Five 49ers to watch in Week 12: Jimmie Ward has tough test vs. Packers

Five 49ers to watch in Week 12: Jimmie Ward has tough test vs. Packers

SANTA CLARA -- The 49ers, a team that was bumped off "Sunday Night Football" on NBC twice last season, will play their third game under the lights in the past four weeks.

San Francisco returns to "Sunday Night Football" after a four-year absence, as this Week 12 meeting against the Green Bay Packers was flexed from its originally scheduled afternoon start to a prime-time showcase.

The 49ers lead the NFC West with a conference-best record of 9-1. The Packers come to town at 8-2 in their first year under coach Matt LaFleur.

San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan said he was struck this week as he looked in the defensive meeting room and saw that only Richard Sherman and Dee Ford have previously been on NFL teams with winning records. (Ford will not play Sunday due to a hamstring injury.)

Shanahan has stressed to his team there is a different kind of pressure that comes when a team is winning as opposed to the misery of losing.

“People are telling you how good you are,” Shanahan said this week. “The league is hard every year. It doesn’t really matter what’s going on, they’re just different reasons why. I just try to tell guys that if you get too caught up in the moment and stuff it doesn’t seem as much fun and you need to make sure you enjoy this moment.”

It's an important game for the 49ers as they look to lock down a playoff spot and set themselves up for the postseason. Here are five players who should have key roles in Sunday’s game.

DT DeForest Buckner

DeForest Buckner is second on the 49ers in tackles with 40 through 10 games. His sacks are down from 12 last season to five, but that does not mean he is failing to meet expectations.

Buckner continues to play well, but he is yet to have a truly dominant game. The 49ers’ defense will be counting on Buckner on all downs Sunday against the Packers.

First, the 49ers have to take care of Green Bay running back Aaron Jones, who has rushed for 589 yards and 11 touchdowns. Buckner plays a huge role on those early downs to force offenses into passing situations.

Then, Buckner can be unleashed as a dominant inside pass-rusher on third downs. The 49ers count on Buckner and Arik Armstead inside to collapse the pocket, and that will be particularly important on Sunday against a mobile quarterback such as Aaron Rodgers.

TE George Kittle

It looks as if George Kittle is back for the 49ers, as he made it through practices Thursday and Friday on a limited basis. He is listed as questionable, which would seem to suggest he will be ready to return to action Sunday night after missing the past two games with knee and ankle issues.

Kittle leads the 49ers with 46 receptions for 541 yards. But what makes Kittle the best in the game, according to NBC "Sunday Night Football" analyst Cris Collinsworth, is his yards after the catch and his dominance as a blocker.

The 49ers run game struggled without Kittle on the field, so getting him back in the action is a huge boost as he is a proven playmaker and someone who has contagious enthusiasm and energy.

DE Nick Bosa

Another Bosa had a big day in Week 9 against Green Bay left tackle David Bakhtiari. Joey Bosa registered 1.5 sacks as the Los Angeles Chargers upset the Packers.

Nick Bosa, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft and younger brother of Joey, got off to a hot start with seven sacks in seven games. He has been shut out the past three games, but he is still applying pressure on the quarterback at an impressive rate.

Bosa has seen more than his share of double-teams, including backs, tight ends and wide receiver lending assistance to the left tackles he faces. But Bosa keeps right on coming.

“He’s consistently in the backfield disrupting both in the run and the pass game, and the motor on him is incredible,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said of Bosa this week. “It doesn’t shock me because his brother is the same way. Anytime you get a player as talented as he is with a motor, that is a nightmare for an offense.”

RB Tevin Coleman

It will be another week without running back Matt Breida, which means Tevin Coleman will get the bulk of the rushing attempts. Coleman has not found much room to run in recent weeks as defenses have loaded the box to stop the 49ers' run game.

Coleman has 409 yards rushing with five touchdowns, averaging 3.9 yards per carry. Kittle's return could be huge for Coleman, as the Packers might not be able to stack as many defenders close to the line of scrimmage. Also, Kittle’s blocking should be a help.

The 26-year-old is adept at catching the ball out of the backfield, so this could be an opportunity for Shanahan to design more plays to get the ball to Coleman in space, in order to take advantage of his speed.

[RELATED: Watch 49ers-Packers on "Sunday Night Football" online]

FS Jimmie Ward

It does not get much more difficult for any free safety than facing Rodgers, one of the best in the history of the game. Rodgers is so good at taking deep shots when they present themselves, while also protecting the football from the hands of defensive backs.

Ward has been solid with his ability to play the deep middle and limiting the number of big plays the 49ers have surrendered this season. He wants to generate more takeaways, but this might not be the week for that.

