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Inbox: They knew when they found their guy

If there’s yet another way to win, this team will find it

Head Coach Matt LaFleur, President and CEO Mark Murphy
Head Coach Matt LaFleur, President and CEO Mark Murphy

Theologos from Athens, Greece

The experts do not give us a chance in the NFC Championship Game as SF is a 7½-point favorite. In 2014 Seattle was an 8½-point favorite and we all remember how that worked out. As Aaron Rodgers often says, "I like our chances."

As Han Solo says, "Never tell me the odds."

Philip from Dortmund, Germany

I just read this on Dan Hanzus' NFL Power Rankings. "The Packers don't have the firepower of the Chiefs, the defense of the Niners or the rolling momentum of the Titans, but this team finds a way. The 14-3 record is proof of that." Isn't this just what the Packers are all about right now? They are statistically not the best but do the right things when it matters. On paper the 49ers seem to be overwhelming in many categories but the last 17 games have shown that there are multiple ways to win.

If there's yet another way to win, this team will find it.

Craig from Brookfield, WI

Can we ban the term "winning ugly" from the Inbox (after this question, of course)? The notion was overblown by fans for a time. And now that fan overreaction has grown into a full-blown straw man for sports media – not you, of course. And, as an attractiveness-challenged person for many years, I find the term to be offensive.

A full-blown ban would be tough, because Rodgers is going to be asked endless times this week about his "winning ugly all the way to the Super Bowl" comment. But I appreciate the sentiment, and your sense of humor.

Denny from Tampa, FL

When was the last time two teams that didn't make the playoffs the previous year then played in the NFC Championship Game?

Just two years ago, actually, Philadelphia and Minnesota.

Jeff from Agat, Guam

Doesn't get much better than seeing Lego Davante high-stepping into the end zone.

That was my favorite detail of many good ones, as usual.

Brandon from Pleasant Prairie, WI

What are the odds that next year during a home game, instead of one end zone saying "Green Bay" and the other saying "Packers," that one says "Yellow" and the other says "Weasel"?

It would generate fewer Inbox questions than last year's end zones did.

Bill from Raleigh, NC

Hi Mike, in the November game against the 49ers, AR completed 20 passes for an average of 5 yards per completion. When AR tried to pass downfield, the coverage of Sherman, Witherspoon, et al was blanketing our receivers. How are our guys going to get open 10-20 yards down the field instead of 1-5 yards?

By using different route combinations, by running some routes they might not have seen on film, by giving defenders more to think about with pre-snap motion, and most importantly, by getting the ground game going so play-action can be effective. It's going to take all of those things, but especially the last one.

Bruce from Jackson, WI

Hi Mike, can you give us an overall idea to what extent the "flu" has spread through the team? Speaking from experience it's not the easiest to get rid of and saps your energy more than anything I've ever experienced before. As much as some players might want to play I would imagine it would be dangerous to play if your energy is 50% normal. This team just continues to shine and get it done with the next man up.

We'll see if there are any new "illness" listings on today's first injury report. It seemed to hit the team harder during the bye, but it obviously did carry over to last week as well. I give Bryan Bulaga credit for tapping himself out during warmups and realizing he shouldn't even try to play, as hard as that must have been for him. He said several times during interviews last week (before he got sick) how "every play matters" in the postseason, and he paid heed to the mantra. One bad play against Clowney or whoever could have changed everything on Sunday.

Chris from Cedar Rapids, IA

I've seen several posts on giving props to Geronimo Allison for that important third-down catch (and deservedly so), but my favorite part of the play was Aaron Rodgers. After the catch he patted his own chest and pointed to Allison, acknowledging that it wasn't a great throw on his part and all the credit was due to his receiver. The friend I was watching it with (a middle school teacher and coach) immediately said "I love that."

Teammates do, too.

Mike from Manilus, NY

Hello Mike, I believe Rodgers' last QB sneak was almost exactly five years ago in the regular-season finale against Detroit in the second half after Rodgers came out of the locker room with a bum calf. He also scored.

Yes! I had forgotten all about that. He went with the sneak on the goal line because nobody figured he'd do it with the calf injury. Thanks.

