Four postseason losses to San Francisco in a row have left an awful taste in the Green Bay Packers’ mouths. On Saturday night, the Packers hope to reverse those fortunes as the divisional round awaits them in front of their home crowd.
On a cold night when physicality will be a difference in the game, the running game will carry incredible weight. While the Packers will have their bowling ball AJ Dillon to complement the slashing of Aaron Jones, all eyes will be on the Packers’ defense in containing the 49ers’ array of ground weapons.
Today’s playoff musings discuss the Packers’ two biggest obstacles to victory: stopping the run and winning the first quarter. How will Green Bay fare in each respect? And will they prevent San Francisco from becoming another sixth seed to make a Super Bowl run?
Win the first quarter and winning the game becomes more feasible
Almost any Packers fan watching the Dallas-San Francisco wildcard game a week ago cringed after the first drive of the game when the 49ers moved down the field with ease and capped the drive with a touchdown. It was the same instant momentum type of drive that the 49ers have had in past postseason meetings, allowing the team to confidently play from a lead. For a Packers team that has struggled to create an early advantage itself, the first drive of the game may be the most important of the game on Saturday.
Despite their 13-4 record, the Packers have posted a head-scratching 25th ranking in the NFL with just three first quarter points per game this season. It is even more surprising when factoring in that Green Bay ranks seventh in the NFL in first quarter time of possession at 52.49%. On the other sideline, San Francisco has also controlled first quarter time at a 51% clip, but has posted a top-10 ranking with five first quarter points per game. One key difference for the teams is first-quarter sacks. Green Bay has allowed 11 in the opening quarter - far more than the total in any other - and is a large reason behind the Packers’ stalled drives.
In nine games this season, the Packers have failed to score a first-quarter point. Oddly enough, in the teams’ early-season matchup, Green Bay actually got out to an early 10-0 lead to begin the game and it was the Packers’ most points in the first quarter all season long. At Lambeau Field, Green Bay can ride some home-field advantage this time around and it immediately begins at kickoff.
It’s simple: will the Packers be able to stop the run?
Having De’Vondre Campbell back this weekend will be a boost for the Packers’ defense in stopping the run, and so will a higher snap count for Kenny Clark in the middle. Still, the challenge in stopping the 49ers will be limiting their running game, which was intimidating last week.
Elijah Mitchell rushed for 96 yards and a score, while Deebo Samuel, splitting time in the backfield much like Ty Montgomery, picked up another 72 yards and a touchdown. Both dynamics are very different than when the Packers saw the 49ers earlier in the season. In many ways, Mitchell’s emergence this season is much like Raheem Mostert’s breakout in the 2019 NFC Championship Game loss. Last week, each player showed toughness and the ability to break tackles for key extra yardage and first downs. Playing disciplined, taking good angles to ballcarriers, and fundamental wrap-up technique will be pivotal if the Packers are to win this game. This becomes especially important if Trey Lance receives snaps in RPO situations.
How will the Packers prepare personnel-wise for this game? In past matchups against San Francisco and other teams that have executed in the running game, Green Bay’s front line of defense has looked fatigued early and throughout the contest. Will the Packers carry an extra defensive lineman on the gameday roster to combat this issue with fresh legs and rotational pieces? Having Za’Darius Smith back could be an enormous lift for Green Bay as well. But if the layoff in game action increases his tendency to be overaggressive and overcrash the edge, outside running lanes could open up and spell trouble for the Packers.
Head Coach Kyle Shanahan will be aggressive himself and this was apparent on the 49ers’ fourth quarter, third-down end-around play with Samuel that almost sealed the game. There will be more tricks up Shanahan’s sleeve in the running game. Will the Packers be up to the task of preventing those tricks from becoming big plays?
The 49ers bring back similarities of the late-season 2010 Packers
In 2010, the Packers entered the postseason as the NFC’s sixth seed, a wildcard team facing the challenge of winning three road games to reach the Super Bowl. At 10-6, the Packers needed a strong close to the season, even without a healthy Aaron Rodgers, to clinch a playoff spot. They did so by winning a hard-fought final game of the season against two-seeded Chicago. Green Bay’s running game behind James Starks came alive at the right time, while the defense created key turnovers and was as steady as any in the Rodgers era. Riding momentum, the Packers won in several difficult road venues during the postseason, an unlikely ending for a team that began the season 3-3.
Like Green Bay, San Francisco earned the sixth seed in the NFC this season after finishing 10-7. They began their lofty road quest after winning four of their final five games and earning an unlikely victory over Los Angeles in the final week of the season. Starting the season 2-4, the 49ers have been riding their rookie runner Mitchell the past three weeks and their defense continued to be opportunistic in the late season with an interception against Dallas. The Packers were red hot in 2010 and the 49ers similarly have plenty of confidence despite their playoff seeding.
The Packers are the favorites for a reason heading into Saturday and overlooking the 49ers will not be the case. However, it is hard to ignore some of the comparisons between the 2021 version of the 49ers and the 2010 Packers.