Cruising into their final game of the season at 13-3, the Packers had nothing to play for but records and the nebulous concept of “momentum” heading into the playoffs. A Week 17 win over the Vikings had given the Packers the top seed in the NFC, ensuring home-field advantage throughout the postseason, but the Packers were still looking to put their high-end players on the field.
“We did some studies in terms of how other teams have fared when going into the final week of the season that had a bye, and it was overwhelming in favor of giving the guys at least some time,” said head coach Matt LaFleur of his Week 18 plans. “You weigh that information, and you also talk to your players, and these guys want to play. So that’s how we’re going to go about it.”
The Packers also had some injury situations to navigate. Left tackle David Bakhtiari appeared ready to play after a season of will-he, won’t-he questions following his 2020 ACL injury. Center Josh Myers was also back after a leg injury that had required surgery, and Aaron Rodgers had completed his recovery from a toe injury that had limited him down the stretch.
“This is the first game that my toe got through the game without any issues, no pregame painkiller shot, so I’m feeling good,” Rodgers said after Week 17. “I’m happy about it. There was definitely a time a few weeks ago when we started to project and think if we could get the one seed, it could be two-plus weeks of rest, but I’m going to play next week and I expect Davante (Adams) to play and our guys to play, so we’re looking forward to finishing off the season on a high note and then getting the bye.”
The Packers did find some high notes in Week 18. Davante Adams collected enough catches in the first half to set the Packers all-time single-season receiving yardage record, while simultaneously extending his own record for catches in a season. The Packers also got a good look at Jordan Love, whose performance was mixed in some low-stakes action. That the Packers lost was immaterial; the goal was getting some reps for their starters while getting out mostly healthy.
Well, about that.
Center Josh Myers came through the game unscathed, but that was the end of the good news. David Bakhtiari left the game in the first half with what LaFleur characterized as some conditioning issues. The head coach said after the game that he didn’t think it was “anything to be concerned about.”
But it was. After his first full-speed game reps in more than a year, Bakhtiari’s knee wasn’t in great shape. He revealed in a postseason interview with Cheesehead TV that he’d had 88 ccs of fluid removed from his knee after the game, nearly as much as he’d had taken out after his initial midseason setback. He didn’t play for the Packers again in 2021.
Packers’ wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling also left the game with what was initially described as a back injury, though with people dropping out of the game for any number of reasons in an attempt to preserve their health it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. In fact, it only merited a one-sentence mention in our postgame recap.
But MVS’s back injury did prove to be serious, and between his absence and Bakhtiari’s, the Packers were alarmingly shorthanded against the 49ers at two key positions — and couldn’t make up the difference.
The Packers responded to Bakhtiari’s Divisional Round absence by completely rearranging their offensive line. With Elgton Jenkins unavailable due to his own ACL injury, the Packers flipped Billy Turner to left tackle, a position he hadn’t played since the 2020 NFC Championship. They made the move despite starting Yosh Nijman at left tackle for seven games throughout the 2021 season. Moving Turner to the left side meant the Packers had to start journeyman Dennis Kelly on the right.
Maybe a Nijman/Turner combination at tackle wouldn’t have been any better, but Kelly didn’t get the job done. Pro Football Focus gave him the worst pass-blocking grade of any of the Packers’ linemen, blaming him for five pressures including a sack deep in 49ers territory late in the first half that scuttled what would be the Packers’ last, best touchdown chance of the game. Two plays later, the 49ers blocked Mason Crosby’s half-ending field goal attempt.
Meanwhile, MVS’s absence on offense was also a factor. Though Aaron Rodgers deserves plenty of blame for target-locking on Davante Adams throughout the game, the cupboard was just plain bare at receiver that day. Adams and Allen Lazard got plenty of reps, sure, but Randall Cobb, playing in his first game since late November, was third on the team in wide receiver snaps. Beyond him, Equanimeous St. Brown was the only receiver who played. Valdes-Scantling almost certainly would have made a difference just by being on the field, especially against a 49ers team that was fairly vulnerable to deep passes.
Is all this just 2020 hindsight? Maybe. Injuries are hard to anticipate, and who’s to say Bakhtiari’s knee would have fared any better with another couple of weeks to rest? But it’s hard to argue the Packers weren’t shorthanded against the 49ers, and at least some of that stems from key decisions made the last time they saw the Detroit Lions.