Heading into the last week in January with Groundhog Day just around the corner, the Green Bay Packers played another conference title game.
The qualifier for the NFL Super Bowl has been a recurring nightmare for the Green & Gold for several seasons over the past decade. Last season, Green Bay head coach Matt LaFleur led the storied franchise to a division title and the NFL semi-final conference title game in only his first year in a head coaching job. Sure, postseason elimination is rough but coming only one game short of a Super Bowl appearance in only the first year of a brand new coaching regime is not something to complain about.
Then Groundhog Day came early again this year. The Packers started rolling in November, straight on through December and earned a playoff bye week and home field advantage with the top seed in the conference. After dominating the LA Rams in the divisional round of the playoffs, gashing and shredding one of the stingiest defenses in the NFL, the Packers had Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers between them and a return to the Super Bowl after ten years when they battled the Pittsburgh Steelers to expand their league leading NFL championships to thirteen. Since Super Bowl XLV, following the 2010 season, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have been eliminated in conference title games in Seattle, Atlanta and San Francisco.
The Packers never led in their first home conference championship game since the 2007 season, back when Brett Favre threw an overtime interception that led to the New York Giants victory over Tom Brady’s New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. This year, Tampa Bay got off to a 7–0 first quarter lead and barely looked back, building an 18 point lead early in the second half. The Packer defense forced three Tampa Bay turnovers and Rodgers cut the Buccaneer lead to five points in the fourth quarter. That third quarter touchdown, however, after a fumble on their first possession of the half, off a brutal but clean hit that forced Packer running back Aaron Jones from the game, was the ultimate difference in the story — or else, it was the blown defense on a late second quarter touchdown pass from Brady to Scotty Miller with one second left before halftime. Take either play away and it was the difference in the outcome and either is a strong argument that the Packers beat themselves. But that’s football. Whoever freaks out first tends to lose. The Packers would go on to abandon their game plan (namely, not to abandon the running game) and the heads would roll while Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers prepared for the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV at Tampa, Florida — the first Super Bowl contender with a home field advantage. Green Bay fired their special teams coach Shawn Mennenga and allowed defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s contract to expire.
Being a Packer fan myself (and a shareholder), it was a heartbreak watching the dream of a Super Bowl I rematch against the Kansas City Chiefs suddenly snuffed out. Watching the NFL Films highlights from the old NFL-AFL Championship in January 1967, however, it becomes abundantly clear that the game was totally different back when Green Bay was Titletown. The Packers still keep things interesting — and they keep winning enough division titles to keep the title in Titletown — but now the game is built not to have a dominant dynasty. Except New England. Or really, except Tom Freaking Brady.
While factual data does not support the claim that shelters and hotlines are “flooded with more calls from victims on Super Bowl Sunday than on any other day of the year,” the emotional investment of being a sports fan is still very real and the losses can be pretty steep. While the fortunes of such loyalties are a simple matter of pride (and merchandise sales), the sky is the limit as far as the stakes are concerned. Riding the emotional roller coaster of hope and heartbreak can leave a person vulnerable to some real psychological, social and even physical damage of one’s own creation, depending on the level of the investment.
So, please keep some perspective, fellow fanatics and don’t bet more than you can pay out. The ball takes funny bounces.