Hunter S. Thompson wrote that by the end of the 1970s, NFL football had become a contest of teams trying to out-bore each other. Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers had taught the league that “not losing” football games was easier than winning them, Thompson mourned, leading to a generation of teams building 14-point leads and then carefully running out the clock.
As of 2020 there are plenty of NFL clubs that try to dominate the line-of-scrimmage and prevail with running and good defense. But they’re mostly manned by dual-threat quarterbacks who can take part in 11-on-11 ground games and scramble for yardage on 3rd down. Few teams still try to win (or “not lose”) the old-fashioned way, with a stand-up pocket QB and a preponderance of methodical 10-on-11 hand-offs. The Dallas Cowboys did that under Jason Garrett, and after a few years of fringe contention, the franchise is ready to move on with a bolder offensive mind at the controls.
But the San Francisco 49ers are living in the 70s this year, and everything in Scarlet and Gold is groovy. San Francisco will host its 2nd playoff game of January when Aaron Rodgers and the Packers visit Levi’s Stadium on Sunday evening to determine the NFC title and a Super Bowl berth in Miami on February 2nd. While the Packers struggled to put-away the ailing Seattle Seahawks last weekend, the 49ers took on a hot Minnesota Vikings club and won decisively, rushing for nearly 200 yards and allowing 0 points in the 2nd half of a 27-10 victory. No aerial fireworks were needed.
Leave it to a legendary scrambler to play underdog against San Fran’s plain-vanilla powerhouse. Gamblers – and bookmakers – are often so obsessed with QB play that you can tell which quarterback the public respects more by looking at a playoff point spread. Not this time. Rodgers brings future Hall of Fame credentials to Santa Clara while the host signal-caller passed for 131 yards last week and is still a postseason green-horn in comparison. But bettors have mostly passed on the opportunity to take the Packers ATS at more than a TD margin (+7.5) while Green Bay’s moneyline (+280) has flirted with the 3-to-1 benchmark after opening slightly shorter.
Why Are the 49ers Such a Strong Favorite?
The prevailing wisdom seems to be that Rodgers can run, but he can’t hide, and that the 49er ground game will help QB Jimmy Garoppolo find more open WRs than Green Bay can produce with 60 minutes of balanced play-calling. It’s also of note that the Packers may not be allowed to call a balanced game if the favorites forge an early lead and grind the clock, limiting Rodgers’ chances to connect on long strikes and forcing Packer OC Nathaniel Hackett into a conundrum.
There is also the possibility that Green Bay simply won’t be able to run up the gut, not against a San Francisco front-7 playing at home. Minnesota gagged on the ground in the Divisional Round loss at San Fran, essentially not bothering to try after Dalvin Cook was stuffed on a handful of carries. Without any threat out of the backfield, the Vikings were unable to hold-off a vicious 49er pass rush featuring Nick Bosa. Bosa sacked Kirk Cousins twice, and lesser-known linemen like Solomon Thomas had a field day. Dee Ford also brought down Cousins, though the veteran DE hasn’t made it to the Conference Championship round unscathed and just returned to 49ers practice as of Thursday.
Hopefully the Packers have gleaned what they should have gleaned from the San Francisco-Minnesota game – that it’s important to try to run against the 49ers even if you’re not gaining many yards. If kept in 3rd-and-manageable situations, Rodgers can utilize his quick feet, elusive agility, and immense knowledge to find easy completions and keep drives humming for Green Bay, while Garoppolo still can’t be trusted to find every open receiver on 3rd down.
San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan hopes to put Rodgers in lots of 3rd-and-long scenarios while Garoppolo faces 3rd-and-short (or 1st and 10) after a majority of 2nd-down snaps. A consistent down-and-distance advantage for the favored hosts would negate the underdog’s superiority at QB by putting Garoppolo in position to keep up without a hero’s effort.
But most of what the 49ers want to do in the NFC Championship is contingent on having the lead, or at least forging an early stalemate on the scoreboard as in the 1st half against the Vikings. Tevin Coleman was the star of the show against the Norsemen, rushing for 108 yards and 2 touchdowns behind an OL which can seemingly blow holes in any defense. But when the 49ers trailed the Seahawks in the 2nd half of a November overtime loss, that powerful ground game threatened to disappear. Same when things got out of hand in a bizarre 4th-quarter gag vs the lowly Atlanta Falcons in December.
I wonder if Green Bay skipper Matt LaFleur is smart enough to “script” the Packers opening 10 or 15 plays in this one. An early TD might help the Pack settle down, get Aaron Jones going on the ground once again, and exploit the 49ers’ potential lack of a Plan B if the visitors unexpectedly control the contest. Rodgers is the type of QB who can execute a 1st-quarter script with the best of them – he did it often under Mike McCarthy.
