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Packers can’t hold on to late lead, falling to 49ers 24-21 in Divisional Playoffs

After taking a lead in the third quarter, the Packers were unable to hold on in the fourth as the 49ers rallied from down 7 points to win and advance to the NFC Championship.

NFC Divisional Playoffs - Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Most of the playoff games between the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers over the years have been thrilling, gut-wrenching affairs, and the NFC Divisional game on Saturday night was no different. Both teams threw haymakers throughout the game, but in the end it was mistakes by Jordan Love and a late missed field goal by rookie kicker Anders Carlson that spelled the Packers doom.

After Love threw his first interception since week 13 late in the third quarter, the Packers got a stop on defense to cling to a four-point lead. But with a chance to bring that edge back up to a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, Carlson missed a 41-yard field goal attempt. San Francisco was able to run off all but a minute of the clock on their ensuing drive and punch in a go-ahead touchdown, setting up a do-or-die drive for Love and the Packers’ offense.

After picking up a single first down, the quarterback who has played so well in the Packers’ recent stretch of winning football made an inexplicably bad decision. Under pressure immediately, Love rolled out and threw back deep across the field into a sea of defenders, getting intercepted for the second time and sending the 49ers to the NFC Championship with a 24-21 victory.

All that came after the Packers squandered multiple opportunities, particularly early in the game. Green Bay scored touchdowns on just two of five red zone chances, turning the ball over on downs once and settling for field goals on their other two opportunities in the first half. Packers defenders also dropped multiple potential interceptions that could have changed the complexion of the game, as Brock Purdy was inaccurate throughout the game.

But in the end. Purdy completed five of six pass attempts on the Niners’ game-winning drive, while Christian McCaffrey delivered the go-ahead score to send them on to next Sunday’s conference title game.

The Packers can take some semblance of solace in the fact that they became the first #7 seed to win a playoff game and that they took the top-seeded Niners to the brink. This young Green Bay squad should be a force to reckon with in the NFC in the coming years, and Jordan Love’s coming-out party over the last several weeks has been a thrill. But the Packers displayed some of the same issues on defense that they have in their rough games throughout the season, and one of the team’s most consistent issues — the kicking game — reared its ugly head at the most inopportune time.

This is another tough pill for Packers fans to swallow, and the team will head into the offseason with no shortage of questions across the roster and on the coaching staff. But despite getting an inconsistent performance from Love this game, the Packers got their answer on their young quarterback in the second half of the season and found a slew of young contributors at wide receiver and tight end to build around.

But for now, the pain will linger for some time — likely until kickoff of next season’s opener.

Once again, the Packers chose to receive the opening kickoff to try to deliver a loud and clear opening statement. That statement resulted in points, but unlike last week in Dallas, it was three instead of seven. Behind a heavy dose of Aaron Jones and the run game, the Packers drove down the field quickly. But after a pass interference penalty on San Francisco’s Ambry Thomas set Green Bay up inside the 20, Love’s throw to Romeo Doubs in the end zone was broken up and the Packers had to settle for a field goal.

In response, the 49ers got an early big play from Deebo Samuel, who took a bubble screen for 15 yards to the 40-yard line. On the very next play, Darnell Savage jumped in front of Brock Purdy’s second pass and had a clean opportunity at an interception — and possibly another pick-six — but the ball bounced off his hands for an incomplete pass. Two plays later, great coverage by the Packers’ secondary put an end to the drive, resulting in a sack for Preston Smith and Kenny Clark and a 49ers punt.

After another pass interference penalty early on the Packers’ next drive, Love hit Doubs for yet another big play. Doubs shook off Charvarius Ward, who slipped on the wet turf and let Doubs get wide open up the right sideline as he scampered for a 37-yard gain. In for Jones, Emanuel Wilson then picked up 12 yards on a reception in the flat, putting Green Bay back in field goal range once again. After a 9-yard run from Jones on 2nd-and-10, Jones couldn’t pick up any yardage on third down and a push from behind Love on 4th-and-short was questionably spotted just shy of the line to gain, giving the 49ers a turnover on downs.

At that point in the game, the Packers had run 23 plays to just five for the 49ers and owned a massive time of possession edge, but had just a three-point lead to show for it. San Francisco struck back, taking a lead after Green Bay’s early dominance. Purdy connected with Jauan Jennings for a big gain, then hit George Kittle for a 32-yard touchdown behind Savage’s coverage. That gave the Niners a lead after absorbing the Packers’ early volleys.

On the first play of the ensuing drive, Love hit a wide-open Jayden Reed for a gain of 27 yards, then Jones evaded three tacklers in the backfield to turn a run for a loss into a gain of 9 yards. Facing a key 3rd-and-7, Love threaded a perfect pass to Doubs up the sideline for a 22-yard gain to reach the 9-yard line. But under heavy pressure, Love could not find a receiver in the end zone and the Packers again had to settle for another field goal to close the 49ers’ lead to one point.

With the clock starting to wind down on the first half, San Francisco looked to record the first half of a double-up opportunity. The 49ers reached the Packers’ 30-yard line with 14 seconds and a timeout left, but had to settle for a field goal attempt from 48 yards out. Rich Bisaccia’s group delivered a boost to the rest of the green and gold going into the half, as Colby Wooden got up and blocked Jake Moody’s attempt to keep the score 7-6 at the half.

