Packers vs. 49ers recap: finding the regular in Green Bay’s 2013 season
It was a little quieter than normal, the parking lot a little less crowded than we were accustomed to around noon when we made it to the Lambeau Field area on Sunday. Then again, there was this weather. It came as advertised. Tailgate tents and plastic tables were still under construction across the street in the Lyndahl Funeral Home’s grassy lot. People were trying, and it was early. (But not that early by Green Bay tailgating standards.)
At midday it was brisk. A frosty December day in Northeast Wisconsin but not yet brutal, as it would be later when the San Francisco 49ers would again best the Packers, once more bookending their season with losses and uncertainty. It was brutal in two ways, then.
Packers fans can prepare themselves for most anything Mother Nature conjures up, especially given the advance warning we had for Sunday: bitter and windy and the rare Monday business and school closings announced on the previous Friday. The general message sounding more like a plea: “Oh god only go outside if you must you brave and silly souls.”
People heaped on clothing and went to it, and Sunday quickly worked up to a regular Green Bay gameday atmosphere as the afternoon minutes ticked away. Most fans bundled up accordingly, their blankets and extra layers in their arms as they lumbered their way into Sideline, across the street from Lambeau.
(A note on this: we were the most bundled up we’ve ever been for anything in our lives, so believe us when we say you do not walk around in long underwear, two pairs of sweatpants, snow pants bibs, a thermal Under Armour longsleeve, a flannel shirt, a fleece pullover, a winter running jacket, a winter outer jacket, two pairs of fleece socks and snow boots: you lumber and bump into patrons and walls, swish-swishing against other puffy outdoor gear, moving like a fat float bobbing above a Thanksgiving Day parade. We were warm for the game however, because layers.)
Inside Sideline you have to shed a few layers because it is already jam-packed and sweaty. The windows and doors fog up. More people pile in and the bartenders do not stop moving. We’re assuming that many fans were like us: we’d usually be outside somewhere, or walking around the stadium, but because it was decided that Sunday was the day Packers fans’ loyalty would be tested by Boreas, the cruel Greek god of North Wind, the only tailgating option we could accept was inside a crammed pizza oven of a bar. We were fine that way for a few hours. This isn’t different for these places, though – bars around Lambeau Field earn serious Cave of Wonders from Aladdin-type treasure on home Packers games – we just tend to avoid them when there’s outdoor alternatives.
These establishments are one of the first to slurp from the economic faucet that opens when Green Bay hosts a playoff game. That downpour trickles throughout the city and surrounding areas, but those bars get to stick their face in there first thanks to their locations. The cold didn’t hurt, but it was probably a normal, lucrative, day simply because there was a game. The team lost. The city doesn’t.
The Chargers and Bengals trade touchdowns and Cincinnati leads by three after a largely forgettable first half. Waitresses impressively slice and dodge their way through the crowd. Somehow the trays full of drinks they’re carrying never get bumped or spilled, and we still don’t get how that happens. Food orders are given and mentally noted on the fly. 49ers fans raise their cellphones above the crowd and take panoramic shots of the bar and the coils and coils of fans wrapping around it, pushing to the outer walls. People shovel in fried food and drink drinks.
We try not to but during these times waiting for kickoff we always let our mind drift into What Ifs. What if they win? Then, what if the Saints upset the Seahawks in Seattle? That dreamy equation equals another NFC Championship game in Lambeau, and that, you’d think, could equal a trip to New York. We can’t help it, and even though Andy Dalton is making postseason whoopsies a regular occurrence again, and the Chargers are becoming the second No. 6 seed to advance this season, we’d rather be thinking about our own situation.
The Packers have to beat the 49ers one of these times. San Francisco can’t come into Lambeau Field and win in these historically-bad conditions. Aaron Rodgers is back. Eddie Lacy runs in any weather. We’re the Team Nobody Wants To Face In The Playoffs. (They are this team every year to us.) It’s regular to allow these thoughts because it’s wishful thinking. You can’t really follow sports without that – or you shouldn’t, maybe.
Sometimes teams that appeared to have no business doing significant damage in the postseason bottle some unexplainable cosmic energy and use it to fuel them to previously-unknown heights at the perfect time. Upsets and oddities happen. In the smallest of sample sizes – one game – everything’s usually a mountain, not a molehill. And with the second season’s anarchic blank slate, it’s regular to hope for something rare, or for that one defining performance you haven’t yet seen. You only need it to happen once, you think, and maybe you’re off to something bigger. Put one win in front of the next hypothetical.
