SANTA CLARA, Calif. - There was the thought, as nostalgia drifted into minds, that maybe Aaron Rodgers had some vintage greatness under his sleeve. Maybe he could do something magical. Maybe he could avenge his worst performance of the regular season, find a way to hogtie the San Francisco 49ers' mammoth defense and transform this NFC championship game into a triumphant homecoming.
It was a cute, fleeting thought.
On Sunday, with a Super Bowl berth at stake, the 49ers bludgeoned all quarterbacking fairy tales with their brand of harsh reality. They pounded Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, 37-20. They led 27-0 at halftime and needed only eight total pass attempts from their quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, to be so dominant. There are blowouts, and then there are completely demoralizing beatdowns that make you reexamine everything you know about the game. This was definitely the latter.
Given that San Francisco stomped Green Bay, 37-8, in the regular season, it's no great surprise that the 49ers proved to be superior again. Nevertheless, it was stunning to witness Rodgers - that baaaaad man for so long, the NFL's most feared something-out-of-nothing genius - yield to a greater force without the least bit of adjustment. Rodgers and the Packers had seen the 49ers at their mightiest, underestimated them, gotten embarrassed and taken the time to reflect and revise their approach. But the rematch wasn't much different from their November meeting, when Rodgers threw for just 104 yards on 33 pass attempts. In fact, this humiliation felt worse because they knew what was coming, and not even the league's improvisational master could come up with a better way to combat the ferocious defensive pressure.
Over on the AFC side, Kansas City defensive end Frank Clark celebrated the Chiefs' Super Bowl LIV berth by declaring of his squad, "We're the baddest MF'ers on the planet." Well, for certain, the offense supporting Clark is as potent as it gets. But if we're talking bad - physical, overpowering, relentless, attacking from all angles, in all phases - well, San Francisco made a much more compelling case during that first half Sunday.
The 49ers may not be the best of the two teams. We'll figure out that part in a couple of weeks. But baddest? The bully resides in the NFC, and it has perhaps the most gifted defensive line the NFL has ever seen to go with playmakers all over the field. And it possesses the perfect complementary offense, featuring a downhill, punishing, cram-it-down-your-throat running game that somehow manages to be just as creative as it is pulverizing.
San Francisco didn't just want to win. It wanted to pound Green Bay into submission, something that hardly ever happens with Rodgers under center making miracles happen. But the Packers lost their spirit early in this game. Rodgers could not extend plays; when he tried, he looked foolish and helpless as he took sacks. He muffed a snap and gave little effort as 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner fell on the fumble. Later in the second quarter, he threw an interception to Emmanuel Moseley that led to 49ers running back Raheem Mostert's third touchdown of the first half for 49ers running back Raheem Mostert, who finished his career day with 220 of San Francisco's 285 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
Rodgers improved in the second half and finished with respectable statistics: 31 for 39 for 326 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions. He did not quit. But those numbers were deceiving because they were accumulated mostly against a defense that had turned conservative.
The first half was more indicative of the kind of game Rodgers had. He went into halftime having completed 9 of 12 passes for just 64 yards. He had those two turnovers and posted a 52.1 passer rating. He was sacked twice, so the Packers had only 41 net passing yards at the break. To be successful against San Francisco, Rodgers knew he needed to get rid of the football quickly. He knew he needed to be accurate and on time. He knew he had to trust the rest of the team to assist him, which is something the notoriously stubborn quarterback had done well in leading Green Bay to a 13-3 record and an NFC title game appearance. But he also needed more flurries of brilliance, and that just wasn't going to happen against this defense.
Rodgers looked like a 36-year-old quarterback at times this season, but most of that was by design as Coach Matt LaFleur focused on building around the star. But despite Rodgers posting human statistics, you never thought of him as irreversibly human. You always knew he could channel more. But on Sunday, he couldn't.
And that should be the largest feather in the 49ers' conference championship cap. They ruined one of the last good chances Rodgers had to win a second Super Bowl. They may have also sent him officially into a new existence as an old quarterback.
"It definitely hurts, I'd say, a little more than early in the career," Rodgers said. "It's just because you realize how difficult it is to get to this spot."
With a 25-year-old running back in Aaron Jones and outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith in his prime and leading a defense that can grow into a consistent force, Green Bay has the talent, the youth and enough salary cap flexibility to remain a contender. But for the first time with Rodgers at quarterback, their championship aspirations rest more on how easy they can make the task for their future Hall of Famer. The days of Rodgers saving the day aren't necessarily over. The days of Rodgers saving the day with regularity have already ended.
Sunday marked the Packers' third straight loss in the NFC title game since they won the Super Bowl nine years ago. The past two of those have been blowouts. For nearly a decade, Green Bay has been the NFL's premier good-not-great team. While it is an underrated feat to stay in the hunt, it is no less frustrating to be unable to break through.
"You realize I don't have the same number of years ahead of me as I do behind me," Rodgers admitted. "So it's slightly more disappointing."
In the quarterback arms race, Rodgers has gone from having to complete with older legends such as Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton and Eli Manning to seeing younger, dynamic players - Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson - enter the competition. Although Rodgers has had a run in which he was considered the league's best individual player, he never got to own the league like Brady did. Now he is just fighting to keep the future from taking over.
His challenge, his new reality, become quite clear at Levi's Stadium on Sunday. He was in an impossible situation, and he couldn't make the impossible happen. That's nothing to be ashamed of - Green Bay's overall improvement from missing the playoffs the previous two seasons to NFC title game participant was quite inspiring - but the end provided a sobering truth. "I think it's a new beginning for us," 36-year-old Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said, "but it's so tough to get back."
The San Francisco 49ers are the NFC's greatest force, and they are just getting started. It leaves Rodgers in a place familiar to many who persist in this game: as an aging legend in need of help.