49ers

NFL playoffs: Key 49ers-Packers matchups in NFC Championship Game

NFL playoffs: Key 49ers-Packers matchups in NFC Championship Game

There probably aren't another two NFL coaching staffs who know each other as well as the 49ers and Green Bay Packers.

And that is how it sets up Sunday for the NFC Championship Game at Levi’s Stadium.

The 49ers and Packers met this season in Week 12, and the Niners had few problems in a 37-8 victory.

But that makes little difference now. The Super Bowl is on the line, as the Packers advanced to the NFC title game with a 28-23 victory over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at Lambeau Field.

The connections run deep with the two coaching staffs.

Coach Kyle Shanahan, who runs his 49ers offense, will be matched against Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. In 2014, Pettine, as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, hired Shanahan as his offensive coordinator.

Shanahan was so miserable after one season, he got out of his contract in order to go to work for Dan Quinn with the Atlanta Falcons.

Meanwhile, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, who runs his team’s offense, will be playing chess against 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. LaFleur and Saleh have been best of friends since their days together as graduate assistants on Central Michigan’s coaching staff in 2004.

Saleh took an entry-level job with the Houston Texans in 2005. Three years later, LaFleur was hired for a quality control position with the Texans after Saleh recommended him for the job.

The NFC Championship Game should feature plenty of good matchups on the field, too. Here are some of the most important head-to-head battles that could decide which team represents the NFC in Super Bowl 54:

QB Jimmy Garoppolo vs. LB Blake Martinez

Jimmy Garoppolo must beware of the linebacker dropping into coverage.

Garoppolo has given linebackers chances to make plays because he sometimes locks onto his receiver and gives the underneath defender an opportunity to read his eyes and react to make a play.

That is exactly what happened Saturday when Minnesota Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks picked off a Garoppolo pass right before halftime.

But in this game, Garoppolo certainly will look to exploit this matchup. He has a chance to feast. But he also has to use his eyes to move the linebackers and safeties.

One of the weaknesses of the Packers' defense is their linebackers’ ability to cover. Blake Martinez in coverage gave up 58 completions on 69 passes thrown his way for 500 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.

FS Jimmie Ward vs. QB Aaron Rodgers

Nobody on the 49ers has been through as much as Jimmie Ward to get to this point in his career for the first time. Ward seemingly has found a home at free safety after bouncing around in the secondary through his first five injury-plagued NFL seasons.

Rodgers will take deep shots – especially after using the hard count to try to draw the 49ers’ pass-rushers offside. And when he does, Ward has to live up to his job description as “the eraser.”

Ward had a good game in November against Rodgers, who completed just 20 of 33 attempts for 104 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. Ward had two pass breakups down the field, one against wide receiver Davante Adams and one against tight end Jimmy Graham.

Rodgers’ longest pass play that day went for just 15 yards. The key for the Packers will be to hit big plays down the field. Ward is the key to preventing those big plays.

CB Emmanuel Moseley vs. WR Davante Adams

Veteran cornerback Richard Sherman has been a rock. But the 49ers have experienced plenty of uncertainty on the other side.

Emmanuel Moseley exudes confidence without a trace of bravado or conceit. He will be ready to make the start at right cornerback Sunday, and it seems logical the 49ers would place their trust in him.

For the second game in a row, Moseley replaced struggling Ahkello Witherspoon. Moseley allowed just three receptions on six passes thrown his way for 24 yards against the Vikings.

The Packers’ top receiver is Davante Adams, who does a lot of his work lined up on the left side. Adams had eight catches for 160 yards and two touchdowns in the Packers’ win over the Seahawks.

When the teams met earlier this season, Moseley started. The Packers targeted Adams only two times against Moseley. Adams caught one pass for 14 yards. Overall, Adams had seven receptiions but for just 43 yards.

With as well as Sherman is playing, this figures to be the matchup the Packers will look to exploit.

LT Joe Staley vs. DE Za’Darius Smith

Joe Staley did not play when the 49ers met the Packers earlier this season. Rookie Justin Skule lined up at left tackle while Staley missed action this season with a broken lower leg, then a fractured finger. Smith had 1.5 sacks against Skule.

Smith is playing with a purpose. He registered 13.5 sacks and did not make the NFC Pro Bowl team. After picking up a sack Sunday against Russell Wilson, Smith revealed the bottom of his undershirt, that had the word, “SNUBBED,” stamped at the bottom. He will be out to make a point against Staley, a six-time Pro Bowl performer.

Staley is playing at a very high level at the exact right time for the 49ers. He is coming off two very strong games, including Saturday in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs against the Vikings. Staley did not allow a quarterback pressure against Everson Griffen.

Of course, every aspect of the 49ers’ pass protection benefited from the team’s ability to run the ball consistently and effectively against the Vikings. The 49ers will want to follow the same formula Sunday at Levi’s Stadium.

[RELATED49ers snap count: Defense remains fresh in dominant win over Vikings]

LB Fred Warner vs. RB Aaron Jones

The 49ers did not allow Aaron Jones to do much when the teams met earlier this season. The Packers must find a way to get him going or it could be a long day for Rodgers.

Linebacker Fred Warner registered 11 tackles in the Week 12 win, four of which came against Jones. Jones managed only 38 yards on 13 rushing attempts (2.9 average). He did not catch a pass.

Jones rushed for 1,084 yards and 16 touchdowns in the regular season. He had 63 yards rushing with two touchdowns Sunday against the Seahawks.

DE Nick Bosa vs. LT David Bakhtiari

Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari earned Pro Bowl recognition after a season in which he surrendered just two sacks the entire season. But Nick Bosa had an impactful game when they met earlier this season. And, before that, his brother, Joey Bosa of the Los Angeles Chargers, had a good game against Bakhtiari.

