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Tom Oates: Loss to dominant 49ers proves Packers still have lots of work to do after promising season
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Tom Oates: Loss to dominant 49ers proves Packers still have lots of work to do after promising season

NFC Championship Packers 49ers - Raheem Mostert

San Francisco running back Raheem Mostert scores in front of Green Bay free safety Darnell Savage during the first half of the 49ers' 37-20 win over the Packers in the NFC Championship Game Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif. Mostert ran for 220 yards and four touchdowns. 

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Even after 17 games, it was impossible to determine if the Green Bay Packers were lucky or good.

Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the rampaging San Francisco 49ers figured to answer that question once and for all.

To be fair, the Packers relied on much more than luck while winning 14 of their first 17 games. Still, they had a lot of things go their way as they made it back to the playoffs after a two-year absence.

They never lost a starter to injury for more than four games. They were aided by questionable referee's decisions and opponents playing without their starting quarterbacks or running backs. They even caught a break in the playoffs when likely opponent New Orleans was eliminated early and road-weary Seattle showed up with a running back it had coaxed out of retirement.

Though people doubted them to the end, the spirited and cohesive Packers earned the right play for the NFC title by winning close game after close game under first-year coach Matt LaFleur. They rarely dominated an opponent, but they kept finding ways to win.

Until Sunday.

That's when the Packers ran out of luck — not to mention offense and defense — in a humbling 37-20 loss to the 49ers at Levi's Stadium. Not that luck would have done them any good against a fast and physical 49ers team that dominated them for the second time this season, this time using an unstoppable running game to overpower the Packers defense and control the game.

In the end, the message was clear. The Packers made great strides this season under LaFleur and showed they can compete with every other team in the NFC, but they're not in the 49ers' league. Not yet, anyway. Not in terms of coaching, talent or experience.

San Francisco is as complete a team as there is in the NFC and proved it Sunday, just as it did when it had a similarly dominating performance in a 37-8 victory over the Packers eight weeks ago. The 49ers took a 23-0 halftime lead in the first meeting and held a 27-0 halftime lead Sunday.

"We just didn't play the game the right way," wide receiver Davante Adams said. "We didn't start fast like we usually do when we do well. We knew what we had to do and we just didn't (do it). That's tough when you're playing against teams like this. It's tough to be down the way we were and come back. They run the ball really well and they have a really good defense. We just dropped the ball."

A more objective observer might claim that the 49ers forced them to drop the ball. San Francisco battered Green Bay on both lines of scrimmage in the first game and, if anything, was even more dominant up front Sunday.

Running back Raheem Mostert rushed for 220 yards and four touchdowns. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was considered the 49ers' weakest link and the Packers' excellent pass rush figured to exploit that, but they couldn't stop the run enough to even force the 49ers to throw. Garoppolo launched only eight passes all day.

The Packers had only 93 yards on offense in the first half as the 49ers controlled the running game and got pressure on quarterback Aaron Rodgers every time they needed it, either by winning one-on-ones or scheming up a blitz.

"That is a pretty fast and physical team, there’s no doubt about it," LaFleur said. "That's just the whole philosophy of that defense, especially with their front seven, the linebackers, is that they want speed. And they are a fast team. You look at their running backs, all their backs can run, and shoot, their wideouts run really well, tight end, their O-linemen. That is a fast team and they were better and faster and more physical than us tonight."

They were better in both games, which is as good a starting point as any for where the Packers need to improve on this promising season. They need more speed at wide receiver, tight end and in the front seven on defense, especially at linebacker.

LaFleur's inexperience showed at times this season, and it did again Sunday when the 49ers stayed one step ahead of the Packers all day. The good news? He always showed an ability to learn from his mistakes.

Despite the depressing end, there was optimism among the Packers afterward. It wasn't just empty talk, either. With the personnel additions by general manager Brian Gutekunst and the breath of fresh air that LaFleur brought to the team, Green Bay is an ascending team. It just didn't look like it Sunday, when the gap between the teams was evident.

"It looks pretty big," Rodgers said. "They got us a couple times, but I don’t think it’s that big. I think we’re really close. I think we’re just a little more consistent performance away from consistently playing with these guys. But we got them at their place twice. I’ve said this before: We’ve got to get one of these at home. It’s a different ballgame."

Maybe so, but the Packers still have holes to fill. They need another offseason to develop the kind of roster that can get them to the Super Bowl. The kind of roster the 49ers have.

"I think we obviously need to improve and clean things up, but I'm not going to sit here and say we're miles away because I don't think that's the way to look at it," tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "I think we're close, but it just wasn't there this season."

No, it wasn't. But the Packers are a lot bettor off than they were.

Photos: Green Bay Packers can't hang with San Francisco 49ers in NFC title game

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Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.

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