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2021 NFL playoffs: What to watch for in 49ers-Packers Divisional Round playoff game

These two are familiar. Thanks to an extensive partnership between the head coaches and five meetings over the past three years, the 49ers and Packers know just as much about one another as division rivals would.

In fact, Saturday night will mark the franchises’ ninth postseason showdown, tying the NFL record (Cowboys-Rams), though only Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Mason Crosby and Randall Cobb were involved in this storied playoff rivalry prior to the 2019 NFC title game. More pertinent is their clash from September, in which the Packers built a 17-point lead before needing a miracle drive from Rodgers to pull out a win at the buzzer.

That one was played in the cool air of San Francisco. This one will be in frigid Green Bay, where there’s a chance of light snow and the Packers are unbeaten this season. They're also coming off a bye, having claimed the NFC's top seed after being the most consistent team in football.

No. 6 seed San Francisco has been one of the hottest over the past two months, winning eight of its past 10 games, yet needed last-minute heroics the previous two weeks to reach the Divisional Round. With Super Bowl angst hanging over each squad, the pressure will be palpable at Lambeau Field.

Here are four things to watch when the Packers play host to the 49ers:

  1. Will Rodgers dominate? The presumptive MVP often does, obviously. That just gets a lot tougher in the playoffs. Despite his detractors, Rodgers’ postseason numbers are in line with his career marks in the regular season. Green Bay’s defense has been the biggest detriment in most January defeats. But that’s not to say Rodgers is immune to struggling. He did throughout this year when opposing teams generated pressure. His 68.7-point drop in passer rating when dealing with pressure (122.6-53.9) was the largest in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats. Conversely, the Packers allowed the third-fewest pressures on Rodgers dropbacks (20.1%). This is strength versus strength, as the Niners rank second in the league in QB pressure rate (31.6%), including an NFL-high 30.5% when using four or fewer pass rushers. Interestingly, Rodgers carved up San Francisco in Week 3 when the defense didn’t send more than four (20-27, 242 yards, two touchdowns), deftly utilizing the quick game. The Niners’ pass rush made major strides in the second half of the season, and their stout run defense has forced some teams to be one-dimensional. It should make for a great game of cat-and-mouse between Packers coach Matt LaFleur and 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. Of course, it’s also personal for Rodgers, a Northern California native who grew up rooting for the Niners, was passed over by them in the 2005 NFL Draft, and has lost all three of his postseason encounters with San Francisco. Here’s guessing you’ve heard about this.
  2. How well will the Packers defend the run? They shut it down the last time these two squared off. But that’s unlikely to repeat itself. Standout rookie Elijah Mitchell didn't play, and Kyle Shanahan had yet to unleash “wide back” Deebo Samuel. The 49ers’ run game has been elite with them involved. You could say the team as a whole has, too. San Francisco is 8-2 when Mitchell gets 17 carries, 8-1 when Samuel gets five. Moreover, Green Bay’s defense has regressed since late November and particularly struggles against the run. Only two teams allow more yards per carry (4.7), and no defense surrenders first downs on a higher percentage of attempts (30.4). The Packers also employ a light box (six or fewer defenders) a league-high 61.8% of the time, per NGS. The 49ers got pass-heavy the first time around against Green Bay because of personnel issues and a big deficit. Don’t expect them to make that same mistake again, even if they fall behind early (see Week 18 vs. Rams). Their success on the ground often begets Jimmy Garoppolo’s, and no one on either side has forgotten how that entirely decided their last playoff tussle.
  3. Can the Niners limit the damage from Davante Adams? They certainly didn’t contain the All-Pro wideout earlier this year, much less stop him. Four months later, the Rodgers-Adams tandem versus the Niners secondary remains the game’s biggest mismatch. The Packers duo connected on 12 of 18 targets (for 132 yards and a TD), none bigger than the last few of regulation. With less than 40 seconds left and no timeouts in hand, Rodgers hit Adams for gains of 25 and 17 yards to set up a game-winning field goal. San Francisco knew exactly who the ball was going to and simply couldn’t stop it. Its maligned defensive backfield has come up big in recent weeks against potent passing attacks. This challenge is greater, however. Adams is the most complete wideout in the league, and he has arguably the finest passer in history throwing to him. Without a clear No. 2 receiver posing a threat, look for the Niners to bracket Adams. But the league’s top QB-WR combo has beaten that coverage, too.
  4. Which team is healthier? Both teams are dealing with myriad injuries to key players. Most of them will be available Saturday. Which version of them remains to be seen, and it might swing the outcome. Longtime Rodgers target Cobb, who was just activated off injured reserve and is expected to play, was a surprising contributor before going down late in the season. Left tackle David Bakhtiari (knee) was understandably not quite his Pro Bowl self while making his 2021 debut in the regular-season finale, and he’s now questionable for this weekend. So is star cornerback Jaire Alexander (shoulder), who transforms the secondary but hasn't played since Week 4. LaFleur is also hopeful to have Za’Darius Smith (back), perhaps serving as a situational pass-rush weapon after missing nearly all of 2021. San Francisco survived the Cowboys’ fourth-quarter comeback bid last week without its two best defensive players, Nick Bosa and Fred Warner. The latter avoided an injury scare to his ankle and has been full-go in practice, while the former is questionable after clearing concussion protocol. Bosa single-handedly changes the complexion of the 49ers’ defense. Mitchell, who’s knee was bothering him to begin the week, is an X factor for the offense. A struggling Garoppolo is now nursing a sprain in his throwing shoulder on top of the torn ligament and bone chip in his right thumb. He’ll start, but it’s all about how he finishes.

Next Gen stat of the game: Deebo Samuel leads the NFL in Yards After Catch Over Expected (+4.9) and Rushing Yards Over Expected per rush outside the tackles (+2.84).

NFL Research: Green Bay has allowed 26.6 PPG in playoff games with Aaron Rodgers as its starter (most PPG allowed by a defense for a starting QB in the playoffs, min. 10 starts).

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