NFC North: Green Bay Packers

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Veteran punter Tim Masthay struggled down the stretch last season, and the Green Bay Packers are bringing in some competition.

They signed first-year player Cody Mandell on Monday, the team announced.

Mandell spent part of last offseason with the Dallas Cowboys. The former University of Alabama punter played in one preseason game last summer before he was released just two weeks into training camp. He punted three times against the San Diego Chargers, averaged 43.7 yards and placed all three punts inside the 20.

At Alabama, where he first joined the team as a walk-on in 2010, he averaged 42.6 yards per punt in 52 career games. He was a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award as a senior.

Masthay, who has been the Packers' punter since he beat out Australian Chris Bryan in 2010, is under contract through the 2016 season as part of the four-year, $5.465 million extension he signed in 2012. The Packers' career leader in both gross (44.3 yards) and net average (38.3 yards), Masthay’s net average in 2014 was the lowest of his career at 37.0, which ranked 30th in the NFL.

He struggled late in the season, when he averaged just 32.9 net yards per punt over the final eight games of the regular season. The Packers have not had another punter on their roster since Bryan was released at the end of the 2010 preseason.

This does not mean Masthay's time in Green Bay is running out.

In fact, it is probably just a combination of two things: to get a look at Mandell and also to give Masthay some competition. That helped get kicker Mason Crosby turned around in 2013. After Crosby's career-worst season in 2012, when he made just 63.6 percent of his field goals, the Packers put Crosby through a head-to-head competition in training camp. Since then, Crosby has made 85.7 percent of his field goals in the regular season.
GREEN BAY, Wis. – When Clay Matthews was fined $22,050 for his blindside block on Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in Sunday's NFC Championship Game, it closed the door on the Green Bay Packers' fines from the 2014 season.

There were a total of six known fines for actions on the field, not including uniform violations. The total from those fines was $88,197.

There also were at least two known uniform fines – one to Julius Peppers and one to Matthews, both for wearing unapproved shoes.

We have to write "known fines" because the league does not volunteer all information on fines. Rather, they will confirm inquiries about specific players.

Here's a list of the known Packers' fines this season:
  • Matthews: $22,050 for a blindside block vs. Seattle in NFC Championship Game
  • T.J. Lang: $8,268 for unsportsmanlike conduct vs. Dallas in NFC divisional playoff game
  • Sam Barrington: $16,537 for roughing the passer vs. Detroit in Week 17
  • Barrington: $16,537 for horse-collar tackle vs. Buffalo in Week 15
  • JC Tretter: $16,537 for leg whip vs. Philadelphia in Week 11
  • Andrew Quarless: $8,268 for fighting vs. the New York Jets in Week 2
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- This week, we looked at the Green Bay Packers' upcoming free agents on both the offensive side of the ball and the defensive side and noted that general manager Ted Thomson has some difficult choices to make.

He's also facing some decisions about players under contract for next season.

Not that the Packers are hurting for salary-cap space -- they already have $18,361,430 in available room for 2015, according to ESPN Stats & Information salary data -- but they could pick up a lot more room if they decide to release some players already under contract.

If the Packers make salary-cap related moves, they usually do so before free agency begins in March.

Here's a look at three possible salary-cap casualties:

A.J. Hawk, LB
2015 salary-cap charge: $5.1 million
Cap savings if released: $3.5 million
Why he could be released: In his ninth season, the former first-round pick saw his role greatly reduced late in the season. He played only 31.1 percent of the defensive snaps over the final seven games (including playoffs). In the first 11 games, he played 94 percent of the snaps. He has only the 2015 season remaining on his contract. If the Packers released him, they would have to absorb $1.6 million -- the remaining proration from his last signing bonus -- on their salary cap, but they would wipe out his $2.45 million base salary and bonuses of $800,000 (roster) and $250,000 (workout). Age and a lack of speed appears to have caught up to Hawk, who turned 31 this month. However, injuries could have been a factor. Although he denied he was hurt, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, one of Hawk's best friends on the team, said several times during the season that Hawk was battling health issues.

