The Green Bay Packers have had a few disappointments late in Aaron Rodgers' career at Lambeau Field in January. The feeling they had Sunday night is familiar.
Those disappointments had always come in the playoffs. This was different.
The Packers had to beat a Detroit Lions team that had been eliminated from playoff contention just before kickoff to complete a remarkable late-season run and grab the final wild-card spot in the NFC. It was all in front of them.
The Packers lost 20-16. The Seattle Seahawks get the final NFC wild-card spot, thanks to a great effort by the Lions. The Seahawks will face the No. 2 seed San Francisco 49ers on Saturday over wild-card weekend. The Lions, whose playoff hopes ended when the Seahawks beat the Los Angeles Rams in overtime, took a lead with less than six minutes left in the game. Rodgers threw an interception right after that and never got the ball back. Green Bay, which had played so well during a four-game winning streak, saw a repeat of some of the old mistakes that held it back when it was 4-8 on the season.
The Packers (8-9) were writing a great story before Sunday night. They had a tiny chance to make the playoffs weeks ago, but got on a winning streak and everything started breaking their way. It looked like another late-season surge for an unlikely playoff berth, led by Rodgers.
Instead, it was another January letdown for Rodgers and the Packers.
A slugfest in the 1st half
The Packers' defense came alive late in the season and stayed hot to start Sunday night's game. The Lions struggled to get anything going. When they ran a pretty flea flicker that Jameson Williams scored a long touchdown on, it was called back due to a holding call.
The Lions' defense kept Detroit in the game. A forced fumble of Aaron Jones in Detroit territory was a huge play. It set up a field goal at the end of the half, which was aided by a 15-yard personal foul on Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas, who hit a Lion in a scrum after batting the ball away from Detroit's long snapper following a timeout.
The Packers led 9-6 at halftime. If there was any question about the Lions playing hard even though they had been eliminated, that was wiped away in the first half. Detroit just couldn't get any offense going, other than the long play to Williams that was called back. The cold weather at Lambeau Field wasn't helping Jared Goff, who was born and raised in California, or the Lions' offense as a whole.
The Packers needed 30 good minutes in the second half to make the playoffs, but the Lions weren't going to make it easy for their division rival.
Lions take 4th quarter lead
The Lions finally broke through in the third quarter. Mason Crosby missed a 53-yard field goal, hitting the crossbar. The Lions got a nice run from Jamaal Williams to start the ensuing drive, Goff hit Kalif Raymond for a 43-yard pass and Williams scored a 1-yard touchdown to give Detroit a 13-9 lead.
That woke up Rodgers. He hit a pretty deep ball to Christian Watson for 45 yards. Then he hit Allen Lazard for a touchdown pass and the Packers were back in front.
The Lions didn't fade away after that. An interception by Kerby Joseph was taken off the board due to a hands to the face penalty by defensive lineman John Cominsky. That didn't stop them either. Detroit picked up a crucial fourth-and-2 when head coach Dan Campbell decided to pass on a potential game-tying field goal. Williams scored another 1-yard touchdown, which was set up in part by a 15-yard penalty and ejection for Packers linebacker Quay Walker for shoving a member of the Lions' athletic training staff. The Lions led 20-16 with less than six minutes to go.
Then Rodgers made a critical mistake. On a third-and-10 he threw wildly downfield and Joseph drifted over for an easy interception. The Lions had the ball in Packers territory with 3:27 left. A crazy catch by Amon-Ra St. Brown, when he cradled it with his legs, got the Lions a big first down. Reality started to set in that the Packers' season, full of ups and downs, was about to end. The Seahawks could start to get excited.
The Lions had a big decision in the final two minutes. With 1:15 left they had fourth-and-1. A field goal would have put them up 23-16. A first down would end the game, but not getting it would open up the chance for the Packers to win in regulation with a touchdown. The Lions went for it, and D.J. Chark caught a pass for a first down and a win that put the Seahawks in the playoffs.
There will be another round of questions about Rodgers and his future this offseason, though probably much quieter than the past couple of offseasons. Time is running out on his career. NBC speculated about his future on the broadcast as he slowly walked back to the locker room with his arm around teammate Randall Cobb.
Rodgers said after the game that, while he wasn't ready to make any decisions, he could "definitely walk away" from the $59 million he's guaranteed to make next season if he wants to retire now.
"It's a little raw right now," Rodgers said. "It's just a little bit after the game. I want to take the emotion out of it and have conversations and see where the organization is at and see how I feel after some time has passed."
We'll see what happens in the next few weeks.
The Packers might have been dangerous in an NFC with mostly flawed contenders. They'll never know what might have happened because they couldn't beat a Lions team that wasn't even alive for a playoff spot.