GREEN BAY — For all their success — an NFL-best 13 world championships, Super Bowl I, II, XXXI and XLV titles, some of the greatest players the league has ever known — the Green Bay Packers have certainly endured their fair share of heartbreaking defeats.
Especially in the past two decades or so.
“We’ve had a chance to do some things,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said when asked about the disappointing postseason losses he’s experienced. “When you don’t do it, it hurts.”
Rodgers speaks from experience. He was a backup on the 2007 team that lost the NFC Championship Game at home, preventing his predecessor, Brett Favre, from reaching a third Super Bowl. In his first playoff game as a starter, in the 2009 NFC wild card round, he was stripped of the ball in overtime and watched the Arizona Cardinals return the fumble for a game-ending touchdown in a 51-45 defeat. And he had his 2014 NFL MVP season end with the Packers’ meltdown in Seattle, where they blew a 16-0 halftime lead in the NFC title game.
“That game will always be frustrating, thinking about how it went down, some of the things that happened,” Rodgers replied when asked what he remembered about the latter, a 28-22 overtime loss on Jan. 18, 2015.
“If we win, and then win the Super Bowl, everything is different. There’s something about winning two Super Bowls that separates you from other quarterbacks and organizations and coaches who have coached and played here and played other places. One is fantastic. A lot of people never get to play in the Super Bowl. But you win two, and you start to enter some different, revered territory.”
Every championship-contending franchise has a few gut-wrenching postseason defeats it collectively looks back upon and wonders, “What if?” But the Packers? It’s hard to reduce the list to just five.
Jason Wilde takes a look back at some — but not all — of those legacy-changing losses.
5. The 1960 NFL Championship — Dec. 26, 1960
Legendary quarterback Bart Starr lost only one playoff game playing for Vince Lombardi — their first one together, a 17-13 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles at Franklin Field. The Packers had missed the playoffs in Lombardi’s first season in 1959, going 7-5. In 1960, they improved to 8-4 and earned a berth in the title game.
“That was a pivotal game in our relationship with Coach Lombardi,” guard Jerry Kramer recalled years later. “He had come in ’59, worked our butts off. But we weren’t sure about him. We went 7-5 that year, and everyone’s attitude was, ‘We ought to win, as hard as we worked. Is this guy really able to take us all the way?’”
As it turned out — that year — he wasn’t. The Packers, playing for their first championship since winning the 1944 NFL title with a 14-7 victory over the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds in New York City, had a 13-10 fourth-quarter lead but fell behind 17-13 in the closing minutes. They got the ball back with 1 minute 20 seconds remaining — playing without star running back Paul Hornung, who had a pinched nerve in his neck — but the drive ended at Philadelphia’s 22-yard line when running back Jim Taylor was tackled by Chuck Bednarik and safety Bobby Jackson at the Eagles’ 8 as time expired.
The Packers and Starr never lost another playoff game, going 9-0 and winning five championships in the next seven years, a feat even the modern-day New England Patriots haven’t matched.
“After the game, Coach Lombardi stood up on an equipment box and addressed the team,” Kramer said. “He said he was very proud of the way we played. He told us that we were going to be in a number of NFL championship games in the future and that we would never lose again. And he was right.”
4. Super Bowl XXXII — Jan. 25, 1998
For fans of John Elway and the Denver Broncos, Super Bowl XXXII is remembered for being the quarterback’s first championship after three disappointing, lopsided Super Bowl losses earlier in his career. The indelible memories from the game are Elway being helicoptered near the goal line after being hit by Packers safety Mike Prior at the end of a crucial scramble, owner Pat Bowlen’s “This one’s for John!” proclamation while holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy aloft, and game MVP Terrell Davis running through the Green Bay defense for the final touchdown as if the Packers weren’t even trying. (Which they weren’t.)
For fans of Brett Favre and the Packers, it’s remembered for losing to a 12½-point underdog, for the team failing to win back-to-back titles after the Super Bowl XXXI triumph a year earlier had ended a 29-year championship drought, and for the way legendary general manager Ron Wolf described his team after the 31-24 defeat.
“We're a one-year wonder,” Wolf said. “Just a fart in the wind.”
The Packers had been vying to become the seventh team to win back-to-back Super Bowls. Instead, they became the third to lose in a repeat bid, and victims of the second-biggest upset in Super Bowl history, surpassed only by the Baltimore Colts’ stunning loss to Broadway Joe Namath and the New York Jets in Super Bowl III.
