NFC Championship Game rematch looks a little different 10 months later
The last time the Green Bay Packers played the San Francisco 49ers, it was an NFC Championship Game blowout of epic proportions on Jan. 19. The Packers stumbled out of the gate, fell behind a whopping 27-0 by the end of the first half, and never recovered. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw two interceptions and lost a fumble; the defense allowed 220 rushing yards to Raheem Mostert and was genuinely outclassed by the NFC's No. 1 seed. The 49ers fought hard, punched early, and never hesitated in throwing a series of knockout blows.
Nine months later, the Packers have a chance to return the favor.
San Francisco enters this short week a wounded (and now sick) animal hanging on by a thread. They lost both starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle to long-term injuries in a blowout loss against Seattle. Now sitting at 4-4, the defending NFC champions are last in their division and one game behind a wild-card playoff spot. Their second-half schedule starts with Green Bay on Thursday night before going on the road to face the Rams (5-3), then the Saints (5-2) before coming home to face the AFC East-leading Bills (6-2). Lose all four games and a chance to defend their NFC title is out the window. Lose three of them and the playoffs remain near impossible in a quality conference.
That's where Green Bay, after losing their last two games here 74-28, should be licking their lips for revenge. What better way to end the first half 6-2, atop the NFC North all alone, than by avenging their January demons in the Golden State? Rodgers is back on pace for another MVP-caliber season, throwing 20 touchdowns in the first seven weeks of the year. Thursday night could be a major step toward fighting for the No. 1 seed and ensuring this season's NFC Championship Game gets played on more friendly turf... the freezing tundra of Lambeau Field in January.
Thursday Night Football: Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 5 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: FOX/NFL Network
Spread: Packers -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Aaron Rodgers fix his sloppy play out in San Francisco?
Rodgers was made to look like an amateur during the two matchups against the 49ers last year. Nick Bosa terrorized him in the NFC Championship Game; Rodgers was sacked three times and never felt comfortable in the pocket. In the regular-season matchup last November, Rodgers threw for a season-low 104 yards as the Packers were embarrassed 37-8.
But Bosa isn't around for this one, suffering a torn ACL last month that leaves him out the rest of the year. Neither is Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman, who picked off Rodgers back in January. Defensive end Dee Ford is out, too, one of a long line of 49ers injuries that have turned their team into a shell of its former self.
It leaves the 49ers' defense ripe for the picking. The team led the NFL in pass defense last season but has slipped to sixth in 2020. Rodgers' rival for the MVP this season, Russell Wilson, torched them for 261 yards and four touchdowns Sunday in a 37-27 win. Thursday provides a great head-to-head comparison for whether Rodgers can follow suit.
2. What will the 49ers' offense look like?
The devastating injuries for San Francisco just keep piling up. Their team could fill an entire hospital ward at this point with their list of starters unavailable for Thursday night's game. No Garoppolo (six weeks, high ankle sprain). No Kittle (eight weeks, broken bone in foot). No Mostert, still out with a high ankle sprain of his own, along with replacement running backs Jeff Wilson Jr. and potentially Tevin Coleman. Wide receiver Deebo Samuel has a pulled hamstring and is sidelined, too.
So what will the 49ers' offense look like? Jerick McKinnon was supposed to replace Mostert, but The Athletic claims the running back has been suffering from a case of "tired legs." He rushed for a grand total of -1 yards against the Seahawks and barely played at all against the Patriots the week before. That leaves JaMycal Hasty, an undrafted rookie, to handle the majority of the backfield carries. But 29 yards and a 2.5 yards per carry average from Sunday hardly inspires confidence.
Quarterback Nick Mullens played well in garbage time against Seattle, throwing for two touchdowns and 238 yards after Garoppolo hobbled to the sideline. But the last time we saw Mullens in a game that mattered, he was pulled for C.J. Beathard after an uninspiring performance against the 3-4-1 Eagles.
The 49ers' offense wasn't built for a high-octane passing attack yet that appears to be their only option to score Thursday night, but who will Mullens have to throw to? Samuel, who was already ruled out with an injury, was one of four 49ers who were put on the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Wednesday following fellow wideout Kendrick Bourne testing positive. The others were rookie Brandon Aiyuk, one of the few bright spots for this team the past two weeks (14 receptions, 206 yards, TD), and left tackle Trent Williams. That currently leaves Trent Taylor and Richie James as the only wide receivers on the active roster. This duo has combined for nine catches for 77 yards this season, all belonging to Taylor. Reinforcements will probably be called up from the practice squad (River Cracraft, Chris Finke, Kevin White being the options), but with more than half of your starting offense on the sidelines, will it matter?
One small stat in Mullens' favor is that the Packers' defense has struggled to cause turnovers: their four takeaways are tied for last in the NFL. However, it won't take many mistakes for Mullens to get in trouble against a Green Bay offense that's built to score.
3. Can Davante Adams be stopped?
Rodgers' top target has been a one-man wrecking crew in recent weeks, carrying the Packers (and fantasy teams) with five touchdown catches in the last two games alone. Adams draws double-coverage and all the attention of any secondary he faces, especially considering the drop-off in talent behind him. It doesn’t matter. And with no Sherman in the lineup for the 49ers... watch out.
Adams also was one of the few players able to penetrate the 49ers' defense in the playoff meeting in January. Nine receptions for 138 yards proved too little, too late but could serve as a preview for what a hungry Packers team could do Thursday night. And don't forget about tight end Robert Tonyan. He led the team with 79 receiving yards in Sunday's disappointing home loss to Minnesota and has developed into a good complementary target for a team that needs a few more options.
The passing attack may need to do most of the heavy lifting on Thursday as Green Bay's backfield won't be at full strength. Aaron Jones has missed the past two games with a calf injury and is considered questionable to play. Jamaal Williams, who has gotten the bulk of the work with Jones out, and rookie AJ Dillon are both out due to COVID-19 concerns. Dillon was placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Monday while Williams has been deemed a "high-risk close contact" and won't be able to play due to protocols requiring him to isolate and stay away from the team for five days (retroactive to Sunday). The only other running back currently on the active roster is Tyler Ervin, who has 43 rushing yards on four carries (and 33 yards on six catches) in five games this season. Dexter Williams could be elevated from the practice squad, something that happened in Week 7 when Jones missed his first game.
The Packers are hungry for revenge. The 49ers are nowhere close to healthy. This one's not hard to figure out from a bettor's, analyst's, or fan's perspective.
It's a shame as it would have been nice to see how these teams would have competed against each other at full strength. But the 49ers appear to be suffering a Super Bowl hangover in the form of broken bones and torn muscles that leave their team the wrong type of medical marvel. Sitting on the sidelines, whatever the reason, doesn't win you football games. And even though the Packers have some injury/medical issues of their own, there's nothing here to suggest the 49ers can get it together in time for Thursday night.
Prediction: Packers 34, 49ers 13
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.