Packers vs. 49ers not the rematch that was anticipated

Lineups and circumstances have changed considerably for both teams

QB Aaron Rodgers

GREEN BAY – This was billed as the rematch of the NFC title game and therefore slotted for Thursday Night Football.

But it sure doesn't feel like a rematch. Not in the traditional sense anyway.

Tossing aside the COVID-19 issues for the moment, the teams are just too different, especially San Francisco.

Taking a look at the starting lineups from last January, and including top rotational players, the changes for the 49ers are astounding.

With wide receiver Deebo Samuel and running back Tevin Coleman declared out on the injury report, that makes 17 of San Francisco's primary 25-plus players from the NFC title game not around for this one.

On offense, in addition to Samuel and Coleman, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, tight end George Kittle, running back Raheem Mostert and center Ben Garland are injured. Offensive linemen Joe Staley and Mike Person retired. Receiver Emmanuel Sanders left in free agency. Throw in receiver Kendrick Bourne testing positive for COVID-19 and not a single player who touched the ball for the 49ers in the playoff meeting will be playing.

On defense, defensive linemen Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and Solomon Thomas, along with cornerback Richard Sherman, are injured. Lineman DeForest Bucker and linebacker Kwon Alexander were traded, and lineman Sheldon Day departed as a free agent.

All that said, when Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers looks at the 49ers' defense, he sees the anchors in the middle of coordinator Robert Saleh's unit – linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw – still steering a pretty tight ship.

"It's a really good defense regardless of who's playing," said Rodgers, going on to compliment Warner especially as an elite defender. "They're missing some rush guys who are really important to what they're doing, but they're very well-coached. They play really, really well together."

The list of the Packers' changes from last January isn't as extensive – 11 of their roughly two dozen-plus top players – but if David Bakhtiari, Aaron Jones and/or Allen Lazard return from their injuries the number could shrink.

The immediate offensive adjustments the Packers have to make are in the backfield, where AJ Dillon and Jamaal Williams are on the reserve/COVID-19 list and Jones is questionable with a calf injury.

So the Packers are in a make-the-best-of-what-you-have mode reminiscent of back-to-back 2016 games against Chicago (coincidentally on a Thursday night) and Atlanta when the offensive skill positions as a whole were ravaged by injuries.

"I think that's the beauty in this league, it's ever-changing and there's different challenges to be attacked every single week," Rodgers said. "Some of it's based on the opponent you're going against. Some of it's based on your own personnel being in or out. We'll have a good plan for whoever gets to get those opportunities.

"I look forward to the challenge."

As the top two playoff seeds in the NFC from last season, the 49ers and Packers are in distinctly different places in 2020, too.

Defending conference champion San Francisco is 4-4 and on the bottom of perhaps the toughest division in the entire league, the NFC West. A fifth loss this early could put them on an uphill climb just to get back to the postseason.

Meanwhile the Packers are still on top in the NFC North, but they've lost two of their last three games after a 4-0 start and have the rival Bears at 5-3 right on their heels. In the larger picture, Green Bay is one of seven teams in the conference with at least five wins right now, so the playoff race is truly up for grabs.

Both teams need this game and have a lot to overcome in order to get it.

Of the two, the 49ers are the least reminiscent of the team they were 9½ months ago, but the adjustments have been a constant part of their journey this year. What they're dealing with is really nothing new.

"You've got to embrace the quick turnaround with Thursday Night Football, you've got to embrace injuries, you've got to embrace everything," San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan said. "The game's too hard that if you go in thinking any other way, I mean then you give yourself no chance."

There are no excuses coming from Green Bay's camp, either. Curveballs and game-time decisions are starting to feel like the norm here, too.

"Everybody in the league this year is dealing with adversity, and that's just the nature of 2020 it seems," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "It's the teams that handle this the best that typically will have the best results, and that's all we're focused on."

Thoughts of January have hardly come up during this short week, if at all. It's a rematch in name only.

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