Episode 114 - Week 6 Preview: A Must Win?

 The last time the Packers met the 49ers Eddie Lacy was still toting the rock in Green Bay.

The last time the Packers met the 49ers Eddie Lacy was still toting the rock in Green Bay.

Do you believe in the “must-win” game?

It’s a staple of NFL pregame shows and talk radio. Declaring a game a “must-win” is a quick way to bring a little added significance and narrative to a game that might not otherwise obviously have a hook.

Few “must win” games are really must win, though. Unless you’re in the playoffs or in danger of being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, there’s a chance that even if you lose a must-win game, you can make up that lost ground.

But sometimes losing ground can be so dangerous that even if a loss doesn’t really take you out of contention or end your season, you’re all but doomed anyway. In that sense, must win games can be real.

If that’s the case, this week’s Packers game is pretty much a must win. At 2-2-1 the margin for error in Green Bay is already pretty thin. 10 wins is a pretty good baseline expectation for making the playoffs, and with the record as it is the Packers have to go no worse than 8-3 the rest of the way to get to 10. With a tough middle portion of their schedule coming up, the Packers can’t afford to drop any games, especially a very winnable one against an opponent in a tough spot.

This may not be a mathematical must win, but it’s the earliest the Packers have faced the rhetorical must-win situation in quite a while.

Last year, their only “must-win” game was against the Panthers in Aaron Rodgers’ first game back. They didn’t win and their season ended.

In 2016, thanks to the run the table stretch, the Packers had a slew of must-win games, culminating with a de facto NFC North title game in Week 17. There’s a real regular season must win.

2015 didn’t feature a true must-win game until the playoffs, where the Packers won once and lost once. 2014 was the same story.

2013 ended with another must win with Aaron Rodgers coming off a collarbone. He connected with Randall Cobb to win that particular must win over the Bears. Not that you needed reminding, but it’s always worth mentioning.

Then we get to 2012. There wasn’t a true must-win until late in that season, but the start of that year was very similar to this year. As we pointed out at the conclusion of Wednesday’s podcast, there are a lot of unusual coincidences between 2012 and 2018.

In both seasons, a mistake by the referees cost the Packers a win.

In both seasons, the Packers lost a winnable game on the road in a dome to a team that wears blue.

And in both seasons, the Packers had a must-win game in Week 6 in prime time.

In 2012, that was a Sunday night matchup against the Texans in Houston. Aaron Rodgers went ballistic with six touchdown passes and a one-word message for the people that didn’t believe in his team: “Shhhhhhhhhhhh.”

This week the Packers have a chance to get back on their feet in prime time again. And again, the Packers need Aaron Rodgers to provide some answers. Based on how this season is going, he’ll have a lot more than one word to say if this one goes the Packers’ way.

Five Things to Think About During Monday’s Game

1 - The 49ers’ season changed completely when Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL in Week 3. No longer postseason contenders, the 49ers have had to rely on backup C.J. Beathard to execute their offense. While he hasn’t put up stats like Garoppolo, he’s been adequate at times and the 49ers offense isn’t completely different than it was under their preferred starter.

In fact, NFL analyst Brian Baldinger thinks the offense is just as good as it was when Garoppolo was running the show.

Look for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to do whatever he can to disrupt the second-year quarterback.

2 - Last week, the Packers ran the ball just 17 times, but gained an average of 5.9 yards per carry. The last time Mike McCarthy’s offense ran the ball that few times was an October 2015 home win against the then-San Diego Chargers. Green Bay is 8th in the league in yards per rush this season, and are one of just four teams with three different running backs who have rushed for at least 85 yards.

3 - Lambeau Field may be known as the “Frozen Tundra,” but the autumn winds have been just as menacing for visiting teams. The Packers have won 14 of their last 17 home games in the month of October, but have only won once in their last three tries.

And interestingly, despite that “Frozen Tundra” reputation, the Packers haven’t played all that many cold games at Lambeau in the month of October. Since 1964, the Packers have only played 13 games in the state of Wisconsin where the kickoff temperature was under 40 degrees. They’ve never played an October home game with a kick temperature below freezing. The forecast for Monday says the kickoff temperature will be right around 40 degrees. Perfect football weather.

4 - The Packers have scored 20-plus points in each of their last ten regular season home games against San Francisco. The last time Green Bay failed to score at least 20 points was a 23-12 loss in December 1987, when the Packers offense was led by quarterback Randy Wright’s 3 interceptions and a 31.5 passer rating.

