Packers didn't quit during historic first season under Matt LaFleur

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Aaron Jones  understood the uphill battle the Packers faced as they entered halftime of Sunday's NFC Championship Game trailing the San Francisco 49ers by 27 points at Levi's Stadium.

The odds of a comeback against the NFC's top-seeded team were not good but the third-year running back didn't really care. Jones felt the first half wasn't a true indication of the Packers team that had scratched and clawed its way back time and time again during its 13-win regular season.

"At halftime, I was like, 'All I ask from y'all is 30 minutes, leave it all out there, empty the tank,'" Jones said. "If we win, we win. If we don't, we don't."

The result, a 37-20 loss, was somewhat inevitable but what Jones saw in that second half was why he bought into what Matt LaFleur was selling to Green Bay's locker room in his maiden voyage as head coach.

The team didn't quit. For everything that went wrong with the offense in the first half – turnovers, missed opportunities and a long afternoon trying to defend 49ers running back Raheem Mostert – the Packers fought until the very end.

Tight end Jimmy Graham snagged a 42-yard pass that set up Jones' 1-yard touchdown run to start the fourth quarter, while receiver Davante Adams caught eight passes for 131 yards in the second half alone.

Adams' 65-yard catch with a little less than 11 minutes remaining was the longest offensive play of the game by 29 yards and led to an 8-yard Jace Sternberger touchdown pass.

Meanwhile, Jones surpassed Ahman Green for most touchdowns in a single season (including playoffs) with his two second-half scores pushing his final total to 23.

Despite all the disappointment that accompanied the loss, Jones made it a point to circle the locker room after the game was over to thank his teammates for a memorable season – even if it came to a close one game short of the ultimate goal.

"This was my third year in the league, not very much time, but enough to kind of see the difference," said Jones, who finished with 83 total yards on 17 touches.

"I spent more time probably at other people's houses this year than I have any other time. Just building that chemistry, that bond. When you get out there and line up … you know you can go and battle for this guy. There's just love around this locker room. I went around after and told every guy in here I loved them."

Levi's Stadium hosted the NFC Championship Game between the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020.

It was an emotionally charged post-game locker room for a team that had won six consecutive games dating back to its Week 12 loss against San Francisco. Linebacker Blake Martinez, one of several pending free agents this offseason, got choked up reflecting on his four years in Green Bay.

A fourth-round pick in 2016, Martinez said he never had been around a team that had such a burning desire to win and improve. He credits LaFleur for helping instill that belief.

"He's a special coach. It was crazy to see how he changed things so quickly," Martinez said. "Everyone bought in. He's a likable guy. He was able to adapt to every single one of us and he never blinked, just like us. It started from the top-down."

Kicker Mason Crosby, a veteran of five NFC title games, acknowledged how difficult it can be for a team to chart a path to the Super Bowl. However, the bitter ending took nothing away from a special and unique season for the 13-year pro.

"You could tell guys really liked each other and really cared about each other, and were excited to come to work," Crosby said. "Not just go through the grind of the day but have real relationships and get to know each other. I think Coach LaFleur did a good job of promoting some of that, as well. Really encouraging some extracurricular stuff outside of the building."

Coming off a 6-9-1 season in 2018, General Manager Brian Gutekunst signed four high-profile free agents to spark the Packers' turnaround. Gutekunst's activity netted Green Bay not only a new pass rusher in Za'Darius Smith, but also a leader in the locker room and defensive captain.

After the game, Smith conducted his postgame media session with fellow offseason acquisition Preston Smith by their lockers as the duo did all season. While there undoubtedly will be some changes made going into 2020, Smith feels the foundation is in place for the Packers to remain in contention.

"Heads up, man. This is a situation where it's a sad moment, but at the same time you get a chance next year to come back and fight," Smith said. "That was the whole message for the guys who are going to be back next year to just know that we'll be back."

The improbable journey is over for the 2019 Green Bay Packers but there's also optimism inside the best is yet to come. A locker room filled with fighters is already eager for its shot at glory later this year.

"This is a huge jump; going from missing the playoffs to a new coach, new guys coming in," defensive tackle Kenny Clark said. "I think the future is bright for us. We have a young team, too. I'm excited about the direction guys are going to go in.

"I'm pretty sure this offseason everybody will take it serious and we'll be a lot better team next year."

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