The divisional round is here, and the stage is now set for two of the most prestigious franchises in NFL history to battle it out on the frozen tundra for a shot at playing in the conference title game.
The 49ers head to Lambeau Field to take on the Green Bay Packers for the ninth time in postseason history, with the all-time head-to-head tally currently tied at four wins apiece for each side and the 49ers being on the winning end of the last three playoff meetings.
The 49ers come into this game as 5.5 point underdogs, but you wouldn’t know that based on the energy surrounding this team at the moment. They are a confident bunch, and who can blame them after the way they have risen to the occasion in pivotal moments over the last couple of weeks in back-to-back must-win games.
They know better than anyone how much talent they have at their disposal, and they’ve seen what they are capable of doing to their opponents when they are able to stay out of their own way and execute at a high level.
So in this article, I’m going to gloss over a few keys for this game, as well as some things to keep an eye on in this contest. I also have the pleasure of being joined by Rich Madrid, who covers the Packers for SB Nation over at Acme Packing Co. Rich was kind enough to answer a couple of questions I had about this matchup, providing his expertise on all things Packers, as well as a final score prediction. I’ll start with the key’s for the 49ers and wrap up with Rich’s contributions and a score prediction from each of us.
Winning the battle at the line of scrimmage
The 49ers were limited to only 67 yards on 21 carries in their Week 3 loss to Green Bay. Based on my observations after reviewing the game film, that was far more a result of the Packers defense playing at a high level rather than the 49ers lacking an explosive ball carrier (remember Eli Mitchell did not play in this game, Kyle Juszczyk and Trey Sermon handled the majority of the rushing duties).
Apart from the difference actually having Mitchell in this game is all but assured to make, I don’t see the Packers defense having that same level of success in this game due to how well Alex Mack has played since then, but it is certainly something to keep an eye on.
The evolution of the 49ers run game and the expanded role Deebo Samuel has taken on as a ball carrier should alleviate some of the struggles from the first matchup. All in all, I expect the 49ers run game to be much more efficient this time around (they have to be, they don't really have much of a choice if they want to come away with a victory).
The pass protection has to be more sound as well, as the offensive line surrendered 13 pressures and allowed Jimmy Garoppolo to be hit 4 times back in Week 3. four of the five starting linemen in that game allowed multiple pressures, and the only one who didn’t was Mike McGlinchey, who is currently out for the season. This unit will have to find a way to fend off a very underrated pass rush and keep Garoppolo upright in obvious passing spots, particularly on 3rd down.
Moving to the other side of the ball, the 49ers' defensive line has to find a way to get to Aaron Rodgers in this game (duh). I mention something as obvious as that because the 49ers only registered seven pressures and one sack the last time these two teams met. That was against a hobbled Packers offensive line that was missing multiple starters in that game as well.
Credit must be given to Green Bay and the game plan they devised, as Rodgers was getting the ball out with lightning quickness, and the play-calling dialed up a lot of looks that never really allowed the pass rush to get home. The 49ers need to find a way to take away the quick game and force Rodgers to hold the ball a little longer, so the pass rush has a realistic shot of creating pressure and leaving the imprint we know they are capable of on this game.
The good news for the 49ers is that they have been on an absolute tear in terms of generating pressure as of late. Here is their pressure rate over the last six games:
It’s worth noting that the league average this season is 32.6%.
This late season surge and the addition of impact rotational pieces like Charles Omenihu hypothetically should point to a better performance from this unit than what we saw in week 3. The other Key thing (pun intended) to remember is that Arden Key had yet to be put into his role rushing from the interior during the first meeting, and as a result, Green Bay hasn’t been able to show they have a plan to combat it yet effectively. If the 49ers are going to have any hope of pulling off the upset, they are going to need to get pressure on the quarterback as they did in Dallas.
Let the playmakers do the heavy lifting
Look, even with Jimmy Garoppolo at 100% health, the 49ers' best bet at winning football games is dependent on letting their quarterback get the ball out quickly to his playmakers in space. That is even more critical in this game considering the multiple injuries Garoppolo is dealing with has he enters this game. This needs to be a game where Kyle Shanahan is able to get the ball to Deebo Samuel regularly and George Kittle in space and force the Packers defense to tackle these guys for 60 minutes in near sub zero temperatures.
Let’s start with Samuel because he has been the most consistent engine driving this offense over the course of the season. Samuel is coming off of a performance in Dallas that saw him run the ball 10 times for 72 yards and a touchdown. At this point, finding a way to continue to get Samuel the ball behind the line of scrimmage as a ball carrier has to be the utmost priority. Everybody knows that he is going to be the focal point of this offense, and yet despite that, to this point, nobody has shown they can effectively stop it.
