With Jordy Nelson's top-tapping 37-yard catch sandwiched between five Eddie Lacy runs covering 26 yards – including his 2-yard touchdown leap -- the Packers had overcome two early turnovers and three separate seven-point deficits to take a 28-24 lead over the mighty 49ers in San Francisco.
The Packers had the defending NFC champions on the ropes.
But they couldn't seal the deal.
The 49ers dominated the final 8:26 to earn a 34-28 victory. The Packers scratched and clawed and battled. But once crunch time arrived and the finish line was in sight, the 49ers found another gear. They played like an elite team and the Packers played like just another team.
With the game on the line, the 49ers delivered two haymakers. Colin Kaepernick hit Anquan Boldin for a gain of 43. The problems, as was the case far too often when Kaepernick threw the ball, were many. Outside linebacker Nick Perry was supposed to jam Boldin but didn't. Then Sam Shields and Jerron McMillian missed tackles.
"You're in a three-deep zone, and you want to try to keep the guys out of the seams on that," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "So, you want to try to jam the seams and slow them down because you're playing zone defense over the top of it. But really we uncovered him too quick on that. But the problem was we missed two tackles and then we lost leverage coming out the back side. So, what have ended up being a 15-, 20-yard gain ends up being a 43-yard gain."
On the next play, the Packers were gashed on the ground for the first time of the day. Outside linebacker Mike Neal crashed inside, McMillian was a nonfactor and Brad Jones got caught up inside, leaving a huge lane for Kendall Hunter to race for 23 yards to the 9. Frank Gore then blew up the middle for 8, and he punched it in on the next play.
The Packers had no answer, starting with the kickoff, when C.J. Spiller ran untouched through Green Bay's blockers – including the two-man "wedge" – and dropped Jeremy Ross at the 9. The Packers' offense, which ran hot and cold all day, went hypothermic on the ensuing possession. Ahmad Brooks batted down a receiver screen to Randall Cobb on first down, Aaron Rodgers scrambled for 6 on second down and Rodgers, forced to scramble after Ray McDonald blew past guard T.J. Lang, threw incomplete to Nelson on third down.
"They're all frustrating, whether it's early or late," Rodgers said after the game of that possession.
Still, with 4:52 on the clock and three timeouts in their pocket, the Packers had a chance, so long as their defense could make a stand.
Not a chance.
On third-and-4, the 49ers dialed up a beautifully designed play to exploit dime defender Jarrett Bush. Tight end Vernon Davis lined up as a fullback on the right side of the formation and ran diagonally to his left at the snap. Kaepernick used read-option action in the backfield and flipped a short pass to Davis, who ran for a gain of 15.
Still, the Packers had a chance. On third-and-5, the Niners again went read-option. Kaepernick and Gore almost botched the exchange but Gore managed a gain of 3. The Packers called their final timeout with 3 minutes to go, and the 49ers called their final timeout to avoid delay of game. Finally, Kaepernick took the fourth-and-2 snap and drifted to his right. The Packers defended the initial routes but the veteran Boldin leaned on Tramon Williams, then found a hole to the right. Kaepernick, with uncommon poise for such a young quarterback, hit Boldin for a gain of 15.
When the defense finally stiffened, it was too late. Phil Dawson's 33-yard field goal split the uprights, making it 34-28 with 26 remaining. It capped a devastating 11-play, 50-yard drive that devoured 4:26 off the clock.
"When you're playing a team like San Francisco, which is obviously a talented team, it comes down to your execution has to match their execution," Capers said. "I thought our guys fought hard, but at critical times in the game – and most of these games come down to that -- we just didn't execute well enough. We come out and start the second half and we have them third-and-9 and we have a double on Boldin and he catches the ball. We just have to go to work and make sure if we're committing people on a guy that he doesn't catch the football. The toughest series was the series after we went up and they hit the back to back big plays. That's when you want to be at your best, and we weren't at that time."
Green Bay got into Hail Mary position with a 38-yard completion to Cobb but the Niners managed to keep him inbounds. Rodgers clocked the ball with 3 seconds to go. Then, appropriately, on the final play, the Packers had a breakdown. Aldon Smith split a meek double-team attempt by Don Barclay and John Kuhn and got to Rodgers before he could uncork his prayer to the end zone. Rodgers' flip to Kuhn landed incomplete, and that was it.
The 49ers finished like champions. The Packers finished like pretenders. Over that final 8:34, the 49ers ran 16 plays, gained 130 yards, picked up four first downs had the ball for 7:05 and scored 10 points. The Packers ran six plays for 45 yards, picked up one first down, had the ball for 1:29 and never got close to scoring.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.