NFC Championship Pick-Six Preview: Packers at 49ers

Bill Huber

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Here is our first look at Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers.

Green Bay Packers (14-3) at San Francisco 49ers (14-3)

The vitals: 5:40 p.m. Sunday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

TV: Fox (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews, Chris Myers)

Series: Packers lead 36-30-1

The last time: San Francisco won the last game and the last playoff game. On Nov. 24, the Packers were trounced 37-8. The Packers were coming off their bye week but there was no advantage whatsoever. On the third play of the game, blitzing linebacker Fred Warner sacked Aaron Rodgers. Nick Bosa recovered and took the ball to the 2 to set up Tevin Coleman’s opening touchdown. The rout was on. The 49ers outgained the Packers 339-198, and Green Bay went 1-of-15 on third down, the franchise’s worst mark since 2000.

Video: Rodgers reflects on getting to championshp game, rematch

The 49ers bounced the Packers in back-to-back postseasons: 45-31 at San Francisco in 2012 and 23-20 at Lambeau Field in 2013.

The quarterback

Backed by a diverse running game, Jimmy Garoppolo turned in an efficient season in his first full year as the starter. He threw for 3,978 yards – only 24 fewer yards than Rodgers while throwing 95 fewer passes. His 69.1 percent completion ranked fourth in the league. Over the final nine weeks of the season, he ranked fourth in the league with 20 touchdown passes and third with a 108.1 rating.

RELATED: Green Bay defense vs. San Francisco offense

RELATED: Green Bay offense vs. San Francisco defense

RELATED: Pick-six NFC Championship Game preview

Garoppolo rarely goes deep. According to the official league data, he ranked 31st in deep passes to the left, 30th in deep passes over the middle and 31st in deep passes to the right. Where he makes his living is over the middle. According to Pro Football Focus, 280 of his 476 passes were thrown between the numbers, or 58.8 percent. For comparison, Rodgers threw 198 of his 569 passes between the numbers, or 34.8 percent. Interceptions are the bugaboo; he threw 13 on the season and had the highest interception percentage of the 12 playoff starters.

While it’s fair to point out that quarterback wins is not a real stat, Garoppolo’s career record as a starter is 20-5. In the Super Bowl era, only Ben Roethlisberger (22) and Dan Marino (21) won more games in their first 25 starts. He authored four game-winning drives this season; only Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Buffalo’s Josh Allen, with five each, had more.

Video: Rodgers, Adams deliver on third down

His top weapon

We covered tight end George Kittle here. Now, can the Packers cover him?

In a five-game span that included Round 1 vs. Kittle, the Packers allowed a combined 32 receptions for 500 yards and four touchdowns to Oakland’s Darren Waller, Kansas City’s Travis Kelce, the Chargers’ Hunter Henry, Carolina’s Greg Olsen and Kittle. Green Bay’s performed much better against tight ends down the stretch but is that because Ibraheim Campbell and Chandon Sullivan helped solidify the defense or because the Packers haven’t faced any explosive tight ends?

No tight end has more receiving yards in his first three seasons than Kittle. He’s a monster after the catch, catches everything in sight and is a superior blocker.

“I think he’s in the conversation, certainly one of the best – if not the best – tight end in football,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said before the first game. “He’s a more-than-adequate, more-than-willing blocker. And this is a guy who has borderline wide receiver-type speed. He’s got great ball skills, difficult to tackle, he breaks a lot of tackles. He’s violent after the catch. He’s got a good relationship with the quarterback and on top of that a coordinator – a guy putting the offense together – that can get him open. It’s as big a tight end challenge as we’ll have, and that’s something that’s been well-documented, we need to be better.”

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Getting defensive

San Francisco’s pass rush caused mayhem for Rodgers in the first game and Kirk Cousins in last week’s playoff game. The 49ers’ front four includes five first-round picks – and they all had sacks against Cousins.

Still, it’s impossible to ignore the 31-year-old Sherman, who has made age just a number and a torn Achilles the equivalent of a hang nail. This season, according to Pro Football Focus, 87 cornerbacks played at least 50 percent of the defensive snaps. Sherman ranked third in opponent passer rating (46.8), first in yards per snap (0.44) and second in snaps per reception (19.7). According to Sports Info Solutions, Sherman has allowed 5.6 yards per target – which is even better than his final seasons with Seattle. Against Minnesota last week, Cousins targeted him three times and got one completion for 4 yards and one interception for his efforts.

“He’s a savvy player,” Rodgers said before the first game. “He’s a smart, instinctive, really sound player. You have to feel really good about routes to his side. I don’t think that’s really ever changed with him. He has that ability to lull you to sleep sometimes and still jumps on the ball, has fantastic ball skills. He’s a great player. I have nothing but respect for his career and what he’s accomplished.”

Noteworthy numbers

Minus-5: On plays of 20-plus yards, Green Bay’s offense produced 59 while its defense gave up 64.

Plus-35: On plays of 20-plus yards, San Francisco ranked fourth in the league with 78 while giving up a league-best 43. San Francisco’s 20-yard-play margin was the best in the NFL.

4: This will be Rodgers’ fourth NFC Championship Game. All have been played on the road.

7: Games with passer ratings of 100-plus for Rodgers in 17 postseason starts. Tom Brady, with eight in 41 starts, has the most.

The big pictures

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