The NFL’s hottest running back will take on the NFL’s most productive running back when Aaron Jones and the Green Bay Packers take on Christian McCaffrey and the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Divisional Round on Saturday.
Jones has four straight 100-yard rushing games and leads the NFL in rushing yards, rushing first downs and rushing success rate since Week 16. He scored three rushing touchdowns in the Packers’ 48-32 win over the Dallas Cowboys in the wildcard round.
McCaffrey led the NFL in rushing yards (1,459) and rushing first downs (83) and was fourth in rushing touchdowns (14). He was second overall and first among running backs in yards per attempt (5.4).
McCaffrey ranked seventh among running backs in rushing success rate (54.0 percent). The NFL leader? Jones, at 62 percent.
In showdown between playcallers Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur, the run game will be in the spotlight. So, which team has the edge in the run game entering the divisional round?
Let’s break it down:
Packers run offense vs. 49ers run defense
PFF run grade
Run win rate
Packers run defense vs. 49ers run offense
PFF run grade
Run win rate
This is a fascinating matchup and one that could ultimately decide the game.
The 49ers clearly have an edge. Both teams appear to have an advantage when it comes to running the ball against the opposing defense; the 49ers’ advantage is just far bigger, at least statistically.
But the run game might also be the Packers’ path to victory.
Jones has been the NFL’s most dangerous running back for a month. After missing three games early in the season and three more midseason, Jones looks fresh and explosive, and he has four straight games with at least 20 carries,100 rushing yards and a 50 percent success rate. The 49ers were 2-4 when allowing 100 or more rushing yards in a game in 2023 and rank as a below-average defense on a per-snap and value-gained basis against the run. The Packers must find ways to create run lanes and give Jones chances to break tackles and produce explosive run plays.
Even if Jones is productive, the Packers can’t get consistently gashed defensively. Green Bay’s defense allowed 200 or more rushing yards four times and lost all four games this season. There was improvement down the stretch (four straight games allowing fewer than 100 to end the regular season), but it is a practical guarantee that Shanahan will throw the book at the Packers front and make Green Bay prove they can stop the run. McCaffrey — who is returning from a calf injury — is a dynamic runner and the 49ers offensive line is far better blocking for the run than pass.
Everyone remembers Raheem Mostert and the 2019 NFC title game. This is a different Packers defense, with mostly different personnel and a different coordinator. But McCaffrey and the 49ers could take over in a similar way if the Packers don’t set the tone early. Green Bay needs knockbacks along the line of scrimmage and Quay Walker and De’Vondre Campbell to hunt the running back.
The return of Arik Armstead will challenge the Packers up front, potentially forcing Green Bay to use more wide zone runs and challenge the 49ers on the perimeter of the run defense. Tackles Zach Tom and Rasheed Walker, along with tight ends Luke Musgrave, Tucker Kraft and Ben Sims, could be the key to unlocking the 49ers front.
The final questions: Can the Packers use Jones, who is red-hot, to attack the 49ers’ biggest defensive weakness, and can Joe Barry’s defense survive against a diverse, physical and talented run game? The answers to those questions will determine the flow of the game and likely the outcome.