Headed Home: Packers end season in familiar way

There was a time in the not so distant past when the Green Bay Packers had little fear of playing the San Francisco 49ers, particularly in the playoffs. Right now, that seems like eons ago.

From January 6, 1996, to September 8, 2012 – a full 16 years, eight months and two days – the Packers and 49ers played 14 times with Green Bay winning 13 of them. The last two years, though, Green Bay has bookended its seasons with losses to San Francisco, four total, with this last one being the most painful.

Why has there been such a sudden change in fortunes in the storied rivalry? The answers vary depending on the game. In last year’s season opener, Green Bay was bullied by the strong offensive and defensive lines of the 49ers. San Fran outrushed the Packers by 140 yards, and that lack of toughness in Green Bay was also exploited in losses to the Seahawks and Giants.

Their paths met again on the quest for the Super Bowl, and the Divisional Round game was the official coming out party for Colin Kaepernick. The young quarterback blew past the Packers over and over with the read option, finishing with an NFL playoff quarterback record 181 rushing yards.

The league thought it only right for the two teams to open against each other again this year, and it was a similar result but in a not so similar way. Kaepernick rushed for only 22 yards. He also threw for 412, and San Francisco won 34-28.

That game, in Week One, showed a flaw Green Bay’s defense would struggle with all season – a flaw that would eventually end its season.

It wasn’t the injuries to Clay Matthews, Aaron Rodgers, Jermichael Finley, Casey Hayward, Bryan Bulaga and so on and so on and so on. It wasn’t the pass blocking, the run defense or the pass rush either. All those were serious challenges, but the real issue was that Green Bay couldn’t get off the field when it absolutely needed a stop.

In Week One, the Packers took a 28-24 lead with 8:26 to play. From there, the 49ers ate up 7:05, scored 10 points and won by six. The final field goal scoring driving went 11 plays and 4:26, leaving just 0:26 for Aaron Rodgers to play for a game winning touchdown. On that last drive, Kaepernick and Co. converted on 3rd-and-4 and 4th-and-2.

Eight weeks later, the 5-2 Packers welcomed Chicago to Lambeau Field. We all remember how the game started. Green Bay drove down the field at will, then lost Rodgers to the broken collarbone that kept him out for eight weeks. What you might not remember is how the game ended.

With the Bears leading 24-20 and 9:48 on the clock, Chicago Quarterback Josh McCown took the ball at his own 11 yard line. 18(!) plays and 8:58 later, the Bears kicked a field goal, and Seneca Wallace couldn’t drive for a game tying touchdown in the final 0:46. Chicago converted on 4th-and-1 at its own 32, 3rd-and-6, and 3rd-and-5 on the drive. The Packers lost 27-20.

The very next week, Green Bay forged on without its quarterback, but the late game failure remained. Philadelphia led 27-13, but the Packers had life. After an Eagles fumble, Green Bay took over at the Philly 13. Four plays later, though, it was up to the defense to give them another chance. The offense wouldn’t touch the ball again. Nick Foles led the Eagles on a 15-play, 9:37 drive that ran out the clock and sent the Packers to another disappointing loss.

That brings us to the Wild Card match up in Green Bay. The Packers gained one yard in the 1st Quarter, Rodgers was sacked a season high four times, and the defense lost three players to injury, yet the game was tied at 20 with 5:06 remaining. The problem was: San Francisco had the ball.

On 2nd Down, Packers rookie cornerback Micah Hyde nearly made up for every other late game collapse. He jumped the pass to Anquan Boldin, jumped and got both hands on it. He couldn’t pull it in, though, and the 49ers exhaled.

“It was a catch I should have made. I make those catches in practice all the time,” Hyde said afterward. “I was there to make the play, tried to climb the ladder to get it, and it slipped out of my hands.”

Photo Courtesy: Packers.com

Photo Courtesy: Packers.com

On the next play, Kaepernick hit Michael Crabtree for 17 yards and a first down, and San Francisco was in business. Five snaps later it was 3rd-and-8 at the Green Bay 38. A stop would mean either a 4th down try or a punt because the sub-zero conditions wouldn’t allow a 55-yard field goal attempt. The Packers sent Cornerback Jarrett Bush on a blitz around right end where it looked like Kaepernick was about to throw. Bush jumped as Kaepernick faked a pass, then the speedy quarterback took off for 11 yards and a nearly back breaking moving of the chains.

Another five plays and 12 yards sent Phil Dawson out for the game winning field goal, and even an exceptional effort by Davon House couldn’t keep San Francisco from advancing.

The final drive tallied 14 plays, 65 yards, 5:06 and a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach for the Packers and their fans.

The 18-, 15-, and 14-play drives that decided three of those four losses were the three longest drives (in terms of plays) given up by the Green Bay defense all season, and all three came at the very worst time.

The 2013 version of the Packers will leave a legacy as a team that fought adversity and made the playoffs despite losing the heart of its offense and defense for significant stretches. It will also be remembered, though, for these repeated failures, particularly the one that started the offseason about a month too early.