The San Francisco 49ers are set to take on another longtime playoff rival with a trip to the NFC Championship game on the line.
On Saturday night, San Francisco (11-7) will take on the Green Bay Packers (13-4) at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. This will mark the ninth postseason meeting between the two clubs since 1995, the year following the last Super Bowl victory for the 49ers.
As was the case when San Francisco traveled to Green Bay in January 2013 for a playoff game, weather could play a factor. Forecasts call for the temperature at game time to be about 5 degrees, with a slight wind making it feel like 10 below zero.
With that in mind, here are the five questions to watch for:
- Will the 49ers be able to get the run game going?
On the surface, it looks like San Francisco should be able to dominate this game on the ground. The Green Bay defense allowed the third most yards per rush attempt in the league during the regular season, 4.7 yards.
But Green Bay did an excellent job of shutting down the 49ers when the teams met in week three.
Led by defensive tackle Kenny Clark and linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, Green Bay held San Francisco to only 67 yards on 21 rushing attempts.
Clark beat Alex Mack repeatedly and Campbell was excellent at filling the open running lanes.
If Clark and Campbell can replicate their performance on Saturday night, it may not matter that Elijah Mitchell will be in the backfield. Mitchell missed the week three matchup due to a shoulder injury, and fellow rookie Trey Sermon was held to only 31 yards on 10 carries.
Watch out for Deebo Samuel on Saturday night. Samuel only had two carries for the 49ers in week three. When Samuel gets six or more carries in a game this season, San Francisco is 7-0.
One last thing to consider: The more the 49ers run the ball, the more they win. Since the start of 2019, San Francisco is 23-1 when they run the ball at least 30 times.
- Can the 49ers defense make the Green Bay offense one dimensional?
This may sound like a crazy idea. But the best possibility for the 49ers to come out on top would be to force Aaron Rodgers to beat them.
Rodgers is one of the best throwers in the game, and if the pass rush is unable to speed up his process, he will dice it up.
This is what makes stopping the run so important. In the week three matchup, Aaron Jones was able to gain 82 yards on 19 carries. Combined with AJ Dillon, Green Bay was able to run for 100 yards on 25 attempts.
If the 49ers can shut down the Green Bay run game, the defensive line will be able to focus on generating pressure and forcing Rodgers to throw quicker than he’d like.
- Will San Francisco be able to contain Aaron Rodgers?
Aaron Rodgers is going to get his yards, that’s a given. In five games against San Francisco since 2018, Rodgers has averaged 284 yards and two touchdowns while throwing only two interceptions, both coming in the 2019 NFC Championship Game.
Despite the big numbers put up by Rodgers, the 49ers have been able to keep the games close with Green Bay. San Francisco blew the Packers out twice in 2019 and lost by field goals late in 2018 and earlier this season. The only game of the five which wasn’t close came in 2020 when the 49ers had several players out due to COVID-19 protocols.
As mentioned earlier, the 49ers defense needs to find a way to speed up Rodgers and it won’t be easy. The veteran is very good at getting the ball out of his hands quickly. San Francisco was able to hit him 10 times during their 2019 regular season blowout victory. In the other four games between the two squads, the 49ers have hit Rodgers a total of 14 times.
- Can the 49ers get a complete game out of Jimmy Garoppolo?
To say that Jimmy Garoppolo has struggled in the fourth quarter of playoffs games would be an understatement.
In his first four postseason starts, Garoppolo has completed only 9 of 17 attempts for 93 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.
Garoppolo’s inability to make plays with his arm stopped San Francisco from picking up key first downs in Super Bowl LIV against Kansas City and on Sunday against Dallas, his fourth quarter interception led to a Cowboys touchdown.
While the fourth quarter has been an adventure for Garoppolo, he has shown the ability to have strong starts, helping the 49ers to score first in all four contests.
For the 49ers to win on Sunday, San Francisco will need Garoppolo to play four good quarters.
- Can the 49ers hold on to the football?
The 49ers are 2-3 against the Packers during Kyle Shanahan’s time in San Francisco.
In the 49ers two wins, they were on the plus side of the turnover differential, plus 1 during the 2019 regular season and plus 3 in the NFC Championship Game.
In the 49ers three losses, they were on the negative side of the turnover differential, minus 3 in 2018 and minus 2 in 2020 and earlier this season.
This season Green Bay is plus 13 on the strength of having the fewest turnovers in the NFL (13) while forcing the eighth most (26). That number is extremely impressive considering four of Green Bay’s turnovers have come from backup quarterback Jordan Love.
As we mentioned here last week, San Francisco has only one victory this season (the season opener in Detroit) when they have turned the ball over more than their opponent.
Turnovers on Saturday night could mean San Francisco will be watching the rest of the playoffs at home.
49ers 27 Packers 24
San Francisco’s defense has been very good over the second half of the season, holding some very good offenses such as Los Angeles, Cincinnati, and Dallas to 24 points or less.
Expect San Francisco to do that again on Saturday night, leaving it up to Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers offense to do their part.