It all started so well for the Green Bay Packers, taking an early lead on an interception returned for a touchdown. Then, over the final 58 minutes of the game, the San Francisco 49ers dominated offensively and sent Green Bay into the offseason with its second divisional-round defeat in two years.
Handing out grades following the Packers' 45-31 loss to the 49ers:
Passing offense: B
Aaron Rodgers didn't have the type of game that best displayed his MVP-level skill, but the Packers moved the ball fairly well through the air. Rodgers completed 26 of 39 attempts for 257 yards with two touchdown passes and one interception, finishing with a solid passer rating of 91.5.
The two big passing plays were connections with James Jones and Greg Jennings, each of whom also caught a touchdown from Rodgers. Jennings, in what could have been his final game with the Packers, led the team with six receptions for 54 yards. Jones had a team-high 87 yards on four catches. Rodgers also completed five passes to Randall Cobb for 24 yards and five passes to Jordy Nelson 46 yards. Tight end Jermichael Finley had four receptions, and running back DuJuan Harris had two.
Rodgers had more throwaways than usual, which is part of the explanation for his being sacked only once. The offensive line's protection was relatively adequate considering the talented 49ers defense. But, even on a couple of the plays in which Rodgers had time to throw, including his interception on a deep pass to Nelson, the wide receivers didn't create a lot of separation, even when facing man coverage.
Rushing offense: B-plus
Harris had a nice first half but was barely involved in the game plan after that. At halftime, Harris had nine carries for 47 yards (5.2 average). He finished with 11 rushes for 53 yards and was not handed the ball once in the final 28 minutes of the game. That decision by play-calling head coach Mike McCarthy wasn't due to the score, either, as the Packers were only down 24-21 entering the third quarter.
Harris scored a touchdown on an 18-yard run late in the first quarter and did not have a single carry that resulted in negative yards or no gain throughout the entire game.
Cobb got two rushes out of the backfield in the second half and turned them into 23 yards. Rodgers also scrambled three times for 28 yards.
Overall, the Packers finished with 104 rushing yards on 16 carries (6.5 average), which is about as good as could have been expected.
Rushing defense: F
A week earlier, the Packers were excited that they had finally held Vikings running back Adrian Peterson to a reasonable game. And then this happened, with the 49ers rushing for a total of 323 yards.
Running back Frank Gore pounded his way through Green Bay's defense for 119 yards (5.2 average) and one touchdown, but he was the least of the Packers' issues in stopping the run.
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick had 181 rushing yards, setting a new postseason NFL record. Between his read-option plays and simply scrambling out of the pocket, Kaepernick was too much for Green Bay to handle. Kaepernick also had two rushing touchdowns, including one from 56 yards in which he was barely touched.
This area was a complete failure for the Packers defense.
Passing defense: C
Kaepernick didn't just run the ball successfully, he also passed it well. Kaepernick completed 17 of 31 attempts for 263 yards with two touchdown passes and one interception, finishing with a 91.2 passer rating -- almost identical to Rodgers'.
Kaepernick's one major error was on the 49ers' first drive, when he rolled left and threw an ill-advised pass that was picked off by Sam Shields and returned for a touchdown. After that, Kaepernick was in total control.
When Green Bay did get to Kaepernick in the pocket and put pressure on him, it rarely had much of a positive impact because he escaped for big gains. He was sacked only once, that coming from Clay Matthews in the first quarter.
San Francisco wide receiver Michael Crabtree had more than twice as many passes thrown his way (11) as the next-most-targeted player. Crabtree had nine receptions for 119 yards and two touchdowns, and the Packers' secondary was unable to contain him. Tight end Vernon Davis was held to one catch, but that one reception was for 44 yards late in the third quarter to set up a touchdown.
Special teams: D
McCarthy's decision to take Cobb off special teams proved costly. First-year player Jeremy Ross, who had been getting more opportunities as the returner in recent weeks, muffed a punt inside the 10-yard line that was recovered by the 49ers. At the time, the Packers were winning, 14-7, but San Francisco took advantage of the great field position to tie the game. All of the momentum swung with that one play. McCarthy had opposed making the full-time switch from Cobb to Ross, stating that Cobb was a big reason that special teams had been Green Bay's most consistent unit all season. But, perhaps partially due to Rodgers' public comments on Dec. 23 wanting Cobb off special teams, Ross was on the field and made the one big mistake the Packers couldn't afford.
Mason Crosby's season-long struggles didn't end up hurting Green Bay, and he did make his one field-goal attempt from 32 yards out.
From top to bottom, the 49ers have a superior roster compared to the Packers'. San Francisco has six first-team All-Pros, Green Bay had zero. But the one big advantage the Packers seemed to have was at quarterback and wide receiver, so they needed Rodgers to have a stellar performance in order to pull off the upset road win. Instead, Kaepernick outperformed Rodgers and made the overall talent disparity between the two teams all the more apparent.
Had Green Bay won its Week 17 matchup in Minnesota, the Packers would have had a first-round bye and been hosting the divisional round game. Instead, Green Bay lost in San Francisco, keeping the Packers from reaching the Super Bowl (as well as the NFC Championship game) for the second consecutive year.
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