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The Packers Look Like a Team Exposed

Green Bay had the appearance of a Super Bowl contender in the first half of the season, but an ugly loss to the 49ers—and another to the Chargers a few weeks back—has put their résumé in question. Can this team get out of its funk?

Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

When the Packers inexplicably lost by 15 points to the Chargers three weeks ago, quarterback Aaron Rodgers said it would be an important turning point for the team.

“This is a good slice of humble pie for us,” Rodgers said after Green Bay’s worst game of the season. “I think this will be a good thing for us.”

If that game was humble pie, then the team got served an early Thanksgiving dinner on Sunday Night Football this week. The 49ers cooked the Packers in a 37-8 walloping. Green Bay’s defense allowed the most points the unit has given up all season, Rodgers had one of the worst games of his career, and head coach Matt LaFleur was embarrassed by his little brother in front of his entire family. In a top-heavy NFC, this game suggested the Packers are stuck in between pretender and Super Bowl contender.

Rodgers completed just 20 of 33 passes for 104 yards, the lowest yards per pass attempt (3.2) of his career in any game he started. Factor in that Rodgers was sacked five times for a loss of 38 yards, and the Packers gained just 66 yards on his 38 dropbacks (1.7 yards per dropback). By the time Green Bay pulled Rodgers with just over four minutes remaining, the Packers offense had gained just 138 yards on 59 plays. The Packers converted just one of 15 third downs, and that one came on their final drive when Tim Boyle was in at quarterback.

It was a disaster almost from the opening whistle. The 49ers set the tone of the game just two minutes into the game when linebacker Fred Warner stripsacked Rodgers and defensive end (and Defensive Rookie of the Year favorite) Nick Bosa scooped it up and returned the ball to the 2-yard line. Running back Tevin Coleman scored a touchdown on the next play.

The game got better for the Packers from that point on, but barely. Here are the endings of the Packers’ drives in the first half, including that fumble.

  1. Stripsack (negative-13 yards gained)
  2. Three-and-out (6 yards)
  3. Three-and-out (1 yard)
  4. Three-and-out (negative-3 yards)
  5. Turnover on Downs (52 yards)
  6. Six-and-out (zero yards gained, there were penalties, it was complicated)
  7. Three-and-out (4 yards)
  8. Three-and-out (negative-7 yards)

The 49ers defense didn’t just outplay the Packers. They repudiated what Rodgers tries to do. He loves to hold onto the ball and look for long passes, but that’s a difficult strategy against a defense that leads the league in pressure rate and sacks (it became even harder when right tackle Bryan Bulaga was ruled out of the game with a knee injury suffered in the first quarter). Entering the game, the 49ers were the only team to allow fewer than two 20-plus yard passes per game, and Rodgers was averaging more than five such throws per game. On Sunday, Rodgers didn’t get one. His longest throw was to running back Jamaal Williams, who caught a desperation fourth-down toss 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage and ran 20 yards after the catch. Even Rodgers’s touchdown “pass” came on an end-around to Davante Adams that technically counts as a catch because Rodgers flicked it into the air instead of sticking it in Adams’s gut.

An embarrassing first half for Rodgers and LaFleur was compounded by the coach saying at halftime that the team needed to stick to the game plan. It probably needed some adjustments, starting with going no-huddle (or at least not meandering in the huddle every play). The Packers came out in the third quarter with a 13-play, 65-yard drive that ended on the above touchdown to Adams, but Green Bay burned more than eight minutes of clock on the drive. The Packers got only one more drive before pulling Rodgers because there was no more time for a comeback. It was the same nonchalant clock management that allowed the 49ers to sneak in a field goal before halftime to make the game 23-0 instead of 20-0. The clock management was an egregious failure by LaFleur in this game.

LaFleur’s game plan entering this contest was bad, but the failure to adjust was even more concerning. His former college roommate and current 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh destroyed his offense. His former boss Kyle Shanahan destroyed his defense.

The 49ers showed the level of aggressiveness the Packers would have been wise to play with. Take this George Kittle touchdown that iced the game, which came just two plays after the Packers’ eight-minute scoring drive.

Kittle was marvelous in his first game back from an ankle injury that kept him out for most of November. The star tight end had six catches for 129 yards and the 61-yard touchdown on the deep play-action shot from a three-tight-end set. In addition to Kittle, receiver Deebo Samuel shredded the Packers for a 42-yard touchdown.

If those touchdowns look easy, it’s because this is Shanahan’s world, and Jimmy Garoppolo is just living in it. The 49ers look like all-world contenders when they get a big lead early, which plays right into their strengths of running with heavy sets on offense and rushing the passer on defense.

San Francisco’s next two games are against the Ravens and Saints. The 49ers look as sterling as their 10-1 record suggests, and they are about to take on the best of the best to prove it.

The Packers, meanwhile, are in the exact opposite situation. Just as they look as bad as they have all year, they get two cakewalk games against the Giants and Washington in the next two weeks. Barring disaster, they’ll coast to two wins, taking them to 10-3 for their final three games against the Bears, Vikings, and Lions. Minnesota has the same record as Green Bay but lost their first matchup, so the Packers look fairly safe to win the NFC North if they win that Vikings game on Monday Night Football on December 23. That’s almost a full month away—plenty of time to work off the calories from all the humble pie they ate on Sunday.