GREEN BAY, Wis. — This is how it all ended for Aaron Rodgers on Saturday night: a football fluttering between the uprights, men in scarlet parkas scampering onto the field, snowflakes falling like so many opportunities lost and gone forever.
“A little numb, for sure,” Rodgers said. “Didn’t think it was going to end like this.”
A certain finality descended upon Lambeau Field as time expired in San Francisco’s 13-10 victory over the top-seeded Green Bay Packers, after Robbie Gould’s 45-yard field goal on the final play boosted the 49ers into the N.F.C. championship game.
The kick ended a Packers season that teemed with promise — they were, Rodgers said, a Super Bowl-caliber team — yet cratered, just like last year, at home in the January chill. It ended what has been captivating theater for the last nine months, the daily parsing of Rodgers’s word and deed, his status in everything from coronavirus vaccination to job satisfaction the dominant plot point in the melodrama that is America’s most popular sport. It also, quite possibly, ended Rodgers’s tenure in green and gold, 17 seasons of excellence, of individual awards and playoff disappointment, distilled into a championship 11 years ago, back when he must have figured he would win more than just one.
Rodgers lost his last four N.F.C. championship games — including last season, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tom Brady — and he has lost his last four playoff games against the 49ers, dating back to the 2011 season. He grew up a 49ers fan in Northern California but has yet to defeat them in the postseason with Green Bay — and, perhaps, never will. Rodgers will soon likely win his second straight Most Valuable Player Award — his fourth overall — but it is San Francisco, the No. 6 seed, and its own quarterback playing ahead of a drafted replacement, Jimmy Garoppolo, advancing to next Sunday’s conference championship at either the Los Angeles Rams or Tampa Bay.
“I’m going to take some time and have conversations with the folks around here and then take some time away and make a decision, obviously before free agency or anything kind of gets going on that front,” Rodgers said. “It’s fresh right now. It’s a little shocking for sure. I was hoping to have a nice week after the N.F.C. championship to enjoy the lead-up and then start contemplating some things. I haven’t even let the moment really sink in yet.”
For Rodgers and the Packers, this season has abounded with pressure, with urgency, since before training camp, when Rodgers and receiver Davante Adams posted on Instagram the same photo — of Michael Jordan dapping up Scottie Pippen, the symbolism undeniable: This, the posts suggested, could be something of a last dance for them in Green Bay.
With brutal candor, Rodgers aired his grievances in a news conference, then promised he would dedicate himself to a fruitful season. So much has changed since April, when a report detailing Rodgers’s anger with Packers management detonated in the final hours before the N.F.L. draft and turned one of the league’s tent-pole events into a frenzied unveiling of a will-he-or-won’t-he-return saga. Many things have not.
Rodgers said that his relationship with the team’s general manager, Brian Gutekunst and other members of the Packers’ front office has improved, but Green Bay will still enter the off-season in salary-cap perdition — more than $40 million over — and with several important players set to become unrestricted free agents: Adams, who could receive the franchise tag; linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, cornerback Rasul Douglas; tight end Robert Tonyan; and offensive lineman Lucas Patrick, among others. The Packers also have quarterback Jordan Love, their first-round pick in 2020 who has sat behind Rodgers the last two years.
Rodgers, through concessions Green Bay made with his contract, has the power to determine where he plays next season.
“I don’t want to be a part of a rebuild if I’m going to keep playing,” Rodgers said.
Provided he wants to play at all, the question for Rodgers will be whether his desire to join another team toward the end of a sterling career — like Brady did after leaving the New England Patriots — trumps his desire to stay with a team that could still offer him the best chance to win next season and beyond. Potential suitors like Denver and Las Vegas are searching for new coaches, and their rosters — not accounting for the haul it would take to acquire Rodgers — pale to the assemblage of talent that Gutekunst has formed and, likely, will continue to form.
“Certainly we want him back here,” Coach Matt LaFleur said. “I think we would be crazy not to want him back here.”
As Rodgers spoke on a video conference, dressed in all black, he did not want to reflect on his all that comes next or his legacy beyond the friendships he has made. He rued his role in Saturday’s offensive malfunction — Green Bay scored on its opening drive, a 6-yard run by A.J. Dillon, but not again until early in the fourth quarter — and also the Packers’ special-teams collapse.
With one of the league’s worst units all season, Green Bay had a field-goal attempt blocked just before halftime, then — after stuffing San Francisco on fourth down at the Packers’ 19 — allowed Jordan Willis to penetrate the line and block Corey Bojorquez’s punt with less than five minutes remaining. Talanoa Hufanga scooped up the ball and returned it 6 yards to tie the score at 10-10.
Twice before in the postseason, Rodgers has led a game-winning drive. Back in Week 3 this season, he engineered one against these same 49ers. But in his final possession on Saturday night, the Packers faltered, with Rodgers lofting a deep pass on third down toward Adams into double coverage which, he said later, should have been thrown toward Allen Lazard. With San Francisco taking over on its own 29 with 3:20 left, Garoppolo, playing with a torn ligament in his right thumb and a sprained right shoulder, drove San Francisco 44 yards in nine plays to set up Gould’s winning kick.
The Packers, who had only 10 men on the field for it, trudged along the sideline. Rodgers shook hands and congratulated the 49ers and headed off the field, for what might have been the final time as a Packer.
Just two months ago, after returning from the 10-day isolation that accompanied his positive coronavirus test, Rodgers proclaimed the joy and gratitude he felt — because, he said, he refused to take moments like that for granted. His future, much as it did this time last year, remains a “beautiful mystery.”
And it has arrived much quicker than he expected.
“That’s life sometimes,” Rodgers said. “you think things are going a certain way and they take a big course correction and you just have to keep moving on and moving forward, even when you don’t think it is possible.”