SAN FRANCISCO—These are the times when the men who play this game are reminded of what it means to them, other than the paycheck they earn or the fame they inherit. At times like this, football truly is a game of the heart.
"We put a lot into this," Aaron Rodgers said as he addressed reporters in the moments immediately following the Packers' 45-31, season-ending loss at Candlestick Park on Saturday night. "You realize that's the last time that group is going to be together. To go out and play like that is disappointing."
He hadn't considered that this might be the end. Rodgers and his teammates, to a man, believed they were going to win this rematch of opening day.
Did he think the Packers would go all the way?
"This team? Definitely," he said.
Based on the two losses to the 49ers, it would seem to have been an unrealistic expectation. Greg Jennings said the better team won. He's right.
Now, two years removed from their Super Bowl XLV championship, the Packers are likely to experience some significant offseason changes. Jennings appears headed for free agency. You know who the other candidates are, and they make this loss especially difficult because many of these men have been fixtures for this franchise. Their names are etched in the fabric of the Green Bay Packers.
Such is life in the NFL. It's a game of replacement.
When last season ended abruptly with a completely unexpected loss to the Giants, we all knew where the Packers needed to turn their attention: to the defense. They did that by using each of their first six draft picks to select defensive players.
Those and other young legs helped make a No. 32 defense in 2011 a No. 11 defense this season, but it didn't show in either of the two losses to the 49ers. The Packers got gashed. There's no other way to paint it.
Clearly, more work is necessary on the defensive side of the ball.
Here's the good news: Rodgers will, again, be the Packers' quarterback in 2013. In Rodgers, the Packers have one third of the Holy Trinity all championship-caliber teams seem to possess: a quarterback, a head coach and a general manager who are proven winners. The Packers have all three.
The triumvirate of Rodgers, Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson insure the team will be a playoff contender again next season. Somehow, some way you need to take solace in that fact over the next few days, as you lay to rest a season that teased us with promise but failed to deliver the joy we sought.
Look at it this way: When you surrender 323 yards rushing, your offseason needs will be easy to define. After last season, it was about the pass rush. This year, it's about the run defense. Thompson will find them. The problem will get fixed.
For now, try to calm yourself with the notion that the 49ers are a deserving team. Their two wins over the Packers probably represent the 49ers' best two performances of the season. Sometimes you just have to say, "Congratulations."
Just as the team that ended the Packers' season a year ago went on to win the Super Bowl, the same could happen this year. The 49ers are good. They play with muscle and speed, and they have a young quarterback who gives them suddenness they didn't previously possess.
They are the standard by which the Packers should attempt to improve themselves by asking this question: What do we need to do to beat the 49ers?
Answer that question and all of the problems will be fixed.
Additional coverage - Jan. 12