The 49ers escaped one matchup that featured a long-standing rivalry and will enter into another on Saturday as they head to Lambeau Field to take on the top-seeded Green Bay Packers.
Saturday's Divisional Round matchup will mark the second meeting between the two clubs this season – the first coming on a heartbreaking last-minute loss that set San Francisco on a path of four-straight losses while looking from bottom up at their diminishing postseason dreams.
To recap, San Francisco played from behind for the majority of the contest, including a 17-0 deficit by the second quarter. That was until rookie quarterback Trey Lance stamped his first touchdown at Levi's® Stadium, a 1-yard rushing score to cut Green Bay's lead to 17-7.
Both teams exchanged a number of scores until the final minute of the fourth quarter. Jimmy Garoppolo orchestrated an 8-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in a 12-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Juszczyk that gave San Francisco their first and lone lead of the game, 28-27.
But with :37 seconds left on the clock, Aaron Rodgers' heroics that featured two clutch completions to Davante Adams for 25 and 17 yards, respectively, set up a Mason Crosby 51-yard walk-off field goal and handed San Francisco their first loss of a four-game slide and an uncertain look at their future.
But that meeting was a whopping 17 weeks ago. And since, San Francisco has turned their year around to rattle off eight wins over their last 10 games, including two down-to-the-wire victories over the Los Angeles Rams in Week 18 and the Wild Card win over the Dallas Cowboys to advance them in the postseason.
Just as Green Bay has seen its own fluctuations throughout the season, the 49ers have certainly witnessed their own drastic improvements across their roster.
There are three areas in particular that the 49ers have seen striking developments since Week 3: San Francisco's run game, Deebo Samuel's continued emergence and the 49ers improved pass rush.
San Francisco lost their top ball carrier in Week 1 and saw a carousel of running backs looking to fill the void of veteran Raheem Mostert. In the Week 3 meeting against Green Bay, third-round pick Trey Sermon, who had only played one offensive snap prior to the matchup that ended in a scary collision, got the start at running back.
The rookie led the team with 31 yards rushing on 10 carries and a score. Juszczyk followed with 14 yards on five carries as San Francisco saw a vast mix of players attempt to get involved in the ground game (George Kittle – 1 carry, 5 yards; Brandon Aiyuk – 1 carry, 8 yards; Samuel – 1 carry, 0 yards).
The ground game as a whole was limited to just 67 yards, San Francisco's second-lowest output of the year (Arizona Cardinals – 37 yards).
But as of late, San Francisco has found its footing, as the unit closed out the regular season owning the seventh-best rushing offense in the league (127.4 yards per game). In fact, the 49ers rushed for under 100 yards in just three of the 15 contests that followed the Week 3 matchup against the Packers.
Partial credit is due to the rise of rookie running back Elijah Mitchell, who missed the Week 3 contest with a shoulder injury. The sixth-round tailback has led San Francisco's backfield with 983 yards this season, the second-most rushing yards by a rookie ball carrier this season and the most by a first-year running back in franchise history.
The 49ers are coming off of three-straight outings where they rushed for more than 135 yards and notched more than 130 rushing yards in four of their last five contests. In the Wild Card win over the Dallas Cowboys, the unit posted 38 runs for 168 yards while helping dominate the time of possession, 33:59 to Dallas' 26:01.
Of note, San Francisco is 6-0 this season when they rush for 155 or more yards and 7-1 when they total more than 145.
Samuel is another aspect that has improved San Francisco's offensive productivity. The wideout has established himself as a dual (maybe even triple or quadruple) threat in the 49ers offense and has become a defense's nightmare. Samuel has registered 365 yards rushing this season, with the bulk of his production coming during the team's mid-season turnaround. Samuel had notched just six rushing attempts for 22 yards and a score through the first eight games of the year. From Week 10 on, he's posted 343 yards on the ground to go along with seven rushing scores. His eight scores on the ground this year (14 total) set an NFL record for rushing touchdowns by a wide receiver.
