With the Packers sitting at 6-6, trailing Minnesota by four games and tied with Detroit for second in the NFC North Division race, as well as trailing Carolina, Seattle and Atlanta in the battle for two wild cards, there’s no margin for error entering the final month of the season.
But the Packers have been here before and maybe more often than any other team in the NFL over the last quarter-century.
Since the Packers ended an 11-year playoff drought in 1993, Ron Wolf and Mike Holmgren’s second year together, they’ve made the playoffs 19 times in 24 seasons and they’ve faced comparably desperate situations several times before.
This also is a franchise that had to come from behind by winning must games down the stretch in two of Vince Lombardi’s six postseason appearances.
The 1960 Packers lost to Detroit on Thanksgiving and fell into a third-place tie in the seven-team Western Conference when only the winner got to play for the NFL championship. The two-time defending NFL champion Baltimore Colts were 6-3; the Chicago Bears, 5-3-1; and the Packers and San Francisco, 5-4. But the Packers beat the 49ers the second-to-last week, leap-frogged the Colts and Bears, and won the conference outright with an 8-4 record.
In 1965, the Packers were a game behind the Colts when they lost to the 1-9 Los Angeles Rams on Nov. 28. That set up a showdown two weeks later, when the Packers had to beat Baltimore or face elimination. They won, 42-27, and then beat the Colts again in a Western Conference playoff that allowed them to win the first of their unprecedented three straight NFL titles under a playoff format.
Here were the most unlikely of the Packers’ long-shot playoff coups in the last month of the last 24 years.
1. 2010 – The Packers beat San Francisco, 34-16, on Dec. 5 to improve to 8-4 and at least position themselves for a playoff run, although they trailed the 9-3 Bears in the division and 9-3 New Orleans in the wild-card race. Then two weeks later after losing back-to-back games to Detroit and New England, and playing without Aaron Rodgers, who had suffered his second concussion of the season against the Lions, the situation looked even bleaker. The Packers were 8-6 and now two games behind Chicago. They also trailed the 9-5 Giants and 10-4 Saints in the wild-card race. Plus, Tampa Bay was still in the picture, as well, at 8-6. The only salvation for the Packers was that with Flynn starting at quarterback, they had outgained and outplayed the Patriots, who had been two-touchdown favorites and were headed to a 14-2 regular-season finish. But Coach Mike McCarthy made it clear after the game he expected more. “We came here to win,” he declared. “We’re nobody’s underdogs.” With Rodgers back, the Packers responded, won their last two games, sneaked into the playoffs as a 10-6, sixth seed on a three-way tiebreaker with the New York Giants and Buccaneers, and won Super Bowl XLV.
2. 2003 – When the Packers lost to Detroit, 22-14, on Thanksgiving, they were 6-6. When the weekend was over, they were one game behind 7-5 Minnesota in the North, and also trailed Dallas and Seattle, who were both 8-4 and frontrunners in the wild-card race. Plus, New Orleans was still in the picture at 6-6. The Packers proceeded to win three straight and started believing they were a team of destiny when Brett Favre led them to a highly emotional Monday night victory over Oakland the day after his father died. But as their 3:15 kickoff neared before their final regular-season game against playoff-bound Denver, the Packers’ chances were growing dimmer. When the Saints beat Dallas in a noon game, it eliminated the Packers from wild-card contention because they’d lose out to the Seahawks on the strength-of-victory tiebreaker if there were a three-way tie, also involving the Cowboys, to decide the two wild cards. That left the Packers with only one way in and that was to capture the division. But for that to happen, Minnesota had to lose to the 3-12 Arizona Cardinals, losers of seven straight games. With two minutes to play, the Vikings were up by 11 in Sun Devil Stadium and team employees back home were preparing to put playoff tickets on sale. Then the unbelievable happened. The Cardinals scored a touchdown on a fourth-down play, recovered an onside kick and with no time left on the clock pulled out an 18-17 victory on a 28-yard touchdown pass – on fourth-and-25 – from Josh McCown to Nathan Poole. By crushing Denver, 31-3, the Packers won the division outright with a 10-6 record, one game better than the Vikings.