But whoever you were as a team doesn’t get erased because the statistics reset. The Packers didn’t play their best in any phase of the game against San Francisco. This is where we remember that, for the standard that was this season’s insane series of twists and turns, this was also regular.
It was regular for the offense to not convert on as many touchdowns as they would have liked in the red zone, regular for the defense to fail in their most important chances to impact or finish a game. It was brutally unlucky all year, but it was regular for the Packers to suffer injury after injury up and down their roster. Regular for them to be forced to dip into the depth chart on the fly as they had to one last time Sunday – adding to the total of defensive losses Mike Neal and Sam Shields can only be considered the universe’s latest perverse attempt at black comedy. Hilarious, universe.
It was also regular for the Packers to not die easily or quietly. Not without making the proceedings heart-pounding and stomach-knotting. They hung a “Be Back in 15 Minutes” sign on the door offensively in the first quarter, but the defense held, and held, until Rodgers was able to find some rhythm. They went back-and-forth with one of the best, more complete and nasty teams in the NFL, a team built to take victories by way of street fighting. And still in the end the Packers were a few less of their own common mistakes and setbacks that became regular in 2013 away from potentially stealing a Wild Card win. It remains irritating to write, but, to us, it doesn’t sound wrong for it to end that way, either.
It does sound wrong for it to happen again at home. Stadium mystique or the general toughness of a venue for the visiting team can be overplayed, but it has to start with what happens on the field, not in the stands that surround. Green Bay is 1-2 in the postseason at Lambeau Field since 2008, and compared to what we want to believe it is, the Lambeau advantage is wounded. The crowd, doing what it could to not freeze in place – our lips only partially froze to our can of MGD once – was loud and saved its best for the biggest moments. The result was a loss, and the realization that home-field advantage starts with the action on that middle word. Lambeau Field, we believe, did its part.
A crushing 23-20 loss on the final play to conclude the season is never regular because it’s the real end. There’s only one ending per season, and they’re often not what you wanted. Yet the tailgating was its usual fun self, the atmosphere the way it only is on gamedays in Green Bay. The cold was not normal, though, and can go back to whatever Arctic Hell it came from anytime now. In all though, when the season was compressed into one game, the Packers of 2013 were more or less themselves against the 49ers – who were blunt-force good but beatable – when they needed to be a little bit better than their regular selves. The irregularity of the playoffs is that there are no more chances to clean up the mess.
Where do the Packers go from here? starts the process of cleaning it up. Even Super Bowl champions endure the questions. A flawed yet dangerous team that finished 8-8-1 but sees themselves as annual contenders will have plenty of them to answer. This will not be a normal offseason in Green Bay. A whopping 17 players become unrestricted free agents. Change is coming, because it always does in general and because it must be faced in many specific situations now.
Part of 2013’s problem was that regular, as in according to what and who the Packers had in their best-laid plans, wasn’t around enough. That warped into the situation they had to try making regular, and that new normal meant inconsistency, especially when viewed against what anyone saw when they looked at the team’s potential. Not that you need it, but to remind: the Packers were 8-7-1 going into the playoffs and people were serious about their chances if things broke right. They needed fixing, but through the ups and downs there remained a feeling that the Packers could turn it all into something special.
So regular became the busted-up old house with the cracked windows and pack of wolves living in the basement that could still be something, dammit, with the right color scheme and probably a professional who can deal with those wolves. In the end there were simply too many nagging problems never quite addressed as well as they needed to be. So now regular also becomes the eternal bounce-back that’ll happen to us as fans when this season fades further away, it’s the annual optimism of the draft, the deep-seated desire for Lambeau Field to get its menace back.
Regular can be enough. Even on Sunday, it was the communal gathering we’ve grown up with and expect and remain in awe of, the nervous energy in the stadium that comes with a close game, when it feels like the whole place could collapse into itself and no one would care. It’s the normal-yet-great feeling of What If and hope that are package deals with Packers games, especially at home. Regular isn’t always bad. But for now, regular is hoping that next season’s regular is healthier, and not as average, and not as cold when it ends.