Mike's Mid-Week Chat: What will be the deciding factors Saturday night?

Senior writer Mike Spofford answered fan questions in his weekly live chat

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WR Davante Adams

Hey everybody. Thanks for logging on and being flexible with timing again. We take everything as it comes these days, without complaint, because it's better than the alternative. Send in your questions and I'll get rolling.

I always thought there is to be a 1 yard neutral zone between the ball and the DL, but seems to only be 6 to 12 inches anymore ? What is the actual rule ?

The "neutral zone" is essentially the ball. The only thing that can encroach upon it legally is the center's hand. There's some leniency with how offensive linemen line up, because if they're too far off the ball that can be an illegal formation penalty, but that's the gist of it.

Four great games this weekend, The two NFC games are at the top for me obviously but that KC-Buffalo game Sunday night. Wow! That should be a great matchup.

This is regularly the best weekend of football in the NFL -- the divisional playoff round. I think all 4 games are pretty compelling.

Mike, that sure was a nice looking injury report yesterday.

Indubitably.

Bigger difference from the last matchup: AJ Dillon or Elijah Mitchell?

Great question. I think Mitchell has changed the 49ers more than Dillon has changed the Packers, so to speak, but both players are playing pivotal roles now and that wasn't the case back in September. I really like the 1-2 backfield punch the Packers are bringing into the playoffs with the cold weather on tap.

How big is this postseason to Aaron Rodgers' legacy? 12-9 in playoffs. 1-4 in NFC Championships. His defense gave up at least 30 ppg in 5 of his 9 playoff losses but people still point to Rodgers and his playoff record.

It's all part of it, and he acknowledged as much yesterday. The Packers have been good enough a couple of times in the last decade to win it all and haven't sealed the deal. How much of that is on Rodgers is to people to debate till the cows come home. I'm just focused on the here and now, as is he, and the legacy stuff is for down the road.

Are you scared for the 49ers?

Scared? No. They're a good team and they're hot right now. They've played as well as anybody in the league over the past two-plus months. But the Packers are darn good, too. I expected this to be GB's matchup, and I expect the Packers to be ready Saturday night.

Garoppolo's throw that got intercepted by Dallas was way, way off the mark. How carefully will Shanahan have to manage the passing game to avoid Jimmy turning into a pumpkin (or Baker Mayfield) by the end of game Saturday?

As I've said all week in Inbox, the 49ers will be committed to their running game for the full 60 minutes. That running game is Garoppolo's best friend. When they have that rolling, his play-action game is darn good. He is prone to a mistake here or there and if the Packers can get him in a situation where he makes one, they have to capitalize.

submitted this question for inbox too, what do you make of how statistically strong the 49ers are in so many categories both offensively and defensively?

They're a good team that played in a really strong division. They've had a strange season. They beat the Rams twice, and the Rams won the NFC West. They lost to the Seahawks twice, and Seattle finished last in that division. They also beat Cincy in OT, lost a three-point game to Tennessee. I felt when they came back from 17-0 down on the road at LA in Week 18 to get that playoff berth they'd be a team that believes it can do anything. I think that's their mentality.

Can you recall any playoffs in any sport where a team has had some many key players showing back up after extended IR stints?

No, but the new IR rules as they've evolved in recent years and with these Covid seasons have changed things. This never could've happened even a few years ago.

How does this team rate compared to the other great teams of the Rodgers era (2010, 2011, 2014, 2021)?

This team is capable of winning the whole thing, but this is also the NFL and they aren't facing any chumps. The 2014 and 2020 teams were also good enough. I know the 2011 team went 15-1 but I don't think that team was as good overall as '14, '20 or this one.

Hi Mike, I know it doesn't pertain to the Packers/NFC and there is a lot of hype for Buffalo/Kansas City.. but I'd really like to see Buffalo and Cincinnati go at it

Just the fact that the Bengals are this far for the first time in 31 years is pretty cool.

Hey Mike, can you outline the travel process on playing back to back away games on a short week? How might that schedule challenge a team?

Well, they don't practice as much as they would in a normal week because the players have to get their bodies back. Sometimes West Coast teams when traveling across multiple time zones fly over two days early, but with the game Saturday night, I'm guessing SF will just fly in on Friday.

Mike, what do you feel are the differences in these two teams from that 2019 NFC Championship?

The Packers are steadier defensively and more explosive offensively. The 49ers are just as stout defensively up front, but I'm not as sure about that secondary. Their offense looks even more creative to me than two years ago, though.

if I recall, Joe Barry pulled out a 3 ILB package for the last niner game. Could we see that again, or some other surprise like 4 down linemen on running downs ?

Who knows? A big question will be how Barry decides to defend the run, because one thing his scheme has been able to accomplish is keeping the run in check, for the most part (the Browns game was the outlier) without devoting extra defenders to the box. So we'll see what the Packers do. They'll have a plan and adjustments in their pocket I'm sure.

Will the Packers have to release players to make room for anyone who returns from IR? (Assuming, knock on wood, no one comes down with Covid this week)

Yes, the roster is at 53 so players will have to be released for anyone who's activated off IR.

