The Green Bay Packers proved last week that anything is possible in the NFL playoffs, though they’ve been involved in some stunning postseason results before under head coach Matt LaFleur’s watch.

Green Bay had the inside track to winning the NFC two years ago as the conference’s No. 1 seed, but bowed out in the NFL divisional round via a painful 13-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. The underdog 49ers scored 10 unanswered points in the final five minutes to pull off the upset in what turned out to be Aaron Rodgers’ final playoff game as a Packer.

The roles will be completely reversed when the two storied franchises square off once more Saturday night (on FOX) with an NFC title game spot again at stake, as the top-seeded 49ers will play the part of heavy favorites trying to fend off an up-and-coming Green Bay team that heads to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara with some serious momentum.

Though both teams will have the same guys in charge as they did when Kyle Shanahan got the better of longtime confidant LaFleur in that 2021 season playoff meeting, the Packers and 49ers each enter the rematch as vastly different teams in terms of personnel.

Both reached this stage behind the exploits of rising-star quarterbacks that have successfully replaced two established veterans (Rodgers and Jimmy Garoppolo) that started these teams’ most recent encounter.

Brock Purdy is a likely MVP finalist after putting together a masterfully efficient first full season as San Francisco’s field general, while Jordan Love may have been the league’s best player in the second half as the catalyst behind a 6-2 finish that got the Packers in the playoffs.

And as you can see below, both teams have been immensely successful whenever their young quarterbacks have been in top form.


  • Jordan Love, Green Bay Packers (11/9-2)
  • Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys (11/9-2)
  • Brock Purdy, San Francisco 49ers (10/10-0)
  • Jared Goff, Detroit Lions (9/7-2)
  • C.J. Stroud, Houston Texans (9/7-2)
  • Derek Carr, New Orleans Saints (9/6-3)

Love’s sensational second-half performance carried over into his first career playoff start, as he threw for 272 yards and three touchdowns without a turnover in last week’s shockingly easy 48-32 win over the Dallas Cowboys.

That made Green Bay the first seventh-seeded team to advance on Super Wild Card Weekend since the NFL expanded the playoffs to 14 participants in 2020.

Despite ending the second-seeded Cowboys’ 16-game home winning streak – and doing so in dominating fashion – sportsbooks remain largely unconvinced that the Packers can extend their season any further.

Green Bay is one of the two largest underdogs of this weekend’s four divisional round games as 9.5-point favorites (along with the Houston Texans), with the detractors perhaps attributing last week’s result as more of another playoff flop by Dallas than anything else.

Our projection model also sees the 49ers as the best bets, and as the top team in our EVE ratings, it’s also given the well-balanced 49ers the best chance of winning the Super Bowl at 36.8%.

Projected Winner: 49ers

Win Probability: 79.4%

The Packers shouldn’t be viewed just on their overall body of work, however, as the team that will be taking the field Saturday is far different than the one that struggled to find any continuity while losing six of its first nine games.

Maybe that’s why SmartRatings, an AI-based model that ranks sporting events, teams and players on an excitement scale, has made this unexpected divisional-round matchup one of three games it’s assigned a 91 rating (squarely in the “great game” category of 85-100) to for the divisional round.


Green Bay Key: Love Is Precious – Protect Him!

Just two months ago, Love was making general manager Brian Gutekunst’s highly controversial decision to take him in the first round of the 2020 draft look like a crippling swing and miss.

The 25-year-old QB’s 58.7% completion rate and pickable pass percentage of 7.22 during Green Bay’s 3-6 start were both the worst among the 32 quarterbacks with at least 150 pass attempts from Weeks 1-10.

Then the light came on, and Love has been lighting up defenses ever since.

Love’s transformation from potential draft bust to franchise savior has been as seismic as it’s been sudden. Only Purdy has a higher passer rating than the 116.6 mark the fourth-year pro has produced since Week 11, and Love’s 21-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio over that nine-game stretch has been simply prime Rodgers-esque.

Jordan Love Ranks

So, what’s changed to bring Love into this new stratosphere of quarterbacks? Well, he’s clearly being making better decisions with the ball, as evidenced by the stark reduction in interceptions and pickable throws.

But as we pointed out last week, Love’s well-thrown percentage from Week 11 on has actually declined slightly compared to his first nine starts, and the level of protection he’s received from his offensive line has been consistent throughout the course of the season.