Brad Jones, LB
2015 salary-cap charge: $4.75 million
Cap savings if released: $3.75 million

Why he could be released: Like Hawk, Jones' role was significantly reduced as the season went on. He played every snap in the season opener, then missed three games because of a quadriceps injury. When he returned, he played only 15.9 percent of the defensive snaps the rest of the reason. Those snaps came mostly as the lone inside linebacker in the dime package, but he was benched from that role before the NFC Championship Game and didn't play a snap on defense in that game. He has only the 2015 season remaining on his contract. The Packers would wipe out his $3.25 million base salary and $500,000 in bonuses by releasing him. They would have to count only $1 million -- the remaining proration from his last signing bonus -- on their cap.

Julius Peppers, OLB
2015 salary-cap charge: $12 million
Cap savings if released: $7 million
Why he could be released: Peppers had a productive season with 9.5 sacks, six forced fumbles and two interceptions, including playoffs, while playing 73.8 percent of the defensive snaps. But the three-year, $26 million contract he signed last March was structured so that the Packers could move on after one year and save cap space if they desired. On the flip side, if they keep him, it will be costly. His base salary for 2015 would be $8.5 million, and he has another $1 million in bonuses. That $9.5 million would be wiped off the books if he were released, and the Packers would have to count $5 million in remaining signing bonus proration (or they could designate him as a post-June 1 cut and count $2.5 million on 2015, and the other $2.5 million on the 2016 cap).
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- For a short time on Thursday morning, the Twitterverse was abuzz over the idea that the Seattle Seahawks had lined up in an illegal formation on their onside kick in Sunday's NFC Championship Game.

Dean Blandino, the NFL's vice president of officiating, put an end to that.

It's right there in Rule 8, Article 3, Section C, which states: "At least four players of the kicking team must be on each side of the ball. At least three players must be lined up outside each inbounds line, one of whom must be outside the yard-line number."

So the Green Bay Packers have nothing to gripe about, at least not from an officiating standpoint on that play.

The play will go down as one of the most agonizing in Packers playoff history given that they almost certainly would have advanced to the Super Bowl had they secured the ball. Instead, it went through the hands of tight end Brandon Bostick -- who was supposed to be blocking on the play to allow sure-handed receiver Jordy Nelson to field it -- and the Seahawks recovered and scored the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It's not as long of a list as last year, when the Green Bay Packers had 19 players headed toward free agency, but general manager Ted Thompson still has plenty of decisions to make about which players to try to keep and which ones to let walk.

Thompson may already have made up his mind about some. Others will come down to price. But this much is certain: Not all of the 14 upcoming free agents (11 unrestricted and three restricted) will be back with the Packers next season. Last year, eight of the 19 returned.

Here's a look at the Packers' free-agents-to-be on offense (to be followed later by the defensive players):


Bryan Bulaga, OT: This was an important year for the former first-round pick, who missed the last half of 2012 (hip injury) and all of 2013 (knee), to show he can stay healthy. And he did, although it looked iffy early on when he sustained a knee injury in the season opener. However, he missed only one start (Week 2 vs. the Jets) and was part of an offensive line that started the same five players in 17 of the 18 games (including playoffs). Despite the injury history, he's still young (he will turn 26 in March). He allowed just four sacks, two of which came in one game (at Miami). The Packers already have big money invested in their guards, Josh Sitton ($4.85 million base salary in 2015) and T.J. Lang ($4.2 million), so it could be tough to keep another high-priced player on the line. 2014 base salary: $2,565,500.

Randall Cobb, WR: Back in November, a high-ranking NFL executive said the feeling around the league was there's no way Cobb would hit the open market. Since then, the price to keep him has gotten higher. Cobb finished with 91 catches for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns -- all career highs. Jordy Nelson’s extension last summer averaged $9.75 million per season. Cobb may not get that much, but it could be close. 2014 base salary: $812,648.

