NFC heavyweights collide in Santa Clara with a trip to Super Bowl LIV on the line
The Green Bay Packers will make their way to Levi's Stadium to face the San Francisco 49ers for the second time this season on Sunday. Only this time around, the stakes are much higher for two legendary NFL teams that boast nine Super Bowl titles between them. One will be crowned NFC champions and earn a trip to Miami, while the other will be watching Super Bowl LIV at home.
The No. 2-seeded Packers (14-3) held off a late charge by the Seahawks in the NFC Divisional Round to secure a 28-23 victory last Sunday in front of the Lambeau Field faithful, earning them a return trip to Santa Clara to face the Niners in the NFC title game. Unfortunately, Green Bay's first trip west to face San Francisco didn't go so well. And that might be an understatement, as the 49ers dominated the Nov. 24 matchup from start to finish, holding Aaron Rodgers and the Packer offense to just 198 yards en route to a 37-8 blowout.
The silver lining is that the embarrassment of that Week 12 loss seems to have stoked a fire under a Green Bay squad that has not lost a game since. First-year head coach Matt LaFleur and his Packers will now look to ride the momentum of a six-game winning streak back into Levi's Stadium in search of redemption and their first NFC championship since 2011.
The top-seeded 49ers (14-3) are riding high after scoring their first playoff win in six years last Saturday at home in the NFC Divisional Round. San Francisco leaned heavily on its potent rushing attack and a rejuvenated defense to earn a decisive 27-10 victory over the Vikings.
San Francisco's dominance against Green Bay in the regular-season matchup was palpable, giving the favored 49ers every reason to be supremely confident heading into the NFC title game. But you'd be ill-advised to mention that to head coach Kyle Shanahan, who has no intention of letting his Niners underestimate the red-hot Packers based on something that happened in November. Shanahan's message to his team — "Don't be that stupid." — seems like sound advice ahead of Sunday's all-important rematch with a trip to Super Bowl LIV on the line.
Sunday night's NFC Championship Game will mark the 69th meeting all-time between Green Bay and San Francisco. The Packers lead the series 36-31-1 and hold a slight 4-3 edge in postseason matchups. The 49ers have won the last two meetings in the playoffs, the most recent in 2014.
NFC Championship: Green Bay at San Francisco
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 19 at 6:40 p.m. ET
Spread: 49ers -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Pressure will pay dividends
A rejuvenated San Francisco pass rush led by Nick Bosa (11 sacks), Arik Armstead (11 sacks), DeForest Buckner (8.5 sacks), and Dee Ford (7.5 sacks) looked to be back in top-flight form last week against the Vikings. Consistent pressure from the vaunted Niners' defensive front made life miserable for Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins, who was sacked six times and hit several more times in the losing effort.
It was very reminiscent of the 49ers' performance against the Packers on Nov. 24. San Francisco dominated in the trenches on that night as well, routinely overpowering one of the NFL's better offensive lines to rack up five sacks and 10 QB hits. The relentless pressure generated by the San Francisco pass rush also played a pivotal role in the Packers converting on just one of 15 third-down attempts, as Aaron Rodgers finished with a season-low 104 passing yards in the lopsided Week 12 game.
As a result, you can probably expect to see Rodgers roll out of the pocket more often on Sunday, relying more on quick hitters and screen passes to running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams to help alleviate some of the pressure this time around. But the Packers will still need a much-improved effort from the offensive line. And unfortunately, there is no surefire solution to pacify San Francisco's pass rush when it's hitting on all cylinders.
That also rings true for a formidable Packers pass rush, led by Za'Darius and Preston Smith. Green Bay's dynamic pass rush duo has combined for 29.5 sacks this season, including two sacks a piece in last week's playoff win against Seattle. "The Smith Bros." (no actual relation), as they are affectionately known, also made their presence felt against Jimmy Garoppolo and company in Week 12, combining for two sacks and four QB hits. They will likely be a force to reckoned with again in the NFC Championship Game.
2. The run game
One area in which the Packers might be able to glean an advantage on Sunday is in the run game. The San Francisco run defense ranked 17th in the NFL overall (112.6 ypg) in the regular season and just 23rd in regard to yards per carry (4.5) allowed. Green Bay features a special talent at running back in Jones. Not only did Jones eclipse the magical 1,000-yard rushing mark during the regular season, he also has scored more touchdowns (21) than any other skill position player in the NFL if you include his two trips to the end zone last week against Seattle.
