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This Sunday, the top two teams in the NFC face off when the 9-1 San Francisco 49ers host the 8-2 Green Bay Packers in a game that promises to be a primetime thriller. Here are 10 key insights to toss around as we count down to Sunday night’s game.
1. 49ers receivers have been dealing with injuries; expect to see a healthier receiving corps: For the past two games, two of the 49ers top pass-catchers—Emmanuel Sanders and George Kittle—have been dealing with major injuries; their absence has definitely been felt. In San Francisco’s down-to-the-last-play overtime loss to the Seahawks, the Niners’ receiving core surrendered eight crucial drops, which surely made a difference. Getting the NFL’s top tight end back, in addition to Sanders, should give Jimmy Garoppolo more reliable open targets.
2. This may be the Niners’ toughest task yet: While the 49ers squad has the best record in the NFL, their toughest stretch of games is yet to come. The Packers will be the best team they’ve faced, outside the Russell Wilson-led Seahawks.
3. Priority—Stop the Packers’ running game: One of Green Bay’s strengths is its rushing attack, led by Aaron Jones and his NFL-leading 14 touchdowns. That means Robert Saleh’s defense will need to improve.
4. This is the battle for top seed/bye in the NFC: Even with seven remaining weeks in the regular season, this matchup will significantly affect the NFC playoffs. With a win, the 49ers will gain a one-game lead on the currently second-seeded Packers. But with a loss, the Niners will fall to No. 2 in the NFC and risk losing a first-round bye in the playoffs.
5. Shanahan vs. Lafleur; Professor vs. Teacher: 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan will face Green Bay coach Matt Lafleur for the first time. Lafleur previously coached under Shanahan in Washington and has made Shanahan’s zone run scheme a staple of the Packers’ revamped offense.
6. SF’s running game must return: The red and gold are second in the league in rush yards per game (149). But during the past two games, the team has only rushed a combined 121 yards. Shanahan will look to get the team’s offense back to its roots this Sunday.
7. Our takeaway on takeways: Will the Niners defense force turnovers? The 49ers defensive unit has been lights-out all year long, leading the league in yardage allowed and sacks, while also ranking third in takeaways. The Packers, though, have turned the ball over just six times all year—good for second in the league. Getting a takeaway or two may be the game difference.
8. The need to limit turnovers: The Niners are currently Top 10 in giveaways. Despite being Top 3 in takeaways, the Niners have often allowed their opponents to stay in the game with costly turnovers, including the Steelers game early this season and just this past weekend against the Cardinals. If Jimmy G and the Niners want to win this game, they’ve got to take care of the football and win the turnover battle.
9. Deebo Samuels is on a hot streak—will it continue? With both George Kittle and Emmanuel Sanders out and/or limited the past two weeks, San Francisco rookie second-round pick Deebo Samuel has stepped up in a huge way for this offense. In each of the last two games, Samuel has amassed eight-plus receptions and 100-plus yards—the first rookie in 49ers history to record these numbers back-to-back, and the first rookie to do so since Odell Beckham Jr. in 2014. More than impressive.
10. Levi’s stadium will be loud: This season, Levi’s Stadium has been the loudest and most crowded since the team’s 2014 move to Santa Clara. You can even hear the clamor on TV. With a primetime Sunday night game, the Niner faithful will no doubt be roaring and ready to go, likely forcing the Packers offense to use a silent count.
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