The Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers will renew their rivalry in the NFC’s Divisional Round on Saturday night. Lambeau Field will play host to a game between the top-seeded Packers and the No. 6-seeded 49ers. These two historic rivals know much about each other in the playoffs, though it’s worth noting that head coach Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers have gotten the best of Aaron Rodgers and the Packers as of late.
The Packers are 0-3 in postseason games against the 49ers in the Rodgers era.
That’s not a positive trend, but here are three reasons why that will change this weekend.
Aaron Rodgers should be 100% healthy for the Green Bay Packers
It’s frankly a miracle that any quarterback 35-years-old and up can walk by the time the playoffs come around, but that’s a testament to players like Rodgers and Tom Brady, who continue defying odds while playing the best football of their careers at an “advanced NFL age.”
Other than his multiple COVID-19 rants, the big scuttlebutt regarding Rodgers this season has been his fractured left pinkie toe and how, and if, it impacts him week-to-week. He suffered the injury in an ironic fashion while sitting out Green Bay’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs due to coronavirus protocols. Ironic or not, it has ailed him since Week 9.
The good news for Green Bay is that the latest updates on the toe are all good. In fact, Rodgers said during the bye week that he believes he’ll be at 100% heading into the game against the 49ers, and that’s a development that can’t be underrated.
The thing is, it’s not like he played poorly because of the toe injury. In fact, he finished the season on a tear, completing 71.43% of his passes for 2,221 yards and 20 touchdowns with just one interception since the injury.
Outside of a noticeable limp or grimace if the toe was stepped on, Rodgers wasn’t hampered. Still, one has to imagine that if it’s no longer an issue or something on his mind, that could be huge for the three-time MVP as he looks to finally get over the hump against the 49ers.
The Packers have a dynamic duo in the backfield
Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon could be the most dynamic backfield in the NFL, and if they’re not, they qualify as the most underrated.
The two backs have developed a “thunder and lighting” routine in Green Bay’s backfield, and Matt LaFleur’s offense has started humming because of it.
Sure, anytime you’ve got Rodgers out on the field, the natural inclination is to air the football out. That said, LaFleur’s scheme shines when he’s able to set up the pass with the run. When the Packers can do that, they’re nearly unstoppable.
Jones is a shifty and explosive back. He rushed 171 times for 799 yards and four touchdowns in the regular season. He’s also a solid threat as a receiver, boasting 52 catches to his name for 391 yards and six touchdowns.
Jones makes a defense think about defending open space the second he touches the football. All he needs is a small gap, and he’s gone. He’s a traditional home run threat but isn’t afraid to lower his shoulder pads and initiate contact.
Speaking of initiating contact, that’s what Dillon brings to the table for the Packers.
If Jones is shifty and explosive, Dillon is solid and reliable. He checks in at 247-pounds and plays every bit of it. He’s the type of back you smash into the A-gaps in order to pick up three or four tough yards a pop. He’s also the guy who sets the tone. If he’s ever one-on-one with a smaller player in space, he’d rather run through them than around them.
Dillon notched 187 rushes for 803 yards and five touchdowns this season. He also proved above-average as a pass-catcher, notching 34 receptions for 313 yards and two touchdowns.
Together, Jones and Dillon form a combination that will be hard for San Francisco to stop.
One has to imagine that Green Bay’s 2019 NFC Championship loss is still burned into LaFleur’s memory. That game saw the 49ers rush for 285 total yards in an impressive win, with Raheem Mostert leading the way with 220 yards of his own and four rushing touchdowns.
If turnaround is fair play, expect LaFleur to ask Jones and Dillon to play a huge role against the 49ers. They should be ready to do just that.
Green Bay’s defense is finally in a place to stop the 49ers
The 2019 NFC title game will always be remembered as the time Green Bay had no answers for Shanahan’s rushing attack. The 49ers showed no mercy to the Packers on the ground. It was so blatant that quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo only threw the ball eight times.
The hope for Green Bay this time around is that the Packers have a completely different squad.
That defense, like many Green Bay units in the past, had no ability to stop the run. They were soft up the middle and exceptionally soft at middle linebacker, so teams were able to run all over them.
Things have changed under new defensive coordinator Joe Barry. In fact, the Packers had the 11th best rushing defense league-wide this season, giving up just 109.1 yards per game. That’s a stark difference from Mike Pettine’s 2019 defense that ranked 23rd in rushing yards given up per game with 120.1.
The big difference for Green Bay has been middle linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, who was a castaway before he ended up in Green Bay.
Previously with the Atlanta Falcons for four seasons before a stint with the Arizona Cardinals in the desert, he never accumulated more than 129 total tackles and 75 solos in a season. He had a combined three interceptions in his first five NFL seasons.
This season for the Packers, Campbell was the defense’s undisputed leader as he wrapped up 146 combined tackles (102 solo), six tackles for loss, six quarterback hits, two forced fumbles, and two interceptions. Campbell was named a first-team All-Pro for his efforts, and his presence in the middle of Green Bay’s defense has led to a very tough unit against the run.
If he’s not chasing down the ball-carrier, safety Adrian Amos has proven to be up for the task. He’s had the best season of his career in terms of both combined (93) and solo tackles (75). Pass-rush extraordinaires Preston Smith and Rashan Gary have also gotten in on the action against the run game. While both players get paid to sack the quarterback, they are big and strong enough to set the edge against the run and have done so with great effectiveness this season. Smith led the team in tackles for loss with nine. Gary was right behind him with eight.
The long and short of it is that this Packers team is much different than the one that got ran over in the 2019 NFC title game.
This is a team actually equipped to handle the run.
When the 49ers do decide to throw it, Green Bay has a secondary that features a rising star in Rasul Douglas, an all-rookie team corner in Eric Stokes, and superstar Jaire Alexander potentially re-entering the lineup after a 13-week absence.
The Packers finally have a defense that can go toe-to-toe with the 49ers.
They don’t need to shut down the 49ers completely, but if they can make life hard for San Francisco, that’s all the wiggle room Rodgers will need to come away with his first postseason victory against his arch-rival from the west.