To start the Conference Championship Sunday, the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks delivered one of the most exciting and memorable games in recent NFL history. As Seattle entered the game as a heavy favorite (up to 8 points before kickoff) and as the defending Super Bowl champion, it was expected that they would control the tempo of the game while the Packers needed to rely on a hobbled Aaron Rodgers at QB to try and pull the upset.
The first 55 minutes of the game had played out almost exactly as the Packers could have scripted them, with the Seahawks looking discombobulated for most of the game, and the crowd almost pondering the possibility of prematurely exiting the stadium. After all, with Green Bay holding a 19-7 lead with 5:13 remaining, QB Russell Wilson had just thrown his fourth interception of the day and Green Bay held possession of the ball with the possibility to just kill the clock and seal the game.
That appeared to cap a day from hell for the Seahawks, which included the horrifying performance from Wilson, 5 total turnovers, and only 191 yards of total offense by that point. In fact, Wilson finished the first quarter without completing a pass, and ended the first half with a win probability added of -29% (according to NFL Advanced Analytics). By that point, the Packers had a winning expectancy well above 95%, and people in Green Bay were probably starting to book their round-trips to Arizona for Super Bowl Sunday.
Instead, what ensued became one of the biggest collapses in sports history. After being punchless for almost the entirety of the game, the Seahawks reverted to their regular form and produced 21 points and 206 offensive yards in less than 8 minutes, first forcing overtime and then winning on their first possession in the extra period.
While the turnaround produced by Seattle was certainly remarkable, it was also greatly aided by a troubling number of Packer mistakes that swung their chances in many forms. Some of these decisions took place before the critical fourth quarter, while some other happened during the fateful final minutes, but all of them ended up affecting the outcome of the game.
Today we take a look at five key junctures that derailed the Packers in their quest for the Super Bowl, and why we will have the Seahawks vying for a repeat title on February 1st.
5.- Packers throw incomplete twice on third down
Starting the fourth quarter, the Packers held a 16-7 lead and the ball on their own 25-yard line. The first play from scrimmage of the quarter was a surprise direct handoff to backup running back James Starks, who promptly ran a 32-yard counter rush to enter Seattle territory. At that point, Green Bay had advanced a healthy 115 yards on the ground, and with less than 12 minutes to go in the game, it seemed that killing clock was almost as valuable as trying to add more points.
With first-and-10 at the Seattle 33, Starks again rushed for a modest 3 yards, but that play was followed by two straight incompletions to stop the clock at 11:04. The Packers would kick a field goal and add to their lead, but it meant that Seattle was still two scores away from a comeback.
The real dagger came a few minutes later, as the Packers got the ball back with 6:53 to play and with Seattle on the ropes. With the ball pinned deep in their territory, the Packers again were smart to rush with Starks twice, leading to a manageable third-and-4 on their 19-yard line. Instead of grinding the clock and looking for a possible first down on the ground, again Aaron Rodgers dropped back to pass and failed to connect with his receivers. The clock stopped at 5:26.
While these decisions may not seem as important as the other big mistakes that allowed the Seahawks to come back, the fact is that they gave Seattle the chance to use their timeouts later and still feel comfortable at the end of the game. The failure to milk at least 2 minutes of clock during the fourth quarter with a double-digit lead now seems like a bigger deal.
4.- Russell Wilson connects on miracle 2-point conversion
After scoring to pull closer at 19-14 and then recovering the onside kick (more details ahead), it seemed almost inevitable that the Seahawks would score and take the lead with 2:07 to play. After reaching Green Bay territory and with the offensive line firing on all cylinders, the requisite Beast Mode run from Marshawn Lynch was practically a formality.
Lynch scored from 24 yards out giving the Seahawks a 1-point lead, but he did it with 1:33 to play. That meant that the Packers were still in striking distance and with three timeouts to use, making the ensuing two-point try of the utmost importance. Instead of using Lynch again, Seattle ran a play-fake to the right of the formation, but the Packers read it well and had all angles covered for a scrambling Russell Wilson.
Wilson scrambled all the way back to the 17-yard line, and with two defenders on the cusp of crushing him. Out of sheer desperation, Seattle's QB threw an ill-advised, across-his-body lob pass that travelled for ages to the left side of the field, where safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and cornerback Sam Shields appeared to be in prime position to intercept or at least deflect the heave-ho throw.
