Taking Cobb off returns proved costly

Getting an early lead was supposed to be the key to beating the 49ers. Not when you do this.

Just like that, the Packers' season is over. After a win in the opening week of the playoffs, Green Bay's road to the Super Bowl was potentially lining up just as it did two years ago. This time, however, the Packers were unable to string together any victories on the road, with the team now looking for offseason answers for the second year in a row after a divisional round defeat.

Five things we learned from the Packers' 45-31 loss to the 49ers:

1. A chance to capitalize on early momentum was missed.

Two of the biggest keys to a Packers victory were taking an early lead and forcing an inexperienced Colin Kaepernick to make mistakes. On the game's opening drive, Green Bay successfully achieved both.

On the fourth play from scrimmage, Kaepernick threw an ill-advised pass on the run while rolling to the left that was intercepted by Sam Shields and run into the end zone for a Packers touchdown. Just over two minutes had been played, and Green Bay had everything working in its favor. The Packers had a lead, Kaepernick appeared incapable of handling the pressure of his first playoff appearance and Green Bay would get the ball to start the second half. Coach Mike McCarthy could not have dreamed of a better scenario to begin the game.

Quickly, however, all of the Packers' momentum was lost. On the next drive, with the 49ers facing third-and-10, Kaepernick lobbed a short pass over the head of Charles Woodson that was caught by Frank Gore and turned into a 45-yard completion. Three plays later, San Francisco had tied the game, Kaepernick had clearly shaken off any jitters and Green Bay's troubles were just beginning.

2. Green Bay had no answer for Kaepernick's dual threat.

The Packers hoped that the unexpected challenge of facing Minnesota Vikings backup quarterback Joe Webb in the opening round of the postseason would help in preparing for Kaepernick. After all, Webb and Kaepernick both arun read-option plays that force defenses to alter game plans and strategies.

Well, as Kaepernick proved in this game, the comparisons between he and Webb end with "can run the read-option."

Kaepernick was able to run and pass with great success against Green Bay, with his only mistake being that interception by Shields. Aside from that, Kaepernick ran for 181 yards on 16 attempts (11.3 average) with two rushing touchdowns. Important to remember: Kaepernick is a quarterback and yet was able to gain 181 rushing yards by himself. He also threw for 263 yards with two touchdown passes, finishing with a passer rating of 91.2.

Kaepernick looks like the real deal, but he can certainly thank the Packers' defense for helping him prove that Saturday night.

3. The Packers still have trouble stopping No. 1 receivers.

Michael Crabtree, the 49ers' 2009 first-round pick who looked like somewhat of a bust early in his career, could not be stopped by Green Bay's defense. Crabtree had 11 passes thrown his way -- which was more than twice as many as the next highest-targeted San Francisco player -- and caught nine of them for 119 yards and two touchdowns.

If the Packers had been able to shut down Crabtree, this game would have looked much different, especially with elite tight end Vernon Davis only catching one pass. Randy Moss is much better in reputation and in name than he is in performance at this point in his career, leaving Crabtree as Kaepernick's obvious No. 1 receiving option.

But this wasn't the first time this season that Green Bay allowed an opposing wide receiver to dominate. In Week 4, Marques Colston (New Orleans Saints) had nine catches, 153 yards and a touchdown. A week later, Reggie Wayne (Indianapolis Colts) had 13 receptions, 212 yards and a touchdown. Calvin Johnson (Detroit Lions) lit up the Packers' secondary in both meetings this season (143 receiving yards in Week 11; 118 receiving yards in Week 14). Even Cecil Shorts (Jacksonville Jaguars) had the best game of his season against Green Bay with eight catches for 116 yards.

Crabtree and Kaepernick have been working very well together since the 49ers made a midseason switch at quarterback, but this was another example of one wide receiver picking apart the Packers.

4. A time of possession imbalance affected Packers' best weapons.

It wasn't even close. San Francisco had the ball for 38:01, leaving just 21:59 for Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay's offense to be on the field. That is not nearly enough time for the league's reigning MVP to try to win his team a playoff game.

Part of the blame for the vast disparity in time of possession is on the Packers' offense, including going three-and-out on their first series. But that was one of only two three-and-outs for Green Bay in the game, which isn't altogether that bad.

But it was impossible for Rodgers to get on the field often in the second half considering the 49ers had long touchdown drives of 80 yards, 93 yards and 93 yards over the final 23 minutes of play.

5. The decision to remove Randall Cobb as a returner proved costly.

This is what Rodgers wanted. Not the result, of course, but the personnel. After his leading receiver Cobb got hurt on special teams in Week 16, Rodgers took his opportunity at the podium to publicly let his opinion be known that he wanted Cobb “off special teams soon.” McCarthy disagreed, stating that Cobb was a big reason for special teams being Green Bay's most consistent unit all season.

Somehow, McCarthy began to change his mind. It started with easing in first-year player Jeremy Ross on kick returns while keeping Cobb on punt returns. But, when it came time for the divisional round of the playoffs, it was all Ross in the return game early on.

And, just minutes into the second quarter, McCarthy and Rodgers realized the importance of having a player like Cobb as the team's returner. That was when, with the Packers up, 14-7, Ross attempted to field a punt near the goal line but muffed it. San Francisco recovered, had great field position at the 9-yard line and scored a touchdown three plays later to tie the game.

It was a significant turning point in the game and a decision that McCarthy no doubt quickly regretted.

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