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Packers-49ers: NFC Championship Game preview

Viewers can watch the broadcast live on FOX at 6:40 p.m. ET, Jan. 19 as well as stream live on the NFL App and Yahoo Sports app.

The Backstory

A classic matchup between two perennial NFL powerhouses of decades past meet to decide who will head to Miami, and who will go home with a hollow season in hand. Sunday in Santa Clara marks the eighth playoff meeting between the 49ers and Packers, but just the second NFC Championship Game, and the first postseason battle since 2013.

By now, surely, you've heard or read about San Francisco's whitewash of Green Bay at home in Week 12. That game featured a Packers squad sleeping through a primetime game like a 59-year-old dad on the couch. Aaron Rodgers fumbled on the first drive of the game, and the avalanche fell on Green Bay in the form of Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, et al. as the 49ers romped 37-8. We need not go into more detail in that game from pre-Thanksgiving. If you'd like further perspective on that, you can read it here or here.

Rather than rehash that blowout, let's look further at how far these teams have come since.

The 49ers followed the Packers thrashing with two excellent performances on the road. A tight loss at Baltimore in nasty weather was chased with a thrilling, high-scoring win in New Orleans. The three straight games against teams who would eventually make the playoffs -- albeit one loss -- showed Kyle Shanahan's team can play any type of game. It can pounce on an opponent early and smother it into submission. It can play a grind-out game to the wire against an offense that pillaged teams all regular season. And it showed it can go punch for punch with an explosive offense and owns the gumption to come back late after a last-second near kill-shot seemed to spell their doom.

More than any stretch of the season, that trio of games steeled Shanahan's squad for January football when the pressure is on, and the pretender teams have been washed to the wayside.

The 49ers stumbled against Atlanta at home but closed out the season with two division wins to secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC. All through their end-of-season run, the Niners weren't at capacity, with injuries to Dee Ford, Kwon Alexander, and others leaving them less than full-throttle. Saturday's Divisional Round whipping of the Minnesota Vikings showed what the defense can be when all the pieces are in place. And Shanahan's run-game was on a high, lashing a good run defense with the ease of a knife through a tender melon. At this moment, the Niners are a complete team, firing on all cylinders heading into the championship game.

Green Bay's last loss came on the very field they'll inhabit Sunday. Since that night, the Packers have been in playoff-mode, capturing five straight wins to close the season as the No. 2 seed, and thwarted Russell Wilson and the Seahawks last week at Lambeau.

After said loss in Week 12, Rodgers and Co. took care of business against two poor NFC East squads and dispatched the Bears at home. The Week 16 primetime walloping of the Minnesota Vikings was the key game. Yes, Rodgers missed some big shots that would have made the game a runaway early, but he found a groove in the second half. It was the play of the defensive front, however, that really stood out and underscored this is a Green Bay team that after years of leaning too heavily on Rodgers, now boasts playmakers that can take over the game. Za'Darius Smith has been a wrecking ball all season and compiled 3.5 sacks in the NFC North-clinching game against the Vikes. Given the Packers' prestige, it's stunning that Smith still somehow inconceivably flies under the national radar as one of the best edge rushers this season. Teaming with Preston Smith, the Packers own a defensive front that can take over games if the offense goes on a lull.

Green Bay's less than stellar Week 17 performance against a three-win Detroit team offered trepidation to Packers backers heading into January. Rodgers' play last week offered a reminder that he can still pull a rabbit out of his hat and play like it's 2011 again. In the divisional round, Rodgers completed 7-of-9 passes for 121 yards, a TD, zero INTs and earned a 155.8 passer rating on third downs. The QB destroyed Seattle on that money down and with field-stretching throws. He went 6-of-6 for 145 yards and two TDs on passes of 10-plus air yards, via Next Gen Stats. Compare that to the previous three weeks when he completed just 23.6 percent of such plays. Go back to the matchup against San Francisco in Week 12 when he went 0-for-8 on passes of 10-plus yards. When Rodgers is on, he can get as hot as any quarterback.

It hasn't been a memorable Rodgers year from a stats perspective. After seasons of stacking personal accolades and being awarded trophies not named after Vince Lombardi, the 36-year-old quarterback will gladly trade box scores for wins. Sunday, however, he'll need a repeat performance of last week against a much better defense, or the Packers' final game will happen exactly where their previous loss took place in California.

Under Pressure

Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers QB: Jimmy G didn't have to do much in his first career playoff start, completing 11 of 19 passes for 131 yards, one TD and one INT in the win over Minnesota. The Niners that day didn't need Garoppolo to do more than caretake the offense, make sure they were in the right run-fit, and handoff. San Francisco rushed 47 times for 186 yards in a blowout win. When Shanahan's run-game is churning like that, the pressure is off Garoppolo. But, if come Sunday, Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida are stymied for any stretch, the onus will be on Garoppolo. This season has been a solid, if unspectacular, one for Jimmy G. He didn't have many eye-popping games, but he managed the best team in the NFC with aplomb. When called upon, he did display some pop. The game against New Orleans comes to mind when he parried every shot from future Hall of Famer Drew Brees on the road. Against a Packers defense that has been up-and-down this season, Garoppolo should have his shots to take if he gets any sort of protection.

