Richard Sherman popped his head into the auditorium at Levi’s Stadium Wednesday afternoon as wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders left the podium.
He wasn’t there to speak to nearly 50 media members, who anxiously waited for the five-time Pro-Bowler to take the stage. Instead, he just wanted to get a glimpse of the George Halas Trophy — which is given to the winner of the NFC Championship game — that was nestled in between a 49ers and Packers helmet at center-stage.
“I just wanted to see if it was really here,” Sherman said as he walked back to the 49ers locker room. “Who knows where that’s going to be in a few days.”
The presence of the George Halas Trophy in Santa Clara means that the NFC Championship game is here. On Sunday the 49ers, who resiliently bounced back from a 4-12 record in 2018, will take on the visiting Green Bay Packers, who won the NFC North for the sixth time since 2011.
San Francisco has played Green Bay five times in the playoffs since 1997 when the Packers beat the 49ers, 23-10 in the NFC Championship game — the last time the two competed against each other for a conference title.
With a Super Bowl bid on the line once again, the clash between two of the most storied franchises in the NFL is gearing up to be a fascinating one.
Here are three things to watch when the 49ers and Packers meet for the NFC crown:
A possible repeat of Week 12
The 49ers and Packers met earlier this season in Week 12 when San Francisco dismantled Green Bay on a national stage on Sunday Night Football.
The 37-8 bashing went about as well for the 49ers and as poorly for the Packers as possible. San Francisco recorded five sacks on Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers while holding him to just 104 yards through the air on one of the worst games of his career.
Meanwhile, the 49ers offense put up 37 points — one of five games in 2019 when San Francisco scored at least 35 points on an opponent — in a game that was seemingly over by half time.
But don’t expect San Francisco’s coaching staff to put too much stock in that blowout win. While they want to repeat the success of that evening, they know Rodgers and the rest of the Green Bay Packers organization will be a lot tougher come Sunday.
“That game got away from them early and that’s definitely not the team we’re going to see this week,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Everyone knows how good Green Bay is, how good their coaching staff is, how good their players are, how good their quarterback is… I think that game really holds zero relevance to what’s going to happen this Sunday.”
Since losing to San Francisco on Nov. 24, the Packers have won six consecutive games, including a 28-23 win in the divisional round of the playoffs against the Seattle Seahawks.
They’ve gotten healthier on their offensive line and become battle tested with two one-score victories in that stretch. Needless to say, the Packers have beefed up since the last time they played San Francisco, which could translate to a much closer game.
Dee Ford, potential game-changer
Aaron Rodgers was rattled on that November night at Levi’s Stadium as he stood up fixing his chin strap after taking hits from Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and Fred Warner — all key components to the 49ers front seven.
The one person who was missing from this mayhem was 49ers defensive end Dee Ford, who at the time was dealing with a hamstring injury that kept him out of five regular season games including Week 12.
Ford is back for the NFC Championship game after making his return in the divisional round against the Minnesota Viking. While he recorded just one sack, his impact was felt beyond the stat sheet as he was able to free up nearly every defensive pass rusher on the 49ers defensive line.
“Just having Dee is a mismatch for just about anybody,” Bosa said. “It opens up things for the other guys and everybody reaps the benefit.”
With Ford lined up on the edge, the former Kansas City Chief, who was known to have one of the fastest first steps off the line of scrimmage in the NFL, regularly commands double teams. The result is often one-on-one matchups for the rest of the 49ers defensive line.
Players like Bosa and Armstead, along with defensive tackle DeForest Buckner have become the direct beneficiaries, which is why each recorded at least one sack against the Vikings last Saturday.
In Week 12, without having to deal with Ford, the Packers struggled mightily and were unable to keep Rodgers on his feet. Now faced with a potential game-changing piece in Ford, much of the same could happen on Sunday.
Keeping Adams at bay
Looking at the 49ers and Packers roster, the only clear advantage Green Bay possesses aside from the quarterback position is at No. 1 wide receiver.
While San Francisco has a trio of reliable pass-catchers on its roster in rookie Deebo Samuel, veteran wide-out Emmanuel Sanders and third-year receiver Kendrick Bourne, none of them are more dangerous than Green Bay’s wide receiver Davante Adams.
This season, Adams hauled in 83 passes for 997 yards through just 12 games. To put that in perspective, that’s nearly 200 more yards and 25 more receptions than any 49ers receiver in 2019 that played in all 16 games.
Last week, Adams set a Packers playoff record with eight catches for 160 yards and two touchdowns against Seattle. With Rodgers delivering these passes, Adams has become a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses.
“He’s very strong. He’s a very good route runner. He’s got great hands,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said of Adams. “He’s savvy, and him and Aaron [Rodgers] have a really good relationship.”
It’s unclear who on the 49ers defense will cover Adams. Last week, San Francisco started veteran cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon against Minnesota, only to bench him after the first defensive series.
Witherspoon was picked on by Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who threw directly at him three times on Minnesota’s opening drive. That game plan yielded one defensive pass interference call and two third-down completions, including a 41-yard touchdown to Stefon Diggs.
In his place, the 49erd deployed Emmanuel Moseley, who started in place of Witherspoon while he dealt with a strained foot and Richard Sherman, who was laid up with a hamstring injury late in the year.
While Sherman does not move from the left corner position, it’s likely that the Packers will target Moseley, who expected to make his first playoff start, on the right side of the field along with nickel corner K’Waun Williams in the slot.
Adams will be a key matchup for the 49ers defense. If they can find a way to limit his production, San Francisco could coast to a Super Bowl appearance in Miami.
For full coverage of Sunday’s game, visit SFexaminer. com