The 49ers are 7-0 this season when Samuel carries the ball more than six times this season, and any way the 49ers can efficiently get over that number in this game would go a long way in their pursuit of victory. At this point in the season anything extra you get from Samuel as a receiver is a bonus, just find a way to get the ball to your superstar offensive weapon in space and let him go to work.
There has to be an effort to get the ball to George Kittle as well. Kittle is coming off of a stretch of four games that’s seen him record only 9 catches for 79 yards over that span. That’s just not going to cut it, and frankly Kittle is due for a breakout performance in the playoffs, and where better to do it than during a homecoming trip to Wisconsin (Kittle was born in Madison). It just feels like it’s going to be one of those games where we see Kittle generating tough, hard-fought yards after the catch, and the 49ers very well could end up needing every last one of them in this contest.
Brandon Aiyuk has been on fire as of late, coming off a wild card game that he was the leading receiver in. Aiyuk has rebounded tremendously from a curiously slow start to put up very solid numbers down the backstretch of the season.
Brandon Aiyuk’s first 10 games this season:
Aiyuk’s last 9 games:
Coincidentally enough, Aiyuk had one of his better games during his early season slump against Green Bay, including a touchdown on a snap that he was covered by All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander.
Jauan Jennings continues to step up in big moments, with 23 of his 27 receptions this season going for either a first down or a touchdown. There is a clear connection between Garoppolo and Jennings, and when you consider he is fourth on the pecking order among this receiving group (Kittle included), it invites cautious optimism that the 49ers have the firepower to go toe to toe with this Packers team in their own backyard.
Lastly, Elijah Mitchell. It’s important to again note that he was not on the field in the previous matchup this season. Mitchell has proven to be not only a dependable ball carrier but a battering ram capable of wearing down a defense with 25 plus carries in a game. Mitchell has 1,100 yards from scrimmage on the year, despite missing 6 games due to injury.
His added dynamism throws another unknown variable into the mix, and his physicality and punishing style of running should create problems for Packers defenders attempting to tackle him in such cold weather. ( I don’t want to continue to harp on the cold thing, but it’s hard enough tackling these 49ers playmakers in ideal weather, Green Bay having to wrap them up in frigid temperatures is a major factor in this game).
Win the battle on special teams
Believe it or not, the Packers actually have had a rougher year on special teams than the 49ers have. A week after we saw the 49ers have a costly special teams gaffe on a fake punt, fans can breathe a momentary sigh of relief knowing that the Packers have actually been a (marginally) worse unit. The 49ers rank 6th in punt return yards allowed, while the Packers rank 23rd. Where it get’s really dicey, is kickoff coverage.
Simply put, both of these teams have been horrible this season when they have been tasked with covering kicks. As I’m sure this is no surprise to anyone reading this, the 49ers rank 31st in the league with 1203 kickoff return yards allowed. The only team that’s worse than them? The Green Bay Packers at 1283 yards.
The difference in this game might be as something as simple as whichever team is able to take advantage of the other’s lackluster special teams unit by ripping off a big return and/or consistently set up their offense with premium field position. I expect an all-hands-on-deck approach from both sides and wouldn’t be surprised to see Deebo Samuel handle some kick return duties in this game as well.
Samuel has experience returning kicks from his college days at the University of South Carolina, where he returned 42 kickoffs for an average of 29.0 yards per return, as well as 4 touchdowns during his collegiate career. The 49ers having a savvy veteran like Travis Benjamin (who handled punt return duties last week in Dallas) could prove to be an X factor in this game as well, as the Packers rank dead last in the NFL with 12.8 return yards per punt allowed.
The field position battle in the return game will be pivotal, but it won’t be the only thing to watch on special teams. Both of these teams have veteran kickers who are very familiar with kicking in the elements of an NFC North stadium. Robbie Gould drilled two 50+ yard field goals last week, and while i don’t expect anyone to be eager to kick from that distance in this weather, the ability to lean on a kicker with Gould’s proven postseason track record might prove invaluable in this game (Gould is 18-18 in his postseason career on field goal attempts and 31-31 on extra-point attempts).
So to wrap things up, I’m going to pivot to a few questions I had for Rich (an expert in all things Packers) after rewatching the game film from the first matchup this season between the Packers and 49ers. Then I’ll finish with a final score prediction of my own.
1. Do you think the 49ers will have an adjustment to the 2 high shell that saw the Packers put both safeties abnormally close to the line of scrimmage, something that gave the 49ers issues the first game?
I think there are two ways to do it.