3. 2016 – The Packers were 6-6 and tied with Minnesota, two games behind Detroit in the NFC North, on Dec. 5. Two weeks earlier, the Packers had suffered a humbling loss against Washington and fallen to 4-6, only to have Rodgers proclaim three days later, “I feel like we can run the table. I really do.” Even after winning the next two and catching the Vikings in the standings, the Packers were on the short end of the division tiebreaker and still trailing three other teams in the wild-card race. But they won four more, finishing with six straight wins, and captured the NFC North with a 10-6 record, one game ahead of the Lions.
4. 1994 –When the Packers lost to Dallas on Thanksgiving and dropped to 6-6 heading into December, they were tied with the Lions for third place behind the 8-4 Bears and 7-5 Vikings in what was then the five-team NFC Central Division. There also was another reason for pessimism. Reggie White had injured his elbow against Buffalo and didn’t start the Dallas game. There were fears he might even be out for an extended period. As for the races, the Cowboys and San Francisco were each 10-2 and in control of the Eastern and Western divisions, when the conference playoffs consisted of three division winners and three wild-card teams. In addition to the Central Division being up for grabs, 7-5 Philadelphia and 6-6 Atlanta also were in wild-card contention. Then the Packers lost to Detroit and dropped to fourth place in the division, two games behind the Vikings and Bears with three to go. The Packers made up ground the next week when they crushed the Bears, 40-3, as Edgar Bennett rushed for 106 of the team’s 257-yard total and White led a defense that held the Bears to 27 yards rushing. There were now just two games to go and 11 of the 14 NFC teams still had a shot at the playoffs. When the Packers beat Atlanta, 21-17, in their final game at Milwaukee County Stadium, they kept their own hopes alive and eliminated one more opponent from the race. But it was a harrowing victory. Favre finished a 9-yard run by propelling himself into the end zone with 14 seconds remaining and the Packers out of timeouts. When Chicago fell to New England and the Packers manhandled Tampa Bay on Saturday, Dec. 24, with Bennett having another 100-yard game, they clinched one of three wild-card berths. After Detroit lost on Christmas Day, the Vikings clinched the Central by winning on Monday night. In the end, the Packers, Lions and Bears all finished 9-7 and four teams from one division made the playoffs for the first time.
5. 2013 – On Thanksgiving, the Packers’ winless streak was extended to five games when they were blown out by the division-leading Lions and fell to 5-6-1. The streak had started when Rodgers broke his left collarbone on the first series against the Bears on Nov. 4. Seneca Wallace relieved him in that game, a 27-20 loss, then injured his groin on the first series the next week in his one and only start for the Packers. Scott Tolzien replaced Wallace, lost the game in relief and then lost his first start to the New York Giants. When Tolzien struggled out of the gate again the next week against the Vikings, Matt Flynn replaced him and rallied the Packers to an overtime tie. Then Flynn made his first start against the Lions on Thanksgiving and fared no better than Wallace or Tolzien. He completed 10 of 20 passes for 139 yards and finished with a 51.9 rating. Not only did the Packers get blown out, 40-10, but they were dominated along the line of scrimmage and rushed for a mere 24 yards on 15 carries. With Rodgers still three weeks away from playing, the outlook was bleak. The Packers trailed 7-5 Detroit and the 6-6 Bears in the North, and five teams in the wild-card race. Then Flynn led the Packers to victory in two of the next three games and Rodgers returned for the finale, a showdown with the Bears for the North title, and hit Randall Cobb with a game-winning, 48-yard touchdown pass in the final minute. The Packers’ 8-7-1 record was good enough to win the division over the 8-8 Bears and 7-9 Lions.