The team the Green Bay Packers played Thursday more closely resembled the Barcelona Dragons than the 2019 San Francisco 49ers, a team that demolished a resurgent 13-3 Packers squad twice last season. It wasn’t what a win would mean for the morale of the team or what it would indicate about its quality, but rather what a loss would portend and what it would say about the chasm between these two teams. The Packers didn’t need to win against the 49ers’ C-squad for playoff standing so much as mental health. A 34-17 win won’t exorcise any demons, but perhaps a return to spiritual center against a Kyle Shanahan-coached team playing boogeyman to former apprentice Matt LaFleur’s crew.
Before the Packers even got the chance, the coronavirus pandemic posed a serious threat to the game being played. Until Thursday morning, COVID-19 tests held the matchup hostage, leading to questions about whether Green Bay flying out was prudent decision given the precarious state of the game.
On Monday, A.J. Dillon tested posted for COVID-19, keeping Dillon out for this matchup along with Jamaal Williams and Kamal Martin, whom the NFL deemed “high-risk” contacts. Meanwhile, the 49ers faced COVID-related agita of their own with Kendrick Bourne testing positive, resulting in high-risk contacts Trent Williams, Brandon Aiyuk, and Deebo Samuel out of the game, the last of whom would already have missed Week 9 with a hamstring injury.
Ruling out that group of plays further decimated an already wiped out squad, one that looked nothing like the dominating, pulverizing 49ers squad from a year ago. In fact, not a single offensive player who touched the ball in Janunary’s NFC Championship Game suited up for San Francisco.
Still, Packers fans worried the coaching matchup favored the 49ers to the point it might not matter. Shanahan would put Mike Pettine in the corner with a dunce cap on, putting together the kind of impressive offensive performance he masterminded with C.J. Beathard back in 2018 thanks to a run game famous for making no-name players stars, and a play-action game to rival anything his father put together.
Starting fast would help take away those weapons, and the Packers made quick work of that to-do list item, driving down on the opening drive to score the eighth consecutive opening drive points of the year, the only team in the NFL to accomplish such a feat. The touchdown came on a beautiful throw-and-catch from Aaron Rodgers to Davante Adams on a deep sideline route where Adams contorted his body to the sideline.
Green Bay often played too tentatively last season against the 49ers, unwilling to challenge Robert Salah’s defense deep, but without Dee Ford or Nick Bosa who were out with injuries, LaFleur took judicious shots and it paid off.
After an interception by Raven Greene coming off a pressure by Preston Smith, Rodgers found Marcedes Lewis wide open on a beautiful play-action fake near the goal line to extend the lead to 14-3. Then, the deep ball burned the makeshift 49ers secondary once again, with a beautiful 52-yard bomb to Marquez Valdes-Scantling who broke wide open on a circle post. That score made up for an earlier drop on third down to scuttle a drive, but LaFleur and Rodgers went back to him for the big play with few other options. A second-reaction touchdown to a sliding MVS extended the lead to 28-3, putting the game on ice.
Starting fast tops every coach’s game plan, but Green Bay hadn’t been able to pull it off last season in the sunshine state. The Packers didn’t score a single point in in the first half of their three games in California in 2019, losing the battle by a preposterous 59-0 in those games. One could forgive fans for wondering if the border from Nevada created some sort of Bermuda Triangle effect for this Packers offense, but Rodgers’ three first-half touchdowns and a 21-3 lead put to rest such fears.
After a dispiriting performance against Dalvin Cook and the Vikings in which the Green Bay defense allowed Cook to set franchise records, Pettine’s defense faced the crosshairs more acutely than anyone under the eerie lights of an empty stadium in Santa Clara. Sometimes the answer isn’t anything fancy from the defensive coordinator, it’s as simple as the best players must be better.
That’s the version of the Packers defense that boarded the plane from Austin Straubel. With the Packers leading 7-3, a Preston Smith pressure turned into Raven Greene interception to set up the second score. In the first half, 49ers had 5 possessions, 3 three-and-outs and a pick, plus a dropped pick by Darnell Savage.
Za’Darius Smith added a sack-fumble in the second half, Rashan Gary played with his hair on fire, and the cornerstone players put together cornerstone performances for the first time this season. A coach’s calls look much better than the stars play like it.
Green Bay’s run fits could improve and more reps from players like Krys Barnes and the rookie Martin have a chance to tighten up the ground game defense for Pettine’s group, but Rodgers’ right arm looks like the best chance to keep teams from pounding the rock all night. If they’re going to score consistently, even beautiful offensive minds like Shanahan can’t stay patient with the ground game.
Aaron Jones’ return from a calf injury, paired with Rodgers and Adams, gives the Packers as good a trio as any in the league, even against a well-coached 49ers defense. Jones featured on the opening drive, while Adams flourished, becoming the first player since Randy Moss in 2007 to post 600 receiving yards with 8 receiving touchdowns over his first 6 games in a season. If those guys are out there, MVS providing a 50-yard splash play and two scores makes the Packers nearly unstoppable.
Winning a game against an XFL team won’t prove the Packers’ losses to the 49ers last year were a fluke nor demonstrate the requisite mettle to play with the top contenders in the NFC for 2020. Right now, San Francisco can’t claim to be one of those. But as the FOX broadcast mentioned, the pressure sat on the Packers shoulders, the healthier and more talented team, to demonstrate they weren’t institutional disadvantaged by a perceived coach that plagued the matchup last season.
NFL teams, especially ones who fancy themselves Super Bowl caliber, don’t entertain moral victories. No doubt Green Bay players and coaches didn’t view this game like fans did, fearing the monster under their bed. If there had been any question about this team’s mental toughness or ability to take a punch in the mouth and recover, they showed some moxie Thursday night down some key players against a team that had its number last season. LaFleur had them ready to play hard, play sharp, and play unafraid.
After an impressive performance in their 2019 house of horrors, the Packers leave California 6-2, having added a fifth loss to the 49ers’ ledger and doing their part to avoid another postseason matchup. The 2019 San Francisco offense didn’t show up, but luckily either did the 2020 Packers defense — the 2019 version did, at least the one who played non-California teams last season. Teams might not care about moral victories, but what about spiritual ones? Blowout wins are good for the soul.