Something very strange and very rare happened in Sunday afternoon's game at Lambeau Field: exactly what was supposed to happen. Despite a slow start, the 7-4 Green Bay Packers ultimately had little trouble disposing of the 4-7 San Francisco 49ers, as they pulled away in the third quarter to win 34-16.
The game initially looked like some of the early-season shockers where the 49ers contended to the very end against supposed top-caliber teams like New Orleans and Atlanta. Ultimately, the Packers would get the lion's share of big plays in a game marked by spotty defense and freezing temperatures.
The 49ers were outscored 14-3 in the third quarter, essentially sealing their fate.
The 49er defense was again far from stellar, surrendering 410 yards of offense to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers and spurring the inevitable whines over the draft blunder of 2005 when the team passed on the Cal product.
The rushing tandem of Brian Westbrook and Anthony Dixon found significantly less daylight than Monday night in Arizona, and Troy Smith had another up-and-down day under center.
Part of the offense's woes were due to shoddy offensive line coverage, some strange play calls and critical drops on the part of the receivers. All in all, the offense was far from sufficient.
Nonetheless, in this league gone mad, the 4-8 49ers arguably have as good a chance to make the playoffs as the 8-4 Packers. It is nearly inevitable that a 10- or 11-win team will be watching playoffs from the sofa while the 8-8 or 7-9 NFC West champions will host a first-round game.
Somehow this is supposed to be an improvement over the old days of the NFL where everyone who made the playoffs had a record worthy of postseason contention.
Soap boxes aside, the 49ers must focus on the task at hand. Their improbable playoff hopes took an undeniable hit on Sunday as their loss, coupled with wins from the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks, puts the team two games behind the division co-leaders with four games to play. Still, they are far from dead.
While the Seahawks and Rams have games against the front-running Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints remaining on their respective schedules, the most difficult game left on the docket for the 49ers may be against the 6-6 San Diego Chargers. The Chargers took a major step back Sunday, losing handily to a Jason Campbell-led Oakland Raiders team on Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium.
An NFC West title and a stumble into the playoffs with a non-winning record might not be the way the 49ers envisioned the 2010 season, but in the modern NFL it is a viable option. With at least a 50-50 chance that there will be no 2011 season, an improbable playoff berth could help shorten the duration 49er fans have to go without seeing their team take the field—at least by a few weeks.