The Green Bay Packers are back in the NFC Championship for the fourth time in Aaron Rodgers’ career. This is the first appearance under rookie head coach Matt LaFleur.
After earning a 13-3 record and a two seed in LaFleur’s first year, the Packers took care of business in the Divisional Round, beating Seattle 28-23. Now, they have to contend with the San Francisco 49ers on the road for a trip to the Super Bowl.
San Francisco handed Green Bay their worst loss of the year by a wide margin. A 37-8 drubbing in Week 12 that would be their last loss of the regular season.
If Rodgers and the Packers get back to the Super Bowl, it will be because they exorcised their demons by beating a team that destroyed them earlier in the year. It would be a cathartic, gratifying win that would carry huge momentum into Miami.
Here is how they can pull it off.
Better offensive line play
The Packers’ offensive line has been pretty good all year. Not transcendent, but totally serviceable. But in two of their three losses in 2019, they have been embarrassed. Once in their loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, and once in the loss to the 49ers.
The Niners tallied five total sacks in on Rodgers in Week 12. One sack included a lost fumble deep in Green Bay territory. Apart from those numbers, Rodgers was under pressure during the entire game. He had no time to sit in the pocket and make classic Rodgers-esque throws, and it showed on the scoreboard.
Along with pass protection, the offensive line failed in run blocking, as well. Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams combined for 85 yards on 24 carries. The longest rush between the two of them was 12 yards.
Some of the blame for the low rushing total is due to the fact that they trailed the entire game, and wanted to throw the ball to get out of the hole quickly. Rodgers threw the ball 33 times on the day. But, if the run blocking would have been better early, the Packers could have chained together chunk plays to regain some momentum. That did not happen.
Coach LaFleur needs to heavily prepare this offensive line for the 49ers stout defensive line. If they have a chance to win this game, it will be because the line is holding up their end by providing a clean pocket for Rodgers, and enough space for Jones to crank out some five to 10 yard runs.
A balanced attack is key here, and that starts up front.
“We have a defense.”
That is what Rodgers had to say after Week 1’s win over the Chicago Bears. In that game the Green Bay defense held Chicago to only three points (this was before the NFL saw how much the Bears’ offense regressed from 2018).
The defense would go on to be 9th best in the NFL in points allowed per game, at 19.6. Certainly a respectable ranking, but the real story is the turnover differential. The Packers were third overall in interceptions, at 17, and turnover differential, at +12.
A turnover differential in the top five not only speaks to a good defense, but an offense that does not turn the ball over, either. The true measurement of their defensive prowess is the 17 interceptions and eight recovered fumbles.
It is no secret that the offense is a little anemic at times. They tend to struggle mightily in the second half of games, as was evidenced by the furious comeback by Seattle in the Divisional Round. If that is going to continue to be the case, the Packers need to continue to give Rodgers and the offense as many chances as possible.
This is multiplied by the fact that San Francisco boasts an excellent defense that loves to put pressure on the quarterback. There will likely be multiple three and outs for Green Bay in this game, so they need a lot of chances to figure things out.
Garoppolo is prone to giving up the football, which plays into the defense’s hands. He had 13 interceptions in the 2019 regular season (none against Green Bay in Week 12). He added one more pick in their Divisional game against Minnesota. Add on his 10 fumbles in 2019, and there is a path to victory in the turnover game for the Packers.
If “opportunistic” is their label, then they must live up to it here.
Special teams showing up big
No, Green Bay does not need a blocked punt or a kickoff return touchdown to win this game.
But, since Rodgers took over in 2008 the Packers’ special teams have never been great. With the notable exception of Mason Crosby, one of the most reliable kickers in the league for the most part, Green Bay has never really been able to rely on a big play.
Punter J.K. Scott has emerged as one of the best in the league. He has had only one punt blocked in his 32 games (back in 2018), and his yards per punt average sits at 44.0 for 2019. That average may not sound very high, but keep in mind sometimes placement is more important than distance.
New kick returner Tyler Ervin, who was claimed on waivers after being released by Jacksonville, needs to find some holes. Field position will be at an absolute premium in this game, considering the tough defense the Packers will have to contend with. Ervin needs to break at least a couple of returns for over 20 yards to give this offense a jolt.
Finally, if Crosby is called on to put points on the board, he has to do just that. No missed field goals, and no missed extra points. That should not be a problem, as he has only missed two field goals and one extra point on the year. One of those field goals was from over 50 yards, and the other was over 40. The point is, this is something the Packers do very well, and they need to continue to deliver rather than take it for granted
If special teams can come together to give that slight edge, that may be all it takes in a close game.
Featured Image courtesy of Mike Roemer/AP
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