SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- This was different from Atlanta, different from Seattle. Not the result, of course. It was still another NFC Championship Game loss that prevented the Green Bay Packers from a second Super Bowl appearance in the illustrious yet unfinished career of Aaron Rodgers.
What was different, however, was the feeling when it was over.
Or at least the vibe that Rodgers gave off.
The fallout from the 2014 NFC title game against the Seahawks was all about the collapse, the blown double-digit lead in the fourth quarter.
The aftermath of the 2016 conference championship game against the Falcons felt like a last gasp for that group. Even right tackle Bryan Bulaga, one of the few remaining members of the 2010 Super Bowl-winning team, admitted last week that the 2016 team "ran out of gas."
Sure enough, within two seasons, the general manager (Ted Thompson) and the head coach (Mike McCarthy) were ushered out.
The 2019 journey to the brink of greatness -- overhauled by team president Mark Murphy, buoyed by second-year general manager Brian Gutekunst's big splash into free agency last March and invigorated by rookie head coach Matt LaFleur -- left most Packers, Rodgers chief among them, far less downtrodden. Even after a 37-20 loss to the Super Bowl-bound San Francisco 49ers in a game that didn't feel that close.
"It's a lot different feel," Rodgers said Sunday night. "I remember in those moments the emotion compared to this. I feel really confident in Brian and the job that he's done and his staff. They did go all-in -- as much as they could -- this year and the pieces that they brought in. I'm confident that he's going to continue to add to this squad. So, that part is very exciting. It is a lot different feel than three years ago."
The blame for Sunday night's loss falls largely on the defense and its inability to stop the one thing that 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan didn't bother to disguise: the desire to run the ball. But Gutekunst and LaFleur have more pieces on the defensive side of the ball already in place thanks in large part to last March's free-agent crop of Adrian Amos, Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith.
Yes, Gutekunst will have to find some help at inside linebacker, where Blake Martinez is a free agent who doesn't appear high on the Packers' priority list.
But this offseason he can't neglect Rodgers after he added only two players who touch the football -- third-round tight end Jace Sternberger and sixth-round running back Dexter Williams -- in either the last draft or free-agent period.
When asked if the Packers needed another influx of player additions, Rodgers said: "Nobody would mind."
Depending on your choice of measuring sticks, the Packers barely improved on offense from their 6-9-1 season in 2018 to 13-3 in 2019. They finished 18th in yards (a drop of six spots), 15th in rushing offense (a jump of seven spots) and 17th in passing offense (a drop of eight spots).
In touchdown machine Aaron Jones and the steady Jamaal Williams, the Packers have two running backs capable of doing what LaFleur wants in his play-action offense. In Davante Adams, Rodgers has a target as reliable and dynamic as anyone he's had in his career, Jordy Nelson included.
But Rodgers, 36, needs more.
Supposed deep-threat receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling disappeared after his lone 100-yard game of the season in Week 7 against the Raiders. Geronimo Allison dropped far too many passes, and Jake Kumerow never found a consistent role. The best hope among the returning crop of receivers is Allen Lazard, who didn't even make the roster coming out of training camp.
But if the offense is to be upgraded, the undrafted Lazard probably needs to be their No. 4 or 5 option -- not No. 2.
"I'm very thankful for the position I'm in, and I know that there's still a lot more work to put in," said Lazard, who caught three passes for 36 yards against the 49ers. "We're a very talented team obviously and we need to be back here next year."
But they're not as talented as the 49ers, it would appear. The NFC Championship Game was barely more competitive than the Packers' 37-8 loss here in November.
The Packers went 13-3 and won a divisional-round playoff game with arguably the worst group of receivers Rodgers has ever played with in Green Bay. They haven't used a first-round pick on a receiver since Javon Walker in 2002. That might need to change unless Gutekunst finds one (or more) in free agency.
He's not as flush with cap space (a little more than $28 million at this point) as he was last offseason, although he will pick up more room ($8 million in cap savings) when he inevitably moves on from tight end Jimmy Graham.
"It's building the roster through the draft and free agency, us coming in and growing together as a team, finding that cohesiveness, building that family, mastering our offense, finding our identity and then continuing that on offense, defense and special teams," All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari said.
"To do what we did, it's very special, but then again it's not enough. I have no idea how f---ing much longer I'm going to be playing, and I want to go to the damn Super Bowl."
Additions to the roster won't be the only thing different. Rodgers said there's much more of LaFleur's offense that they haven't shown yet.
"We really haven't gotten into the tempo stuff at all," Rodgers said. "Just very little with that. I think that's a product of personnel and the way that installation went. The scheme is there. The scheme and what Matt and his staff put together every week was fantastic.
"The execution and the moving pieces will continue to improve. Like I said, the window's open, and I think we're going to be on the right side of one of these real soon."
As much as Rodgers raved about the leadership in the locker room both on Sunday and throughout the season, he seems just as confident in the management team.
"It's Brian and his staff and it's Matt LaFleur," Rodgers said. "What he's done with his own staff is fantastic. It's the right kind of guys to lead. He values that leadership aspect, and I know Brian does as well.
"And allowing Matt to put it all together and then to empower the guys, that's what made this special is that it was a player-led team, it was a close-knit group and the pieces are in place. Last year, I felt like we really needed to reload -- obviously, we were 6-9-1. Now, it's just adding to and keeping the framework of the leadership in place. I feel good about our team moving forward and our organization."