8-5 with a better NFC record than Green Bay at the time, a key tiebreaker in the playoff picture.

In a tight game throughout, Tampa Bay kicked a field goal with 1:39 left for a 20-17 lead. Playing with third-string quarterback Drew Stanton, who had just beaten the Packers the previous week at Ford Field in Detroit, the Lions drove 58 yards to set up former Green Bay kicker Dave Rayner – whom current Packers kicker Mason Crosby beat out for the job as a rookie in 2007 – for a 28-yard field goal on the final play of regulation.

Then, after winning the overtime coin toss, Stanton marched the Lions 63 yards to another field goal, completing a key 12-yard pass to Calvin Johnson on third-and-8 to get into scoring range. Once again, Rayner unknowingly did his former team a huge favor, hitting from 34 yards out for a 23-20 Detroit win.

Those down-to-the-wire losses that day by the Giants and Buccaneers permanently altered the NFC playoff picture and put the Packers, despite a two-game losing streak, in control.

Ultimately, the Giants won their final game after losing to the Packers to finish 10-6. The Bucs won their last two games to also finish 10-6. That ended up being Green Bay’s record as well, they best they could have hoped for after the New England defeat, and the Packers shared 8-4 NFC records with New York and Tampa Bay. But the strength-of-victory tiebreaker, one fairly far down the list that compares the records of teams beaten, gave the playoff nod to the Packers amongst the three 10-win teams.

As it turned out, even if the Packers had beaten the Patriots, they still would have needed to win their last two games to fend off the Giants and Bucs. A 10-6 record with a win over New England but a loss to either of the NFC opponents in the final two weeks would have dropped the Packers’ conference record below their competitors’ marks. They would have come out on the wrong side of that primary tiebreaker, and strength-of-victory never would have come into play.

So had either of those other two Dec. 19 games gone differently, who knows?

Seizing their chance
In the end, all that mattered was the Packers came back from Massachusetts with two weeks to go, two games to win to extend the season, and as Head Coach Mike McCarthy likes to say, “everything in front of them.”

“To find out that you hold the key to your own destiny, it gave us hope,” receiver James Jones said. “We still knew we were playing for something, but we knew it was no more mistakes. We knew that our backs were against the wall.”

So is that what did it for these Packers, that they were finally pushed to the brink of elimination? Perhaps. Some might argue it’s no accident that after losing six games by four or fewer points, the Packers sealed three one-score victories over the Bears, Eagles and Bears again with interceptions in the final minute during this current five-game winning streak. With their “playoffs” starting two weeks earlier than everyone else’s, the Packers found a way to win tight games when they absolutely, positively had to have them.

Others might subscribe to fate, the whole “team of destiny” theme, which could get more traction depending on how Super Bowl XLV against the Pittsburgh Steelers unfolds and concludes.

In all reality, it’s nothing more complex or mystical than the nature of the NFL, and the ultra-thin difference between winning and losing games – a minuscule margin for error that encompasses the close ones the Packers lost throughout the year but have won of late, and those other two crucial contests on Dec. 19.

But something else was probably in play, too, stemming from the trip to New England. The Packers had heard McCarthy publicly call them “nobody’s underdog” prior to taking on quarterback Tom Brady and the then-AFC Super Bowl favorite Patriots on the road with a backup quarterback making his first pro start. A bold proclamation, but everyone bought in.

From the top man on down, the Packers truly believed they were going to win a game no one else in the NFL world gave them a chance to, and they played like it. Had the Packers won, it would have been no fluke, because the only fluke plays in that game actually went New England’s way – three potential interceptions of Brady that somehow weren’t hauled in, a special-teams breakdown that allowed an offensive lineman to rumble 71 yards to set up a touchdown, and a mixup between Flynn and Jones on a pass route that resulted in a 36-yard interception return for a score.

“You don’t win games on moral victories, but you can take a lot away from them,” receiver Greg Jennings said. “And what we took from that game was that we have a lot of guys who are going to step up and fight, despite who’s up, who’s playing, and that’s why we’re here today, because of guys being able to step up and fill voids where key guys went down.

“That game, Aaron didn’t get to play, but Matt came in and he played phenomenal. We just weren’t able to pull it out for him. But it was definitely one of those turning points in the season where it was like, we have a lot of guys, a nucleus of guys that can get it done anywhere.”

They had no way of knowing it at the time they left the Gillette Stadium locker room to come back to Green Bay in the early-morning hours of Dec. 20. But that effort, combined with the fortunate results elsewhere that day, set the Packers up for this magical run.

If the absence of their leader and trigger man under center wasn’t going to slow them down, nothing else would. Players had been stepping in for injured teammates all year and performing, and that was the epitome of it.

Win or else? They thrived. Going on the road for the entire postseason? No sweat. The top three seeds in the NFC? None was any better than the Patriots nor, as they proved, themselves.

“When we got the news that all we had to do was win out, then I think something clicked in everybody, the whole team,” linebacker Desmond Bishop said. “I guess it’s our animal instinct of fight or flight. Everybody turned it on and we started hitting on all cylinders at the perfect time, and riding that wave of momentum.

“I think whenever you’re put in that position, most teams it brings out the best in them. In our individual team, with the kind of talent we have, bringing out the best of us kind of got us to the Super Bowl.”

All that’s left is for it to get them the championship.

Additional coverage - Feb. 4