A) They need to find ways to run the ball effectively by leaning a little more on the misdirection runs and gap scheme runs that punish the Packers' edge defenders as they did in both 2019 games. That might encourage the Packers to commit a safety to the box on early downs and have them sit in single. If they start sitting in single high Cover-3 or Cover-1, Shanahan can lean on the play-action passing game or drop back passing game to pick it apart.
B) Jimmy Garoppolo needs to hit those intermediate throws consistently in the 10-15 yard range to encourage the safeties to sit back a bit deeper, which can also open the running game as it doesn’t allow the safeties to slow play and fit the run as easy as they did in the week three game.
2. Outside of Davante Adams & Aaron Jones, who is a player that maybe flies a bit under the radar who could cause some problems for the 49ers defense this week?
To me, there are two players who can do this. Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb. Neither Lazard nor Cobb had big games against San Francisco in week three but those two have produced throughout the season plus Lazard is a very good run blocker. If the 49ers find ways to limit Adams, they’ll lean on Lazard in the red zone and Cobb between the red zones. Or at least they can. They have other guys like Josiah Deguara, who’s filled nicely for Robert Tonyan.
Lazard is a big target over the middle and in the red zone as well. They’ll purposely use Adams as a decoy to get Lazard open. And Cobb just always finds a way to get open in space and makes difficult catches. The Packers have repeatedly shown that if you take away Adams, they have answers for that too, both schematically and in their personnel depth.
3. What is the best way to pressure Aaron Rodgers effectively? Should DeMeco Ryans focus on dialing up some exotic pressure, or is his best bet to attempt to get pressure while only rushing four?
I think what Ryans is going to want to do is limit their quick passing game by forcing the give-read on their run-pass option plays and stunt the front to attack Royce Newman, who cannot read pick up a stunting defensive linemen to save his life. On the RPO plays, I have more faith that the 49ers defense can stop the run than I have faith that they can put the clamps on Adams on some quick passes to the flat. The Packers don’t pick up a ton of yards on the running game portion of their RPOs anyways. Just give them the 2 or 3 yards a pop on that.
As far as their offensive line goes, they’ve had a patchwork group all season since David Bakhtiari hasn’t played until week 18 and will likely be placed on a pitch count Saturday night. They’ve shuffled 4 or 5 guys into that offensive line due to injuries and covid since Week 1 that. There really is an opportunity for Ryans to get creative with some well-timed blitzes and stunts, especially over their right side.
I would expect him to overload Royce Newman with some combination of Bosa, Armstead, and Warner as pass rushers, plus DJ Jones on running downs to push him around. Add in the well-time fire zone blitzes that Ryans kept from Saleh and use them at the right times and I think the 49ers' defense can absolutely hang with their offense.
4. Who do you feel has the advantage between the two head coaches and why?
Kyle Shanahan hands down. I think Matt LaFleur is a great coach in his own right but no one owns their former students better than Shanahan does. LaFleur has only beaten the 49ers in a covid year when half the roster was out injured or sick on a short week and had to rely on Aaron Rodgers's late-game heroics in week three.
Shanahan never seems more confident than when he goes against his former colleagues like LaFleur or Sean McVay and never seems as confident as when he has a healthy team that has grown week to week since the early season. The adjustments and gameplanning will be evident in this one from week three as they were from week 12 to the NFC Championship Game in 2019. Add in the in-game adjustments, and I think the 49ers will hang around in this one a lot longer than people think or give them credit for.
5. What’s your final score prediction?
I’m going to go with 27-24 Packers in this one. At some point Shanahan just won’t be able to overcome Garoppolo’s mistakes. Add in the injuries to his throwing hand and shoulder, and this has the potential to get really ugly really quick in the cold. DeMeco’s defense keeps the game close, but we’ve seen what happens when Garoppolo makes mistakes. The luck has to run out at some point. This is probably that week.
Now is the time to put a bow on this and give my final score prediction. I was close last week (had the end of the game scenario and margin of victory correct, just not the final score), but i admittedly am struggling far more at picking a winner in this one. It’s so hard to bet against the Packers at home in January, especially with Aaron Rodgers playing arguably the best football of his hall of fame career. Truthfully, if i didn’t cover this 49ers team so closely, I’d probably be inclined to pick Green Bay in this one.
Having said that, I just can’t shake this feeling that there is something extraordinary going on with this 49ers team right now. I don’t want to throw the word “destiny” around loosely, but the way this 49ers team has found ways to win games to keep this season alive has been nothing short of spectacular. I think the 49ers find a way to win the war at the line of scrimmage, and end up getting a clean day from their special teams unit to propel them to the next round, where the winner of the Buccaneers and Rams await with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
FINAL SCORE PREDICTION - 49ers 26, Packers 17