That Pesky November Head-to-Head Outcome
Of course, what’s holding a lot of would-be underdog gamblers back from taking the Pack is the blow-out loss suffered by Green Bay in San Francisco on November 24th. The 49ers did whatever they wanted to do by ground and air in a 37-8 drubbing. The depth of the San Francisco offensive backfield loomed large as the hosts marched for long scoring drives, and even Garoppolo – who obviously doesn’t always put up huge numbers – was electric, finding George Kittle for 6 receptions, 129 yards, and a 3rd-quarter TD. Rodgers was pulled in the 4th quarter but didn’t appear knocked-out with injury. Some of Green Bay’s numbers on offense weren’t that bad, but there’s no question the unit struggled to put drives together and protect the egg…especially in plus-territory.
Clearly the 49ers have the potential to blow-out the Packers on the Pack’s worst day. But each team is now 14-3 after all. Head-to-head data is important in NFL handicapping but isn’t the only factor, especially since much has changed in Cheese-land since that sour Thanksgiving-season result at San Francisco. Green Bay is on a 6-game winning streak.
I’m more moved by the Packers’ ability to run vs quality defenses over a 17-game sample than by the 49ers having stonewalled the Packer OL for 2 or 3 quarters of 1 game in November. I’m also interested in the fact that a superior QB is a marked underdog on the moneyline and point spread – should Rodgers’ supporting cast manage to play nearly as well as Garoppolo’s supporting cast on Sunday, then Green Bay becomes the true favorite at long betting odds.
I’ll make a prediction and offer a recommended wager on scroll. Right now, it’s time for another guest prediction from our chief NFL scout and statistician Chris Aliperto…this time on Sunday’s NFC Championship point total.
Handicapping the 49ers-Packers Over/Under Line
Kyle Shanahan’s bunch looked unstoppable in the 27-10 win last week that eliminated the Vikings, and the Niners are favored by over a touchdown still as it stands at most books. Green Bay meanwhile, got off a to a fast start against the Seahawks last week, and held off a late push from Russell Wilson and company to grab a 28-23 victory, and advance.
The Packers won 6-of-7 down the stretch, but that lone loss was the November 24th match-up in San Francisco. Green Bay could do nothing offensively and lost 37-8. Now we know there is a certain extra element brought to the NFL Playoffs that might not be there in a regular-season contest, but the Niners win that day was truly defensively dominant. Couple that with the performance that we saw from Robert Saleh’s defense last week in which they allowed Minnesota just 7 first downs and 147 total yards, and it is clear that San Francisco currently has the best defense in the NFL.
I do not think we will see as lopsided of a game as we saw the first time these teams met, but I fully expect a defensive battle. The game total opened at 44.5 which seemed high, and it is now up to 46.5 at nearly every book, implying that bets are coming in on the over. As much as I hate to go against what appears to be a consensus, I can not envision Green Bay scoring more than 20 points. Honestly, I liked the under at the opening number, and I expect the current number to come back down closer to game time. Grab the UNDER (46.5) while you still can!
Packers at 49ers – NFC Championship Underdog Pick
Speaking of “UNDER,” Chris, I’m liking the under-dog pick in the NFC Championship Game – but not on the point spread.
The most-likely outcome of the scrum in Santa Clara is an early Packers score followed by the 49ers slowly and methodically taking-over the game for a 21-14 or 28-17 victory. That kind of outcome makes either side of the spread a frustrating venture, bearing in mind that unlucky gamblers will lose about 10% more than others win if the wagered club covers. San Francisco’s edge rush and a secondary led by Richard Sherman will turn any Green Bay 2-minute drill into potential points (and a potential cover ATS) for either side.
But suppose the bounty of 1st downs for Green Bay doesn’t end where the “script” ends for Rodgers. Suppose the dogged, consistent punt returns of Tyler Ervin continue to give the Packers good field position well into the 2nd half. Suppose it’s the visiting OL blocking downhill for a hot hand at RB, instead of the host OL turning the same trick for Coleman or Raheem Mostert or Matt Breida.
Given a tremendous experience advantage (and skills advantage) at QB, the gambling community is underestimating what the Packers can do with a lead, and overestimating how easy it would be for the 49ers to come back late in the game if necessary. Garoppolo only needed to engineer 1 explosive play in San Francisco’s desperate comeback to beat New Orleans 48-46, and not only was that a different type of ballgame than the NFC Championship Game is likely to be, the Saints defense has since proven to be a losing unit in the postseason. Criticize the Packers’ thin win over a stubborn Seattle team, but the Packer D has gotten it done in 2nd halves for more than a month now.
Green Bay has only about a 35% or 40% chance to win. But those 3-to-1 straight-up odds look an awful lot like Aaron Rodgers getting counted-out prior to a well-matched playoff game with a Super Bowl appearance on the line. You’d think Las Vegas would learn to stop making blunders like that.
Take the Green Bay Packers on the moneyline.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.