Games Got Away During Slow Start In 2006

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The Rams' Jerametrius Butler recovers a fumble near the goal line with 36 seconds left to seal St. Louis' 23-20 victory over Green Bay on Oct. 8 at Lambeau Field.

Finishing 8-8 and missing the final NFC playoff spot based on a "strength of victory" tiebreaker illustrates both the excitement and the frustration of the 2006 season for the Green Bay Packers.

Exciting, because it sure beats the 4-12 mark of 2005, and heading into the season's final weekend with a shot at a playoff berth is certainly more fun than just playing out the string.

But also frustrating, because there were a handful of games the Packers let get away, and if any one of them had gone Green Bay's way, the Packers might have been heading to Philadelphia for a Wild Card game this weekend.

Head Coach Mike McCarthy was asked in his season-ending news conference this week what prevented the Packers from getting the one more win they needed to make the playoffs, and he didn't single out one game. He pointed to the start of the season, when the Packers lost three games - to New Orleans, Philadelphia and St. Louis - they were in position to win, leading to a 1-4 record heading into the bye week.

"I think clear-cut is just the way we started the season," McCarthy said. "We didn't make plays at critical times in football games. We didn't win the close football game to start."

To recap, the Packers led the Saints 13-0, eventually fell behind by two touchdowns, and had a late fourth-quarter rally come up seven points short, when four passes from the New Orleans 44-yard line fell incomplete with two minutes left in a 34-27 loss.

At Philadelphia, Green Bay led the game 9-7 at the half before a series of defensive breakdowns and offensive giveaways in the second half produced a 31-9 defeat.

Then against the Rams, the Packers seemingly had the game-tying field goal in their back pocket and were 11 yards from a winning touchdown in the final minute when a fumble and botched recovery gave St. Louis a 23-20 decision.

There were two other heartbreakers later on as well. At Buffalo, the Packers dominated statistically except for turnovers, and two giveaways inside the Bills' 5-yard line were the most regrettable mistakes in a 24-10 loss.

Then at Seattle, much like at Philadelphia, the Packers led for a good portion, this time up 21-12 midway through the third quarter before the game got away, 34-24.

That's five losses, three that turned on a play or two, and two others with halftime leads, that McCarthy looks back on as the type to fix in 2007.

"Winning the close game, (and) coming out and doing a better job in the second half, those are two things we need to do better as a football team," McCarthy said.

As maddening as those games are to reflect upon, though, it's important to do so collectively as McCarthy has done and not just wish there had been one more victory.

There's a much greater lesson to be learned in looking at the reasons for all of those losses rather than just the reasons for one or two, because every team in the NFC playoff race has games they're similarly lamenting.

Take the No. 6 playoff seed and tiebreaker-winning N.Y. Giants.

{sportsad300}Much of the playoff drama in the final weekend may have been removed had a fourth-down sack against Tennessee not eluded their grasp in a 24-21 loss. Or had they not given up a field goal with 1 second left to lose to Dallas, 23-20. Or had they capitalized on their opportunities in the season opener against the Colts, when they outgained them by more than 100 yards (433-327) and lost 26-21.

The other 8-8 team, St. Louis, could say the same thing. They lost a pair of games, by two points each, to NFC West rival Seattle on field goals in the final 10 seconds or they may have been division champs.

In the first game, the Rams thought they won when the Seahawks were called for an illegal formation with less than 10 seconds left, but an obscure rule did not call for a 10-second clock runoff, and Seattle kicker Josh Brown got a chance to hit a game-winning 54-yarder, 30-28. In the rematch, a failed two-point play midway through the fourth quarter was the difference when Brown beat them again from 38 yards out in the final seconds, 24-22.

Quite simply, that's the NFL. That's why it can be so frustrating and costly to let any chance at victory get away, but also why there's no time to dwell on those failures during the season because the very next week may present a similar, down-to-the-wire opportunity that becomes more valuable than the last.

McCarthy's approach was very matter-of-fact in that respect -- "That's why it's a 16-game season," he said -- and it served a young Packers team well. He didn't ride the emotional roller-coaster, and tried to prevent his players from doing so as well despite the excitement and frustration that accompanied the season.

To their credit, the Packers took advantage of some close calls late in the season in wins over the Lions and Vikings as part of their season-ending four-game winning streak. And there's as much to study in those games, looking at how they were won, to help capitalize on those opportunities in the future as well.

The hope is that greater experience and steady improvement, combined with new acquisitions during the off-season, will take the Packers at least one step beyond a .500 team barely out of the playoffs. And with fewer games to look back on with so much regret.

"I think we have achieved a number of small successes," McCarthy said. "But until we ultimately achieve the ultimate success of winning the Super Bowl, we will not be satisfied."

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