Either Packers or 49ers will finish off impressive turnaround with Super Bowl appearance
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The San Francisco 49ers are one win away from accomplishing a turnaround that's been done only once before in the Super Bowl era.
With a victory in the NFC championship game at home on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, the Niners will become the second team in NFL history to make the Super Bowl a year after losing at least 12 games.
Only the St. Louis Rams have done it, going from 4-12 in 1998 to Super Bowl champs one year later thanks in part of an injury to Trent Green that cleared the way for Kurt Warner to take over at quarterback.
The 49ers (14-3) also can credit an injury to their quarterback for part of their turnaround; the team went only 4-12 last season after Jimmy Garoppolo went down with a season-ending knee injury in Week 3.
The silver lining to that injury was the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, which led to the addition of defensive end Nick Bosa, who helped transform the defense into one of the league's best.
"Things have a way of working out," Garoppolo said. "I always told myself it was a blessing in disguise, the ACL and everything, and yeah, we got Bosa out of it. That's a pretty good trade-off, I guess. Things have a way of working out, I guess. This ride is crazy. You've just got to roll with the punches."
The Packers (14-3) have also had an impressive turnaround after slumping to a 6-9-1 record last season that led to the firing of longtime coach Mike McCarthy.
Matt LaFleur came in and tinkered with the offense, and general manager Brian Gutekunst brought in key additions such as pass-rushing duo Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith, who combined for 25 1/2 sacks on the season.
There have also been some lower-profile pickups such as Tyler Ervin, Jared Veldheer and Marcedes Lewis that have helped.
"I think he's done a great job. I think he deserves a lot of credit, him and his staff," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said of Gutekunst. "There's been a lot of great pickups, but I think I said this at my locker a few weeks ago, the big-name ones have been fantastic, but it's kind of the other ones that have been the glue pieces, I feel like."
These teams played earlier this season in Week 12 in what turned out to be a lopsided game. Rodgers lost a fumble on Green Bay's first possession, setting up a 2-yard TD drive that gave San Francisco the lead. The Niners then broke it open with long TD passes to Deebo Samuel late in the second quarter and George Kittle in the third quarter for a 37-8 win. Rodgers had the worst day of his career, averaging 3.2 yards per attempt and getting sacked five times.
Niners coach Kyle Shanahan has a message for anyone on his team feeling overconfident.
"Don't be that stupid because that's not real," he said. "This is about Sunday's game. I can give a thousand stories of things like that, playing games in my history I've been a part of."
There have been 23 times in the Super Bowl era, excluding one replacement player game in 1987, that a team lost a regular-season game by at least 28 points to a team it met again in the playoffs. In nine of those cases, the team that got blown out earlier in the season came back to win in the playoffs.
Rodgers and star receiver Davante Adams both hail from Northern California, with Rodgers growing up in Chico and Adams in Palo Alto, which is near Santa Clara. Both played college ball in the state, Rodgers going to Cal and Adams to Fresno State. But neither ended up with the 49ers, who famously passed on Rodgers with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft for Alex Smith.
"I usually dreamed about playing for the 49ers as a kid, but obviously that thing passed a long time ago," Rodgers said when asked if he envisioned playing the Niners in the playoffs.
These two franchises that have combined for nine Super Bowl titles have a rich history when it comes to the playoffs. This will be their eighth meeting in the past 25 postseasons, three more than any other rivalry. In fact, the only other matchup to occur more often is Cowboys-Rams, which happened nine times. Green Bay has a 4-3 edge but the 49ers won the last two meetings following the 2012 and '13 seasons.
"We've had a lot of games and had some big games in the playoffs," 49ers left tackle Joe Staley said. "Seem to find each other all the time during the regular season, as well. A team that we are familiar with and we've had a lot of great battles with throughout the years."
CARRY THE ROCK
Tevin Coleman got the starting nod at halfback for the 49ers the last nine weeks of the regular season even though he averaged only 3.2 yards per carry and 23.6 yards per game. But Coleman justified that confidence in last week's playoff opener against Minnesota when he ran 22 times for 105 yards in a 27-10 win.
"Tevin's ran hard for us all year," Shanahan said. "I know he had much better results yesterday, or Saturday. I think a lot of it had to do with the opportunities he got. He got more opportunities. He was running real hard."
