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NFL playoffs: Four things to watch for in Packers-49ers in NFC Divisional Round

The Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers will meet for the second time in the Divisional Round of the NFC playoffs in three years, but this matchup has taken on a far different look than the last matchup.

The 49ers were the dominant team in the conference this season, earning the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage behind Brock Purdy and a high-flying offense.

This year's Packers, like the Niners two seasons ago, sneaked into the playoff field in Week 18 and scored a road upset over the Dallas Cowboys last week to reach this stage. But with Jordan Love at the helm, Green Bay's offense has leveled up down the stretch and poses a stiff challenge in Saturday night's showdown in Santa Clara.

Neither Purdy nor Love were starting for their respective teams two years ago (Purdy was finishing his college career at Iowa State, while Love backed up Aaron Rodgers), but each has played at an exceptional level down the stretch this season.

In fact, since Week 11 (including playoffs), Love actually has surpassed Purdy's production in completion percentage (70.7% to 70.1%) and TD-to-INT ratio (21-1 to 16-6), with Purdy edging Love in yards per game (278.7 to 269.1).

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The incredible rise of Love -- and the Packers -- since the team's 2-5 start has changed his career arc. Purdy also has quieted doubters, even with some rough patches, since taking over down the stretch in the 2022 season and coming back from offseason elbow surgery.

The Packers and 49ers have met nine times in the postseason, all of them since the 1995 season, with San Francisco winning five – including the past four playoff meetings. Kyle Shanahan is 2-0 in the playoffs against Matt LaFleur's Packers.

This will be the first-ever game in NFL playoff history between No. 1 and No. 7 seeds, but the Packers roll into Levi's Stadium with a confidence that far surpasses that seeding.

Here are four things to watch for when the Packers visit the 49ers in Saturday's Divisional Round:

1) Can Jordan Love handle the 49ers' defense? Love's emergence in the second half of this season has been nothing short of amazing for the Packers. Without it, they would be sitting at home now. Instead, Love is heading back to California (he grew up in Bakersfield) leading one of the hottest offenses in football. He leads the NFL in offensive TDs (23) since Week 11 and has an incredible TD-INT ratio of 21-1 since then. But his strengths and the 49ers' defensive strengths appear to line up in opposition of one another. Since Week 11, the 49ers lead the NFL in sacks with 30, but Love has only taken 11 sacks in that span (after taking 18 in his first nine games). Likewise, Love has been especially effective on "money" downs; he led the NFL with 17 passing TD and 19 offensive TDs on third and fourth downs this season, including the playoffs. But wouldn't you know it, the 49ers -- who tied for the NFL lead in picks with 22 -- tied for the most third- and fourth-down INTs this season with nine and were tied for third- and fourth-down sacks with 25. The 49ers defense also is getting healthier with the extra layoff and will have defensive lineman Arik Armstead and safety Ji'Ayir Brown after they recently missed time, while linebacker Dre Greenlaw is questionable to play. The unit was banged up down the stretch, and it showed in games such as the home loss to the Ravens in Week 16, but only one team all season threw for more than 300 yards against San Francisco (the Vikings in Week 7). Can Love handle the 49ers' pass rush, led by Nick Bosa, and a strong coverage unit, led by Charvarius Ward? Anything close to the level Love has been producing at in recent games would be considered a major success Saturday.

2) 49ers' playmakers are rested, dangerous. Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry deserves his flowers for coaxing his unit's best play in recent games, although that comes with an asterisk. For one, it's a defense that has had its share of struggles along the way, and two, Barry's defense -- as well as it played against the Cowboys -- still allowed 500-plus yards and kept the door ajar for an improbable comeback late last week. Either way, that group will have its hands full with the 49ers expected to roll out a mostly healthy group of skill-position weapons – including arguably the best quartet of playmakers in the NFL. Christian McCaffrey, tweaked his calf in Week 17 and sat out a meaningless regular-season finale, should expect a full workload vs. the league's 28th-ranked run defense. Wideouts Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk and tight end George Kittle also are good to go, able to stress Green Bay in multiple ways, assuming Purdy has ample time to throw. Shanahan loves to take first-down shots, and this might be just the outing for that. According to Next Gen Stats, the Packers recorded a league-low 43.7% defensive success rate vs. the pass on first downs in 2023. The Niners can target any of those four in the passing game readily, and yet none of them had more than nine receptions in a game this season, so game planning to stop one of them -- even mid-game -- just isn't a viable strategy for Barry. He'll have to hope his team tackles well, prevents big chunk plays on early downs and can force turnovers. But with the 49ers' skill players rested, the chore becomes that much tougher.
3) Aaron Jones could be 49ers' toughest challenge. Stopping Love and Green Bay's cadre of young receivers is a stiff enough challenge. But now the Niners must also contend with a revived Jones, who has led the NFL in rush yards since returning from injury (476 rush yards since Week 16). Early in the season, Jones was fairly effective as a receiver but wasn't getting much done on the ground. After missing six weeks, that script has flipped, and the Packers' offense has taken a noticeable leap. The Green Bay offensive line has done its job, especially on second-level blocks and getting out into space effectively. On the flip side, the 49ers' weakness defensively has been stopping the run this season, often relying on lighter boxes (six or fewer defenders in the box on 69.6% of plays this season, which is seventh-highest, via NGS). Jones has thrived against lighter boxes, too, since Week 15: 31 carries for a whopping 228 yards. He's had 20-plus carries in each of the past four games, so it would be a shock if he didn't receive similar volume in this game, as doing so could help keep the Packers defense off the field. Can the 49ers tackle effectively, as they have most of the season, and have the resources to stop Jones before he gets going? The recent returns of multiple defenders to practice point to good health and better depth for that unit for this game.
4) Purdy must avoid a repeat of the Ravens game. Purdy has been mostly terrific this season, even leading the MVP discussion at one stage. With the arsenal of weapons at his disposal, it's not a shock, and Purdy generally has kept the trains moving effectively and on time. There were a handful of games this season, however, where he looked frazzled and ineffective – none more so than against the Ravens. In that Week 16 game, he was pressured on 47.1% of his dropbacks, sacked twice and intercepted four times. Baltimore's game plan wasn't anything too fancy, sitting back mostly in zones (a lot of quarters and quarter-quarter-half), pressuring Purdy relentlessly with four rushers and closing fast on his first reads. The Packers have something of a similar defensive approach and can take a lot of the Ravens' game plan into this one. Green Bay's pass rush might not be as fierce as what Baltimore brings, but the Packers had a pair of five-sack games in Weeks 15 and 18 and have gotten to quarterbacks with better frequency down the stretch. The Packers have some holes in their secondary, ones that perhaps only a quality pass rush can truly compensate for. But they might want to be careful with how many single-safety looks they throw at him. Purdy excelled this season vs. those defensive looks, averaging 10.0 yards per attempt – and the next-highest in the NFL vs. one-high defenses was Lamar Jackson at 8.8.

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