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The Packers lost cornerback Sam Shields to what could be a serious knee injury Sunday.

2-minute drill: 49ers 23, Packers 20

By JASON WILDE

GREEN BAY – Taking a closer look at the Green Bay Packers’ 23-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at Lambeau Field, an NFC Wild Card defeat that ended their season and left plenty of questions for the organization going forward:

Thumbs up:  Where would the Packers have been this season without Eddie Lacy? At one point Sunday, the fans were chanting “Ed-die! Ed-die!” but they could have just as easily been chanting “MVP! MVP!” Facing a third-ranked run defense that was daring him to beat them by playing both their safeties back, the rugged Lacy carried 21 times for a hard-earned 81 yards (3.9 yards per carry). If only the Packers could have had Lacy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the same backfield all season, imagine the production the offense might’ve had.

Instead, that will have to wait for 2014.

“It’s sad. Everybody in here is sad. We played our hearts out,” Lacy said. “We came out to play, but it just didn’t end the way we thought it would.”

Thumbs down:  It is precisely the type of play that the Packers are paying safety Morgan Burnett $24.75 million to make. And once again, the fourth-year safety didn’t make it.

While his outstanding safety predecessors – LeRoy Butler, Darren Sharper and Nick Collins – all blossomed into Pro Bowl players in their fourth NFL seasons, Burnett has yet to show he is capable of being a difference-maker. On Sunday, he once again had a chance to make such a play. With the Packers leading 17-13 with 10 minutes 37 seconds to go in the game, Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk was blanketing 49ers tight end Vernon Davis. While coverage isn’t his strong suit, Hawk had good position when 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick zinged a strike on the seam route to Davis for a 28-yard touchdown that Burnett, who was a split-second late reacting, had been in position to break up or perhaps intercept. On replay, it appeared the ball went right through his outstretched arms.

“I was with him, but if he caught it, then it’s not good coverage,” Hawk said. “I should’ve found a way to break that up or pick it.”

Player of the game:  The Packers were looking cryogenically frozen in the first quarter, when they were outgained, 118-6, and the 49ers had as many points (six) and first downs (six) as the Packers had yards. Green Bay was lucky that the 49ers had settled for two chip-shot field goals on their opening two possessions as their offense bogged down and the Packers defense rose up. The 49ers were on the march again, facing second-and-7 at the Green Bay 29, when Kaepernick thought he had Davis down the right sideline. Au contraire. As Kaepernick’s throw hung in the frozen air, cornerback Tramon Williams left his man to range over and pick off the interception. The offense then went 70 yards in 14 plays the other way en route to a 5-yard Jordy Nelson touchdown catch and a 7-6 lead.

While Williams’ play in and of itself was big, what he did on his return – seeing and intentionally lowering his head and running Kaepernick over as the quarterback tried to tackle him.

“I don’t get a chance to hit quarterbacks too often, so I saw a perfect opportunity in front of me,” Williams said. “Kaepernick’s a tough competitor. We did need a spark at that time and my play provided it at that point. The offense was able to come out and get a drive going and get into a rhythm and those guys got into a rhythm for the rest of the game and made some plays. As a defense, we just didn’t get those stops when we really needed it.”

Play of the day: Call it Rodgers to Cobb II. A week after their fourth-and-8, 48-yard touchdown pass in the final minute sent them to the playoffs, the quarterback and wide receiver were at it again. This time, Rodgers was facing a fourth-and-2 at the San Francisco 30-yard line when by some miracle he escaped the clutches of 49ers Ray McDonald and linebacker Ahmad Brooks and hurled a strike to Cobb, who caught the ball behind cornerback Perrish Cox for a 26-yard gain. Two plays later, fullback John Kuhn scored from a yard out to make it 20-17 Green Bay.

“We had a [missed assignment] on the play so it got very cluttered in there in the middle,” Rodgers said. “I felt a guy swiping at the ball so I tried to pull it away from him and was being grabbed and I felt like I was free, so I just moved to my right and saw Randall and threw it to him.”

