There is something uniquely cruel about losing in the conference title game. There is no glory in reaching the NFL’s final four. There’s no trophy for the loser. No celebration. No Super Bowl appearance. Nothing. Just an abrupt, season-ending loss that instantly turns even a special team like the 2020 Green Bay Packers into the football equivalent of a fart in the wind, a phrase Hall of Fame GM Ron Wolf once used to describe his Packers team after losing Super Bowl XXXII.
The franchise in Green Bay knows this cruelty all too well.
In 2020, Matt LaFleur’s team won 13 games, captured the NFC North for the second straight season, earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC and crushed the Los Angeles Rams in the divisional round. This was a team that led the NFL in scoring, had six All-Pros and likely has the league’s MVP in quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
What the Packers accomplished during a truly unique season can’t be downplayed. LaFleur and Rodgers expertly navigated through a challenging offseason, crafted a dominant offense and turned the Packers into one of the NFL’s great teams of the season. “Special” is an appropriate term for describing the journey this team took over the last 12 months.
But it somehow all pales in comparison to the ultimate disappointment of losing the NFC Championship Game for the second straight season.
The Packers put together an uncharacteristic performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday and lost, 31-26. As a result, the visiting Bucs celebrated earning a trip to the Super Bowl at Lambeau Field while the Packers sulked back to the locker room, left wondering how another chance to play in the biggest game got away.
The home team fell behind 28-10 early in the second half but stormed back, only to squander three different opportunities to take the lead or tie the game in the fourth quarter.
LaFleur kicked a field goal from the 8-yard line down eight points with just over two minutes left. He thought his offense would get the ball back down five. It never happened.
A controversial penalty on the Bucs’ final drive all but ended the game. The Packers didn’t like the call, but it was probably the right call. Kevin King, a marked man all afternoon, got caught tugging on the jersey of rookie Tyler Johnson, giving the Bucs a new set of downs and killing any chance of Rodgers getting the ball back with a chance to win it with a final drive.
Just like that, the season is over. While the elimination format of the NFL playoff is thrilling, the one-and-one style also provides abrupt endings to seasons. The Packers ran through a gauntlet of 17 games, winning 14, only to have a coaching decision and a penalty essentially end it all in a five-minute timeframe.
Since winning the Super Bowl during the 2010 season, Rodgers and the Packers have lost four straight NFC title games. There were heartbreakers in 2014 and 2020. There were blowouts in 2016 and 2019. They are cruel endings all the same.
There’s so much pressure to get to the Super Bowl. It’s one thing to lose the Super Bowl as a conference champion. It’s another to get to the doorstep, lose, and miss out on the chance to play in the game altogether.
Rodgers wanted so badly to play a title game at Lambeau Field. After four straight on the road, he finally got the chance on Sunday. And now the setting only compounds the disappointment. The Packers lost to good teams in Seattle, in Atlanta and in San Francisco during the last three NFC title game appearances. Getting the game to Green Bay was supposed to provide the built-in advantages necessary for completing the Super Bowl run. Instead, the Florida-based Buccaneers had no problems operating in mild conditions at Lambeau Field.
The Packers, confident they’d be playing in two Sundays, now must begin an uncertain offseason wrought with the potential for massive personnel change. This team will look different to start 2021. Rodgers will be 38. Key veterans on offense and defense will likely be gone. All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari might have a truncated season while he recovers from an ACL injury.
The stars appeared to align for the Packers in 2020 until they didn’t. That’s the NFL. One off day in the playoffs and it’s all over. A special season ends in a snap.
The Packers did everything right. They dominated with the passing game. Rejuvenated a Hall of Fame quarterback. Won the division. Earned the No. 1 seed. Advanced to the conference title game. Still, the cruelest of endings couldn’t be avoided.
Rodgers said he will never forget the 2020 season. It was a special team, led by special players, that won in style and in volume during a truly challenging year outside football.
It’s just a damn shame it won’t end with a chance to play the Kansas City Chiefs in Tampa Bay.
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