Matt Flynn, QB: The Packers brought back Flynn as an insurance policy after he went 2-2 as a starter last season during part of the time Aaron Rodgers was out because of his broken collarbone. But the Packers didn't need Flynn this time. He played only in mop-up duty except for two meaningful series in the Week 17 game against Detroit after Rodgers left briefly because of his calf injury. If Flynn returns, it likely will be under another one-year deal. 2014 base salary: $730,000.

John Kuhn, FB: At a dying position, Kuhn still managed to make a significant impact, especially late in the season when the Packers tried to run the ball more, and was selected to the Pro Bowl. However, he's no longer a sure thing in short-yardage situations. Still, he's a Rodgers favorite and could come back under another one-year deal. 2014 base salary: $855,000.

Scott Tolzien, QB: After a strong showing in the preseason, outplaying Flynn, he spent the entire season as the No. 3 quarterback, marking the first time since 2008 the Packers opened the season with three quarterbacks on the roster. Coach Mike McCarthy invested nearly two years in Tolzien, so it's unlikely the Packers would let him walk without seeing if he could handle the No. 2 job. 2014 base salary: $645,000.


Don Barclay, OG/OT: After starting 18 games over the previous two seasons, mostly in place of Bulaga, Barclay was expected to be the utility lineman who could play either inside or outside. But he tore the ACL in his right knee in early August and missed the entire season. Still, he likely will be tendered at the minimum level and given another chance to compete for a roster spot. 2014 base salary: $570,000.

Jarrett Boykin, WR: Perhaps the most disappointing player on the Packers' offense this past season, Boykin had as many dropped passes (three) as he did receptions (three for 23 yards). That followed a 2013 season in which he caught 49 passes for 681 yards and three touchdowns. He lost the No. 3 receiver spot to rookie Davante Adams in the first month of the season. Given that the minimum restricted free-agent tender will be around $1.5 million, it's possible the Packers won't even make him an offer. 2014 base salary: $570,000.

Green Bay Packers season report card

January, 21, 2015
Jan 21
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Was this the start of another run of great chances to get back to the Super Bowl or something that could begin a downward spiral?

How the Green Bay Packers come back from the stunning end to this season, the NFC Championship Game collapse against the Seattle Seahawks, will alter how history views the 2014 season.

"It's going to be a missed opportunity that we'll probably think about for the rest of my career," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said after the 28-22 overtime loss to the Seahawks. "We were the better team today, and we played well enough to win, and we can't blame anybody but ourselves."

Can the Packers get back to this position next season?

"Yes, we can," veteran safety Morgan Burnett said.

If so, then perhaps Rodgers and his teammates won’t have to think about it for the rest of their careers.

Team MVP: Forget team MVP. Rodgers should be (and probably will be) the NFL's MVP. Rodgers threw just five interceptions in the regular season to go with 38 touchdowns. His touchdown-to-interception ratio of 7.6 was more than double what second-best Tony Romo's was, at 3.78. At home, Rodgers was unbeatable, going 9-0. In those games (playoffs included), he threw 25 touchdowns without an interception. His last interception at Lambeau was 418 passes and 36 touchdowns ago. His performance against the Cowboys in the divisional playoff game, playing on a badly strained left calf, was one for the ages. His season-long production was even more remarkable considering he had only two consistent weapons in the passing game, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb.

Best moment: R-E-L-A-X. On Sept. 23, Rodgers went on his weekly radio show on ESPN Milwaukee and said: "Five letters here just for everybody out there in Packerland: R-E-L-A-X." Rodgers added, "Relax. We're going to be OK." At the time, the Packers were two days removed from a 19-7 loss at the Detroit Lions that dropped them to 1-2. That one word served as an unofficial theme for the season. In the next game, Rodgers threw four touchdowns in a 38-17 road win over the Chicago Bears that began a stretch in which the Packers won nine out of 10 games and 11 out of their last 13 to close the regular season. They won the NFC North for the fourth straight season.

