GREEN BAY – Falling one game shy of the Super Bowl for the second time in three years is going to sting for a while.
But as the Packers cleaned out their lockers on Monday, less than 24 hours after their season ended with an NFC Championship Game loss in Atlanta, the disappointment was tinged with pride – not at how Sunday’s game went, obviously, but at how they got there.
“When you get that close and not accomplish it, it hurts,” veteran safety Morgan Burnett said. “But when you really look back at it, I’m really proud of this team, what we’ve been through, starting 4-6. I bet nobody outside this locker room thought we’d be in the NFC Championship. We’ve got a lot of things to be proud of.”
One thing in particular stood out.
“Just not giving up,” receiver Randall Cobb said. “We’ve pretty much been playing a playoff game since the beginning of December, late November.
“It’s been a rough road for us, but everybody sacrificed a lot, everybody gave tremendous effort, everybody stuck together. We never turned on each other. We continued to believe.”
No matter how much the roster changes after this season, the veterans will always have this season to draw upon to try to get back to this point and get past it.
“You just keep playing. That’s why you play this game,” Burnett said. “Football challenges you in different ways to get better. Nothing is done easily in this league. That’s the fun part about it. You’re going to get knocked down sometimes, but I think a guy is judged on the way he gets back up.”
That’s what the Packers did all year, whether it was playing through injuries or finding young players to step in for their wounded teammates. They overcame a lot that was beyond their control in winning eight straight games.
Two of the victories were in prime time on the road, in Philadelphia and Detroit. Two were home trouncings of fellow NFC playoff combatants in Seattle and the New York Giants. Two were thrilling walk-off road wins, at Chicago and Dallas.
“We made a hell of a run,” said safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who made his first Pro Bowl this year. “A lot of people counted us out early in the season when we were 4-6. No one believed we would run the table, and then we actually did it. That showed a lot about this group.
“It didn’t end how we wanted it to end, but we fought hard and we came up short.”
Head Coach Mike McCarthy repeats often that every season is its own entity, and that was no more true than with this one. There was something different about the 2016 Packers, who battled in such a way down the stretch they felt there was nothing they couldn’t overcome.
The Falcons proved that wrong, of course, which made for a different ending as well. There was no last-second, gut-wrenching playoff loss to lament, just an opportunity that required Green Bay’s best when the “best” gauge was too low after two months of needing it.
“You get that far, you want to win the whole thing,” said first-time Pro Bowler T.J. Lang. “We really laid it out there for our brothers. Really a lot of good things that came out of the year.
“But it never gets easier. It’s always tough.”
That part never changes.
“It hurts right now, but when you reflect back on this season, man, this team showed a lot of grit,” Burnett said. “They showed the way we fight, and you can’t count us out.”