6:40 PM EST, FOX – Line: 49ers -7.5, Over/Under: 45
While the AFC has been the far more chaotic side of the bracket, the NFC has played out as chalk for the most part, as the No. One Seed, San Francisco 49ers, host the No. Two, Green Bay Packers, in the NFC Championship Game from Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. After missing the Playoffs in back-to-back seasons for just the third time since 1993, the Packers (13-3, 1st in NFC North) have returned in triumphant fashion, winning thirteen games for just the fifth time in the last twenty-four years. Of course, 2019 was ultimately defined by the changing of the guard in Green Bay, with the Mike McCarthy Era coming to an end late in the previous season, ending a largely successful thirteen-year period in which the club won it’s fourth Lombardi Trophy in 2010. However, the team eventually grew stagnant towards the end of his tenure, prompting the franchise to find his successor, ultimately landing on the young Matt LaFleur, with hopes that the 40-Year Old would overhaul the Offense, and reinvigorate perennial MVP candidate, Aaron Rodgers (62.0%, 4,002 YDS, 6.15 NY/A, 26 TD, 4 INT, 53.5 QBR), who had begun to show signs of erosion during the final days of McCarthy’s watch. LaFleur, a product of both the Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan Coaching Trees, was initially viewed as an unknown commodity upon his hiring, particularly due to his lone season as an Offensive Playcaller, which was less than stellar as a member of the Titans’ Coaching Staff in 2018. With that said, on the surface the Packers’ Offense looks eerily similar to that of it’s predecessor, averaging exactly as many points as it did under McCarthy in 2018 (23.5, 15th Overall). However, the devil is always in the details, and where LaFleur has left his mark is in it’s balanced approach. The Running Game had long been an afterthought for years under McCarthy, but LaFleur has resurrected this dormant facet of the attack, with Green Bay ranking in the middle of the pack in Rushing Attempts (25.7), Rushing Yards (112.2), and Yards per Carry (4.4), with that first figure carrying the most weight; in the previous three seasons, this was a unit that ranked Twenty-Ninth, Twenty-Seventh, and Thirty-Second in Rushing Attempts, leaving Rodgers to carry a very one-dimensional attack on his own. Lacking a feature Tailback for years, it was nothing short of a pleasant surprise to see Aaron Jones (236 CAR, 1,084 YDS, 4.6 Y/C, 16 TD) assert himself as a prolific weapon out of the Backfield, leading the league in Rushing Touchdowns (16), while also proving to be a versatile threat in the Passing Game with 474 Yards and Three Touchdowns on Forty-Nine Receptions. As for Rodgers, his numbers were very comparable to those he posted in 2018, and while he at times looked liked he was still trying to adjust to LaFleur’s system, he benefitted greatly from the balance that the Running Game provided, suffering Thirty-Six Sacks this season, or in other words, on 6.0% of his Dropbacks, a steep decline over the figures from the previous season (49 Sacks, 7.6%). One would expect Rodgers to relish the opportunity to battle his hometown 49ers, who he was famously snubbed by in the 2005 NFL Draft, when San Francisco held the No. One Overall Pick, and instead of selecting the local product out of Cal opted to choose Alex Smith. Rodgers would famously slide to No. 23 where Green Bay was all-too happy to provide a comfortable landing pad. The sizable chip that has occupied his shoulder throughout his illustrious career is due in large part to his opponent tonight, whom he’s endured some of his greatest battles against; Rodgers is 4-3 in seven career meetings with the Niners, completing 64.0% of his Attempts for an average of 290.1 Yards with Fourteen Touchdowns and Two Interceptions, though is winless in two encounters with them in the Playoffs, getting embarrassed 31-45 in the Divisional Round back in 2013 followed by a narrow 20-23 defeat at home in the 2014 Wild Card. Furthermore, he’s 11-7 all-time in the Postseason with 261.2 Yards per Game, Thirty-Eight Touchdowns and Ten Interceptions, but in the Conference Championship, the Signal-Caller is only 1-2 with Four Touchdowns and Five Interceptions.
