If you think the Green Bay Packers need home-field advantage in the playoffs -- and it sounds like Aaron Rodgers
thinks perhaps they do -- then games don't come much bigger than Sunday's at the San Francisco 49ers.
No wonder the Packers quarterback didn't even try to downplay it.
"The way I look at it, we've got to beat them once at their place at some point," Rodgers said Wednesday. "It would be nice to do it now."
As ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky notes, if Rodgers and the Packers (8-2) can't, then they would fall two games behind the 49ers (9-1) in the NFC playoff standings.
"We're all aware of where we're at in the seeding going into Week 12 and what's in front of us and the opportunities," Rodgers said. "There's still a lot of football to be played and a lot can happen. I think you're just in denial if you don't think about the implications with a 'Dub' or an 'L' this week and how that affects stuff down the line. That's why I said, the way we look at it, we're going to have to win there one time the rest of the year. It would be nice to get it done this week."
The Packers have played six games against teams that entered the contest with a winning record this season, and they've won all six. The previous three seasons, the Packers went 5-19-1 against teams with a winning record, including 1-11-1 over the past two seasons.
After Sunday, they have only one more game against a team that currently has a winning record -- the Minnesota Vikings (8-3) in Minneapolis on Dec. 23, which is the middle game of three straight NFC North contests for Green Bay to finish the season.
"We have two games where you guys are going to tell us how we should definitely win the game and they're teams with not great records," Rodgers said, likely referring to consecutive games at the New York Giants (2-8) and at home against the Washington Redskins (1-9) to open December.
"Those are difficult games, as well. Every game's going to be a different mental challenge for us, I think. But it starts with this one this week. We're playing a great football team. It's a football team that's played solid the entire year that's won a variety of different ways. That's our first challenge. It'll be interesting to see the character of this football team hopefully to grow these last six weeks and the focus to remain the same and the attitude to remain the same. That's what we're looking for when you're trying to build something special."
According to ESPN Stats and Information research, the Packers and 49ers' combined winning percentage of .850 is the best entering any matchup between these two teams in their all-time series.
"They flexed it to Sunday night; I had a feeling that was going to happen before we even got to this week, seeing the way the season was going," veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "So it's going to be exciting. This is what it's all about. This is where I think this team belongs.
"We haven't played well the last two years and finally got things going again. A lot of guys in this locker room have been used to playing these big games, and now we're back in the thick of things. Guys are excited."
And then Bulaga turned his attention toward the big picture in the NFC and asked: "What are there, three or four teams with eight wins in the NFC right now?"
It's actually five, and all of them are in either NFC North, South or West.
"It's tight at the top up there right now," Bulaga said. "I can't really remember a time where it's been like this before. Every game matters. Wins are going to be important."
This week, a win will be tough to come by.
The 49ers enter the weekend third in the NFL with 22 takeaways in 10 games, more than three times their total in 16 games last season.
Rodgers, having watched the coach's film of each 49ers game this year, didn't hesitate when asked by reporters in Green Bay this week about the difference in San Francisco's defense.
"Pass rush. It's definitely pass rush," Rodgers said.
"When you can add Dee Ford through free agency or a trade, and then draft Nick Bosa, and you already got two 6-7 guys (DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead) who are really good players, you would expect the efficiency of the defense and the turnovers to go up and they obviously have."
San Francisco has 39 sacks, tied with the Panthers for the most in the NFL. A league-high 20 have come on third or fourth down, and the 49ers are the only club with four players with at least five sacks: Bosa (7.0), Armstead (8.0), Ford (6.5) and DeForest Buckner (5.0).
But getting sacks might not be enough to effectively slow Rodgers, who remains one of the NFL's premier quarterbacks despite turning 36 on Dec. 2.
Rodgers has thrown a league-low two interceptions, tied with Patrick Mahomes
and Russell Wilson
. His interception rate (0.57 percent of dropbacks) is the best in the league, while his 8.6 intended yards per attempt ranks 10th
. His 272 yards per game ranks 11th.
In other words, Rodgers is no check-down Charlie.
He aggressively pushes the ball downfield while avoiding turnovers, which is an ideal combination for a quarterback. It's one of the many reasons Rodgers is an all-time great.
"You'd have to check some physics expert or something because he makes some really tough throws," cornerback Richard Sherman said.
While some quarterbacks like to challenge Sherman in a show of confidence, Rodgers has taken a wiser approach during his career. In the last six meetings between the two stars, Rodgers has thrown only 14 passes Sherman's direction, according to SportRadar, completing seven for 85 yards and one interception.
"He has that ability to lull you to sleep sometimes and still jumps on the ball, has fantastic ball skills," Rodgers said. "He's a great player. I have nothing but respect for his career and what he's accomplished."
So maybe we see a bit more running in this one?
According to FantasyPros' Mike Tagliere, since their bye in Week 4, the 49ers have allowed 669 yards on 137 carries (4.88 yards per carry) with three touchdowns. This issue is that just two teams have totaled more than 17 carries.
If the Packers run the ball a lot, their backs will be just fine -- although it seems unlikely Aaron Jones
will continue scoring touchdowns at his current rate.
Jones has 14 touchdowns, matching Christian McCaffrey
for most in the league.
ESPN's Mike Clay expects some regression. In fact, the gap between Jones' actual and expected touchdown totals is largest in the NFL. Clay explained that Green Bay has scored 57 percent of its offensive touchdowns through the air (eighth lowest), but its expected rate based on play calling is 68 percent (10th highest).
Expect more of Jones' scores to go to Rodgers moving forward, though Jones will still have plenty of opportunities to find pay dirt.