I wonder the last time the final four of a conference had the last 3 conference champions and a two-time runner-up. Not an easy out in the bunch.

Absolutely not. It would take some research to see if that's ever happened before, but I doubt it.

Thanks for the chat, Mike. We arm chair quarterbacks get worried about our opponents but don't you think the real players and coaches are excited about facing the best?

They embrace the opportunity, whatever it brings. Anyone who's played in this league long enough knows what it's like for your season to end without the playoffs, as well as the heartbreak of playoff exits. These are the chances to become remembered forever.

Great to be with you for Playoff edition Mid-Week Chat! I had zero expectations going into Matt LaFleur year 1 and was content with the outcome. That set the expectations high for year 2 and I was much less content being dispatched by the Bucs. Year 3 I've sat back and enjoyed the ride, but now find myself expecting the payoff of appearing in the Super Bowl. I guess success will do that to a person.

I think most of the Packers fan base feels that way. This team has been on the brink, multiple times, and no one wants to be disappointed again. It's human nature. But this isn't a video game and the players have to play their best when it matters most. That's what it comes down to.

Over/Under 8 pass attempts for Jimmy G?

If it's the under, that would not be good for the Packers. They have to contain the run and put the Niners in passing situations.

I think Packers have the DBs to cover Niners' receivers. Packers D has had problems containing a TE for years and Kittle will be a problem. This game is about Defense, if Packers D can play to the level of their expectation then they will win. GO PACK GO!

The defense has to tackle well, first and foremost. Samuel and Kittle get a lot of yards by breaking tackles. They'll make their plays, but don't let them turn 7-yard gains into 17 or more.

How much does cold weather really make a difference to opposing teams? We hear all the time that weather plays a role but routinely we see opposing teams do just fine in weather conditions they aren't used to.

There's no way to know until the game gets going. As I've said before, it's not necessarily about the weather affecting the entire game, but if it affects one play here or there, that can make a difference. The QB not throwing a sharp pass because of a cold grip, a receiver having the ball bounce off his cold hands, that kind of stuff. You hope it's the visiting team dealing with that more than the home team.

Where did Garoppolo grow up and play on college? Did he have cold weather experience there?

He grew up in Illinois and played at Eastern Illinois, so I'm sure he's not a total stranger to cold weather. But nobody in high school or college is playing football in January. Those seasons mostly end in November.

The Green Bay Packers held practice on Clarke Hinkle Field on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.

It looks like Warner will play, but what is the outlook on Nick Bosa? I'm not familiar with the concussion protocol

All reports out of SF indicate they're expecting both guys to be available. But Bosa might not be able to practice at all this week.

Thanks Mike, for YOUR flexibility on this short week! Will 'Final Thoughts' be posted on Friday?

I believe that's the plan.

I think Flags killed the Cowboys big time. Where do the Packers rank in Penalty this year?

I don't have the stats in front of me, but GB has kept its penalties down pretty well by my recollection. Penalties were a problem for the Cowboys all year and it really bit them last Sunday. Those calls weren't ticky-tack, either. They were obvious fouls and easy calls for the officials.

Can you predict an unsung hero for this game?

Great question. I'm writing about that for my One Last Look column on Saturday. I don't think it'll be someone coming out of nowhere, but maybe a player who's been a regular but quiet or under the radar for a while here. I'm going to give it more thought.

I think the Packers should make a Total commitment to stop the run and make the QB try to beat them. What does that look like if the Packers make that commitment? 6. 7 .8 in the box?

7 in the box regularly would be a bigger commitment than they usually make, schematically. When the Packers have been able to handle the run with 6, that really helps out the guys in the back end.

Hey Mike, if Jaire Alexander and Za'Darius Smith as well as Whitney Mercilus, how do you see their utilization? Full or limited?

I can't imagine any of those guys playing a full game after how long they've been off. But if they can be worked into certain sub packages and situations, they could definitely make an impact. You never know when the key play is going to occur, right?

Why is Wes Hod always so mean to Rob Demovsky?

Ha, those guys are really good friends. They're joking, constantly.

Does it feel like the fans have a lot of nervous energy for this game?

Sure, but it's the playoffs. It's natural.

Spoff, what did Vic's legacy mean to you? I searched for his blog the other day and saw that he has now retired his independent blog. It's because of him (and now you and West continuing on) that I frequent this website so often.

Vic and I had a blast working together for 5 years, and I enjoyed getting his perspective on football from before I started watching it myself. He did a lot of great things on our website that we've tried to continue and/or enhance. It's a constant evolution in this business and I'm grateful for what he helped establish here.

Hey Mike, Thanks for the chat. There's been a lot of talk about which wide receivers might play a prominent role, but how do you see ML using the TEs?

Deguara had the big play on the screen pass in Detroit, so you wonder if something like that will remain in the works. But it's all dependent on matchups and how the coaches feel they can best attack SF's defense. I've learned covering LaFleur there's no knowing for sure what his game plan is going to be.

Will David Moore be responsible for KR/PR duties? Crazy he has the longest return and he was just signed. Amari Rodgers scares me back there and Cobb recently fumbled.