Ward said he is neither satisfied nor discouraged with how he has played in his seven starts, rating himself somewhere in the middle. He will get tested on Sunday, as Rodgers likes to keep plays alive and deliver the game-changing play down the field. It will be Ward’s job to prevent that from happening.

Why NFL history, Aaron Rodgers' past bode well for 49ers vs. Packers

Why NFL history, Aaron Rodgers' past bode well for 49ers vs. Packers

If the Green Bay Packers are going to upset the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday at Levi's Stadium, they're going to have to do it without history on their side.

It has been less than two months since the 8-2 Packers waltzed into Levi's Stadium hoping to knock off the conference-leading 49ers on "Sunday Night Football" in Week 12. By halftime -- if not much earlier -- it was readily apparent no such event would occur, as San Francisco raced out to a 23-0 lead on its way to a 37-8 win. It was a thoroughly dominant performance by the 49ers, and resulted in Green Bay's most lopsided defeat of the season.

The Packers haven't lost since, winning their final five games of the regular season to earn the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. They held on to beat the visiting Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round, but historically speaking, all that momentum might not mean much as it pertains to a rematch with San Francisco. As NFL.com's Chris Wesseling noted, the last 13 playoff teams to lose a regular-season game by at least 20 points have also lost the postseason rematch against the same opponent.

Now, obviously, not all teams are created equal, and in a sport where quarterback is the most critical position, one might argue that the Packers have a significant advantage over those previous 13 teams that have occupied the same space they will Sunday.

That wouldn't necessarily be accurate, though.

Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers will go down as one of the best QBs of all-time, and while he has put together several memorable postseason performances, he has not had much playoff success against teams he previously lost to that same season. In fact, the last five times he and the Packers qualified for the playoffs, they were eliminated by a team that had beaten them earlier that season.

[RELATED: Beathard gets 49ers scout-team honors for imitating Rodgers]

That obviously bodes well for San Francisco, and that's before even digging into the specific head-to-head matchup between Rodgers and the 49ers' top-ranked pass defense. Throughout his career, Rodgers has faced the No. 1-ranked pass defense a total of five times; he has not fared well in those matchups, and has never won one on the road.

There's a reason why the 49ers were the NFC's No. 1 seed, and there are plenty more as to why San Francisco is favored by more than a touchdown over Green Bay on Sunday. The Packers are going to have to overcome plenty to prove victorious, and you can add NFL history to the list.

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers playoff coverage at 2:30 p.m. Sunday for “49ers Pregame Live,” with Laura Britt, Jeff Garcia, Donte Whitner, Ian Williams and Grant Liffmann previewing the NFC Championship Game against the Packers. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on “49ers Postgame Live,” starting at approximately 6:30 p.m.

Richard Sherman recalls interception in 49ers-Seahawks NFC title game

Richard Sherman recalls interception in 49ers-Seahawks NFC title game

Not all nostalgia is good nostalgia.

The last time San Francisco advanced to the NFC Championship Game, the game was ended on an interception from then-Seattle Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith.

The man who deflected the pass to Smith -- cornerback Richard Sherman -- now wears a 49ers uniform. But he can recall, in vivid detail, one of the most heartbreaking moments young 49ers fans have experienced. One he was the architect of during his reign as the leader of the infamous “Legion of Boom.”

As receiver Michael Crabtree broke out of his route, Sherman wasn’t going to bite on any short routes from the 49ers’ then-No. 1 receiver.

“As he stuttered, I’m thinking to myself, ‘There’s no reason to stutter,’” Sherman told The Athletic’s Matt Barrows. “‘You’re not running a hitch. You’re not in a position to run a hitch. That’s not the play y’all need.’”

Despite losing the ball in the bright lights of Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, Sherman still managed to make a game-defining play.

“The ball comes in, and then it comes right out of the lights,” Sherman recalled. “And now I’m blinded from looking at the light, so I can’t see it. But I’m dialed into where it should be. And I’m just starting to refocus back and I’m going up to get it.”

[RELATED: 49ers list no injuries ahead of NFC title game vs. Packers]

Sherman managed to get a hand on the ball and bat it away from Crabtree and into the arms of Smith, sending the 49ers home and the Seahawks to Super Bowl XLVIII. 

Sunday gives Sherman another chance to help send a team to the Super Bowl, as he and the 49ers play host to the Green Bay Packers with a trip to Miami on the line.

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers playoff coverage at 2:30 p.m. Sunday for “49ers Pregame Live,” with Laura Britt, Jeff Garcia, Donte Whitner, Ian Williams and Grant Liffmann previewing the NFC Championship Game against the Packers. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on “49ers Postgame Live,” starting at approximately 6:30 p.m.