SANTA CLARA – The Packers learned something about themselves that could say more about this team than the best pass Aaron Rodgers could ever throw: They can win without him being the star.
They won with defense. They won with a suffocating pass rush. The Packers won on a day when the pass offense was the team's weak link.
"In 2011, we blew a lot of people out. You need your defense to play like it did today, when you're struggling on offense," Rodgers said.
The Green Bay Packers traveled west to face the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium. Photos by Jim Biever, Packers.com.
The Packers had the league's No. 32 defense in 2011. The burden was almost always on the offense. In the end, it was too much to sustain.
Through four weeks of this season, the Packers have a defense whose arrow is pointing straight up. With each game, it gets better. Sunday, in a 17-3 win over the 49ers, the Packers held the home team to 196 total yards.
Rodgers did his usual great things, he just didn't do as many of them. He threw a 38-yard completion to James Jones as Rodgers was running to his left, but Rodgers' stat line – 224 yards and a touchdown – is pedestrian relative to what he's accustomed.
"There's not a day that goes by that Aaron doesn't do something with the football that impresses you. Another excellent, big-time throw," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said of the 38-yard pass to Jones.
Yeah, but we've come to expect those kinds of plays. It's only a surprise when Rodgers doesn't do something that impresses us.
If you want to feel good about this win, feel good it wasn't a blowout. Feel good the Packers were able to expire the final four minutes without throwing a pass. Feel good because sometimes that's how you have to play. Sometimes you have to run the ball and play defense. To that end, the Packers rushed for nearly as many yards as the 49ers gained in total.
"Carlos Hyde is a fantastic young player. We were very impressed with him. Their run game was our starting point, no doubt," McCarthy said.
"We've had 13 sacks the last two weeks. That's incredible. We have to do a better job completing passes. Without Jordy (Nelson), we lack some of that deep threat for sure. We make up for it by trying to be efficient," Rodgers said.
Game manager? Let's not go that far, but you get the idea.
What's the proper perspective, Rodgers was asked?
"I think we're 4-0, No. 1 in our division and playing the kind of ball we want to play," Rodgers said.
The kind of ball the Packers want to play includes a strong balance between offense and defense. That's the kind of ball that wins in the postseason, and this team is all about building for the postseason. That's its destiny. That's where it has unfinished business.
It has a two-game lead in the NFC North. It'll play its next two games at home. It has a chance to go into its bye week 6-0 and rest for a showdown game in Denver against the Broncos, who are also undefeated.
Do the Packers have another gear to hit?
"Hell, yeah. This is Week 4 in the NFL. You have to find ways to win these games. It's never as clean as you'd like and not as bad as you think, either. We have to continue to grow. At the end of the day, it's about your football team," McCarthy said.
At the end of this day, it was about the defense.