The Packers were once again ushered out of the postseason after the offense mustered just three points on its final nine drives, and the special teams cratered — again.
The latest postseason exit in Green Bay ushers in another round of questions surrounding the presumptive two-time MVP’s future with the Packers. Immediately following the loss, Rodgers said he’ll take some time before diving into what comes next.
“I didn’t think we’d be talking about this after this game,” Rodgers said. “I’m going to take some time and have conversations with folks around here, and then take some time away and make a decision — obviously before free agency or anything gets going on that front. It’s fresh right now. A little shocking for sure. I was hoping to have a nice weekend for the NFC Championship, to enjoy the lead-up and then start contemplating some things, so I haven’t even let the moment really sink in yet.”
When it does sink in that the Packers fell short of the Super Bowl yet again, Rodgers has a lot to weigh. Baked into that process is how Green Bay has fallen flat in the postseason. The QB was asked if the way the season ended influences his thinking about the future.
“Of course it does,” he replied. “But you know there are a lot of decisions to be made, a lot of players whose futures are up in the air. Definitely will be interesting to see which way some of those decisions go. But I’ll have conversations with (GM) Brian (Gutekunst) in the next week or so and get a little bit more clarity. And think about my own future and how much longer I want to keep doing this.”
Packers coach Matt LaFleur said from where he sits, the club hopes Rodgers returns for an 18th season.
The same Niners that were once 3-5 and headed for a long offseason full of questions are now headed to the NFC Championship Game for the second time in three seasons.
To get there, San Francisco had to pull out the type of late-game magic that has been a hallmark of its late-season surge to the playoffs. The result was a wild 13-10 win over the Green Bay Packers on Saturday night at Lambeau Field.
The 49ers await the winner of Sunday’s NFC divisional game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Los Angeles Rams.
That toughness has been on display a lot over the past couple of months. The Niners went 7-2 over their final nine games to get into the postseason. That run culminated in a 17-point comeback victory over the Rams in the final week that clinched a playoff spot.
It continued against the Dallas Cowboys last weekend, when the Niners nearly coughed up a 16-point advantage but managed to squeeze by to advance to the divisional round against the Packers.
But Green Bay presented a unique challenge, one that for most of Saturday looked like it would be too much for the 49ers to overcome. As they’ve done for most of the past 2½ months, the Niners didn’t flinch.
It has become the signature trait of a team that is not as dominant as the 2019 juggernaut but that makes up for its shortcomings with an unrelenting will to win.
“We find ways, whether it’s running, passing, defense stepping up big, special teams today,” San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. “That’s what makes a good football team. That’s what we are.”
For long stretches against the Packers, that might have been up for debate. The first half was a disaster offensively, as the Niners dropped passes, allowed sacks and generally got pushed around by the well-rested Packers.
The Niners soon realized they required the most unpredictable of contributions to turn the tide. Buoyed by a dominant defensive performance in which they didn’t allow a touchdown after the first drive of the game, the Niners put the “special” in special teams to overcome the Packers.
The same 49ers special teams group that had come under fire in recent weeks for its struggles entered Saturday with the idea that it could make the difference.
During the week, head coach Kyle Shanahan and special teams coach Richard Hightower recognized that a Green Bay special teams unit that ranked 31st in efficiency, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, might offer some opportunities to change the course of the game.
“We thought our special teams had an advantage in this game,” Shanahan said. “We thought they had an opportunity to possibly win us the game. To be able to say that and to actually come to fruition and those guys pulled it off was huge for those guys and huge for our team.”
San Francisco’s special teams came up with a trio of game-altering plays, each as important as the one before it.
With a little less than five minutes remaining, the Packers had fourth-and-19 at their 12. Niners defensive end Jordan Willis, nursing a high ankle sprain, burst through the middle and blocked Corey Bojorquez’s punt. The ball popped straight up in the air before landing near rookie safety Talanoa Hufanga, who scooped it up and raced six yards for the touchdown. Gould’s extra point tied the game at 10 with 4:41 to go.
It was the first blocked punt return for a touchdown in 49ers playoff history and the second the Packers have given up in theirs. Green Bay is the first team in at least the past 20 postseasons to have a punt and a field goal blocked in the same game, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Just before halftime, Niners safety Jimmie Ward blocked a field goal to prevent Green Bay from adding to its first-half lead of 7-0. Samuel later returned a kick 45 yards to set up Gould’s first field goal. And Gould, who has not missed a field goal (20-for-20) or an extra point (32-of-32) in his playoff career, kicked the game winner with only 10 Packers on the field.
The Niners became the first team since the 1988 Buffalo Bills to block a punt and a field goal in the same playoff game. San Francisco also became just the fourth team to win a postseason contest without an offensive touchdown since 2000.
“We struggled too [on special teams this season],” Ward said. “But that’s the area where we knew we had to win the game at. We knew how the weather was going to be, even though it was great football weather. But we knew it was going to be hard for either team to score points.”
It wasn’t too hard for the Packers to score, at least on their opening drive. After that 10-play, 69-yard drive that featured zero third downs, Niners linebacker Fred Warner lit into his teammates on the sideline.
But a robust defensive showing, and game-changing plays from their special teams units led to a late-game momentum shift and paved the way for a stunning 13-10 victory.
The 49ers will move on to play in their second NFC championship game in three seasons, and Aaron Rodgers once again fails to exact vengeance on the team that opted against drafting the Bay Area native with the first overall pick of the 2005 NFL draft.
At the time of that San Francisco selection of Alex Smith, and a 23-pick wait before the Packers took him 24th, Rodgers vowed to make the 49ers regret their decision. However, 17 years later, Rodgers has failed to beat San Francisco in four postseason meetings.