Another Defensive Debacle Derails Rodgers’ Super Bowl Quest
It wouldn’t be a Green Bay Packers playoff game without a defensive meltdown.
Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, a 37-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, joins the pantheon of colossal defensive failures that have been a black eye on Aaron Rodgers’ playoff legacy. In his eight playoff losses, Green Bay has given up an average of 36.4 points and never held the opponent to less than 23.
In the 2009 playoffs, the Packers lost 51-45 at Arizona. Kurt Warner had more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (four). In playoff games in the Super Bowl era, it remains the seventh-most points allowed and the most points ever scored by the losing team.
In the 2011 playoffs, Green Bay went from 15-1 to one-and-done in the playoffs. An end-of-half Hail Mary led to Green Bay’s 37-20 demise. Eli Manning threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns.
In the 2012 playoffs, Colin Kaepernick had a game for the ages with 442 total yards and four total touchdowns. The 49ers piled up 579 yards – the fourth-most in a playoff game in the Super Bowl era – in routing the Packers 45-31.
In the 2014 NFC Championship Game, the defense dominated most of the game but fell apart amid the team’s epic, three-phase collapse as Seattle won 28-22 in overtime.
In the 2015 playoffs, the undermanned Packers managed to force overtime but promptly gave up a 75-yard catch to Larry Fitzgerald and lost 26-20.
In the 2016 NFC Championship Game, with LaDarius Gunter serving as the team’s No. 1 corner, the Packers got whacked 44-21. Matt Ryan threw for 392 yards and four touchdowns.
In the 2019 NFC Championship Game, Raheem Mostert’s 220 rushing yards were the second-most in NFL playoff history. The 49ers led 27-0 at halftime and rolled to a 37-20 victory.
From the 2009 through 2019 seasons, there have been 27 playoff games in which a team allowed at least 37 points. Incredibly, the Packers have been part of five of those games. In a combined 69 playoff games, New England (one), New Orleans (one), Seattle (zero) and Baltimore (zero) have been involved in two.
In most instances, those previous defensive failures – though perhaps not to those extremes – weren’t surprising. Sunday’s disaster was a surprise. The Packers finished the season ranked ninth in points allowed. In fact, their 313 points allowed were only three more than the 49ers gave up this season. During their five-game winning streak to end the season, Green Bay was second in scoring.
The 49ers, however, incinerated Mike Pettine’s defense. The defensive coordinator lined up with his run-focused base defense but it got crushed. The front five was pushed around, the inside linebackers were too slow to the alleys and the secondary tackled horribly.
“For the most part, it seemed like we were playing a good bit of single-safety defense, and when you’re in single-high, you shouldn’t be able to run the ball like that,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “I think I looked up one team and saw that Mostert had 20 carries for 200 yards and that is not going to get it done.”
To be sure, Rodgers doesn’t get absolved from blame. While he was 31-of-39 passing, he was sacked on third down on Green Bay’s second and third possessions. Facing an avalanche with a 17-0 deficit, Rodgers led the Packers into scoring range before a botched center-quarterback exchange. “Much like the fourth-down stop the first time we played, that was a big turning point,” Rodgers said. Rather than potentially pull within 17-7, the Packers found themselves down 20-0. With Green Bay in catch-up mode, Rodgers’ pass to Geronimo Allison was intercepted late in the first half. “It wasn’t a great throw but we weren’t on the same page, either,” Rodgers said. The 49ers punched that in to make it 27-0 at halftime.
General manager Brian Gutekunst retooled the defense with the free-agent signings of Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Adrian Amos and first-round picks Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage. In the first three rounds of the last five drafts, 12 of the 16 selections have been used on the defense. In each of the last eight drafts, the team’s first pick was used on the defense. And still, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, the defense fell on its face.
“I can’t really explain it,” defensive back Tramon Williams said. “I mean, what did (Jimmy Garoppolo) throw? Eight passes. The rest was runs. That’s the first rule of football: Stop the run. And we weren’t able to do that. Obviously, they’re a very good team. You’ve got to give them credit, first and foremost. We knew that coming in. We felt that we could come in here and win this game, but we knew that we had to play a lot better, and we didn’t do that.”