The San Francisco 49ers continued their mastery of the Green Bay Packers in the finale of the NFL first round on late Sunday afternoon. The 49ers beat the Packers for the fourth straight time, this time 23-20 on a last-play field goal from Phil Dawson. The Niners join the New Orleans Saints as first-round road winners who kicked a field goal at the gun. Let’s get into the Notebook Nine, our key takeaways from San Francisco-Green Bay…
- *San Francisco is very lucky. Not because they were outplayed, but because they’re the team that did the outplaying, missed all kinds of opportunities and still escaped. They blew two chances inside the 10-yard line to start the game and settled for field goals. An interception killed another drive. A march to about the Green Bay 30 in the third quarter came up empty. You’re fortunate when you can blow those chances and win any game, much less a postseason game on the road.
- *On a directly related point, I have to question the play-calling by San Francisco on their opening drive after they had first-and-goal from the 5. Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Romans then called a couple bland pass plays, backed themselves into a tough third down and the drive died. It was reminiscent of the way the same situation was handled on the last drive of last season’s Super Bowl. San Francisco has a great running game and an electric quarterback. Why do they call plays that Chad Henne can execute as easily as Colin Kaepernick?
- *Green Bay’s tackling and containment has been awful throughout the second half of the season and today was no different. Two examples from the final drive will suffice. The first example is the play of the game when Kaepernick scrambled for a first down on 3rd-and-8, when no one held the edge. A more obscure play is the one that started the drive. A simple dump pass to Michael Crabtree resulted in a blown tackle and a first down. San Francisco had its drive starter and began draining away the clock.
- *In the preview of this game we noted that the 49er passing game isn’t efficient, but they get their big plays. Sunday played out to that script. Kaepernick was only 16/30, but he made those count for 227 yards. His best throw was a 28-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis that split two defenders, on a drive where San Francisco answered after falling behind 17-13.
- *This was a remarkably clean football game, given the animosity that exists between the two teams. There were only five penalties combined and they only added up to thirty yards. There was only one turnover. While the teams might dislike each other, it speaks well to their professionalism that composure was kept in a game this big and this tense.
- *On the surface this game isn’t going into the books as one of Aaron Rodgers’ big moments. It was a home playoff loss, and in today’s simplistic media world that ends the conversation about quarterbacks. Even the stats were pedestrian, 17/26 for 177 yards. What that doesn’t tell you is how many plays Rodgers made while under constant duress, most notably a Houdini-like escape on a fourth down play that helped the Packers briefly get the lead. I thought he was outstanding, and I’m confident that no one in the Bay Area wanted any part of seeing him get the football back at the end.
- *Green Bay goes into the offseason really needing to do some soul-searching. The injury to Rodgers exposed them as a team that was far more like the Manning Colts (who collapsed once the quarterback went down) than the Brady Patriots (which sustained an 11-5 record in 2008 when Brady was out). I thought the Packers were a deeper, better-balanced team, one that could at least go 9-7 if they had to play a year without their quarterback. There was nothing in this season that suggested as much, and it’s frankly an indictment of the organization and the coaching staff.
- *One of the Fox graphics on Green Bay’s recent home playoff record noted the team was 13-0 prior to 2001 and is now 3-5 since. These are always misleading stats, because they don’t account for changes in the playoff format since the realignment of 2002. It’s only since ’02 that we have four division winners per conference, all guaranteed a home game. The teams that had homefield in the period prior to 2001 were, by definition, elite teams. The current alignment means you get more mediocre division winners. The lesson to all this is that homefield is a great insurance policy when you’re really good, but it’s not a panacea for mediocrity.
- *We’ll conclude by circling back to the 49ers. The key series for them was not the game-winning drive, but the drive prior, when Green Bay had 1st-and-goal at the nine, and trailed 20-17. Given San Fran’s problems in the red zone, if the Packers go up four, I’m not all confident the 49ers could have finished a drive. The defense needed to make up for the offense’s missed chances and did so. Once the Packers settled for a tie, they had to rely on their own defense, something that made no one in the state of Wisconsin feel good.