NFC Championship Preview
While the AFC has seen a team that is making the very best at what it’s been given and making a run that is nothing short of amazing, the NFC has given us a different tale. No wild card dreams in this title game, as the second seeded Packers head out west to take on the top seeded 49ers for the NFC crown. In a rematch from Week 12, which saw the 49ers dominate the Packers 37-8, it’s hard not to get into the idea that this could be another blowout. That being said, the Chiefs showed us last week that a loss in the regular season to the team that you’re playing now means nothing in the playoffs. Any given Sunday, right?
When you look back at Aaron Rodgers led offenses, a strong passing game and high scores tends to come in mind. The 2019 season though has showed us quite a different version of this. Being mid-range in both your passing and rushing offense, (15th in rushing, 16th in passing), yet finding a way to secure the second seed in the NFC playoffs left a few analysts scratching their heads. Next thing we know, the offense finds a way to come back from the grave against the Seahawks in the Divisional round, and the Packers are now back in the NFC title game. Rodgers was able to generate some magic last week, throwing for 243 yards and 2 TDs. WR Davante Adams was Rodgers’ favorite target in the regular season, accounting for 22% of targeted throws through the regular season, and the trend has continued into the playoffs.
Adams was targeted 11 times, which was 41% of Rodgers’ total attempts. With 8 receptions for 160 yards, and 2 TDs, Adams and Rodgers were showing new life for the Packers offense. The issue though, is that they were the offense against the Seahawks. The next leading receiver was TE Jimmy Graham, who took in 3 catches for 49 yards. RB Aaron Jones was kept mostly in check as well, averaging only 3 yards a carry for the game. While Rodgers was able to ensure the Packers got the win with a 9 play drive that killed the last two and a half minutes in the game, the rest of the second half, (outside of a TD drive in response to the Seahawks to open the third quarter), was uneventful, with two drives that never got past 25 yards. Rodgers will key in on Adams again, but Graham and the rest of the receiving core, along with Jones, have to assert themselves more against this dominating 49er defense.
The 49ers held true to their common game plan for offense against the Vikings last week by utilizing their rushing attack, which was ranked second in the NFL at the end of the regular season. With RB Tevin Coleman leading the way with 105 rushing yards and 2 TDs, the 49ers were able to expose the flaws of the 13th ranked Vikings rush defense. Now, they get the privilege of taking on the 23rd ranked rush defense that is the Packers. Don’t get too high and mighty though, as this same defense was able to limit the 49ers to only 112 total rushing yards back in Week 12, a significant decrease from their average 144.1 rushing yards a game that they finished the season with. Their Week 12 win came from the passing game, with QB Jimmy Garoppolo throwing for 253 yards off of 14 completions on 20 attempts, and 2 TDs. Coming as no surprise, TE George Kittle was the king receiver, with 129 yards and 1 TD.
There’s little to think that the 49ers will stray very far from this going against the Packers. Even if they were held to only 112 rushing yards back in Week 12, they did manage 2 rushing TDs, though one came near the end of the game in which one could consider it to be “garbage time.” Expect Kittle to see a high target count, with WRs Deebo Samuel and Emmanuel Sanders being eyed by Garoppolo for mismatches that could turn into high yardage situations. With the 15th ranked pass defense in the NFL, the Packers should provide enough opportunities for Garoppolo and crew to distribute the ball evenly across the field.
Pass defense, primarily the rush, is the key aspect to this Packers defense. The additions of LBs Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith during the offseason reaped benefits for the pass-rush this season, with the two combining for 25.5 sacks on the season, 62% of the team’s total. Maintaining pressure on Garoppolo is essential, but not the game changer that you’d expect against most QBs. At the end of the regular season, Garoppolo was 7th in the league in least time to throw among all other QBs, with 2.65 seconds from snap to throw on average. That said, he was still able to finish the season with a 102 QB rating, so while getting pressure on Garoppolo is necessary, it’s not the end all that the Packers will hope for.
Similar to their Week 12 matchup, expect the Packers to concentrate on plugging the holes that the 49ers will try to expose with their running attack. With a limited running game, the Packers can focus on keeping the receivers for the 49ers limited, as much as possible that is. Limiting the drives for the 49ers will be paramount, a task that the Packers defense is capable of, considering that they’re 11th in the NFL in lowest average first downs allowed on defense. The best advantage that the Packers could have is by limiting the success that Garoppolo may see while passing downfield, which will fall to CBs Kevin King and Jaire Alexander in ensuring that Samuel and Sanders are kept busy in their routes.
For all of the talk that the 49ers had to endure about not playing anyone of significance, to being simply overrated on the defensive side of the ball, they sure showed up on the big stage last week against the Vikings. By taking out the run game from the Vikings by keeping RB Dalvin Cook to only 2 yards per rush attempt, they forced the Vikings to rely on their pass game. While QB Kirk Cousins was able to finish with a 72.4 completion percentage, his average yards per attempt was kept to 5.9 yards, his third lowest of the season.
With 5 sacks against Rodgers during their Week 12 matchup, the name of the game will be again to limit Rodgers’ abilities to extend plays and find WR Davante Adams in open field. Rodgers has been notorious for wanting to find Adams this season, and CB Richard Sherman and Jimmie Ward are more than aware of this. Expect both to take turns in keeping Adams wrapped up as much as possible, though don’t think that Rodgers won’t be afraid to challenge either of them. If the 49ers defense maintains the tempo that they were able to create against the Packers in Week 12, primarily the ability to limit third down conversions, which saw the Packers go 1-15 that day, then the road to the Super Bowl for San Francisco should provide a smooth drive.
The 3 Keys to the Game for Each Team
1. Don’t solely focus on Adams. Rodgers has to be able to distribute the ball to everyone and all. Utilize check downs to RB Aaron Jones, and keep eyes on TE Jimmy Graham in short yardage situations.
2. The 49ers offense has shown that they can adjust when one aspect of their game is limited. Relying on a few schemes to limit one style of play won’t get the job done. Respect the pass, watch for the run. Do what needs to be done to limit Kittle’s playmaking abilities from 10+ yards.
3. 1-15 on third down isn’t the recipe for success, no matter which team you play. Identify the mistakes that you made the last time, and work to fix those. 5 three and outs in the first half alone is a great way to fall behind quickly. Adjust as needed!
1. If the opportunity is provided to you, then simply rinse and repeat from your Week 12 performance. Dominate the line of scrimmage on the defensive side of the ball, and blanket Adams, which has proven effective in making Rodgers make erroneous throws.
2. Kittle. Simple as that. The Packers had a hard-enough time in containing Kittle, and the chances that they find the “quick fix” for this game is unlikely.
2. Be one step ahead of the adjustments by Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur. While he’s done a great job this season and righting the ship for the Packers, 49ers Coach Kyle Shanahan has the greater experience level, and should help to keep the 49ers one step ahead.
The Final Thought:
There’s little reason to believe that the 49ers will dominate the game like they did back in Week 12. The Packers will adjust, and the biggest question will be “how will the 49ers respond to them?” At the end of the day, I feel like the team with the better coaching staff will be the one to break through and find themselves heading to Miami in two weeks. I love what Matt LaFleur has done with the Packers this season, but what’s more impressive is what Kyle Shanahan has been able to accomplish with this 49ers team. I’ll expect a close game but will call for the 49ers to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
49ers 28 – Packers 23