Win or go home.
That's what is at stake leading up to Saturday's matchup against the Green Bay Packers. With a trip to the NFC Championship on the line, the sixth-seeded San Francisco 49ers will battle the top-seeded Packers in the frozen tundra for a postseason rematch. Will the underdogs come out on top?
Here's a list of three keys to victory for the 49ers:
1. Limiting Aaron Rodgers
Rodgers' efficiency is one of the most critical aspects of the Packers success on offense. This season, the quarterback set a new NFL record, breaking his own from last season, recording 13 games with multiple touchdown passes and no interceptions. Throwing 29 touchdown passes and just one interception from clean pockets, Rodgers stands as the NFL's number one passer from a clean pocket by passer rating (111.9).
However, the 49ers primary aim is to add consistent pressure on the All-Pro quarterback. One of San Francisco's keys to winning on the road is applying pressure and disrupting the passing game. Luckily, the 49ers have great personnel to do so.
In the second quarter of last week's Wild Card game against the Dallas Cowboys, one of San Francisco's biggest defensive weapons Nick Bosa left the game with a head injury in the first half. Yet, the 49ers defense did not skip a beat. Arik Armstead, D.J. Jones, Charles Omenihu and Kevin Givens all notched at least 0.5 a sack on Dak Prescott, proving just how physical the unit performs. This Saturday, Bosa is likely to re-join his teammates and see the field after making progress in practices throughout the week.
"Many different guys are still stepping up and making plays for us," defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said. "The pass rush is definitely better. Guys are working together a lot more … Multiple guys are making plays, not just counting on one guy to make plays."
2. Creativity on Offense
Every team understands that wide receiver Deebo Samuel is a huge threat on offense. Yet no team has been able to contain the All-Pro receiver as he's notched a total of 1,770 yards on the ground and in the air during his regular season campaign. Teams have been unable to stop Samuel, likely because they don't know how he is going to be used, as he's caught, rushed and even thrown a touchdown pass this season. Samuel calls his position a "wide back," a combination of a wide receiver and a running back, and he's become successful at both. Leading the NFL in yards per reception (18.3), Samuel also notched eight rushing touchdowns, the most by a receiver in a season since 1970.
"Deebo has been unique to all of our careers because you're always trying to define what a football player is and it's still hard to define," offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel said. "The game moves slow for him. He's fearless, he's fast, he's big and he is hard to tackle. The evolution of how we use him, that's a product of two things: him being a really good football player and Kyle does an outstanding job of really pushing his staff to open their mind and see what's there that maybe we haven't done … We're all committed to utilizing our players the best way we can."
The creativity on offense doesn't stop at Samuel. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has the privilege of being able to spread the ball out to a variety of weapons on offense when passing, whether that be Brandon Aiyuk, Jauan Jennings, Kyle Juszczyk or George Kittle, almost anyone is ready to step up and make a play.
3. Skillful Secondary
Since the beginning of the 2019 season, 49ers opponents have averaged 194.8 net passing yards per game, the fewest allowed in the NFL over that span. Last week, cornerback K'Waun Williams finished the game with two tackles and one interception of Prescott, which led to Samuel's 26-yard touchdown run. As the 49ers make their way to Green Bay, one of the most important keys to victory will be containing wide receiver Davante Adams, who has notched eight career games with 10-plus catches, 100-plus receiving yards and multiple touchdown catches, the most in NFL history.
"(Adams) can make plays all over the field, so we have to have eyes on him and be aware of where he is at all times," Ryans said. "We also have to let the defense just work for us and when it comes down to it, whether you're in man coverage, you're in zone coverage, whatever it may be, somebody's going to be matched up and somebody has to go make a play when the ball is up in the air."
Rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas was limited in practice this week, however, he should be "all right" to play on Saturday, according to head coach Kyle Shanahan. Thomas' 73.4 overall Pro Football Focus grade in Sunday's Wild Card win was his highest of the season. The cornerback allowed two targets for 24 yards and only four total yards after the catch while recording a pass breakup.
Overall, the defensive back unit will be challenged against the Rodgers-Adams dynamic duo, but the 49ers sixth-ranked passing defense have the playmakers necessary to help slow down the Packers high-powered offense.