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Aaron Rodgers and Packers bounced from playoffs by 49ers after fourth-quarter collapse

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers looks skyward during the fourth quarter of Green Bay's loss to San Francisco on Saturday. (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
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GREEN BAY, Wis. — There was a sense at Lambeau Field on Saturday night that this could be the end of a winning — but titleless — chapter in the place called “Title Town.” You could feel it in the crowd during the final drive. You could see it in the way the fans traipsed out into the swirling snow. You could hear it in the low, pained voices of Coach Matt LaFleur and his Green Bay Packers as they tried to explain what went wrong in the stunning 13-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

“A little numb for sure,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said.

“Just heartbroken, you know?” said running back Aaron Jones.

“It hurts so bad because there’s a finality to this thing,” LaFleur said. “I don’t think anybody envisioned it going the way it finished for us.”

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Green Bay’s loss, which came on a 45-yard field goal by Robbie Gould as time expired and secured San Francisco’s spot in the NFC championship game at Tampa Bay or Los Angeles, was wrenching because it was supposed to be a steppingstone. In the last two years, the Packers had never trailed in the divisional round and never led in the conference championship.

This season, everything aligned for the team and quarterback to finally turn regular season excellence into a deep playoff push. Stars made timely returns from injuries; the No. 1 seed funneled the NFC through Lambeau; the extreme cold gave the Packers a signature advantage, particularly on Saturday, when it was zero degrees with wind chill, the fifth-coldest playoff game in team history. But then the offense sputtered, the league’s worst special-teams unit had its worst day and the Packers became the first team in NFL history to win 39 or more games in a three-year span and not appear in a Super Bowl.

This offseason, the team is projected to be $44.8 million over the salary cap and has decision to make on several key players, including wideout Davante Adams and Rodgers. Rodgers said that, in the next week or so, he would speak with General Manager Brian Gutekunst and others before taking time to contemplate his future. He said he will decide whether to retire, leave, or stay with Green Bay ahead of free agency, which begins in mid-March.

“It’s tough to say at this point,” he said of which way he was leaning. “I don’t think it’s fair to anybody or myself to really go down those paths at this point.”

Mostly, Rodgers said he felt shocked. Some years, he said, he knew the Packers would need things to break their way to make a Super Bowl push. He believed this team was good enough to win outright.

“Sometimes you think things are going to go a certain way, and they take a big course-correction,” he added. “And you’ve just got to keep on moving on, keep on moving forward even when it doesn’t feel like it’s possible because of the sadness and frustration and the enormity of the expectations, and the disappointment of the results.”

The futile offense was surprising because, on the opening drive, Green Bay dominated San Francisco as San Francisco had Dallas six days earlier. The Packers faced no third downs and running back A.J. Dillon plowed up the middle for a six-yard touchdown. Yet the Packers, like the 49ers in the opening round, couldn’t extend the lead despite the opposing offense mostly moving backward.

LaFleur blamed himself for getting too run-heavy in the second half and the uneven distribution of passing targets to Jones and Adams (21) compared to everyone else (five).

“I didn’t have a great night tonight,” Rodgers said. He pointed out he missed reads and the 49ers limited the quick game that worked in Green Bay’s Week 3 win at San Francisco. “I definitely take my fair share of blame.”

Even when San Francisco stirred, driving just before halftime, it couldn’t finish. 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw the type of critical interception that has plagued his whole career. Furious, he threw his helmet, and when a team staffer tried to help him into a puffy jacket on the sideline, he couldn’t find the armholes for several seconds and flung it to the turf, too.

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Yet the Packers couldn’t turn the pick into points. San Francisco’s Jimmie Ward blocked the Packers’ last-second field goal attempt, foreshadowing what was to come. The Packers’ defense never broke — even coming up with a massive stop on a fourth-and-1 in the red zone — but they couldn’t fix their broken special teams.

After another stalled Packers drive late in the fourth quarter, the line allowed Jordan Willis to leak through and block Cody Bojourquez’s punt. Talanoa Hufanga scooped up the ball and ran it in for the game-tying score.

Four minutes later, following a timeout, the Packers had 10 players on the field to try to block the game-winning field goal.

“It can’t happen,” LaFleur said. “It’s unacceptable. Again, that’s on me.”

With all the expected changes this offseason, Rodgers was asked if he believes it will still be possible to win a Super Bowl in Green Bay.

“I don't know,” he said. “That's a fair question. Definitely one I've thought about. But there are a lot of decisions to be made.” He listed key players whose futures are uncertain. “I don’t want to be part of a rebuild, if I’m going to keep playing.”

“This thing, it’s definitely going to look different moving forward in Green Bay,” he added.

And now, one of the NFL’s preeminent franchises is heading toward an offseason that looms long and dark — like a Wisconsin winter.

