GREEN BAY — Bring on the Los Angeles Rams — and another of Matt LaFleur’s closest friends in coaching, Sean McVay — for the NFC divisional playoffs.
The Green Bay Packers head coach can only hope that this matchup goes better than the last time his team faced one of his BFFs in the playoffs — San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan, whose 49ers beat the Packers in last year’s NFC Championship Game.
This time, it’ll be LaFleur vs. McVay, whose Rams advanced with a 30-20 victory over the host Seattle Seahawks on Saturday. The sixth-seeded Rams’ win cut the Packers’ potential NFC divisional opponent list in half. When the New Orleans Saints beat the Chicago Bears Sunday evening, it punched the Rams’ ticket to Green Bay.
Packers-Rams will be 3:35 p.m. Saturday at Lambeau Field, where the Packers announced late last week that they’d sell tickets to roughly 6,000 fans — the first time the team has had fans in the stadium this season, beyond the roughly 500 team employees, front-line healthcare workers and first responders and their families they hosted late in the year. FOX Sports will televise the game.
In the other NFC divisional game, the second-seeded Saints will host Tom Brady and the fifth-seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who advanced with a 31-23 victory over the fourth-seeded Washington Football Team on Saturday night.
The matchup will feature strength against strength. The No. 1-seeded Packers, who finished the regular season an NFC-best 13-3 to earn the conference’s lone first-round bye after the NFL expanded its playoff format to 14 teams this season, led the NFL in scoring offense this season, averaging 31.8 points per game. The Rams led the NFL in scoring defense, allowing an average of just 18.5 points.
The relationship between the 41-year-old LaFleur and the 34-year-old McVay dates back to when they were on Washington’s staff together — along with Shanahan, under Shanahan’s father, Mike — from 2010 through 2013. They worked together with the Rams in 2017, when McVay became the Rams head coach and hired LaFleur as his offensive coordinator.
“He is someone I have grown really close with, just going back to when we first started working together in Washington,” McVay said of LaFleur in February 2019, before the Rams played in Super Bowl LIII. “Unless we play the Packers, I will be rooting for Matt and wishing him nothing but the best.”
LaFleur spent one year as McVay’s right-hand man on offense — McVay was the Rams’ offensive play-caller, and still is — then went to Tennessee to serve as Titans coach Mike Vrabel’s offensive coordinator and play-caller before the Packers hired LaFleur as head coach in January 2019.
“He’ll do a great job,” McVay predicted after the Packers hired LaFleur. “It’s one of those things you lean on your staff heavily and figure out, ‘OK, what are the things we want to operate with on a day-to-day basis?’ And as he continues to build and develop those relationships where everything is about people first, he’ll get more comfortable.”
LaFleur surely has looked comfortable in the job, going 26-6 in his first two seasons. In last year’s playoffs, the Packers beat the Seahawks at Lambeau Field in the divisional round before Shanahan and the 49ers ran them out of the building at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California in the NFC title game.
LaFleur said last week that he and his coaches would hold off on any meaningful game-planning until they knew their opponent. He predicted he and his staff would be in the office on Sunday even before that was decided — although, had the Bears won, the Packers’ preparation would have been accelerated since the teams faced each other in the regular-season finale. The Packers haven’t faced the Rams since 2018, when Mike McCarthy was still the Packers coach.
“We’ll come in on Sunday and then we’ll get working on who the most likely scenario is,” LaFleur said at the time. “If Chicago can take care of business versus New Orleans, we just played them so we’re prepared from that standpoint. We’d have to do just basically a little bit of cleanup from our past game and also take into account what they were able to accomplish versus New Orleans.”
Los Angeles provides several interesting personnel matchups — starting with top-flight cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who presumably will match up with No. 1 wide receiver Davante Adams. Adams set the Packers’ franchise single-season record for receptions (115) and tied the record for touchdown receptions (18) while playing in only 13½ games.
The Packers offensive line, meanwhile, will have to contend with first-team All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who finished the regular season with 13.5 sacks, 26 quarterback hits and four forced fumbles. He left Saturday’s game with a rib injury but is expected to be ready after X-rays showed no broken ribs.
"We'll be smart with him throughout the week," McVay said. "He's going to do everything in his power to be ready to go. Don't expect that to affect his game status for this week."
Donald had two sacks and three quarterback hits on Wilson before his injury.
McVay also said Sunday night that quarterback John Wolford and receiver Cooper Kupp are likely to be available despite getting hurt against the Seahawks.
Wolford left Lumen Field in an ambulance after getting hurt early in his second career start while taking a low hit to the head from Seattle's Jamal Adams. Wolford's injury turned out to be a stinger, and he returned to the stadium for the postgame celebration.
Longtime starter Jared Goff took over and led the Rams to the win, but went 9 for 19 less than two weeks after undergoing surgery on his right thumb.
"It affected him yesterday," McVay said. "If you watch the game, it did. It might not have been painful, but it was something that he did a great job battling. There were things he's typically able to execute where it seemed like (the thumb injury) was a factor."
McVay said he expects both quarterbacks to be available in Green Bay, but he will monitor their progress before deciding on a starter and again will wait until game day to announce who it is.
The coach also said the Rams are much more likely to have a third quarterback active against the Packers after Los Angeles had only two in uniform in Seattle. Veteran Blake Bortles and rookie Bryce Perkins are the Rams' other two quarterbacks.
Kupp, the Rams' leading receiver, left the game in Seattle early after taking a hit to his knee, but the injury turned out to be bursitis. Kupp's knee swelled after the hit, but is doing much better, McVay said.
Rams left guard David Edwards also left with Achilles tendinitis. He will be monitored throughout the week, but Bobby Evans will make his first start of the season if Edwards can't play. Evans started seven games as a rookie last season, and he performed well in Edwards' place in Seattle.
The Packers hold a distinct advantage at quarterback with Aaron Rodgers, the prohibitive favorite to win his third NFL MVP award after completing 372 of 526 passes (a career-best 70.7% completion rate) for 4,299 yards with 48 touchdowns, five interceptions and 20 sacks for a passer rating of 121.5 in the regular season.
Saturday’s game will mark Rodgers’ 20th playoff game compared to Goff’s sixth. After leading the 2010 Packers to the Super Bowl XLV title, Rodgers has not returned to the Super Bowl, losing once in the wild card round, three times in the divisional round and three times in the NFC Championship Game.
“Obviously I would love to win (another) one. It’s been a long time,” Rodgers said last week. “There’s been a lot of ball between now and February 6th, 2011, which was a beautiful day.
“It’s important to all of us. There’s so many guys who haven’t been in that mix before. Only a few of us actually were there for that moment, so it would be nice for all of us to get back. The Super Bowl is obviously a big part of the way that quarterbacks are judged and teams in general are judged. It has always and will always take a team to do it. Hopefully this is the team to do it this year.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Photos: Packers' 2020 season so far in pictures