GREEN BAY, Wis. — An unlikely turn of events that started late in the NFC Championship Game turned more tragic for the Green Bay Packers.
Head coach Mike McCarthy abruptly postponed his season-ending news conference scheduled for late Wednesday morning after his brother, 47-year-old Joe McCarthy, collapsed and died at a gym in the Pittsburgh area.
Also scrapped was subsequent media availability with assistant coaches.
That development came just as the Packers were still trying to pick up the pieces from their against-all-odds, 28-22 overtime loss at the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.
Only about two minutes from punching their travel ticket to Arizona for Super Bowl XLIX on Feb. 1, Green Bay in the words of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and others “gave it away.”
A series of questionable decisions and blunders by the Packers allowed the Seahawks to overcome a 19-7 deficit and then prevail on the first possession of overtime with a long touchdown pass from Russell Wilson to Jermaine Kearse.
As much as people came down hard on young tight end Brandon Bostick for mistakenly shirking his responsibility as a blocker and trying to grab the football in the air on an onside kick, a preceding action by safety Morgan Burnett drew wide criticism.
Burnett intercepted a pass from Wilson — the quarterback’s fourth of the game — with a little more than five minutes left in the fourth quarter. Instead of running with the football in the open field, Burnett quickly slid to the turf, saying veteran linebacker Julius Peppers instructed him as such.
Had Burnett continued running into Seattle territory, he might have scored a touchdown or, at the least, put the Packers in position to tack on a few more points to their 12-point lead.
What’s more, the frenetic final two-plus minutes of the fourth quarter, which included two Seahawks touchdowns around their recovery of the onside kick, probably wouldn’t have played out as such. And it would be Green Bay, not Seattle, getting ready to represent the NFC against the New England Patriots.
“You know, we had a great season,” safety Micah Hyde said. “But, at the end of the day, we’re not here to go to the NFC Championship Game. We’re here to win Super Bowls, and that’s our goal. You know we came up short, so we feel like it was an unsuccessful season just because we didn’t get that done.”
Indeed, the biggest second-half collapse by any team in a conference title game will overshadow so much good the Packers attained this season, including going 12-4 and winning a fourth straight NFC North title after a slow start.
Also to be easily overlooked in the coming months because of what went down late in Sunday’s game is Aaron Rodgers’ assault on opposing defenses. Back healthy after missing nearly half of the 2013 season because of a broken collarbone, Rodgers was interception-proof in Green Bay’s unbeaten record at home and helped trigger the Packers’ league-leading 486 points.
Even a previously maligned defense was pulling its weight late in the season as Green Bay won eight of nine games going into Sunday. Thanks to five takeaways, the Packers had the top-seeded Seahawks ready to be knocked out on their home turf at CenturyLink Field, only to throw it all away.
“You always feel like this is your best year, your best team,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “It felt like we were off to something special (Sunday), especially to come in (there) in a hostile environment and get an early lead and keep them at bay.”
Unfortunately for Green Bay, football games won’t be played again until the late summer, more than six months from now.
By then, there’s no telling whether they will be as much as of a Super Bowl contender as they were this season, when they were on the brink of playing in the big game for the first time since winning their unprecedented 13th league title four years ago.
Green Bay will have the financial wherewithal to re-sign most, if not all, of its top free agents. They include receiver Randall Cobb, right tackle Bryan Bulaga, cornerback Tramon Williams, nose tackle B.J. Raji and fullback John Kuhn. The Packers are expected to have close to $25 million in reserve if the salary cap is raised to $142 million.
Yet they also could free up more money by releasing veteran players such as linebackers A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones.
And there’s no telling whether Peppers, who turned 35 on Sunday and excelled at a new position playing in a 3-4 defensive scheme for the first time, will be back. He’s due to make $9.5 million next season with a cap number of $12 million in the second year of a three-year contract.
“There’s going to be a lot of people who aren’t going to be on the team, a lot of people we can’t pay,” left guard Josh Sitton said. “This team, I don’t think we can be this good for a while. It’s going to be tough anyway.”