Part of the difference has been that Green Bay’s young collection of receivers has been getting open with far more frequency compared to the season’s first half, which has helped Love see his completion percentage on intermediate throws skyrocket during his brilliant run.

The Packers ranked 29th overall in open percentage (74.0) from Weeks 1-10, but they lead the league in that category since Week 11 with a rate of 83.8% due to the in-season development of several first or second-year players and some crafty tweaking to the scheme by LaFleur.

Rookies Jayden Reed and Dontayvion Wicks have made the biggest jumps among the group over the season’s second half, with Wicks’ emergence perhaps an unintended benefit of being pressed into greater duty by the hamstring injury that caused Christian Watson to miss the final five regular-season games (Watson has the fourth-lowest open rate among wide receivers with at least 50 targets in 2023).

The two have been utilized in slightly different ways down the stretch as well. Reed is still Green Bay’s primary slot receiver but has recently gotten more work outside, where his open and catch rates of 88% and 68%, respectively, are superior to those when stationed inside (73.8% open, 61.5% catch).

He’s also been running much shorter routes on average since Week 11, which has provided Love with the dependable underneath target the Packers lacked during the early part of the season.

Wicks has seen increased usage in the slot late in the season, and he’s become a real weapon from that spot with sensational burn (81.8%) and big-play (50.2%) rates that stand among the top five among wideouts with 20 or more slot targets.

The improvement of the two rookies has also helped Romeo Doubs post one of the highest burn rates of any receiver since Week 11, which the second-year man put to good use by scorching the Cowboys for 151 yards and a touchdown while catching all six of his targets last week.


  1. Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers (81.6)
  2. Romeo Doubs, Green Bay Packers (79.1)
  3. Dontayvion Wicks, Green Bay Packers (75.8)
  4. Courtland Sutton, Denver Broncos (72.7)
  5. Adam Thielen, Carolina Panthers (72.5)

Maintaining that high level of execution for another week will be a challenge, though. The 49ers have yielded the fourth-lowest rate of burns at 43% and have a cornerback capable of locking down one side of the field in Charvarius Ward, who sports an elite open-allowed rate of 61%.

San Francisco also tied for the league lead with 22 interceptions and can get turnovers in bunches when its exceptionally talented front line is wreaking havoc in the pocket.

That pass rush has been spotty at times, however, and as beastly as San Francisco’s defense has been when it’s clicking, it’s been rather vulnerable when it isn’t. 

The 49ers have recorded pressure rates at 38% or above nine times this season. In those nine games, they’ve allowed just 5.8 yards per pass attempt, six touchdown passes and a scant quarterback rating of 67.9 while snaring 13 interceptions.

There’s also five games this season – four of them losses – in which San Francisco has permitted a passer rating of 99.8 or above, and its pressure rates were below 29% in four of those outings. The lone exception was the Christmas night defeat to the AFC top-seeded Baltimore Ravens, in which the 49ers still couldn’t slow down likely MVP Lamar Jackson despite a pressure rate of 45.2%.

Jackson’s been possibly the best quarterback under duress this season, however. Love has a pickable pass percentage of 6.21 (29th of 34 quarterbacks with 50 or more adjusted attempts) when facing pressure, though he’s reduced that mark to 2.38% over his stellar nine-game run.

The 49ers possess one of the best disruptors in the business in reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa, whose 23.8% pressure rate trails only Dallas’ Micah Parsons for tops in the league among players with 150 or more pass-rush attempts. The key to unlocking San Francisco’s full defensive potential, however, lies in having its tackle tandem of Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave healthy and productive.

Armstead, fifth in pressure rate among interior linemen with 200 or more pass-rush snaps, is set to return from a foot injury that sidelined him for the final five regular-season games. The 49ers compiled a mediocre 32.8% pressure rate with him out, compared to an excellent 40.7% when he’s played.

Hargrave can be hit-or-miss, but the 49ers have been a handful when he’s been on. Six of his 7.0 sacks this season have come in those aforementioned games that the defense has registered pressures at a clip of 38% or above, and his combined pressure rate over those contests is an impressive 17.6%.

The Packers were able to keep Parsons mostly quiet last week mainly because they built a big early lead and were able to have Aaron Jones run wild for 118 yards and three touchdowns. They can’t count on having that perfect scenario this week against a Niners defense that’s better than a Dallas unit that ranked 31st in opponent run play success.