Worst moment: Take your pick, but most of them happened in the final minutes of Sunday's NFC Championship Game. You can start with Seattle burning the Packers for a fake field goal. Then there were the back-to-back, three-and-out possessions (and some ultra-conservative play calls) that began with 6:53 and 5:04 remaining. The Packers led 19-7 to start both of them. Then there was the botched onside kick recovery in which backup tight end Brandon Bostick, who was supposed to be blocking on the play, went for the ball and couldn't corral it. And finally the defense allowing touchdowns on Seattle's last two possessions of regulation and in overtime. If you want to look at another game, try Week 15 in Buffalo, where Nelson dropped a potential touchdown pass in a 21-13 loss that cost Green Bay home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

2015 outlook: At age 31, Rodgers still has plenty of good years left, so the Packers' championship window would seemingly remain open for a while. However, there are some key issues general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy need to address. First, Thompson must find a way to re-sign Cobb, who would be a free agent in March. Then, he needs to find another weapon or two for Rodgers. McCarthy must fix the special teams and defensive issues that have plagued the Packers since their Super Bowl win four years ago. This is a team that has shown it's the class of the NFC North, but is not in the class of recent NFC Super Bowl participants.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Back in September, Aaron Rodgers had just the thing to calm down Green Bay Packers' fans concerned over the team's 1-2 start. Four months later, he couldn't come up with anything comparable to his R-E-L-A-X message to help ease the pain of Sunday's overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game.

"I don't have any catchy, spell-out phrases at this point," Rodgers said Tuesday on his ESPN Milwaukee radio show. "Everybody's hurt and disappointed and frustrated and shocked, Packer fans and players and coaches alike. It's tough. It's a long year and I know the fans out there, you guys put a lot into it as well. You guys live and die emotionally with our every play, and we appreciate you guys so much.

"We're hurting just like you guys are, and resolute in our determination to get back out there and have a better result next year."

Rodgers talked at length about Sunday's loss during his 36-minute radio show, and he didn't try to downplay the significance of the defeat.

He admitted that he can't help thinking that had any one play gone differently, he might be preparing right now for his second Super Bowl appearance.

"We all play the what-if game," Rodgers said. "It's a terrorizing game because it can really mess with you mentally. Of course, you go through the different plays throughout the game. A lot of times, we're sitting here and thinking, you know, we've lost some playoff games where, yeah, we probably needed to make a few more plays — more than one. You look at the game on Sunday, really one play here or there could have made the difference. Could have been a play in the first quarter or a play in the last quarter."

Some of those plays can be attributed to Rodgers himself. He threw two interceptions, although on one he was convinced he had a free play, and his passer rating of 55.8 was the second lowest among his 11 playoff starts.

"For sure, it's disappointing," Rodgers said of his performance. "It's a great defense but missed a couple throws and then had the couple miscommunications. Yeah, it's frustrating. We were so close. Just a play here or there that would have sealed it."

How will the Packers bounce back?

Even Rodgers isn't sure.

"That's the million-dollar question right there," Rodgers said. "You have to be able to refocus. It's getting away, whether physically or mentally, and kind of refreshing your mind and then getting ready. Every year you get older in the league, you know the chances become fewer. That's why it stings probably a little bit more. I'd love to play, like I've said, another seven or eight, nine more years, but you just never know how your body's going to hold up, how the team's going to hold up and your opportunities you're going to have.

"We had a great opportunity right in front of us to do something special. That's what makes it hard. I remember Ray Lewis talking about losing that AFC Championship, I believe it was to New England, and then how that kind of spurred them on the next year to come back and win it. That's obviously the goal, but so much has to happen between now sitting here in January and getting back to this point. You realize it's a tall task, but we'll be up for it when we get back together."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Few quarterbacks, if any, are better at taking advantage of free plays than Aaron Rodgers. He thought he had one in the first quarter of the Green Bay Packers' NFC Championship Game loss on Sunday when he saw Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett cross the line of scrimmage.

So he took a shot and threw to rookie receiver Davante Adams in the end zone, but cornerback Richard Sherman picked it off.

