A trip to the NFC Championship Game will be on the line when the Green Bay Packers (13-4) host the San Francisco 49ers (11-7) in the NFC Divisional Round on Saturday night at Lambeau Field.
Can the top-seeded Packers eliminate the underdog 49ers and advance to the NFC title for the third straight season? Or will the 49ers once again end a promising season for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers short of the Super Bowl?
Here are five things to watch and a prediction:
1. Hurting on the Frozen Tundra
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49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo doesn’t have a status designation and is expected to play on Saturday night, but he’s dealing with thumb and right shoulder injuries. His grip on the football and overall accuracy could be affected, especially in the frigid temps expected at Lambeau Field. Playing in the cold already makes it difficult to grip the ball and drive it downfield. The combination of injury and elements could really limit Garoppolo and the 49ers passing game. He’s been playing indoors in comfortable temps since suffering the injury last month. Keep in mind, Garoppolo had 14 total turnovers and 25 “turnover worthy plays” in 2021, per Pro Football Focus. It’s possible he’ll be prone to more giveaways outdoors on Saturday night, and the Packers are 11-0 when getting at least one takeaway in 2021.
2. Starting fast
(AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn)
The 49ers win with a simple script: run the football and attack the quarterback. Both are made easier by playing with a lead. The best way to force the 49ers to play left-handed? Start fast, and control the game early, as the Packers did back in Week 3. Without a big special teams mistake before the half and some questionable penalties in the second half, the Packers – who led 17-0 at one point – might have blown out the 49ers on their home field. Starting fast has to be a priority on Saturday night, not only to get the 49ers out of their preferred playstyle but also to fend off the dreaded rust factor after the bye week. Kyle Shanahan’s team has been playing do-or-die football for the better part of the month, so the Packers better be ready for a determined and focused opponent to open things up on Saturday night.
3. Which pass rush wins the day?
Green Bay Packers linebacker Rashan Gary (52).
Both of these teams can get after the quarterback, and few factors are more important to winning playoff games than disrupting the passing game with pressure. Which team will win the pass-rushing battle on Saturday night? The 49ers delivered 27 quarterback hits on Matthew Stafford and Dak Prescott over the last two weeks, powering a pair of big road wins. The 49ers’ pass-rush took off over the second half of the season, and the group is likely to have defensive end Nick Bosa (15.5 sacks) available, too. But San Francisco also has to keep Jimmy Garoppolo protected, and the Packers have the horses to make that a big challenge. If Za’Darius Smith and Whitney Mercilus are activated, the Packers could have five or six disruptive pass-rushers available on both the inside and the edges. Don’t be surprised if the team that wins the game is also the team that better disrupts the opposing quarterback.
4. Tackling the stars
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The Packers were one of the best tackling teams in football in 2021, thanks in large part to the addition of superstar tackler De’Vondre Campbell, who almost never misses. The entire defense has to tackle well on Saturday night because the 49ers have an impressive collection of playmakers with the ball in their hands. All-Pro receiver Deebo Samuel is the best creator after the catch in the NFL, and he’s also getting a handful of snaps at running back each game. Tight end George Kittle can be a hot knife through butter in the open field. Second-year receiver Brandon Aiyuk is dynamic after the catch, and rookie running back Elijah Mitchell can create after contact. There’s a reason Jimmy Garoppolo averaged 8.6 yards per attempt without being a prolific downfield passer. He gets the ball to playmakers and lets them go to work. The Packers must have their best tackling performance of the season.
5. Run fits, contain the edge
(AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
The 49ers run game presents a lot of challenges. They are physical up front, but Kyle Shanahan also creates tough pre-snap run fits with scheme and motion. The Packers need to be able to set the edge and not get out-flanked, especially when Deebo Samuel is in the backfield. The run scheme is based around getting defenders out of gaps and opening up cutback lanes, so the Packers have to be disciplined up front and at the second level. Joe Barry’s defense knows the run is coming. The 49ers don’t hide the fact. Now, it’s on the Packers defense to step up to the challenge and make the 49ers win the game another way. If San Francisco doesn’t gash the Packers in the run game, it’s difficult to envision the visitors exiting Lambeau Field with a win.
Prediction: Packers 24, 49ers 20 (10-7)
With a dominant run game, physical play at the line of scrimmage, a pass-rush capable of disrupting with four rushers and elite players on both sides of the football, the sixth-seeded 49ers present a formidable challenge for the Packers to open the postseason. But Matt LaFleur’s team is the biggest betting favorite in the divisional round for good reasons – the Packers are deep and talented, enjoy a significant advantage at quarterback and will be playing in the cold at Lambeau Field, where Green Bay is unbeaten this season. Expect a four-quarter fight, but I think Jimmy Garoppolo’s injuries and inconsistency will hurt the 49ers in a few big spots, and I don’t think the 49ers can consistently keep Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams from creating big plays. The guess here: Green Bay handles an early onslaught, gets comfortable midgame and then delivers a big takeaway in the second half to turn the game, and the Packers escape with a hard-earned playoff victory.