For the fifth time in the last three seasons, the 49ers and Packers are set to meet — this time two wins away from the Super Bowl.
These last three years have featured matchups between mentor and mentee as Kyle Shanahan's team took the two games in the 2019-20 season — including a win in the NFC Championship Game — before his protégé Matt LaFleur won the last two — including a Week 3 come-from-behind win this season.
As a quirk of the NFL's schedule, all four games were home for the 49ers, so playing in sub-freezing weather at Lambeau Field on Saturday night will be quite the changeup. And these long-time rivals have plenty of other narratives in a game that has the largest spread of the Divisional Round.
For one, there may be bad blood between the teams since the 49ers reportedly tried to lure Aaron Rodgers back to his native Northern California. At least an awkward exchange between the head coaches after the September game insinuated as much.
If this game is anything like their most recent meeting, the league and fans will be in for a treat. Especially after so many blowouts on "Super Wild Card Weekend." In Week 3, the 49ers pulled ahead on a Kyle Juszczyk touchdown with 37 seconds left, only for Mason Crosby to hit a 51-yard field goal as time expired for the 30-28 win.
Can the 49ers get revenge and propel themselves back to their second NFC title game in three years? Or will the Packers return to the NFC title game for the third straight season, in search of their first Super Bowl in more than a decade?
NFC Divisional Round: San Francisco (11-7) at Green Bay (13-4)
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 22 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Packers -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Green Bay stop the run for once?
The Packers rank 11th in run defense this season (109.1 ypg), but that's largely because they've been ahead of teams so often that opponents rarely can run. On a rate basis, they rank 30th at 4.7 yards per carry. Advanced metrics are only slightly better — 26th in adjusted line yards (4.61) and 18th in run-stopping win rate (30 percent).
This is going to be a crucial test against an offense that ranks seventh in rushing offense (127.4 ypg) and has gone over 150 yards six times in its last 10 games.
Green Bay already stopped San Francisco once this season when the Packers held the Niners to 67 yards on 21 carries in September. But that game was without leading running back Elijah Mitchell, who finished eighth in the league in rushing (963 yds.) despite missing six games.
The Packers also will have to contend with Deebo Samuel, whom the Niners have been using a lot more at running back since they once played. San Francisco was able to run all over the Cowboys last week (169 yds., 2 TDs) and will be looking to do the same against Green Bay. If they get ahead early, it could be difficult for the Packers to come back against the 49ers.
2. Can Jimmy G step up if the Niners fall behind?
But if the 49ers do fall behind, they're going to have to lean harder on Jimmy Garoppolo than they'd probably prefer. Yes, Garoppolo has played better in the second half — 104.0 passer rating and 8.69 adjusted yards per attempt vs. 93.5 and 8.23 — but he lacks the accuracy and quick decision-making of other elite passers.
Just look at the last time these teams met. Garoppolo was only 25-of-40 for 257 yards with two scores and an interception. While he led what appeared to be a game-winning drive before Crosby's field goal, he fumbled in Green Bay territory with five minutes left the drive before.
That interception leads to a crucial stat: The 49ers are 3-6 when Garoppolo throws an interception this season and 7-0 when he doesn't.
The Packers tied for fifth in the regular season with 18 interceptions, and they did that for much of the season without Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander, who is likely to return after last playing a full game in Week 3 when he had a pick and three passes defended. Green Bay also could return linebackers Za'Darius Smith and Whitney Mercilus.
Garoppolo's health is only adding more questions to his effectiveness. He entered the playoffs with a bone chip and torn UCL in his throwing hand that will require offseason surgery, and then he suffered a shoulder injury last week. He's been limited in practice this week, which could mean more appearances from rookie first-round pick Trey Lance, who has not looked ready for the playoff stage.
3. Can Aaron Rodgers continue his flawless play?
If there was any doubt that Rodgers was going to win his fourth MVP, he put it to rest by throwing 20 touchdowns and no interceptions in his final seven games. This kind of turnover-free play is nothing new, of course — for the fourth straight season, he's the only qualified passer with an interception rate below one percent.
But if Rodgers has had one flaw, it's been his postseason play. His interception rate is up to a still-impressive 1.7 percent, while his passer rating, completion percentage, and yards per attempt are all a tick below his regular-season averages. Yes, he's facing tougher competition in the playoffs than when he plays the Lions in the regular season (and sample size remains an issue), but since winning that Super Bowl, the Packers are 1-6 in the playoffs when he throws an interception and 6-1 when he doesn't.
The 49ers have a fearsome pass rush, but that pressure hasn't led to many turnovers. In fact, only four teams have fewer than their nine interceptions this season. If San Francisco can't force a turnover, it at least needs to keep up the heat after registering a season-high 20 pressures last week since Rodgers' numbers nosedive more than most under duress.
Injuries will once again play a role here, and it benefits the Packers. Nick Bosa, the Niners' most productive pass rusher, has been in the concussion protocol, and his effectiveness will be in question if he does play. Furthermore, Green Bay will be getting a boost with the return of linemen David Bakhtiari and Billy Turner, who have missed a combined 20 games this season.
It's stating the obvious, but it's cliché because it's true: this game will come down to turnovers. These are both Super Bowl-quality teams. San Francisco has to hope it can go up early (perhaps choosing to receive instead of deferring if it wins the toss) so that it can eat up the clock and not have to depend on a big Garoppolo game. As Green Bay showed in their September matchup, the Packers will loom large as long as Rodgers is under center.