Since there was no flag for on offside penalty, so the interception stood.

Two days after the game, Rodgers remained convinced the officials missed the call.

"I think it's pretty evident on the film," Rodgers said Tuesday on his ESPN Milwaukee radio show.

A review of the game film shows Rodgers has a legitimate gripe.

It potentially cost the Packers points because it was a third-and-10 play from the Seahawks' 29-yard line. At worst, an incompletion there would have set up a 47-yard field goal by Mason Crosby, who was 5-for-5 in the game. A penalty would have given the Packers a third-and-5 play from the 24 yard line.

It was one of two interceptions Rodgers threw in the 28-22 overtime loss.

After the game, he explained them both.

"Felt like we might have had an offsides on the first interception," Rodgers said at the time. "Corey [Linsley] snapped it early -- I figured it was a free play -- and Davante was the only route that was going in the end zone. Sherm made a good play. The second one, just miscommunication between Cobb and I."

Aaron Rodgers pulls out of Pro Bowl

January, 20, 2015
Jan 20
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- When Aaron Rodgers said last week that he had 120 minutes left in him this season with his injured calf, he surely wasn't talking about the Pro Bowl.

Two days after the Green Bay Packers' overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Sunday's NFC Championship Game, Rodgers pulled out of the Pro Bowl, citing his calf injury. Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was added in his place.

Rodgers said after Sunday’s loss that he "felt it the whole game" when asked about his injured calf, although he appeared to be more mobile as the game progressed.

"The fourth quarter, I just kind of let it go," Rodgers said in his post-game press conference. "I need to push it and run a little bit and just kind of let it go."

Two more Packers added to Pro Bowl

January, 19, 2015
Jan 19
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Randall Cobb and Sam Shields will play in their first Pro Bowl. The Green Bay Packers' duo was added to the game on Monday as alternates.

Cobb replaced Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, who pulled out because of an injury. Shields got the spot because New England Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis is in the Super Bowl.

The game is Sunday in Glendale, Arizona. The teams will be divided up on Wednesday night in a Pro Bowl draft to be televised on NFL Network.

Cobb set career highs in receptions (91), yards (1,287) and touchdowns (12).

Shields had two regular-season interceptions and another in the playoffs. He became the first Packers cornerback to be selected to the Pro Bowl since Charles Woodson in 2011.

Five Packers were initially voted in. They were: quarterback Aaron Rodgers, receiver Jordy Nelson, guard Josh Sitton, fullback John Kuhn and linebacker Clay Matthews.

It's unclear if Rodgers will go, considering he has been dealing with the strained left calf for nearly a month. Sitton said Monday that he was undecided. He has been listed on the injury report with a toe injury ever since the bye week in November.
GREEN BAY, Wis. – A day later, not much has changed for Brandon Bostick. The Green Bay Packers tight end remains devastated by his special-teams mistake that proved costly in Sunday's NFC Championship Game loss to the Seattle Seahawks in overtime.

"I'm just trying to deal with this," Bostick said Monday as the Packers cleaned out their lockers for the offseason. "I'll just move on from it, come back here and just work hard and just try to put that behind me."

Bostick was gracious enough to relive the botched onside kick recovery for the second time since he failed corral the loose ball with 2:07 remaining in regulation. Again, he discussed how his responsibility was to block so that receiver Jordy Nelson could field the ball. When he went after it and it bounced off his hands, the Seahawks recovered and scored the go-ahead touchdown.

"I guess I just reacted to it," Bostick said. "I just saw the ball and went to get the ball, which wasn't my job. That's all I can say about that.

"I'm human. I made a mistake. But if I would've made the play, we wouldn't have been in this [situation] or if I would've made the block, we wouldn't be talking about this. But it's over now, so I'll just try my best to get over it."

Bostick said the last day has been difficult. He hasn't watched the play and probably won't for a while.

He doesn't need to. All he has to do is close his eyes and he sees it.