Of course, he and the Packers would no doubt love to take another swing at the Niners, who absolutely humbled them in an 8-37 drubbing back in late November. This one could have been a lot uglier than it was had the hosts not settled for two short Field Goals in the early stages of the night; despite possessing the football for 35:16, Green Bay could do very little with it, posting a scant 198 Total Yards on Nineteen First Downs, while converting a combined 2-of-18 Third and Fourth Downs. That night may have featured the worst performance of Rodgers’ career, with the 36-Year Old completing just 20-of-33 Passes for 104 Yards and a Touchdown, suffering Five Sacks and a Lost Fumble. Under duress throughout the tilt, Rodgers would be pulled midway through the Fourth Quarter, as LaFleur decided to cut his losses with the outcome all but decided. However, what shouldn’t be lost from that particular meeting was the play of the Defense, which despite giving up a pair of huge plays in the Fourth Quarter, had been every bit as staunch as their counterpart; the visiting side allowed 339 Total Yards on just Sixteen First Downs, while amassing Three Sacks and Six Quarterbacks Hits. Arguably the smartest thing that LaFleur did upon his hiring was retaining the services of Defensive Coordinator, Mike Pettine, for that continuity allowed the veteran playcaller to keep building upon the solid foundation he put in place in 2018. On the season, this unit allowed just 19.6 Points per Game (9th Overall) largely on the strength of forcing Twenty-Five Turnovers (7th Overall). Green Bay was third in the league with Seventeen Interceptions, with a promising young nucleus leading the way. Sophomore Cornerbacks, Jaire Alexander (58 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 FF, 1 FR, 2 INT, 17 PD) and Kevin King (66 TKL, 3 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 5 INT, 15 PD ), alongside Free Agent acquisition, Adrian Amos (81 TKL, 4 TFL, 2 QBH, 1.0 SK, 2 INT, 8 PD), have been bonafide ballhawks in the Secondary, while veteran Linebacker, Blake Martinez (155 TKL, 5 TFL, 3 QBH, 3.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 INT, 2 PD), has been a tackling machine in the middle of the unit. And then there are Preston (56 TKL, 11 TFL, 23 QBH, 12.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 INT, 4 PD) and Za’Darius (55 TKL, 17 TFL, 37 QBH, 13.5 SK, 1 FF) Smith, who both arrived via Free Agency and have done nothing but create havoc in the trenches, combining for a total of Twenty-Eight Tackles for Loss, a whopping SIXTY Quarterback Hits, and 25.5 Sacks. Pettine has done an excellent job of moving these two all over the Defensive Front, with their ability to pressure the Quarterback whether their hand is in the dirt or if their standing as a free Rusher bringing a wealth of versatility to the Defense. This group came up huge in last Sunday’s narrow 28-23 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in the Divisional Round of the Playoffs, limiting the visitors to just Three Points in the First Half, and pressuring Russell Wilson throughout the affair; Green Bay totaled Five Sacks and Ten Quarterback Hits, with the tandem of Smiths accounting for Four Sacks and all but two of those Hits. Seattle had an opportunity to take the lead inside of five minutes, but were stopped before the could reach Midfield as Wilson was sacked by Preston Smith, forcing a Punt. Now looking to get them to spend their remaining Timeouts, the Packers strung together a pair of hard-fought First Downs, as Rodgers bought himself some time and hit Pro-Bowl Receiver, Davante Adams (83 REC, 997 YDS, 12.0 Y/R, 5 TD), deep down the Right Sideline for a 32-Yard Gain, followed shortly afterward with a 9-Yard Completion over the middle of the field to Tight End, Jimmy Graham (38 REC, 447 YDS, 11.8 Y/R, 3 TD), effectively ending the game. This is where the hosts made the difference, for they managed to stay on the field consistently, converting 9-of-14 Third Downs in comparison to just 3-of-9 of their opponent. Sunday’s victory marked Green Bay’s eighth this season by eight points or less, as they have proven very proficient in handling the pressure of close games, which obviously bodes well in the Playoffs.
Meanwhile, it’s taken years to rebuild one of the most successful franchises in the history of the league, but if this is incarnation of the 49ers (13-3, 1st in NFC West) in the final product envisioned by General Manager, John Lynch, and Head Coach, Kyle Shanahan, then this isn’t so mad at all. When the club’s brain trust assembled in 2017, many thought that they would be in for a lengthy rebuild, and thanks to a number of unfortunate injuries, the wait to bring a winner back to the Bay Area took a bit longer than the faithful would have liked. However, they say that anything worth having is in fact worth waiting for, and if that’s the case then this team has been well worth the wait. After one of the most dreadful eras in Franchise History, San Francisco have been utterly resurgent in 2019, due to a dominant Defense and an efficient Offense that has grown throughout the course of the season. Lynch and Shanahan deserve a wealth of credit for the groundwork that they laid throughout their first two years at the helm, even though they’d have to a wait a good bit for the results to arrive following a series of unfortunate injuries. However, they’ve been rewarded handsomely this year, with just about everything working in their favor thus far. After years of spending premium Draft Picks on Defensive Linemen, the Defensive Front has evolved into arguably the most threatening in the league, with the likes of Arik Armstead (54 TKL, 11 TFL, 18 QBH, 10.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR, 2 PD), Deforest Buckner (61 TKL, 9 TFL, 14 QBH, 7.5 SK, 2 FF, 4 FR, 1 TD, 2 PD), and Rookie, Nick Bosa (47 TKL, 16 TFL, 25 QBH, 9.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR, 1 INT, 2 PD), accounting for a combined Thirty-Six Tackles for Loss, Fifty-Seven Quarterback Hits, and 26.5 Sacks. under the direction of Defensive Coordinator, Robert Saleh, the unit as a whole has ranked among the league’s finest, allowing just 19.4 Points per Game (8th Overall), on 281.8 Total Yards (2nd Overall), including a league-low 169.2 Passing Yards (1st Overall) on 4.8 Net Yards per Attempt (1st Overall), while permitting a scant 33.3% success rate on Third Down (2nd Overall). Furthermore, they registered a healthy Twenty-Seven Takeaways this season (6th Overall), a sizable increase over last year’s meager total of seven, which was the lowest such figure in the league. The key has been those studs up front, for this is a Defense that has been able to make life miserable for opposing Quarterbacks without having to blitz much at all; San Francisco ranked Fifth Overall in Sacks (48), First Overall in Hurry Percentage (14.7%), and Second Pressure Percentage (28.7%), despite only blitzing on 20.9% of plays, which was the fourth-fewest in the NFL. On the opposite side of the football, the Niners’ Offense has evolved as the season has progressed, as they’ve added pieces along the way, whether by Trade or a return from injury. Long regarded as one of the elite playcallers in the league, Shanahan is now finally seeing the final product of this group that he began cultivating three seasons ago. Remember, this is a unit that was without both Starting Offensive Tackles, Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, due to injury for the first half of the term, with Pro Bowl Tight End, George Kittle (85 REC, 1,053 YDS, 12.4 Y/R, 5 TD), playing through a sore hamstring over the latter half, while veteran receiver, Emmanuel Sanders (66 REC, 869 YDS, 13.2 Y/R, 5 TD), was acquired midway through the year at the Trade Deadline.
