Packers show why they're the team to beat in the NFC

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- This is more than just the Aaron Rodgers Show.

The Green Bay Packers proved that Sunday afternoon in the Northern California sun. On a day when their MVP quarterback and his habitually high-power offense was barely better than ordinary, Dom Capers' defense delivered the kind of performance that eluded him at critical times since the Packers' last Super Bowl in February 2011.

To be sure, this wasn't one of those critical times; it was a nondescript 17-3 win in Week 4 against the struggling San Francisco 49ers at less-than-packed Levi's Stadium.

But on a day when perhaps the NFC's other top-tier team, the Arizona Cardinals, lost for the first time this season -- at home, no less, to the St. Louis Rams, who by the way come to Lambeau Field this coming Sunday -- the Packers showed that one quarter of the way into the season, they're without a doubt the team to beat in the NFC.

They're as close to a complete team as there is in this conference. A six-sack performance by a defense that had never previously found a way to slow down, let alone nearly shut out, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick helped offset an offense that scored on just three of its 10 possessions.

"The defense, when they play like that, we're going to be tough to beat," Rodgers said after he threw just one touchdown pass and was sacked a season-high three times. "Offensively, we've kind of carried it at times the first few weeks, but the defense, especially the last two weeks, [put] pressure on the passer. We're not getting a ton of turnovers, but when the offense is not turning it over, it makes us pretty tough to beat."

That's 13 sacks by the Packers' defense in the past two games combined, a total that's tied for their most in a two-game span since sacks became an official stat in 1982, and it's the first time they have ever had at least six sacks in consecutive games, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information.

In many ways, the onus was the defense coming into this season, and the Packers knew it. Clay Matthews admitted this offseason that too often the offense has carried this team and the need for more playmakers on his side of the ball was apparent.

On Sunday, the Pro Bowl linebacker got plenty of help. The six sacks were spread among five players: Nick Perry with two and one each for Matthews, Julius Peppers, Mike Neal and Jayrone Elliott.

Some of that started last season when Capers' defense played its best down the stretch. It has carried over and produced the kind of start (4-0) that eluded the Packers the past three years when they began each season 1-2.

"I think that's what we understand, that it's a very cohesive unit,” Matthews said. "We've been very close, and we should be in contention for bigger things. It starts now early in the season. Like I said, we're not trying to look too far ahead. We're focused on each week, but at the same time these have implications later on in the year."

As coaches are wont to do, Mike McCarthy was loath to throw his team any bouquets. Instead, he said this team can find another gear.

"Oh, hell yeah," McCarthy said. "Shoot, we're not even getting started. This is Week 4 in the NFL. This is normal. This is how it goes."

Without Jordy Nelson, the Packers' offense may not be able to replicate the explosiveness it had, say, in its 15-1 season of 2011. But with a defense that in the past three weeks has shut down running backs such as Marshawn Lynch and Jamaal Charles and held quarterbacks such as Russell Wilson and Kaepernick in check, that may not be necessary.

"We've got a good ball club, you know what I mean?" said receiver James Jones, who again showed why it was necessary to re-sign him with a five-catch, 98-yard game. "We've got a good ball club. We've got all the right pieces. We're making some plays right now – offense and defense and special teams-wise. So we give ourselves a chance to win every Sunday."