GLENDALE, Ariz. – Leading 13-10 with 10:53 to play in regulation, the Packers believed their defense was ready to close out the Cardinals. What nobody knew was the game was just beginning.
"I felt we were going to win the whole time," Aaron Rodgers said following a 26-20, overtime loss to the Cardinals that ended the Packers' season.
This was now crunch time. It was veteran quarterback vs. veteran quarterback.
The Cardinals clawed their way down the field, Carson Palmer converting three critical third-down plays. His 9-yard touchdown pass deflected off Packers cornerback Damarious Randall and into the hands of Michael Floyd.
Hey, don't cry about the Hail Mary catch that was upcoming, right?
Yeah, there would be another one of those, just as there was in Detroit on the final play of that game. This time, Aaron Rodgers, the greatest Hail Mary passer in the history of football, found Jeff Janis for 41 yards and a game-tying touchdown on the final play of regulation.
Lucky play? Sure it was.
"I just wanted to put some air on it. I didn't know where anybody was," Rodgers said.
The Packers and Cardinals were now locked in a postseason thriller. The only guarantee was the game would end in heartbreak for one of the two teams.
Circumstances quickly turned against the Packers. They lost the overtime coin toss in bizarre fashion. On the first play from scrimmage, Cardinals all-time great receiver Larry Fitzgerald made one of the two greatest plays of his life. Two plays later he scored the game-winner.
Hurt belonged to the Packers again. What has this team done to deserve such a cruel season-ending fate again?
"This isn't time to reminisce about the past," Mike McCarthy said, obviously referring to his team's loss in last year's NFC title game. "These are the 2015 Packers. Our goals were intact coming in here. They're not as we walk out."
It might've been the Packers' best overall performance of the season. The Packers gained 386 yards against a powerhouse defense. The Packers defense dominated the league's No. 1 offense, until crunch time.
"I can't say we played our best game. We didn't do enough to win," McCarthy said, then adding: "This is a helluva football team we played here tonight. We clearly felt we could beat anybody anywhere."
It was the kind of game you wished was the first, not the last. The season ended with so much hope. The Packers were playing their best football.
"One moment you're hanging out as teammates, and the next moment everyone is going their separate ways. You hate when it ends like this because there is so much hope and belief. I'm pretty disappointed," Rodgers said.
"A loss is a loss. They all suck. You think of the things you could've done better. We stalled too often when the defense was playing great," he added.
University of Phoenix Stadium hosted an NFC Divisional Playoff game between the Packers and Cardinals Saturday night. Photos by Jim Biever, Packers.com.
One of the lasting identities of the 2015 Packers, other than for being the greatest Hail Mary team in the history of football, is for a run of injuries at wide receiver. The season ended with the Packers having lost their four top wide receivers.
"There's no sense making any excuses about that. I'm proud of the guys who played today. The guys gutted it out. We stuck together. We could've played the woe-is-me card but never did," Rodgers said.
McCarthy kept his cool, just as he did following the Fail Mary in 2012 and the title game loss last season. He showed frustration once.
"I don't know what the hell a catch is anymore. It's ridiculous. I don't like the explanation. That's football," he said of a failed challenge that cost his team a time out.
At all other times in his postgame presser, McCarthy was a model of calm. He and his staff had cobbled together a conservative game plan that nearly eliminated the NFC's No. 2 seed, possibly the best team in the game. This wasn't a time for regret, only hurt.
"All I'm thinking about is the disappointment I'm feeling and the guys are feeling in the locker room. We put a lot into this. Tomorrow will be the end of that 2015 season. Guys will move on. That's why relationships are so special in this business. We'll put this one to bed and be proud of things we accomplished," Rodgers said.
"It's just the way it goes. It comes down to a coin flip sometimes."