This Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers will host the Green Bay Packers for the NFC Championship and a chance to compete for this year’s Lombardi trophy.
From very early in the season, the San Francisco 49ers have been frontrunners to take it all in the NFL’s 100th season and they are heavy favourites going into this NFC rematch.
This is largely due to their absolute dismantling of the Green Bay Packers at Levi Stadium back in week 12 when they beat Matt LaFleur’s team 37-8.
But this is playoff football and, as the Titans have already proven, the right game plan can produce sensational results so don’t expect the same steamrolling that took place back in November.
Here’s some key factors that will play a role in who wins on Sunday.
Green Bay are on a roll and will be more competitive this time round
OK, while we’re talking about that one-sided clash in November, let’s get this out of the way. Green Bay made a tonne of mistakes to go down early in that game and never got back in it.
Davante Adams’ personal foul, Aaron Rodgers’ fumble which was recovered and taken to the 2-yard line before Tevin Colman powered it in. There were dropped passes, blown coverage in the Pack’s secondary and Aaron Rodgers was sacked five times. It just wasn’t a good performance.
But since then, the Packers have gone 6-0 – they are looking sharp, and will be feeling capable after defeating the Seattle Seahawks in almost dominant fashion bar a late comeback attempt by Russell Wilson.
Aaron Rodgers told Jimmy Garoppolo the two would meet again after that brutal loss, giving just a small insight into the veteran quarterback’s mentality.
The Packers felt that loss and are keen to put it right. They are also still defining themselves as the team everyone is doubting and feeding of that fuel from pundits which has proved a successful motivator so far.
Matt LaFleur will need to improve in all areas
To say it will be more competitive is not to say it will be an easy task for the guys in green and gold. The San Francisco 49ers are rightly the favourites heading into this match up as they have been dominant on both sides of the ball all year long.
The 49ers ranked second in total defense (281.8) and fourth in total offense (381.1). They also ranked second in points per game and eighth in points allowed per game.
In that November victory, they held star running back Aaron Jones to 38 yards on 13 carries and top receiver Davante Adams to 43 yards. The Packers were held to a pitiful 2.8 average yards per play.
LaFleur will need to start from scratch and look to the performances of the Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens and Seattle Seahawks who all accounted for the 49ers losses this season.
Their biggest challenges will be stopping explosive plays from tight end George Kittle, who caught six passes for 129 yards in the November game, and putting together successive and effective drives down the field to gain momentum early on and build confidence.
Will Jimmy Garoppolo show up in only his second playoff start?
In their victory over the Minnesota Vikings last weekend, San Francisco wore their opponents down by rushing a soul-destroying 47 times for 186 yards.
Jimmy Garoppolo, who still has more Super Bowl rings than playoff starts, went 11 for 19 with 131 yards and a touchdown, hardly throwing the ball at all after throwing an ugly interception in the second quarter.
While veteran quarterback Aaron Rodgers has a playoff record of 10-7, he is 5-5 with road games but his extensive experience over that of his counterpart could prove decisive.
If the Packers linemen are able to stop the run, which will be a tough ask, and force Garoppolo to throw the ball, all eyes will be on the 28-year-old to see if he can deliver a Super Bowl berth to his team.
Green Bay will have to put pressure on the young quarterback to test his mettle on Sunday. Garoppolo has an impressive record of 20-5 since joining the 49ers in October 2017, proving he certainly knows how to win, but can he do it with a championship game on the line?
Whose defense can come out on top?
This game is unlikely to be an offensive shoot-out and will come down to which team’s defense can make a play at the right time.
As already stated, Kyle Shanahan’s defense is formidable and will be tough to overcome. Outside of Aaron Jones and Davante Adams, Rodgers has little in the way of offensive weapons for their opponents to deal with.
The Niners’ defensive line is terrifying, with four linemen posting at least 6.5 sacks in the regular season and sacking Kirk Cousins six times last weekend.
Rodgers can produce out of the pocket with the best of them, but facing such an onslaught will undoubtedly take its toll. Green Bay’s offensive line will need to deliver come Sunday if they expect their playmaker to work his magic.
Green Bay’s defense has been making plays of their own though and have shown they can force turnovers at key moments in a game.
Kevin King leads the way with five interceptions, while Adrian Amos, Jaire Alexander, Darnell Savage and Tramon Williams, who also has two fumble recoveries, all have two each.
Meanwhile, Linebackers Za’Darius and Preston Smith delivered a combined 111 tackles and 60 quarterback hits while Blake Martinez ranks second in the league with 97 tackles.
The Smith “brothers” got themselves another couple of sacks in the divisional round.
If this defense can apply pressure and force a turnover at the right time, it could frustrate Jimmy G and his team, perhaps throwing the playoff-green quarterback off balance.
The San Francisco 49ers will host the Green Bay Packers for the NFC Championship on Sunday.
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