The Packers rallied from deficits of 10 and seven points during the game, tying it at 24-24. But with the Broncos nearing the goal line with under 2 minutes to play, coach Mike Holmgren decided to allow the Broncos to score the go-ahead touchdown to get the ball back to Favre and the offense in hopes of forcing the first overtime in Super Bowl history. Instead, the Packers' ensuing drive fizzled on a fourth-down incompletion intended for tight end Mark Chmura.
A day later, Holmgren admitted he lost track of the downs when he allowed Davis to score. Had he played it out and the defense held the Broncos to a field goal, the Packers might have had as much as a minute and a half — albeit without timeouts — to get a game-winning touchdown or tie the game with a field goal.
"It was a strategy I felt was our only chance to win the football game, because if they kick that field goal there would have only been about 10 or 15 seconds left," Holmgren said after the game. The next day, he admitted he thought it was first down — not second — when he told the defense to let Davis score.
"I don't think anybody in our locker room thought we'd lose," team president/CEO Bob Harlan said years later. "It was tough to accept. We have a party after the Super Bowl, win or lose, and what a difference from the year before when we were dancing and celebrating. It was so subdued and people were even afraid to speak."
3. The Catch II — Jan. 3, 1999
As 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens cradled the football like a newborn — protecting it from the impending too-little-too-late hits from Packers safeties Pat Terrell and Darren Sharper — for a 25-yard, game-winning touchdown from quarterback Steve Young with :03 showing on the Candlestick Park scoreboard, it was the end of an era for the Packers.
The 30-27 loss to the 49ers — archrivals who had seen their 1995, 1996 and 1997 seasons all end with postseason losses to the Packers — marked the final game for Holmgren as coach, Reggie White’s final game as a Packer and the end of a six-year run of playoff appearances. (The Packers wouldn’t return to the postseason again until 2001.)
“The finality of that game,” said Pro Bowl guard Adam Timmerman, who left as a free agent after that season, “was huge.”
Indeed it was. The Packers seemingly were rounding back into form and thought they had a shot at a third consecutive Super Bowl berth, having won Super Bowl XXXI two years earlier before losing Super Bowl XXXII. And had instant replay existed at the time, the Packers may not have made a run to a Super Bowl XXXIII rematch with the Broncos, but they would have at least advanced to the divisional round in Atlanta.
The play in question came five plays before Owens’ game-winner, with the Packers leading 27-23. Future Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice caught a second-down pass at the Packers’ 41-yard line, where he was hit by linebacker Bernardo Harris and safety Scott McGarrahan. McGarrahan forced the ball out of Rice’s grasp and Harris recovered it, which should have given the Packers the ball with 27 seconds left, allowing them to kneel out the clock from there. Instead, referee Gerry Austin’s crew blew the call, and the drive continued, ending in Owens’ catch.
Ironically, before the playoffs began, the NFL toyed with the idea of reinstituting replay for the postseason. Holmgren, a staunch supporter of replay, was against the idea of playing the playoffs under different rules than the regular season. In retrospect, using replay would have extended his Packers tenure by at least another game.
“(The assistant coaches) told me from upstairs it was a fumble,” said Holmgren, who left for the Seattle Seahawks as coach/GM four days after the game. (The NFL brought replay back for the 1999 season.) “You hope over the course of the season those things kind of even out. But I wish they would have called that. It would have meant that the game would have been over at that point.”
Said Wolf: “I certainly did think it was a fumble. But I would think anybody that understands what a fumble is would. But I don’t have any control over that. If you’re going to lose, you’d like to lose, you know what I mean?”
2. 4th-and-26 — Jan. 11, 2004
The 2003 Packers seemed like a team of destiny. After getting off to a 3-4 start, they won six of their last seven games, ending the year on a four-game winning streak. The destiny talk started with Favre’s unforgettable virtuoso performance in Oakland on "Monday Night Football" one day after his father’s unexpected death from a heart attack. Throwing for 399 yards and four touchdowns that night, Favre even had the historically tough Raiders fans in “The Black Hole” cheering for him.
