After being eclipsed in the 70s and 80s, the Green Bay Packers returned to prominence the following two decades, wherein they made the playoffs 12 times. In fact, since 1993, the Packers have missed the postseason only 5 times. During this 20-year span, the Packers have had far more winning seasons (14) than losing seasons (4), but aside from winning Super Bowl 31 in 1996, they have been on the losing end of many playoff games. 11, to be exact.
So where does last Sunday’s 45-51 loss to the Arizona Cardinals rank amongst those losses? In what follows, I’ll rank the Packers’ playoff losses over the past two decades, starting with the easiest losses to stomach and working toward the most difficult losses, the ones that to this day still stick in your craw and conjure up a plethora of unpleasant memories and emotions. This will get painful. You’ve been warned.
11. 1993: 17-27 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Round. This year marked the first time the Packers made the playoffs since 1982, so winning the Wild Card playoff game against the Detroit Lions the week prior, in stellar fashion no less (Favre to Sharpe, for those who’ve forgotten), was a major accomplishment. Still figuring out how to be a winning team, especially in the playoffs, the Packers traveled to Dallas for a game many didn’t think they had a chance to win. Those people were right. It was easy to see that the Cowboys were the better team that year: after all, they were the defending champs, and they did eventually go on to defend their title in Super Bowl 28. Nonetheless, the Packers’ season had to be considered a success overall. As such, this was definitely the easiest loss to stomach.
10. 1994: 9-35 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Round. New year, same story—though the score was more lopsided this year than the year before. Prior to this game, the Packers had beaten the Lions in the Wild Card round for the second consecutive year after holding Barry Sanders to -1 yards rushing. Unfortunately, they had to play the Boys yet again, who proved, yet again, to be unquestionably the better team.
9. 2001: 17-45 loss to the St. Louis Rams in the Divisional Round (“The 6 Interception Game”). As with the two Divisional Round games against the Cowboys, many didn’t give the Packers a chance against the St. Louis Rams—and for good reason: the Rams were the far superior team. The epitome of offensive juggernaut, the Rams controlled the entire game. Brett Favre’s notorious 6 interceptions didn’t help matters, but he was clearly trying to overcompensate for a team that was in well over its head. It’s never enjoyable to watch your team get dominated from start to finish, but considering the expectations and that the Rams were favored to win the Super Bowl that year, I think we can all agree this loss was not nearly as devastating as the ones below.
8. 1995: 27-38 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Conference Championship (“Threes a Charm”). This would be the third straight year the Packers would lose to the Cowboys in the playoffs, though this time it would be in the NFC Championship game rather than in a Divisional Round match-up. Unlike in the prior two playoff games against the Boys, there was a feeling amongst some that the Packers could finally get over the hump this time around. And while the Packers put forth a much better effort in this game, the Cowboys were still too talented, particularly on offense. Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Alvin Harper, and Michael Irvin led a high-powered attack that the Packers (read the entire NFL) could just never contain. Continually losing to the Cowboys was becoming quite aggravating, but anyone could see that the Cowboys were, at least in those years, the better team. And they accrued three rings in four years to prove it.
7. 2002: 7-27 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the Wild Card Round (“The End of Lambeau Dominance”). Had the New York Jets not destroyed the Packers the week prior, a 17-42 shellacking, the Packers would have earned themselves a first round bye. Instead, they hosted the Falcons in the Wild Card round, a game where Michael Vick had a playoff coming-out party. At this point in the season, the Packers were a hobbled, dilapidated team, and their lack of depth had become obvious the week prior against the Jets. Nonetheless, this loss stands out because it marked the first home playoff loss in the Favre era. Until this game, the Packers appeared invincible in the playoffs at home, where they were 6-0 over the last decade. After losing this game, however, they’ve been a mediocre 2-2 at home in playoff games. The Packers not only lost the game but they also lost much of the Lambeau mystique.
6. 2004: 17-31 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the Wild Card Round (“The Moss Moon”). We can all admit it: losing to the Vikings sucks. Hard. It sucks even worse losing to them in the playoffs. At home. After losing to the Packers twice during the regular season, Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss came in and had their way with the Packers’ defense. Culpepper threw 4 touchdowns, 2 of which went to Moss. Oh, and after one of those touchdowns, Moss proceeded to celebrate by faux mooning the Lambeau crowd. This, more so than Favre’s 4 interceptions, is my most palpable memory from this game. I’m sure that’s true for many other Packer fans as well. Oh joy.
5. 2009: 45-51 OT loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the Wild Card Round. I’m not sure this game has a moniker to attach to it, but I’m sure it will in due time. What a crazy game. The Packers seemed out of it early after turning the ball over on their first two possessions of the game, but they fought back valiantly, coming from behind to tie the game twice in the 4th quarter. The defense, which was ranked number 2 overall during the regular season, absolutely imploded during this game, looking far more like the 2008 unit than the dominating one they were for most of the 2009 season.
Many are still complaining about the no-calls, ones I will agree were quite egregious, but placing the onus squarely on the refs ignores the fact that the Packers clearly lost the game themselves with their early turnovers and their abominable play defensively. What puts this game higher on the “man, that loss really sucked” list is the fact that the Packers were the better team. The Cardinals played as close to a flawless game as they could, particularly on offense, had a couple of lucky bounces go their way, and benefited from some no-calls from the refs. Despite this, the Packers still had a very good chance to come away with the victory on the road. Making this loss even more arduous to swallow is the potential this team had. Having won 7 of their last 8 games, this Packer team seemed to have hit their stride, and with many of the top NFC teams struggling, the Packers, despite being only a 5 seed, had a great opportunity to get to the Super Bowl. This was clearly a missed opportunity, a theme that unfortunately permeates the remaining four losses on this list.
