There’s plenty at stake in Saturday night’s divisional-round NFC matchup at Lambeau Field for the winning team, too, of course. But it’s fascinating to see how the two teams squaring off this weekend with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations also have contingency plans beyond this season — and beyond their current starting quarterbacks.
Tampa Bay has all of its eggs in Tom Brady’s basket, and the Rams are all-in with Matthew Stafford. There are no realistic contingency plans there. On the AFC side of the playoff bracket, it’s hard to argue that the Bengals (Joe Burrow), Bills (Josh Allen) and Chiefs (Patrick Mahomes) aren’t in enviable positions, as they have young stars at quarterback who arguably haven’t even reached their peaks yet.
What the 49ers and Packers have that differs from the other teams is a clear window to the next generation at the position. Through teams’ desperation in finding one solution at QB, it’s increasingly rare to see teams with, presumably, both the present and future relatively accounted for.
San Francisco’s investment in Lance is on an entirely different plane than what the Packers sunk into landing Love, which was just the 26th overall draft pick in 2020. It cost the 49ers their first-round pick (which ended up being Micah Parsons), plus first- and third-round picks this year and their 2023 first-round selection as well.
That’s the reality of what Garoppolo is facing: There’s a 21-year-old prodigy with two starts under his belt waiting to get his opportunity. And Garoppolo knows it. He has known it for some time.
“It’s always in the back of your mind,” Garoppolo said last week. “It has been in mine, really, the whole season. I knew what type of season it was, knew everything that was going on behind the scenes and whatnot. It was a little different.”
Yet the walking-on-broken-glass approach has seemingly worked, even if Garoppolo hasn’t set the world on fire with his play. The 49ers are one win away from playing for the right to go to the Super Bowl, and the price of landing Garoppolo likely won’t go down the farther they get.
But the reality remains. It probably would take Garoppolo leading the 49ers to a Super Bowl victory, maybe even earning game MVP honors, for the 49ers to consider changing course. This is the plan they set in motion last March 26 when they swung their pre-draft trade with the Miami Dolphins to land the third overall pick in 2021.
It’s almost certain to continue. Unless you’re in the camp that believes Garoppolo, who is dealing with thumb and shoulder injuries, is saving his best football for the next three games.
Jimmy Garoppolo’s last ride with 49ers?
Garoppolo’s performance against the Cowboys was the total Garoppolo experience. His skills are overrated, yet his toughness must be called underrated. His tight-window dimes are shocking things of beauty, yet his failure to consistently find open receivers is maddening. Look good building a lead, look clueless trying to protect it.
It was all on display Sunday, just as it was in his last playoff game before that, the Super Bowl LIV loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
In building a 20-10 third-quarter lead against the Chiefs in that game, Garoppolo completed 17 of 20 passes for 183 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He closed the game 3-of-11 for 36 yards, along with an Emmanuel Sanders overthrow and a fourth-down sack that drove the final stake through the 49ers’ hearts.
Against Dallas, Garoppolo was in cruise control while helping build a 23-10 second-half lead, completing 12 of 18 passes for 146 yards and no turnovers. He’d close it out completing 4 of 7 passes for 26 yards and a stunningly poor pick, plus a risky throw at midfield with under five minutes left that was bailed out by defensive pass interference.
There also was the fourth-and-inches false start near game’s end that was credited to Trent Williams but, interestingly, blamed on Garoppolo by head coach Kyle Shanahan.
Rightly or wrongly, Shanahan was staying in character there. Everything points to Garoppolo being blamed at some point and put up for sale to the highest bidder this offseason, even if the 49ers are likely to get back only quarters on the dollar for what they paid for Lance.
That’s likely to be the case whether or not Lance is “ready.” His talent is not the question; his development is. His two starts revealed ups and downs, sometimes even on the same play. More than once, Lance missed the first read in the progression of a throw — layups that vets often make in their sleep — only to complete a higher-degree-of-difficulty pass to the second read.
That is Sunday’s concern for Shanahan. On Saturday, the challenge of beating Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay with a highly paid quarterback he likely doesn’t trust is staring him in the face.
Is Aaron Rodgers definitely ending up back in Green Bay?
It’s nearly one year to the day when the Great Aaron Rodgers Drama of 2021 began to unfold. Immediately after the Packers’ NFC championship game loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Jan. 24, Rodgers opened the door to the offseason that would lay ahead.
“[There are a] lot of guys’ futures that are uncertain, myself included,” he said dejectedly after the 31-26 loss, adding, “But just the uncertainty is tough and [the] finality of it all.”
His standoff with the Packers’ C-suite, namely general manager Brian Gutekunst, continued throughout the summer, threatening the possibility of Love going from playing zero game snaps as the rookie clipboard holder to being thrust into a big spotlight for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
If the Packers lose Saturday night — or in the NFC title game or Super Bowl, for that matter — are we right back where we started?
The general sense around the Packers is that the ice between Rodgers and the team has considerably thawed. Even with the ugly Week 1 loss and the midseason vaccine ordeal, Rodgers and the Packers have righted the ship on the field. He had another MVP-caliber season. The Packers once more are the top seed in the NFC. And what quietly unfolded behind the scenes in August might have been a big reason for the repeated success.
Rodgers and Gutekunst sat down after his return to the team for training camp, and it appears that both men meeting in the middle helped ease a lot of the tension. Gutekunst even threw Rodgers a bone by trading for old friend Randall Cobb. And more than Cobb’s 28 catches or five touchdowns this season, his presence has helped make Rodgers happier.
“Having Randall back has made this year exponentially greater for me,” he said a few weeks ago.
In early January on SiriusXM Radio, Rodgers even name-checked Gutekunst, noting how including Rodgers’ say on some personnel matters has helped bridge the gap.
“I gotta give Brian a lot of credit for meeting me in the middle,” he said.
Asked earlier in that same interview if his success this season has helped him realize that the grass isn’t always greener elsewhere, Rodgers cleverly turned the idiom on its head — perhaps tipping his hand for what his future plans might look like.
“The grass is greener,” Rodgers said, “where you water it.”
So … Love must wait? That’s where the betting money appears to be shifting: on Rodgers returning to Green Bay in 2022, with Love likely to remain the backup after he started one game in Rodgers’ absence this season and saw action in five others, including an extended look in Week 18.
What, if anything, could change Rodgers’ mind?
For one, wide receiver Davante Adams’ future hangs in the balance. The free-agent-to-be recently said his future is tied to Rodgers. “I’m playing with the best quarterback to play the game,” Adams recently said, and Rodgers had promised not to “drag out” his own decision “for months and months,” unlike what played out a year ago.
That appears to be a roadblock, but not an immovable one. One development that could alter the plan would be a loss to the 49ers. It would be a highly disappointing result for the Packers, who are 5.5-point favorites via BetMGM, and for Rodgers, whose home playoff mark would drop to 5-4.
Could one haunting loss diminish all the goodwill that was built back up? It feels too unrealistic, even for the quixotic Rodgers. But as one official with another team told Yahoo Sports in December, “I don’t know that anyone there [in Green Bay] can feel entirely good with what might or might not play out until 12 [Rodgers] is up there, hoisting [the] Lombardi [Trophy]. Otherwise, how are you going to know how he’s gonna wake up and feel tomorrow?
“They either win the Super Bowl or wait and see what happens with him again. As great as he is, he sorta holds them hostage in that way.”
That’s why the results of Saturday’s divisional game holds real long-term ramifications for the 49ers and Packers.