Afterward, B.J. Raji sat at his locker, perhaps for the final time. His eyes were red, moist. His voice was unsteady, sad. The veteran defensive lineman was wearing a t-shirt with Superman on it, depicting the Man of Steel looking haggard and asking, “What happened last night?”
The Green Bay Packers will have no such questions about Sunday night. They know exactly what happened to them in their 23-20 NFC Wild Card Playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers and their veritable Lex Luthor, Colin Kaepernick: The 49ers quarterback made the game-deciding plays – just as he had against them a year ago in another playoff defeat, just as he had against them to open the 2013 regular season – that set up Phil Dawson’s game-winning 33-yard field goal as time expired at Lambeau Field to end the Packers’ season and put a stop to what had the makings of quite the compelling postseason narrative.
“You practice and you prepare, and you come into a game like this knowing – in a game like this, against a team like this – the game’s going to come down to a play here or there is going to determine the game,” said Raji, one of 17 players who will be unrestricted free agents. “And you want to be the team, the individual that makes the play. When you come up short, you feel bad for yourself, for Packer Nation, for your teammates – everybody that’s associated with the Green Bay Packers.
“We had them right where we wanted them. … And what we didn’t want to happen, happened. That’s tough to deal with.”
They’re all tough to deal with, of course. They all hurt. Since Aaron Rodgers ascended to the starting quarterback position during that turbulent 2008 season, the Packers have now been to the playoffs the past five years. And other than that magical 2010 season, when they won Super Bowl XLV, they’ve all ended in disappointment.
But this one, this one somehow seemed worse. After losing Rodgers to a fractured left collarbone on Nov. 4 and going winless all that month, then rallying to remarkable one-point victories over Atlanta and Dallas, then getting more help than they could’ve ever asked from their inept NFC North brethren and, finally, earning the division title and a playoff berth with a miraculous, last-minute, fourth-down Rodgers-to-Randall Cobb touchdown pass in Chicago last week … it just didn’t seem like it would end the way it did.
“I think a lot of us felt that, the way things had gone the last four or five weeks, there was something special about this year and this might be everything aligning right for us to make a run,” a somber Rodgers said. “So, very disappointing.
“These opportunities are pretty special, and you’ve got to make the most of them. It’s nine years for me now. [I’m] blessed to play that long, and would love to play another nine if possible. But this is an opportunity we let slip through our fingers.”
As a result, the Packers (8-8-1) will clean out their lockers Monday morning and scatter about the country. The 49ers (12-5) will travel to Charlotte to face No. 2-seeded Carolina next Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, with the winner earning a berth in the NFC Championship Game.
“There wasn’t a whole lot (of penalties) called out there today, and our receivers were getting grabbed. I think Colin saw that and took matters into his own hands,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “He was around the edge a couple of those times so fast. If it was 1 yard, it was 20 yards. Colin Kaepernick, I think we can all agree, is a clutch performer.”
He certainly is against the Packers. In last year’s NFC Divisional Playoff game at Candlestick Park, he ran for an NFL quarterback-record 181 yards as part of a 579-yard effort in a 45-31 victory. In the season opener in September, he only ran for 22 yards but threw for a career-best 412. And on Sunday, he completed only 16 of 30 passes for 227 yards with one touchdown and one interceptions (75.3 rating), but he ran seven times for 98 yards, including a pair of back-breaking third-down scrambles.
“We’ve been down before and come back, and we’ve been up before and won,” Kaepernick said. “Ultimately, at the end of the game, you have to perform to win.”
And he did. The first, with the 49ers facing third-and-4 at their own 43, was a 24-yard run around left end that set up his 28-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis two plays later to give the 49ers a 20-17 lead. And then, after the Packers tied the game, he faced third-and-8 from the Green Bay 38. With a stop, the Niners would have been out of field-goal range in the icy conditions and would have had to either punt or go for it on fourth down. Instead, when the Packers sent an “empty blitz” of seven rushers, Kaepernick pulled the ball down just before he was going to release it and sprinted around left end, where a blitzing Jarrett Bush had lost containment on the edge. After an 11-yard gain, the 49ers were able to bleed the clock and inch closer for Dawson’s game-winner.