That's an interesting call the coaches have to make. My guess is they go with Moore, but I honestly don't know.

I'm hearing a lot of angst from fans. Seeing the playoff records (or lack of opportunities) for so many other clubs has me appreciating that I'm a Packer fan. The opportunity itself is amazing. Don't fear failure, keep chasing immortality.

Why look at it any other way?

Cold weather does impact certain plays / players. Just ask Odell Beckham Jr about his visit to Green Bay in 2016's Wild Card weekend.

Very true. Kickoff temp for that game was 14 degrees. I just looked it up.

What will the Packers do to combat all the misdirection plays the 49'ers run?

The 49ers test your discipline as a defense more than any other offense, I believe. All the motions, fakes and misdirections force defenders to be zoned in on their keys and not get distracted by all the ancillary stuff. Stick to your assignments and trust your teammates will handle theirs. That's how you play good team defense.

Usually winning the turnover battle leads to a victory. It wasn't enough against the Bucs last year. Do you think the turnover maxim holds against the 49ers and why?

I think it holds 9 times out of 10 for the Packers. Last January was the 1 out of 10, mostly because TB turned their two takeaways into 14 points and the Packers didn't convert all theirs into scores.

There are so many variables that must click for a team to win in this league. What variable do you think the Packers should focus on trying to control?

Just playing sound football. Assignments like noted before. Fundamentals like tackling. Play good football and the other guys will probably make more mistakes.

Do coaches still have to take questions from beat writers from their upcoming opponent? I lost track of what happened to those media sessions when everything shifted to Zoom.

No, those have gone away now and I'm not sure they're ever coming back.

Offense has had fewest penalties in the NFL, defense 4th fewest

There we go. Thanks.

Fans and media are enthusiastic about Packers coming off of injuries and being available for Saturday's game. What type of expectations should we have for players returning from long layoffs, like Jaire Alexander, Z Smith and Billy Turner?

I think all expectations have to be tempered. Some guys can jump back in and play like they never left. But not everybody. There's no one-size-fits-all prescription here.

Mike, your thoughts on the comments from McCarthy after the game regarding the officials? It was odd to me because I don't recall him ever laying blame at the officials during his time with the Packers, including the Fail Mary game.

I can appreciate him being upset, but running a QB draw with 14 seconds on the clock is a huge risk. Huge. Could it have worked out? Sure. But 16 or 17 seconds it's a different story. They obviously didn't think it was that big a gamble, but anyone else around the league would tell you it is. It takes a lot longer for someone to run 15 yards than complete a 15-yard pass. In SF, Rodgers had 16 seconds, hit that last pass to Davante and spiked it with 3 seconds left. But he's also the best at it and you could see everyone knew exactly what to do.

I'm looking for confidence that we can limit their run game. Can you give me some?

These guys know what it takes, and this defense often responds in future games when things go awry, such as the Browns running all over them on Christmas. I think they've learned their lesson is what I'm saying.

What can you say to Packers fans to calm their nerves and make them more confident heading into this game?

The Packers are a good team and just have to play like it. If the Packers play their game, they'll win.

How will the Packers control Arik Armstead? The guy's a monster!

That whole 49ers front is really tough. When Bosa left the Dallas game, they were still pretty stout. Armstead is an underrated player because Bosa gets so much attention. They're an active group and in Week 18 they were absolutely swarming Matthew Stafford with that pass rush.

Hey Mike if Smith and Alexander are able to play on Sat have you heard any discussion related to how much they will play??

No, the Packers aren't going to reveal that sort of thing.

Taking a peek at the AFC... it feels like the Chiefs/Bills winner will represent the AFC... thoughts on slowing down explosive offenses like those two? Not sure we have a comparable offense left on the NFC side...

I wouldn't count out the Titans or Bengals. The Titans might be getting Derrick Henry back, and the Bengals are a very well-rounded, balanced team. I could see any of those 4 representing the AFC in the Super Bowl. Same with the NFC.

Mike, With Jimmy G having the Right Thumb, and Shoulder injuries, IF he isn't able to play this Saturday, what can we expect from T. Lance? Has he had much action this year?

There's no indication Garoppolo isn't going to play.

Football is theater. On the field we get to witness some of the most timeless human characteristics play out. Joy, sorrow, perseverance, success, failure, fear, hope, etc. Sometimes it's comedy, sometimes it's tragedy. I think our response to that theater largely says more about us as individuals and our outlook on life than anything. Here's hoping we like what we see in ourselves when the clock hits 00:00.

Absolutely. No matter the emotions running through everyone's veins come Saturday night, it's better to experience that than not have a horse in the race at this stage.

I know the answer is technically "more than SF", but how many points do you feel the Packers need to score to (likely) win?

30 has been a pretty good number for this team, and they've shown they're capable of that in the cold. Get there and I like GB's chances. And maybe they could win with 27.

All right folks, I've gotta run. Thanks for all the questions today. You kept them coming fast and furious and I'm sorry for all the ones I didn't get to. I have to set up for LaFleur's Zoom presser coming up in a few minutes. Take care and enjoy the game. Best, Mike.

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