Packers Face Enormous Challenge Against 49ers in NFC Title Game
GREEN BAY, Wis. – On Nov. 24, the Green Bay Packers were dismantled on the road by the San Francisco 49ers 37-8.
Afterward, quarterback Aaron Rodgers spoke of his desire for a playoff rematch. But how would the Packers be 30 points better?
“Because you don’t start 29-0, so that literally has nothing to do with it,” receiver Davante Adams said a few days later. “It doesn’t matter what happened earlier. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing against the Monstars. It’s a new game. You see the type of players we have in this locker room, so you see why we do have the confidence we do. Like I said, it’s just about putting the pieces together and coming together as a team consistently so we can get the job done.”
The Packers got their rematch. By beating the Seattle Seahawks 28-23 on Sunday night, they advanced to Sunday’s NFC Championship Game back in Santa Clara.
“I just think it’s a credit to everybody in that locker room,” said first-year coach Matt LaFleur, whose team is 6-0 since the loss to the Niners. “It’s a credit to our players, it’s a credit to our coaches. We’re going to have the same mind-set like we do every week – and that’s to go out there and go 1-0. I couldn’t be happier for our guys. They put in a lot of hard work and they stick together and they don’t blink.”
The 49ers, who dismantled the Minnesota Vikings 27-10 on Saturday, were installed as early seven-point favorites.
“There’s only four teams left and we’re one of them. We’ve got a legitimate chance,” Rodgers said.
The challenge will be daunting as the Packers chase their first Super Bowl since 2010. The 49ers were the No. 1 seed for a reason. In finishing 13-3, they outscored their opponents by 10.6 points per game and outgained them by 99.3 yards per game, both of which were third in the league. They scored a league-high 29.9 points per game and allowed a third-best 19.4 points per game. Their three losses came by a combined 13 points; their most lopsided loss, 29-22, came when Atlanta scored a touchdown in the final seconds to win the game.
Moreover, the 49ers are healthier for Round 2 that they were for the first matchup. In November, left tackle Joe Staley and pass rusher Dee Ford were inactive and linebacker Kwon Alexander was on injured reserve. They’re all back in the lineup, making a strong team even stronger.
That was evident on Saturday, when the 49ers outgained the Vikings 308 to 147, sacked Kirk Cousins six times and held Pro Bowl running back Dalvin Cook to nine carries for 18 yards and six catches for 8 yards. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo made mincemeat of the vaunted Vikings defense on the opening possession, and Tevin Coleman gained 105 of the Niners’ 186 rushing yards.
Green Bay’s two biggest hurdles in a rematch will be stopping 49ers tight end George Kittle on defense and moving the chains on offense.
In the regular-season game, Kittle caught six passes for 129 yards, including a 61-yard touchdown in the third quarter that essentially ended the game. Green Bay’s defense was tortured by top tight ends all season. While the Packers have played better against tight ends during their six-game winning streak, is that a case of defensive improvement or playing a bunch of mediocre tight ends?
On the other side of the ball, Green Bay’s third-down offense was impossibly bad. It went 1-of-15, including 0-for-14 to start the game before a late conversion in a garbage-time drive by Tim Boyle. The Packers were a season-best 9-of-14 (64.3 percent) against Seattle, with Rodgers making several big-time plays.
If the Packers can limit Kittle, move the chains and not dig an early grave – Rodgers’ first-possession fumble gift-wrapped an opening touchdown – they’ll have a chance to pull off the upset.
But it’s going to take by far the team’s best performance of the season to get it done.
“I’d like to think that we’ve improved quite a bit,” LaFleur said. “It’ll be a great challenge for us. We’ll really see where we’re at and see how far we’ve come because they’re a really good football team and they’re playing at a really high level. Obviously, they took care of the Vikings pretty handily and they’re a really good football team.”