SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The Green Bay Packers simply were not the better team.
There can be any number of ways to dissect the Packers’ 37-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday night’s NFC championship game. It’s easy to overthink things. Emotions sometimes cloud judgment.
Consider this: The Packers played 120 minutes against the 49ers in the past eight weeks. They were outscored in those games 74-28. The halftime scores were a combined 50-0.
These last 60 minutes will sting the franchise, because for the third time in six seasons, the Packers fell just 60 minutes from the Super Bowl. It has become a repetitive theme, one the franchise will only find itself under more pressure to break as quarterback Aaron Rodgers continues to age. For his career, Rodgers is now 1-3 in NFC championship games, all on the road.
But any frustration over what unfolded Sunday night near San Francisco should be placed in the proper context. The simple reality is these Packers were not better than those 49ers this season. Not by a long shot.
"We knew they were going to try to run the football, and they absolutely got after us in the run game," Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. "But one thing I can say about our team, these guys are a bunch of fighters, and you don't always get that when you're down 27-0. These guys kept battling, and I can't tell you how much that means to myself, our staff ... these guys care about one another. That's why it hurts so bad, because we've accomplished a lot of great things this season and ultimately, at the end of the year only one team is going to be happy."
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers expressed confidence that the Packers would be strong again next season.
"The window is open for us, and I think we're going to be on the right side of one of these soon," said Rodgers, citing the talent acquisition of general manager Brian Gutekunst and the leadership of LaFleur.
Rodgers said this season, in which the Packers won the NFC North with a 13-3 record, will always be special to him because football "became fun again."
"I wouldn't say this was our most talented team, but neither was 2010 (when the Packers won the Super Bowl)," Rodgers said. "We just found a way. And we found a way a lot this year."
Here are five reasons takeaways from the loss:
49ers were faster
It’s hard to adequately describe how overmatched the Packers' run defense was against 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan’s outside-zone scheme. You can start with the numbers, and they are overwhelming. The 49ers rushed 42 times for 285 yards. 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw just eight passes. He had just 77 passing yards. Most impressive, the 49ers ran the football like they did with the Packers living in their base defense, with three defensive linemen and two traditional inside linebackers. In other words, Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine knew what was coming. His group just couldn’t stop it.
Packers fall flat on third down
At one point, the Packers had failed to convert their first 17 third-down opportunities with Rodgers on the field against the 49ers this season. They technically converted 1-of-15 third downs against the 49ers in their November matchup, but they were 0-for-13 with Rodgers at quarterback. Then they failed to convert their first four third downs Sunday night, until a 6-yard completion from Rodgers to running back Aaron Jones on third-and-4 in the second half. On the season, the Packers finished 3-of-22 on third down with Rodgers against the 49ers. Good luck sustaining a drive when converting third down is like scaling Everest.
Packers need more weapons
It’s been a season-long problem, one the Packers never were going to fix until the offseason, but their lack of playmakers at the skill position hurt against Sunday. Davante Adams had just one reception in the first half, a big reason the Packers offense got little production. Rodgers was efficient, completing 9-of-12 in the opening half, but he had just 64 yards. That’s 5.33 yards per pass. Adams exploded in the second half, finishing the game with eight receptions for 122 yards (including a season-best 65-yard catch that set up a TD). That helped bump Rodgers’ final line to 31-of-39 for 326 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions and a 97.2 rating. Still, focus on that first half. When the 49ers took Adams out of the game, the Packers had nobody else step up. It’s been a problem all year, one general manager Brian Gutekunst will need to fix this spring.
49ers have backfield depth
The Packers’ need for more playmakers isn’t confined to the pass game. Aaron Jones, with another pair of touchdowns, had a phenomenal season. He finished with 23 touchdowns in 18 games, but he’s just one player. The 49ers have a triumvirate in their backfield that gives Shanahan options. Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Matt Bredia have led the 49ers in rushing during a game this season, and each has more than 500 yards. It was Mostert who had the game of his life, finishing with 220 yards and four touchdowns on 29 carries, but the 49ers have options. That was especially important when Coleman left the game in the first half because of a shoulder injury. Imagine what would happen to the Packers run game if Jones left with injury. Building depth here is an area that can’t be overlooked in the offseason.
Packers collapse in first half
In the first of their now three straight NFC title-game losses, the Packers held a 16-0 halftime lead against the Seattle Seahawks. They collapsed in the final five minutes of that game. Since then, their collapse has come much earlier. The Packers’ 27-0 halftime deficit Sunday night was reminiscent of their first matchup this season against the 49ers, when they trailed 23-0. But it also was eerily similar to the last time they were on this stage. The Packers trailed 24-0 at halftime against the Atlanta Falcons in the 2016 NFC championship game. So in their past two NFC title-game appearances, they’ve trailed at halftime a combined 51-0. Hard to go to the Super Bowl that way.