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Saving their worst for last, top-seeded Packers’ season lands with a thud in loss to 49ers

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GREEN BAY — The Green Bay Packers saved their worst performance of the season for the worst possible time.

Well, check that. They were still worse in their season-opening embarrassment against the New Orleans Saints four months ago. But then, they had 16 more games in front of them, and did some pretty amazing things during those games. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was able to dismiss that performance as an outlier, and he was proven right.

But on Saturday night, in their 13-10 NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers at chilly, snowy Lambeau Field, there was so much more on the line.

Super Bowl hopes.

Legacies.

And perhaps — and this is not an exaggeration — the future of the organization.

And they lost. Again.

This time, it was because an offense led by the presumptive four-time NFL MVP did very little right after its opening drive; a special-teams group that did so many things wrong all year long continued to do so — with disastrous results; and a defense that had kept the Packers in the game for virtually the entire night finally buckled with the game on the line.

As a result, the 49ers advanced to next weekend’s NFC Championship Game on veteran kicker Robbie Gould’s 45-yard field goal as time expired. The Packers, meanwhile, move into an offseason of unknowns.

“This is two years in a row where we’re the No. 1 seed and you lose home playoff games. Obviously, I didn’t do enough to get our team prepared to win a football game,” said head coach Matt LaFleur, who despite a 39-10 regular-season record is now 2-3 in the playoffs, with losses at San Francisco in the 2019 NFC Championship Game, at home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2020 NFC Championship Game, and now this loss.

“Every year in the National Football League, there’s guys coming in and out. And you know, yeah, that’s what hurts the most. You develop relationships with these guys … it’s just really tough right now to even kind of come up with the words that do justice to the situation.”

Added Rodgers, whose possible departure is obviously the most significant: “(I) didn’t think it was going to end like this. (I’m) disappointed in the offense — 10 points is obviously not enough. The defense, man, played outstanding. Special teams obviously hurt us, taking points off the board and giving them points. But offensively, scoring 10 points, never good enough.”

The 49ers will face the winner of Sunday’s other NFC Divisional matchup, between the Los Angeles Rams and the defending Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Packers, meanwhile, prematurely embark on an offseason where they must commiserate with Rodgers about his future, figure out a daunting salary-cap situation and determine whether they’re headed for a rebuilding period.

They also have to be wondering how on earth they let yet another impressive regular season go to waste.

“Heartbroken. (I) just didn’t envision it like this,” running back Aaron Jones said. “I had hopes and dreams of going to the Super Bowl and playing in that and winning it. Those will have to wait ‘til next year. Just go back to the drawing board and continue to work.”

Rodgers, on the cusp of winning back-to-back regular-season NFL MVP awards, completed 20 of 29 passes for 225 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions (91.9 rating) while absorbing five sacks behind a makeshift offensive line.

Asked how much responsibility he takes for the loss, Rodgers replied, “A lot. I didn’t have a great night tonight. (The 49ers’ pass rush) did a good job of getting me off the spot, and a better job of taking away some of the quick game we got going last time we played them. I missed a couple of reads.

“Definitely disappointed by some of the decisions I had tonight. I definitely take my fair share of blame tonight.” 

That stat line belied a performance in which Rodgers never seemed to get into a rhythm, struggled to find anyone other than star wide receiver Davante Adams (nine catches, 90 yards) or running back Jones (nine receptions, 129 yards) and couldn’t conjure up any thing resembling the magic he’d repeatedly delivered in regular-season play. Rodgers’ other two completions went to veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis, who promptly fumbled the ball to kill the Packers’ second drive, and one 6-yard completion to Allen Lazard.

As a result, the Packers’ postseason record with Rodgers at quarterback fell to 11-10, and Rodgers’ Super Bowl-less streak reached 11 years since leading the 2010 team to the NFL title in Super Bowl XLV in his third year as the starter.

Whether Rodgers returns for an 18th season in Green Bay and a 15th as the starting quarterback is unclear. He has one year left on his contract but given his offseason of discontent a year ago, even his recent nostalgic, Zen-like comments about wanting to appreciate the good ol’ days while he’s still in them offer little clarity of what will come next for him.

In the short term, he’ll surely lament the missed opportunities and a second straight postseason of wasting the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed.

“I’m very proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish here. Thankful — deeply thankful — for so many years here in the organization and all the incredible teammates and coaches that I’ve had over the years,” Rodgers said. “That’s part of the legacy, I think — the friendships, and the memories on and off the field. But I don’t know. I’m still super competitive, still know I can play at a high level, so it’s going to be a tough decision. I have a lot of things to weigh in the coming weeks.”

The game had turned with the Packers leading, 10-3, following yet another fruitless offensive possession when the Packers’ punt team allowed 49ers defensive lineman Jordan Willis to burst through the line and block Corey Bojorquez’s punt. The ball caromed high into the air, and while the Packers’ special teamers searched the snowy sky for the ball, the 49ers' Talanoa Hufanga scooped it up and ran it in from 6 yards out to tie the game at 10-10 with 4 minutes, 41 seconds to play.

“You could argue that was the difference in the game, but I think it was more than just that play,” LaFleur said.

Rodgers and the offense started their ensuing possession at their own 29-yard line, and Rodgers was promptly flushed from the pocket and had to throw the ball into the 49ers’ bench. Left guard Jon Runyan was flagged for being illegally downfield on the play as well.

The Packers’ next three offensive plays were a 4-yard completion to Adams, an incomplete pass to Randall Cobb that was nearly intercepted by the 49ers’ K’Waun Williams, and a up-for-grabs deep ball to Adams into double coverage that was more of a prayer or maybe-the-officials-will-call-pass-interference attempt than a throw with a realistic chance of being completed. Even Rodgers admitted he had Lazard open on a deep in-breaking route that would have been the better option than the deep ball to Adams.

“Obviously if I hit Allen on that deep in on the last drive, that probably gets us out to about midfield and then we’re a couple first downs away from being in field goal range,” Rodgers said.

“I should’ve checked it down on second down. And they brought a pressure and we ended up picking it up on third down, and (I) probably had Allen on the deep in cut instead of a 50/50 ball to Davante. A disappointing way to end it, for sure.”

While Bojorquez uncorked a clutch 57-yard punt, the 49ers had 3:20 to drive for the game-winning kick — and did.

The drive started with a 12-yard Jimmy Garoppolo-to-George Kittle slant and included a 14-yard completion to Deebo Samuel across the middle. But the play that likely sealed the Packers’ fate came on third-and-7 from the Green Bay 38-yard line with 1:03 to go.

Had the Packers managed a stop there, the game almost certainly heads to overtime, as it’s hard to imagine 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan even attempting a 56-yard field goal in the snow and with a wind-chill of 0 degrees.

Perhaps unwilling to put the game in Garoppolo’s hands after several near-miss interceptions, Shanahan put it on Samuel, calling a handoff. Samuel delivered, eluding attempted tackles by Za’Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander — two former All-Pros coming back from long injury layoffs — and breaking tackles by Kenny Clark, De’Vondre Campbell and Kevin King for a 9-yard gain and a first down inside the Green Bay 30-yard line.

Three plays later, Gould trotted out, coolly drilled the kick and ended the Packers’ all-in season well short of their goal.

“The worst feeling in the world,” Clark said. “We put in so much work during the season and we played our hearts out. We played with great effort. For it to end like that, it was one of the worst feelings in the world.”

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