Donna from Darien, WI

Who would have ever thought a year ago that this team would be headed to the NFC Championship Game? Speaks volumes about this whole organization doesn't it?

As difficult as it was at the time, and as much criticism as Mark Murphy took for it, it goes back to not belaboring McCarthy's exit once the decision had been made to move on. As Murphy noted, it gave the Packers a head start before the season ended on a very thorough and exhaustive coaching search. Maybe Matt LaFleur wouldn't have emerged as anyone else's top choice, but Murphy and the search team had done so much legwork right away, they knew when they found their guy and had no reason to hesitate.

Nicole from Trempealeau, WI

Has a rookie head coach ever won the Super Bowl?

Yes, two of them. Don McCafferty, 1970 Colts, and George Seifert, 1989 49ers.

Tim from Trempealeau, WI

Who is the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl?

Mike Tomlin was 36 when the Steelers beat the Cardinals 11 years ago.

Shaun from Sun Prairie, WI

In your mind, what's the key to the Packers winning on Sunday? Outside of scoring more points than the 49ers. :)

Get to the fourth quarter with a chance. This team has lost only once all season when the game was in the balance in the fourth quarter. So that's my framework. Now, how do you get to the fourth quarter with a chance against these guys given what happened in Week 12 (aside from the obvious, protect the football, win the turnover battle, etc.)? Offensively, you work the perimeter, with the backs, the receivers, the pocket, to move the chains and then see what opens up in the middle. That's what the Rams did in Week 16 and almost beat them. Defensively, limit the explosives, particularly from Kittle, and stop the run on first down. If they want to pound the run on second-and-8, you can live with that, but the defense won't survive in second-and-4 all night.

Paul from Knoxville, TN

Humor me, Insiders. What's the likelihood we give up an obscene amount of draft picks to get a possible successor in Joe Burrow?

Less than none.

Michael from Alameda, CA

Maybe this was pointed out, but if not, Rodgers was interviewed right after the game and was asked about the clutch third-down conversion to Davante Adams. While he at first said Davante ran a great route, he then put in a little side comment that he wished he had stayed in bounds. It shows the incredible attention to detail Rodgers has, not missing anything. After all, they could have run off another chunk of time, making the other conversion to Jimmy Graham a moot point...

Not really, though my mind was with Rodgers' at the time. Adams went out at 2:12. The Seahawks had two timeouts left plus the two-minute warning. Without getting into all the possibilities, if Adams stays in, the Packers are trying to convert again at about 1:50 or so. What would have changed is the Seahawks would have been out of timeouts before the last third down, rather than having one left. The fact they had one actually made it an easy call for the Packers to throw on third down to win the game. If the opponent is out of timeouts, it's a tougher decision. Throw to win, but risk stopping the clock before the punt if incomplete. Or run to burn the clock down to about a minute left before punting. LaFleur didn't have to make the choice.

Nic from London, UK

Seattle needed a touchdown no matter what. Going for it and failing would have started our drive in FG range. In that situation, there is a strong likelihood that we play conservatively, run three plays and kick a FG to go up eight. Seattle would then get the ball back with some time and a chance to tie. The calculus would be different if they were down three but I think that's why some people were surprised. Do you think ML would have been bold either way? Same thing if Jimmy is marked short?

I think people are discounting the potential impact of Preston Smith's hit on Wilson on the third-down sack. He got walloped. Not exactly easy to pop up from that and execute on fourth-and-11, so maybe that played into Carroll's thinking. I specifically asked LaFleur in the postgame presser if he would have gone for it had the review marked Graham short. He said yes, they were discussing a play call on the sideline.

Ricardo from Ventura, CA

What did you think of Jace Sternberger in the Seattle game? Besides Jared Veldheer, I thought Sternberger did a nice job of filling in for Danny Vitale at both the FB position and TE. He seemed to be more involved in this game than any other game this season.

His snaps keep increasing because he keeps producing in one role or another. It was great to see him get his first NFL catch. His blocking has been effective despite that being the biggest knock on him coming out of college. His spirit and enthusiasm are noticeable on the field. He's thriving in his role.