"I just keep replaying that play in my mind over and over, just trying not to think about it, just trying to get over it," Bostick said. "I did my best, but I'll be all right."

He just doesn't know when.

"I don't think there's a timeline on it," he said. "I definitely don't want to watch it on TV for a while or even watch the Super Bowl. I wouldn't put a timeline on it."

His teammates have been supportive. Randall Cobb was one of the first to console him on the sideline, a gesture Bostick said he appreciated.

Even former teammates have reached out either privately or on social media.

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Among the multitude of questions that went unanswered following Sunday's shocking overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game was this: Why in the world did Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett declare himself down rather than trying to return his fourth-quarter interception?

Burnett was not seen in the locker room after the game, but he answered questions on Monday, when the Packers cleaned out their lockers.

Here's how he explained it:

"I saw Julius Peppers look at me and give me the 'No Mas' signal,' Burnett said. "That means get down. We were just more so concerned about securing the possession of the ball, getting our offense back on the field for another possession."

Indeed, the film showed Peppers giving Burnett the safe sign as soon as he caught the ball.

It gave the Packers possession at their own 43-yard line with 5:04 remaining and a 19-7 lead. However, Burnett easily could have gotten more yards and with a juke move or a broken tackle, he might have gotten well into Seahawks' territory or possibly even scored.

What followed was a conservative offensive approach with three straight running plays -- losses of 4 yards and 2 yards by Eddie Lacy before he gained 2 on third-and-16 -- and a punt. The Seahawks then scored touchdowns on their next three possessions (not including a kneel down to end the fourth quarter) -- the final two of regulation and in overtime.

"I don't take nothing back that I did," Burnett said. "It's easy to sit here after it happens to sit here and say, 'You should've done this or should've done that.' If the outcome was different, we wouldn't even be talking about it."

Burnett had an otherwise stellar game with two sacks plus his interception.

"That play was an interception, it's not like that was the determining factor in the game," Burnett said. "We had a lot of things go on throughout the course of the game. Like I said, if we come away with the win, we wouldn't even be sitting here talking about that. It's nothing that I would change or nothing that I would take back."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- As bad as it was that the Green Bay Packers got burned by the Seattle Seahawks' fake field goal in the third quarter of Sunday's NFC Championship Game overtime loss, what's worse is that they never even saw it coming.

Safety Sean Richardson, who allowed backup offensive lineman Garry Gilliam to get behind him and catch a 19-yard touchdown pass from holder/punter Jon Ryan, said he never heard anyone on the field or from the Packers' sideline give the call to be aware of a possible fake.

"We have an alert if we think that they're going to fake it," Richardson said after the game. "We have calls for that."

To Richardson's knowledge, there was no alert call made.

"We were expecting a kick," said Richardson, who led the Packers in special-teams snaps played (321) during the regular season.

It was one of two major special-teams gaffes that proved costly in Sunday's 28-22 loss. The other was the botched onside kick recovery with 2:07 remaining, when tight end Brandon Bostick blew a blocking assignment and then tried to field the kick, only to have it bounce to the Seahawks.

Given how badly the Seahawks were struggling on offense at the time of the fake, it should not have been out of the question.

"It didn't enter my mind," Richardson said. "I was pretty sure they were going to kick it. Great call. Great play by them."

However, linebacker A.J. Hawk said he knew a fake was a possibility.

"It's an option, for sure, especially that deep in their zone," he said. "They definitely executed it."

Special-teams coordinator Shawn Slocum, like all Packers assistant coaches, was off limits to reporters after the game. But he will have to answer to Mike McCarthy about why those two plays happened and perhaps will have to convince the Packers coach not to get rid of him.

"You know, it's a well-orchestrated play," McCarthy said. "It was well executed. They were having trouble, obviously, generating point production. The awareness there and the execution by them, that was obviously a big play. I mean, the big plays on special teams were definitely a factor."

Colossal collapse will haunt Packers

January, 18, 2015
Jan 18
SEATTLE -- Twenty players in the visitors locker room -- the losing team's locker room -- at CenturyLink Field on Sunday knew the kind of football that could keep them from another Super Bowl.

