NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: Green Bay PAckers @ San Francisco 49ers

The NFC Championship game sees a clash of historical franchises as the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers face off in Levi’s Stadium. Both teams ended the season 13-3, but went about it in different ways. The 49ers blew opponents away early in the season before levelling out down the stretch. In contrast, the Packers just seemed to do enough to beat everyone, losing two of the three heavily as well. 

One of those losses was to the 49ers in San Francisco as the Packers were simply overwhelmed offensively by the power of the 49ers defense. Will we see more of the same in the NFC Championship game? 

Green Bay Packers

Seattle Seahawks Green Bay Packers, NFC Championship game 49ers Packers

The Usual Suspects Need to Shine on Offense

This is a tough match-up for the Packers. As they so often have done in recent years, they might just have to rely on Rodgers to perform at his absolute peak if they’re to score enough points to leave Levi’s Stadium with a win and book their ticket to Miami. Outside of Davante Adams, Green Bay’s other wide receivers will struggle to get open against an elite 49ers’ secondary. For the Packers to succeed, some of the lesser known players are going to have to consistently make contested catches or special individual plays. With nobody else on the team anywhere near Adams for total receptions this year, it’s unlikely any of the receivers breaks out in this game, meaning it will need to be a collective effort to come out on top.

Rodgers and this offense need to win the first two-downs, as the 49ers are the second best team in the league in third-down situations, only allowing a successful conversion 33% of the time. Setting themselves up for success on third down means Aaron Jones must be effective. Not just to generate yardage, but if the Packers don’t have a run-game (or the threat of the run), then the 49ers pass-rushing unit, led by Nick Bosa, will pin their ears back and get to Rodgers. Jones wasn’t particularly effective against the Seahawks in the Divisional Round and San Francisco’s front will be feeling good having shut down Dalvin Cook last week. Jones will be desperate to put in a better performance than he did last time in San Francisco.

Stop that Running Game

This Green Bay defense, despite some excellent free-agent additions, still struggles against the run. They bottled up Seattle’s banged-up back-ups but over the course of the season, they rank 26th in yards per carry. Now they are facing a Shanahan scheme that knows how to run the ball and features three backs in Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert that can all cause damage.

Comparing rosters, statistics and positional group rankings, all the maths points to the same conclusion, if Davante Adams or Aaron Jones aren’t able to put up impressive numbers then the key to victory lies squarely on the quarterback’s shoulders, Rodgers will need to pull a few rabbits from hats to put his team in a position to win.

San Francisco 49ers

Nick Bosa, Defensive Rookie of the Year 2019, NFC Championship game 49ers Packers, Super Bowl LIV

Quality Pass Rush and a Dangerous Secondary

Their defense had been less impressive to end the regular season, but if I’m Aaron Rodgers, I’d be worried about what I saw the 49ers do against the Vikings. Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh restricted the Vikings to just 172 yards in the air as San Francisco showed once again why they are the best pass defense in the league. Sure, they are facing one of the most talented QBs of his generation this week, but these defensive backs are lining up against a receiving core, that on paper, is much weaker than the one they faced in the Divisional Round.

The 49ers defense only blitzes a little over 25% of the time but still racked up 48 sacks on the season. Rushing only four means the secondary remains stacked and is littered with talented players ready to force a turnover. They sacked Rodgers five times back in their Week 12 victory, a similar performance from this dominant front-four alongside keeping Davante Adams quiet are the two major keys to victory for San Francisco. The Packers have one of the best offensive lines in the league, but they are going to be severely tested by this defensive front.

An Offense Loaded with Options

On the other side of the ball, the 49ers are built for success thanks to Kyle Shanahan’s ability to beat the opposition any way he chooses. He can find ways to build a consistent run game, control the clock and open up chunk yardage plays, or he’ll spread the field and quickly get the ball into the hands of his speedy wide-receivers to set-up quick scoring drives. This system is a nightmare for defenses to prepare for and while he may not make the highlight-reel plays, Garoppolo is consistent, accurate and progresses through his reads efficiently that the play translates from Shanahan’s mind to success on the field more often than not.

They also have George Kittle. I don’t need to delve too deep into why he’s important, just watch him play and you will see the talent. I’d argue he’s the best tight in the league and a huge part of San Francisco’s ‘yard-after-catch’ offense. I’m not going to be so foolish as to suggest ways that Green Bay can slow down Kittle. He had a lot of success (6 rec, 129 yards and a TD) in the Week 12 match-up and if the Packers don’t have a specific plan to stop him, expect to hear Joe Buck saying something along the lines of “Garoppolo, stepping up in the pocket… finds George Kittle for a good gain” a fair few times.

BILLY MORTON​

NFL ANALYST

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Image credit: Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports