GREEN BAY, Wis. -- You can never boil a win or a loss down to one play. Micah Hyde knows this. The Green Bay Packers corner also knows if he could've held onto a gift-wrapped throw from Colin Kaepernick, the Packers, not the 49ers, would be headed to the divisional round.
"It's gonna hurt, knowing that you could've made that play, but bad things happen to football players," Hyde said. "That would've put us in very good field position. It's one of those plays you've got to make."
Instead of Hyde picking off Kaepernick on San Francisco's half of the field with 4:09 left to play, setting up the Packers for a potential game-winning field goal or better, the 49ers churned downfield on the strength of Kaepernick's scrambling and quick throws to kick their own field goal, advancing past the Packers in the playoffs for the second time in two seasons.
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The 23-20 win is San Francisco's second in a row by the same score (it defeated Arizona 23-20 in Week 17) and seventh victory in a row dating to a Nov. 17 loss at New Orleans, 23-20.
In a game played amid an extreme cold-stretch spanning much of the Midwest, with temperatures in Green Bay dropping to 5 degrees for a late afternoon kickoff, each quarterback struggled to find a rhythm. Rodgers had the best excuse, playing in just his second game after suffering a broken collarbone in November, behind a patchwork offensive line which lost left tackle David Bakhtiari to a concussion in the second half.
Bakhtiari and opposite tackle Don Barclay weren't especially effective in stemming a fierce 49ers' pass rush -- linebackers Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith logged a combined 3.5 sacks and nearly a dozen hurries. Yet Rodgers in his postgame press conference credited the San Francisco pass coverage, missing a key cog after Carlos Rogers went down as a pregame scratch.
"I thought the pass protection was really good," Rodgers said. "There weren't a lot of guys open early on. I had to hold the ball. Later in the game we had some more productive extended plays."
Whether you blame it on the pressure, cold hands and feet, or the injury to Rodgers' non-throwing shoulder, the former Super Bowl MVP was indisputably pedestrian in defeat, connecting on 17-of-26 passes for 177 yards and a touchdown with a fumble, one week after leading the Packers to a thrilling 33-28 division-clinching victory in Chicago.
"It's frustrating," Rodgers said. "I think you have to start with yourself, and I could have definitely made a few more plays. Those opportunities are pretty special, and you've got to make the most of them."
The 49ers likely botched as many or more opportunities at Lambeau -- with Kaepernick throwing up an uncontested interception to Tramon Williams in the second quarter at the Niners' 13, and the Packers converting it into a touchdown to grab a 7-6 lead. The lead swapped three times after that, until Kaepernick brushed off his near-interception on the final drive, scrambling on 3rd-and-8 at the Green Bay 38 to escape a blitz and pick up 11 yards and a first down. Four plays later, Phil Dawson swung a frozen foot for a 33-yard field goal which extended San Francisco's NFC title defense to a Sunday visit to Carolina.
Kaepernick completed 16-of-30 passes for 227 yards with one touchdown -- a 28-yard fourth-quarter strike to Vernon Davis -- and the lame duck interception to Williams. He was brilliant, as usual, outside of the pocket, rushing for 98 yards to lead all ballcarriers. After the game, he was characteristically curt in interviews.
Why didn't he wear sleeves on his arms, despite Coach Jim Harbaugh's prodding?
"I'm hard-headed," he said.
What's he thinking as the 49ers face Carolina for the first time since a one-point loss in November?
"We owe 'em."
The Packers were a bit more forthcoming as they reflected on an up-and-down campaign and a painful game, which saw about a half-dozen starters sit with injuries. At one point Sunday, a knee injury to linebacker Andy Mulumba forced Green Bay to switch out of its typical 3-4 base defense to a 4-3. And it was Mulumba, later, who limped behind Kaepernick as he sprinted for the first down which ended Green Bay's season.
"We're a tough bunch," said Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji. "We fought through a lot, and that's why we expected to have a better performance today. I just feel sorry for everyone associated with the team. It's tough to go out like this."
Said Hyde: "We felt like this one slipped through our hands."