Look for the signal-caller to feed George Kittle early and often Sunday. The Packers' defense has been torched by top-flight tight ends this season. In games facing Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, Zach Ertz and Kittle, Green Bay's D has surrendered six receptions on 7.5 targets per game, for an average of 95.8 yards and four total touchdowns. Over their last 11 games (since Week 7), the Packers have allowed 710 receiving yards to tight ends (4th-most in NFL). Kittle generated 129 receiving yards and a touchdown in the Week 12 matchup against the Packers, the most receiving yards allowed to a TE by Green Bay in the last five seasons. When the pressure is on, there is little doubt Jimmy G will look towards Kittle. Now he needs to connect in a big spot.

Packers offensive line: Green Bay boasts one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, but it faces a different animal Sunday. The 49ers send waves of pressure at the quarterback. Nick Bosa is a favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year and has dominated games seemingly single-handedly this season. Down the stretch, the rookie straightened out early-season struggles against play-action boots to his side and has become an all-around force. Getting Dee Ford back into the lineup allows San Francisco the luxury of employing two edge rushers who can beat one-on-ones in the blink of an eye and disrupt quarterbacks. The attention on the outside allows Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner to feast up the middle, crumbling pockets like graham crackers. The Niners sacked Rodgers five times in the Week 12 blowout, demonstrating the destructive nature of their pass rush. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga played just nine snaps in that bout, a massive loss for Green Bay. After Bulaga missed last week's game due to an illness, he's expected to return for the NFC championship. With the line expected to be intact to start, the Packers must open holes for Aaron Jones and give Rodgers time to survey the field against a 49ers defense that allowed just 169.2 passing yards per game in the regular season (1st in NFL). If the line leaks, Bosa & Co. will control the game.

Matchup to Watch

Davante Adams vs. non-Richard Sherman CBs: Aaron Rodgers has famously avoided throwing towards Richard Sherman dating back to the corner's days with the Seattle Seahawks. Will the quarterback once again eschew throwing at No. 25's side in big spots?

Adams lined up on the offensive right side, where Sherman patrols, on 206 of 438 routes this season, including playoffs (47.0 percent) per Next Gen Stats. The wideout aligned across from Sherman on 16 of 35 routes (45.7 percent) in Week 12 (aligned on the right on 20 of 35 routes). Against Sherman that week, Adams had one reception for seven yards on two targets. In seven career matchups, Sherman has held Adams to six targets, two receptions, 20 yards and an interception, per Pro Football Focus.

Assuming the Packers scheme Adams away from Sherman for the majority of snaps, the matchup against the opposite corner will be a key to the game. Emmanuel Moseley replaced Ahkello Witherspoon in the divisional round after the latter got off to a poor start. Shanahan has been mum this week about who will get the start, but given the circumstances, it's a good bet to be Moseley. Adams owns the route-running ability to beat either CB to the spot and cause havoc.

In the divisional round, the wideout set a single-game Packers playoff record with 160 receiving yards and scored twice. He was the Green Bay pass offense that day -- all other pass-catchers caught eight passes for 83 yards combined. Since Week 12, Adams has seven receiving touchdowns, most in the NFL (including playoffs). If the 49ers are able to slow Rodgers' go-to target, it would seem impossible for the Packers to move the ball through the air.


I entered this exercise planning to pick San Francisco in a romp. Little written above suggests otherwise. The Niners hold advantages all over the field, have already demolished Green Bay at home once and looked like the superior team all season. And still, I can't seem to shake an image seared to my brain: Aaron Rodgers leading a comeback. The playoffs offered notices time and time again these bouts aren't played on paper, they're not determined by keyboard jockeys reading organic tealeaves. In a postseason largely defined by running games, particularly in Tennessee and San Francisco, churning up yards and laying waste to opponents, we're due for a reminder that the most crucial position in professional sports remains NFL QB. The man to force-feed that reminder into the minds of nationwide viewers is Rodgers. No, the Green Bay signal-caller hasn't enjoyed his best season. It's a down year by his lofty standards and a middling one overall. Yet, the entire season-long preamble can be silenced Sunday in San Francisco. In the penultimate chapter of a seemingly ponderous tome, Rodgers will author a drive that harkens back to his MVP days, punctuating it with a pinpoint game-winning toss that disappoints the home fans of his childhood team, as he lifts the Packers to another NFC championship.

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