The Green Bay Packers head west to meet the top-seeded San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. The Packers finished the season with a 9-8 record and are the seventh seed in the playoffs while the 49ers finished 12-5. The Packers are coming off a 48-32 win over the Cowboys in Dallas while the 49ers enjoyed a bye last week. They lost their last game 21-20 to the Rams in Week 18. Here are six key matchups that will determine who will win Saturday’s Packers-49ers game.
The Packers lead the all-time series between these two teams 34-28-1 in the regular season. The series dates back to 1950 when the 49ers joined the league after the merger with the AAFC. The Packers have won the last two regular season meetings between the teams while San Francisco won the last four playoff matchups. Overall, the 49ers have a 5-4 edge in the postseason including a 13-10 upset win at Lambeau in the 2021 playoffs.
Here is a look at six key factors that will determine who wins Saturday’s game in San Francisco:
Packers Key Matchups: Number One, Slow Down Christian McCaffrey
The San Francisco offense is elite. They finished second in the league in yards gained and third in points scored. The run offense is third in the league and the pass offense is fourth.
If there is one player the Packers need to slow down on Saturday, it’s running back Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey is a dual threat as a runner and a receiver. He led the NFL with 1,459 rushing yards. He averaged 5.4-yards per attempt and ran for 14 touchdowns. When he gained 100 or more yards on the ground, the 49ers were 6-1.
McCaffrey also caught 67 passes for 564 yards and seven more touchdowns. He gives quarterback Brock Purdy a valuable outlet receiver who can take short passes and turn them into long gains.
The Packers run defense has been shaky nearly all season. They finished 28th in the league by giving up 128.3-yards per game on the ground. They have been better in recent games.
One key for the Packers run defense is playing with the lead which makes the opposing offense more one-dimensional.
McCaffrey is going to get his touches, but the Packers can’t let him dominate the game and make big plays. Kenny Clark, T.J. Slaton, De’Vondre Campbell, and Quay Walker will have to play well to contain McCaffrey and Rashan Gary and Preston Smith will have to stay on the edge and not allow McCaffrey to run wide because they give up contain.
Key Matchups: Number Two, Protect Jordan Love
The Packers offensive line has done a good job of protecting quarterback Jordan Love this season, especially in the final eight games. The 49ers have a strong pass rush which sacked opposing quarterbacks 48 times which ranked them 6th in the NFL.
Nick Bosa led the team with 10.5 sacks. Zach Tom will have the primary responsibility to blocking Bosa. Javon Hargrave is next with seven sacks followed by Arik Armstead who had five sacks in 12 games.
Love has done a good job of keeping his cool under pressure and finding the open man. Sometimes, he looks deep downfield and sometimes, he finds a checkdown receiver for a short gain and keeps the chains moving.
The Packers offensive line must continue to play well and give Love enough time to work his magic and play at a high level. If he has enough time, he should be able to find the open receiver and exploit whatever favorable matchups are available against a strong San Francisco defense.
Packers Key Matchups: Number Three, Keep Giving Aaron Jones the Ball
Aaron Jones may be 29, which is old for a running back, but he’s been playing some of the best football of his career in recent weeks. Jones has gone over 100 yards in each of the Packers last four games and the team is 4-0 in those games.
Even if the running game isn’t clicking against the 49ers third-ranked run defense, Matt LaFleur cannot stop giving Jones the football. San Francisco is only giving up 89.7 yards per game on the ground although part of that is because they have held big leads in so many games and opposing teams had to pass to catch up.
Even if Jones isn’t picking up chunks of yards, the threat of the running game opens things up for other aspects of the offense.
Love can also use Jones as a receiver out of the backfield. The former UTEP star is more than capable of turning a short pass into a bigger gain or to get downfield if he is matched up against a linebacker or safety.
Giving Jones the ball early and often helps the Packers offense move the ball with maximum efficiency.
Key Matchups: Number Four, Get Pressure on Brock Purdy
Purdy has been extremely efficient this season and has mastered Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Purdy is a good decision maker. The Packers will have to get some pressure on Purdy to get him off his game.
Gary and Smith are the team’s primary pass rushers off the edge. Clark provides most of the pressure from the interior line with Karl Brooks helping in the rotation.
The Packers will be without Kingsley Enagbare who suffered a season-ending injury last week in Dallas. That will mean a bigger role in the rotation for Lukas Van Ness and possibly for rookie Brenton Cox.
Defensive coordinator Joe Barry has done a better job in recent weeks of mixing up his blitz packages. He has sent Quay Walker to pressure the quarterback and sometimes Keisean Nixon as well. Keeping the 49ers offensive line and Purdy guessing where the pressure could come from will be important to slow down the potent San Francisco attack.
Packers Key Matchups: Number Five, Minimize Big Plays in the Passing Game
The 49ers have a dangerous group of receivers, and they give Purdy many options in the passing game. The Packers hope cornerback Jaire Alexander will be healthy enough to play because he raises the level of coverage in the secondary. Alexander came up with a key interception against the Cowboys last week.
The Packers defense cannot allow Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel to get deep and make splash plays.
The Packers also need to find a way to cover George Kittle, one of the more dangerous receiving tight ends in the game. Kittle led all players at the position with 1,020 receiving yards on 65 catches and six touchdowns.
McCaffrey is also a dangerous receiving weapon. Getting pressure on Purdy is one thing but having Alexander, Carrington Valentine, Corey Ballentine and Nixon covering this group will be key. Darnell Savage and Jonathan Owens will have to help contain McCaffrey and Kittle and it won’t be easy.
Hopefully, Barry is able to effectively mix his coverages and find ways to slow down the 49ers offense. San Francisco will gain yards through the air, but the Packers have to make them do it slowly and stop big plays.
Packers Key Matchups: Number Six, Win the Turnover Battle
The 49ers lead the league in interceptions with 22. Love has thrown only one pick in the last nine games including the playoffs. The Packers offense cannot turn the ball over while the Green Bay defense has to win the turnover battle.
This season, the 49ers are 8-0 when they don’t turn the ball over on offense. They are 4-5 when they do turn it over. When they lost the turnover battle, the 49ers were 0-3 this season. Winning the turnover battle would give the Packers a much better chance of pulling off the upset.
The 49ers are 9.5-point favorites at home, but they underestimate the Packers at their own risk. Green Bay is playing its best football of the season at the right time.
The Packers will need to force the 49ers into mistakes without making many of their own.
The biggest concern is Shanahan’s ability to make adjustments in game, an area Barry struggles with. The Packers will keep it close, but they will fall just short.
49ers 37, Packers 30
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