NFC Championship Game Preview: Can the Packers Handle the 49ers' Ground Game?
With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers battle in a rematch of a Week 12 rout that the 49ers won 37-8. The Packers will yet again be on the road and will need a much better effort to knock off one of the NFL's most complete teams.
The last time these teams met, San Francisco was favored by 3.0 points, so we've seen a big jump to get to the current line of the 49ers -7.5. Understandably, the betting public has mixed feelings with such a large spread. According to oddsFire, 56% of the bets and 53% of the money on the spread is taking Green Bay and the points. The moneyline is a different story, with a massive 83% of the bets and 77% of the money backing Green Bay (+280). With the over/under set at 46.5, bettors are siding with the over as 68% of the bets and 65% of the money are on 47-plus points to be scored.
Has anything changed since that Week 12 blowout, or can we expect a San Francisco win in the NFC Championship game by a comfortable margin? Let's check our numbers for some clarity on this rematch.
Passing Game Preview
When these teams met in Week 12, the Packers' passing offense ranked seventh in the league with 0.22 Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back. Green Bay ended the season as the NFL's 13th-ranked passing offense with 0.14 Adjusted Passing NEP per drop back, so they did tail off in the back half of the year.
Aaron Rodgers has been a different quarterback on the road this year, posting a 0.06 Passing NEP per drop back in eight road games, compared to a 0.25 Passing NEP per drop back at home. He's produced similar completion percentages both at home and on the road, and his typically stellar touchdown-to-interception ratio remained excellent on the road. But while Rodgers averaged 272 yards passing on 34 attempts at home, his average drops to 224 yards passing on 37 attempts on the road.
To make matters worse, Rodgers faces a 49ers' defense that held him to his worst performance of the year in Week 12. Rodgers recorded -0.42 Passing NEP per drop back in the loss, throwing for an abysmal 104 yards on 33 attempts while being sacked five times. The Packers will have to hope that having offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga for the whole game (he left the Week 12 matchup in the first quarter with a knee injury) will give Rodgers more time in the pocket this time around.
As for the weapons available to Rodgers, there's not much to see here beyond Davante Adams. Last week against the Seattle Seahawks, Adams caught eight of 11 targets for 160 yards and two touchdowns. Jimmy Graham was the second-most used option, and while his catches were huge plays in the game, his line of three grabs on four targets for 49 yards was far from a breakout. After Adams and Graham, no receiver had more than one catch in the game against Seattle. Allen Lazard has shown the most promise of the secondary receivers, and the running backs have seen significant targets most of the year. But this passing game starts and stops with Adams, and this matchup may come down to his performance.
San Francisco has been near the top of the passing defense ranks all year long, and they finished the year as the league's second-best unit, per our numbers, allowing -0.14 Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per drop back. Last week they held Kirk Cousins to 172 yards passing and -0.38 Passing NEP per drop back while sacking him six times, making their late-season defensive struggles look like a thing of the past. The 49ers held Adams to 43 yards on 12 targets in the previous Week 12 matchup against the Packers, though Adams found the end zone, and a similar performance in the NFC Championship would likely punch San Francisco's ticket to the Super Bowl.
Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers' passing offense ranked as the fifth-best in football with 0.21 Adjusted Passing NEP per drop back during the regular season. Garoppolo was barely needed last week against the Minnesota Vikings, attempting just 19 passes as the running game took. His interception last week was shaky, but his efficiency for the season is undeniable. Garoppolo ripped this Packers defense in Week 12, throwing for 253 yards on just 20 attempts, good for 0.47 Passing NEP per drop back. With Kyle Shanahan calling the plays, this is one of the most well-executed offenses in the league.
The 49ers have a plethora of options in the passing game, but tight end George Kittle is the star. Kittle torched the Packers for 129 yards and a touchdown on six catches in Week 12, and his excellent blocking makes him a dynamic all-around weapon at Shanahan's disposal. Receivers Emmanuel Sanders, Deebo Samuel, and Kendrick Bourne all seem to trade big weeks, but each has been an efficient option in the offense as all three have produced at least 0.73 Reception NEP per target.
The Packers' defensive strength is in their pass D, which ranks eighth in the NFL, allowing 0.01 Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per drop back during the regular season. They sacked Russell Wilson five times last week, although Wilson did produce 0.33 Passing NEP per drop back on 31 attempts. Green Bay will certainly need to improve on their Week 12 performance against Garoppolo, and they may need more than just a solid pass rush. The Packers sacked Garoppolo three times on just 23 drop backs, yet that didn't stop him from an efficient performance in the Niners' romp.
Rushing Game Preview
Green Bay's fourth-ranked rushing offense may be what determines this game as the Packers try to take heat off Rodgers and the passing game.
In Week 12 against the 49ers, Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams combined for just 83 yards on 24 carries, and another performance like that may send the Packers home for the season. Jones was given 84% of the offensive snaps last week as it appears the coaching staff is leaning on him in crunch time, and while Seattle limited him to just 62 yards on 21 carries, Jones has been a dynamic option throughout the season. Among all running backs with at least 100 carries on the year, Jones ranks third overall with 0.10 Rushing NEP per attempt.
San Francisco is stout against the run, giving up -0.03 Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per carry on the year, good for the eighth-best mark in the league. The defense is healthy and coming off of a dynamite performance last week against the Vikings, holding Dalvin Cook to 18 yards on nine carries. If the 49ers play run defense like they did last week, this will be a tough game for the Packers to win.
The 49ers' rushing offense ranked just 16th in the league with 0.01 Adjusted Rushing NEP per carry during the regular season, but you wouldn't know it from last week against the Vikings. Tevin Coleman, who had taken a backseat down the stretch, rushed 22 times for 105 yards and two touchdowns, while Raheem Mostert added in 12 carries for 58 yards of his own. During the regular season, Mostert topped all running backs with at least 100 carries in Rushing NEP per attempt with a clip of 0.15, and while Coleman ranked well behind Mostert with -0.07, Shanahan has shown the willingness to ride the hot hand. Against a struggling Green Bay rushing defense, the running game will likely be the Niners' primary means of moving the chains.
The run defense is clearly the weakness of this Packers team, ranking 31st during the regular season, surrendering 0.11 Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per carry. They did a good job stopping the run last week against Seattle, but that was a Seahawks unit operating with fourth- and fifth-string running backs. This 49ers team can take advantage of Green Bay's run D, and in Week 12, San Francisco combined for 111 yards on 19 carries. If the 49ers' running game gets rolling like they did last week, they will be near impossible to stop.
Game Projections and Props
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