NFC Championship Preview

This Sunday the 1 seeded 49ers and the 2 seeded Packers will faceoff in San Fran for a trip to the Super Bowl. Green Bay is coming off a tight 28-23 win against a banged up Seattle team. San Fran, on the other hand, is coming off an impressive 27-10 victory over a Minnesota Vikings club that went into New Orleans and upset the Saints a week earlier. 

The biggest difference for the 49ers here is their oppositions quarterback. Aaron Rodgers is a tier (or maybe two or three) above Kirk Cousins and he should have all the motivation he needs– the Packers got absolutely torched against this 49ers team on National TV in week 12 and Rodgers (a California native) has a particular vendetta against San Fran. He was asked on his draft night how disappointed he was that his hometown team didn’t take him. His response? “Not as disappointed as the 49ers will be that they didn’t draft me.” Rodgers’ career record against San Fran is a mediocre 4-5 (2-5-2 ATS). However, I’d still say the 49ers ended up disappointed they didn’t draft him because, instead, with the number one overall pick they drafted Alex Smith who is no longer in the league. I’m not a huge fan of the ‘motivation’ edge considering guys on both sides have been thinking about getting to the league and then to the Super Bowl their whole lives, but it definitely can’t hurt Rodgers’ performance this Sunday. That’s something that potentially bodes well for a Packers team who will need their quarterback to put up one of the best performances of his playoff career this Sunday for them to advance. 

On the other side of the quarterback coin is Jimmy G, who had his highest passer rating of the season (145.8) when these teams faced off in the regular season. Despite the 37-8 drubbing in week 12, I think there are a few reasons to think this game could be closer than last time. First off, Green Bay went 1/15 on 3rd down in that regular season matchup. Lafleur is too good of a coach to let that happen again. Also, it’s hard to win a game when your opponent gets the ball to start both halves, which is essentially what happened last time because Rodgers fumbled the ball on his own 25 yard line on the opening drive of the game. San Fran returned the fumble to Green Bay’s 2 yard-line and it was 7-0 before the game even started. Beyond this game in particular, there is a relatively surprising trend that bodes well for Packers fans– there have been 20 instances when a team lost by 4+ touchdowns to a team in the regular season and then played that same team in the playoffs. The team that lost by 4+ touchdowns is 6-14 in the playoff rematch. This trend speaks to a couple things. First, it shows just how much teams can change throughout the course of a season (Green Bay has won 6 straight since their matchup with San Fran) and it shows how fickle the NFL can be. It is such a week-to-week league, that it’d be crazy to totally rule out the Pack in this game. 

On the other side of things, if you’re a 49ers fan you’re looking at the fact that Dee Ford and Kwon Alexander were both out in the regular season matchup. Ford and Alexander are two of the most important players on the 49ers defense who was as healthy last week as they had been all season– they held the Vikings to just 10 points. For the Packers to have any chance, they have to win the turnover battle and. again, Rodgers is going to have to put up a hall of fame performance in what could be his last chance to get to a second Super Bowl. Ultimately, I don’t think he’ll be able to do enough to get there. The 49ers will win this game and put the winner of the AFC championship game on notice. I’d put the final score in the 27-17 or 30-20 range. It could be lower scoring depending on how much Shanahan trusts Jimmy G here. In the game last week, after Jimmy G threw an interception, the 49ers ran the ball eleven straight times. The 49ers do have the luxury of relying more heavily on their run game because it is so effective (they rank 2nd in the league in rush yards), but if the Packers can put the pressure on by going ahead early, San Fran may no choice but to ride the Italian Stallion to Miami. If I had to pick a side I’d go with San Fran (-7.5) but I don’t love the idea of laying a touchdown and the hook in a conference championship game. If there’s anything in this game that I do like it would be the first quarter over 9.5. Both LaFleur and Shanahan are great offensive minds and will no doubt have solid scripts for this game. The 49ers scored on their first possession of the game in 65% of their drives compared to 44.3% score rate on average, while the Packers scored on 41% of their opening drives (all of them being touchdowns) compared to 37.1% average score rate. In two of the 10 opening drives the Packers didn’t score, it was because they lost a fumble. Don’t be surprised if there is scoring early that levels off as we get into the second half– not totally unlike last week in San Francisco.

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