(CBS Local) — The San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers are familiar with each other, both this season and historically. The franchises have previously met six times in the playoffs, once before in the conference championship game (1998), and once already this season.
This year’s renewal of the old rivalry saw Kyle Shanahan’s group embarrass the Pack in front of a national TV audience 37-8 in Week 12. In that meeting, the 49ers sacked Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers five times and held the Packers passing offense to just 81 net yards on 37 attempts. It was a dominating performance by the 49ers defensive line, which has proven to be the linchpin of the defense this season. How the Packers handle that front will go a long way in determining whether Sunday’s NFC Championship game rematch is a closer affair.
“That’s always the question when you go up against the 49ers. They can get pressure without blitzing. They have invested so much in that defensive line. That is what their defense is predicated on, getting pressure up front with that front four,” said NFL On CBS analyst Jay Feely. “Not having to blitz and then being able to use that seven guys in the secondary to confuse and disrupt any type of passing game. That is what makes them really good defensively.”
The combination of Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner had 3.5 of the five sacks the first time around, and that was without Dee Ford in the lineup. Now, Ford is back and healthy, along with linebacker Kwon Alexander, who also missed the first matchup. That would appear to mean another long day for Rodgers. But, as Feely points out, this year has been a learning experience for the veteran quarterback in the first year with Matt LaFleur, and things have only really come together recently.
“You have seen the best version of this Packers team in the last six or seven games,” said Feely. “I think they’re understanding each other better, and when push comes to shove, and Aaron Rodgers has to make a play, he’s checking into the plays he needs and throwing dimes like he always has out there. So it’s a fascinating matchup.”
While Rodgers and the offense have certainly seemed to find a better rhythm in recent weeks, the defense, in particular, has stepped up. Since the 49ers game, the defense has given up more than 400 yards just once. They have forced nine turnovers while giving up just six. A big part of Green Bay’s defensive improvement this season has been thanks to the Smiths, Za’Darius and Preston, who have combined for 25.5 sacks, 28 tackles for loss and 60 quarterback hits. Last week against the Seahawks, they sacked Russell Wilson four times and hit him another four on top of that. Feely says the pair will need to once again be on top of their games in order to pull out a win this weekend.
“They’re huge. You saw against Seattle what they were able to do, the pressure they were able to get and the havoc that they create out there, both in the pass game and in the rush game,” said Feely. “If they can get penetration against this 49ers offense, you can create problems with that offense where it can’t develop, and you can create negative plays and shut down that run game. Now you put it in Jimmy Garoppolo’s hands and say, ‘okay you have to drop back and you have to beat us throwing the ball when we know you’re going to throw.’ Now, you have flipped the advantage into the Packers favor. That is what they’re going to have to do to try and win that game.”
But, the biggest key to Sunday’s matchup, according to Feely is 49ers tight end George Kittle. The third-year tight end had six catches for 129 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting. Feely says that it is Kittle’s ability to affect the game both in the passing attack and rushing attack that makes him the key to Sunday’s game in a very similar way to Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce can affect the AFC title game.
“If he’s 1-on-1, no problem, he is going to be able to beat that coverage. He is such a great blocker as well though. When you look at him and watch the way that he blocks, he looks like an offensive tackle out there blocking. But then he has the ability to get into the secondary and beat you deep,” said Feely. “He provides so much of a problem offensively because he does everything so well. He has the ability to beat you deep. He catches the underneath routes. He is a great run blocker in their run scheme. So, when you look at the tight ends in both of these matchups for the 49ers and Kansas City, that is the key to their entire offense.”
The 49ers enter Sunday’s game as 7.5 point favorites. Kickoff is set for 3:40 p.m. PST.