SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- They lost to the Seattle Seahawks in the 2014 NFC Championship Game, after so many things went wrong in the final few minutes, and they said they would be back. It took them two years. They got blown out by the Atlanta Falcons in the 2016 NFC title game, and they said they just needed to reload and would be back. It took them three years.
The Green Bay Packers, with a quarterback who will turn 37 before the playoffs start next season, might not be in position to go even a year between appearances in a conference championship game.
Not if Aaron Rodgers is ever going to get to a second Super Bowl.
Which is why the Packers' 37-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday at Levi's Stadium isn't just another conference-title-game disappointment, their third straight with Rodgers as their quarterback. It could go down as their last best chance to get to another Super Bowl with him.
"Yeah, it’s a little raw right now, for sure," Rodgers said. "But it definitely hurts a little more than early in the career, just because you realize just how difficult it is to get to this spot. With all the changes this offseason and with all the installation of a new system and a new program, to get to this point, you felt like it was something special because it just didn’t really make sense."
General manager Brian Gutekunst will no doubt try to give Rodgers more weapons in the offseason. Perhaps it's time for the Packers to use a first-round pick on a receiver for the first time since they took Javon Walker in 2002. An addition at tight end is also a must.
But here's a hard reality: The Packers -- who won 13 regular-season games, earned the NFC's No. 2 seed and beat the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round -- could field a more talented team next season. And coach Matt LaFleur likely will be even better in his second season. But all the things that went their way this season -- from near-complete health to a favorable schedule (remember, they beat the Chiefs when the AFC's Super Bowl entrant didn't have quarterback Patrick Mahomes, among other games in which they avoided key opposing players) -- can't possibly happen again next season.
If they do, then Rodgers has a shot at back-to-back NFC title games for the first time in his career. But he's been a starter for 12 seasons, and he has never done it. He has also never played one at Lambeau Field.
Based on two games this season against the 49ers, the Packers could have played San Francisco 10 times and the result would be the same. The Packers were outscored 50-0 in the first halves of the two games this season.
What's worse, the Packers' past two NFC Championship Games represented two of the three biggest halftime deficits of Rodgers' career (27 points on Sunday against the 49ers and 24 at the Falcons three years ago).
"It’s hard to get back to these games," Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said. "I’ve been to four NFC Championships in 14 years. I guess that’s good in some people’s book, but from our standards we expect to be there every year, so I feel like that we can get back there."
Biggest hole in the game plan: Receiver Davante Adams said last week the Packers had "a better way to attack" the 49ers than in the first meeting, the 37-8 loss here in Week 12. Whatever the plan was, the 49ers' lightning team speed ruined that. Adams was targeted one time in the first half (he finished with nine catches for 138 yards), and when the Packers finally got their other playmaker, running back Aaron Jones, going, they turned the ball over. Rodgers and Corey Linsley lost a botched snap, and Rodgers threw an interception in the first half.
Troubling trend: The Packers were one of the bottom-tier run defenses in the NFL for much of the year, and despite a late push that got them to 23rd in rushing yards allowed for the season, they were exposed Sunday by Raheem Mostert and his speed. In the first half alone, the 49ers' running back ran for 160 yards, and 108 of them were before contact, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. He hit 21.87 mph on his 36-yard touchdown run, the fastest rush by anyone in the past four postseasons, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Mostert carried 29 times for 220 yards and four touchdowns. It was reminiscent of the 2012 playoff loss to the 49ers when Colin Kaepernick gained 178 of his 181 yards before contact.
The 49ers barely had to throw it. Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo didn't even attempt a pass in the third quarter after going 4-of-6 for 48 yards in the first half. He finished 6-of-8 passing for 77 yards. The last quarterback to win a playoff game with fewer than 10 pass attempts was Mark Brunell in the 1999 AFC divisional round, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Brunell was 5-of-9 before being replaced by Jay Fiedler in the second quarter, as the Jaguars had already built a 38-0 lead over the Dolphins.
Troubling trend II: Rodgers needed 18 third-down plays against the 49ers this season before the Packers converted one. They were 0-for-13 on third downs with Rodgers in the game in the regular-season meeting and failed on their first four of Sunday's game before Rodgers threw a dump-off pass to Aaron Jones for 6 yards on third-and-4 on the opening drive of the second half. That led to their first score of the game. Rodgers, who hasn't been great in NFC title games, left this one with good numbers -- 31-of-39 for 326 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions -- but most of it came when the Packers were in desperation mode and after his two turnovers.