Packers linebacker Clay Matthews and running back Eddie Lacy discuss the team's 17-3 victory over the 49ers. (Oct. 4, 2015)
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The last time the Green Bay Packers started 4-0 and had this kind of vibe was 2011.
You remember 2011. Coming off a Super Bowl win the Packers were the NFL's dominant team in the regular season, won their first 13 games and finished 15-1, but saw it all go for naught when a hot New York Giants team that matched up well knocked them out of the playoffs.
At 4-0 now after their 17-3 win over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday at Levi's Stadium, the Packers again are playing like the early Super Bowl favorites that Las Vegas has pegged them.
But there's a notable difference between the '11 Packers and now.
In '11 they were a passing juggernaut that scored the third-most points in league history and averaged 37 points in the first four games. They finished the season scoring an average of 12.6 points more than their opponents per game.
This year they're not as explosive — their 17 points in beating the 49ers on Sunday is proof of that — and they're not winning in blowouts. But there's a good argument that even though they're not as dominant as in '11, they'll be a tougher matchup in the playoffs as long as halfback Eddie Lacy (90 yards rushing and a 5.0-yard average per carry Sunday) is healthy.
Remember, the Giants won that divisional-round game at Lambeau Field in the '11 season because they had a good four-man pass rush and didn't have to honor the run, which meant they could keep both safeties back in coverage.
"We're a different identity team than we were back in 2011," right guard T.J. Lang said. "I don't think we really had much of a run game back then, and this year we've rushed for over 120 yards each of our four games. That's something that kind of changed with our identity there, being more balanced on offense."
So, yeah, the Packers have to be happy with how they're playing at the quarter post of the 2015 season. Their quarterback has been exceptional, and his command over every facet of the game gives off the feeling that whenever they have to have a score, they probably will get it.
And though they're never going to say too much publicly about how good they think they are, their actions tell the story. McCarthy always has preferred the mentality of a favorite rather than an underdog, and the Packers' trip to San Francisco was another sign of that.
Think this was a coincidence? The Packers stayed at the same San Jose hotel that will serve as the NFC champion's headquarters for the week leading up to the Super Bowl.
When asked after Sunday's win whether his team has another gear, McCarthy said: "Oh, hell yeah. We haven't even gotten started. I mean, this is Week 4 in the NFL."
The Packers are 4-0 for the 12th time in franchise history. One of those was in 1919, before they'd joined the NFL, and for whatever it's worth, they won league championships in seven of the 10 others.
McCarthy made the fast start a point of emphasis all offseason after opening 1-2 the last three years, and he got it. It doesn't come close to guaranteeing anything — the last three times they started 4-0 they made the playoffs but didn't advance to the Super Bowl. What always matters most is performance in January.
"I don't know if that means much right now," Lang said of the 4-0 start, "but it will at the end of the season winning these four games. It means we're building confidence. We've had to fight, we've had to win in some different ways this year."
The Packers no doubt took great satisfaction in the way they beat the 49ers, whose quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, had been the difference in the teams' last three meetings, including two crushing playoff losses.
Kaepernick looked like the ultimate dual-threat quarterback in those games, but on Sunday he looked like a completely different player, inferior in every way. He had a couple good read-option runs but overall didn't change the game with his running or make any big plays (his long run was for 12 yards).
And as a passer he was so scattershot he looked like Packers rookie Brett Hundley in the first week of training camp. Only Kaepernick is a fifth-year pro who's been the 49ers' starter since halfway through the 2012 season, whereas Hundley is a fifth-round draft pick who by the end of camp was throwing far better than what Kaepernick showed on Sunday.
Kaepernick's line — 55.4 rating, 52 percent completion rate (13-for-25), 160 passing yards and six sacks — said everything about his play, which has been in decline since last year. It was nothing short of stunning to watch him bounce a couple of short throws and deliver a couple other too far behind his target to catch.
He also got caught holding the ball too long several times, and ended most of possessions trotting off to the sidelines to boos from the 49ers' crowd.
Linebacker Clay Matthews provided extra insult twice Sunday. The first was when he sacked Kaepernick to force a three-and-out in the third quarter. Matthews usually celebrates his sacks with a "Predator" pose, but this time he kissed his flexed biceps, mocking Kaepernick's touchdown celebration.
The second came after a short scramble by Kaepernick late in the fourth quarter. The audio of the game's TV broadcast caught Matthews barking at Kaepernick, "You ain't Russell Wilson, bro!"
"It's just having fun," Matthews said after the game. "We're just a bunch of kids out there running around having fun at each other's expense."
firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.