Green Bay's dreadful special teams unit was a lingering weakness all season. It cost them a chance at a conference title Saturday.
The Packers appeared to be in a great position to pad their lead just before half when Aaron Rodgers found Aaron Jones for a 75-yard gain. Three plays later, Mason Crosby lined up for a 39-yard field goal with three seconds left in the half.
Niners defensive back Jimmie Ward -- who had just blown a coverage allowing the Jones reception -- rushed off the left side, shooting a gap to step in front of Crosby's kick and block the attempt, avoiding falling behind by 10 entering the break. The block proved to be massive, keeping the 49ers within range of the Packers long enough for another special teams unit to make a massive, game-flipping play.
Green Bay lined up to punt following a sack of Rodgers with 4:50 left in a 10-3 game. Long snapper Steven Wirtel snapped the ball back to punter Corey Bojorquez, then was overwhelmed by rusher Jordan Willis, who powered past Wirtel and got his hands on Bojorquez's punt. The block sent the ball straight up in the air, eventually landing at Green Bay's 1-yard line, where safety Talanoa Hufanga recovered the live ball and took it into the end zone for a game-tying touchdown.
The play stunned the crowd at Lambeau Field, which watched their Packers surrender a one-score advantage by not executing in the third phase of the game. It was a nightmare outcome for a team that was always susceptible to such disasters.
"You could argue that was the difference in the game but I think it was more than just that play," Packers coach Matt LaFleur said after the heartbreaking loss. "I don't know exactly what happened, I'll have to go back and take a look at the tape. We had two blocks in this game and obviously, it played a big part in us coming up short."
Green Bay scrambled to recover with a feeble effort, going three-and-out before punting it back to Green Bay with 3:33 remaining. The Packers' defense wasn't able to get a stop, watching San Francisco inch into field goal range with time melting off the clock. To cap off an embarrassing special teams effort, Green Bay sent 10 men out to attempt to block Robbie Gould's 45-yard field goal attempt.
They never had a chance.
"That can't happen. It's unacceptable," said LaFleur of the mishap. "And, again, that's on me."
Green Bay, the NFC's No.1 seed, exited the postseason sooner than most anyone expected, losing in shocking fashion to the sixth-seeded 49ers, a team that needed a furious comeback on the road in Week 18 just to make the playoffs. Riding that wave of momentum into the postseason, San Francisco has now scored two upset victories on the road and finds itself in the NFC Championship Game for the second time in three seasons.
The 49ers got there with two wins that came in drastically different fashions. They can award a game ball to their entire group of special teamers, who first kept them alive before propelling them to victory.
LaFleur and the Packers, meanwhile, will have an entire offseason to remind themselves of the importance of special teams.