No player has elevated his stature the past few weeks more than Jordan Love.
Back when the Green Bay Packers were 2-5, general manager Brian Gutekunst said it would be "a very important 10 games" for Love in terms of his standing as the Packers' quarterback of the future. Well, Love responded emphatically in those 10 games. And anyone who hadn't noticed his hot streak to end the regular season took note of him carving up the Dallas Cowboys last week.
This week brings another challenge for Love — or perhaps another opportunity to show the football world how far he has come. The Packers take on the San Francisco 49ers, who spent the entire season as the best team in the NFC. The 49ers are the Super Bowl favorites, according to the betting odds, but the Packers won't be intimidated after blowing out the Cowboys.
Packers (10-8) at 49ers (12-5)
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, Fox
Betting line: 49ers -9.5, total of 50.5
Super Bowl odds: Packers +2800, 49ers +175
Why we're watching
The question in the NFC is if anyone can even challenge a rested 49ers team in Santa Clara. The second-best team in the NFC was probably the Philadelphia Eagles for the first two-thirds of the season and the Cowboys for the last third, and both were eliminated in the wild-card round. Nothing against the other three remaining teams in the NFC field, but it's tough to see any of them beating the 49ers on their home turf.
The 49ers had an excellent season, though a blowout home loss to the Baltimore Ravens does bring into question if the AFC is simply the superior conference. The 49ers have a ruthlessly efficient offense and a top-five defense. The question might not be if the 49ers make the Super Bowl, but if they'll even be tested the next two weeks.
What could put us to sleep
If the 49ers blow out the Packers, it'll likely be because Green Bay's defense was exposed. The Packers did well last week to shut down the Cowboys in the first half, and they made a couple of game-changing plays. They also gave up 510 yards and 32 points to Dallas. It's OK to excuse that due to it being garbage time — once the Packers took a 27-0 lead in the game, the defensive strategy changed — but Joe Barry's unit has had some bad games this season. That's the biggest question about keeping this game competitive and interesting.
Wild card of this divisional game
It's possible the biggest difference for the Packers down the stretch might not have been Jordan Love. Aaron Jones' return from a knee injury changed the Packers offense. In each of Green Bay's past four games, Jones has at least 110 rushing yards, and all four games were Packers wins. Jones rushed for three touchdowns last week in the win over the Cowboys. If he can continue to be effective on the ground, that can shorten the game, and it would give Green Bay a better shot at the upset.
Person we'll likely praise after the victory
Brock Purdy is one of those players who will have supporters on one side and a seemingly equal number of detractors on the other. Purdy put up remarkable numbers and was in the MVP conversation until his team's loss to the Ravens. Still, some will look at his seventh-round pedigree and assume he's simply the product of a great coach and supporting cast.
But if Purdy can help the 49ers to a Super Bowl, it will be hard to keep denying that he's a top-end NFL quarterback. As long as he keeps doing his job, starting with the Packers game, his reputation will continue to grow.
Person we'll likely second-guess after the defeat
Life is good for Matt LaFleur right now. Making the postseason and winning a playoff game without Aaron Rodgers legitimizes his fantastic career record. However, a loss to the 49ers could bring up the old criticisms, specifically about his refusal to make a change at defensive coordinator last offseason.
Fair or not, until LaFleur makes a Super Bowl, he won't get the credit he deserves, considering his .675 career winning percentage in the regular season. Upsets over the Cowboys and 49ers in back-to-back weeks would help, though.