49ers

Why 49ers' George Kittle, Kyle Juszczyk are focus of Saints' Sean Payton

Why 49ers' George Kittle, Kyle Juszczyk are focus of Saints' Sean Payton

BRADENTON, Fla — Saints coach Sean Payton believes his defense has their work cut out in order to stop the 49ers' high-powered run game, and that means focusing on tight end George Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk.  

Payton is quite aware that the 49ers rank second in the league in both rushing yards per game (207.8) and total rushing yards (1,776) through Week 13. It doesn’t seem to matter whether Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida or Raheem Mostert is carrying the ball as each has had their turn as the hot hand. Against the Ravens, Mostert carried the ball 19 times for 146 yards and a touchdown. 

“With what Kyle Shanahan is doing, and his commitment to not only the running game, but the two-back running game,” Payton said. “You really have a tight and and a fullback that fit that exceptionally well.” 

Payton was extremely complementary of Kittle, who has been effective as a run blocker while also being a very reliable target for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Kittle only had two receptions for 17 yards in Baltimore but what he did to open up lanes for the running game was apparent. 

“Anytime you’re watching that team play, you’re seeing him on sting routes,” Payton said. “You’re seeing him on his run after the catch. His ability to separate and also block certainly put him at the elite level in this league right now. And he’s fun to watch.” 

Payton remains equally focused on Juszczyk because of how Shanahan can use him in a variety of ways. The fullback’s stats in receptions and rushing yards do not reflect how effective he is on the field. 

“He’s exceptionally smart,” Payton said. “He’s extremely productive. Whatever he’s doing, he does it well. He’s athletic, he can catch. Clearly he’s been the top, or if not, the top fullback in our league because he does so many things well. 

“He can play off the ball, he can play in the backfield, he’s got fantastic football instincts. He’s fantastic as a fullback. When you watch their tape and you understand what they are doing in the run game and you understand some of the subtle adjustments that Kyle deals with when a front moves, or support or a gap change, he never surprises you and always seems to be doing the right thing.”

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The Saints could focus on stopping the run as Seattle and Arizona did, but they then run the risk of falling victim to Jimmy Garoppolo and the passing game. Payton says his team must remain disciplined. 

“Their ability to run the football, their ability to score, and then conversely on defense with what they are doing, it’s super impressive.”

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.

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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.”

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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.