Even Colin Kaepernick running roughshod over a helpless Dom Capers defense in the playoffs never reached true embarrassment for the Green Bay Packers. Sunday night’s anemic 37-8 loss took that level of domination and elevated it, evincing a familiar story when the Packers played little brother to the San Francisco 49ers. Each team was technically an NFC contender, but Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy couldn’t find answers to Kaepernick, Jim Harbaugh and a punishing defensive front. Rodgers may be the only player left in the tale, but the plot endured, the Packers running behind their nemesis desperate to catch up.
Despite an 8-2 record coming in, Sunday night’s performance showed the Packers can’t consider themselves in the class with the 9-1 49ers, despite the similar records. Much like the Kaepernick days, each team must be considered contenders, but one team clearly stands above the other.
After the game, Matt LaFleur put the onus on his shoulders, saying he was disappointed in himself.
“We got out-coached and outplayed. Bottom line,” LaFleur said, visibly dejected in the post-game press conference.
“We gotta man up, look at ourselves critically. We gotta be honest with ourselves. It wasn’t nearly good enough.”
A fumble from the two-time MVP set the tone in a dispiriting, discombobulated, and ultimately disappointing performance. Green Bay trailed 23-0 at halftime with Rodgers sitting a paltry 10/20 for 41 yards and that giveaway with the offense managing 60 yards total. He struggled to get comfortable in the pocket with the suffocating 49ers defense closing in around him like villains in a horror movie even without prized offseason addition Dee Ford due to injury. Rodgers’ night ended with a baseball cap on, accruing 104 yards on 33 attempts, and averaging the worst per-yard attempt mark of his storied career.
Rodgers didn’t mince words after the game.
“Ultimately tonight came down to execution and we were pretty bad on offense,” Rodgers said, summing it up neatly.
“We had a lot of plays on the call sheets we liked and get off. We were just behind the sticks all night.”
To wit, the Packers converted just one of 15 third-down attempts, and it came with the game already essentially decided.
Nick Bosa led an unrelenting 49ers pass rush that sacked Rodgers five times, hurrying him six more. Bryan Bulaga left the game early with a knee injury and even before that Rodgers never found a groove. Receivers couldn’t shake from from Richard Sherman and a defensive coordinated by trendy 2020 head coaching candidate Robert Saleh, on pace to be the best passing defense by yards allowed per game since 1982.
LaFleur’s extra week of preparation yielded little of tangible value coming off the bye. This looked like the same team that went to Los Angeles and came out flat, without rhythm and seemingly without a plan. Pre-snap penalties persist, scuttling promising possessions or stalling attempts to create any promise. To be sure, a number of penalties that set the Packers back, including an absurd taunting penalty on Davante Adams on the first series, can be classified as dubious at best, but the theme of sloppy, imprecise play can’t be characterized as an aberration at this point.
“We talked about discipline going into this game. We had a lot of penalties. That’s stuff we can control,” LaFleur said, referencing the 50 yards in penalties.
“We’ve gotta be critical of ourselves. Every one of us. Coaches, players, everybody involved and figure out why this happened to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Defensively, the Packers played well enough in the first half despite the daunting deficit. They allowed a late touchdown to extend the lead to 20-0, but the Rodgers fumble resulted in a gift-wrapped Tevin Coleman score and the lack of offensive flow created short fields for the 49ers as J.K. Scott’s punting troubles provided advantageous field position for San Francisco.
Coming into the game, the Packers appeared to have a handful of clear and critical advantages: Aaron Rodgers in a big game vs. a defense with limited experience in one, an elite pass-blocking offensive line, and a pass rush that could give Jimmy Garoppolo trouble. One of those proved true, as Za’Darius Smith pulverized rookie Justin Skule so thoroughly, Kyle Shanahan benched him in the second quarter. Green Bay stiffened in the red zone and forced field goals when they needed them.
The Packers would be just fine never going to California again. But after Sunday night, Green Bay will likely have to head back to the Bay if it wants to have a chance at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. Two trips to the Golden State this season yielded two drubbings in which the Packers looked out-coached and out-classed. Earlier in the week, Aaron Rodgers said the team would have to beat the 49ers in San Francisco at least once, so they might as well do it this week. They couldn’t.
Only one game remains for the Packers against a team with a winning record, opening up a path for the Packers to finish 12-4 or even 13-3. Wins over the Vikings and Cowboys hint at a team capable of competing with the stalwarts in the NFC playoffs. After all, the Saints just lost to a sputtering Falcons team and the 49ers face a brutal schedule to close. There’s still a chance the Packers could win the division, Seattle closes strong to take the division, and the Packers host San Francisco in the playoffs. On the other hand, the Packers risk falling to the wild card if the Vikings win out, and it’s all moot if this team doesn’t get myriad issues sorted.
Mike Pettine’s group played capably in the first half, but gave up a pair of big plays to break the game open, including a 61-yard touchdown to George Kittle after the Packers cut the lead to 23-8. Kevin King’s play, at a certain point, must lead to questions about who deserves to be starting opposite Jaire Alexander and how this team best fits together. The pass rush works, but not much else does right now for Pettine’s side of the ball.
LaFleur and Rodgers can’t shirk their part in this. In losses to the Eagles and 49ers, sloppy penalties and turnovers provided easy opportunities for opponents. Disciplined defenses who can rush with four like the Chargers and 49ers will give most teams problems, but the Packers haven’t showed anything resembling a plan to attack it. The extra time didn’t lead to interesting wrinkles, creative personnel deployment, or anything resembling an injection of life. In fact, the opposite manifested itself on Sunday.
The Packers showed up lifeless, failing to match the intensity of the upstart 49ers, a team that hadn’t made the playoffs in six seasons and won just four games in 2018. It’s not proof they can’t hang with the big boys in the NFC, but no one can be convinced they will come January, not with the defense underwhelming dating back to Week 4. Early-down success has given way to stagnation and three-and-outs. The big plays melted away. This isn’t the team we saw go up 21-0 on the Vikings or 31-3 on the road in Dallas.
That team didn’t get on the plane to San Francisco and the Packers need to find that team in a hurry if they want to capitalize on an 8-3 record while Rodgers is still Rodgers. Even with the loss, Green Bay has plenty of avenues to a first-round bye and advantageous playoff seeding. Luckily for them, any trips to California won’t come until at last 2020.