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3 keys to a 49ers victory over the Packers: Battle through the air or on the ground?

The 49ers are playing their first playoff game of the year against one of the NFL’s hottest teams.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at San Francisco 49ers Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been three weeks since the San Francisco 49ers have played in a meaningful game, as they clinched the No. 1 seed in the NFC on December 31st, allowing them to rest starters for a portion or the entirety of their Week 18 loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

On Saturday, they’ll take on the Green Bay Packers, who are one of the NFL’s hottest teams, having won seven of their last nine games, including last week’s 48-32 beating of the Dallas Cowboys on the road.

In their win, the Packers got significant contributions from quarterback Jordan Love, who completed 16/21 passes for 272 yards and three touchdowns in his first playoff start, and running back Aaron Jones, who rushed for 118 yards and three touchdowns, marking the fourth straight game that the veteran back has surpassed the 100-yard threshold.

The 49ers come into the week nearly scott-free injury-wise, as only Clelin Ferrell has been ruled out, while Dre Greenlaw is questionable with Achilles tendinitis, but is expected to play.

Ahead of the weekend, the 49ers signed defensive end Austin Bryant to the practice squad, releasing running back Jeremy McNichols. Bryant will likely serve as insurance depth with Ferrell out.

Heading into the game, the 49ers are seen as 9.5-point favorites, according to DraftKings Sportsbook, with the over/under placed at 50.5 points.

Here’s what you need to know about the 49ers’ opponent on Saturday.

Opponent Preview

The Green Bay Packers come into the playoffs as one of the league’s hottest teams and proved they were no fluke with their blowout victory on the road against the No. 2 seeded Dallas Cowboys last week.

In Jordan Love’s first playoff start, the Packers were leading 48-16 in the fourth quarter at one point, and looked strong on the offensive end, despite entering the playoffs with one of the youngest cores on that side of the ball.

The Packers’ main injury is to defensive end Kingsley Enagbare, who was hurt in last weekend’s matchup, and is out for Saturday’s game.

Defensive back Jaire Alexander is listed as questionable after missing two consecutive practices this week, while running back A.J. Dillon is questionable after practicing for the first time in two weeks on Thursday. Elsewhere, linebacker Isaiah McDuffie is questionable as well after being limited on Wednesday and Thursday, and punter Daniel Whelan is dealing with an illness.

The Packers have rode the highs and lows of first-year quarterback Jordan Love, who has excelled over the second half of the season and arguably looked like a Top 5-10 quarterback during Green Bay’s winning streak.

Love took that momentum into last weekend’s game, making an array of impressive throws, while Green Bay remained balanced with the rushing attack to keep Dallas’s defense on its feet.

Love is working with the league’s youngest receiving core, as none of the Packers’ pass-catchers have more than two years of NFL experience, while every member of Green Bay’s offensive line is 28 or younger.

That isn’t the case defensively, where the Packers have several key players who are at least 30 years old, such as linebacker D’Vondre Campbell and edge rusher Preston Smith.

Keys to the Game

Run Game: The run game will always be a key for the 49ers, but its value seems even more heightened with the playoff atmosphere upon them on Saturday.

Defensive end Nick Bosa said it best: good teams find ways to run the football and stop the run in the playoffs, as remaining balanced is what keeps opposing defenses guessing the most.

Bosa shared that the defense’s top objective will be to stop the run on Saturday, hoping to make Love uncomfortable in the pocket as a result.

“He’s really good at going through his reads, playing the offense to a tee, and we definitely need to stop the run,” Bosa said early this week about Jordan Love. “I don’t think many teams have made him uncomfortable yet, so stopping the run and covering up those easy, open guys is something we have to do.”

The Packers utilized this formula in their first-round win over the Dallas Cowboys, as they remained balanced with Aaron Jones, while limiting running back Tony Pollard to just 56 yards defensively.

San Francisco needs to get it going early with McCaffrey, but getting stops on the ground will be equally as important to create a gap between the 49ers and the Packers. Returning Arik Armstead to the fold should be a significant help in achieving that goal.

The numbers favor the 49ers, who pose a top-five rushing attack in the NFL in both yards (140.5 a game) and efficiency (4.8 yards per carry).

Conversely, the 49ers hold a top-three defense in rushing yards allowed (89.7 yards a game), while the Packers rank among the bottom-five in the NFL, allowing 128 rushing yards per game.

First Half: The 49ers and Packers have, surprisingly, both been strong closing teams in 2023, ranking among the league’s best teams in second-half scoring.

San Francisco scored the most second-half points in the NFL at 13.2 a game, while the Packers were sixth with 12.6 a game, barely falling behind.

This aided the Packers down the stretch during their win streak, as they were able to pull out key victories in several games, leading to them making the playoffs.

Now, there’s a difference between the two teams defensively in the second half, as the 49ers allow just 8.2 second-half points a game, good for sixth in the NFL, while the Packers allow 10.6 a contest, ranking right in the middle at 16th.

Comparing how each team played in the first half, we see that the 49ers were also dominant in that category, scoring 15.7 points per game over the first 30 minutes, good for third in the NFL. Meanwhile, the Packers were actually one of the worst teams when it came to first-half scoring, as they ranked 21st with 9.9 first-half points a game.

While the 49ers are favored in both halves of the game, given their regular-season production, the first half could be telling of how the matchup ultimately goes.

Should San Francisco start fast, similar to how Green Bay did against Dallas, it’ll be extremely difficult to beat them, as history shows. But, if the 49ers face their share of struggles early, leading to a close contest at halftime, we could be in for a tight battle in the second half.

The 49ers cannot come out complacent on Saturday with their season on the line.

Turnovers: I wrote about how penalties could uniquely impact Saturday’s game between the 49ers and Packers earlier this week, so I’ll focus on another key element here: turnovers.

The 49ers and Packers were two of the NFL’s best teams when it came to avoiding turnovers this season, as both teams averaged just 1.1 giveaways a game, good for sixth in the NFL.

However, there was a stark difference in takeaways generated, as the 49ers ranked fifth with 1.6 a game defensively, while the Packers were much further down at 23rd with 1.1 taken away a game.

Despite throwing 11 interceptions this season, Packers quarterback Jordan Love has been elite at taking care of the football over the second half of the year, throwing for 21 touchdowns and 1 interception over his last nine games, including Green Bay’s wildcard win.

Brock Purdy, on the other hand, was having a strong second half as well before a four-interception performance on Christmas Day skyrocketed his total to 11 on the season, as well as his third multi-interception game of the day.

With penalties potentially being a key factor in the game, as well as the battle between two high-profile offenses, generating turnovers could provide a critical boost for one side or the other in Saturday’s game.