49ers, Pack­ers look to con­tinue turn­arounds

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - NFL - By Josh Dubow AP Sports Writer Keith Jenk­ins con­tributed to this re­port.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The 49ers are one win away from ac­com­plish­ing a turn­around that’s been done only once be­fore in the Su­per Bowl era.

With a vic­tory in the NFC cham­pi­onship game at home on Sun­day against the Pack­ers, the Nin­ers will be­come the se­cond team in NFL his­tory to make the Su­per Bowl a year af­ter los­ing at least 12 games.

Only the Rams have done it, go­ing from 4-12 in 1998 to Su­per Bowl champs one year later thanks in part of an in­jury to Trent Green that cleared the way for Kurt Warner to take over at quar­ter­back.

The 49ers (14-3) also can credit an in­jury to their quar­ter­back for part of their turn­around; the team went only 4-12 last sea­son af­ter Jimmy Garop­polo went down with a sea­son-end­ing knee in­jury in Week 3.

The sil­ver lin­ing to that in­jury was the No. 2 over­all pick in the draft, which led to the ad­di­tion of de­fen­sive end Nick Bosa, who helped trans­form the de­fense into one of the league’s best.

“Things have a way of work­ing out,” Garop­polo said. “I al­ways told my­self it was a bless­ing in disguise, the ACL and ev­ery­thing, and yeah, we got Bosa out of it. That’s a pretty good trade-off.”

The Pack­ers (14-3) have also had an im­pres­sive turn­around af­ter slump­ing to a 6-9-1 record last sea­son that led to the fir­ing of long­time coach Mike McCarthy.

Matt LaFleur came in and tin­kered with the of­fense, and gen­eral man­ager Brian Gutekunst brought in key ad­di­tions such as pass-rush­ing duo Pre­ston Smith and Za’Dar­ius Smith, who com­bined for 25 1⁄2 sacks on the sea­son.

There have also been some lower-pro­file pick­ups such as Tyler Ervin, Jared Veld­heer and Marcedes Lewis that have helped.

“I think he’s done a great job. I think he de­serves a lot of credit, him and his staff,” quar­ter­back Aaron Rodgers said of Gutekunst. “There’s been a lot of great pick­ups, but I think I said this at my locker a few weeks ago, the big-name ones have been fan­tas­tic, but it’s kind of the other ones that have been the glue pieces, I feel like.”

These teams played in Week 12 in what turned out to be a lop­sided game. Rodgers lost a fum­ble on the Pack­ers’ first pos­ses­sion, set­ting up a 2-yard TD drive that gave the Nin­ers the lead. The Nin­ers then broke it open with long TD passes to Deebo Sa­muel late in the se­cond quar­ter and Ge­orge Kit­tle in the third quar­ter for a 37-8 win. Rodgers was sacked five times.

There have been 23 times in the Su­per Bowl era, ex­clud­ing one re­place­ment player game in 1987, that a team lost a reg­u­lar-sea­son game by at least 28 points to a team it met again in the play­offs. In nine of those cases, the team that got blown out ear­lier in the sea­son came back to win in the play­offs.

NFC notes

■ Rodgers and star re­ceiver Da­vante Adams both hail from North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, with Rodgers grow­ing up in Chico and Adams in Palo Alto, which is near Santa Clara. Both played col­lege ball in the state, Rodgers go­ing to Cal and Adams to Fresno State. But nei­ther ended up with the 49ers, who fa­mously passed on Rodgers with the No. 1 over­all pick in the 2005 draft for Alex Smith. “I usu­ally dreamed about play­ing for the 49ers as a kid, but ob­vi­ously that thing passed a long time ago,” Rodgers said when asked if he en­vi­sioned play­ing the Nin­ers in the play­offs.

■ These two fran­chises that have com­bined for nine Su­per Bowl ti­tles have a rich his­tory when it comes to the play­offs. This will be their eighth meet­ing in the past 25 post­sea­sons, three more than any other ri­valry. In fact, the only other matchup to oc­cur more of­ten is Cow­boys-Rams, which hap­pened nine times. The Pack­ers have a 4-3 edge but the 49ers won the last two meet­ings fol­low­ing the 2012 and ‘13 sea­sons. “We’ve had a lot of games and had some big games in the play­offs,” 49ers left tackle Joe Sta­ley said. “Seem to find each other all the time dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, as well.”

■ The one weak­ness on the 49ers de­fense of late has been cor­ner­back Ahkello Wither­spoon, who has been picked on re­peat­edly as teams avoid Richard Sher­man. Wither­spoon has al­lowed all five TD passes given up by the Nin­ers the past three games and was benched for Em­manuel Mose­ley in the first quar­ter last week af­ter get­ting beaten for a 41-yard TD by Ste­fon Diggs. Shana­han hasn’t said what his plan is for this week, but it seems likely Mose­ley will get the nod af­ter far­ing well in nine games as a starter ear­lier this sea­son.

■ There are plenty of close ties be­tween the coach­ing staffs based on past his­tory to­gether. But none is as strong as the one be­tween Matt LaFleur and his younger brother Mike, who is pass­ing game co­or­di­na­tor for the Nin­ers. When the teams played in the reg­u­lar sea­son, Matt’s fam­ily came out early and spent the week­end with Mike’s fam­ily. That won’t be the case this time. “I think there’s a lit­tle dif­fer­ent vibe, so I’ll just leave it at that,” Matt LaFleur said.

THEARON W. HEN­DER­SON/GETTY-AFP

Nick Bosa, left, and Kwon Alexan­der are an­chors of the Nin­ers’ de­fense.

DY­LAN BUELL/GETTY-AFP

The Pack­ers’ Aaron Rodgers wants one more shot at a Su­per Bowl ti­tle.

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