— Sam Fortier

Continue reading for highlights and real-time analysis from Saturday’s game.

11:16 p.m.
Headshot of Mark Maske
Mark Maske: That is just unreal.The 49ers move on to the NFC title game. The Packers go home.This was all set up for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. They were the No. 1 seed. The road to the Super Bowl in the NFC went through Lambeau Field. They got just the sort of blustery, snowy January-in-Wisconsin night that they wanted. And they still lost.This is a bitter defeat for the Packers. Rodgers remains stuck on one Super Bowl triumph and suffers another postseason disappointment. The melodrama of last offseason had been put aside. There had been talk that this might not be Rodgers’s final season in Green Bay, after all. But now, you have to wonder.
Mark Maske, Sports reporter covering the NFL
10:56 p.m.
Headshot of Mark Maske
Mark Maske: Special teams matter.If the Packers lose this game, they will have their special teams to blame.First there was the field goal that was blocked. Now there’s the blocked punt for a touchdown that has allowed the 49ers to tie the game.It’s all on Aaron Rodgers now to save the Packers’ season.
Mark Maske, Sports reporter covering the NFL
10:48 p.m.
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Mark Maske: Give credit to the Green Bay defense. The Packers got the huge fourth-down stop on defense.The 49ers needed to win this game by being the tougher, more physical team, by running the ball effectively and possessing the ball on offense. If they can’t prevail in situations like that, they can’t win.The entire operation seemed a bit off for the Niners. They got out of the huddle pretty late, rushed to the line of scrimmage and then had to snap the ball hurriedly.
Mark Maske, Sports reporter covering the NFL
10:35 p.m.
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Mark Maske: Aaron Rodgers has thrown 25 passes in this game; 18 of them have been targeted for Davante Adams or Aaron Jones.The 49ers are showing that, as excellent as the Packers are, they still might be a playmaker or two short on offense.That was a huge stop on defense there for the Niners, holding the Packers to a field goal. They’re still right in this game, if only they could find a way to make a big play on offense.
Mark Maske, Sports reporter covering the NFL
10:18 p.m.
Headshot of Mark Maske
Mark Maske: Is it unthinkable for the 49ers to go to Trey Lance at some point in the second half of this game?It shouldn’t be, at least not on a situational basis.The offense is doing nothing with Jimmy Garoppolo on the field. Garoppolo threw a terrible interception late in the first half and has thrown a few passes since then that easily could have been intercepted.Lance would bring a running threat at quarterback to the game. Yes, he would be a rookie quarterback in a huge situation. Perhaps you can’t trust him. But you certainly cannot trust Garoppolo.
Mark Maske, Sports reporter covering the NFL
9:43 p.m.
Headshot of Mark Maske
Mark Maske: The 49ers are right in this game, trailing only 7-0 at halftime.They’ve slowed down Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense. They’ve forced some doubts to creep into the minds of the Packers and their fans, based on the postseason failures of recent years.Even so, if the Niners lose this game, the sequence that ultimately determines the outcome may have come late in the first half.That was a ghastly interception thrown by Jimmy Garoppolo. Kyle Shanahan called a timeout with the 49ers on defense, trying to get the ball back. That enabled the Packers to get a big play and a chance for more points. Fortunately for the Niners, they halted the Green Bay offense and blocked Mason Crosby’s field goal attempt.But can they trust Garoppolo in a tight game? Absolutely, positively not.
Mark Maske, Sports reporter covering the NFL
9:38 p.m.
Headshot of Mark Maske
Mark Maske: That simply cannot happen.That’s Jimmy Garoppolo for you.The 49ers actually were going to come out of this first half feeling pretty good about themselves and their chances. Even if they’d gotten a field goal there, that would have been okay. But then Garoppolo struck again and threw that interception.As Troy Aikman said on the Fox broadcast, “We’ve seen it too many times from Jimmy Garoppolo.”Exactly right.
Mark Maske, Sports reporter covering the NFL
8:50 p.m.
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Mark Maske: It was close, but that was the proper ruling on the instant-replay review that overturned the catch and fumble by 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, rendering the play an incomplete pass.Remember, the “new” catch rule is possession of the ball, two feet down and a third act — the so-called football move. Aiyuk lost the ball, it seemed, just before his foot hit the ground for that third step.That’s also how Mike Pereira, the former NFL officiating czar who is now a rules analyst for Fox, saw it.
Mark Maske, Sports reporter covering the NFL
8:30 p.m.
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Mark Maske: That’s a great start for the Packers, quickly establishing themselves on offense and playing from ahead in this game.That matters.The best chance for the 49ers is to grind out long, time-consuming drives on offense and limit the chances for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. The Niners cannot get into a track meet of a game in which it comes down to Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Rodgers. They simply cannot afford to fall too far behind and get into pass-only mode.
Mark Maske, Sports reporter covering the NFL