GREEN BAY - If the Green Bay Packers are to play in Super Bowl LIV in Miami, they will have to travel to Santa Clara, California and Levi’s Stadium for the second time this season and beat the top-seeded San Francisco 49ers.
This will be the Packers' fourth road NFC title game with quarterback Aaron Rodgers (2010, 2014, 2016).
This is the first NFC championship game for the 49ers' franchise since 2013.
Basics on the 49ers
The 49ers held serve at Levi’s Stadium on Saturday, beating the Minnesota Vikings 27-10 by scoring 13 unanswered points in the second half. Tevin Coleman ran for more than 100 yards and a score for the 49ers as quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo wasn't asked to do much (11-for-19 for 131 yards and a touchdown with one interception). The 49ers sacked Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins six times, intercepted him once and turned in a dominant second-half performance to seal the victory.
Playoff history with the Packers
Consider it a rivalry renewed between San Francisco and Green Bay: The last time the 49ers were a factor in the conference, they beat the Packers 23-20 in the wild-card round in 2013 to advance to the NFC title game. They beat the Packers 45-31 in the divisional round in 2012 en route to the Super Bowl.
This will be the eighth playoff matchup between the franchises, and the first NFC championship game between them since the 1997 season, when the Packers went on the road and won 23-10. The 1996 Packers beat the 49ers 35-14 in the divisional round en route to reaching the Super Bowl.
49ers head coach and play-caller Kyle Shanahan runs – you guessed it – a version of his father Mike’s offense established in the mid-1990s in Denver. A longtime offensive coordinator and now in his third year as head coach, Kyle Shanahan likes to use multiple tight ends and a fullback to run similar-looking plays and keep the defense guessing.
The defense is run by defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who employs a base 4-3 scheme that likes to get after the quarterback. A disciple of Gus Bradley’s in Seattle, Saleh likes pressuring the quarterback and will split his edges out in the “Wide-9” alignment.
League ranking of 49ers' pass defense in 2019.
Super Bowl rings for 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo, won while backing up Tom Brady in New England in 2014 and '16.
Defensive touchdowns scored by the 49ers.
Combined sacks and tackles for loss as well as total hits on the QB by Nick Bosa in the regular season.
Garoppolo’s career winning percentage as a starter.
Players to watch
Deebo Samuel, WR
The rookie caught two balls for 50 yards and a score against the Packers in the regular season and has developed into a real threat for the 49ers as their No. 1 option as a wide receiver. He's also being used a bit more in the rush game as Shanahan handed it to him in every one of the 49ers’ final five games – in large part to help foster more deception. He caught three passes Saturday.
George Kittle, TE
It seemed improbable the third-year tight end out of Iowa could top his 88-catch, 1,377-yard season from a year ago, but he nearly equaled those numbers despite missing two games. He earned an All-Pro nod and is simply the best tight end in the NFL. He caught six passes for 129 yards and a score against the Packers in the regular season and is not just a catch-and-run threat – he’s a run-you-over threat both after he catches the ball and when he blocks. One would think the 49ers will reemphasize him against the Packers as he only caught three passes for 16 yards Saturday against Minnesota.
Ben Garland, C
The backup center has started the last four weeks after an injury to Pro Bowler Weston Richburg, and at least one exchange has been botched. Garoppolo seems to have been around forever but this is still his first full season as a starter and his first go-round playing in the postseason, so this combination has not been together long in terms of working through protections and audibles. The 49ers' offensive line played well against Minnesota, allowing two sacks and just three hits on their QB.
Reasons to worry
The 49ers do all of the things offensively that have given the Packers fits: They run the ball consistently, and they run it well. They utilize big, athletic tight ends in the passing game. Teams with far less cohesion and/or talent across those positions have been able to chew up yardage against Mike Pettine’s group – and the 49ers did all of these things well in a 37-8 stomping of the Packers during the regular season.
Defensively, the 49ers are able to create pressure and drop the opposing quarterback with multiple pass rushers and they did that against Aaron Rodgers in the regular season – including a tone-setting sack-fumble that led to the 49ers’ first score.
Reasons to relax
The Packers played most of that regular-season game without right tackle Bryan Bulaga (knee injury) and it showed as the offensive line struggled in protection. Bulaga is back and playing well and left tackle David Bakhtiari is as healthy as he has been all season. The protection up front should be more consistent for Green Bay. Also, Shanahan has tried to limit how much Garoppolo has to throw – so if the Packers can bottle up the run game, the 49ers may not be confident in their quarterback to win the game with his arm.
The Packers went 3-0 against teams they played for the second time in 2019 (all division games) and the coaching staff has shown it can adjust from game to game offensively. Also, the Packers' defense simplified the calls and tightened the communication after getting blitzed in San Francisco, leading to fewer explosive plays and coverage breakdowns while playing solid run defense up front.