GREEN BAY, Wis. – Special teams, the Green Bay Packers’ weakness all season, has sent them into the bitter cold of the offseason.
For the fourth time, Aaron Rodgers’ Super Bowl dreams were extinguished by the San Francisco 49ers. In previous years, it was Colin Kaepnerick and Raheem Mostert. On Saturday, it was Jordan Willis and Talanoa Hufanga combining to shock the Packers. Robbie Gould’s 45-yard field goal on the final play ended Green Bay’s season.
With the Packers nursing a 10-3 lead with 4:41 remaining, Willis blocked Corey Bojorquez’s punt. Nobody could find the ball in the snow other than Hufanga, a rookie from USC, who scooped up the loose ball and returned it 6 yards for the tying touchdown.
The Packers’ ensuring possession, like so many before them, went nowhere. The 49ers then drove the field for Gould’s field goal. Deebo Samuel’s 9-yard run on third-and-7 was the back-breaker. On the field goal, Gould struck the ball and immediately sprinted forward toward the end zone, his arm in the air, his index finger raised.
The 49ers celebrated a remarkable victory. The Packers trudged off the field following yet another blown opportunity to win the franchise's 14th world championship. Every playoff loss stings. This one might sting a bit more, with the Packers having homefield advantage, their beloved winter weather and a relatively healthy roster. Everything was in their favor, and none of it mattered.
Rodgers had his chance to finally get back to the Super Bowl.
Had it happened, he could have thanked Rashan Gary.
Gary and the defense delivered a dominant performance in the cold and snow of Lambeau Field. Gary’s fourth-down stop of Elijah Mitchell with about 6 minutes to go should have been enough. But Green Bay went three-and-out, Bojorquez’s punt was blocked. It was the second blocked kick of the night; the first took a field goal off the board that would have given the Packers a 10-0 lead at the break.
The Packers took a 10-3 lead with 11:27 remaining in regulation. The 49ers had all the momentum, so the 14-play drive by Green Bay was important beyond Mason Crosby’s 33-yard field goal. Aaron Jones converted a pair of third-and-1s before Davante Adams made a shoelaces grab for a gain of 25 to the 24. The drive stalled on Arik Armstead’s third-down sack but Crosby added some insurance points.
The 49ers moved into scoring position on the ensuing drive. On third-and-11, Jimmy Garoppolo hit star tight end George Kittle for 24 yards – taking cornerback Eric Stokes along for the ride for about 17 of those yards. On fourth-and-1 from the 19 and the Niners needing a touchdown, coach Kyle Shanhan called for a run to Elijah Mitchell. Gary stuffed him in the hole.
The Packers couldn’t put the game away, though, putting the special teams in position to blow the game.
It takes one play to turn a game. And that’s what happened midway through the first quarter.
Green Bay got the ball to start the game and mounted its best opening drive of the season. AJ Dillon plowed straight ahead from the 6 to give Green Bay the early lead. Dennis Kelly had the key block, driving Armstead about 5 yards downfield. Rodgers was 4-of-5 for 54 yards on the drive – the only incompletion was a dropped screen by Jones, though he made up for that with a 19-yard catch-and-run that included 24 yards after the catch.
Making their returns after lengthy absences, outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith and cornerback Jaire Alexander were on the field for the opening third down. Smith sacked Garoppolo to send the crowd into frenzy.
Green Bay’s offense picked up where it left off, quickly crossing midfield. But momentum changed quickly. Beloved tight end Marcedes Lewis caught a short pass but had the ball punched out by linebacker Fred Warner for a turnover.
From there, it was good, old-fashioned playoff football, with neither defense giving an inch.
The 49ers’ offense, having gone nowhere at all for most of the first half, had a chance late in the first half but Garoppolo couldn’t get enough oomph on a pass to the corner and was intercepted by Adrian Amos. Moments later, on third down, Rodgers found Jones well beyond the 49ers’ secondary for a catch-and-run gain of 75. That gave the Packers a chance to tack on some big points before halftime. Instead, Rodgers was sacked by Nick Bosa and Mason Crosby’s field goal was blocked.
What it means: For the third consecutive year, the Packers won 13 games in the regular season. For the third consecutive year, they failed to reach the Super Bowl.
Game ball: Rashan Gary had two sacks and a key tackle for loss on a fourth-and-1 run late in the fourth quarter that put the Packers in position to clinch the game.
Key play: What else but the blocked field goal? The 49ers’ offense hadn’t done anything all day. Could Jimmy Garoppolo drive the 49ers to the tying touchdown? Turns out, he didn’t have to.
Key moment: Marcedes Lewis’ fumble on the second drive changed the game. Green Bay zoomed right down the field for the opening touchdown and seemed to be on its way to scoring again until Lewis’ fumble sapped the team of its momentum.
Key stat: Of Green Bay’s 10 possessions, five ended in three-and-out punts.
What’s next: Who knows, but it could mean the end of the line for Green Bay’s three-decade run as perennial Super Bowl contender.