The Green Bay Packers host the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Divisional Playoffs on Saturday night at Lambeau Field. The Packers finished the season with a 13-4 record and are coming off a bye they earned as the NFC’s top seed. San Francisco earned a wild card berth after finishing 2021 with a 10-7 record. The 49ers defeated the Cowboys 23-17 in the NFC Wild Card round to earn the right to face the Packers.
These teams have met eight times in the postseason with each team winning four times. The first postseason meeting came back in 1995 when the Packers stunned the 49ers 27-17 in San Francisco to advance to the NFC Championship Game. San Francisco has won the last three playoff meetings between these two clubs including their last showdown in the 2019 NFC Championship Game which the 49ers won 37-20.
Here is a look at six key factors that will determine who wins Saturday’s game at Lambeau:
- Contain the 49ers Running Game
The 49ers are the only remaining NFC playoff team that does not rely on their quarterback to be the lynchpin of their offense. Instead, they run to set up their passing game. San Francisco ranked seventh in the league with a 127.4-yard average yards rushing per game.
The 49ers have a good combination of runners led by Eli Mitchell. Mitchell did not play in the first meeting between these teams back in Week 3. He played 11 games this season and ran for 963 yards on 207 carries, a 4.7-yard average.
If Mitchell is the running game’s bread and butter, Deebo Samuel is their change of pace. The wide receiver has been lining up as a running back often since November and he averaged 6.2-yards per carry and scored eight touchdowns for the 49ers on the ground. San Francisco was 7-0 in games that Samuel scored a rushing touchdown.
Samuel has the speed to get to the edge and it will be important that the Packers defense stays in their lanes and contain the outside runs that Samuel runs so well. Preston Smith and Rashan Gary don’t consistently keep to their lanes although the possible return of Za’Darius Smith and Whitney Mercilus may help in this area.
Fullback Kyle Juszczyk is a strong lead blocker for San Francisco. Kenny Clark, Krys Barnes De’Vondre Campbell will be called upon to clog up the middle of the defense.
Another way to limit the 49ers running game is to get an early lead. That would force the Niners to throw the football to catch up and alter their game plan which likely involves a lot of running the football.
If the Packers can slow down the San Francisco running game and force quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to win the game with his arm, they would be at a big advantage.
- Protect Aaron Rodgers
The 49ers have a strong pass rush and they can get pressure by rushing just four players on most plays. They finished fifth in the league with 48 sacks.
The pass rush is led by Nick Bosa who had a team-high 15.5 sacks this season. Bosa has a good combination of moves and the Niners will move him around to try to create more favorable matchups.
Bosa is not the only player in the lineup who can get to the quarterback. Arden Key and Arik Armstead both provide pressure with Key coming from the edge and Armstead from the defensive tackle spot.
The Packers offensive line is getting healthy. Left tackle David Bakhtiari and center Josh Myers returned to the lineup for the season finale and both played well. That allows the Packers to slide Lucas Patrick to right guard. Patrick is more consistent than rookie Royce Newman at picking up blitzes and stunts.
The status of starting right tackle Billy Turner is uncertain although he was a full participant in practice on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Even with a healthy offensive line, expect the Packers to throw a lot of quick passes which would help neutralize the San Francisco pass rush. Three step drops and quick releases usually result in shorter gains but they keep the chains moving and are difficult for the 49ers defense to cover.
If Rodgers has time to throw, he should be able to exploit a 49ers secondary that has issues at cornerback.
- Contain Deebo Samuel
Samuel is a multi-purpose threat who is a dangerous receiver and runner. He is also one of the most dangerous players in the NFL at running with the ball after making the catch.
Samuel earned All Pro honors after catching 77 passes for 1,405 yards for a healthy 18.2-yard average per catch. His speed and vision make him dangerous any time he gets his hands on the ball.
The Packers should have Jaire Alexander back for this game. Alexander hasn’t played since suffering a shoulder injury in Week 4. He is the Packers top cover corner when healthy but he may see limited snaps in his first game back.
In Alexander’s absence, the Packers received strong corner play from rookie first-round pick Eric Stokes and veteran free agent pickup Rasul Douglas.
Samuel will get his touches but the Packers defense, which primarily plays a variety of zone coverages, must limit the damage Samuel does during this game.
In the first meeting this season, Samuel was held to five catches for 52 yards on 10 targets. His long catch was 19 yards. A similar stat line for Samuel would spell big trouble for the 49ers on Saturday.
- Get the Ball to Davante Adams
If Samuel is the most dangerous offensive weapon the 49ers quarterbacks have, Davante Adams fills that role for the Packers. Adams is one of the best receivers in the game today if not the best and he and Rodgers have a unique chemistry that makes them very difficult to defend.
Tae set Packers franchise records this season with 123 catches for 1,553 yards. He does a superb job of disguising his intended route off the snap of the ball and gaining a momentary advantage on defenders trying to cover him.
Adams has played well against the 49ers. In four regular-season games against San Francisco, he has 39 catches for 480 yards and five touchdowns. He has never caught fewer than seven passes in a game against San Francisco.
If the 49ers double Adams or even triple cover him, players like Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb and Marquez Valdes-Scantling (if healthy) must step up and make plays.
Rodgers will find a way to get Adams involved early and often and if he has a typical game against the 49ers, the Packers should be able to put up a lot of points against an inconsistent 49ers secondary.
- Pressure Jimmy Garoppolo
Garoppolo is the least dynamic quarterback left in the NFC playoffs and the most inconsistent. He is more efficient than outstanding and the 49ers rely on him to not make mistakes and to keep the offense moving.
The Packers hope to have their top four edge rushers available in some capacity for this game. Gary and Preston Smith have gotten the job done this season while Za’Darius Smith and Mercilus may now be back to spell them and provide better depth.
Garoppolo was sacked 29 times this season and 49ers quarterbacks were trapped 33 times overall. The fact that Garoppolo is dealing with injuries to his right shoulder and thumb may also hamper his accuracy and his ability to escape the pass rush.
The 49ers starter has also thrown 12 interceptions this season in 441 attempts. Getting pressure on him can force him into mistakes and even turnovers. It can also prevent him from trying to throw deep downfield which is not his strong point anyway.
The Packers aim is to get Garoppolo off his game and to disrupt the 49ers passing game with pressure.
- Special Teams Can’t Cost the Packers
Special teams have been a problem for the Packers all season but they cannot allow it to end their season in a do or die playoff game.
The Packers won the regular season meeting between these two teams on a 51-yard field goal by Mason Crosby as time expired. The bad news is that Crosby missed nine field goals and two extra points this season and has had issues with his long snapper and holder throughout the year. The good news is that the veteran kicker has always consistently come through in the clutch for the Packers throughout his lengthy career.
Hopefully, the Packers will go with David Moore or Randall Cobb to return kicks and punts. Rookie Amari Rodgers just hasn’t proven himself to reliable on returns at this point in his NFL career. Kick and punt return coverage teams also need to play well enough to at least do no serious harm to the Packers chances of winning.
The good news is that the 49ers special teams haven’t been much better than the Packers this season and may not be able to take advantage of the Packers deficiency in this area.
If the Packers special teams don’t hurt them on Saturday night, that should be enough. If they do, it could give the 49ers a way to pull off the upset.
On paper, the Packers are the better team but the 49ers strengths of running the football and rushing the passer with four players, correspond well to the Packers weaknesses.
The key for the Packers here is to not get flustered and play their game. If they do that, they should win but the Niners won’t make it easy.
The home field advantage, the cold weather and the fact that the Packers have the better quarterback and deeper roster will make the difference.
Packers 27, 49ers 23
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