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Aaron Rodgers, Packers see 'open' window despite loss to 49ers

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Linebacker Blake Martinez was the model of composure Sunday night in Levi's Stadium while dissecting the Packers' 37-20 loss to the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. He mentioned inconsistent execution, plays that didn't go their way and poor defensive fits that allowed San Francisco to rush for 285 yards, including 220 by Raheem Mostert.

It wasn't until Martinez was asked about the tears that fell from his eyes as he entered the locker room immediately after the game that the facade began to crack. He started to speak, then stopped. He inhaled deeply and exhaled. He pinched his eyes and rubbed his nose.

Yes, the loss hurt, coming with the Packers one game from reaching Super Bowl LIV. But the emotion was also about the uncertainty of what's to come. Martinez's contract is up, and there are no guarantees he will be back with the only team he has played for since entering the league in 2016.

"This is a special place to me," he said, his voice quivering. "It gave me my opportunity. I love Green Bay and the fans, everything about it -- the players and the team. This year was something special to me, the guys we had. I've never had a group of guys like this that just wanted to win, just wanted to be better every day. It was awesome to lead this group. Whatever ends up happening in free agency, I'll never forget this year."

That's the thing about the end of a season: As much as it brings finality, it also brings uncertainty. And one question that hung heavy in the evening air was whether Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had just missed out on his last best chance to return to the Super Bowl.

Seemingly everything went right for the Packers and the former Cal star in their first season under first-year coach Matt LaFleur. They rediscovered their run game and added playmakers on defense. They won close games and stayed relatively healthy. As the year progressed, they talked about their chemistry and how it just felt like a special season.

Despite all that, they were dominated by the 49ers for the second time this season. What that means for the future is unknown; Rodgers, for one, believes the window is wide open to chase championships. But the 15-year veteran also acknowledged a heightened sense of urgency because his career is closer to the finish line than the starting line.

"It's a little raw right now, for sure," he said. "It definitely hurts a little more than earlier in the career just because you realize how difficult it is to get to this spot. With all of the changes this offseason, (a new coach), the installation of a new system and a new program -- to get to this point you feel like it was something special because it just didn't really make sense. We weren't picked by most people to win our division, but we found a way to not only do that but to win a home playoff game and get to this spot. It just kind of felt like it was meant to be almost, so that was a little bit disappointing. It's a little more disappointing when you realize that I don't have the same number of years ahead of me as I do behind me."

Rodgers made clear that he believes the team's window for chasing a championship is wide open, thanks to the leadership of LaFleur and general manager Brian Gutekunst, whose offseason additions through free agency and the draft breathed life into a roster that had failed to make the playoffs the previous two seasons. But the reality is that the Packers play in a conference that is stacked with talented young teams, with San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans and Los Angeles coming immediately to mind.

On Sunday night, the tape measure for just how far Green Bay has to go could be found on the opposite sideline. The Packers were manhandled in two games against the 49ers this season, losing by 29 in late November and by 17 Sunday night, and a case could be made that neither was as close as the score. The Packers converted only one of 15 third downs and averaged just 2.8 yards per play in the first meeting, then were so overmatched defensively in the rematch that San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had to attempt only eight passes total, two in the second half. They were the fewest pass attempts by a team in the Super Bowl era since 1973, when the Dolphins put the ball in the air six and seven times over back-to-back games.

No matter how some Packers tried to spin it, they were never really in the game. They trailed 7-0 after one quarter, had been outgained 155-49 in total yards late in the second quarter and trailed 27-0 at the half. They had two turnovers in the second quarter and committed six penalties overall.

The 49ers, who became the first team in the Super Bowl era to score at least 30 points in a playoff game with fewer than 10 pass attempts, and who also ran for the most yards in a conference final since 1970, were largely clean with no turnovers and only two penalties.

"They're the gold standard in the NFC," said LaFleur. "You know how hard it is to get to this point. It's extremely difficult, and we had a lot of things go our way. We won a lot of tight ballgames, we stayed really healthy and, I thought, we had a chance to get that done. We came up short."

The question now is, what now? Rodgers is clearly one of this generations sublime talents. His numbers were off this year while he adjusted to a new system and new play-caller, but some of that had to do with him not needing to carry the load on his shoulders. The Packers had a legitimate running game for the first time in years in Aaron Jones, who tied for the league lead with 16 rushing touchdowns. And the defense was stingier thanks to free-agent additions of edge rushers Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith.

The goal now should be to build on that. For years, the Packers refused to use free agency to add and supplement the talent around Rodgers. That was the philosophy of former GM Ted Thompson, who liked to build through the draft. While admirable, it's possible he wasted some of Rodgers' prime years in doing so. Hopefully Gutekunst won't make that mistake. Windows, with rare exceptions, are open for only so long in this league.

Rodgers has been to the conference final four times, advancing once. This was his first trip since the 2016 season, which ended with a 44-21 loss to the Falcons (whose offensive coordinator was current 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan). At that time, he didn't know what to expect going forward. There was talk of going all in, but words are words. He needed to see action, which Gutekunst subsequently provided. Hence, Rodgers was more optimistic about the future Sunday night than he was three seasons ago.

"I love our guys and the pieces that we put together," he said. "I think we need to continue to find those niche guys like (running back) Tyler Ervin, (tackle) Jared Veldheer, (tight end) Marcedes Lewis. There are a lot of guys I'd like to see back: (tackle) Bryan Bulaga. Those guys are really important to our success.

"The exciting thing is I have a lot of faith and trust in Brian and his staff. I think Matt LaFleur deserves a lot of credit for the way that we performed week in and week out. He even set the vision every week. Very simple messaging. With his leadership and empowering guys the way that he did, and with Brian adding pieces as he did this offseason and will continue to do, the window is open for us. That's the exciting thing. It doesn't make this feel any [better], but that is very exciting moving forward."

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter at _@JimTrotterNFL_.

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