GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers beat the San Francisco 49ers 30-28 in Week 3, a verdict that literally means nothing when looking ahead to Saturday night’s NFC divisional playoffs rematch at Lambeau Field.
It will be 118 days between that game, won by Mason Crosby’s 51-yard field goal on the final play, and the start of the all-important rematch. A lot has changed over that span of almost four months.
“I think you always account for your matchup vs. another team,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “Yeah, it was Week 3 and that was a long time ago. But the foundational elements are there really in all three phases. We continue to develop throughout the course of the season and evolve, but you look at everything. You look at the games both teams have recently played, you look at that game, shoot, you might even go back to years past because, like I said, the common philosophy is still there.”
The Packers were without two of their best players for that game, with five-time All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari recovering from his torn ACL and two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith sidelined by a back injury that would require surgery. Bakhtiari will start on Saturday night and Smith could be back in a situational role, as well. One of the team’s top defenders, cornerback Rasul Douglas, was on Arizona’s practice squad.
Moreover, Aaron Rodgers has rolled into MVP form with a sensational season-ending barrage of 20 touchdowns vs. zero interceptions, and the defense has found an identity of leaky but opportunistic. On the other hand, Crosby has gone from sure thing to scattershot.
Meanwhile, the 49ers were without standout running back Elijah Mitchell for the first game. Their offense has taken off with receiver Deebo Samuel getting frequent carries, their defense has improved with two new starters at cornerback and they’ve reversed a bad trend on turnovers by going plus-5 during the second half of the season. On the other hand, Jimmy Garoppolo remains an accurate but mistake-prone quarterback.
“Yeah, I feel like we’re a different team now than we were then, as everybody is,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “You start out the year and you go through a number of different players. But football’s not much different, both teams, schematically, plays you’re running, concepts you’re running, the coverages they’re doing. There’s some little different wrinkles when you watch teams at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year, but most of the stuff stays the same. It’s just nice to see when a team’s executing better, when you feel like guys are practicing, playing better together as a unit. And I think we’re in a better spot now than we were at that time.”
LaFleur would say the same about his team. His team is as healthy as it’s been all season and has obviously rounded into form after essentially sitting out the preseason.
That has the Packers in position to do something they haven’t done since 2010: get to and win the Super Bowl.
“The special part about this year – about every year – is always the new guys and watching them come in with big eyes and seeing the personalities start to come out and develop as you get comfortable and start enjoying being a part of the team,” Rodgers said last week. “It’s the undiscovered part of it, with guys like Rasul and De’Vondre (Campbell) coming in and seeing their production.
“And then the adversity when it hits. Losing Z and Jaire (Alexander) and Billy (Turner) and Dave for so much of the season, and Whitney Mercilus comes in and that’s exciting and he gets hurt. Just all the different injuries that we’ve dealt with. Marquez (Valdes-Scantling) and his injuries. I think that’s the exciting part. You never know what the season’s going to hold. But I do cherish the friendships with these guys, with the coaching staff, with the lifers that’ve been here – the equipment guys, the trainers, the cafeteria staff, the people on the third floor. It’s fun. It’s been a fun season. Now, we’ve just got to find a way to finish it off with winning our last game.”