4. 1998: 27-30 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the Wild Card Round (“The Catch 2”). This was the fourth straight playoff meeting between the Packers and the 49ers. The Packers had won the prior three games, and quite handedly. In this sense, we were to the 49ers what the Cowboys were to us. This time, however, Steve Young and Terrell Owens did everything in their power to end the 49ers’ skid. The Packers took the lead late in the 4th quarter, but not late enough, as they gave the 49ers just enough time to make the game winning drive. As we all know, that drive should have ended early, as the Packers recovered a Jerry Rice fumble, but this game pre-dated the return of instant replay (in fact, this game was a major impetus in bringing back instant replay). With the Rice fumble voided by the ref’s early whistle, the 49ers continued their drive, one that ended with the famous strike to Terrell Owens, aptly named The Catch 2. Having beat up on the 49ers for years, the Packers probably owed the 49ers one, but the fumble coupled with the Owens catch is still a painful memory for many Packer fans.
3. 2003: 17-20 OT loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the Divisional Round (“4th and 26”). The Packers came into this game riding a giant wave of both emotion and momentum. Over the past 5 weeks, aside from winning 5 straight games, they had coped with the death of Favre’s father; they won the division via the Cardinals beating the Vikings in the last game of the season on a last second touchdown catch by Nate Poole; and they beat the Seattle Seahawks in overtime when Al Harris picked off Matt Hasselbeck for a touchdown. The Packers used that emotion and momentum to jump to 14-0 lead at the end of the 1st quarter and a 14-7 lead at halftime. After a scoreless 3rd quarter, the Eagles tied the game at the start of 4th quarter, but the Packers retook the lead with a Ryan Longwell field goal. This is where the loss becomes particularly disconcerting, as the Packers had multiple opportunities to finish the Eagles and move on to the NFC Championship Game. Facing a 4th and 1 on Eagles’ 41 yard line with 2:30 left in the game, the Packers opted to punt rather than go for it despite having a 1,883 yard rusher in Ahman Green and one of the best offensive lines in football. It was downward spiral from then on. Here’s the cliff notes: the Packers allowed Donavan McNabb to hit Fred Mitchell on the infamous 4th and 26; David Akers ties the game; the Packers have the ball in overtime; Favre throws an interception; the Eagles drive down and kick a field goal; Packer fans around the world receive a collective headache, trying to wrap their heads around how the Packers lost that one.
2. 2007: 20-23 OT loss to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game. Heading into this game, I really thought the Packers were Super Bowl bound. And those thoughts didn’t change at halftime when the Packers were up 10-6. But the second half was one dominated by the Giants, both offensively and defensively. The Packers, however, had numerous chances to change the direction of the game; in particular, the Giants fumbled the ball 5 times, but the Packers didn’t recovery once. The cold, bitter weather paralleled the feeling many Packer fans espoused following Lawrence Tines’ 47 yard field goal in overtime, a field goal set up by Favre’s second interception of the day. Much has been made of the interception, including snapshots of the play where every receiver except Driver, whom Favre threw to, appeared to be open. Nonetheless, Favre is not the only one culpable for the loss. Put frankly: the Giants simply wanted it more, and though it pains me to admit it, they deserved it. They were the better team that day.
1. 1997: 24-31 loss to the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl (“This One’s for John”). If the Packers had regressed in one area coming off their 1996 Super Bowl Championship, it was in their run defense. Ranked 4th against the run in 96, the Packers fell all the way to 20th in 97, and it ended up being their achilles heel in the Super Bowl. The Broncos’ Terrell Davis rushed for 157 yards and 3 touchdowns, allowing John Elway to finally win his first ring. This game tops the list of gut retching playoff losses because it happened in the Super Bowl; that said, this loss continues to sting because the Packers were the better team. The Broncos were a hell of a team, no doubt, and they proved that the following year by doing what the Packers couldn’t: win back-to-back championships. But the Packers were 11½ point favorites for a reason. Everything about this game was frustrating, but topping them all was Mike Holmgren’s inability to adjust to Denver’s innovative defensive style. It was a classic case of hubris, where Holmgren believed, despite empirical evidence to the contrary, that his offense was better and that it would prevail in the end. We saw an almost identical situation occur in Super Bowl 42, where New England Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick refused to adjust this offensive game-plan. Both coaches, as we know, lost those games.
I hope that wasn’t as agonizing to read as it was to write.
Looking back, we can see that the Packers had some incredibly close yet frustrating playoff losses. What resonates most to me is the overtime losses. After beating the Seahawks in overtime at home in the 2003 Wild Card Round, the Packers lost every playoff game since that has gone into overtime. In fact, excluding the loss to the Vikings at home in 2004, the last three playoff losses have come in overtime. Worse, perhaps, is the circumstance under which they lost those games: all three overtime losses stemmed from quarterback turnovers. Favre set up both the Eagles’ and Giants’ losses with overtime interceptions, and Rodgers’ overtime fumble was returned for a touchdown against the Cardinals. In that regard, that’s a string of really excruciating losses, amplified all the more by the hysteria and magnitude surrounding the playoffs. Compared to, say, a Detroit Lions fan, Packer fans don’t have much to complain about: in the past two decades, we’ve seen our team go to two Super Bowls, win one, and make the playoffs 12 times out of 20. Yet when I look back at some of these losses—in particular, the way the Packers lost—I can’t help but think we are due.
I truly believe the Packers have put themselves in a fortuitous situation heading forward. They have a lot of potential, and more importantly, they have key players at key positions on both offense and defense (outside of left tackle, of course). Depending on how the off-season shakes out, they should be considered one of the favorites for 2010. Let’s hope the Packers can continue their winning ways in the next decade, but at the same time, let’s hope we have a few more season that end like 1996 and less that end like 1997, 1998, 2003, 2007, and 2009.