In Sunday's win over the Cowboys, Samuel ran the ball 10 times for 72 yards and a touchdown, while catching three balls for 38 yards.
With the receiver's evolution in the run game, Kyle Shanahan has emphasized getting the ball in Samuel's hands, which has appeared to work in the 49ers favor and could again on Saturday. Green Bay enters the game allowing an average of 4.7 yards per carry to opposing backs (fourth-worst in the NFL) and an average of 109.1 per game.
On the other side of the ball, San Francisco's defense has made significant strides over the season. The unit has reaped the benefits of its depth with a number of pass rushers answering the bell, even with Pro Bowler Nick Bosa out of half of Sunday's lineup. Charles Omenihu, Samson Ebukam and Arden Key have been key additions and accounted for 13 pressures, 3.0 sacks, a quarterback hit and nine hurries in the Wild Card win. Meanwhile, D.J. Jones, Arik Armstead and Kevin Givens each recorded at least 0.5 sacks and maintained consistent pressure on Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott.
The 49ers pass rush had Prescott under pressure on 25-of-52 dropbacks (48.1 percent) in the first half. When under duress, Prescott was 6-of-17 for 71 yards and one interception for a 24.4 passer rating.
Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, who has garnered much attention in the number of league-wide head coach vacancies, is coming off an outing where his unit held the NFL's top-scoring offense to 17 points and 307 yards, both well below Dallas' season averages.
In back-to-back weeks against Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford and Prescott, San Francisco's defense amassed a combined total of 27 quarterback hits. More recently, Prescott was hit 14 times and sacked five, with much production coming from the defensive line's supporting cast.
"I think, overall, our defense is much better," Ryans said. "You see in the run game, I think we're much better. Just D.J. and Arik inside, they've done an outstanding job. Just all around, when I watch that film from the first game and I watch our Dallas game or the L.A. game, it looks like two completely different defenses. Just the way we're moving, the way we're swarming now, it just looks different. It feels different on film. Many different guys in, but many different guys are still stepping up and making plays for us. I feel like the pass rush is definitely better.
"Guys are working together a lot more in the pass rush. Multiple guys are making plays, not just counting on one guy to make plays. Multiple guys are making plays for us when it comes to rushing the passer, when it comes to our corners on the edge, I think we're playing better there, so it's just all around. Just guys have improved throughout the year."
In Week 3, Rodgers played an efficient game, connecting on 23-of-33 passes (69 percent) for 261 yards and two touchdowns for a 113.3 passer rating. However, of Green Bay's three losses in 2021, each came when Rodgers failed to complete over 70 percent of his pass attempts.
The 49ers rank second in the NFL with a 31.6 percent quarterback pressure rate (including playoffs). Meanwhile, Rodgers' passer rating drops from 122.6 to 53.9 when under pressure, a 68.7-point gap which is the largest in NFL.
Rodgers' ability to get the ball out quick will likely be Green Bay's crutch against San Francisco. While it's difficult to stop him, the 49ers will need to put an emphasis on limiting his production in whatever capacity they can to make that happen.
What's just as impressive is the unit's run defense. San Francisco has held their last 10 opponents to under 100 yards rushing, including a 77-yard outing by Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard last week.
Overall, Green Bay's rushing offense enters Saturday ranking 18th in the league, averaging 111 yards per game. In Week 3, ball carriers Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon combined for 100 yards on 25 carries. Given San Francisco's recent ability to diagnose the run, it could be an uphill battle in a game that may keep the ball on the ground given Green Bay's conditions (the temperature at kickoff is expected to be 13 degrees).
"I think we are better, much better defense than we were then," Ryans added. "Week 3 seems like so long ago, but I'm happy for Week 3. I'm very happy for Week 3. I think it was a definitely a pivotal moment in our season. Just defensively, for guys just making the turnaround and really changing. You take a heartbreaking loss like that and you know the plays that we could have made defensively in that game.
"So defensively, I just feel like guys have owned it more to where we have to put at the team on our back to be better in those situations and to make plays when it comes time for us to make plays."