Jan. 20, 2020
Signature Clubs Clash: 2019 NFC Championship Game Preview
Two franchises meet to enhance their respective legacy.
When it comes to the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers, they are two teams who have been synonymous with the Super Bowl and the Lombardi Trophy. The namesake of the modern day NFL Championship Trophy was the head coach of the Packers in the Super Bowl's infancy. The 49ers were the dynasty of the 1980’s, winning four titles in that decade, then won an unprecedented fifth Lombardi Trophy at the time in 1994. The Packers have played in the Super Bowl five times, winning four. The Niners have been on the game's grandest stage six times. But for all those glories past, the 2019 versions of each team needed to endure measures of adversity to reach this point.
The Packers ended 2016 in bittersweet fashion. After winning two playoff games, they were dominated by the Atlanta Falcons as they ended their sixth straight postseason visit without a conference championship. There were deficiencies on the roster, much like many teams in the league, but everything is working, right? It was working... Until it wasn't. In 2017, QB Aaron Rodgers, the centerpiece of the franchise who was building a Hall of Fame resumé, suffered a broken collarbone that ended his season. While the Pack may have finished 7-9, but they were a shell of their former selves, as those weaknesses that were minimized in the past came racing to the fore. When 2018 rolled around, the return of Rodgers had many believing that not only will Titletown return to the top of NFC North, but some thought a Super Bowl LIII berth was in the offing. Instead, the Packers crumbled, putting up a 6-9-1 record, their worst season since Rodgers' first year as a starter in 2008. Head coach Mike McCarthy was dismissed during the campaign, ending his 13 year tenure. General manager Brian Gutekunst decided to hire Matt LaFleur, a young offensive coordinator whose stops with the LA Rams and Tennessee Titans were with distinction. Plus, Gutekunst would spend in free agency, nabbing edge rushers Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith, who would account for 25.5 sacks out of the team's 41 over the course of the year. LaFleur's new wrinkles in the offense would rejuvenate the unit, and with the breath of fresh air sweeping through the organization, the Packers would win the NFC North with a 13-3 record and a 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. They would parlay that bye week and home game into a 28-23 victory over the Seattle Seahawks to send them to Santa Clara to try to win their first NFC Championship in nine years.
Standing in their way are the 49ers. In the early 2010’s, San Francisco look poised to be the premier team in the league with three straight NFC Championship Game appearances, winning one in 2012. But a funny thing happened in 2014, when a power struggle between head coach Jim Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke, one so bitter that it had to be resolved by owner Jed York. York went with Baalke, and Harbaugh walked, right into a new coaching gig at his alma mater, the University of Michigan. Meanwhile, Baalke would promote defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. In the ensuing offseason, a number of players announced their retirements, many of them on the defensive side of the ball. The Niners went 5-11 in 2015, Tomsula was dismissed. Baalke decided to bring in known head coach in Chip Kelly, the same one who left the Eagles' roster stripped of much of its talent with accusations of racism by his former players. San Fran would hit rock bottom by going 2-14 in 2016. York had enough. He cleaned house, dumping Kelly and Baalke, taking the blame for the 49ers woes, and proclaimed he would do better, for the fans and for the franchise. While the hire of Kyle Shanahan was certainly a quality move, the more curious one was bringing in retired player and television analyst John Lynch as general manager. A lack of personnel experience raised a red flag, as former players have a spotty history in management. The first season was a 6-10 campaign; 0-10 to start, but 6-0 when trade deadline acquisition Jimmy Garoppolo was installed as the starting quarterback. 2018 was a season of promise, but a litany of injuries across the roster left the Niners with a disappointing 4-12. In the April draft, they would turn the #2 overall pick into defensive end Nick Bosa, and he would make an immediate impact in 2019, whose 9 sacks and disruptive presence would make him a force multiplier on the entire defense. On offense, the run game featuring Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, and Matt Breida can hurt opposing defenses in different ways, from punishment in between the tackles to trying to cover backs out of the backfield in the pass game. Tight end George Kittle has become a lethal pass receiver while still serving as a security blanket for Garoppolo. With such a complete team, the 49ers are favorites to return to the Super Bowl, their first such trip in seven years, and look to become the first NFC team to win six Lombardi Trophys.
This will be the eighth postseason meeting between these two franchises who possess nine Lombardi Trophys and 11 George S. Halas Trophys between them. From The Catch II to the Colin Kaepernick Coming Out Party, there have been special moments in this intraconference series. Both have illustrious franchise histories and bonafide championship pedigrees, but each have eclipsed difficult periods to meet at this point. Only one will be offered the opportunity to etch their signature in the history books as an NFC champion, and possibly, Super Bowl LIV champion.