GREEN BAY—They are stars of the 3-4 defense, the linebackers, and the 49ers have the best quartet in the game today: Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis.
Against that collection of defensive football talent, not to mention a star-studded supporting cast, the Packers came within one more possession of winning the game. They needed the ball one more time. They needed it last.
"That's usually what these games come down to. Yeah, usually the team that has the ball last (wins)," Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy said, agreeing with his questioner.
The 49ers got the ball last. They didn't give it back. That's why the Packers' season ended on Sunday at Lambeau Field, on a night not fit for bare skin to be exposed for more than a few minutes, let alone for three hours of rugged, hard-edged playoff football.
Why weren't the Packers able to make the 49ers give the ball back to Aaron Rodgers for one more thrust? One more time! Just make them give it back. Victory certainly would've belonged to Green Bay.
You might say the Packers defense had one shot at it, Micah Hyde's near interception of a Colin Kaepernick pass in 49ers territory in the 49ers' eventual game-winning drive. That was it. In all other ways, the outlook was bleak for a depleted defense.
Whereas the 49ers were playing with four established stars in their linebacking corps, the Packers were playing without their only star, Clay Matthews. At one point, when undrafted rookie Andy Mulumba had to leave the game with a knee injury, the Packers were playing with rookie defensive end Datone Jones at outside linebacker. Jamari Lattimore, an inside linebacker, even spent time there.
"Corners and pass rushers, that's the starting point of any defensive scheme. We were definitely challenged there today," McCarthy said.
Yeah, they were definitely challenged in the rush-and-cover game, especially after losing their best cover man, cornerback Sam Shields, to a knee injury in the first quarter.
Best pass rusher gone? Check.
Best cover man gone? Check.
That's why the Packers couldn't get the ball back one more time. In the open field, Kaepernick overmatched them.
"Andy played hurt the whole time," McCarthy said of Mulumba, a second-string All Mid-American Conference defensive end in 2012, but a critical at outside linebacker in this NFL playoff game. Mulumba, hobbled, came back into the game to replace Jones.
"We knew we needed to score more than 20 points today. I didn't get that done," McCarthy said.
He was trumped by his quarterback.
"It's frustrating not to play your best game. The defense holds them to 23 points. We should've won that game," Aaron Rodgers said, the disappointment deeply etched in his face. "Special opportunities like this, when you lose, you feel really down."
He needed the ball one more time. One more time would've done it.
"I'd like to congratulate the 49ers," McCarthy said. Complete game coverage