49ers vs. Packers: Preview, predictions, what to watch for

What to watch for as the 49ers battle the Packers at 6:40 p.m. EST Sunday in the NFC championship.

Marquee matchup

49ers left tackle Joe Staley vs. Packers pass rusher Za’Darius Smith

Staley, playing in the fourth NFC Championship game of his career, is the 49ers’ offensive captain and must stave off Smith, who had 13.5 sacks, 55 tackles, 17 for a loss, and 37 quarterbacks hits this season.

According to Pro Football Focus, Smith led the NFL with 93 quarterback pressures on the season.

In last week’s playoff win over Seattle, Smith had two sacks, two tackles, one tackle for loss and four quarterback hits. In his 257 pass-blocking snaps on the season, Staley has allowed just two sacks. This figures to be a critical matchup for both teams.

Joe Staley and Za’Darius Smith
Joe Staley and Za’Darius SmithAP (2)

4 downs

Run aground: The 49ers suffocated the Vikings in last week’s 27-10 win thanks much in part to holding feature running back Dalvin Cook to 18 yards on nine carries.

The Packers’ offense very much revolves around running back Aaron Jones, who ran for two touchdowns in Green Bay’s win over Seattle. Jones’ 16 rushing touchdowns in the regular season shared the NFL lead with Tennessee’s Derrick Henry.

If the 49ers clamp down on Jones the way they did against Cook, they’ll likely win.

Divine Davante: Davante Adams is Green Bay’s most dangerous offensive weapon for QB Aaron Rodgers, having caught 83 passes for 997 yards in just 12 games this season (numbers that project to roughly 104 catches for 1,250 yards). He seems to be at least close to fully recovered from a turf toe injury that cost him four games.

In the Packers’ 28-23 playoff win over Seattle last week, Rodgers completing eight passes to Adams for 160 yards and two TDs. Adams, a Palo Alto (Calif.) High alum, was held to seven catches for 43 yards and the Nov. 24 meeting between the two teams. There has been speculation this week that the 49ers might glue Richard Sherman, their best cornerback, to Adams — though that goes against the 49ers’ usual scheme, which is Cover 3.

Kitt’ & Caboodle: Tight end George Kittle, the 49ers’ leading receiver this season with 85 catches and 1,053 yards, caught just three passes for 16 yards against the Vikings and missed Wednesday’s practice with a lingering ankle injury.

In the teams’ previous meeting, Kittle caught six passes for 129 yards on the Packers, including a 61-yard TD reception. With the way coach Kyle Shanahan likes to be diverse with his offense, look for him to feature Kittle more on Sunday than he did last week.

One of the players likely in charge of slowing Kittle will be Packers LB Blake Martinez.

“He’s a special player,” Martinez said of Kittle. “He’s someone that you have to have multiple guys have eyes on. Understand what formations they’re giving. Where he’s located. All those types of things. He’s definitely a big part of the game plan.”

Keep him safe: The 49ers sacked Minnesota QB Kirk Cousins six times, all by their defensive line. What does that mean for Rodgers?

In the teams’ previous meeting in November, Green Bay’s veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga lasted just nine snaps before leaving with an injury. He was replaced by Alex Light, who was overmatched by 49ers rookie defensive end Nick Bosa and the 49ers’ pass rush. Bulaga is healthy again, despite missing last week with an illness, and will be back in the lineup.

Cannizzaro’s call

The 49ers are better than the Packers. Despite what the stats say, the Packers have the better quarterback who’s more trustworthy in a big game (Aaron Rodgers) than the 49ers (Jimmy Garoppolo). Still, San Francisco is deeper in skill-position players and has a better defense.

49ers 31, Packers 23

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