"It's frustrating because we know we should've won that game," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "We know the 49ers are a tough team -- they've been a tough team the last few times we played them -- but I've never felt better about us coming in today and winning this game and I felt that we were the better team and really should've dominated the game."
Dominated is a strong word, but the victory was definitely there for the taking.
It was the third time in the past 12 months that Green Bay faced the Colin Kaepernick-led 49ers. A year ago in the playoffs, he stunned the Packers with a playoff-record 181 rushing yards by a quarterback. In the 2013 season opener, after an offseason of studying and preparing for the read-option offense, they held the Niners' gifted quarterback and Frank Gore in check on the ground. But they surrendered 412 through the air and lost again.
The challenge this time was to contain Kaepernick and the NFL's No. 2-ranked offense, but not give him the time to pick them apart. And keep Gore in check. And do it without linebacker Clay Matthews, their best player on defense and the only consistent pass-rushing threat. In his spot was rookie free agent Andy Mulumba.
Oh, that's all?
Even for a team that seemingly pulled off the impossible by winning the NFC North Division and getting to the playoffs despite injuries to quarterback Aaron Rodgers, receiver Randall Cobb, Matthews and more – it seemed too much to ask.
When cornerback Sam Shields, possibly the second-best defender on the team, went down on the Packers' second snap of the game, you could see the collective gasp from 77,000-plus fans escaping into the frigid air.
But it got worse. Left outside linebacker Mike Neal went down with a knee injury a few plays later, with Nick Perry coming on to replace him. Then Mulumba went out with a knee injury, forcing rookie defensive end Datone Jones to come in and play linebacker.
And in a performance few outside the Packers' locker room saw coming – the defense held and scrapped and, for much of the game, found the proper balance of rush and contain, keeping themselves in it and keeping the Niners out of the end zone. With the Packers' offense starting up like a car sitting too long in the Lambeau Field parking lot, the defense kept the game within reach until Aaron Rodgers and Co. finally got warmed up.
But to win a game against a team like San Francisco, more would be needed. Game-changing plays would be required. Momentum would have to be manifested somehow. Turnovers – multiple ones even -- seemed a must.
They came oh-so-close.
Three plays after Shields went out, rookie cornerback Micah Hyde forced a fumble by Michael Crabtree after a 12-yard completion down the left sideline, but the ball rolled out of bounds when safety M.D. Jennings was unable to pick it up.
Six plays after that near change in possession, cornerback Tramon Williams nearly intercepted a pass intended for tight end Vernon Davis on first-and-goal from the 4-yard line. He got a hand on it at the back of the end zone, but the ball hit his helmet and Davis knocked it away. Green Bay held San Francisco to three points, but those two plays would come back to haunt it.
Williams made up for the dropped ball at the start of the second quarter, when he came over the top of Davis to snag a Kaepernick pass at the 12-yard line. He cut across the field with the return and delivered a blow to Kaepernick, knocking him to the ground to punctuate his 17-yard return. That play jump-started the Packers' offense to a 14-play, 70-yard touchdown drive that put them on top 7-6.
But San Francisco answered on the next drive, when Kaepernick pulled the ball down and took off to his left and past Davon House for 42 yards. Gore scored two plays later to put San Francisco back on top. The Packers' defense forced three punts in a scoreless third quarter for both teams that seemed to test the limits of Green Bay's "next man up" mantra. In the fourth quarter, however, Kaepernick got Davis matched up on linebacker A.J. Hawk and hit him for a 28-yard score. Green Bay answered with a field goal to tie the game at 20.
The stage was set. There would be one final opportunity for the Packers' defense when Kaepernick took over at his own 20-yard line.
After an 11-yard pass to Crabtree and an incompletion to Davis, the Niners had second-and-10 from their 31. Kaepernick dropped back and stared down receiver Anquan Boldin to his left, throwing a high floater to him. Hyde cut in front of Boldin, leaped in the air and got both hands on the ball, with nothing but oatmeal-colored turf in front of him. In a freeze-frame moment with so much potential, he couldn't hang on to it as he fell to the ground.
"The receiver went to the flat, I saw the quarterback looking at him, I tried to move that way and make a play, the ball was pretty high, I tried to go up and get it and I just dropped it," Hyde said. "It was a catch I should've made. I make those catches all the time in practice. It was a difficult catch that I should've made."
It would be their last, best chance to stop the 49ers' offense and position themselves for the win.
"This is a rough loss just because we fought so hard," inside linebacker Brad Jones said. "You look into the eyes of every guy and you can see the fight in everybody's face. The hard-fought ones that come down to the end always hurt the most. They always hurt. More than anything. You fight through everything, myself included. You fight and you're doing it and it comes down to the wire and you just need a couple more plays or just one more – and you didn't get it."
Cue the inevitable.
Kaepernick hit Crabtree for 17 yards following Hyde's near interception. Five plays later, he avoided a blitzing Jarrett Bush and ran around the left end for 11 yards on third-and-8, as Mulumba gave chase on a gimpy knee. Phil Dawson made it official with a 33-yard field goal as time expired.
Kaepernick finished with 277 passing yards and a touchdown and 98 rushing yards -- none more painful than those final 11. Gore rushed for 66 yards and a score. But the final stat line was of little comfort.
"He killed us at the right time," Datone Jones said of Kaepernick. "We kept him contained half the game and then, at the most important time to really keep him contained, he broke loose.
"It hurts. It's going to hurt for a long time. It's going to be a long offseason."
Long and cold.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at email@example.com.