GREEN BAY, Wis. – Aaron Rodgers is 12-9 as a playoff starter. He’s 0-3 against the San Francisco 49ers, who the Green Bay Packers will host on Saturday night.
Here are three reasons why the 49ers will continue that dominance and send the Packers into perhaps the most interesting offseason in NFL history.
One: Deebo Samuel
If Green Bay’s Davante Adams and the Rams’ Cooper Kupp are the best receivers in the NFL – they were unanimous All-Pros – then San Francisco’s Deebo Samuel is right on their heels.
Samuel is one of the great talents in the NFL. While Adams is a route-running magician, Samuel is a run-after-catch machine. Samuel ranked fourth in the NFL with 10.0 yards after the catch per catch. That ranked fourth in the NFL, a remarkable feat because that’s a stat typically dominated by running backs. For reference, Adams averaged 4.98 YAC. According to Pro Football Focus, Samuel forced 22 missed tackles on receptions. Among receivers, only Kupp forced more with 24, though he required 65 additional receptions.
When the teams met in Week 3, Samuel caught 7-of-9 targets for 92 yards. And that was with Jaire Alexander on the field. Where Samuel has really taken his game to an elite level is as a running back. San Francisco’s stretch of eight wins in 10 games perfectly corresponds to Samuel’s increased number of carries. He had six carries in the first eight games – including two for 0 yards against Green Bay – but 63 carries for 415 yards and nine scores the past 10 games. On Sunday, the Cowboys managed to hold Samuel in check as a receiver but not as a runner with his 10 carries for 72 yards including a huge 26-yard touchdown.
“Oh, man, he's a great wide receiver,” rookie cornerback Eric Stokes said before the Week 3 game. “Once he gets the ball in his hand, you’ve got to treat him like a running back. No arm tackles, none of that stuff. He's not going down with just one person, really. You’ve got to make sure that you have a plan with tackling him to where you’ve got to make sure you can't be afraid to come up and hit him. You can't do none of that stuff because he's looking for contact. He's a very aggressive wide receiver and you just got to have your mind ready for him.”
Two: Situational Football
Last year, the Packers had the best red-zone offense in the NFL. This year, it’s the 49ers, who scored touchdowns on 66.7 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line.
Here are the red-zone and third-down matchups.
Green Bay red-zone offense: 19th, 58.6 percent. San Francisco red zone defense: 15th, 56.7 percent.
Green Bay third-down offense: 9th, 43.6 percent. San Francisco third-down defense: 17th, 40.0 percent.
San Francisco red-zone offense: 1st, 66.7 percent. Green Bay red-zone defense: 28th, 66.0 percent.
San Francisco third-down offense: 14th, 40.2 percent. Green Bay third-down defense: 23rd, 42.9 percent.
The 49ers are better in three phases, with the big on-paper mismatch being the red zone, where their top-ranked offense will face the Packers close-to-the-bottom defense. The 49ers scored touchdowns on all four red-zone possessions in Week 3, part of the Packers’ woeful six-game stretch of 15 consecutive touchdowns to open the season.
There are two kinds of pressure. One is the pressure applied to the opposing quarterback. Even with Pro Bowler Nick Bosa limited to 23 snaps by a concussion, the 49ers pummeled Dak Prescott with five sacks and 14 quarterback hits. It will be a fascinating matchup to see that defensive front go after Aaron Rodgers, who generally has benefited from surprisingly strong protection given the injuries to the line and has been excellent with in-rhythm passes.
“I enjoy getting the ball out,” Rodgers said last week. “This is a different system. So, no, I’m not going to flip a switch and start hanging onto the football more [with the return of David Bakhtiari]. That’s not how I want to play. That’s not how we’ve played all year. The ball’s coming out pretty good on time and that’s how we want to keep doing it. But it was funny, especially after I held it and held it, moved left, ran to the right, ran for 7, slid, got up and looked over and Dave was looking at me with that look on his face saying, ‘What in the hell are you doing?’ So, we had a good laugh about that later.”
The other kind of pressure is mental. The pressure’s on Packers coach Matt LaFleur to get to the Super Bowl. He’s had so much success in his first three seasons but will it mean anything without a championship ring? Standing in his way is his nemesis, San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan.
Moreover, it’s impossible to overstate what’s at stake in these playoffs for Rodgers and the team’s other bedrock players. The Packers are almost $50 million over next year’s salary cap, according to OverTheCap.com. First and foremost, there’s no guarantee Rodgers or Adams will be back. Getting beneath the cap will require some hard decisions. Change is a constant in the NFL but, one way or another, dramatic change is coming to Green Bay. It might be a long, long time before the Packers have this good of a chance to win the Super Bowl. That’s pressure. Will it manifest itself if the Packers face a must-score drive in the fourth quarter?