Friday, January 19, 2024

2023 Season Divisional Round Playoff Game: Packers vs. 49ers Preview & Prediction

While all the attention is rightly on Saturday evening's NFC Divisional Playoff game between the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers, we have to take a moment to acknowledge what is — factually — the biggest upset in NFL history: the 7th seed Packers beating the 2nd seed Dallas Cowboys last Sunday. Not just beating the 'boys, but smokin' them. 27-0 in the 1st half. A final score of 48-32 with Dallas' final two scores coming in garbage time. Never before had a 7th seed won a playoff game. Well done Jordan Love, Aaron Jones, Matt LaFleur, Joe Barry (?) and everyone in the Packers organization. Wow. Just wow.

Now, let's get to the game in Santa Clara, shall we?

If Packers QB Jordan Love continues his lights-out performance
Saturday evening, the Packers have a chance to pull off another
upset win and find themselves in the NFC Championship game.
(Photo via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

The Preview

As it turns out, with this game, the Packers and Niners will now have faced each other 10 times in the playoffs, more than any other pair of teams in the NFL. Amazing. Of the prior 9, San Fran has a 5-4 edge, with the Packers having lost four straight. Meh. Time to change the script, right, Packers fans?

There is admittedly a degree of difference in the overall team talent level at present between these two teams. Yet, all the young Packers don't seem to care about that. If they did, they would have likely lost in Dallas last weekend. All this Green Bay team knows how to do at this point is to play hard and to play for each other. It doesn't matter who gets the ball, who has to block, who has to tackle or cover. And head coach Matt LaFleur's wide-open play-calling has launched a first-year starting quarterback (i.e., Jordan Love) into the stratosphere of quarterbacking, and has solidified his status as "The Guy" not just this year but going forward. And not just going forward but, to the horror of Bears' fans and others, perhaps for the next decade or more. (On a related note, and particularly for my great friend Billy Da Bears Fan, Jordan Love has thrown for more than 4,000 yards in his first year as the starter; in the entire history of the Chicago Bears they have never had a single QB throw for more than 4,000 yards. Just in case you want to know.)

The Niners are solid on offense and defense, hence their number 1 seed and the reason they are currently favored to win by a wide margin. And, if the Packers do not match San Fran's physicality, they won't be in the game. The game will ultimately be determined, as has so much of the Pack's season, by the defense. If they show up — as they have for the last month or so — they can stay in the game. If they can create a turnover or two, they can help win the game. That's no throw-away comment: when the Niners have no turnovers, they were 8-0 this season; when they had one or more turnovers, they were 4-5 this season. If the Packers want to increase their chances for a win, they need to get to QB Brock Purdy and help create a turnover or two. Do that, and the odds of a win go up; don't get near him and ... well, it makes things more difficult.

The Niners defense also presents its challenges, as all football fans know. The O-line will really need one of its best games of the season to protect Jordan Love as well as to make an opening now and then for RB Aaron Jones. As all Packers fans know, the return of Jones and his 100+ yards rushing per game over the last three games has been a key to the Pack's win streak. Getting 100 yards rushing in this game will be a challenge. But if Jones can get 100+ yards combed rushing and receiving, that would be a significant boost to the Pack's chances.

Which Packers receiver will get 100+ yards receiving? Who knows. Over the span of the past three games, three different receivers have accomplished that feat. The Packers have a lot of weapons for the Niners to worry about. If the play-calling and scheming are in sync, the Pack can keep San Francisco if not exactly on their heels at least giving them a pause now and then ... which might be just enough.

Now, another factor to consider in this game is the weather. Yes, yes, we're not talking cold and snow; the game is in the Bay area (as the San Fran locals say) not the Green Bay area. That means, this time of year, rain. There is an 80 percent chance of rain throughout the day and into the evening, although it seems from the various forecasts that the heaviest rain will take place Friday evening and Saturday morning. Then, it's hit and miss. But at least one local forecaster is advising those attending the game to bring some rain gear, just in case. Winds of 10 to 15 mph at game time are expected, but again, a bit of a moving target forecast-wise. Not horrible winds if that's indeed the case, at least in dry conditions.

As former Carolina Panthers (and Wisconsin Badgers) punter, Brad Nortman, said on his radio show Friday, these wet conditions actually will act as a bit of an equalizer for the Packers. It tends, in his experience, to help the defense as offensive skill players — running backs, returners and receivers — need to think a bit more about whether or not they can make a particular cut, for example. The QB needs to think about whether he can make a certain throw (btw, QB trivia: Jordan Love's hands are larger than Brock Purdy's making for a better grip on the ball). And place kickers need to be sure of their plant when making kick attempts. The argument could be made that the Packers are probably more used to playing in adverse weather conditions than are the Niners. Who knows? All we do know is that the wet field, rain and wind conditions will likely play a role in the game. To which team's advantage, and to what degree, we will have to wait to see.

We also can't forget the referees in this game, especially given how poorly the NFL refs performed overall this season in getting calls right...which includes not making calls when none were needed. Unfortunately, the crew referring this game will be that of referee Alex Kemp, whose regular-season crew led the NFL with an average of 15.3 flags per game. And guess what? Both the Pack and Niners finished in the top third of the NFL for most flags this season. What are the odds that some bad and game-changing calls will be made? Oy. But both teams will have to play with this crew calling the shots. Let us pray.

The Prediction

Depending upon who you are looking at, the Niners are favored by 9-1/2 to 10 points over the Pack at the time of this posting. The Packers are used to being the underdog most of this season, and certainly in the playoffs. In other words, we've got 'em just where we want them.

There are so many story lines at play in this game, as there were against the Cowboys. The weather and the referees are outside factors that will affect both teams in various ways. If the Packers play at the same level they have over the last month-plus, they can stay in the game and win. Against any team. If they don't get off to a fast start and get beat physically, they will have a hard time pulling out the win.

We are of the view (gold 'n' green-colored, of course) that the Packers will keep things rolling. San Fran has been sitting and didn't look exceptional in their last few games. Of the two, the Packers are the hot team. And you gotta go with who's hot.

We're calling it Packers 31 - 49ers 30.

Go Pack Go!!!