The 2023 season of the Green Bay Packers ended in heartbreak after advancing further than even the most optimistic prognosticators could have imagined, creating an incredible but familiar intersection of disappointment over a missed opportunity and legitimate excitement about what’s in store for a young, talented team on the rise.
At various points midseason, the Packers were 2-5 and 3-6. On Saturday night at Levi’s Stadium, they were minutes away from advancing to the NFC Championship Game. Along the way, the Packers revived their season, beat Super Bowl contenders and saw their young quarterback and skill position players develop rapidly, to the point where first-year starter Jordan Love was putting up elite, MVP-level numbers for a stretch of play lasting more than two months.
The missed opportunity of the present is real. The Packers led 21-14 to start the fourth quarter and had the ball in scoring range with a 21-17 lead midway through the quarter. To lose a game with so many opportunities to seal away a historic win places Saturday night’s 24-21 loss to the San Francisco 49ers up near the top of recent playoff heartbreakers that so easily could have gone the other way. What could have been? The seventh-seeded Packers needed one more play to beat the top-seeded 49ers on the road in a game where they ended up being double-digit underdog. It never arrived.
With a win on Saturday night, the Packers would have been flying into the NFC Championship Game on the heels of upset road wins over the 12-win Cowboys and 12-win 49ers and would have been just one more victory away from making a historic run to the Super Bowl. But it wasn’t meant to be, and it all ended in a familiar, gut-wrenching fashion.
The Packers went three-and-out, missed a field goal and turned the ball over during their final three possessions of the fourth quarter. After Anders Carlson pushed his 41-yard field goal attempt wide left, the 49ers marched the length of the field for the go-ahead touchdown and then turned over Jordan Love with under a minute to go. It was an incredible escape act from the 49ers, who will host either the Detroit Lions or Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game next Sunday.
The Packers will be watching from home. By then, the disappointment of the missed opportunity will have had a chance to fade and the excitement of what’s ahead could fuel the start of a new Super Bowl window opening in Green Bay.
There is no denying what the Packers accomplished. Matt LaFleur’s team won six of the final eight games to make the postseason and then became the first No. 7 seed to win a playoff game. The Packers beat the Detroit Lions and Kansas City Chiefs in back-to-back weeks, got a three-game win streak to end the season and clinch a playoff spot, and then stunned the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium — where Mike McCarthy’s team had won 16-straight games — with a dominant performance that will live on in the team’s playoff lore.
There’s also no denying what the Packers built. A young, talented team endured expected growing pains, learned how to win together and got a real taste of both winning and losing big games. This is a potent mixture capable of creating champions, and the Packers will almost certainly go into 2024 with expectations of being one of the season’s top teams in the NFC. The quarterback not only proved he could play, but proved he could play at an elite level for over half a season. It is tantalizing to think what Love, Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs, Jayden Reed, Luke Musgrave, Tucker Kraft, Dontayvion Wicks, Bo Melton and the rest of the young Packers offense could accomplish next season without having to limp through two months of learning how to play together. They will be experienced, and hungry. And if Love continues ascending, there is no football mountain this team can’t climb.
Guiding future climbs will be LaFleur, who proved his clout as a playcaller and designer of offense in the first year post-Aaron Rodgers. Once LaFleur and Love got in lock step, the Packers offense was as good or better as all but a few offenses. The two could be the premier coach-quarterback combo for years to come. LaFleur needs to make a big decision at defensive coordinator, where the Packers probably need a change to maximize what’s been built talent-wise on the defensive side. But having LaFleur as the coach and playcaller should ensure Love and the offense has every opportunity to emerge as a juggernaut as soon as next season.
And more help is on the way.
The last two draft classes from Brian Gutekunst powered the late-season surge, and the Packers general manager will go into this offseason with the draft capital necessary for filling in long-term holes and providing more firepower on both sides of the ball for 2024. As a talent evaluator, Gutekunst deserves his flowers. At this point, I’m not sure many teams would pass on swapping rosters with the Packers. And five picks in the top 100 in April could help turn this into a special group.
This all feels so familiar. The Packers, with what looks like another great quarterback in place, have everything in front of them. This opening chapter was the ultimate rollercoaster ride, but it also set the stage for what could be another book of dominance for the Packers. It just wouldn’t the playoffs in Green Bay without a heartbreak mixed with the promise of the future. So many times, whether it was with Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers as the quarterback, the disappointment of a missed playoff opportunity or failed postseason run was buffeted by the promise of what’s next and the potential laced into the next opportunity.
For Jordan Love’s Packers, the playoff heartbreak arrived earlier than expected. A “rebuilding” year turned into a postseason run. In so many ways, Love’s Packers were able to fit all the lessons and triumphs of Rodgers’ 2008 and 2009 seasons into just one year. And everyone in Green Bay knows what happened in 2010.
Having a great quarterback and football team means consistently going to the postseason, and consistently going to the postseason means — for franchises not based in New England — a steady stream of heartbreaking losses. Only one team is happy at the end of it all. And the gauntlet of the elimination style postseason all but guarantees the worst and most painful ends to long, often magical seasons.
Favre and Rodgers both eventually broke through. The trajectory of Love’s Packers suggests this franchise will get many more chances to do so again.
Once again, the Packers found a new and unique way to create the intersection of disappointment in the present and excitement of the future. Once again, it is time to mourn the loss of a golden opportunity to do something historic and celebrate what could be the start of another splendid run in Green Bay.