SANTA CLARA, Calif. — This time, it was supposed to be different.
All week long, head coach Matt LaFleur and his Green Bay Packers had done their best to dismiss what had happened 56 days earlier at Levi’s Stadium. That 29-point San Francisco 49ers victory on Nov. 24? Didn’t matter. It would have nothing to do with Sunday’s NFC Championship Game rematch, they all insisted. It’s not like the Packers would start the game 29 points behind on the scoreboard, right?
With their defense failing to lay a hand on 49ers running back Raheem Mostert for much of the first half — when Mostert carried the ball 14 times for an astonishing 160 yards and three touchdowns — and the Aaron Rodgers-led offense committing two turnovers and failing to convert a third down yet again during a scoreless first 30 minutes, the Packers dug themselves a 27-0 halftime deficit on their way to a demoralizing 37-20 loss.
So actually, it was. It was different. It was worse.
Not only because they got off to an even worse start than last time, but because of the finality it brought to what felt like a season of destiny.
“With all the changes this offseason, the installation of a new system, new program, to get to this point, you felt like it was something special because it didn’t really make sense,” Rodgers said. “It just kind of felt like it was meant to be, almost. So that is a little more disappointing. I don’t have the same number of years ahead of me as I do behind me. So it is more disappointing.”
Yes, the Packers’ Super Bowl LIV dreams disintegrated as they did just about everything wrong that they did in the first meeting with the 49ers, when they were down 23-0 at halftime and went on to lose, 37-8. The 49ers, meanwhile, made it look excruciatingly easy yet again and will now face the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV in South Florida on Feb. 2.
The loss marked the Packers’ third NFC Championship Game loss in six years, following the team’s gut-wrenching meltdown in the 2014 NFC Championship Game at Seattle and the team’s blowout loss in the 2016 NFC Championship Game at Seattle.
“We accomplished a lot of great things this year. To not finish it, it hurts. I love this team and I love what these guys are about,” LaFleur said. “We’ve got a bunch of good guys who are really hurting right now. Hopefully we use it at motivation to get back to this point in the future.”
It was mind-boggling how utterly inept the Packers’ seemingly improved run defense was against Mostert, who finished the game with 220 yards and four touchdowns on 29 carries — a eye-popping 7.6-yard average per carry.
“I looked up (at the scoreboard) and Mostert had 20 carries for 200 yards,” LaFleur lamented. “And that is not going to get it done.”
Mostert running around, past and through the Green Bay defense brought back painful memories of another postseason night in San Francisco, when the 49ers rode quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s NFL quarterback-record 181 rushing yards to a 45-31 victory in the 2012 NFC Divisional playoffs.
“The guy was just gashing us the whole night,” said veteran cornerback Tramon Williams, who was on that 2012 team. “And I’m talking about, it wasn’t little holes. It was huge holes. He was coming downhill. I was with that kid in Cleveland, and he’s fast. He’s track-and-field fast. This kid made some money tonight, I can tell you that.”
Mostert was so dominant that 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo completed 4 of 6 passes for 48 yards during the first half and didn’t even attempt another pass until there was 8 minutes, 5 seconds left in the game and San Francisco had a 34-20 lead. Garoppolo finished the game having completed 6 of 8 passes for 77 yards.
“He didn’t have to play much at all. For the most part, it was won on the ground,” LaFleur said of Garoppolo.
The 49ers built a 27-0 lead by running the Packers defense ragged with Mostert and with help from a Packers offense that turned the ball over twice — on a fumbled center-quarterback exchange between Corey Linsley and Rodgers and on a Rodgers interception on a pass intended for Geronimo Allison.
The Packers were already down 17-0 before the turnovers, but the fumble led to a 27-yard Robbie Gould field goal to make it 20-0, and the interception led to Mostert’s third first-half touchdown, an 18-yarder with 45 seconds left until halftime to make it 27-0.
“I thought there was a chance when it was 17-0 and we started to get our act together offensively,” LaFleur said. “And then we had the fumbled exchange. Shoot, we didn’t have one of those all season.”
Said Rodgers, who finished the game 31 of 39 for 326 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions for a 97.2 passer rating: “I just think the way things went today was again a microcosm of our season. The inefficiency caught up to us a few times and put us in rough spots.
“I said it last week, the window is open for us. And that’s the exciting thing. It doesn’t make this feeling any easier, but that is very exciting moving forward.”
The Packers finally got on the scoreboard on the opening drive of the second half, as they took the opening kickoff and went no-huddle, with Rodgers completing three passes for 34 yards to Davante Adams to set up a 9-yard touchdown catch-and-run by running back Aaron Jones.
Unfortunately for the Packers, Mostert went right back to work on the ensuing possession, although 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan was nice enough to lighten his load by giving the ball to wide receiver Deebo Samuel on a pair of end-arounds that gained 43 of the 79 yards the 49ers traversed en route to Mostert’s fourth touchdown, a 22-yarder that pushed the lead back to 34-7.
The Packers managed to improve the cosmetics with a pair of touchdown drives during the fourth quarter, with Rodgers hitting Graham for a 42-yard gain (on a play that was initially ruled a 43-yard touchdown before a replay review) to set up Jones’ 1-yard touchdown plunge and hitting Adams for a 65-yard gain to set up Jace Sternberger’s 8-yard touchdown catch to cut the lead to 34-20.
But the 49ers responded and took away whatever hope pulling to within 14 points had created on the Packers’ sideline. They forced the Packers to use up all of their time outs during a methodical, time-consuming drive that used up nearly 5 minutes of clock and ended in a 42-yard Gould field goal that made it a three-score game.
And once Rodgers’ final 67-yards-in-the-air prayer for Adams was intercepted by Richard Sherman with 1:48 to go, the 49ers’ celebration was on.
“There’s only one team happy at the end of the year,” LaFleur said. “I know we did a lot of great things (this season). But ultimately the goal is to win the Super Bowl, and if you don’t, you’re going to be disappointed.
“You know how hard it is to get to this point. It’s extremely difficult. We had a lot of things go our way. We won a lot of tight ballgames this year. We stayed really healthy. I thought we had a chance to get that done. And when you come up short, it’s disappointing.”
Photos: Green Bay Packers can't hang with San Francisco 49ers in NFC title game