So, if you've got a save file with a finished (or near finished) career mode, do not use its Freeplay mode. It will automatically give the opponents a massive offense and defense boost (APO upgrades) just like the late career AI has (You know, late career, when you're driving plow with upgrades). Use a fresh save's Freeplay, it will not give any of the opponents upgrades for APO stats, despite being the exact same normal difficulty mode.
"Working as intended" Stainless says it is. It is not, it makes the game super frustrating and the game does NOT tell you that it changed the freeplay experience to be massively more difficult, even on normal difficulty.
That's the worst part, the game does NOT tell you anything about this extra APO difficulty, at ALL, very insulting to players who played the game extensively.