Ask any of those Green Bay Packers with a ring from Super Bowl XLV. You're not likely to find someone to make a convincing case the Packers could get a shot at another title with the kind of special-teams gaffes, late-game defensive breakdowns and milquetoast offensive attack coach Mike McCarthy's team showed in the late stages of Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the Seattle Seahawks.

Now, the other 33 players on the roster know it, too.

How many of them will even get another chance like this?

Sunday's 28-22 overtime loss to the defending champs will go down as one of the Packers' most gut-wrenching playoff losses, especially if McCarthy and his MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers never get to another Super Bowl.

"It's going to be a missed opportunity that we'll probably think about for the rest of my career," Rodgers said. "We were the better team today, and we played well enough to win, and we can't blame anybody but ourselves."

A 16-0 halftime lead could have -- and probably should have -- been bigger had the Packers, among other things, not settled for two first-quarter field goals after a pair of drives stalled within three feet of the goal line. McCarthy played it safe and took the points. Even still, they led 19-7 and had two separate possessions (one with 6:53 left and another with 5:04 to play) to add to that lead.

But three-and-out possessions, with ultra-conservative play selections (five runs and one pass) on both, set up one Seattle touchdown. It was the first by the Seahawks' offense (more on their first score in a bit), and it came with just 2:09 to play.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Bostick
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesPackers tight end Brandon Bostick fails to secure an onside kick in the fourth quarter.
When the Seahawks recovered an onside kick that went through the hands of Brandon Bostick, the Packers were in real trouble. A defense that had picked off Russell Wilson four times finally cracked. Marshawn Lynch's 24-yard touchdown run and an ensuing two-point conversion pass from Wilson to tight end Luke Willson that safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix badly misplayed gave the Seahawks a 22-19 lead with 1:25 to go.

"We had the opportunities right in front of us and unfortunately came up short," said linebacker Clay Matthews, who inexplicably was not on the field for that drive but came back for overtime. "It's really how you can define it."

An old Packers bugaboo, the read-option, burned them again. In the fourth quarter, the Seahawks piled up 85 yards on zone-read rushes, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"They went pretty much exclusively to their option package, and that's difficult," McCarthy said. "It's difficult to defend. I thought we did a good job most of the day on it. Hey, they made the big plays when they needed to."

About the only thing the Packers did right on special teams was courtesy of Mason Crosby's right foot. He nailed all five of his field goals, including a 48-yarder with 14 seconds left that forced the overtime.

The Packers never got the ball back.

A defense that held up so well for three-plus quarters allowed a third touchdown on as many possessions when Wilson hit Jermaine Kearse, who beat Tramon Williams in single man coverage, for a 35-yard touchdown that ended things and sent those among the crowd of 68,538 who didn't leave early into a frenzied celebration just 3:19 into overtime.

"Every opportunity was there to win it, and it went totally the opposite way," Williams said. "It's not a surprise what happened, but we should have won the game, no doubt about it."

For most of the game, it looked like the Packers might get away with another head-scratching mistake on special teams. The same team that had seven kicks blocked during the regular season got burned by a fake field goal when holder Jon Ryan threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to backup tackle Garry Gilliam, who slipped behind unsuspecting safety Sean Richardson.

"The awareness there -- and the execution by them -- that was obviously a big play," McCarthy said. "I mean, the big plays on special teams were definitely a factor."

This was the Packers' third NFC title game in McCarthy's nine seasons but their first since their Super Bowl win four years ago. Maybe there will be other chances. Even if there are, how many will come with a double-digit, fourth-quarter lead?

"It's the closest we've been to getting back to the Super Bowl," Matthews said. "In that regard, it's a tough loss. Obviously, we came up short, so it really hurts."
The law of averages took over for the NFL's championship weekend, ensuring that the NFC and AFC titles were determined by the performance of players and coaches rather than officials. Unlike the previous two weeks, no game-changing calls impacted the Seattle Seahawks' 28-22 victory over the Green Bay Packers or the New England Patriots' 45-7 win against the Indianapolis Colts.

