The Day After: Hurt, Reflection And Hope

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Having one night to reflect on Sunday's playoff overtime defeat in Arizona didn't make the Packers feel any better on Monday morning as they cleaned out their lockers, but even with some emotions still raw there was also some reflection on what the 2009 team accomplished and what's potentially in store for the future.

THE FINALITY

This ending was as sudden as it gets. With all the momentum seemingly on the Packers' side, having scored five straight touchdowns on offense and having won the overtime coin toss, the balloon burst on a sack-fumble that was returned for the winning score by the Cardinals, 51-45.

"It's tough," running back Ryan Grant said. "This is definitely the toughest for me in all of my football career so far, even from my younger days. It's hard to swallow. I was literally sick after the game. I've never had that before. Didn't sleep a lick last night. It's hard really for it to end that way. Never would have thought of it."

Not when this team had realistic Super Bowl aspirations, despite being a Wild Card playoff entrant and needing to go on the road for the postseason. That didn't diminish the Packers' confidence one bit, which made the dramatic and aggravating ending all the harder to process.

"It's just kind of surreal," kicker Mason Crosby said. "It feels weird, being done. Nothing was in place to be done. We felt like we were going to keep rolling. It's disappointing, upsetting.

"It just ends so abruptly. It's like nothing else you ever do. It literally just cuts off. You're done. You come in, you've been preparing, focused, all this stuff, and now you know you're not playing another game for a long time."

Receiver Donald Driver kept referring to that long time being nine months, a stretch he's endured after playoff defeats five previous times in his career. The offseasons don't get any easier for veterans like Driver who never know how many more playoff opportunities they might get.

"This one is going to hurt because we knew, we knew we should have won this game," Driver said. "We have to deal with it now.

"We have a great team, a great young team, great talent on this team, and we know exactly what we can do. It's just that we fell short, fell short of our dream."

THE ACCOMPLISHMENT

Still, players couldn't ignore that the dream was possible only because of an impressive final eight weeks of the regular season that had them playing as well as any team in the NFL.

After two losses to NFC North rival Minnesota and a bottoming-out defeat to then-winless Tampa Bay, the Packers were 4-4 and in danger of not even giving themselves a chance to lay it on the line in the playoffs.

"We turned it around," safety Nick Collins said. "After that Tampa Bay game, we made great strides to get in this position, to have an opportunity to be in the playoff, and make a run for the big dance."

The 7-1 mark in the second half included home victories over the Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens, two teams still going in the postseason after Wild Card wins this past weekend. It was a great ride that saw a locker room come together, as the offense fixed its pass protection problems and the defense rose to one of the top units statistically in the league.

"I think you reflect on the ups and downs of the season, the adversity we went through, how it made us stronger, and just the character of these guys in this locker room," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said.

More than anything, the Packers proved they could bounce back, and they did it again on Sunday by rallying from a 21-point second-half deficit to give themselves a chance to advance.

"You learn about yourself and learn about the team and what kind of guys we have," Grant said. "I know I'll get into a fight with any one of these guys because I know they're going to step up and they're going to fight regardless and finish through the end.

"That was definitely big, and really throughout the whole season, guys showed when our backs are up against the wall we're going to fight. We won't give up until that last minute."

THE FUTURE

Certainly no one is giving up on the core of this young team, which has the makings of a contending club for the foreseeable future on both sides of the ball.

On defense, the Packers feature three Pro Bowlers in Collins, cornerback Charles Woodson and outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who was one of the top rookies in the NFL in 2009. There's also a versatile and experienced inside linebacker corps and a defensive unit in general that will have a year of Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme under its belt.

{sportsad300}"We have a special group here," rookie outside linebacker Brad Jones said. "It didn't work out how it was supposed to, a last-play scenario of a playoff game, which hurts more than anything. But at the same time at least I take from it, this is a real good group, a really good team and a special team, and I think we're going to be even that much better next year.

"We came in playing a whole entirely new defense, a defense we were playing for the first time, and I feel like next year it's going to be that much more solid. Everybody is going to have all the little nuances of everything, of their techniques, of the defense. I feel it's going to be really, really a force to be reckoned with next year."

Then on offense there's a franchise quarterback and Pro Bowler in Rodgers, a deep and productive receiving corps, a proven feature back in Grant and an emerging star at tight end in Jermichael Finley.

Like any team, there's some uncertainty with contract situations, the pending collective bargaining negotiations with the players' union, and players returning from injuries. But there's still a lot to like, and a lot to look forward to.

"I think this team looks the way that coach wants it to, and the leaders of this football team, the way we want it to look," Rodgers said. "We've got a good group of guys that work hard, and I think a good mix of older veterans who carry their weight and play well and lead and younger guys that are buying into what we're all about as a Green Bay Packer organization.

"I like the direction we're going in. I like the (draft) picks we made this year. Those guys stepped up. The undrafted guys have played a big role for us. We have a lot of guys who played a big role for us who were on IR this season. You remember the guys and look forward to spending some time with some of them in the offseason, getting back here and getting ready to make a run."

Time is needed to heal, both physically and mentally, to be sure. But the last loss, the road taken, and the path to come will all serve as motivators.

"This is just going to make myself and these guys want it that much more, knowing ... it might not look like we came that close, but we still feel like we were close to achieving all the goals we set forth with at the beginning of the season," Rodgers said. "I'm going to start up those workouts pretty soon."

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