Nick Bosa had six quarterback pressures in the meeting against the Packers earlier this season.

The entire defensive line appeared to benefit from the return of Dee Ford, who played just four snaps in the final six weeks of the regular season due to a hamstring injury. Ford made it back for the divisional round of the playoffs, and the 49ers' pass rush was outstanding. The 49ers sacked Kirk Cousins six times.

On Sunday against the Vikings, Bosa had two sacks, one quarterback hit and four hurries. He had three run stops on just seven snaps against the run, according to Pro Football Focus.

How 49ers star George Kittle reminds retired Rob Gronkowski of himself

How 49ers star George Kittle reminds retired Rob Gronkowski of himself

Gronk has spoken. 

The Athletic's Daniel Brown asked the former New England Patriots tight end in the lead-up to Super Bowl LIV who he would take between 49ers star George Kittle and Kansas City Chiefs counterpart Travis Kelce. There are no wrong answers, considering either can credibly claim themselves to be the NFL's best tight end since Gronkowski retired last March. 

Gronkowski, though, has a personal preference. 

“Kittle, for sure,’’ Gronkowski told Brown in Miami. “Because he just reminds me of myself a little bit with the way he plays the game.”

In 2018, Kittle and Kelce both broke Gronkowski's single-season record for the most receiving yards by a tight end. Kittle (1,377) barely edged Kelce (1,336), finishing the year with the most prolific campaign by a tight end in NFL history. 

In fact, no tight end caught more passes (216) for more yards (2,945) in the first three years of their NFL career than Kittle. But Kittle's not just a pass-catcher, enjoying run-blocking just as much -- if not more -- than scoring touchdowns. 

Kittle's complete skill set allowed him to break another one of Gronkowski's single-season records, earning Pro Football Focus' highest grade by a tight end. Combine the all-around skills, passion for the sport and a fun-loving personality, and you'd be forgiven for mistaking Gronkowski and Kittle for the Spider-Man meme. 

“I see a little bit of me in both, but I would say I’m definitely more of a Kittle, hands down,’’ Gronkowski said. “I would say that because of the attitude that he brings to the table, just the grit he brings into the trenches. He wants to bring it every time. He wants to be that guy that’s fierce out there and just wrecking guys whether it’s the passing game or the running game.”

[RELATED: Shanahan convinced Sherman to sign with 49ers over Lions]

Gronkowski will be covering Super Bowl LIV as an analyst for Fox Sports, getting an up-close view of the player he sees much of himself in. Kittle will have another chance to better Gronkowski, too.

The retired tight end didn't pick up a ring in his first Super Bowl appearance, as his Patriots once again lost to Eli Manning and the New York Giants. Sunday will mark Kittle's first appearance on the NFL's biggest stage, and he -- and the 49ers -- will hope for a better outcome than that of his predecessor. 

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 9 p.m. Tuesday and 3 p.m. Saturday).

Also tune in at 1 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday for a two-hour special of "49ers Pregame Live" with Laura Britt, Donte Whitner, Jeff Garcia, Ian Williams, Kelli Johnson, Greg Papa and Grant Liffmann. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on "49ers Postgame Live," starting immediately after the game.

Why Richard Sherman passed on more guaranteed money to sign with 49ers

Why Richard Sherman passed on more guaranteed money to sign with 49ers

Richard Sherman bet on himself, and it paid off in a big way.

The 49ers' standout cornerback took a big risk when he decided to sign with San Francisco, and that's without even considering the other options that were on the table at the time. The three-year, $39 million contract he signed with the 49ers was not only incentive-laden but carried less guaranteed money than a contract Sherman ultimately passed on from coach Matt Patricia and the Detroit Lions.

"But that’s not the kind of football I want to play,” Sherman said of the Lions to The Athletic's David Lombardi. “The way you run their scheme, your culture. You want to do it the Patriots’ way and that’s really not the way I do football."

Patricia, of course, is a disciple of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

"I have fun," Sherman continued. "I like music at practice. I like to hang out and be relaxed in meetings. I don’t like the stressful environment in football. [The Lions] condition every day after practice. My body isn’t built to run all day and night. I’ll be prepared, but I don’t have to be run into the ground."

Sherman has been wise to be extra cautious with his body, particularly being just over two years removed from tearing his Achilles. The 31-year-old might be getting a little long in the tooth for an NFL cornerback, but he was attracted to San Francisco at least in part due to coach Kyle Shanahan's modernized approach.

"That’s what I appreciate about Kyle,” Sherman explained. "His culture and the way he did things was very similar to how we did things in Seattle and what I was accustomed to. That made a huge difference. Hey, I can get this $20 million guaranteed and be in Detroit and lose football games. Or I can go to a place where I’m very comfortable with the scheme, coach and culture and I’m very comfortable with the things they do and I really believe we can win.

"Because I don’t think there’s anybody that can stop Kyle when he has the personnel that he has picked and put into spots, and I don’t think there’s anyone that can beat Saleh when he has the personnel that he has picked and put into spots."

[RELATED: Chiefs rookie believes he's ready to test 49ers vet Sherman]

Sherman has been correct about many things. He was right about Shanahan and Saleh, he was right to bet on himself, and after watching Detroit go a combined 9-22-1 over the last two seasons, he clearly made the right decision to pass on the Lions' offer.

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 9 p.m. Tuesday and 3 p.m. Saturday).

Also tune in at 1 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday for a two-hour special of "49ers Pregame Live" with Laura Britt, Donte Whitner, Jeff Garcia, Ian Williams, Kelli Johnson, Greg Papa and Grant Liffmann. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on "49ers Postgame Live," starting immediately after the game.