There is one initial tidbit to consider in advance of a Seahawks-Patriots Super Bowl, which will be refereed by Bill Vinovich. (That's according to multiple reports, including one from ESPN rules analyst Jim Daopoulos.) Since Vinovich returned to the referee role in 2012 after recovering from heart problems, he has been assigned five Seahawks games. Seattle is 5-0 in those games, including three victories by at least 20 points.

For the penultimate time in the 2014 season, let's run through a handful of calls that expose and explore the gray area in NFL officiating.

[+] EnlargeJerrell Freeman and Tom Brady
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesColts linebacker Jerrell Freeman was called for roughing the passer on this hit on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the second quarter.
Play: Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman called for roughing the passer
Referee: Walt Anderson
Analysis: With 1 minute, 34 seconds remaining in the first half, Freeman rushed as a free blitzer and knocked down Patriots quarterback Tom Brady just after he released the ball. The pass was incomplete, but Anderson penalized Freeman for roughing the passer.

On replay, you see Freeman make contact with his helmet on Brady's chest near his right shoulder. No helmet-to-helmet contact occurred and there didn't appear to be contact with the neck, either.

So what did Anderson see? It's possible he assumed helmet-to-helmet contact because Brady's head snapped back on impact. It's also not out of the question that he believed Freeman's facemask slid up Brady's chest to the neck area, which would have violated Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7(b-1) prohibiting contact between a defender's helmet with the head or neck area of a defenseless player "even if the initial contact is lower than the player's neck."

Most likely, however, Anderson would cite Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7(b-2), which prohibits defenders from "making forcible contact with the top/crown of the forehead/'hairline' parts of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player's body." Such contact wasn't conclusive in the replay, but it's the closet thing we can get to explaining this penalty. I certainly would have supported a no-call in this instance.

Play: Seahawks offensive lineman J.R. Sweezy penalized for unnecessary roughness in live action
Referee: Tony Corrente
Analysis: With 8:02 remaining in the third quarter, Packers linebacker Clay Matthews sacked Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson for a 15-yard loss. Matthews landed on top of Wilson during the play, at which point Sweezy dove into Matthews' back to peel him off the pile.

Corrente's crew correctly penalized Sweezy, but the Packers declined to enforce. Why? Because Corrente did not rule it a "dead ball foul," which would have tacked the 15-yard penalty on top of the 15-yard sack and led to a second-and-45 situation. Instead, he apparently believed Sweezy hit Matthews before Wilson was down.

Viewed on replay, it's clear Wilson's knee had touched the ground before Sweezy hit Matthews. Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1 directs officials to call the ball dead and the down complete "when a runner is contacted by an opponent and touches the ground with any body part other than his hands or feet. The ball is dead the instant the runner touches the ground."

The Packers should not have been in position to choose between declining the penalty or giving the Seahawks another first-and-15. It's fair to note, of course, that the Packers could have made the call moot had they stopped the Seahawks on an ensuing third-and-19 two plays later.

Play: Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril penalized for illegal use of hands
Referee: Corrente
Analysis: Avril had already been called once for illegal use of hands when this play took place with 11:58 remaining in the second quarter. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers' pass had fallen incomplete on third down, but the penalty on Avril gave them an automatic first down.

Illegal use of hands was a point of emphasis in 2014 and was called 242 times during the regular season. Rule 12, Section 1, Article 7 penalizes a defensive player who "thrusts his hands forward above the frame of an opponent to contact him on the neck, face or head."

When you watch the replay, you see Avril actually turn his left arm parallel to the ground and push it toward the neck of Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga. Avril was livid with the call, but if Corrente didn't tag him for illegal use of hands, he could have used Rule 12, Section 2, Article 12. That rule prohibits a player from "Striking, swinging at, or clubbing the neck, head or face of an opponent wit the wrist(s), arm(s), elbow(s) or hand(s)."