For over a month, the Packers have been trying to figure out what’s been wrong with their offense. It’s not that it’s completely stalled, but the rhythm Aaron Rodgers had developed with a depleted receiving corps had given way to the more syncopated beat of their ground game.
They can trace when things began to go sour to their 37-8 road loss to the 49ers on Nov. 24. It was their worst defeat of the season.
Ironically, the Packers return to Levi’s Stadium on Sunday for a rematch with the 49ers. Only this time, it will be for the NFC Championship.
Quick fact: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this is the 37th time in the Super Bowl era two teams meet in the playoffs after one beat the other by at least 25 points in the regular season. The team that won the first meeting is 22-14.
“I’ve got to go back and watch that tape again to really try to grasp what happened and why it happened and how can we adjust and what are we going to do to ensure it doesn’t happen [again],” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said on Monday.
The thing is, the loss did not cause the Packers to regress. They won their last five games to finish the season at 13-3. And then they beat the Seahawks last Sunday in their divisional-round game at Lambeau Field.
“Well, we just had to fine-tune the things that we were doing,” receiver Davante Adams told reporters after the Seahawks game. “I think we were in a really good position going into that, the last time we played the Niners, and we just kind of coughed it up a little bit. We didn’t go in with the greatest plan, we didn’t go in with the right mindset to start the game. We turned the ball over early and put ourselves in a really bad position. So everybody being awoke to that, I think that’ll be able to allow us to make a big change going into this next week.”
Rodgers threw for only 104 yards in the 49ers loss. It was a bad game, all around. It began with his fumble and rolled downhill thereafter.
By this point, its impossible to believe there’s anything new to learn about others. LaFleur and 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan have worked together in the past and are very good friends. LaFleur’s brother is on the 49ers staff. And LaFleur was in the wedding party of 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
It’s all going to come down to execution.
“I’m going to look at everything, and everything that anybody that’s had success against them,” LaFleur said. “I mean, that’s a really good team. In all three phases. They’ve got obviously one of the top defenses, I think it’s one of the top offenses and they’re really solid on special teams. So I’ve got a lot of respect for everybody over there.
“You all know my relationship with Robert and what I think about him not only as a person but as a football coach, and I think Kyle does as good as anybody drawing up plays and scheming people as there is in the National Football League. So we have a big challenge in front of us. But it’s something that I think our guys are going to roll up their sleeves and come in and prepare the right way and be ready to go.”
The Packers know the 49ers are much healthier than they were in November. Many of the defenders who missed that game are back. And the 49ers pass rush, led by rookie Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, has the capability to totally disrupt what Rodgers will want to do.
If there is one thing to watch from the 49ers side, it’s how George Kittle, perhaps now the best tight end in the league, deals with his lingering injuries. Kittle sat out Wednesday’s practice with an ankle injury.
“He had some wear and tear and it was a little sorer than we thought,” 49ers Shanahan said. “So we held him out.”
Kittle’s been banged up all season. In Week 9 against Arizona, he hyperextended his left knee when it banged into the helmet of a defender. He also suffered both a burst capsule in his knee and left ankle fracture when a piece of bone broke off.
Of course, that didn’t deter him. He made six catches for 79 yards in the game, including a 30-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown.
“I feel fabulous, thanks for asking,” Kittle told reporters on Thursday.
Titans will rely on the basics
You don’t have to be a defensive mastermind to understand the key to beating the Chiefs is putting a crimp in Pat Mahomes’ style. The Texans did that for about 20 minutes last Sunday – and then they didn’t.
The ability of the Titans to do that Sunday, when they play the Chiefs in the AFC Championship game, will depend as much on their offense as it does on their defense.
It’s one of the basic tenants of football: Ball-control kills the clock and decreases the number of possessions the opponent gets.
It helps that the one controlling the ball for the Titans is currently on a historic run – halfback Derrick Henry.
Henry gained 182 yards in the wild card game against the Patriots and 195 in last week’s win over the Ravens. If he gains at least 150 on Sunday, he’ll join Terrell Davis as the only player in league history with at least 150 in three straight playoff games.
“It’s gonna take all of us tackling him and wrapping up,” Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens said earlier this week.
Stopping Henry was a top priority of the Ravens defense. Before the game, many thought the Patriots were not smart or aggressive enough in their approach. The Ravens vowed to change that. They didn’t.
“You gotta just take his legs out — we talked all week — to kill the engine,” Hitchens said. “Hit him in his thighs and his legs. Chop him down. If you tackle him high, he tends to carry you for about five more yards. Hit him low. All legal and within the game, but yeah, just hit him lower.”
The Chiefs know all about Henry. He gained 188 yards and scored two touchdowns on 23 carries in the Titans 35-32 win over them in Week 10.
Regardless of what happens, the Titans have been one of the most interesting stories in the league for the last 10 weeks. They came from relative anonymity (2-4 on Oct. 15) to become the first six seed to play in a conference championship since the Packers and Jets did it in 2010.
“We can’t change what we’ve done to get us in this position, to have this opportunity,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “I was a bad coach, and this was a bad team. We tried to believe in each other, we tried to improve, tried to prepare, trust each other, execute and that’s what’s gotten us here.”
Things began rolling when Vrabel inserted veteran Ryan Tannehill at quarterback in place of Mariota before Week 7. Since then, they’ve averaged over 400 yards per game on offense.
“It’s a little bit of a slow process,” Tannehill said this week. “You don’t want to come in guns blazing and shake the boat too much. It’s just a matter of being myself, leading in my own way, encouraging guys, trying to press this offense, press each and every person, build relationships and try to get the most out of every guy.
“There’s a belief in one another, first and foremost, that we’ve been through a lot this season,” he said. “Ups and downs and won games in a lot of different ways. Different guys have stepped up throughout the season and made those plays for us to win. And with that comes a lot of belief, and all that confidence in one another that it doesn’t really matter not matter play call that we’ll find a way to make it work.”
Henry has gained 1,273 rush yards over his last eight games (including playoffs), the second-most in an eight-game span (including playoffs) behind only Adrian Peterson (1,322 in 2012).