When Mike Holmgren arrived in Green Bay, the San Francisco 49ers were the standard to which any NFC team was measured. Beating San Francisco in the 1995 announced the Green Bay Packers as legitimate players in the conference. After a Super Bowl in 2010, Mike McCarthy’s team fell behind a Bay Area bully, chasing the Jim Harbaugh 49ers fruitlessly until that core eventually fell apart. In Week 12 beatdown, Matt LaFleur’s green and gold again failed to measure up to the conference’s gold standard in 2019. After yet another impressive, dominant performance over the Packers in a 34-20 win in the NFC Championship Game, the 49ers cemented themselves as the team to beat in the conference, the team the Packers are chasing.
It’s clear despite the improvements from last year, Green Bay can’t hang with the NFL’s current elite.
Kyle Shanahan told his players not to “be stupid,” that this game would not be like the Week 12 demolition of the Packers 37-8. He was right: his team was only up 23-0 at halftime of that contest. Three touchdowns from Raheem Mostert and two ugly turnovers from Green Bay staked San Francisco to a 27-0 halftime lead.
Mostert, channeling the ghost of Colin Kaepernick, ran the ball 14 times for 160 yards and three scores in the first half alone as the 49ers took the Green Bay defense’s will to win and ground it to dust. Statistically, Mostert put together the best first-half on the ground in playoff history. Six straight runs punctuated a run-only drive to make it 17-0, and it from there it was all over but the crying.
All the discussions about the improved plan, the confidence Rodgers and Davante Adams projected about the rematch, vanished with the defense’s inability to contain anyone at the line of scrimmage and the offense’s lack of rhythm in any facet. Even the best drive of the first half, which featured run-pass balance room from the Packers’ two Aarons, ended in a fumble to scuttle a promising chance to cut the lead.
Players in the locker room this week talked about the need for poise and there must be some Bermuda Triangle effect when this team goes to California, because they haven’t shown any in three trips to the Pacific Time Zone this season. Execution, or lack thereof, once again damned this team to a slow start, exacerbating the obvious talent differential. The offense found a modicum of flow in the second half, but it was the definition of too little, too late.
An offseason of rebuilding gave way to a season of tough-minded wins and conversations about an “overrated” team who earned “ugly” victories. Even so, a 13-3 record landed the Packers a first-round bye and a home playoff game. They clearly improved defensively with an injection of free-agent talent, and LaFleur’s most immediate impact was on the culture, with a player-led leadership structure. He found a way to maximize Aaron Jones and convince Aaron Rodgers to play within the offensive structure rather than backyard ball.
Za’Darius and Preston Smith put together Pro Bowl caliber seasons, while Adrian Amos steadied the back end of the Packers defense. First-round pick Darnell Savage made the PFWA All-Rookie Team, but none of these upgrades could stop the 49ers from steamrolling them on the ground, a bug-a-boo all season. Trading some run-game success for passing defense makes mathematical sense, but giving up chunk plays on the ground causes the same problems it does through the air and this felt like 2012 all over again, only worse.
From 6-9-1 to 13-3, this Green Bay franchise turned the page on the disappointing end to the McCarthy era. Most didn’t expect the Packers to compete for a Super Bowl this season, with consensus projections putting them in the 9 or 10-win discussion and on the fringe of playoff contention. A run to the NFC Championship Game puts the Packers ahead of schedule, but they’re clearly still behind, at least when it comes to hanging with the best in the league.
They’ve been out-coached in each 49ers game this season, which could be cause to wonder about Mike Pettine’s job. A push from the front office resulted in a cleaning house of the McCarthy coaching staff, with Pettine a holdover. This kind of dominating performance deploying such an an anachronistic style raises eye brows, though it’s hardly all on Pettine. Still, could someone like Wade Phillips pique their interest, or perhaps pluck someone off the staff of Robert Saleh, a dear friend to LaFleur? After all, there’s giving up the run to stop the pass, and there’s getting absolutely demolished in the trenches, allowing 34 points when the opposing quarterback attempts only six passes at one point.
With money to spend and a receiver-rich draft, a winning season only amplifies pressure on the Packers to supplement the talent on this roster to help Rodgers, who falls to 0-3 against his hometown 49ers in the playoffs. Rodgers no longer conjures magic the way he used to, inciting awe and wonder. We saw against the Seahawks though — he’s still able to come through in big moments with clutch throws and performances. His touchdown to Jace Sternberger in the fourth quarter passed Brett Favre for most in team history and he finished 31-39 for 326 yards, and two touchdowns.
It wasn’t like Rodgers played particularly poorly in this game, although each of the first-half turnovers fell, at least in part, at his feet, as did the game-ending pick to seal it. Green Bay’s limited personnel ran into a speedy, ultra-athletic group with the ability to mitigate big plays and still rush the passer. Much like many of the playoff losses in the Rodgers era, the defensive dam burst, but unlike Januarys past, the offense couldn’t even come close to putting the Packers in the mix until too late.
A boat race by this 49ers team from a squad most thought was a middling NFC team doesn’t tarnish this season, but rather serves as a reminder how how much further down the road they must travel in an effort to re-establish their place among contenders.
Though it may not feel like it after such a lackluster performance, this is the start of something for the Packers. LaFleur’s cultural impact warrants attention, as down the job Brian Gutekunst executed in buoying the roster talent over the spring. But Rodgers won’t be under center forever. Still, he’s the only quarterback in the conference to go to three NFC Championship Games since 2014 and he still possesses the juice to lead a Super Bowl contender. Unfortunately for the Packers, they don’t have a 53-man roster to complete that contender. And if there’s any word to describe their opponent in Santa Clara on Sunday, that’s it: Complete.
The 1990s Packers made the necessary additions to get into the upper-echelon with the 49ers, while the 2010s group came up short. Two things are clear after Sunday in Northern California: this is the team to beat in the NFC, and the Packers aren’t yet ready to challenge them.