With the Green Bay Packers’ vast slate of changes in the coaching staff and front office over the last few weeks, I decided to take a look back through the team’s playoff disappointments going back to 2011. What I found looking into one season in particular enlightened me to perhaps the Packers’ biggest missed opportunity of the last seven seasons.
It’s odd to think of 2012 as the season that the Packers had their best chance to win the Super Bowl since 2010, but it just might be true. And in a way, either one of a pair of last-second losses that season cost Green Bay a terrific shot at another Super Bowl title.
The 2012 Packers
First of all, let’s look at the 2012 team as a whole. Aaron Rodgers was coming off his first MVP season, and although offensive coordinator Joe Philbin had departed to take the Miami Dolphins’ head coaching job, Green Bay still had a top-flight offense. The Packers made do with a committee of running backs, with Cedric Benson, Alex Green, James Starks, and DuJuan Harris all contributing at various times. Still, the rushing offense finished 20th in yardage while Rodgers finished with 39 touchdowns to eight interceptions. Overall, the Packers finished third in offensive DVOA — third in passing and 13th in rushing.
On defense, the Packers also had a top-ten unit by DVOA, with a seventh-place unit in passing and a 14th-place rushing defense. In conventional numbers, the Packers finished 11th in both points and yards allowed.
That defense saw a terrific campaign from Clay Matthews, who recorded 13 sacks in 12 games. It also featured an excellent secondary with Charles Woodson, Sam Shields, Tramon Williams, and Casey Hayward in his magnificent rookie season. Hayward led the team with six interceptions and 21 pass defenses, and that group (along with Morgan Burnett) was more than able to make up for the revolving door of M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian at safety.
Famously, that season also saw Brad Jones excel at inside linebacker. The former edge rusher surprised when he moved inside to replace starter D.J. Smith, while Matthews was bookended by a combination of Dezman Moses and Erik Walden.
2012 saw Mason Crosby at his rock-bottom, hitting just 21 of 33 field goal attempts in the regular season. However, Crosby figured out his issues in the final few weeks of the regular season and didn’t miss a single kick starting in week 15.
All told, the Packers finished the season with an 11-5 record and the NFC North title. That was good enough for the third seed in the NFC, behind the 13-3 Atlanta Falcons and the 11-4-1 San Francisco 49ers. Green Bay defeated the Minnesota Vikings in the Wild-Card Round before famously getting gashed by Colin Kaepernick in the Divisional playoffs.
In addition, this was the only season since 2010 that the team finished in the top ten in both offensive and defensive DVOA, and it was just a fraction of a point lower in overall DVOA than the 2011 team (26.6% to 27%), making the 2012 team the second best Packers team by DVOA since 1997.
This was an excellent, balanced team that saw five games go into the loss column, but it is simple to identify two specific regular season games that cost the Packers a first-round bye and a terrific shot at a second Super Bowl title in three years.
The Fail Mary
First up is the obvious one. With the replacement referees still on the field at that point in the season, M.D. Jennings’ interception was ruled a touchdown for the Seahawks instead, giving them a 14-12 victory in week three at CenturyLink Field. If that play were called correctly, the Packers finish the season at 12-4, earning a first-round bye and the number two seed in the NFC.
Week 17: Vikings 37, Packers 34
Perhaps even more disappointing, however, was the Packers failing to clinch that bye in week 17 of the 2012 season. Green Bay went into Minneapolis at 11-4, with the opportunity to clinch a bye. The Vikings, meanwhile, needed a win to earn a Wild Card berth.
Minnesota took an early 13-0 lead seconds into the second quarter, but the Packers fought back to pull within three points just after halftime. After a Vikings touchdown pushed their lead to ten, the Packers tied it up early in the fourth, then gave up a go-ahead score. With three minutes to go, Rodgers found Jordy Nelson for a two-yard, game-tying touchdown, but the defense allowed a pair of big plays on the ensuing drive — a 25-yard pass from Christian Ponder to Michael Jenkins and a 26-yard run by Adrian Peterson. Blair Walsh’s 29-yard field goal sent Minnesota to the playoffs, giving them a rematch a week later at Lambeau Field.
As with the Fail Mary, a win in this game gives the Packers the two-seed instead, bumping the 49ers down to the third seed for a date with the Chicago Bears in the Wild-Card round.
In all likelihood, the 49ers would have defeated the Bears, sending them to Lambeau Field for the Divisional Round instead of the Packers making the trip to Candlestick Park.
It’s possible that the Packers would have allowed Kaepernick to run all over them at home, but with an extra week for the team to prepare and rest, that is no guarantee. The Vegas line on the game was 49ers by three points — basically just enough to account for the home-field advantage.
Say the Packers move along to the Conference Championship Game. Assuming that the other results play out the same, the Falcons would be hosting Rodgers and company. We saw how that result played out two years before, when the Packers came into Atlanta as the sixth seed and blew the doors off the Falcons.
The 49ers were actually a 4.5-point favorite in this game, an indication that the Packers also would have been favored as well. Again, there’s no guarantee, but this matchup could have set up well for the Packers as well. The Falcons’ offense rested on the arm of Matt Ryan and receivers Julio Jones (in his rookie season) and Roddy White; with the excellent play of the Packers’ secondary that season, this remained a winnable game.
Super Bowl XLVII
Imagining a Packers-Ravens matchup in the Super Bowl should give Green Bay fans fits since it didn’t happen. Baltimore’s normally-elite defense was actually below-average in 2012, finishing just 19th in DVOA. Meanwhile, their offense was just 13th in the league. Their top-ranked special teams could have been a factor, but they still finished 8th in overall DVOA compared to the Packers’ 5th-place ranking. That difference doesn’t really do justice to the difference between the two teams, however — Green Bay came in at +26.3% overall, while Baltimore was just +9.8%.
Baltimore’s rushing defense finished outside the top ten that year (11th in yardage and 12th in yards per rush), while the passing game was 15th in yards and yards per attempt. That would likely have set up a great matchup for the Packers’ defense.
All in all, the failure of the Packers to earn a first-round bye helped to cost them a shot at a Super Bowl against one of the weakest AFC opponents in recent memory. The defense that season had the best DVOA ranking since the 2010 squad that won Super Bowl XLV, and the team’s overall 26.6% DVOA was even better than that of the 2014 squad that fell just short of a Super Bowl appearance.
The 2012 Packers were an excellent team — absolutely one of the NFL’s best and arguably the franchise’s most complete team since its last Super Bowl title. Therefore their elimination in the Divisional playoffs should be viewed in the long term as every bit as big a disappointment as failing to beat Seattle in the 2014 NFC Championship Game or losing to the Giants in the 2011 playoffs.