The last time the Packers played the 49ers, they got paddled 37-8.
Oh, but there was a bogus penalty and an early turnover and momentum and a guy got hurt and stuff and all that won’t happen again.
But the real reasons why this game will be different aren’t just that randomness probably won’t play out the same way again. This isn’t chaos theory, this is football, and the Green Bay Packers have done a lot of things to make sure that history won’t repeat itself.
Here are the biggest changes:
The last time the Packers played the 49ers, they gave up way too many explosive plays. Before the next practice, the entire defense held a players-only film review. They looked over all 50+ explosive plays they’d allowed in the first 11 games.
When they discussed what happened on each play, they uncovered some startling communications issues: many position groups had the wrong understanding of what other position groups were responsible for on certain looks and matchups.
They put in the work to clearing that up and the results showed it.
Since that meeting, the Packers haven’t given up as many explosive plays. After allowing at least 22 points in 7 of the previous 8 weeks, they finished the regular season allowing an average 14 points per game. Last week’s 23 point outing against Seattle was the only time they gave up more than 20 since they cleared up their defense. For reference, Seattle just put up 21 against San Francisco in Week 17 before ending the game at the 1 inch line.
In other words: The Packers defense had very similar results against the Seahawks as the 49ers defense.
They Went To Jared
The last time the Packers played the 49ers, Bryan Bulaga went down and Aaron Rodgers was under assault all night.
I love the idea of “next man up,” but what do you do when the next man up gets beat like a rented mule?
You go sign Jared Veldheer!
Bulaga missed significant time against Minnesota and the whole game against Seattle, but Jared Veldheer played amazing in a relief role and kept the protection up to par.
If the Packers lose a lineman during the game this time, Veldheer gives the proven flexibility they didn’t have before against a vicious defensive front.
Dealing With Stress
The last time the Packers played the 49ers, they got rocked from the first series and the team as a whole seemed to panic. This group (which has more new players than any Packers team in a while) hadn’t dealt with this kind of situation before – in their loss to Philly they were always close and in their loss to San Diego they were hungover.
This was new territory and they didn’t react well. They did, however, have time to reflect on the experience and learn from it. When they faced an early two-touchdown deficit on the road in Detroit with a playoff bye hanging in the balance, the team didn’t panic like they did in San Francisco. They held steady and ground out a win.
Work The Plan
The last time the Packers played the 49ers, they looked lost in their adjustments. They were so shellshocked with their rookie head coach that they didn’t seem to know how to react and scrambled for a plan.
Since then, they’ve handled adversity better.
Against the Vikings in Week 16, they came in with a plan to run the ball and wear down Minnesota. Early on, it didn’t work and the Packers were behind at the half after turning the ball over 3 times. But they stuck to the plan. They kept running Jones and eventually pulled away for the win.
A similar situation played out for the defense last week. The Packers came in with a plan to attack Russell Wilson rather than contain him. Things started off well, but when Wilson started doing Wilson stuff in the 3rd quarter, the Packers kept their cool and stuck to the plan. When crunch time rolled around, the Packers attacked Wilson, eventually sacking him, and forcing the punt they needed to get the ball back and run out the clock for the win.
A Little Something Special
The last time the Packers played the 49ers, they had two punt returns for -3 yards with a long of -1 (I could have done better). When your offense is struggling, sometimes a big special teams play can give them a boost.
With what might be the most underrated midseason move in the NFL, Gutey brought in Tyler Ervin, who has single-handedly transformed the return team. If the Packers offense struggles this week, Ervin has the potential to give them a boost.
The Other Side
The last time the Packers played the 49ers, San Francisco was on a hot streak. Since then, they beat the Rams by 3, the Saints by 2, and the Seahawks by inches, in addition to losing twice (including to the Falcons). While the Packers defense has buckled down after their embarrassment by the bay, the 49ers seem to have gone the other direction – they have given up at least 20 points in all 7 of their games since.
This is a team that held their first 7 opponents to 20 or fewer points to start the year. Maybe they’re resting on their laurels, maybe coaches are finding ways to attack their defense, maybe both, but this is the playoffs and you can bet Matt LaFleur has been paying attention.
At the end of the day, the Packers needed to get their a$ses paddled by the 49ers in November – it was part of the necessary learning curve for a new coach and a natural part of the growth pattern for a team with a lot of new players.
They’ve learned a lot from that game that has served them well since then and will serve them well on Sunday.
I didn’t set out to write an article to convince anyone that the Packers were going to win this week, but the more I dove into things, the more possible (or even likely) it looked.
I’m so pumped for Sunday.