For the better part of 52 minutes Sunday, the Green Bay Packers matched the defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers stride-for-stride, punch-for-punch.
It was the final eight minutes of the season opener in San Francisco that sent the Packers home with a 0-1 start instead of a statement win against a fellow conference heavyweight. From the midway point on in the fourth quarter, the 49ers made all the plays in the biggest moments as the Packers wilted under the game's pressure.
With 8:26 left, Green Bay took its first lead of the contest on Eddie Lacy's two-yard dive. The 49ers then responded with a five-play scoring drive that took all of two minutes and 39 seconds, and after Green Bay went three-and-out on its next series, San Francisco chewed up nearly four-and-half of the remaining five minutes with an 11-play drive that spanned 50 yards and resulted in a field goal.
The Packers finally got the ball back with 26 seconds left and no timeouts. The game was over.
"Really, the last eight minutes of the game was probably our biggest disappointment as a team," Packers head coach McCarthy said. "We need to learn from that. We looked at the sequence as a football team, and it'll be an emphasis for us as we get ready for Washington."
Failures on both sides of the football contributed to the 49ers dominating the second half of the final quarter.
San Francisco's scoring drive that canceled out Lacy's touchdown was the perfect counter punch, and it's velocity and ease seemed to suck all the life out of momentum that had been building on the Green Bay sideline.
On the drive's second play, Colin Kaepernick hit veteran Anquan Boldin for a 43-yard reception that featured a number of missed tackles from the Packers' struggling secondary. A play later, running back Kendall Hunter kept on the dive off right tackle for 23 yards, setting up San Francisco with first-and-goal from the Green Bay nine-yard line. Frank Gore sliced his way for eight yards on first down, before patiently following his blockers a play later for what ended up being the game-winning score.
While the Packers were so good at responding to 49ers scores for the first 52 minutes—Green Bay followed a San Francisco scoring play with an eventual touchdown on each of the first four occasions—Aaron Rodgers and the offense managed just three plays between the 49ers two scores.
Rodgers threw incomplete to Randall Cobb to kick off the series, and then scrambled for seven on second down. His third down scramble resulted in a chance for Jordy Nelson, but the Packers best receiver Sunday couldn't hang on and Tim Masthay was brought on to punt with just over five minutes to play. Rodgers wouldn't get the football ball until the game was essentially over, thanks in large part to more defensive failures.
On third-and-four early during the ensuing drive, Kaepernick found Vernon Davis on a clever playcall that was designed to get the tight end wide open in the left flat. Like most of the 49ers receivers on this afternoon, Davis was without a defender in his general vicinity, as Jarrett Bush was late reacting after Kaepernick's playaction fake froze most of the Packers defenders. Davis picked up an easy 15 yards and the 49ers continued their march.
After holding Gore to eight yards on three carries and calling the third of their the second-half timeouts, the Packers were presented the opportunity of giving Rodgers the football back with just under three minutes left.
Instead, Kaepernick rolled to his right under little pressure and found Boldin, who caught 13 passes for 208 yards on the afternoon, for a 15-yard gain that all but wrapped up a season-opening win for the 49ers. The Packers originally had the route concept covered, but Boldin used his big frame to create subtle separation from Tramon Williams and Kaepernick delivered a frozen rope that hit the 33-year-old between the 8 and 1.
Without any timeouts remaining, the Packers were helpless to stop the clock, and the 49ers later kicked a 33-yard field goal with 26 seconds left that extended San Francisco's lead to 34-28. Green Bay's last ditch effort at a Hail Mary ended with Rodgers not being able to get a final heave into the end zone.
The first 52 minutes of Sunday's contest left each team with a reasonable chance to win the football game. Despite two first-half turnovers that led to scoring opportunities for the 49ers (touchdown, missed field goal), the Packers fought the early adversity and positioned themselves to escape San Francisco with a win over one of the NFC's elite.
But with the game on the line, the 49ers imposed their will on both sides of the football and took the game's outcome by the horns. The final eight minutes provided a convincing knockout blow to the Packers, who had otherwise stood strong every time San Francisco landed an uppercut to the chin.
Zach Kruse is a 25-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covered prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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