On football

Loss packed with meaning

Packers president Mark Murphy is happy to hold the Lombardi Trophy. Packers president Mark Murphy is happy to hold the Lombardi Trophy. (Mike Roemer/Ap)
By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / February 8, 2011

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ARLINGTON, Texas — NFL scheduling czar Howard Katz might soon get a different oddball request from coaches of NFC teams who have the Patriots on their 2011 slate of games: “Can you make that game in the final month of the season? Don’t even care if we win.’’

Two of the past three Super Bowl champions out of the NFC turned close late-season losses to strong Patriots squads into turning points.

After falling to the 16-0 Patriots, 38-35, in an otherwise meaningless season finale, the 2007 Giants won all four of their playoff games — including a Super Bowl rematch with New England — to win the Lombardi Trophy.

On Sunday night in Cowboys Stadium, the Packers won their sixth straight game since a heartbreaking 31-27 defeat at the hands of the Patriots Dec. 19 to make Green Bay “Titletown’’ once again.

For both the Giants and the Packers, the losses to the Patriots gave two frustratingly inconsistent teams a glimpse of the greatness they had within if they had one mind-set and one focus.

The Giants often have talked about how that loss fueled their belief in each other and previously unpopular coach Tom Coughlin after the colossal 17-14 upset of the suddenly 18-1 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

On Sunday night in a joyous Packers locker room, players and assistant coaches were unanimous in saying the Lombardi Trophy would not be going back “home’’ without their final loss of the season.

“Oh, I think that’s the point where our season turned around,’’ said end Ryan Pickett.

“I definitely think it set all of this up,’’ said tight end Tom Crabtree. “It wasn’t like we went out and talked about ‘what a great moral victory that was.’ But to me, there was just a feeling that settled in that we could play with anybody and that’s kind of where we took off. It shows. We went on a tear.’’

During the loss, which came with backup Matt Flynn at quarterback (future Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers sat out with a concussion), the Packers jumped to a 17-7 first-half lead before two game-changing events: the 71-yard kickoff return by guard Dan Connolly, and the interception for a touchdown by Kyle Arrington. Those plays ended up producing 14 desperately needed points for the Patriots. The AFC’s future top seed surely would have lost without them.

“The Patriots were the hottest team in the league and an outstanding team,’’ Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “[Despite the Patriots’ big plays], we were still there battling at the end. And we went on a run after that and played our best football of the season.’’

The loss to the Patriots put the Packers’ collective backs against the wall.

The past two seasons, for whatever reason, Green Bay has had to see its season on life support before it starts to click. The Packers were 4-4 last season after a terrible loss to the winless Buccaneers with rumblings that coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson should be fired since they were going nowhere, and the quarterback they jettisoned, Brett Favre, was leading the Vikings on a magical season.

Then the Packers won seven of their final eight regular-season games.

Between last season and this one, the Packers won 13 of 15 games when their season was on the brink. The losses were in ’09 on the last play to the Steelers and in the wild-card playoff game to the Cardinals.

“We knew we had to run the table,’’ receiver Donald Driver said. “That Patriots game gave us the confidence to do it.’’

Throughout McCarthy’s five-year tenure with the Packers, he has preached confidence. McCarthy wants his players — especially Rodgers — as confident as possible, even if they push the cocky barrier.

After the Packers went 6-10 in Rodgers’s first season as a starter, the offense was sky high coming out of a dominating training camp and preseason in ’09.

But once the season started, the Packers offense — with players later admitting to a man that they started to believe their press clippings — squeaked by the Bears in the home opener and got pushed around in losing two of the next three games, to the Bengals and the Vikings.

McCarthy tried the confidence card again after the team beat the dreadful Lions and Browns — by a combined 57-3 — the next two weeks. “Our confidence is high,’’ McCarthy said on Oct. 26, “and it damn well should be.’’

The team didn’t follow McCarthy’s lead. Favre and the Vikings then came into Lambeau Field and took a 24-3 lead before leaving with a 38-26 victory. The season bottomed out the following week when the Packers lost to the league’s last winless team, the Buccaneers, 38-28.

Then after the playoff loss to the Cardinals — a team the Packers pummeled the week before — Charles Woodson even thought the team’s mind-set was wrong.

There’s no doubt the Packers always had confidence the past two seasons. They said it and they looked like they believed it.

But it’s one thing to say, or even think something, and it’s another to know deep down that you’re really that good.

That’s what the loss to the Patriots gave the Packers, likely because Flynn started that game. If Rodgers started and the Packers had lost by 4 points, they might have folded up the tent. Just another late-game failure.

But since it was Flynn, and because the game had been there for the taking, the Packers had a different reaction — and because of McCarthy, who began that week with more tough talk by saying, “We’re nobody’s underdog.’’

This time the players got the message.

“Coach McCarthy was mad,’’ Pickett said. “Boy, I’ve never seen him so mad after a game. He was like, ‘We’re supposed to beat that team, we’re better than that team, and we let it get away.’ That’s when things started to click for us. I think guys realized that McCarthy really believed how good we were. And it was time for us to believe it. And, finally, we did.’’

McCarthy continued the bravado the rest of the season, down to sizing the team for Super Bowl rings on Saturday night.

Five years into his tenure, it worked, because his team finally got it.

Thanks in large measure to a close loss to the Patriots, just like the Giants before them.

“No doubt about it,’’ Rodgers said about that loss in the wild post-Super Bowl celebration. “It was a huge, huge game for us. I think we just realized we didn’t want to miss out on this opportunity. Look where we are now.’’

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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