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NFC Championship Preview: Green Bay Packers vs. San Francisco 49ers

The top seeds of the NFC bracket will meet up for the second time this week as the San Francisco 49ers host the Green Bay Packers at Levi’s Stadium with a Super Bowl berth on the line.

These two teams faced off back in week 12 in Levi’s Stadium, with the 49ers destroying the Packers 37-8. In that game, the 49ers dominated defensively, continually getting pressure on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Throughout the game, the Niners defense had 10 hits on Rodgers, including 5 sacks and a forced fumble and recovery. For the entire game, the 49ers defense held Rodgers to 104 yards, which is the second-lowest total of his career, and 1 touchdown. Along with that, the defense piled up 12 tackles for a loss in the game and held the Packers to 1 for 15 on third down. On the flip side, the offense was great, led by star tight end George Kittle, who had 129 yards receiving and 1 touchdown.

Since that loss in week 12, the Packers have won six straight games, including their win last week over the No. 5 seed Seattle Seahawks. During this span, Rodgers has thrown for 1,423 yards and 10 touchdowns. The emergence of running back Aaron Jones has been huge for the Packers this year. He rushed for 1,084 yards and 16 touchdowns in the regular season, balancing out the passing attack, which hasn’t happened since the Eddie Lacy days.

Remember that in week 12, it was only wide receiver Davante Adams’ third game back from a turf toe injury that cost him the whole month of October. Now, the connection between the two is at full strength, as displayed last week with Adams as they connected for 160 yards receiving and 2 touchdowns. On top of that, right tackle Bryan Bulaga left the week 12 game after only nine snaps, leading to second-year undrafted lineman, Alex Light, lining up against Nick Bosa. Bulaga missed last week’s game with an illness but he should be good to go for this week’s rematch.

As for the 49ers, the defense has taken a step back since the week 12 blowout. In the first 11 games, the Niners defense averaged 14.8 points per game, but over the past 6 games (including playoffs), they have averaged 26.2 points per game. Injuries have played a role as Dee Ford and Kwon Alexander were injured but are healthy for this week. The offense has been led by Kittle, who is one of the best tight ends in the league, and running back Raheem Mostert has played really well. Going into this game, it isn’t the offense that is the worry, it is the defense that will have to get pressure on Rodgers often throughout the game.

Going into this game, there are three keys to advancing to Super Bowl LIV

  1. Pass Rush

The Packers are the only team in the NFL to have two pass rushers with 12 sacks or more. These were Preston Smith (12 sacks) and Za’Darius Smith (13.5 sacks). These two pass rushers have been huge for the Packers this season, including last week when each Smith had two sacks and four QB hits in the win over Seattle in the Divisional Round.

The 49ers were all over Rodgers in the first game, recording 5 sacks. The Packers offensive line ranked 12th in sacks in the regular season, surrendering 36 sacks. The 49ers defense was T-5th in the league in sacks with 48 during the regular season. Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa have combined for 19 sacks this year off the edge, so getting to Rodgers is key for the Niners defense.

2. Third Down Conversions

One of the strongest aspects of the 49ers defense is their dominance on third down. In week 12, they held the Packers to 1 for 15 on third down and last week, they held the Vikings to 2 for 12 on third down. The Niners defensive stoppage rate on third down is 32.35% ranking second in the league during the regular season. Being able to stop the Packers offense on third down is a key for the 49ers to throw off their rhythm. The 49ers offense ranked fourth in third conversions during the regular season, with a 44.81% success rate. Overall, San Francisco is one of the best teams on third down in the entire league on both sides of the ball and it is key for them to be dominant on third down this week.

As for the Packers offense, they ranked 19th for third-down conversions during the regular season, with a success rate of 37.79%. Last week the Packers showed drastic improvement, going 9 for 14 on third down against the Seahawks. If the offense can keep that pace up, they have a strong chance at winning the third down battle this week. On defense, Green Bay ranked 12th in the league with a third down stoppage rate of 37.86% in the regular season. Last week they held the Seahawks to 3 for 9 on third down. With recent improvement, the Packers have set themselves up for a chance to win this crucial element this week.

3. Run Game Battle

The emergence of Aaron Jones has done wonders for the Packers this year. Jones has balanced the passing game, relieving Rodgers of throwing the ball 40 to 50 times a game. First-year head coach Matt LaFleur is due credit for the emergence of Jones. This year the Green Bay offense has run the ball 40.1 percent of all their offensive plays. That is a drastic leap from Mike McCarthy, who ran the ball 32.5 percent of their offensive plays in 2018. Overall, the offense ranked 15th in the league with over 1,700 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns in the regular season. Jones is going to be a huge part of the game plan as he rushed for 62 yards and 2 touchdowns last week against Seattle. As for the defense, the Packers struggled, ranking 23rd in rushing defense, allowing 119.5 rushing yards per game to opponents. If the Packers want to win, they will have to get the run game going early and stop the 49ers running back committee.

As for the 49ers, the emergence of Raheem Mostert over the course of the season has been big. He led the team in rushing yards with 772 yards and 8 touchdowns. This season, the 49ers ranked second in the league with over 2,300 yards rushing, averaging 144.1 yards per game and scoring 23 touchdowns. Kyle Shanahan has progressed the run game drastically this year, jumping from the No. 13 rank last season. The run game with the three dynamic runners has proved to be efficient, regardless of the player in the backfield. On the defensive side of the ball, the Niners rushing defense ranked 12th in the regular season, allowing 107.2 yards per game to opponents. Aaron Jones is going to be a lot to handle this week and the 49ers defense will have to balance out the strong rushing attack on offense to win the crucial battle in this week’s game.

These two teams will battle it out for the second time this season on Sunday, but will the 49ers keep their comeback season alive? Or will Aaron Rodgers lead a Packer’s team looking for revenge?

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