If you’re a part of the conventional wisdom that sees Green Bay-San Francisco as a logical—even likely—matchup in this coming January’s NFC Championship Game, then nothing happened on Sunday afternoon to change your mind. The 49ers held serve at home with a 34-28 win over the Packers, but both teams set a high bar for any challengers to come after.
Green Bay did a lot of what they could realistically do on defense. After the playoff meltdown of 2012 where San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick ran wild, the Packers kept the mobile QB in the pocket. Green Bay also stopped the run, holding Frank Gore to 44 yards. It put the 49er offense in the place where opposing defenses want—making Kaepernick try and win the game from the pocket.
What happened in the pocket is what makes San Francisco positively frightening. Kaepernick threw for 412 yards and didn’t have a single interception. His athletic ability means defenses have to play conservative, which means time to throw. If Kaepernick is now going to start picking secondaries apart, this turns into the biggest advantage since 1980s Tecmo Bowl players could run wild with Bo Jackson.
But in spite of Kaepernick’s brilliance and in spite of being on the road, Green Bay hung right in the game the entire way and nudged out in front, 28-24 in the fourth quarter. The Packers had their own problems running the ball—Eddie Lacy had just 41 on the ground, and made my Monday podcast colleague, Greg DePalma at Prime Sports Network accurately wonder why Green Bay won’t play fellow rookie Jonathan Franklin.
But the Packers also had Aaron Rodgers, and #12 worked over the San Francisco corners, combining with Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson for 14 catches and 238 yards. Rodgers ended up at 333 yards on the day and his one interception was a fluke, where tight end Jermichael Finley dropped a perfect pass and batted it into the hands of a defender. Actually correct that—it was a fluke that Rodgers threw a pick, but Finley’s drops are anything but a fluke. It’s persistent Green Bay problem that has to change.
If there’s one thing the Packers have to be disappointed in, it’s the play of the secondary in some key situations. The most notable was San Francisco’s 4th-and-2 play in the final two minutes of the game, from the Green Bay 37. If the Packers stop this play, it’s a three-point game and Rodgers has plenty of time to tie, or even win it.
The front seven defended Kaepernick perfect. He rolled right, just like at the end of last year’s Super Bowl, and saw a wall of defenders. Only this time, Green Bay corner Tramon Williams lost track of San Francisco receiver Anquan Boldin, who was wide open for a easy first down pass. It begs the question of how the team’s go-to receiver, who had 208 yards on that day, gets left wide-open. If Kaepernick beats you going to his third or fourth options fine, but Williams can’t make it that easy.
San Francisco’s win will loom large in the tiebreaker picture, presuming both teams end up in the fight for homefield advantage and first-round byes. But in the bigger picture, this was the best Green Bay played in what is now three successive losses to the 49ers. If you’re a Packer fan, you have to feel like you’ve got a real shot in a January rematch, wherever it’s played. If you’re a Niner fan, you just watched your quarterback be defended as well as any defense can, and he still lit it up. Yup, the bar in the NFC was set high on Sunday afternoon.