49ers 34, Packers 28: Not again
David Bakhtiari answered with such certainty, and with a look on his face that bordered on a smile. If only the rest of the Green Bay Packers were feeling like their 21-year-old rookie left tackle was on Sunday evening.
All throughout the Candlestick Park visitors’ locker room, there was frustration – the kind that losing to the same team three times in a 364-day span will cause. The third time had been anything but a charm for the Packers, who had dropped a 34-28 opening-day decision to the San Francisco 49ers, a team that’s starting to look a little bit like the franchise’s 1990s nemesis, the Dallas Cowboys.
And while the way it happened had been different – with quarterback Colin Kaepernick and wide receiver Anquan Boldin doing most of the damage through the air rather than Kaepernick (and Frank Gore) running wild like last time – the end result had been the same as it was in last year’s season-opener and in the season-ending NFC Divisional Playoffs.
The resulting feelings afterward had been predictable. Agitated coach Mike McCarthy didn’t like being second-guessed. Irritated Aaron Rodgers didn’t appreciate the suggestion that a gap existed between the two teams. And no one seemed to feel particularly good about any positives that might have been culled from their performance.
“We came here to win the game. I don't know who the hell you think we are,” McCarthy snapped when asked if there were any encouraging signs to be taken from what happened. “We lost a game we were capable of winning today. We are in the mindset of feeling the pain of losing. This is not what it's all about.
“We came in here with every intention of winning this game today and we didn't get it done. We did not do the little things to win today. We've got to fix that, correct that.”
Asked if he thought a gap existed between the two teams, Rodgers replied, “We’ll wait and see. I don’t really appreciate that question. Or understand it.”
And then, there was Bakhtiari. He certainly hadn’t been perfect on Sunday, giving up a pair of sacks in his NFL regular-season debut against Pro Bowl pass rusher Aldon Smith. But he was still in college at Colorado last year for the Packers’ first two losses to the 49ers, and while he clearly felt the disappointment of the outcome, he wasn’t teetering on the edge, either.
So when it was suggested that the teams might see each other again before everything’s all said and done, Bakhtiari interjected, “We will.”
“They’re a great team. We’re a great team,” Bakhtiari replied. “There’s a high chance we’ll see each other again.”
If they do meet again, the Packers will have to figure out just what it’ll take to stop Kaepernick, who went from running for an NFL quarterback-record 181 yards in the 49ers 45-31 playoff victory to completing 27 of 39 passes for a career-best 412 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions (129.4 passer rating). While the Packers achieved their goal of containing him on read-option plays and scrambles – he finished with seven rushes for 22 yards on the ground – they couldn’t corral Boldin, the aging ex-Baltimore Raven who torched them for 13 catches for 208 yards and a touchdown.
“Boldin had a hell of a day,” McCarthy said. “When they have a premier guy like that, especially someone that they're featuring, you have to take that away. We did not do that.”
The Packers tried everything against Kaepernick, including hitting him when both legal and illegal. When Kaepernick scrambled to the sideline on a third-down play in the second quarter, Packers linebacker Clay Matthews chased him and dove at him well out of bounds.
“If intimidation is your game plan,” the man-of-few-words quarterback said, “I hope you have a better one.”
It was Boldin who really spoiled the Packers’ plans. With the 49ers playing without Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham, Kaepernick’s pass-catching weaponry seemed to be down to two: Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis (six receptions, 98 yards, two touchdowns). They proved to be plenty.
