By Eron Laber Special to OnMilwaukee Published Jan 13, 2004 at 5:00 AM

{image1} Like a sucker punch in the gut, this hurts.

Every fan across the state is asking themselves: is this my fault? Why didn't I wear the same underwear as last week? Why did I use four avocados instead of three in this week's game time guacamole?

Sunday afternoon was easily forgotten in the haze of the Monday morning alarm clock. But, with the first blink of the eye, you remember: our season is over. The golden promises of an assumed romp into Carolina first snapped, then crackled and eventually popped with two 4th and 1 runs, one failed and one aborted, and a lazy Sunday afternoon duck floating into the waiting arms of Eagles safety Brian Dawkins.

After weeks of talk of the Cinderella Packers, suddenly midnight struck. Brett Favre turned into Matt Hasslebeck, allowing the game to come down to one ill-fated play. Mike Sherman turned into Mike Holmgren, ignoring his own advice about the virtues of aggression.

The Green Bay Packers turned into the Minnesota Vikings, failing to turn away a 4th-and-forever with the season on the line.

So it goes. The season of blown opportunities gave way to the post season of destiny, which, in turn, was given away by blowing too many opportunities.

We can now settle in for the long, cold winter, by watching other people's teams play when, in our hearts, we know ours could have played with any of them.

All hope need not be lost.

The receiving corps has grown into a confident group of playmakers, and Brett knows it. The running game became the crown jewel for stretches of the season. Grady Jackson has turned into the next coming of a youthful, if not svelte, Gilbert Brown, just as Gilbert's tank has come to rest on empty.

With the galvanizing forces of these late season heroics in tow, the Packers should be well-positioned in a weak conference to make an Ahman Green sized run next year. There isn't a dominant team in the bunch. The Eagles and Panthers survived by getting out of the way while better teams tripped over their own feet.

Destiny aside, the passing of Irv Favre served as a grim reminder that life is short and opportunities are limited. The Packers' window of opportunity has been propped open by a young team growing up together that has renewed Brett Favre's enthusiasm for the game. This team became a family this season, and their taste of success should whet their appetite for more of the same next year.

Training camp is just around the corner.

Until then, it will still hurt.

Eron Laber Special to OnMilwaukee

Eron Laber is the owner of Through Line Studios. He specializes in artistic, personal wedding and portrait photography that reflects the character of his subjects.