Writing this a mere few moments after San Francisco’s kicking operation ironically ended the Packers’ season, it’s tough to put this result into more words than “disappointing” — the game itself, not so much. This is a Packers fan’s debrief of the NFC Divisional round.
A sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach has set in and it’s different than the other playoff losses we’ve suffered in the Rodgers era.
It’s not the depleted feeling I felt after the ’10 marathon versus the Cardinals in the wild card round or the anger I felt after the rushing onslaught versus the Niners in the ’20 championship game, and it’s not the feeling of heartbreak that ensued the overtime loss versus the Seahawks in ’15.
This time, it’s the feeling that this team truly came up short of where it was supposed to be.
A less than stellar rushing attack put the offense in long third-downs most of the night (seven of the team’s 11 third downs were eight yards or longer), allowing the Niners’ defense to dictate some of the most important moments in the game.
The quarterback, whose future with the only franchise he’s known now seems more questionable than it would have been if the team was anything but a one-and-done, self-admittedly “didn’t have a great night,” but also struggled to find open targets outside of his go-to receiver and number one running back.
The defense put on a show but ultimately the special teams – the only visible chink in the team’s armour entering the playoffs — was the punch that made this team buckle.
Most will remember Deebo Samuel’s 3rd-and-7 run that put the Niners in field goal range to win the game or the preceding blocked punt that knotted the game at 10 apiece heading into the final stretch as the biggest moments of this game.
But let’s rewind a bit.
Aaron Rodgers referenced Mercedes Lewis’ fumble on the second drive of the game in his press conference, yet it’s still not being talked about enough as a key moment in this game.
It might’ve been the most ideal of starts for the Packers – a near-perfect 10-play opening drive followed by a three-and-out for the Niners that was capped by an ankle-grabbing sack by Za’Darius Smith, the crowd was jazzed and the field was tilted.
There was an early sense that if the Packers were able to find a way into the end zone on consecutive drives, the game could get ugly for the Bay Area squad in the Frozen Tundra.
But then a fumble by the most unlikely of suspects abruptly halted the drive. Although the Packers’ defense prevented the field from titling in the Niners’ favour by forcing one of their five three-and-outs in the game, “Big Dog’s” fumble seemingly took the wind out of the offense’s sails.
The Packers’ offense had run 14 plays, averaging 6.8 yards per play, before its lone turnover of the game. It went on to record just one drive of more than six plays the rest of the game, averaging 3.6 yards per play.
Did the fumble happen too early in the game to mark it as the moment that affected the remainder of the game? Some might say yes. But in a slugfest that ended in a 13-10 final, this was a mistake that may have prevented the Packers’ offense from catching fire and blowing the gates open.
In-game and post-game thoughts
1.Kenny Clark and Rashan Gary played their tails off, as they have for most of this season. They spearheaded the defense which held the Niners to just 48 plays and 212 total yards of offense. My feeling is that Gary will be the team’s number one edge rusher next season and that position will need to be addressed in the draft and free agency.
2.Jaire Alexander played almost exclusively on third down in this game, lining up in the star position opposite Deebo Samuel in man-coverage, for the most part. He was up to the task in coverage but made a poor effort at tackling Samuel on the final third down of the game and it looked like he was concerned about protecting his shoulder more than anything.
3.Some kudos need to go to Matt LaFleur for being fluid in his attack. There was a point mid-way through the game in which LaFleur had almost completely got away from running the ball, forcing his quarterback to play hero ball and sling it all over the yard in hopes it would string a drive together.
It wasn’t working. He noticed that and decided to go back to his run game – it led to a 14-play drive in the third quarter and the team’s only points in the second half. It may not seem like much, but most coaches would get stubborn in that situation and force the pass in order to generate offense. LaFleur stuck true to the nature of his offense and it paid off, even if it was just briefly.
4.Did Aaron Rodgers play his best game? Not even close. In fact, this might’ve been his worst playoff performance in recent memory. But this is a team game with 10 other players on the field with him and 47 other players that span across three phases of the game.
You can say what you want about an MVP quarterback not taking over when it mattered most, but he wasn’t the reason the Packers lost this game. This is not to let Rodgers off the hook by any means, but the script of this game was simply a power struggle for both offenses.
It came down to the special teams failing … again.
The way this game unfolded, had the Niners needed to drive the field on a defense that had allowed three total points in the game to that point with roughly five minutes remaining, I would take my chances. Instead, the struggling offense had to re-take the field after the air had been sucked out of the stadium.
The reality is the special teams unit, which has been the lone reservation for most Packers’ fans, didn’t give the team’s best unit (the defense) a chance to make another play.
Strip away everything from this game aside from the key moments, and this game was determined by two blocked kicks and a fumble.
The blocked field goal at the end of the first half, likely along with the drive-stopping fumble, prevented the team from putting points on the board.
Had the Packers taken a double-digit lead at any point in this game, Shannahan may have diverted from his run-heavy attack. Instead, he was able to stay true to his game plan and, most importantly, not rely on an injured Jimmy Garoppolo to get back in the game.
The Niners, who are not the better team, did not win this game. Rather, the Packers lost this game.
As this debrief comes to an end, I’m realizing that my tendency to look at things holistically is playing a large part in the sinking feeling that is eating at me.
Brian Gutekunst’s efforts to bring the likes of DeVondre Campell, Rasul Douglas, Dennis Kelly, and Whitney Mercilus into this organization – and have them turn into valuable contributors — left me, and likely others, with the feeling that a Super Bowl was this squad’s destiny.
Piling on that, the future of this team is as unsure as it’s been in years and it’s not just the quarterback (although that will be the determining domino).
Each of those key acquisitions is unlikely to return next season, and with the team expected to be roughly $50 million above the cap with Davante Adams expecting Brinks truck worth of money, the futures of Adams, the Smith bros, Billy Turner, and Randall Cobb are all up in the air.
Let’s not forget the future of our beloved coaches either. Nathanial Hackett and Luke Getsy could leave gaping holes to fill in the coaching staff, compounding the possible lack of continuity this team could face entering 2022.
Rodgers made one thing clear in his post-game press conference: if he’s going to come back, it’s not to be a part of a rebuild.
As Packers fans, I think we get spoiled at times with the level of play we see. Three straight 13-win seasons, consecutive number one seeds and two NFC Championship appearances in that time is something no other franchise can say.
I supposed that’s my blind optimism rearing its head — none of that matters without a Super Bowl.
This wasn’t supposed to be how the season would end, and it may be a disappointing end to one of the great eras in the history of the Packers.——————
Joshua Frey-Sam is a journalism student and aspiring sportscaster hailing from Winnipeg, Canada. A Packers fan since 2005, Josh has worked to master the financial and scouting aspect of the NFL over the past few years. Josh remains a firm believer that Dez did not, in fact, catch the ball. You can follow him on twitter at @jfreysam.