Coming out of the break, the Packers’ defense got a three-and-out, fully erasing both sides of the 49ers’ double-dip opportunity. They would take the lead back thanks to some big plays from one of their surprising young receivers.

Green Bay picked up a couple of first downs on the ground, including another questionable spot on a Love sneak that required a challenge by Matt LaFleur to get the spot correct. Then on first down from their own 45, Jones dropped a pitch from Love, losing 11 yards and putting the Packers well behind the sticks. But Love heaved to Bo Melton on 3rd-and-15 and Ambry Thomas tackled Melton well before the ball arrived, drawing a 41-yard pass interference penalty to give Green Bay the ball in the red zone. One play later, Melton delivered again, as Love found him wide open in the end zone and he tapped his toes in bounds for a 19-yard score and a 13-7 Packers lead.

The 49ers responded immediately with two huge plays to retake the lead. On 3rd-and-6, Purdy found George Kittle on a crossing route for a 32-yard gain, then Christian McCaffrey ran up the middle and broke Savage’s tackle in the hole, getting free and sprinting into the end zone for a 39-yard score.

All-Pro kickoff return man Keisean Nixon delivered a lightning strike on the ensuing kickoff, but he got a huge assist from linebacker Eric Wilson. Nixon returned the kick 73 yards, but he cut back across the field and got hit from behind, fumbling the football. Wilson sprinted in from behind and hauled in the ball at a full sprint, giving the offense possession at the 20-yard line. After a laser from Love to Doubs over the middle to reach the 15, he hit Kraft on a speed out to the sideline, and Kraft fell into the end zone for another touchdown and a lead change. Love then hit Jones wide open for a two-point conversion, giving the Packers a lead of a full seven points at 21-14.

Joe Barry’s defense dialed up a stop at a perfect time, forcing a three-and-out to turn the ball back over to the offense. Purdy’s third down pass was high of Jennings, and although Nixon whiffed on a chance for an interception deep in 49ers territory, the incomplete pass still earned a stop and a punt.

Christian Watson’s first catch of the game came on the first play of the ensuing drive, going for 11 yards and a first down. But the Packers’ first huge mistake of the game — and Love’s first truly terrible throw in a while — came at a terrible time. He threw behind Kraft over the middle, and the tight end tipped the ball right into linebacker Dre Greenlaw’s hands, giving San Francisco the ball at midfield.

To start the 49ers’ drive, it looked for a moment that the Packers might get off the field with a quick three-and-out in response, but Purdy found Aiyuk for just enough for a first down to get to the edge of field goal range. Gary brought down the quarterback after a gain of one yard on 3rd-and-10, however, forcing San Francisco to settle for a field goal attempt of 52 yards to start the fourth quarter. Moody just snuck his kick over the bar, closing down the Packers’ lead to 21-17.

The Packers could not pick up a first down on their next series, however, as Love was off-target to Jones over the middle on 3rd-and-2 to bring Daniel Whelan on for his first punt of the game. The 49ers got a huge play from Purdy on an early 3rd-and-10, as he connected with Jennings while taking a huge hit from Preston Smith. He could not do it again, however, failing to connect with Ray Ray McCloud and bringing on the punt team for Jayden Reed to make a fair catch at the 10.

On the Packers’ first play, Aaron Jones got a huge hole and cut back into the open field, picking up a massive 53-yard gain to instantly put the Packers in field goal range. That play also put Jones over 100 rushing yards for the fifth straight game, setting a Packers team record. They could not convert, however, with Love throwing incomplete on third down and Anders Carlson missing just wide left from 41 yards out.

That gave 49ers the football with 6:18 left in the game, down four points. Purdy converted a short 3rd-and-1 with a sneak, then hit Aiyuk on 3rd-and-6 as his receiver made a tremendous catch.. Chris Conley then brought in a 17-yard gain and McCaffrey picked up a first down at the Packers’ 15 to take the clock down to the two-minute warning. A pass to McCaffrey for no gain and a run by Purdy set up a 3rd-and-1, and McCaffrey plunged in from six yards out to give the 49ers their first lead since early in the third quarter at 24-21. The Packers chose not to take any timeouts in that stretch, however, giving them 1:07 and three timeouts to try to get a tie or a lead.

Love started the drive with an 8-yard out to Doubs, then missed incomplete to Doubs on second down. He hit Luke Musgrave to move the chains before taking a timeout, but on first down, Love made the worst possible decision in the moment. Under pressure and rolling out to the right, he heaved a ball back across the field, and Dre Greenlaw came under it for his second interception, this one a game-winner.

The Packers’ quarterback finished the game with 21 completions on 34 attempts for 194 yards and two touchdowns, but his two interceptions will be the plays that he focuses on throughout the offseason. But despite the late-game mistake and bouts of inaccuracy in this game, there is no question remaining about Love’s status as the quarterback of this team moving forward.

Meanwhile, questions will continue to swirl around the future of defensive coordinator Joe Barry. His unit held the 49ers to 24 points, but some inaccurate passes from Purdy helped keep that total down. San Francisco finished the game 10-for-16 on third downs and delivered two explosive touchdowns, while winning the turnover battle 2-0.

But for now, the 49ers advance to host next Sunday’s NFC Championship, while the Packers head home to lick their wounds and build for the 2024 season.