Just like after the 2012 season, questions bubbled about Dom Capers' future, a defense that could not get it done and a team that was challenged by injuries.
And, of course, there were questions about another playoff exit compliments of the big, bad San Francisco 49ers.
Teams change from year-to-year and many variables are involved in a season's results, but the truth is that the 49ers are just better than the Packers. Four wins over a span of 15 months and 26 days pretty much speaks for itself.
"I mean, I'm clearly aware we've lost the last four in a row, and really the two playoff games are obviously the most important," said McCarthy. "You look at those games, you look at what those games have come down to. This particular one we have to be better. We had opportunities throughout that game that we didn't convert. Stating the obvious, the one common thread is we haven't stopped the quarterback. The quarterback's had three big games against us with his three opportunities. We need to do a better job there. I think that's the one common thread that jumps out at you. But we had opportunities on special teams, offense and defense, and we didn't get it done."
Colin Kaepernick has become the Packers' kryptonite. There might be better quarterbacks in the league, but none over the past two years has given the Packers' defense more headaches. Unlike any other team in the league, the Packers bring out the best in Kaepernick. He beats them with his arm or his legs or both. In the last three meetings, he has 1,203 total yards against them.
Last Sunday was the Packers' best effort against Kaepernick, which is depressing in a way because he still beat them. Offsetting a poor passing day (75.3 passer rating) — albeit in subzero temperatures — were killer first-downs conversions by Kaepernick. He had a 42-yarder, a 16-yarder, a 24-yarder and a key 11-yard run on a third-and-8 with less than 2 minutes left that helped set up the game-winning field goal. Kaepernick had 98 rushing yards, which pales in comparison to the quarterback-record 181 he had in last year's playoffs against the Packers, but still 98 yards is way too much. In an otherwise inspired effort from a short-handed defense, 98 yards off scrambles made the difference.
"I felt both games this year, obviously we didn't play the run very well a year ago, but I felt both times (this year) we played the run very well," said defensive coordinator Dom Capers. "(Frank) Gore in both games, I think he averaged 2.1 out there and 3.2 in the game on Sunday. I thought our guys really rose to the occasion. We didn't rush (Kaepernick) a lot the first game out there because of the runs. What hurt us was the quarterback scrambles. You have to be able to deal with that when you're going against a very mobile quarterback like that. You have to be conscious of your rush lanes and you have to contain him to keep him in the pocket and those types of things. He's a talented guy. I thought there were some good things that happened. He ended up with a 75 quarterback rating. Normally, when we've held a quarterback under an 80 quarterback rating, it's given us a really good chance of winning the game."
If the Packers made any strides against the 49ers from their meetings a year ago, they would not get pushed around this year. Capers mentioned the run defense against Gore, and the Packers brought a chippy attitude to the regular season opener at San Francisco that came down to the last possession. Of course in that game they used more of a contained rush on Kaepernick and let him sit in the pocket and read coverages. The result was a career-high 412 passing yards.
On Sunday, they sent a stronger up-the-field rush at Kaepernick despite two of their best pass rushers — Clay Matthews (broken thumb) and Mike Neal (knee injury, first quarter) — being out. They sent more blitzes at him, too. But as with any blitz, there is risk, and Kaepernick burned them on the third-and-8 late when contain broke down and he bolted down the sideline.
Still, the blueprint offered some hope.
"The last two times we played these guys, we let them dictate too much of our game plan – whether it was stopping the run or stopping Kaepernick – we let them dictate a little bit too much," said cornerback Tramon Williams, who recorded an interception of Kaepernick.
"We took a different approach (on Sunday). We played it out and I thought we played well. I really thought we played well. I really thought we were going to get that game. I thought we should've came out with it. But at the end of the day, those guys are playmakers, too. They have a lot of pride riding on it, too. Those guys came out and made the plays at the crucial moments."
On offense, rookie running back Eddie Lacy was a beast against the 49ers, as he was all season against other opponents. He butted heads with safety Donte Whitner and kept the chains moving when Packers receivers struggled for yards after the catch against a discipline-tackling 49ers defense. Lacy, with help from James Starks and John Kuhn, was just what the Packers needed to match the 49ers' strength and keep the Packers in a game that was not Aaron Rodgers' best.
"We had some opportunities in the 49er game that we didn't make, we didn't capitalize on, and against a good defense you have to capitalize on them," said offensive coordinator Tom Clements. "That's not just Aaron, that's the (whole) offense."
The last time a playoff Packers team had this much trouble overcoming a single NFC opponent was the mid-1990s under Mike Holmgren. From 1993 through 1996, the Dallas Cowboys beat the Packers seven straight times (including three playoff contests) at Texas Stadium. After a Nov. 18, 1996, loss at Dallas during a rough stretch in the season, the Packers rallied to win the Super Bowl. But along the way, the Cowboys were beaten in the divisional round by the upstart Carolina Panthers (coached by Capers). A fourth straight playoff meeting between the Packers and Cowboys — which would have taken place in the NFC Championship at Lambeau Field — never happened.
The Packers would have to wait until Nov. 23, 1997, to finally end their skid against the Cowboys with a 45-17 thumping at an overjoyed Lambeau Field. But by then the Cowboys' dynasty (three Super Bowls, six straight playoff appearances) was beginning to crumble. The Cowboys would finish 6-10 in 1997 and coach Barry Switzer would resign.
The 49ers, under third-year coach Jim Harbaugh, figure to be a contender for many years to come. So, too, do the Packers with McCarthy and Rodgers. Therefore, the likelihood of the two NFC foes meeting again is almost a certainty.
Will the Packers find a way to beat the 49ers next time? Have they closed the gap that seemed so wide a year ago?
"We were probably one play away," said McCarthy on Sunday night. "We were one play not good enough."
Maybe so. But the bottom line does not lie. Until the Packers beat the 49ers, or can find away to avoid them in the playoffs, that element of déjà vu might never leave.
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org