Instead, Seattle's receiver Luke Willson waited for the ball to enter his range and brought it down with surprising ease. In the replay, it becomes clear that Clinton-Dix and Shields had a moment of hesitation on the coverage, freezing at the most inappropriate of times. The 3-point deficit turned to be essential.
3.- Mike McCarthy opts to kick twice from the 1-yard line
In many football analytics circles, Packers' Coach Mike McCarthy is usually regarded as one of the worst in-game tacticians in the NFL. Despite already having won a Super Bowl and making the playoffs in 7 of his 9 seasons at the helm, most of his success is attributed to having the league's best QB and playing in a weak division. McCarthy has been blamed of being careless with challenges, conservative with his decisions, and of having poor clock management.
His poor play-calling in regards to the clock was already mentioned, but the biggest coaching blunders came all the way back in the first quarter.
Following Wilson's first interception, the Packers advanced all the way to Seattle's 1-yard line with a third down looming. After Eddie Lacy was stuffed for no gain, McCarthy had the option to try again and punch it in from less than a foot. However, he trotted out his kicking unit for the sure three points. Despite all calculations suggesting that going for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1 is always the best choice, especially when a team is not vying for a specific score, the Coach decided not to press his luck.
To prove it was no fluke, McCarthy was faced with the very same decision just three minutes later. After the Seahawks fumbled on their kick return, the Packers again advanced through the red zone to have a fourth-and-goal at the 1. Again Mason Crosby came out of the sideline and kicked the easiest of field goals, giving Green Bay a 6-0 lead that completely undersold their dominance at that point.
On a game that was decided in overtime, McCarthy leaving a potential 8 points on the table, or at least the possibility of pinning the Seahawks twice inside their 1-yard line, must feel terribly sour for the Packer faithful.
2.- Morgan Burnett drops to the ground after Wilson's fourth interception
With the Seahawks in full desperation mode, Russell Wilson again threw a complicated pass to the middle of the field intended for Jermaine Kearse. Kearse, who had been the target on two if Wilson's interceptions, saw the ball clang off his hands and to the waiting arms of safety Morgan Burnett, who caught the ball in stride.
Following defensive recoveries in situations in which the game is secured, or with players not used to handling the ball, coaches advise to simply kneel down or slide and avoid any potential hits or subsequent fumbles, but in this case the game was far from over in practical terms. The interception came with 5:13 on the clock, and with Seattle holding its three timeouts and the two-minute warning. While a comeback still looked improbable, it wasn't impossible.
What is more damaging in retrospect is that Burnett had what appeared to be a clear lane on the left side of the field, which could have allowed him to run the ball back for a touchdown or at least provide Green Bay with premium field position as it attempted to run down the clock. After taking over at their own 43, the Packers could only kill 1:12 off the clock and gave the ball back to the Seahawks at the Seattle 31, meaning that the interception only gave them 26 yards of field position in the end.
1.- Brandon Bostick drops the onside kick
We have always heard it like this: the perfect onside kick happens when the kicker makes the ball bounce highly enough to allow his teammates to reach the 10-yard threshold just as it is coming down. In a way, Seattle's kicker Steven Hauschka held his side of the bargain, kicking the ball at the right angle and with a high bounce, but his teammates were still one yard behind the ball when Packers' tight end Brandon Bostick was in perfect position to haul it in.
Bostick, who has been a career backup with only 24 career games in two years, was probably a questionable choice to be part of the all-hands team required to field an onside kick. With his main objective being as a blocking tight end, Bostick had been almost an afterthought in Green Bay's system, with only 9 catches in 18 career targets, with two touchdowns. In fact, he hadn't caught a pass since November 9th, but here he was with the possibility to secure a trip to the Super Bowl.
Behind Bostick stood Jordy Nelson, probably Green Bay's best option to hold the ball, but with the tight end in prime position, it looked like a sure thing that he would catch the pigskin and seal Green Bay's fate. Instead, the ball bounced off his helmet and right to the hands of Seattle's Chris Matthews.
Much like Hank Baskett with the Colts on Super Bowl XLIV, Bostick will probably be remembered as the easy scapegoat for an otherwise full series of mistakes. The Packers will look back at this game as a huge missed opportunity, ending a series of unlikely wins in the NFC playoffs (Cowboys over Lions, Packers over Cowboys, Seahawks over Packers – sense a pattern?). However, they only have themselves to blame, and could end up just being a footnote on Seattle's path to being a dynasty.