It’s just a game. Football is just a game.
By my count, it has been 1,027 days since the Green Bay Packers were nefariously cheated out of a playoff win against the Arizona Cardinals. With the Packers playing the Cardinals on Sunday, it’s getting harder for me to repress the memories of the game, the way I have for the past 1,027 days. I know it’s just football. I know it’s just a game. I know that I have absolutely no connection or personal investment in the Packers except emotionally. But I just can’t let this go.
It was a late Sunday afternoon, January 10, 2010, in Phoenix, Arizona. The Packers had won seven of their last eight games to capture a wild card spot after an up-and-down start to the season, while Arizona was riding the arm of aging quarterback Kurt Warner, who was lighting up the league on his farewell tour.
Green Bay was a team of young upstarts, led by Aaron Rodgers in his second season as a starter. Rodgers had demanded the notice of the league in his stellar play of the season, but critics across the NFL wondered how he would do in his first playoff game.
The Packers received the opening kickoff with a short gain. Then, Aaron Rodgers took the field. On first-and-ten, Aaron looked to the sideline where a young, second-year, unknown, really hot receiver named Jordy Nelson was running his route and threw his way for an …. interception. On the very first play of the game.
The first quarter was rough. Green Bay’s vaunted defense was being picked apart by Warner to the tune of a 17-0 Arizona lead after the first period. The Packers were only able to trim the lead to 24-10 at halftime. The announcers were loving it, roaring about how the Packers and Rodgers were too young; how old man Warner’s experience couldn’t be overcome. Packer fans were somber while the halftime show nonsense played in the background. The Packers had been so extraordinary this season – what had happened ?
But then the second half came. After the third quarter, the Arizona lead remained fourteen, but Green Bay was starting to get going. They had scored two touchdowns that had made the slumped shoulders of Packer fans perk up. Hey, maybe this thing isn’t over yet. There’s still a lot of time left. Besides, the last Cardinals’ touchdown shouldn’t have even counted.
Late in the third quarter, on the Green Bay 11, Warner floated a high pass to the back of the endzone where Larry Fitzgerald stretched out to make an amazing catch for a touchdown. But there was a flag on the play. Whew, Packer fans thought, That’s coming back. There’s no way the refs could have missed Fitzgerald’s two-handed shove of Charles Woodson that sent Woodson to the ground and allowed Fitzgerald to get open. But no. The refs threw a roughing-the-passer flag. Poor Cullen Jenkins, who was blatantly being held by offensive lineman Deuce Lutui, had been blocked into – nay, tackled into – Kurt Warner for the penalty which left announcer Troy Aikman sputtering, “I cannot disagree more with that call.” But the Packers weren’t going to let one abysmal call by the refs defeat them.
Things started to get crazy in the fourth quarter. Since halftime, both teams seemed to have mutually agreed to forget about defense entirely and just go nuts on offense. The announcers had to swallow all their silly words about the stage being too big for the young Rodgers. With 1:52 left in the fourth quarter, Green Bay scored its third touchdown of the quarter – bringing the game to a 45-45 tie – but Kurt Warner had a whole 1:52 left to engineer a game-winning drive. Steadily, the Cardinals worked their way up the field until they faced a 34-yard field goal with 14 seconds on the clock. Arizona kicker Neil Rackers had only missed one kick all season, and was perfect from inside the 40. The crowd hushed, and both Cardinal and Packer fans held their breath as Rackers kicked – he missed it!
Green Bay fans couldn’t believe it! Overtime! The Packers had the momentum going into the extra period. They had just wiped a 21-point second-half deficit off the board. Rodgers couldn’t miss, it seemed. Green Bay just had to win. When Green Bay won the coin toss, it was hard to envision them not scoring with the hot streak they were on.
But then the refs stepped in. [Cue Psycho music.] On the second play of overtime, Rodgers was clearly drilled with an impossible-for-anyone-but-an-NFL-ref-to-miss helmet-to-helmet hit that went uncalled. Yet Green Bay still felt like it could win this game. They could overcome the refs, right? Not two plays later, Rodgers, facing a 3rd-and-6 that could decide the whole season, dropped back and faced pressure from the Cardinals defense. Arizona’s Michael Adams rushed at Rodgers with a hand up. The hand grasped Aaron’s facemask, wrenching it to one side while pulling Rodgers to the ground. The ball came loose. Arizona’s Karlos Dansby picked up the ball and ran it in for a touchdown. The game can’t be over. The refs have to call the personal foul. WHERE IS THE FLAG?
And that’s how the game ended. 51-45, Arizona Cardinals.
Perhaps now you can understand why I work so hard to suppress this memory deep within my wounded psyche.
Two uncalled personal fouls against Aaron Rodgers cost the Packers their season and would lead to a whole year of “Aaron Rodgers is good, but he’s never won a playoff game” talk from pundits. Because of the loss, no one bothered to look at the stats and see that Aaron Rodgers played an amazing game. In his first playoff start, Rodgers threw 28-of-42 for 422 yards, 4 passing touchdowns, and one rushing touchdown. How unfair is it that he had to go up against one of the greatest single-game performances of all time from Kurt Warner?
I always loved Warner, but did he really have to choose January 10, 2010 to throw 29-of-33 for 379 yards, 5 touchdowns, and zero interceptions? He threw more touchdowns than incompletions! Who does that? The game set playoff records with a combined total of 96 points and the performance of both quarterbacks. If I didn’t love the Packers so much, and if I didn’t love fairness and justice so much, this game would have been the most entertaining, exciting, and fun football game I had ever seen.
Now, I know that was almost three years ago. The Packers have since won a Super Bowl and Aaron Rodgers has been acknowledged as best quarterback on the planet with an MVP award. The Arizona Cardinals roster has changed significantly; there aren’t a lot of players from the 2009 season still there. But I still cannot let this go. I will get over this year’s “loss” to the Seattle Seahawks in the Great Replacement Ref Disaster of 2012 long before I will get over the 2009 Wild Card game. It is for this reason that I hate the Cardinals. Instead of feeling sympathy for their rudderless, quarterback-less team with the worst offensive line I have ever seen, I feel only a vengeful desire for Green Bay to crush them mercilessly this weekend. I don’t care if it makes me a spiteful person – I want the Cardinals to leave Lambeau Field in tears on Sunday. I want them to voluntarily disband as a team after so humiliating a loss as the one they will face on Sunday. I want them to fear ever returning to Wisconsin again.
But, like I said, it’s just a game.