A week later, the Packers snuck into the playoffs when the 3-12 Arizona Cardinals stunned the 9-6 Minnesota Vikings on a last-second Nathan Poole touchdown catch from Josh McCown. (Poole was later feted in Green Bay for his heroics.) It was one of the more bizarre scenes in Lambeau Field history, as most fans stopped watching the Packers beat the Broncos on the field and turned instead to look at televisions inside the luxury boxes. A huge cheer went up inside Lambeau after Poole’s catch.
And then, a week after that, the Packers beat the visiting Seahawks when cornerback Al Harris intercepted Matt Hasselbeck’s pass in overtime — after the quarterback infamously said, “We want the ball and we’re going to score” after the Seahawks won the OT coin flip — and returned it for a touchdown.
But the team of destiny ran out of miracles in Philadelphia. After building a 14-0 lead, the Packers led 17-14 with 1:12 left in regulation and the Eagles facing fourth-and-26 at their own 26-yard line. Had the Packers defense stopped the Eagles there, they would have advanced to the NFC Championship Game the following Sunday at Carolina.
Instead, they allowed quarterback Donovan McNabb to hit Freddie Mitchell for 28 yards, setting up David Akers’ 37-yard field goal with 5 seconds left in regulation to tie the game at 17-17 and force overtime.
Even then, the Packers had a chance to win in OT, getting the ball at their own 32-yard line after the Eagles went three-and-out to start OT. Instead, on the Packers’ first play from scrimmage, Favre dropped back against an aggressive zero-blitz by the Eagles defense and threw the ball up for grabs for Javon Walker, who’d not only caught a similar 50-50 ball earlier in the game but had done so in the team’s inspirational win in Oakland a few weeks earlier.
This time, however, the ball was thrown so poorly that Walker had no chance of catching it. Eagles safety Brian Dawkins intercepted it and returned the ball 35 yards to Green Bay’s 34-yard line. Six plays later, Akers hit the game-winner and the Packers' magical season was over. While Favre led the 2007 Packers to an NFC Championship Game berth and the 2009 Vikings to one as well, he never made it back to a Super Bowl.
“There was a point earlier in that game where I thought, ‘This is it. We’re going to win,'” Favre said when he returned for the offseason program the following spring. “It had sort of started to fall into place for us. With all that happened, we still had a good opportunity to get to the Super Bowl. Who knows if we'll get that opportunity again? You're never guaranteed about next year. You have to seize the opportunities when they're in front of you. I thought we had an opportunity, and it didn't work out. And I don't have too many opportunities left.”
1. Speechless in Seattle — Jan. 18, 2015
In the 2014 NFC Championship Game, the Packers squandered the biggest halftime lead in NFL history in a conference championship game — 16 points. And after essentially dominating the defending Super Bowl-champion Seattle Seahawks on their home turf, they inexplicably stopped playing with the confidence that had gotten them the lead in the first place. About a dozen things had to go wrong for the Packers to lose, and they did.
The biggest mishap came with just over 2 minutes left in regulation after the Seahawks had pulled to within 19-14. All the Packers had to do was recover the ensuing onside kick and they were on their way to Super Bowl XLIX. Instead, backup tight end Brandon Bostick tried to field the ball, even though his job was to block on the play. Instead of Jordy Nelson recovering the kick, the ball bounced off Bostick’s hands and helmet and into the arms of Seattle’s Chris Matthews, setting up the Seahawks’ go-ahead touchdown.
“I just reacted and tried to make a play on it. Obviously, I didn’t,” a tearful Bostick said after the game. “I let my team down. I just feel like if I was able to do my job — my assignment was to block — Jordy would’ve caught the ball and the game would’ve been over.”
Instead, the Seahawks took a 22-19 lead, and while Rodgers quickly led the offense down the field for a game-tying Mason Crosby field goal at the end of regulation, the Seahawks won the game on a 35-yard Russell Wilson-to-Jermaine Kearse touchdown pass on the first possession of overtime.
“Everything that happened along the way ...” Rodgers said in 2018. “(The offense) getting six points in two possessions inside the 5-yard line (early in the game). ... And then obviously how well our defense played and us not being able to finish that game off there in the fourth quarter. ... And giving them a chance to come back ... the onside kick. Yeah, that one, the sting’s probably never going to go away from that one.”
Jason Wilde covers the Packers for ESPN Wisconsin. Listen to him with former Packers and Badgers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays from 9 a.m. until noon on “Wilde & Tausch” on 100.5 FM ESPN Madison.