Two of the NFL's legendary franchises clash in a potential NFC Championship Game preview
The Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers have combined for nine Super Bowl wins in the modern era. Only the Dallas Cowboys have as many or more titles (5) in the NFC; just the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots have more NFL championships overall.
It’s been several years, though since both the Packers and 49ers have been good at the same time. The last 49ers Super Bowl appearance was in 2013; they haven't won an NFL championship since 1995. The Packers are in an eight-year drought of their own, last capturing Super Bowl XLV with Aaron Rodgers back in 2011. It's a longer-than-expected slump for two teams that produced decade-long dynasties atop the NFL pantheon.
Perhaps it's fitting, then both teams chose to get their acts together smack in the middle of the NFL's 100th anniversary season. Entering the weekend with a combined record of 17-3, both teams clash Sunday night in what amounts to a potential January NFC Championship Game preview. Rodgers still leads the way for the Packers with a resurgent run game that's flourished in a new offensive scheme from first-year head coach Matt LaFleur. A healthy Rodgers has been the icing on the cake, seeking to win a second Super Bowl at age 35.
"It doesn't happen like this all the time," Rodgers after a Carolina Panthers win left them with an 8-2 start."We've been through rough seasons over the years, where you're just not quite in the mix. This feels different. Hopefully, those guys understand how important the opportunity is and not do anything stupid."
The 49ers, meanwhile sit at 9-1, seemingly in control of their own destiny atop the NFC. But their first and only defeat, earlier this month to the Seattle Seahawks, left them in a precarious position. Their stretch run includes five games against teams with winning records: the Packers, Ravens, Saints, Seahawks, and Rams. A lost tiebreaker against Seattle means they're just one game ahead for the NFC West lead, the difference between the conference's top seed and three playoff road games to make the Super Bowl.
The Packers, too, sit just one game ahead of the Minnesota Vikings as the NFC North remains up in the air. This game could make the difference in all NFC teams going through the frigid air of Lambeau Field, one of the league's top home-field advantages, to make the Super Bowl.
Can the Packers go out west and take care of business? Or will the 49ers continue their bounce back after a heartbreaking overtime defeat that bled into a game against the lowly Arizona Cardinals last week?
Green Bay at San Francisco
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 24 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Packers -3
Three Things To Watch
1. Can Aaron Rodgers slice through the 49ers' defense?
The 49ers lead the league, allowing just 142.5 passing yards per game while picking off opposing quarterbacks 11 times. Only Carolina has more interceptions in the NFC as the 49ers' 22 takeaways overall ranks third in the league.
No quarterback has been immune to their defensive front. The Rams' Jared Goff passed for just 78 yards, fumbled twice and was sacked four times in a 20-7 loss. Carolina Panthers starter Kyle Allen turned in a three-interception, seven-sack, 51-13 rout at Levi's Stadium. Even MVP candidate Russell Wilson was sacked five times, fumbled once and got picked off in the Seahawks' narrow 27-24 victory two weeks ago.
The key, then for Rodgers is not perfection, especially with an underperforming receiving corps still struggling to get healthy. (Top target Davante Adams remains questionable for Sunday night with a turf toe injury that's bothered him much of the year). It's minimizing the mistakes that will come against this defense and making sure they don't hurt this team in crunch time.
Chance are, Rodgers will become the 49ers' stiffest challenge yet. Consider he went without a touchdown throw in the Packers' last game on Nov. 10; he's never gone back-to-back games without a TD pass his entire career. Don't expect that to change now the way the Packers' offense is thriving entering this game; their seven turnovers overall are second-fewest in the NFL.
2. How will the 49ers' injuries shake out?
Both teams enter Sunday night beat up a bit but the 49ers are hurting more after a short week. Among the players who could be game-time decisions are tight end George Kittle, placekicker Robbie Gould, running back Matt Brieda, and wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Emmanuel Sanders.
One player who looks to be sitting for certain on the 49ers is starting tackle Joe Staley (finger). That's a tough loss against the Packers' 1-2 combo of Za'Darius and Preston Smith (no relation).
Gould's absence, despite seven missed kicks this season, also presents a stiff challenge. Replacement Chase McLaughlin hit a pressure-packed field goal to send the 49ers to overtime against the Seahawks but then missed an overtime winner so bad the ball bounced inside the tunnel. In a game likely to go down to the last possession, it's hard to place your full trust in a temporary replacement.
3. Can Jimmy Garoppolo carry the load?
All the injuries on offense mean this game will be defined by the 49ers' signal-caller. Everyone knows what Rodgers will bring to the table; the Packers are averaging 25.0 points per game.
But Garoppolo and the 49ers are throwing up 29.5 points per contest; only the Baltimore Ravens (34.1) generate more offense each week. The knock is that Jimmy G has piled up the score against hapless teams like the Bengals (41-17), Buccaneers (31-17), Browns (31-3) and Cardinals (36-26 last week). Just one of the 49ers' nine wins this season have come against teams with winning records.
Garoppolo, then, has an opportunity to change the narrative with many of his top weapons hobbled or sitting on the sidelines. Last week, this team produced just 34 rushing yards with Brieda sidelined; Garoppolo responded with a season-high 424 passing yards, four touchdown passes and throws to 10 different pass catchers.
The Packers' defense will be a much stiffer challenge, a team that feasts on making the big play (16 takeaways producing a +9 turnover margin). Garoppolo is going to need to take care of the football and continue to find a variety of targets with last week's savior Samuel (134 receiving yards vs. Seattle) potentially not in the lineup. How you see this game is likely influenced by how much you feel Garoppolo can overcome, living up to the hype when the 49ers acquired Tom Brady's one-time future replacement.
Expect a close game that's back-and-forth straight through to the final possession. It does give me pause Rodgers and the Packers struggled the last time they were out in California, an embarrassing 26-11 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
But chances are, they're well aware of the impact this game will bring to their playoff seeding. In a squeaker, I think Rodgers hands Garoppolo the type of tough loss good quarterbacks go through on their way to becoming great.
Prediction: Packers 27, 49ers 24
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.