On one hand it kinda feels like we’re playing with house money. The Packers have reached the NFC title game a year ahead of schedule, with most believing it would take their rookie, first-time head coach and the offense a year to get its footing. And no one knew what to expect from a defense that got a high priced make over in the offseason.
On the other hand, their 36-year-old future Hall of Fame quarterback has officially entered his golden years and any season where he remains healthy should be one where this team contends. A healthy Aaron Rodgers has the NFL’s sixth best offensive line in front of him, and a top ten running back and wide receiver by his side. That gives him a chance to win on any given Sunday.
So here come the Packers, back to the scene of the Week 12 crime, where the 49ers eviscerated them in Week 12, exposing them as pretenders, rather than contenders in the NFC. It was the low point of the season: from the Rodgers fumble on the first series inside the ten yard line, to the loss of Bryan Bulaga on the game’s ninth play, to a complete inability to throw the ball downfield (0-8 on passes of 10+ yards) to a game-long failure on third down (1-15).
But everything has changed since then. Rodgers completely shifted the narrative last week against the Seahawks, with a near perfect performance on third downs. The defensive players took it upon themselves to meet privately and air things out following the Niners loss. While they were getting after quarterbacks and stiffening in the red zone, they were susceptible to explosive plays–giving up two TDs of 40+ yards against the Niners. But since that game, they’ve given up just one TD of 20+ yards over the last five games.
No one outside of the Bay Area expects to see another 37-8 beatdown. But you can argue that San Francisco is much healthier for the rematch, and after struggling to the finish line with a 3-2 record and a bunch of close games, they put it all together last week in their dominance of the Vikings.
Let’s start with the Pack’s D against Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers offense. As they did so well last week, they will try to run it down the Pack’s throat with their three-headed attack. The Pack will need to win on first downs and put the young QB in tough down and distance situations. I worry most about Raheem Mostert, who’s tough and slippery and capable of the big play.
Obviously, their biggest weapon is George Kittle, who was dealing with an ankle injury in the first meeting and was on the field for just 38 snaps. He was still able to dominate, with 129 receiving yards and a 61 yard touchdown. He’ll get his catches, but the defense needs to limit the yards after catch–the same goes for rookie Deebo Samuel, who is so dangerous with the ball in his hands. And veteran Emmanuel Sanders gives them another dynamic target in the passing game.There has been so much talk about the Niners’ great front, but the Pack should be able to bother Garoppolo as well. Getting him off his timing so he can’t play catch with those three guys is essential.
The Pack’s offense self-destructed when Bulaga went down in the first meeting. He’s back this week, recovered from the flu, and now we know the team has a capable backup in Jared Veldheer, should he get hurt again. Bulaga’s return should also boost the run game, which was non-existent in the first meeting.
Aaron Jones must get 20-25 touches in this game, with an opportunity to make plays as a receiver against this aggressive pass rush. SF gives up 4.5 yards per rush, 10th worst in the league. Green Bay absolutely must be productive in the running game. And look for Tyler Ervin to get a few more opportunities on gadget plays; he’s earned snaps with the offense.
The Niners will obviously pay a ton of attention to Davante Adams but I don’t expect them to have Richard Sherman follow him around. He usually mans the offensive right side and stays there. The Pack will move Adams around and seek out favorable matchups. If Adams finds success, maybe Sherman locks down on him. Regardless, others will need to step up. Jimmy Graham had three huge first down catches last week and Allen Lazard is healthy and will be needed to move the chains on Sunday night. And maybe we see some production from Jace Sternberger, who saw his most extensive action of the season last week.
The recipe for a Packers upset contains all the usual ingredients: win the turnover battle, convert on third downs and get big third down stops on defense. Tighten up in the red zone and force them to settle for field goals. Be balanced on offense and avoid special teams mistakes.
Look a little closer and here’s what we need to see. Bakhtiari and Bulaga should be able to handle Ford and Bosa for most of the game. The trouble could come on the interior, where Billy Turner will have to deal with Buckner, Armstead and those great ends who will stunt from the inside. That’s a matchup that could cause Rodgers to run for his life. Look for Marcedes Lewis to get a lot of snaps to help deal with the pass rush–and look for him to slip free and make 2-3 big catches.
Look for the Packers secondary to give up a few big plays, but also look for them to win a few big battles too. Garoppolo will throw some balls up for grabs inside the numbers, where most of his production comes. It feels like Jaire Alexander is ready to take one to the house on this big stage. The Packers’ defense has gotten such improved play out of the safety position this season and Amos and Savage need to have their best games against this balanced offense–and Pettine will need to guess right on what’s coming more often than not.
The Niners are 7.5 point favorites for a reason. Top to bottom, their roster is stronger than Green Bay’s. They’re healthy, they’re at home and they match up well with the Packers, who have struggled against strong running games and elite tight ends.
But the Packers have Rodgers. Last week he showed that he can still rise up and put together an elite performance when the lights are brightest. And now he gets another chance against the team he grew up rooting for, the team that passed him over on draft day in a matchup that few experts give him a chance of winning. Chip, meet shoulder.
Oh, and the previous three times a team with at least 13 regular season wins was at least a touchdown underdog in the title game, they won the game outright. I love this stat. Read it again.
I see the 49ers leading for most of the game, with the Packers hanging around, always within shouting distance. The Niners lead 26-21 late and #12 gets one last chance to bring his team back. You gonna bet against him?
Packers 28 49ers 26