5 - When Aaron Rodgers is the starting quarterback, the Packers are 14-5 against NFC West teams. Rodgers has thrown 37 touchdowns against just 9 interceptions, good for a sparkling 105.1 passer rating. It’s the higher passer rating for any quarterback since 2008 who has thrown a minimum of 100 attempts against NFC West teams.

Mike McCarthy coached teams are 7-5 in the week before the bye.

With Aaron Rodgers starting the week before a bye, the Packers are 5-3. Two of the three losses came in primetime – Monday Night Football in 2009 against Brett Favre’s Vikings in the Metrodome and Sunday Night Football in 2014 on the road in New Orleans.

Who Could Be an X-Factor This Week?

It may be surprising to hear this name after he had such a good game last week, but Davante Adams could be pivotal to the Packers’ success this week in an unexpected way. Though he’s not struggled to get open against anybody so far this season, the 49ers present a unique challenge. Their overall defense isn’t great but led by former Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, they’re ranked eighth in the NFL in their defense against number one receivers according to Football Outsiders. Adams will need to be on his A-game to continue his success.

If anybody could help take the edge off for Adams, it might be Jimmy Graham. The 49ers are ranked just 24th in defending tight ends, again according to Football Outsiders.

What Happened the Last Time the Packers and 49ers Played?

Sometimes in sports, a rivalry will carry on for years at a high level with both sides sustaining their vigor and vitality game after game and season after season.

That’s not the case with the Packers and 49ers.

For several seasons, the two sides had a legitimate, heated rivalry, albeit one that was more or less completely dominated by the 49ers, especially in the playoffs. From 2012 through 2014, there’s almost no team I’d rather have beaten than the 49ers.

But by 2015, that fire was gone and it showed on the field. The 49ers had petered out. Jim Harbaugh was gone, replaced by the woefully underqualified Jim Tomsula. The Packers, meanwhile, were already laboring on offense in what would be a long, difficult season.

In Week 4 the two teams met in San Francisco and the result couldn’t have been more underwhelming. On the 49ers side, Colin Kaepernick was no longer capable or equipped to terrorize the Packers. He threw for just 160 yards on 25 attempts and threw in an interception for good measure. Anquan Boldin, who’d been unstoppable against the Packers just two seasons prior, managed just 12 yards on three catches.

On the Packers side, things were disjointed and uninteresting. Aaron Rodgers managed an uninspiring 224 yards. Eddie Lacy ran for 90 yards on 18 carries and James Starks added another 28 on nine attempts. Just reading these stats makes the game sound as boring as it was.

The Packers came out victorious, 17-3.

Who’s Going to Win?

If there’s one thing Mike McCarthy seems to do well, it’s getting his team ready to play for high-pressure regular season prime time games. The aforementioned Texans game and the 2014 win over the Patriots are two key examples.

We haven’t seen a complete effort from the Packers yet, but with the Monday Night Football crew headed to Lambeau and an underwhelming 49ers team coming to town, this seems like a good opportunity to put together a full game. I think the Packers do it. Give me Green Bay 31, San Francisco 13.

Survey Updates

People are feeling pretty good about the Packers’ chances this week. 83% of voters in our weekly poll rated their confidence at a 3 or higher out of 4 that the Packers will win on Monday. That’s the highest fan confidence has been since Week 3.

Fans are the least confident they’ve ever been in Mike McCarthy, though. 81% of our voters said they felt somewhat or very negative about his performance as head coach this year.

However, when asked if they’d fire McCarthy, our voters felt ready to give him more time. 67% said they wouldn’t fire McCarthy right now.

Meanwhile, in a reflection of the mixed feelings about Aaron Rodgers’ performance so far this year, voters in our poll felt pretty mixed too. For the first time this season, no one described their feelings about Rodgers as “very positive.” Instead, 48% felt both somewhat positive and somewhat negative with the final 4% of voters landing on very negative.

Finally, the slow start to this season has our voters feeling low about the Packers’ playoff chances. 55% of people who responded to our poll rated their confidence at a 2 or lower out of 4 that the Packers will play in the postseason this year.

One Last Thought

Last week I sent you into the weekend with a few somewhat negative thoughts on the Detroit Lions’ alternate uniforms. Well, as negative as that was, I feel completely the opposite about what we’ll see on the field on Monday.

The Packers and 49ers have some of the most classic, beautiful uniforms in sports, and getting to see them together on the field on a beautiful fall night is a treat. For as good as some of the uniform innovations have been, this is how football should look!

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