“The last one, every gap was filled. We were in an empty pressure call and it's the right call and he gets out to his left. Obviously, a big play in the game to continue that drive,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy, whose team has now lost four straight to San Francisco. “You're looking for a potential sack or the ball coming out on time there. We did not get it done as far as keeping the quarterback in the pocket.”
Lest the loss be laid solely at the feet of the defense, consider this: In the first quarter, Rodgers failed to complete a pass and the Packers’ first three possessions netted 6 total yards. The 49ers had six first downs, 118 yards and the defense was the reason the hole was only 6-0 and not 14-0.
On top of that, the Packers’ season-long struggles in the red zone continued, as they converted only 2 of 4 trips inside the San Francisco 20-yard line into touchdowns. The killer came on their final possession, when Rodgers under pressure found Cobb for a 25-yard gain to the San Francisco 9-yard line. The Packers’ next three plays were a 1-yard run to Cobb on first down, a Rodgers throw-away on second down and a Rodgers scramble on third down when he again had no one open. Rather than taking a 24-20 lead with a touchdown, the Packers settled for a 24-yard Mason Crosby field goal and a 20-20 tie with 5:06 to play.
“We faced a lot of adversity and were able to overcome it and still had a chance in the playoffs. And we blew it tonight,” said Cobb, who had two receptions for 51 yards on the night. “I’ve just got to break a tackle; I’ve got to get in the end zone. That’s on me. If we score right there, I put the defense in a better situation. So that’s on me. I’ve got to be better.
“We didn’t win. If you didn’t win, you blew it. There’s no such thing as a good loss. You’ve got to win games. And we didn’t win tonight.”
Added Rodgers, who finished the night 17 for 26 for a career playoff-low 177 yards with one touchdown, no interceptions and four sacks (97.8 rating): “Personally, it’s frustrating not to play your best game. Tough conditions. But defense holds them to 23 points, we should win that game.”
In truth, this Packers team probably went as far as could be expected. They ended the year with 15 players on injured reserve, including starting left tackle Bryan Bulaga, who tore up his knee in training camp, and tight end Jermichael Finley, who appeared to have finally realized his vast potential when he suffered a career-threatening neck injury Oct. 20. Rodgers, Cobb and four-time outside linebacker Clay Matthews (broken thumb) all missed significant stretches of time. And on Sunday, they lost their best cover cornerback, Sam Shields, to a knee injury; one of their three active outside linebackers, Mike Neal, to a knee injury; and rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari, who picked a bad time to have his second-worst game of the season, to a concussion. At one point, when outside linebacker Andy Mulumba was out with a knee injury and cornerback Davon House was suffering from cramps, the Packers had only one outside ‘backer – Nick Perry, with defensive end Datone Jones filling in – and no extra cornerbacks on the bench.
“I don’t think we’ve faced this much adversity since I’ve been here. We faced adversity every year, but it just went up to another notch this year,” said veteran cornerback Tramon Williams, whose second-quarter interception awakened the Packers offense and roused the crowd of 77,525 out of its hypothermic state. “Guys who stepped in, guys in this locker room, the coaches, everyone continued to believe. These guys have a lot of heart, a lot of courage to battle like we did. We found ourselves in the playoffs. Just came up short today.”
By one play, to be exact. Whether it was Cobb not getting into the end zone, or rookie cornerback Micah Hyde dropping a potential game-winning, pick-six interception in the flat at the start of the 49ers’ final drive, or the defense’s inability to contain Kaepernick when it mattered most, the Packers didn’t make it.
And that’s why their improbable playoff run after a season full of tough times is over before it even began.
“I'm just very proud of this team as far as their ability to continue to overcome adversity. It hit us at every turn, it hit us again today and these guys just keep fighting and fighting,” McCarthy said. “Unfortunately, we were one play away from getting it done today. This is what playoff football is all about. We've been playing these kind of games here the last month. The confidence never wavered. It's a unique bunch. We weren't quite good enough today."
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.