San Francisco 49ers (11-7) at Green Bay Packers (13-4)
The Packers finished tied for the best record in the NFL and earned the NFC’s #1 seed on tiebreakers, giving them a first round bye and homefield advantage through to the Super Bowl, but they were not necessarily the most impressive team in the league week-to-week, with many of their wins coming in close fashion. In fact, their +79 point differential ranks just 10th in the NFL and is barely ahead of their opponents this week, as the 49ers are at +62 on the season (+68 if you include the first round of the post-season).
The Packers did not have Aaron Rodgers for a game and a half, while another half Rodgers did play was a meaningless game against the Lions, so it’s probably not fair to hold that against their point differential and you could make the argument that their week one blowout loss in New Orleans was a complete fluke that should be disregarded as well, but even if you do that, they still only have the 5th best point differential in the NFL at +127. That’s a more significant edge over the 49ers’ point differential, but the 49ers are better in efficiency metrics, which are based on yards per play and first down rate, more predictive metrics than point differential. In terms of overall schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, the 49ers rank 7th, about 4.5 points ahead of the 14th ranked Packers.
Schedule adjusted mixed efficiency intentionally minimizes the impact of turnover margin, which is typically not predictive week-to-week, and that may not be appropriate for a team like Green Bay, who has one of the least turnover prone quarterbacks of all time and more consistently wins the turnover battle than other teams as a result (+13 this season). However, it is appropriate for the 49ers, who were able to have the point differential that they had this season despite a -4 turnover margin and are clearly closer to the Packers than these two teams’ records show.
Despite these two teams being closer than their records show in the regular season, the Packers are 6-point home favorites in this game. There are two reasons for that, but I’m not sure if either reason is legitimate enough to justify the line being this high. For one, the Packers are a dominant home team with Aaron Rodgers under center, going 50-23 ATS at home in games Rodgers starts and finishes in front of crowds with fans, with Rodgers recording a QB rating that is about 10 points higher at home than on the road and in his career. That was especially true this season, as the Packers won all eight games they won at home with six multi-score wins, while losing four of their nine road games and winning just once by multiple scores.
However, if we look at just the post-season, the Packers’ record drops to 4-4 ATS at home with just two wins by 6 or more points in eight games and, beyond the wild card round, that drops even further to 2-3 ATS with one win by more than 6 points in 5 tries, so I am not as worried about going against the Packers in Green Bay as I would be in the regular season, especially with a 6-point cushion and a high level opponent coming to town (just one of the Packers’ home games this season came against a team with double digit wins).
The other reason the Packers are favored by this many is that they are getting several key players back who have been missing for all or most of the season, with left tackle David Bakhtiari only making his season debut in last week’s meaningless game against the Lions after missing all of the season, cornerback Jaire Alexander expected to play for the first time since week 3, and edge defender Za’Darius Smith expected to play for the first time all season.
All three of those players were among the best in the league at their respective positions in 2020, and, with them back in the lineup, the Packers much more closely resemble last year’s team, which ranked 3rd in the NFL in point differential, so their return is definitely a boost to this team, but all three have been out of real action for so long and were limited in practice this week, so it’s fair to question if any of the three will be at their top form. If they are not, it’s really hard to justify this line being this high.
The 49ers, meanwhile, have been healthier for weeks and it’s shown in their play on the field, as they have won 8 of their last 10 games since a 3-5 start when they were more injury plagued. Over that 10-game stretch, the 49ers have gone 4-1 against playoff qualifiers, including last week’s win in Dallas, and have only lost by margins of 3 points and 7 points, in games in which the 49ers won the yards per play and first down rate battles. They have a very good chance of keeping this game close in Green Bay and even of pulling the straight-up upset, so I am very confident getting 6 points with them. I would still take the 49ers at +5.5, but I would strongly prefer 6 because of the overtime rules.
Green Bay Packers 26 San Francisco 49ers 24
Pick against the spread: San Francisco +6