Youth is wasted on the young, and the Green Bay Packers were the youngest playoff team in half a century. So of course the Packers’ season ended with a facepalm. Down three points to the no. 1 seed San Francisco 49ers late in the fourth quarter Saturday night, Packers quarterback Jordan Love had 67 seconds to try to lead Green Bay to a game-tying field goal or a game-winning touchdown.
Green Bay got neither. On first-and-10 from the Packers’ 36-yard line, Love rolled out of the pocket to his right and threw the ball across his body and across the middle of the field, where it was intercepted by 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw, allowing San Francisco to escape with a 24-21 win. After the game, Love called the throw “a mortal sin.” Love let what could have been one of the season’s biggest upsets slip through Green Bay’s pruney fingers.
It’s the kind of heat-check throw that comes from a 25-year-old first-year starter, who has thrown 21 touchdown passes and one interception over his past nine games. But that’s how the Packers made it here to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs in the first place: by playing aggressively and unafraid. It almost got them to the NFC championship game in what should have been a rebuilding season.
Green Bay outplayed and outcoached the 49ers for large stretches of Saturday’s game. Considering Green Bay’s youth and how heavily favored the 49ers were, you could come away from this game thinking the Packers look like a team that will be a contender for years to come (again) while questioning whether the 49ers’ Super Bowl hopes might fall short (again).
Green Bay did so much right. The Packers came in as 9.5-point underdogs. They took the lead on their first offensive possession and held it for 50 of the final 53 minutes. Green Bay’s first three drives went for a combined 190 yards and took almost 17 minutes off the clock. It was exactly the type of plan they needed to upset a San Francisco team that averaged 28.9 points per game in the regular season. The 49ers ran just five plays in the first quarter, their fewest since 2019.
The Packers gained yardage however they wanted. Running back Aaron Jones ran 18 times for 108 yards, becoming the first Packer in team history to run for 100 yards in five straight games. Love, who completed 21 of 34 passes for 194 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, attacked the 49ers deep—picking on cornerback Ambry Thomas, who committed two big defensive interference penalties. Head coach Matt LaFleur seemed to straight up outcoach San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan, LaFleur’s longtime boss turned NFC rival. Particularly eye-opening was the way LaFleur used wide receivers Christian Watson and Dontayvion Wicks to neutralize San Francisco defensive end Nick Bosa in the run game. It was reminiscent of the scene in Game of Thrones when a giant is killed by a farmhand.
It was a game that San Francisco merely survived. The 49ers lost receiver Deebo Samuel five plays into their first offensive drive, and the 49ers offense was clearly impacted by his absence. But that was just one issue for the 49ers, who seemed ill-prepared to play in a torrential rainstorm that clearly affected San Francisco quarterback Purdy more than it affected Love. Purdy’s accuracy was downright erratic, especially in the second half. Fox’s cameras caught Purdy wiping his hands off mid-dropback to get a better grip on the ball.
Brock Purdy trying to dry his hand mid-play is wildpic.twitter.com/E0P0Y3SKvL— The 33rd Team (@The33rdTeamFB) January 21, 2024
San Francisco swapped out its cleats after the second Packers drive because defenders were slipping. Shanahan was still talking about the 49ers’ cleats and traction at halftime—right after his conservative play-calling, perhaps in order to prioritize two possessions on either side of halftime, netted zero points. Purdy’s best drive of the game was his final one, where he finally got into a rhythm, leading a 12-play, 69-yard drive that ended with a Christian McCaffrey touchdown that led to a shaky, albeit safe, 49ers landing.
Shanahan got his first win as a head coach when down seven or more in the fourth quarter. He’s now 1-30 in those situations. The 49ers will now play in their fourth NFC championship game in five years, carrying the baggage of Shanahan’s previous playoff heartbreak. Shanahan has been involved in three blown double-digit fourth-quarter leads in the Super Bowl and NFC championship game in the past seven years, as either a head coach or coordinator. This current 49ers team seemed like the best—and healthiest—team Shanahan has ever had. Losing this game to this upstart Packers team would have been disastrous, with Shanahan’s strongest squad having his earliest playoff exit. “We have a thousand scars,” Shanahan told Fox’s Erin Andrews at halftime.
This young Packers team got its first scar Saturday night. There were far more mental mistakes than just Love’s interception at the end of the game. Green Bay could not capitalize in the red zone, gaining just six points on three drives inside the 20-yard line in the first half. Rookie kicker Anders Carlson, who missed the most kicks in the NFL this year, missed a 41-yard field goal with just over six minutes remaining, his fifth straight game with a missed kick. Earlier in the game, the field goal unit nearly botched a different attempt, the ball skidding from the snapper to the holder, who quickly righted the ball before Carlson’s kick. (“When he goes out here, I just pray,” LaFleur told Fox’s Tom Rinaldi.) Kick returner Keisean Nixon returned a kickoff 73 yards but fumbled it, only for Packers linebacker Eric Wilson to dive on the ball. And defensive back Darnell Savage dropped a would-be interception that hit him right in his chest, similar to the one he caught off Dak Prescott and returned for a touchdown last week.
Darnell Savage dropped this would-be pick-6 from Brock Purdy— PFF (@PFF) January 21, 2024
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good pic.twitter.com/8vNnt6suJL
If Savage catches that ball, the entire game—and perhaps Green Bay’s season—changes. But the fact that the Packers were even in this situation is incredible. This is the youngest playoff team in 49 years, which snuck into the playoffs as the NFC’s no. 7 seed and destroyed Dallas in the wild-card round. Love completed a pass to 10 Packers on Saturday, and nine of those pass catchers are on rookie contracts. The Packers astonishingly had a different receiver lead them in receiving in September (Romeo Doubs), October (Christian Watson), November (Dontayvion Wicks), December (Tucker Kraft), and January (Jayden Reed). None of the Packers who took a snap last week vs. Dallas were in their 30s. But most astonishing is the quarterback transition.
Brett Favre won a Super Bowl and three MVPs in 15 years, then got traded to the Jets to make room for Rodgers. Then Rodgers won a Super Bowl and four MVPs in 15 years and was traded to the Jets to make room for Love. Now Love is the third quarterback in NFL history to have 4,000 passing yards and 30 touchdowns in his first season as a starter, joining Kurt Warner and Patrick Mahomes. We don’t have to project 15 years and a Super Bowl win and five MVPs for Love for this Packers transition to be historic. Love certainly looks like an above-average quarterback at minimum. He is 25. Even a decade of starting for Green Bay would mean the Packers are looking at 40 uninterrupted years of having a franchise quarterback.
That we are already dumbfounded at Love throwing away a playoff win against the 49ers clouds the larger picture. Rodgers never beat the 49ers in the playoffs (he went 0-4). Favre never beat Dallas as a Packer in the playoffs (he went 0-3). Love almost did both in back-to-back weeks during his first season. He’s already on the verge of things Favre and Rodgers never did. But he’s also doing it in ways that look just like both of them. Love’s game-ending interception for his first season is like a mirror image of the last throw of Favre’s last season as a Viking, the final throw of his career—a cross-body heave in the divisional round that was picked off.
Youth is wasted on the young and old alike. But quarterbacks are not wasted on the Packers.