The San Francisco 49ers are one win away from a trip to Miami to close out the 2019-20 NFL season. However standing in their way are the No. 2 seeded Green Bay Packers. Aaron Rodgers and Co. are looking for redemption in their second trip to the Bay Area following the 37-8 loss to the 49ers in the regular season.
Packers.com writer Wes Hodkiewicz joins us to discuss several key topics heading into Sunday's NFC Championship matchup. Here's what Hodkiewicz had to say about Green Bay's rematch and key players to watch for on Sunday.
Q: Green Bay was able to quickly wash the bad taste out of their mouths after that Week 12 contest against the 49ers, winning out the final five games of the regular season and earning the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Now looking ahead to Sunday's rematch, what's the mentality of the team heading back to Santa Clara?
Hodkiewicz: Confident. The Packers have won six straight since that loss, three at home and three on the road. Finally getting a win inside U.S. Bank Stadium not only gave Green Bay its first NFC North title in three years, but I think it also was important for the psyche of this team. The Packers survived a nail-biter against Detroit but then put their first-round Bye to good use with a fast start against the Seahawks. The Packers feel like they learned a lot from that loss to the 49ers. I believe that was a measuring-stick game for Green Bay to see where it still needed to improve.
Q: Za'Darius and Preston Smith shared 4.0 sacks in the Divisional Round against Russell Wilson, who isn't the easiest quarterback to corral. The two have had a monster year, combining for 25.5 sacks. What has allowed successful first seasons for the duo in Green Bay?
Hodkiewicz: General manager Brian Gutekunst was banking on the Smiths having their best football still in front of them when he signed Za'Darius and Preston to lucrative deals last offseason. He was spot on in that hypothesis. The Smiths have been a revelation for the defense and the locker room. They've changed the culture on that side of the ball and been at their best in the biggest games the Packers have played. Za'Darius also began lining up everywhere in the defense after the first matchup with the 49ers. I imagine his utilization will look much different than the last time these two teams squared off.
Q: Davante Adams was the highlight of the Packers offense against Seattle in the Divisional Round, breaking Playoffs records with his eight-catch, 160-yard, two-touchdown performance. Why was the Rodgers-to-Adams connection such a problem for Seattle, and what makes Adams so dangerous in Green Bay's offense?
Hodkiewicz: Rodgers trusts Adams as much as any receiver he's played with. He said after Sunday's game he'd put his connection with Adams right up there with Jordy Nelson, whom Rodgers played with for 10 seasons. They're two of the best to play their respective position but the attention to detail is what makes that relationship so strong. The Packers moved Adams around a lot against Seattle and challenged the Seahawks to travel either Shaquill Griffin or Tre Flowers with him into the slot. They didn't do it and Green Bay took advantage of that mismatch. Adams made several jaw-dropping catches in that game to propel the Packers to this game.
Q: The Packers finished the game 9-of-14 on third down, including two crucial conversions on the final drive of the game to run out the clock. What was the key to the Packers third-down success against Seattle?
Hodkiewicz: Aaron Rodgers was lights out. The Seahawks did a fairly good job of limiting Aaron Jones, which led to more third-and-long situations than I'm sure the Packers wanted. Rodgers was in a zone, though. He threw three great balls to Jimmy Graham to convert third downs, including on the game-ending 9-yard completion. Adams was sensational and Geronimo Allison also had a key 11-yard gain. That game brought the best out of Rodgers and the Packers capitalized.
Q: In his first year as head coach, Matt LaFleur led Green Bay to 13 regular-season wins in 2019, the most by any Packers first year head coach. He's also the only Packers rookie head coach to lead his team to the NFC Conference Championship game. What makes LaFleur so dynamic as a head coach and how has he put his culture stamp on Green Bay's historic franchise?
Hodkiewicz: Everyone thinks leadership is what you say, but it's also how you listen. He isn't afraid to listen to his locker room. If the roster is banged up, he'll scale back practice. If the players want to practice with music, he polls the locker room for playlist suggestions. When he felt it was too dreary inside the football facilities, LaFleur brightened up the atmosphere. During the second half of the year, LaFleur even met with the veteran leadership counsel to keep communication lines open. Everyone knew LaFleur was a bright football mind. He learned from some of the best in Kyle and Mike Shanahan, Sean McVay and Dan Quinn. But I think this year has proven he's a well-rounded football coach who understands the interpersonal aspect of the job, as well.
Q: Who would you name as an underrated star on offense and defense that's aided Green Bay's success this season?
Hodkiewicz: There have been many who stepped up after the San Francisco game. Former undrafted receiver Allen Lazard has stepped into that No. 2 receiver role behind Adams. He's had some big performances down the stretch, including the regular-season finale in Detroit. Defensive tackle Kenny Clark has 5.5 sacks since the calendar flipped to December and anchored the front during the defense's resurgence. Rookie Elgton Jenkins has been an important role player, too. This is perhaps the healthiest Packers team I've covered, but it did lose starting left guard Lane Taylor to a season-ending bicep injury back in Week 3. Jenkins, a second-round pick out of Mississippi State, has stepped in and played well between left tackle David Bakhtiari and center Corey Linsley. The Packers also added veteran tackle Jared Veldheer and running back/receiver Tyler Ervin off waivers last month. Both players have been big acquisitions for this roster.