GREEN BAY – Two of the last four NFC title games have been lost in absolutely heartbreaking fashion.
The two teams that had their hearts broken will face each other Sunday at the Georgia Dome for a redemptive berth in Super Bowl LI.
No one needs a refresher on what happened to the Packers two years ago, how a 12-point lead and possession of the ball with five minutes to go in Seattle somehow got away in an eventual overtime loss.
Two years prior to that, the Falcons had their own meltdown, leading the 49ers 17-0 at home early in the second quarter and then by 10 points at halftime, only to get shut out in the second half thanks to a pair of turnovers and a final drive that ended 10 yards from the winning touchdown in a four-point defeat.
Losses just don’t come any tougher than those.
Neither soul-crushing setback has been a major topic of discussion this week, but that’s to be expected. Professional athletes don’t get where they are by dwelling on history. They process it and move on.
“I’m not sure it’s the motivation right now,” Falcons QB Matt Ryan said in his conference call with Green Bay media. “The motivation right now is what’s in front of us, not what happened four or five years ago.
“It’s one of those things that you learn from. You learn that the opportunities are hard to come by, and you learn you want to play your best when you have the opportunity.”
Thoughts like that have echoed through the Packers’ locker room this week as well, even without the historical backdrop. It’s about the here and now.
“It’s tough to get here,” second-team All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “What is the number, 28 teams that are home right now? There’s only four that have this opportunity? Yeah, it’s very special. You have to capitalize on it.”
For the Falcons, Ryan is one of a minority of players on the roster who was denied that Super Bowl trip four years ago. Atlanta has a new head coach and pretty much an entirely new defense now.
For the Packers, the bad memories are inevitably fresher, but last week, flipping the script on the series of down-to-the-wire playoff heartbreaks within which Seattle fell could serve as a huge psychological step forward.
“I think the thing you can learn from that game is you’ve got to finish a game – a 60-minute game – just like this past game,” Pro Bowl guard and first-time playoff captain T.J. Lang said. “Leading the whole game, they come back and tie it up, we got over the hump there and came out on top of one of those close games for once in the playoffs, which was awesome.
“We’re a different team than we were two years ago. But we have talked. I think all the guys in that room that were a part of that game, it’s still kind of sitting in the back of their heads. But that’s two years ago. We can’t worry about that. We’ve just got to focus on the job at hand now and taking on Atlanta.”
The Packers have been remarkably effective at focusing in that manner for the past eight weeks. That’s the only way a team can overcome a four-game losing streak heading into Thanksgiving and play with its back against the wall for so long.
This game, this opponent, is all that matters.
The bonus now in the equation, as Lang alluded to, is how the Packers won last week, on the road no less. One walk-off victory doesn’t completely erase the last three playoff exits, but it gives a team with plenty of momentum the added mojo to draw upon when Sunday’s game, as it almost certainly will, gets tight in the fourth quarter.
“It’s the same mindset we’ve had the last, really, two months,” Lang said. “We’ve got to go out there, we’ve got to do whatever it takes to win the game and at the end of the day, its football. Nobody needs to go out and panic. Nobody needs to try to be something they’re not. We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing.”
Easier said than done with the stakes the highest they’ve been. The mental challenge here, from many angles, is enormous.
But as the Packers have done for the last eight games, they aren’t running away from what’s on the line. They’re embracing every bit of it.
“How do you not think about it?” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “We’re 60 minutes away from being there again.”