While that bodes well, there's also room for skepticism. Jones only managed to run for 38 yards on 13 carries and failed to get in the end zone against San Francisco in Week 12. Furthermore, the 49ers are coming off a spectacular performance against Minnesota in which they held star running back Dalvin Cook to just 18 yards on nine carries. The healthy return of linebacker Kwon Alexander to go along with tackling machine Fred Warner could further complicate matters for Jones and the Green Bay ground attack on Sunday night.
Meanwhile, San Francisco will turn to its three-headed monster to take advantage of a favorable matchup on the ground against Green Bay on Sunday night. Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, and Matt Breida have combined for more than 2,000 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns to lead the way for a ground attack that ranked second in the NFL during the regular season, averaging 144.1 rushing yards per contest.
And following last week's impressive 186-yard, two-touchdown performance against Minnesota, it's easy to like the 49ers' chances against a Green Bay run defense that finished the regular season tied for 23rd, allowing 120.1 rushing yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry. The 49ers averaged 5.1 yards per attempt against the Packers in Week 12, adding two rushing touchdowns in the process.
3. Key matchups in the passing game
Davante Adams stole the show last week against Seattle with eight catches for 160 yards and a pair of scores. And despite missing four games, the Packers' star wide receiver still managed to lead Green Bay in receptions (83) and receiving yards (997) by a wide margin during the regular season. That leaves little doubt that Adams will once again be the top target of choice for Rodgers in the NFC Championship Game. But how does this potent combination stack up against the best pass defense in the NFL?
Adams was the lone bright spot for the Packer offense in the regular-season matchup against San Francisco, scoring Green Bay's only touchdown in the loss. But his 43 receiving yards on seven catches against the vaunted 49er pass defense still left plenty to be desired. Interestingly enough, six of Adams' seven catches in that game (including the touchdown) came on 19 routes run against defensive backs not named Richard Sherman.
When paired against Sherman on 16 routes, Adams caught just one pass for seven yards. Even more interesting is Rodgers' career track record against Sherman. Rodgers has completed 11 of 17 passes for 107 yards with no touchdowns and one interception for a career passer rating of just 57.7 when targeting Sherman — not good. Since Sherman almost exclusively lines up on the right side of the field instead of following one receiver all game, the Packers may exploit that by lining Adams up across the field from Sherman.
Jimmy Garoppolo's go-to target is unquestionably All-Pro tight end George Kittle. Like Adams, Kittle led his team in both receptions (85) and receiving yards (1,053) during the regular season despite missing time due to injury. One game that he didn't miss was the Nov. 24 matchup against the Packers. Kittle hauled in all six of his targets for a team-high 129 receiving yards, highlighted by a 61-yard touchdown reception.
It's safe to say that the NFL's best tight end stands a pretty good chance to do some damage in the NFC title game as well. But Kittle might just have a worthy adversary in the form of a tweaked ankle. He popped up on the 49ers' injury report after sitting out practice on Wednesday but he returned on Thursday and was listed as a full participant. Anyone who has watched Kittle play knows it will take more than a sore ankle to keep the tough-as-nails tight end away from a favorable matchup in the NFC Championship Game.
It's not unprecedented for a team to bounce back in the postseason with a win against a team that previously blew them out during the regular season. In fact, it's happened many times. And for a Green Bay team riding a six-game win streak, led by a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, it's not hard to understand why some like the Packers chances to come away with an upset on Sunday night.
That being said, the 49ers' Week 12 win against the Packers was no fluke. It was a one-sided affair, clearly dominated by a better football team. And I can't see where the circumstances have changed much since Nov. 24. If anything, San Francisco might even be more potent now with the recent return of several top players that missed the first matchup due to injury and the emergence of dynamic rookie wideout Deebo Samuel.
Green Bay is sure to employ a better game plan this time around, and those corrections should make for a slightly more competitive matchup. However, it won't be enough to overcome a superior San Francisco team playing in front of the home crowd. The 49ers simply have too much firepower across the board, which is why they will punch their ticket to Super Bowl LIV as NFC champs.
Prediction: 49ers 31, Packers 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.