The 49ers are better than the Packers. Read any analysis, listen to any podcast or watch any talking head show and they’ll tell you the same thing. To hear some tell it, Green Bay might as well not even bother getting on the plane. And maybe they’re right. But the talent disparity isn’t nearly as onerous as the consensus portrays. That’s far from a guarantee of victory, or even competitiveness from the Packers, but talent matters even more in the playoffs than the regular season where every matchup is amplified.
Traditionally, five positions make up the priority spots, the so-called “premium” positions for football teams. They’re the spots NFL teams tend to prioritize at the top of the draft, and replacing a bad player with a good player at these spots tends to have the biggest marginal impact on the team. Heading into the NFC Championship Game, the Green Bay Packers hold the edge over the San Francisco 49ers at four of these five spots heading into Sunday.
For whatever can be said about Aaron Rodgers’ decline, he’s still Rodgers and he reminded us all of that last Sunday. Anyone who thinks Jimmy Garoppolo is a better quarterback, even with the built-in advantage of getting Kyle Shanahan has a playcaller, is welcome to that opinion. We all make choices. They chose to be wrong.
But the advantages are even clearer-cut elsewhere. David Bakhtiari will be the best offensive lineman on the field at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday, leading the No. 1 offensive line in the league in ESPN’s Pass Block Wine Rate (PBWR). Corey Linsley is PBWR’s No. 1 center and Elgton Jenkins finished in the top-10 among guards. The last time these two teams met, Linsley and Jenkins played their worst games of the season and while the 49ers boast excellent interior defenders, in the aggregate this is one of the best interior line duos in football. While the iOL isn’t considered a priority position specifically, pass protection reigns paramount as a core tenet of modern football, up there with quarterback play, pass rush, and coverage.
Speaking of pass rush, while Za’Darius Smith won’t earn the deserved plaudits for his performance, he’s the best pass rusher on the field, leading the league in pressures, pressure rate, and ESPN’s Sacks Created metric, all while getting double-teamed more often than any edge rusher in football. There’s a case he’s the best player on the field, full stop.
Despite the well-deserved accolades the 49ers front received, the Packers finished with a higher pressure rate (3rd vs. 13th) and the Smith Bros. each finished in the top-10 for edge rushers in Pass Rush Win Rate (PRWR), while San Francisco didn’t have a player inside or outside rank in the top 10. And if the case is depth, that’s fine, except the Packers as a defense best the 49ers in PRWR.
To recap, the Packers block better for their QB, rush opposing QBs more effectively, and boast the better QB. Oh, and easily the best receiver on the field Sunday will be Davante Adams. We can quibble and count George Kittle here, one of the most impactful players in the league at any position, and that’s a fair argument. Few tight ends in the league affect the game like Kittle and he tore up the Packers in their Week 12 meeting. Throw in Aaron Jones though and the Packers have the best receiver and running back on the field. San Francisco’s depth and versatility at receiver and running back may be better, but the Packers talent at the top trumps San Francisco’s.
In terms of premium position players, the only advantage the 49ers hold comes at cornerback, where Richard Sherman persists as one of the best in the NFL. The best facet of the game for either team, relative to how good they are at it compared to league average, starts with Sherman. San Francisco’s passing defense finished 2nd in the NFL in DVOA, and would have been first in most years, but fell behind the historic Patriots this season. They stymied Rodgers and the Packers into one of the worst performance of the two-time MVP’s career, and the worst offensive performance by DVOA of the year by a mile for Green Bay.
As Rodgers pointed out this week though, the difference was execution, not in that the 49ers out-executed the Packers — though they not — but rather that the Packers simply didn’t play well. Credit San Francisco for that, but five of the first seven offensive drives for the Packers in that Week 12 matchups ended in a drop or a turnover on downs, including that 4th-and-1 call Matt LaFleur said he wished he had back. The game was still well in hand when those drives took place, and a turnover cost the Packers an early seven points.
Even with Alex Light playing nearly the entire game, Rodgers faced a pressure rate only slightly above what the Seahawks put together on Sunday. Execution drove the difference. In the Divisional round, Rodgers played better, the plan was better, and Adams played his best game of the season. Talent didn’t cost the Packers that week 12 game.
The obvious question to ask after all of this is, how in the hell did the Packers get run off the field the last time these two teams met? San Francisco’s roster is deeper, with fewer holes, played more disciplined all season, and didn’t turn the ball over. They’ve been the better team and were that night. On the other hand, the Packers put up their worst offensive and defensive performance on the field in Week 12 by DVOA, and it wasn’t close.
That speaks to the game’s status as an outlier on the season. For example, the Packers gave up two touchdowns of 40+ yards in that 49ers game. They’ve allowed just one of 20+ since then. A fumble inside their own 15 turned directly into seven points for San Francisco. Green Bay hasn’t turned it over inside their own 20 since that game.
At his press conference on Wednesday, Rodgers credited a tweak in the schedule for preparation and installs for the mental mistake reduction. The Packers defense busts fewer coverages, Green Bay’s receivers and quarterback exchange fewer confused glances, and the false starts fell dramatically. Pettine’s group played disciplined against the hard play-action shot plays the Seahawks threw at them, not allowing players to run free, an extension of the more attentive defense they’ve been playing on this six-game win streak.
These teams are mirror images in many ways, each run by head coaches who believe in balance, the illusion of complexity, and shot plays predicated off outside zone play-action. Adjusting for schedule, their offensive efficiencies are nearly identical (Weighted DVOA has them 8th and 9th overall). Ferocious fronts heckle opposing quarterbacks while a singular cornerback talent anchors the secondary. San Francisco’s defense plays the run and pass better, while the Packers rush the quarterback more effectively.
Most of the things that these teams want to do, the 49ers do better. It’s why they’re 7.5-point favorites on Sunday. They’re deeper, better coached, and played more consistently over the course of 16 games plus the playoffs. That said, the Packers boast advantages at the premium positions and their talent at the top matches anything the 49ers can throw at them. Historically, Green Bay also holds the advantage in turnover differential (for all the turnovers the defense creates, they give the ball away too), but lost the turnover battle in Week 12, just another reason to consider that performance an outlier.
To be sure, the Packers will have to execute at a high level to win on Sunday, but this is the NFC Championship Game. That was going to be true no matter who they played. A trip to the Super Bowl is on the line. Green Bay possesses the talent to stand toe-to-toe with any team in football, including the 49ers and the Pack showed the ability to play consistent football against a good team on Sunday. If they can recreate it this week in Santa Clara, they can make a lot of people look silly for acting like the Packers don’t stand a chance.