Guy from Hudson, WI

No flags for offensive holding. Did the back judge swallow the whistle or was the pass protection that good? Do the O-linemen realize that holding penalties are going to be few and far between in this game? Do we know who will be assigned to the conference games? No Hochuli please.

Clete Blakeman and crew definitely let them play in the trenches on Sunday, because I've seen a lot less get flagged for offensive holding many times. But they kept those flags tucked both ways. This week, Tony Corrente has the AFC title game and John Hussey has the NFC contest.

Jennifer from Middleton, WI

I loved Spoff’s editorial about how much this means to Rodgers. It made me think about his "letdown" he mentioned after SB XLV and eventually realizing it's about the relationships, with his team and the people. The ovation as he walked off the field, raised the "I love you" sign, circled around, took it in, then fist pump and point (which I read as a "let's go!")...That was so cool. It means so much to him. We love being his people.

Thanks for reading. His perspective has changed since his first Super Bowl (before he won either of his MVP awards) over the last nine years, with all that's happened in between. I think that's natural, and the keen self-awareness is what makes covering a player like Rodgers special.

Dave from Huntsville, AL

Well, Rodgers did say we'd have to win in San Fran at least once this year. Let's go get it done. Isn't it spooky how his statements often come to fruition?

I think we've covered Rodgers' awareness from all angles now.

Gary from Belle Mead, NJ

On the final third-and-9 play, I'm guessing Clowney had Jones in coverage who stayed in to pass protect.

You're probably right, but that's a strange call for two reasons. One, it's taking your best edge rusher out of the pass rush with the game on the line (though maybe someone saw the apparently empty tank on the previous third down). Two, sending two blitzers up the middle with no in-line tight end is almost certainly going to force the back to stay in anyway.

Matthew from Oakdale, WI

In that first meeting with the 49ers Jimmy Graham had a catch called incomplete. That was the turning point of that game. I have a lot of confidence in this team beating them this go-around. That said how is Coach LaFleur this season on challenges?

The failed challenge early in the Seattle game put him at 4-for-9 on the season, but five of his challenges came in September, and the one last week was his first since Week 13.

Jake from Brooklyn Park, MN

When Richard Sherman was with the Seahawks he famously stayed on one side of the field rather than travel with the opponent's top receiver. Has that been the case since he joined the 49ers? It will be interesting to see how they choose to match him up against Davante Adams since I'm sure Adams will be lining up in multiple spots.

I'm equally curious. I think they matched him most of the Week 12 game.

Paul from Gorham, ME

Hi Insiders, in what way has Green Bay changed since they last met with San Francisco? Certainly the return game is improved. But what other parts of their game – big or little – are greatly different, and beyond "better or worse" how have they changed?

Aside from what I mentioned Monday about third downs on offense and explosives on defense, the biggest change is the run defense. Back in Week 12, the 49ers were the fourth of the Packers' last five opponents, and eighth of the last 10, to top 100 yards rushing. Only three of the last six have topped 100 since, and one of those was the Seahawks going over 100 with Wilson as their leading rusher. The run defense has been much more gap sound and cut down considerably on the big gashers.

Brennan from Syracuse, UT

How much of a help do you think the self-scout was during the bye week? They said last week they were going to look at what worked and what didn't and take out the things that they were trying to force that didn't work. I think this helped in the massive improvements on third downs.

Not just on third down, but the sharpness in execution was evident through much of the game. I know that wasn't the Seattle defense of old, but scoring four touchdowns in the first six possessions of a playoff game is none too shabby.

Micky from New York, NY

You guys have answered a ton of questions about what we need to do in order to be successful and win against SF. Let's flip it...what do you think the 49ers are most worried about and focusing on this week to be successful against the Pack?

Aaron Jones, Davante Adams and the Smiths. Their game plan will highlight those four players.

Dean from Leavenworth, IN

Read an interesting fact this morning. In the SB era teams that met in the regular season with one winning by 28 or more points have had a rematch in the playoffs 23 times. The teams that lost in the regular season by 28-plus have gone 9-14 in the playoff rematch. I'll take those odds. Are you surprised by those results Mike?

In the NFL? Not at all. Happy Wednesday.