ON THE CORNER
The one weakness on the 49ers defense of late has been cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, who has been picked on repeatedly as teams avoid Richard Sherman. Witherspoon has allowed all five TD passes given up by San Francisco the past three games and was benched for Emmanuel Moseley in the first quarter last week after getting beaten for a 41-yard TD by Stefon Diggs. Shanahan hasn't said what his plan is for this week, but it seems likely Moseley will get the nod after faring well in nine games as a starter earlier this season when Witherspoon was hurt.
There are plenty of close ties between the coaching staffs based on past history together. But none is as strong as the one between Matt LaFleur and his younger brother Mike, who is passing game coordinator in San Francisco. When the teams played in the regular season, Matt's family came out early and spent the weekend with Mike's family. That won't be the case this time.
"I think there's a little different vibe, so I'll just leave it at that," Matt LaFleur said. "I haven't really talked to him much at all and it will probably be that way for the remainder of the week."
PACKERS-49ERS NFC CHAMPIONSHIP CAPSULE
GREEN BAY (14-3) at SAN FRANCISCO (14-3)
Sunday, 5:40 p.m. cT, Fox
OPENING LINE - 49ers by 6
RECORD VS. SPREAD - Green Bay 11-6, San Francisco 10-6-1
SERIES RECORD - Packers lead 36-31-1
LAST MEETING - 49ers beat Packers 37-8, Nov. 24, 2019
LAST WEEK - Packers beat Seahawks 28-23; 49ers beat Vikings 27-10
AP PRO32 RANKING - Packers No. 5, 49ers No. 3
PACKERS OFFENSE - OVERALL (18), RUSH (15), PASS (17).
PACKERS DEFENSE - OVERALL (18), RUSH (23), PASS (14).
49ERS OFFENSE - OVERALL (4), RUSH (2), PASS (13).
49ERS DEFENSE - OVERALL (2), RUSH (17), PASS (1).
STREAKS, STATS AND NOTES - Niners won regular-season meeting by 29 points. Teams that beat opponent by at least 28 in regular season are 14-9 in playoff rematches in Super Bowl era. ... Two teams meeting for eighth time in past 25 postseasons, three more than any other matchup in span and one shy of record nine between Cowboys and Rams. ... Packers won four of previous seven but lost last two following 2012, '13 seasons. ... This marks third time in Super Bowl era both teams in conference title game had losing records previous season. Niners were 4-12; Packers 6-9-1. Also happened in 1988 (Bengals vs. Bills) and 1996 (Jaguars vs. Patriots). ... Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers had least efficient game of career in first meeting, throwing for 104 yards on 33 attempts with career-low 3.15 yards per attempt. ... Rodgers has thrown at least two TD passes in six straight playoff games, two off record held by Joe Flacco. ... Rodgers' 38 career TD passes in playoffs one shy of Brett Favre's franchise record. ... RB Aaron Jones became seventh player in Packers history with at least two TD runs in playoff game last week. ... Packers coach Matt LaFleur seeking to become sixth man to reach Super Bowl in first year as head coach and first since Jim Caldwell for Colts in 2009 season. ... LaFleur first coach to reach conference title game in first year since Jim Harbaugh for 49ers in 2011. ... Green Bay WR Davante Adams set franchise playoff record with 160 yards receiving last week. Adams caught two TDs, gained first down on all eight catches. ... Niners 4-5 all-time in home conference title games, tied with Steelers (6-5) for most home losses in Super Bowl era. Only other team to have losing record at home with more than one game is Browns (0-2). ... Tevin Coleman became fifth 49ers player to rush for at least 100 yards and two TDs in playoff game. Colin Kaepernick was last to do it Jan. 12, 2013, vs. Packers. ... San Francisco CB Richard Sherman had third career playoff INT last week. He had one vs. Rodgers in NFC title game following 2014 season while with Seattle. ... Niners QB Jimmy Garoppolo's 18 turnovers in regular season were most for any player who made playoffs. He threw one INT in playoff opener. ... San Francisco CB Ahkello Witherspoon allowed five TD passes in coverage during past three games. Witherspoon benched last week for Emmanuel Moseley. ... 49ers scored on opening drive in six of past seven games. ... San Francisco had franchise playoff record 47 carries last week and lost yards only on two kneel-downs. ... Niners had at least three sacks in 10 regular-season games and six in playoff opener. ... San Francisco was first team ever with five first-round picks (DeForest Buckner, Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Dee Ford, Solomon Thomas) getting sacks in playoff game. ... Niners allowed seven first downs last week, tied for second fewest in playoff game in Super Bowl era.