Stuck on sideline, Aaron Rodgers watches Packers' season end ... again

Aaron Rodgers saw the Packers go from "a really high high" to "a pretty low low" in a matter of moments Saturday. Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Aaron Rodgers slung his black backpack and navy canvas duffel bag to the floor and shook his head. Then he zipped up his leather jacket, unleashed a deep sigh and turned around.

So much had been racing through his mind as the Green Bay Packers' quarterback rode a rickety golf cart down the long University of Phoenix Stadium corridor from the visitors’ locker room late Saturday night: The “debacle” (his word) of an overtime coin toss. His second against-all-odds, successful Hail Mary in a six-week span. The pride he was feeling in his cast of unknown wide receivers and injury-addled offensive linemen, who’d come together on a night when all seemed lost to give their team a chance.

But at that moment, all Rodgers could think about was the chance he hadn’t gotten. For the second consecutive year, the Packers’ season -- and Rodgers’ hopes for a second Super Bowl run -- had ended in overtime, without the quarterback ever getting his turn. This time, it was a 26-20 NFC divisional playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

“It’s a really high high there, where you tie it up last play of the game and ... and then you don’t get to touch the ball in the overtime,” said Rodgers, whose 41-yard prayer as time expired in regulation had been answered by little-used receiver Jeff Janis. “So it’s a pretty low low there.”

Just as he’d done 363 days earlier during the Packers’ epic NFC Championship Game meltdown in Seattle, Rodgers stood helplessly on the sideline. This time, he watched Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald get the Cardinals into scoring position with a 75-yard catch-and-run and, two plays later, end the game on a 5-yard scoring shovel pass.

At least when the Packers lost their 2009 NFC wild-card game to the Cardinals, in Rodgers’ first postseason appearance, he’d had the ball in his hands. Although it ate at him then that he’d missed a wide-open Greg Jennings for a sure 80-yard touchdown to start overtime -- right before watching his fumble be returned for the winning touchdown two plays later -- at least he’d had his shot.

Not this time.

“It’s tough. We’ve lost a few of these over the years where you don’t touch the ball in overtime,” said Rodgers, who never got the ball in extra time of last season's NFC Championship Game, which abruptly ended with Russell Wilson’s touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse. “It’s just the way it goes. It comes down to coin flips at times after a long, hard-fought game, back and forth, plays made, bizarre plays made by both teams. And unfortunately, it comes down to that.”

Rodgers, who took issue with referee Clete Blakeman’s non-rotating initial overtime coin flip, had forced overtime with a 41-yard, spinning, desperation heave to Janis as regulation expired.

Although his throw Saturday night didn’t travel as far as his 61-yard game-winner Dec. 3 at Detroit, it might have been even more improbable, considering Rodgers had converted a fourth-and-20 from his own 4-yard line with an equally stunning 60-yard heave to Janis just two plays earlier.

“Shoot, I don’t know if anybody could make that throw," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of the Hail Mary.

Rodgers wouldn’t get to make another. This actually marked the third consecutive year Rodgers had been able to tie a playoff game, only to be standing on the sideline when his season ended.

In the 2013 NFC wild-card round, he helped the Packers to a 20-20 tie with five minutes left in regulation before watching as the San Francisco 49ers methodically drove for the winning field goal as time expired at Lambeau Field. Last season, he stanched the bleeding of the Packers’ collapse at the end of regulation by driving for a field goal with 14 seconds left to force overtime with the Seahawks.

“I thought we were going to win the whole time. I felt confident in our guys,” Rodgers said. “The way we were playing offensively, it was frustrating. They’ve got a great defense, but ...”

Rodgers’ voice trailed off. It had been an exasperating regular season for him, with substandard -- for him -- statistics, the upheaval of McCarthy surrendering and then reclaiming offensive play-calling duties and losing his close friend and Pro Bowl receiver Jordy Nelson to a season-ending knee injury in preseason.

There were times when it seemed like all the walls around Rodgers were crumbling. His offensive line, which had been the paragon of health a year ago, had been beset by injuries since early October. Before halftime Saturday night, Rodgers was without his top four receivers from the start of camp: Nelson (on injured reserve), Randall Cobb (in a Phoenix hospital after suffering a chest injury during the first half), Davante Adams (inactive with a knee injury suffered the previous week) and rookie Ty Montgomery (on injured reserve after ankle surgery).

That left the Packers with only three wide receivers: veteran James Jones, who was signed at the end of training camp after Nelson’s injury, Jared Abbrederis, who missed all of last season with a knee injury and almost all of training camp with a severe concussion, and Janis, who struggled to win Rodgers’ trust and, consequently, didn’t get much playing time.

Perhaps that’s why Rodgers, despite his disappointment, spoke just as much about his pride postgame as he did about his heartache. He praised all his receivers while coming to grips with the loss.

“I’m just really proud of these guys,” he said. “I love being a Packer. This is ... tough.

“You know, 11 years in, the season ends very abruptly when it ends like this. One moment, you’re hanging out with your teammates on a road trip and, the next moment, everybody goes their own separate ways. That’s the tough part of this business. But it’s the reality. We’re fortunate enough to play this great game and to be a part of such a special organization like we are. You hate it when it goes like this because you put so much into it, and there’s so much hope and belief.

“Right up until the last tick on the clock, we still believed we could make something happen, and then you have that feeling like we had last year, when Mason [Crosby] made the long kick, put us into overtime, and you feel like you’re going to win the game. So it’s pretty disappointing.”

“I’m just really proud of our guys. We stuck together. There’s a lot of adversity this season where we could have started pointing fingers and playing the woe-is-me card, and we never did. Mike kept us together, believed in each other, made a run, and we were close to extending that thing.”