The missing ingredient though has long been a Franchise Quarterback, and the Niners appear to finally have one in the form of Jimmy Garoppolo (69.1%, 3,978 YDS, 7.31 NY/A, 27 TD, 13 INT, 60.2 QBR), whom in his first full season as the Starter has grown into that role quite nicely. After missing all but three games in 2018 with a Torn ACL, the former Patriot took a while to acclimate himself to his new surroundings, but now that he’s comfortable it’s easy to see why Management moved heaven and earth to acquire him in the first place. Following an inauspicious start to the campaign, Garoppolo improved immensely over the final nine outings in which he managed to complete an efficient 68.6% of his Attempts for an average of 276.6 Yards per Game on 8.06 Net Yards per Attempt, with Eighteen Touchdowns in comparison to Six Interceptions, along with Three Lost Fumbles. With that said, all anyone really wanted to see was how he would perform in the Playoffs, and after last Saturday’s decisive 27-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the Division Round, those concerns have begun to fade away. Rather than try to win the game on his own, the 28-Year Old opted to simply manage the flow of the game, which was fine given how successful that San Francisco was running the football, gashing Minnesota for 186 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns on Forty-Seven Carries, which in turn allowed them to control the flow of the contest, possessing the football for a commanding 38:27. Veteran Tailback, Tevin Coleman (137 CAR, 544 YDS, 4.0 Y/C, 6 TD), led the way with 105 Yards and both scores on Twenty-Two Carries, while the unheralded Raheem Mostert (137 CAR, 772 YDS, 5.6 Y/C, 8 TD) continued to impress with Fifty-Eight Yards on a dozen Attempts. Garoppolo only attempted Nineteen Passes, completing eleven for a modest 131 Yards, a Touchdown and an Interception. Yes, we get it; those numbers are hardly inspiring, but it shouldn’t be lost that he was simply performing within the context of the game, and as we’ve seen from other teams in these Playoffs (particularly the Titans), if you’re going to be that dominant running the football, then why risk your Quarterback? And speaking of dominant, that would be the appropriate term to describe Saleh’s Defense, which turned in arguably it’s finest performance rested off the Bye Week. The Vikings’ Offense has looked really great and very poor at times this season, and his troops turned them into the latter, relegating them to a scant 147 Total Yards and a season-low SEVEN First Downs, along with just Twenty-One Rushing Yards on Ten Carries, and a combined 2-of-14 on Third and Fourth Down. That Defensive Line feasted on Kirk Cousins, totaling Six Sacks for a Loss of Forty-Six Yards, while hitting him on nine other occasions. And to put things into proper perspective, if not for Defensive Back, Akhello Witherspoon (28 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 1 TD, 9 PD), stumbling in coverage on Stefon Diggs’ 41-Yard Touchdown in the First Quarter, then the visitors would have mustered a miserable Three Points and 106 Total Yards on the DAY. As we detailed earlier, it was similar Gameplan that throttled the Packers in their previous meeting this season, in which the 49ers’ Defense handed the aforementioned Rodgers one of the worst showings of his career. It will be interesting to see if Green Bay can turn the tables against San Francisco, particularly given the familiarity between the two Head Coaches, LaFleur and Shanahan, with the former serving as an Assistant alongside the latter in various stops, including the Houston Texans (2008-2009), Washington Redskins (2010-2013), and the Atlanta Falcons (2015-2016), where the duo helped steer their side to an appearance in Super Bowl LI. Shanahan clearly got the better of his pupil in their first meeting, so we’ll see if his former understudy has anything up his sleeve in this rematch. After all, a trip to Super Bowl LIII depends on it…