Once a season, a game comes along that serves as a sign of things to come. Watching Week 15's Sunday nighter, Packers at Patriots, I felt like I was watching a Super Bowl preview.
This late-season matchup also felt like a Super Bowl review, or at least what could have been. In 2007, Brett Favre served up a Super Bowl berth to the Giants with a key interception in overtime of the frigid NFC title game. Otherwise, Super Bowl XLII would have featured the Packers and Patriots.
Packer fans will tell you the 2003 team had a great shot, before taking a devastating playoff loss in Philly (Freddie Mitchell, anyone?). New England would've awaited Green Bay that season as well.
Of course, these two proud franchises did meet on Super Sunday once, back in 1997. Super Bowl XXXI featured two great coaches in Mike Holmgren and Bill Parcells, much like No. 3 on our list carried the talents of a great play-caller in Mike McCarthy and the master motivator himself, Bill Belichick.
The Patriots were done in by special teams breakdowns in that Super Bowl, much like the Packers' special teams had a key letdown in Week 15 last season, when Green Bay had a commanding 17-7 lead and the momentum.
That's when a squib kick went horribly wrong. Considering the whole point of the squib is to put a cap on big returns, it pretty much sucked for all cheeseheads when 313-pound Dan Connolly picked up the ball and rumbled 71 yards to set up the Patriots' second touchdown.
They say you can't give Tom Brady a short field. I believe four yards qualifies as a short field. Not to mention, the big man with the ball fired up his entire sideline, something Green Bay could've done without considering it was already playing without its biggest motivator and best player in Aaron Rodgers.
While the Connolly surprise gave New England its mojo back, Matt Flynn -- starting for a concussed Rodgers -- and the Green Bay offense went mano-a-mano with Brady. The Packers' backup threw three touchdowns and made this game the wow-I-can't-believe-they're-making-a-game-of-it story of the regular season. Flynn's composure over the first 59 minutes, along with the brilliance of his opponent, the 11-2 Patriots, made this nationally televised game worth being a national game and definitely the best primetime clash of the season.
Now, putting those 59 minutes aside, what about that last minute?
One of the drawbacks to having a backup quarterback start is the cruddy table-scrap reps he gets in practice. The No. 2 guy rarely has command of the playbook, not because he's dumb or he's not as good a player, but simply because the backup takes so few snaps during the week. Even the greatest players, irrespective of their position, need repetition.
Still, McCarthy and Co. knew Flynn was going to start. He should've been as prepared as possible. So how the Packers only got one play off in the final 20 seconds was a complete mystery. As you watch the video, notice Flynn looking at the bench for direction.
Is there any question as to which play would land here? An O-lineman carrying the rock like it's a suitcase about to burst open for 71 yards -- the longest ever by an offensive lineman -- at an uber-important point in the game. This was one unbelievable kick return.
Controversial call ... that worked
I've seen onside kicks to start the game fail much more than they've worked. Still, McCarthy's gamble worked. Maybe he wasn't playing the percentages, but going up against the best team in the league -- at their place -- with a green quarterback ... why not?
Why is this game No. 3 of 2010?
After a long day on "NFL Redzone," eyes bloodshot and taxed, this was not a game I expected to stay glued to. Yet, I couldn't shut it off.
Despite Flynn at quarterback and the myriad of injuries Green Bay already had prior to losing Rodgers, the Packers showed -- cheesy sounding or not -- the heart of a champion. Meanwhile, New England gave a glimpse of its vulnerability, an ominous sign of an early playoff exit.
Beyond that, this game felt like a Super Bowl preview, as even though the Packers' playoff future was in doubt, they sure looked like the NFC's most complete team.
Why not higher?
As much as everyone I work with thought this clash was more than memorable, especially the biased Pats fan I happened to watch this game with, it wasn't the best game all year. But it's uniqueness, and Super Bowl-that-never-happened feel, made the three-hole on our list feel appropriate.