SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The Green Bay Packers did everything different this time. Coach Matt LaFleur consulted with his training staff, his conditioning staff, his team’s nutritionist. Determined not to repeat the letdown from their last West Coast trip, the Packers changed their travel plans. This time, they went west a day later.
Turned out, none of the adaptable planning mattered much. Maybe the Packers’ issue wasn’t the travel plans, but the destination.
For the second time this November, the Packers failed to show up to a game on the West Coast. Their 37-8 loss Sunday night at the San Francisco 49ers was much more damning than the blowout defeat at the Los Angeles Chargers earlier this month. Because this game couldn’t be shrugged off as a fluke. This struck directly at the Packers’ credibility as an NFC title contender.
"I'm disappointed with myself, with how we got outcoached and we got outplayed, bottom line," LaFleur said. "It's unacceptable and we gotta look at ourselves and there's a lot of correct."
The loss not only kept the Packers (8-3) behind the 49ers (10-1), but also dropped them behind the New Orleans Saints (9-2) and Seattle Seahawks (9-2) in terms of record. The Packers also fell into a first-place tie with the Minnesota Vikings (8-3) in the NFC North. Though the Packers hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Vikings because of their Week 2 win at Lambeau Field, they’ll face the Vikings again — this time at Minnesota — in Week 16.
Here are five observations from Sunday night’s meltdown:
1. What was that? No matter how good the 49ers' defense is — and it is very, very good — this isn’t the type of offense you want to run after having two weeks to prepare. The Packers had fewer yards than plays in the first quarter. They had 60 yards in the first half. They needed a couple of 49ers penalties to find the end zone in the third quarter. Worst of all, their first drive of the game ended with an Aaron Rodgers fumble that gave the 49ers possession at Green Bay’s 2-yard line. That the Packers couldn’t do more given their significant preparation advantage was alarming. Rodgers, harried all night by the 49ers' pass rush, finished 20-for-33 for a mere 104 yards (75.8 passer rating). He gave way to backup Tim Boyle in the blowout's final minutes.
"Ultimately tonight came down to execution and we were pretty bad on offense," Rodgers said.
2. Behind schedule: A season-long epidemic for the Packers' offense has been falling behind schedule on down and distance, setting up unmanageable third downs. So it was again Sunday night. LaFleur dearly wanted to stay committed to the run game, but the 49ers' defensive front kept whipping the Packers' offensive line, so it came at a cost. The Packers finished 1-for-15 on third down with 12 of them third-and-7 or longer. It’s hard to sustain drives when falling behind schedule that consistently.
3. Going the wrong way: The Packers had two punt returns, which was notable since they entered Sunday night with just seven. That was the fewest in the NFL and, to nobody’s surprise, their minus-8 punt return yards on the season were also the fewest. Things got worse Sunday. The Packers lost 1 yard on their first return and lost 2 yards on their second, dropping their season total to an unfathomable minus-11 punt return yards. (Only one of their nine punt return yards all season gained any yardage, and even that one, in the opener, gained only one.) Usually, it’s a good thing when a defense forces a punt. For the Packers, it’s downright terrifying.
4. Adams finds end zone: Davante Adams found the end zone for the first time this season, a 2-yard reception. Adams’ catch came on a jet shovel pass — it looked more like a run — that LaFleur occasionally calls, though not always for Adams. It might be the type of creativity the Packers need to show more often with their top receiver. Defenses are clearly geared toward removing Adams from the game (he had just 43 yards on seven catches), not needing to give much credence to the rest of the Packers’ receiving core. Somehow, they need Adams to be a factor anyway. Those type of quick-hitting plays, designed to let Adams simply create with the ball in his hands, might become more common.
5. Double-digit twins: Preston Smith got his double digits for sacks in the Packers’ win over the Carolina Panthers before the bye. Za’Darius Smith joined him Sunday night. Za’Darius Smith was one of the Packers' very few bright spots, recording 1.5 sacks. That gave him 10 on the season, a new career high. He shared a sack with Preston Smith, who has 10.5 this season. The Packers had three sacks but gave up five to the relentless 49ers pass rush.