SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Of the six teams that would qualify for the NFC playoffs if the season ended today, four had winning records last season.
The Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers are the two that didn't, winning a mere 10 games between them in 2018.
Yet, when the Packers and 49ers renewed their on-again, off-again rivalry that dates back to the 1990s Sunday night, the prize on the table was control of the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs heading into the homestretch of the season. The resurgent teams were so attractive and the game was so big the NFL flexed it into prime time so the nation could see it.
That was pretty invigorating stuff for a Packers team that was riding high after an 8-2 start under first-year coach Matt LaFleur, was enjoying uncommonly good health and had a bye week to refresh itself. Too invigorating, it turned out.
Going head-to-head with his mentor, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, for the first time, LaFleur looked overmatched. So did his team.
The 49ers bullied the Packers physically and outsmarted them at every turn, handing them a sobering 37-8 loss at Levi's Stadium. Due in part to a soft remaining schedule, the Packers still have a strong chance to make the playoffs and possibly beat out the Minnesota Vikings in the North Division race, but they looked out of their league against the 49ers, who might be the most complete team in the NFC.
Indeed, the same things that have made the Packers terribly inconsistent during their first 10 games were exposed by the 49ers. That was a surprise given that LaFleur had an insider's knowledge of Shanahan's offense and had an extra week to prepare for the 49ers.
LaFluer and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine had vowed to use the time off to shore up some of the more inconsistent areas, but it was clear from the first quarter on that the 49ers were the better-prepared team. And, simply put, the better team.
"I'm disappointed with myself, with how we got outcoached and we got outplayed, bottom line," LaFleur said. "It's unacceptable and we've got to look at ourselves. There's a lot to correct if we want to be the team that we want to be."
Like many Packers opponents before them, the 49ers exploited the middle of Green Bay's defense with tight end George Kittle, who caught six passes for 129 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile, Packers tight ends caught three passes for 15 yards.
The 49ers defense physically dominated the Packers offensive line, blowing up running plays at key times and sacking quarterback Aaron Rodgers five times, including a strip-sack and fumble recovery that left them with only 2 yards to go for their first touchdown. Rodgers' 104 yards passing were the lowest of his career in a game where he threw 30 or more passes.
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The 49ers forced the Packers offense into many of the mistakes that have left it in unfavorable down-and-distance situations all season, leading to a low percentage of third-down conversions. The Packers were an incredible 1-15 on third-down conversions against the 49ers and it could have been worse. They were 0-for-14 until they finally converted one with 55 seconds to play and reserves on the field.
"There was a lot of stuff today that was concerning, quite frankly," LaFleur said.
The game was over by halftime, when the 49ers took a 23-0 lead. For the Packers, the same pattern repeated itself throughout the opening half: Their own mistakes wrecked an offensive possession, a poor punt from slumping JK Scott led to good field position for the 49ers and it was up to the Packers defense to hold the fort. It did for awhile but it finally caved in under the pressure.
The offensive production was disturbing because the Packers had similar problems during their last West Coast trip, a 26-11 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers two games earlier. In the first half against the 49ers, the Packers had 3-and-outs on five of eight first-half possessions, were 0-for-9 on third-down conversions and totaled 60 yards on 34 plays.
Worse, its was penalties, dropped passes and poor pass protection that stymied those drives time and again. Except that this time it was postsnap penalties instead of presnap penalties, those were the same things that surfaced in the loss to the Chargers.
"We have to look at our plan, what we're asking our guys to do," LaFleur said. "We talked about discipline going into the game. We had a lot of penalties. That's stuff that we can control. That's what's really hurt us this season. When we get in those situations, we have a hard time digging ourselves out of that hole."
Despite those ongoing problems and two dismal losses in the last three games, LaFleur remains optimistic about the Packers' final five-game stretch.
"I still have a lot of confidence in our guys," he said. "But we've got to be critical of ourselves, every one of us — coaches, players, everybody involved — and figure out why this happened and make sure that it doesn't happen again. Because I do feel like we have a lot of talented players. But it was bad ball."
Bad enough that the Packers didn't look like a playoff team. More to the point, they didn't look like a team that could compete with playoff teams even if they did make the postseason.
Photos: Green Bay Packers fall to San Francisco 49ers