Boldin’s 9-yard catch on third-and-5 jump-started the 49ers’ first scoring drive, which ended with Kaepernick’s 20-yard touchdown pass to Davis on a third-and-8 play. Davis easily lost Packers safety M.D. Jennings on the play, which was the start of a theme: Poor safety play with Morgan Burnett (hamstring) sidelined. Boldin’s touchdown, a 10-yarder after referee Bill Leavy botched the enforcement of offsetting dead-ball fouls after Matthews’ shot on Kaepernick, came when he caught a ball over the middle and safety Jerron McMillian missed on a diving low tackle. Davis’ second touchdown, a 2-yarder that made it 24-21, came against special teams ace Jarrett Bush, forced onto the field in the dime because of Burnett’s absence. And the 49ers’ go-ahead touchdown, a 1-yard run by Frank Gore with 5 minutes 47 seconds to play in the game, came after a 43-yard catch-and-run by Boldin.
“It's unfortunate Morgan wasn't there today, but that's the way it goes,” said McCarthy, who is now 5-3 in season openers, thanks to the 49ers’ victories each of the past two Septembers. “I think when our safeties watch the film they're going to wish they had made more plays on the ball.”
The offense, meanwhile, will wish it made more plays. While Rodgers (21 of 37, 333 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, 102.6 passer rating) and his guys answered several 49ers’ scores, they didn’t do it enough. They also couldn’t sustain enough drives throughout the game, as shown by a 17-minute deficit in time of possession that couldn’t be chalked up only to their up-tempo style.
“It was a game everybody wanted to win. It was an important game to us. And we came out on the losing end. It’s disappointing. We’ve got to find a way to fight harder and do whatever it takes,” Packers guard T.J. Lang said. “They’re a team that’s now beaten us three times in the last year. When you play a team like that, things are going to get heated. It’s an important game to everybody. I thought we battled hard. At the end of the day, we didn’t make enough plays.”
They did make some. To tie the game at 7-7, Rodgers threw a pinpoint back-shoulder ball to Jordy Nelson to gain 31 yards, then watched running back Eddie Lacy gain 31 more on a perfectly executed screen. Those two plays set up Randall Cobb’s 5-yard reach-for-the-goal line TD.
To tie the game at 14-14 just before halftime, a 13-yard catch-and-run by tight end Jermichael Finley turned into a 28-yard play thanks to a 15-yard roughing-the-passer penalty. Then, after a Josh Sitton holding penalty, Nelson converted a third-and-15 with a 15-yard catch-and-run. And the drive ended with Finley catching a pass in the right flat and eluding cornerback Perrish Cox for a 12-yard touchdown.
To tie the game at 21-21, Lacy ran three straight times for 15 yards to start the drive before Rodgers’ surgical strikes to Cobb (13, 18 yards) and Nelson (8-yard touchdown).
And to take their only lead of the game at 28-24, Lacy (14 carries, 41 yards) carried five times for 26 yards – including a 3-yard touchdown, set up by a phenomenal 37-yard tiptoe catch by Nelson on the right sideline.
The problem, of course, was that the Packers turned the ball over twice (an interception created by Finley’s bobbling drop and a Lacy fumble) and also had five three-and-out series, including after the 49ers took the lead at 31-28 with 5:47 to go.
“We want to be more consistent. Obviously you’ll take the scores whenever you can get them, but as an offense and a defense, we couldn’t work together,” Nelson said. “If the defense forced a three-and-out, we couldn’t go score. If we went and scored, then the defense gave it up. For whatever reason, we just have to work it out, make sure we stay on the field longer to help the defense out and put more points on the board.”
Added Rodgers: “We put a lot into this. (I’m) disappointed we didn’t play our best game on offense and we’ve got to score more points. We’ve got to do a little better situationally, obviously, and you can’t turn the ball over like that. I thought it was sloppy at times. But when we had to make some drives when we were down end of the first half and third quarter, we made them. We just couldn’t put it together in the fourth quarter.”
Now, the Packers’ challenge is to put it together the rest of the year so they’re in position for another rematch like the one Bakhtiari envisions. Perhaps by then they’ll have unlocked the mystery.
“Three times in a row, baby,” wide receiver James Jones said. “We can’t make excuses. If we meet them again, we’ll get another chance. But right now, I think they’ve got our number.”
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.