This was not the NFC Championship Game rematch the 49ers were hoping for. San Francisco entered Thursday night’s game against Green Bay severely undermanned, due to both injuries and COVID-19, and the Packers steamrolled to a 34-17 win that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.
Wide receivers Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and Kendrick Bourne, as well as offensive lineman Trent Williams missed the game on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Meanwhile, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, tight end George Kittle, and running backs Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman were among a whopping 17 players out with injuries.
“We knew at the start of the week it was going to be a challenge, and then losing those three guys yesterday was obviously a bigger challenge,” said 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. “But I still thought we could have a game and I still thought we could play better than we did tonight. Being down like that and not being at our best and going against a good team like that, that’s usually what happens. But I know we could’ve done better.”
Former Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers picked the Niners’ defense apart, completing 25 of 31 passes for 305 yards and four touchdowns. Davante Adams hauled in 10 receptions for 173 yards and a touchdown.
The Packers didn’t waste any time getting on the board, marching 75 yards in six plays on their opening drive to take a 7-0 lead. Rodgers connected with Adams on an acrobatic 36-yard touchdown strike to cap it off.
San Francisco answered later in the first quarter with a 10-play, 76-yard drive that resulted in a Robbie Gould 22-yard field goal, cutting Green Bay’s lead to 7-3. But from there, it was all Packers.
Following a Nick Mullens interception in the second quarter, Rodgers notched his second TD pass of the night, hitting tight end Marcedes Lewis from one yard out to make it 14-3.
Rodgers was far from done – later in the second quarter, he launched a 52-yard touchdown pass to Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Green Bay took a commanding 21-3 into halftime.
The Packers picked up right where they left off in the second half, going 80 yards in nine plays on their first drive of the third quarter to make it 28-3. Rodgers found Valdes-Scantling again for a one-yard TD, his fourth of the night.
Green Bay forced Mullens’ second turnover of the night on the ensuing 49ers drive when Za’Darius Smith forced and recovered a fumble at midfield. The Packers cashed in with a 19-yard field goal by Mason Crosby to extend the lead to 31-3. Crosby tacked on a 53-yard field goal in the fourth quarter to make it 34-3.
The 49ers finally found the end zone with 5:00 remaining in the game on a 41-yard pass from Mullens to Richie James, who finished with a career-high nine catches for 184 yards.
“I knew the opportunity would come like it did today,” James said. “You’ve got to take advantage of those opportunities and I did it really well today. Hopefully, they come more and I get more opportunities.”
Jerick McKinnon punched in a one-yard touchdown run with four seconds left to make the final score 34-17. McKinnon ended the night with 12 carries for 52 yards. Mullens went 22-of-35 for 291 yards through the air.
The Packers (6-2) extended their lead atop the NFC North to a full game over the Chicago Bears. The 49ers (4-5) remained in last place in the NFC West and any playoff hopes now appear to be a long shot.
With Garoppolo (ankle) and Kittle (foot) both expected to miss extended time, San Francisco might soon find itself hoping for a high draft pick, rather than a postseason bid.
“We know the challenges that we have had,” Shanahan said. “I think there are a number of games we could have won that we didn’t. And I know it doesn’t get easier with some of the guys we’ve lost. But hopefully, we’ll get some guys back here going forward. … It’s still early in the year and I still know we’ve got a chance to at least get in that tournament at the end of the year.”
The schedule doesn’t get any easier, as the 49ers travel to New Orleans next Sunday to take on Drew Brees and the Saints. In fact, San Francisco will only face two teams with a losing record the rest of the season.