The Packers are playing it cool — will it work this time around against the Niners?

Kimberley A. MartinSenior NFL writer
Yahoo Sports

The scoreboard told the lopsided tale of a team in total control and yet, there was Kyle Shanahan, standing on the San Francisco 49ers sideline, still on edge, still uneasy.

He had seen similar scenes like this before: Aaron Rodgers down but not defeated, the future Hall of Famer trailing in a big moment yet still able to summon the poise to withstand unfavorable odds. 

Even with a double-digit lead at home in late November against Green Bay, even with the home crowd cheering on the 49ers' dominant performance, Shanahan couldn’t relax. This was Aaron Rodgers, a virtuoso of gridiron grace and spectacle, you see. And when Rodgers stepped onto the field at Levi’s Stadium and put eight points on the board just after halftime, Shanahan was again reminded why the Packers quarterback is still so impressive, so respected, even in his mid-30s.

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“He can make a throw in any situation,” the 40-year-old coach said of Rodgers, who turned 36 eight days after that Nov. 24 meeting. “He’s never out of the game. It’s 23-8 halfway through the third quarter, and I think it’s a tight game because of who is over there at quarterback.”

Those eight points were all Green Bay would muster that night, as San Francisco capped an all-around dominant performance on Sunday Night Football with a 37-8 final score. Rodgers looked like a different guy that evening, completely frustrated and overmatched, the Packers’ pass protection was a virtual sieve and first-year head coach Matt LaFleur was outwitted by Shanahan, his longtime mentor. But, as LaFleur pointed out this week: “That last game was a long time ago.”

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (right) looked frustrated and outmatched against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 12. Don't expect the same for the NFC championship. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (right) looked frustrated and outmatched against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 12. Don't expect the same for the NFC championship. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Much has changed for both teams since that pre-Thanksgiving showdown. And so much more is on the line now.

Family bonds and longstanding friendships will again be forgotten during 60 minutes of action. And when the dust settles on Sunday’s NFC championship game, either the top-seeded 49ers or the No. 2 seed Packers will be Super Bowl-bound.

The ultra-competitive Rodgers tried to find the silver lining in the aftermath of that embarrassing defeat: “I still like our chances. I think we have the makeup to bounce back from these kind of things and put ourselves in a position to potentially come back here and play again.”

How prescient.

Green Bay took off after Week 12 loss

The Packers haven’t lost a game since that humbling flight home from the Bay Area. And now, six wins later, they’re aiming for a different outcome in Sunday’s rematch. So don’t expect Green Bay to manufacture only one touchdown drive this time.

“Obviously the plan wasn’t good enough,” said Packers receiver Davante Adams, who caught seven passes for only 43 yards in their previous meeting. “That’s not a knock on Matt or anybody. The execution obviously wasn’t good enough, too, so those go hand in hand. The plan, so far what I’ve seen, I really like. I think it’s a better way to attack this defense.”

LaFleur — one of five coaches in NFL history to win at least 13 games in his first season — hopes to have success this time against Shanahan, his brother Mike (the 49ers’ passing game coordinator) and his best friend Robert Saleh (San Francisco’s defensive coordinator).

“I think both teams have come a long way since then,” said LaFleur, who was Shanahan’s right-hand man in Houston, Washington and Atlanta. “ ... There’s a lot of tape on them and we know what we have to do. It’s going to be a great challenge. They’re a great football team. They have been all year long, they've got great coaches and we're just focused on our preparation and trying to be the best that we can be because we're going to need it on Sunday.”

But there were plenty of doubts about the 49ers the last time these two teams met. The Packers were their first matchup in a three-game stretch that featured the league’s most dynamic quarterback (Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson) and a future Hall of Famer (Drew Brees). San Francisco was good, everyone knew, but could its quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo carry the Niners to victory if need be? Could their defense — and notably the defensive line — keep Rodgers off his game? Could the 49ers actually be Super Bowl contenders?

The answer, we know now, is yes.

Rodgers completed 20 of 33 passes for only 104 yards in Week 12 and was sacked five times by San Francisco's ferocious defensive front. Nevertheless, in the wake of a resounding victory, Shanahan said the 49ers “were fortunate enough” to extend their lead over the Packers in the second half.

Earlier this week, Shanahan downplayed the outcome of their previous meeting, saying it had “zero relevance” to the here and now. His message to the team was simple, he said: “Don’t be that stupid” to think the past has any bearing on Sunday’s result.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur and QB Aaron Rodgers (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)
Packers head coach Matt LaFleur and QB Aaron Rodgers (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFluer locked in

The LaFleur-Rodgers marriage is flourishing and concerns over their coexistence have since subsided.

“There’s probably not anyone on the planet who throws better than him,” Shanahan said, while discussing what makes Rodgers great. “There might be a couple guys that you can compare with him, but his arm talent is just unbelievable, his athletic ability is unbelievable. He’s always been able to run around, extend plays, make throws from any angle and he’s a very intelligent guy who can get them in the right play and it’s hard to throw stuff at him that he’s not prepared for.”

And the Packers — a confident team that has grown comfortable being the underdogs — are expected to have left tackle Bryan Bulaga, who left the November game because of a knee injury, back on the field for the rematch. Meanwhile, a deep and talented 49ers roster returns three key starters who missed the Week 12 matchup: edge rusher Dee Ford, left tackle Joe Staley and linebacker Kwon Alexander. Despite being hampered by ankle soreness, tight end George Kittle is expected to play as well.

One might think all of the pressure resides in Green Bay and not The Bay. But the Packers share a different viewpoint. 

“If you look at this game, they’re favored by 7.5, so they’re expected to hold court and win,” Rodgers said. “People know how we played last time. If you look at pressure, the pressure is in a certain place, and we should be nice and loose.”

Rodgers watched the final 4:58 of the last game from the sideline because the score was so out of hand. But he and his teammates believe the lopsided score had more to do with self-inflicted mistakes.

“The pressure is really on them,” Adams said of the Packers’ opponent. “They went out there and dominated us last game. We did not take care of business the way we should have. It just was not a good showing. We bottled up that feeling and we’re ready to convert that into something great.”

So is San Francisco. 

Garoppolo insisted their mood and preparation is “no different than any other week,” while receiver Emmanuel Sanders noted the regular season felt like “playoff football. It was so much pressure and us having to perform and trying to get the No. 1 seed that you just kind of get used to it.”

Sanders, who has been with the team since late October, said he has relished the opportunity “to poke my chest out” and feel a part of something special.

“We’re not in this position [by accident]. It’s not a coincidence,” he said. “We worked our butt off, on the field and off the field, and I feel like we are deserving of this moment and we got to take advantage of it.”

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