Playing the NFC's Super Bowl representative from last season, the Packers actually led in the final quarter. Unfortunately, the team's secondary, depleted by injuries, failed to counter San Francisco's final efforts to reclaim and maintain the lead.
Although the Packers ended the game with an 0-1 record, the team walked away with a lot of positive momentum that should carry forward next week against the Washington Redskins.
First and foremost, the score wasn't nearly as lopsided as when the two met last year during the playoffs. Losing by a final score of 34 to 28, the Packers ran short on time as they were driving for what could easily have been the winning touchdown.
Secondly, the team showed an immense amount of grit by coming back to grab the lead in the latter parts of a toughly fought game.
Led by a much stouter run defense than seen in recent times, the Packers showed San Francisco that given enough preparation they could make the talented 49ers offense mostly one-dimensional. After rushing for over 300 yards against the Packers last January, the Packers limited the 49ers to only 90 yards on the ground in the follow-up.
Although the 49ers passed for 404 yards, they were basically forced to abandon the run. Their ability to carve up the Packers secondary was at least partially attributable to the last-minute personnel the Packers were forced to rely on after injuries to a couple key starters.
Two of the Packers' best defensive backs, Morgan Burnett and Casey Hayward, were both unavailable for the game due to hamstring injuries. This was no doubt a key factor in Anquan Boldin's ability to run free in the Packers secondary, netting 208 receiving yards in the process.
Aside from playing the 49ers extremely close in their own stadium, the Packers were able to use the meeting as a measuring stick for their strengths and weaknesses as they move forward in the season.
Prior to their game against the 49ers, there were several issues facing the team in terms of positional question marks.
The offensive line, having lost pro-bowler Bryan Bulaga earlier in the preseason due to injury, was set to feature two inexperienced starters at left and right tackle—David Bakhtiari and Don Barclay, respectively.
Although these two certainly showed their relative inexperience at different points throughout the game, they also might fairly be evaluated as "serviceable" in the aftermath.
One glaring weakness that was identified during the game was the Packers' lack of depth in the secondary. After running into a brick wall on the ground, the 49ers were able to expose the Packers defense through the air.
The reality is that since losing pro-bowler Nick Collins to a career-ending injury a couple years ago, the Packers have not found the answers they are looking for at safety. With their single best player at that position currently sidelined, the team may need to conjure a rabbit from the hat in identifying a free agent acquisition that can help beef up the position.
The players that started at safety on Sunday, M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian, simply aren't going to get the job done at a championship-type level. This was clearly evidenced on Sunday.
Aside from the need to bolster their depth at those two positions, the Packers' play against the 49ers also revealed a couple new intangibles that could be key in raising their standard of excellence from a year ago.
The first such positive was the grit and fire the team showed in the late stages of the game. The offense and defense dug deep in propelling the team to an improbable, if short-lived, comeback.
The defense also made a big stop at the end of the game and limited the 49ers to a rather toothless field goal in the late goings. Given that time of possession was dominated by the 49ers, this has to be considered a huge victory for a Packers defense that could have collapsed under the "tired" axiom seen on so many Sundays across the league.
The team, led by all-pro linebacker Clay Matthews, also sent a message to the 49ers and the rest of the league that they are anything but soft. An intangible that should pay dividends as the season progresses.
Matthews in particular was flying around the field tackling various 49ers for considerable losses. While his exuberance may have been a bit overboard on one particular play, later insinuations that Clay Matthews is a "dirty player" are ridiculous. Has anyone even stopped to consider the fact that San Francisco had four such penalties during the game while Green Bay only had one?
During the play in question, Matthews tackled Colin Kaepernick out of bounds and received an unsportsmanlike penalty. However, the Packers linebacker was already in mid-air before the San Francisco quarterback even stepped out of bounds. Although the flag was surely appropriate, the hanging questions around his intent seem pretty far out of bounds.
Matthews, who recently signed a large contract extension in the offseason, arrived in San Francisco with his game face on and played his heart out. And the impacts of this inspired play are apparently still rippling around Candlestick Park.
Despite winning the game, both the head coach of the 49ers and the team's quarterback have found it necessary to continue to talk about Clay Matthews.
Well after the final score was recorded, Colin Kaepernick said, according to Tom Pelissero at USA Today Sports, "If intimidation is your game plan, I hope you have a better one.” Clearly stated in reference to the Packers’ physical style of play in general or Matthew’s hit in particular, one has to wonder why it was still in Kaepernick’s mind after going home with the victory.
Even more perplexing has been 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh's obsession with Clay Matthews in the days leading up to and after the game. Last week, Matthews made comments that the Packers were going to try to get legal hits on Kaepernick while acting as a running quarterback with the option to hand off the ball or keep it, and Harbaugh quickly called the league to clarify just how much damage Matthews could legally do.
Upon hearing the answer, that Matthews and the rest of the Packers defense could indeed treat an option quarterback as fair game, Harbaugh said that the judgement was, “flawed and a bit biased,” according to John Breech at CBS Sports.
Harbaugh’s beef with the Packers and Matthews didn't end there. Since the game ended, the San Francisco coach has taken multiple shots at Clay Matthews implying that Harbaugh simply can’t get the image of Clay Matthews and that single unsportsmanlike penalty out of his mind.
A full two days after the game, with the Packers safely back in Green Bay, Harbaugh had watched the video of Clay Matthews enough times to see that Matthews hadn't punched offensive lineman Joe Staley on the sideline during the aftermath of the hit on Kaepernick, but had apparently slapped him instead.
According to ESPN.com news services, Harbaugh said of Clay Matthews, "I think that young man works very hard on being a tough guy. He’ll have some repairing to do to his image after the slap.” The out-spoken coach of the 49ers followed-up saying, “If you’re going to go to the face, come with some knuckles, not an open slap.”
Interesting that a guy who calls the league in order to check on the safe-passage of his quarterback would then try to question the toughness of anyone else.
Jim Harbaugh is apparently so obsessed with lobbying for any and all advantages that he can simultaneously paint himself and his team as both defenseless victims and unsurpassed warriors.
This sort of gamesmanship appears to be effective as Harbaugh has successfully focused the majority of post-game attention on Clay Matthews' lone personal foul penalty while the fact that San Francisco had four so-called "dirty" penalties (Personal Foul, Roughing the Passer, Unnecessary Roughness, and Unsportsmanlike Conduct) has conveniently fallen by the wayside.
Despite the side-show created by Harbaugh, the 49ers remain a favorite to go deep in the playoffs this year and given how close the Packers played them in their house, it looks like Green Bay fans have a lot to look forward to as well.
A team with an already potent offense looks to have gained an inspired leader on defense in the form of Clay Matthews, and if his motivation and passion rubs off on the other defenders even a little bit then the team should be much improved in 2013.
And after such an impressive display by Clay Matthews in San Francisco, it's no wonder that Jim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick can think of little else.
A lot of Packers fans are probably in the exact same position.