This one doesn’t crack the top five of Green Bay Packers’ playoff heartbreakers, which is either a good thing or a very bad thing.
Don’t get me wrong. It stings. When you’re a ten-point underdog against the top seed in the conference and have the game in your grasp, leading in the closing minutes, you find yourself daring to dream.
In the end, when the game slips through your fingers for various reasons: a missed field goal, a vanilla prevent defense, or a Favre-like moment from your QB – pick your poison – you spend a good amount of time thinking about what might have been. How close the Packers were to finally ending the San Francisco 49ers curse and moving on to an unlikely title game in Motown.
What moves this down my personal playoff pain list is the absence of expectations for this team and not being left with the usual empty feeling as we witness the team’s playoff window closing.
This roster and this team exceeded all expectations with their late-season run. The NFL’s youngest roster is set up for success, with an offense that will grow together over the next few years and a defense that…well, I’ll get back to the future of the defense in a moment.
As for the game itself, there were just too many missed opportunities. Three trips inside the Niners’ 15-yard line in the first half and scoring only six points. Two dropped interceptions that would have flipped the script on the game. An early injury to Deebo Samuel that zapped them of their offensive creativity. The two picks by Jordan Love and the inevitable missed kick by Anders Carlson. Add all those things together, and the Pack still came within an eyelash of an upset.
I hear a segment of the Packers fan base is ripping Love and Matt LaFleur. Look, I don’t like repeatedly coming up short against the 49ers any more than you do. But do you all remember what this team looked like a couple of months ago? Do you realize how far they’ve come? Do you not believe this team is set up to contend for the next five-plus seasons?
The biggest question looming now is what LaFleur plans to do about Joe Barry. Despite the marginal improvement we saw down the stretch, I still believe this team would be far better off finding a new voice and a new scheme to try to get this unit to play up to its talent level. It needs reinforcements, and you can bet Gutey will use most of his five top 100 picks to address the defense, specifically the secondary.
My gut tells me LaFleur will bring Barry back. His recent comments suggest he still believes in the direction the defense is headed. Of course, making the change means he has to admit he made a mistake with that hire. He can point to the Dallas Cowboys game and the final two regular season games as proof they’re headed in the right direction.
I say, think about it this way: If he cuts Barry loose, would teams be lining up to hire him? He’d probably have to latch on as a position coach somewhere. I’d love to see him make the bold move, but I’ll be shocked if it happens.
Now we’ll all sit back and watch how the offseason unfolds. There will be time to think about how Gutey tinkers with the roster through free agency and the draft. For now, we need to step back and consider how differently we’re looking at this team’s potential than we were a year ago.
We now know that the Packers have another franchise quarterback, one who will get paid in May and will lead this team for the next 5 to 10 years. The Pack will go into next season as a legitimate NFC contender, one notch below the Niners and Lions, and in a group that includes the Philadelphia Eagles, Cowboys, and maybe the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
As a fan, you always want more. You want title games and Super Bowls. Green Bay’s late-season surge provides hope but no guarantees. But I don’t know how you can’t be bullish about this team’s future. Sure, it would have been amazing to close out the 49ers and keep this improbable journey alive. It was so close we could taste it.
I walk away from this season with a little spring in my step. There will be no purgatory for Packer fans. This organization is set up to contend. This was a fun team to watch, with none of the baggage of an aging, ayahuasca-addled quarterback stirring things up.
Bring on 2024.