GREEN BAY—The Packers have been in a similar situation before.
Not these Packers, but a team from not long ago, and when a golden opportunity was lost, the season quickly ended.
That’s how dramatically things can turn in the NFL, and it’s a change of fortune with which the 2014 Packers would rather not be confronted.
To recap: It was 12 years ago, and the Packers, at 12-3, were heading east to play the New York Jets in Week 17. While en route, or shortly after they arrived at their hotel the day before the game, fate smiled on them.
The Philadelphia Eagles, also 12-3, were playing on Saturday against the New York Giants with a chance to clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Pro Bowl kicker David Akers had a 35-yard field goal attempt late in regulation to snap a tie, but a streak of 50 consecutive makes for Akers inside 35 improbably ended, wide right.
The Giants eventually won in overtime, getting an interception and a field goal to secure their own playoff berth. For the Packers, the Eagles’ loss put Green Bay in the driver’s seat for a bye and the top seed. Beat the 8-7 Jets and the road to the Super Bowl would go through Lambeau Field, where the Packers were unbeaten on the year.
It wasn’t to be. Hanging tough by scoring a touchdown with five seconds left in the first half to get within 14-10, the Packers eventually were blown out. The Jets, behind four Chad Pennington TD passes in all, scored 21 straight points to open the second half and won going away, 42-17.
Green Bay had given the No. 1 seed back to the Eagles, and when the Buccaneers won later that evening, a bye was lost, too. The Packers had already won the NFC North, but now they were the No. 3 seed playing on wild-card weekend.
Six days later, a strong season was suddenly over.
Michael Vick brought the Atlanta Falcons to Green Bay on a Saturday night and they became the first visiting team to beat the Packers at Lambeau in the playoffs.
Special teams gaffes that included a blocked punt for a TD and a muffed punt helped put Green Bay in a 24-0 hole. Banged up to begin with, the Packers lost running back Ahman Green and receivers Donald Driver and Terry Glenn to injuries during the game and had no firepower to come back. A potentially promising season ended meekly and swiftly, 27-7.
This year’s scenario isn’t exactly the same, but it could be argued there’s even more at stake for the Packers in Week 17 this time.
“It’s a lot on the line,” defensive captain Julius Peppers said. “There’s definitely a lot on the line, and everybody knows that.”
A win earns a division title, a playoff bye and no worse than the No. 2 seed with a home game on divisional weekend. A loss drops the Packers to the No. 6 seed, and they’re playing on the road in the wild-card round, possibly as soon as six days after the showdown with the Lions.
One route shines like a beacon of hope for the journey potentially to reach its desired destination. The other route seemingly hides a cliff not far away for a team touted a month ago as the best in the league after beating the AFC’s top squad, New England, in the midst of a five-game winning streak.
Playoff byes matter. So do home games in January. That’s why Mike McCarthy said earlier this week “you fight like crazy” to get those positions.
Even if this year’s group knows nothing about the 2002 Packers, they can draw upon their own experience from two years ago.
The 2012 Packers went into the Metrodome in Week 17 with a chance to knock the Vikings out of the playoff hunt and secure a first-round bye. They lost on a last-second field goal, and while they won a wild-card rematch with Minnesota a week later, the Packers had to travel to San Francisco for the divisional round rather than have the 49ers come to Lambeau.
More importantly in that case, the 49ers getting the bye allowed them the luxury of springing the read option by QB Colin Kaepernick on the Packers, who weren’t prepared for it.
The 49ers clearly had been saving the read option for the playoffs, and had they been playing at home in the wild-card round against the Bears – which would have been the case had the Packers beaten the Vikings in Week 17 – maybe the read option is revealed a week earlier against unsuspecting Chicago. Then the Packers have a more prepared team, playing at Lambeau, on the second weekend.
But enough with the digressions. No more what-ifs and but-thens.
In the here and now, the Packers lost control of the No. 1 seed with the loss at Buffalo two weeks ago. A day after that defeat, McCarthy said it needed to make the Packers better in the end.
Two days after that, he had the players vote for their six playoff captains and start the charge to and through the postseason.
A bye plus a home game – a playoff position any team would kill for, especially one that has dominated at home – is there for the taking. Don’t let it get away.
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