San Francisco Key: Run CMC

Purdy’s precise passing and sound decision-making have undoubtedly been instrumental to the 49ers positioning themselves as clear NFC favorites, but the true engine powering an offense that’s produced a league-leading 60 touchdowns and ranks first in EVE has been do-it-all running back Christian McCaffrey.

San Francisco has been pretty much unstoppable when its crafty ground game has been firing, as it’s 10-0 when rushing for 140 yards or more with an average margin of victory of nearly 20 points.

And the overwhelming majority of that total has come from the seemingly never-weary legs of McCaffrey, the NFL’s leader in touches (339) and yards from scrimmage (2,023) this season.


  1. Breece Hall, New York Jets (31.6)
  2. Christian McCaffrey, San Francisco 49ers (29.0)
  3. CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys (28.3)
  4. Rachaad White, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (27.7)
  5. Tyreek Hill, Miami Dolphins (25.9)

The first team All-Pro hasn’t been slowed much during this latest prolific campaign, save for a three-game rut in October in which he averaged a pedestrian 3.7 yards per carry, 1.19 yards after contact (nearly half his season average of 2.34) and didn’t have more than 54 rushing yards in any of those contests.

San Francisco lost all three of those games, and it’s probably no coincidence that Purdy had his worst stretch of the season with the running game stalled at that point. Five of his 11 interceptions in 2023 occurred during that skid, and his 7.32 pickable pass percentage over that time frame was more than double that of his solid 3.29% rate for the season.

It then stands to reason that if you stop McCaffrey, the 49ers become very beatable. The question is, can the Packers do it?

If this game was played prior to mid-December, the answer would probably be not a chance. Green Bay surrendered over 200 rushing yards a league-high four times in its first 13 games, and there was an abysmal five-game stretch from Weeks 10-14 in which the defense permitted an average of 170.4 rushing yards per game, 5.7 yards per attempt and a run play of 10-plus yards on a perilous 17.3% of opponent carries.

The Packers have shored things up significantly since, however, as they yielded just 84.3 yards per game on the ground over the final four regular-season games as well as the fifth-lowest rate of successful run plays in that period at 29.3%.

And the big plays that were routinely crippling the defense were close to non-existent over the regular season’s final quarter. The Packers allowed a rush of 10 or more yards on a meager 4.3% of their opponent’s attempts through Weeks 15-18 after ranking 28th in that department prior to then with a big play-allowed rate of 13.3%.


  1. Green Bay Packers (4.3)
  2. Kansas City Chiefs (7.5)
  3. Tennessee Titans (7.8)
  4. New England Patriots (8.2)
  5. Indianapolis Colts (8.4)

That’s very significant, as McCaffrey’s 44 runs of 10-plus yards are the most in the NFL this season and he also owns the highest rate of big-play rushes among running backs with 100 or more attempts at 16.2%.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reasons for the Packers’ recent improvement against the run, though the insertion of safety Jonathan Owens into a starting position at midseason has certainly made at least some difference. Owens has been a strong tackler who’s recorded a takedown on an above-average rate of 91.8% of his opportunities, and he’s missed just one tackle over the last five games when counting the wild-card matchup.

Coordinator Joe Barry’s scheme employs a heavy usage of Cover 3 looks with a safety closer to the line of scrimmage, so Owens will have an important role in attempting to prevent the 49ers from getting chunks of yardage on the outside zone runs they use both prevalently and successfully. McCaffrey has averaged 6.5 yards per carry on such plays, and they’ve accounted for nearly 40% of his league-leading 1,459 rushing yards.

The Packers haven’t been very good defensively as a whole this season, but that’s partly because they often haven’t been healthy. The secondary has had its two best players, two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander and safety Darnell Savage, on the field together for only five of their 18 games. And their numbers against the pass have been dramatically better when Savage, who had one of the signature plays of the wild-card round with a 64-yard Pick-6 of Dak Prescott, has been available to patrol the back end.

Even with both now back for the NFC divisional round, Green Bay still faces quite a challenge in trying to slow down a potent San Francisco offense that rarely beats itself with mistakes.

It’s not an impossible one, however, provided Love and the offense can remain in top form and the defense can make McCaffrey less of a factor as he’s been for most of a season that’s been worthy of serious MVP consideration. 

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