Inside the game:  All year long, it didn’t matter who the quarterback was – from Rodgers to Seneca Wallace to Scott Tolzien to Matt Flynn and back to Rodgers – the Packers weren’t good enough in the red zone. A year after scoring touchdowns at the league’s third-best clip (68.1 percent) of their trips inside opposing 20-yard lines a year ago, the Packers converted just 33 of their 65 red-zone trips (50.8 percent) in the regular season, then went 2 for 4 on Sunday. For a team that had been an NFL-best 61.3 percent on touchdowns in the red zone since the start of the 2008 season, Sunday’s failure was an epic one.

“It’s huge. We’ve been fighting with that all year,” wide receiver James Jones said. “You get down in the red zone, you need touchdowns, not field goals, and it bit us again today.”

The backbreaker was when the Packers moved into position to score and had first-and-goal from the 9-yard line and settled for a field goal to make it 20-20.

“It’s not what you want,” wide receiver Jordy Nelson said. “It’s something we’ve struggled with all year, finishing in the red zone, and it continued today. Give them credit for stepping up and stopping us and holding us to a field goal to tie the game. We’ve got to punch that in, one way or another.”

Quote, unquote:  “It’s frustrating. In the locker room, everybody’s disappointed. Tomorrow is the toughest day of the year because it’s the end and guys go their separate ways. Today’s probably tied for the toughest, as well. It’s the last time this group of guys is going to be together. It’s frustrating. We did some great things this year but we came up a little short.” – Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, on the season-ending loss.

Injury report: Cornerback Sam Shields suffered what might be a serious knee injury on the Packers’ second defensive play while joining a tackler of wide receiver Michael Crabtree late. Three plays later, outside linebacker Mike Neal suffered a knee injury of his own in a collision. Packers coach Mike McCarthy had no information on either player’s condition, but if they both did suffer significant knee injuries, they both might have increased the likelihood of their return to Green Bay. Both set to become unrestricted free agents in spring, they may be bargain re-signs if their injuries are serious.

With Shields out, Davon House came off the bench to take Shields’ snaps outside, while Neal’s injury left the Packers with only two surviving outside linebackers. House (cramping) and rookie Andy Mulumba (knee) each sat out for a time but returned.

Extra points: 

> Even though House came awfully close to blocking kicker Phil Dawson’s game-winning field goal as time expired – a .GIF making the Internet rounds shows House diving to block the kick and the ball zipping right between House’s outstretched arms – it wouldn’t have mattered if he had blocked it. House was called for being offsides – referee Ed Hochuli made the call in the closing seconds – and Dawson would have gotten to kick from 5-yards closer, a 28-yard kick.

“Looked to me – I haven’t seen the replay – it was pretty close,” McCarthy said.

> When Mulumba injured his knee with Neal out and Clay Matthews (thumb) and Nate Palmer inactive, the Packers turned to first-round pick Datone Jones to play outside linebacker.

“Pretty much I’m prepared to play any position on the front seven. I know everything, and I’m very athletic and I can pretty much do it all,” said Jones, who played only a couple snaps as a true stand-up outside linebacker until Mulumba reentered the game. “Most definitely, I was very prepared to do it.”

> The Packers hold the No. 21 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft following their first-round playoff exit and 8-8-1 record.

> Wanting to pull out all the stops, the Packers had Cobb returning kickoffs. “This time of the year, it’s about getting to a Super Bowl, getting a ring. Whatever it takes, I’m willing to do,” Cobb said. “I’m all about this team, and I’m going to do everything I can to put ’em in the best situation. Coach made the call, and I went back there.”

> The Packers have 17 unrestricted free agents for next year: Quarterback Seneca Wallace, quarterback Matt Flynn, fullback John Kuhn, running back James Starks, running back Kahlil Bell, wide receiver James Jones, tight end Jermichael Finley, tight end Andrew Quarless, tackle Marshall Nehouse, starting center Evan Dietrich-Smith, defensive tackle Johnny Jolly, defensive tackle Ryan Pickett, defensive tackle B.J. Raji, defensive end C.J. Wilson, OLB Mike Neal, linebacker Robert Francois and Shields. Linebacker Jamari Lattimore  and safety M.D. Jennings are restricted free agents.

Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.

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