NFL: NFC Championship Game

With one game between the remaining teams and the Super Bowl, the Championship round will decide who represents each Conference. In the NFC, the top two seeds face off in San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers, who knocked out each other’s divisional rivals in Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings. While the 49ers boast one of the league’s best overall Defences and running attacks, the Packers will trust their superstar Quarterback can make up for their deficits.

San Francisco 49ers

Divisional Game

San Francisco gave up an early Touchdown to the Vikings, but after that made adjustments defensively, allowing just 3 more points after the first quarter. Taking a 14-10 lead into halftime, the 49ers let their Defence go to work and stifled the Vikings Offense repeatedly. Shutting down the Vikings’ Running Back Dalvin Cook, the 49ers could focus on stopping the passing game.

Offensively, once they had the lead there was little need for the 49ers to continue passing the ball. QB Jimmy Garoppolo put up just 131 yards in the air, making only 19 attempts all game. Instead, there was plenty of space to run, and the 49ers could close out the game, as their RBs Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert combined for 170 yards on 42 rushes.

How They Can Win the NFC Championship

Relying on a potent rushing attack all year is what allowed San Francisco to succeed. The Packers have been weaker against the run than passes this season, so the 49ers should seek to continue playing to their strengths. Continuing to be deceptive in their looks, and using lead blockers in Fullback Kyle Jusczyk and Tight End George Kittle, will allow the team to use play action even more effectively. Kittle also figures to be a mismatch in the passing game. He will work the middle of the field, creating space on the outside or underneath for the RBs and Wide Receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel.

The 49ers Defence know exactly what they have to do, but will need to ensure they avoid errors. The Defensive Line amassed 6 sacks against the Vikings, and will aim to get pressure on Packers QB Aaron Rodgers repeatedly. Linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw will be used to blitz Rodgers as well and disrupt passes. The 49ers secondary should use man coverage for much of the game, and will learn from Seattle’s mistakes, blanketing WR Davante Adams. Forcing Rodgers to throw quicker and removing his favourite target will limit the Packers’ attack, as there has not been a consistently reliable option after Adams.

Where the 49ers need to be most careful is guarding themselves against the run. While their own Offense is capable of moving the ball, it has struggled in shootouts, unable to pile on a high number of points and force opponents out of games. If the Packers are able to move the ball freely on the ground, they will also see some holes open up downfield. RB Aaron Jones has averaged over 4 yards per carry, and has been able to contribute in the passing game at times. The LBs and Safeties of San Francisco will focus their efforts on preventing Jones from getting more than that, keeping him as close to the line of scrimmage as possible. By removing the run game and Davante Adams, the 49ers will put too much on Rodgers to win the game by himself.

Green Bay Packers

Divisional Game

The Packers had little difficulty early on against Seattle, taking a 21-3 lead into halftime. While the Seahawks made a comeback in the second half, Green Bay tacked on another TD in the 3rd quarter to win the game 28-23. While Aaron Rodgers passed for 242 yards, beyond Adams’ 8/160/2 stat line only one other player had more than one reception for Green Bay – TE Jimmy Graham.

Despite having one of the better secondaries during the regular season, the Packers will be disappointed that they gave up 277 air yards. Struggling especially on deeper throws outside the hash marks, Green Bay allowed Seattle a chance to steal the win from them. But with a weakened running game, the Packers only gave up close to 100 yards on the ground because Russell Wilson scrambled several times for 64 yards.

How They Can Win the NFC Championship

The Packers desperately need someone other than WR Adams to be a reliable target. TE Graham can play a bit role on shorter and intermediate routes, but is no longer the deep threat he once was. WR Allen Lazard was the second-most targeted player this season, but had no receptions and sustained an injury against the Seahawks. If RB Jones or WRs Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Geronimo Allison continue to have limited effect, Green Bay should explore more 2 TE sets.

Rookie TE Jace Sternberger had over 800 yards in his 2018 season at Texas A & M, and has started to see more snaps since returning from injury. Using Sternberger will give the Packers another blocker for the run and pass, helping Rodgers with more time to throw. Alternatively, this would draw coverage and potentially create space for Jones.

Defensively, the Packers will need to prioritise stopping the run. Pass rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith will get pressure throughout the game, and the secondary can match up against Samuel and Sanders sufficiently. Stopping Kittle and the RBs will be a taller task, especially if the 49ers run the ball successfully. Safety Adrian Amos will play a central role in playing closer to the line of scrimmage and trying to limit the space the RBs have to work with.

The Packers will need to be patient if they are to succeed. San Francisco run multiple plays out of the same formation, and will adjust based on defensive looks. Following Jusczyk and limiting his ability to create extra space, while not overcommitting to defending either the run or the pass, will give the Packers chances to get stops. Restricting the 49ers to FGs or turnovers will give the Packers the opportunity to not lose control of the game. While their Offense might have a difficult time moving the ball, keeping in touch on the scoreboard is crucial.

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