In a span of five playoff appearances between 1995 and 2001, the Green Bay Packers stood in the San Francisco 49ers path to a sixth Super Bowl Championship. On four of five occasions Green Bay emerged victorious and have had good luck in Candlestick Park where they have emerged victorious twice in three chances. Fast forward to 2013 where the 49ers, still chasing the elusive sixth world championship, are set to renew their playoff rivalry with Green Bay. This will be a rematch of Week One when San Francisco drew first blood, limiting the anemic Green Bay running game to 45 yards, and offensively received stellar performances by QB Alex Smith (20-26, 211 yards, 2 TDs) and RB Frank Gore (112 Yards, 1 TD). Much has changed since the 30-22 San Francisco victory that was never in question despite what the score may indicate. While the Niners have continued their winning ways throughout the season, Colin Kaepernick—a Wisconsin born Packer fan– has replaced Alex Smith and will be making his first playoff start. Meanwhile, the loss to the 49ers was the first loss of three that would occur in the first five weeks for Green Bay. The Packers would recover in stellar fashion behind the MVP caliber play of QB Aaron Rodgers (ironically, a Niner fan growing up) by winning 9 of their last 11 en route divisional crown and a 4th consecutive playoff appearance.
Keys for Green Bay
Despite the constant threat of being torched through the air by Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay rushing attack—and attack is a term used lightly here—is not likely to foster any type of impactful effort against the league’s number four ranked defense against the run. DuJaun Harris was superb in his 100 yard effort against the Vikings and FB John Kuhn picked up a score on the ground as well. However, there are vast differences. The X-Factor for Green Bay will be the ability for Don Barclay and the Packer offensive line to give Rodgers the time needed to work effectively against a pass defense that has been as effective against the pass as it has against the run. Given time to executive, Rodgers should enjoy some level of effectiveness to finally healthy targets Randall Cobb and Greg Jennings. Rodgers, looking to up his playoff record to 6-2, was able to pick up 279 yards through the air in the week one contest. It should be noted that Rodgers has never come back against a team above .500 in the fourth quarter in 18 tries; the Packers will need to build an early lead for Rodgers to avoid such a predicament in his first ever trip to Candlestick.
The Packers defense will need to build off their successful performance against Adrian Peterson in the Wild Card round. Peterson, who averaged over 200 yards per game against Green Bay in 2012 in two regular season games, and torched them for 199 yards in Minnesota’s playoff clinching week 17 victory, was held to 99 yards in the Packers 24-10 victory a week ago. They were also successful in limiting QB Joe Webb on the ground. While nowhere near the level of Kaepernick it was suspected that the main asset Webb could utilize was the speed element of his game—which Green Bay had no time to game plan for due to the Vikings late QB change. In Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick (5 rushing TDs in 2012), San Francisco boasts an RB that has had recent success against the Packers combined with a QB with elite speed. Additionally, LaMichael James is a handful when spelling Gore in relief. Ultimately, Green Bay will need to mirror last weeks’ effort if their 17th ranked defense is to contain the Niners 4th ranked rushing attack. To do so B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and C.J. Wilson must be effective in dealing with the physical multiple tight end and goal line type sets that San Francisco’s used in Week 1. If the Packers can limit the San Francisco running game they could find themselves trending toward their performance in their Super Bowl winning run a couple of seasons ago which was buoyed by a strong run defense throughout the playoffs. Charles Woodson and the Green Bay secondary remains the strong suit of the Packer defense, but stopping the run will go a long way toward stacking the odds against an inexperienced QB by forcing their opponents to move away from the balanced attack the 49ers favor.
Green Bay passed the test against the number 2 rushing attack in the league last week and also where able to get a look at an option style quarterback—albeit one less talented than Kaepernick—in Webb. Kaepernick, in his 5-2 run as a starter, threw 10 touchdowns against only three picks to go with his 5 rushing scored and his 7.2 yards per carry clip. The Packers struggled with Alex Smith in Week 1 and Kaepernick’s speed element makes him profoundly more difficult to game plan for. Nonetheless, if there is a weakness in Kaepernick’s game to compliment his lack of post season experience it is his propensity to put the ball on the ground. He fumbled seven times in seven starts but lost only one—the Packers will need to capitalize if Kaepernick puts the ball on the ground. Furthermore, the Packers remain solid in the secondary and will hope to benefit from mistakes that can be forced if the Packer front seven can pressure Kaepernick.
Keys for San Francisco
Whether it’s John Harbaugh firing his offensive coordinator with a month to go in the season or brother Jim replacing Alex Smith in-season despite a 21-6-1 run as a starting including last season’s post season run, no one will ever accuse the Harbaughs of following conventional wisdom. Last week, John was successful in Baltimore’s first effort of the season with the Ravens defeated the Colts 24-9. This week it is Jim’s turn to throw egg on the critics of his bold move—though his risk to a much higher degree. How Colin Kaepernick performs in his first season start will not only determine whether or not the 49ers earn a shot at an NFC Championship and Super Bowl appearance it was also validate or invalidate Harbaugh’s risky switch. So far, in the regular season, Harbaugh has been rewarded; however, with a quarterback who has been successful and won recently in the playoffs sitting idle the stakes couldn’t be any higher. Pro Bowler’s Joe Staley and Mike Iaputi will need their usual effectiveness in protection. Additionally, Gore and James will need to continue on their recent run of success on the ground. If the Niners are successful in those two key areas it will go a long way to mitigating any nerves and the overall inexperience of Kaepernick. Furthermore, Kaepernick will then be able to target Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree and pick apart the Green Bay secondary.
If you hold up the starting lineup for last year’s 49ers team and the 2012 unit you will note minimal change to the defense on paper. However, the Justin Smith that lined up on the defensive line in 2011 was perhaps the top defensive player in the league last year—making 1st Team All-Pro and 2nd Team All-Pro simultaneously. This year he enters the game after missing two weeks with a triceps injury—emotional impact only goes so far and it will only be known as the game unfolds how much of a physical impact his return will have. Smith went down against New England and the defense quickly unraveled and matters got bad as they gave up 28 unanswered points. Bad turned to ugly the following week when the Seattle scored 42 points in Smith’s absence. How effective Justin Smith is on Saturday with also impact the other Smith—Alden—whose 19.5 sacks this season were a strong derivative of the double teams faced by his namesake at on the defensive line. The Niners will need Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, NT Isaac Sopoaga, and LE Ray McDonald to get pressure on Aaron Rodgers and what will likely be a one dimensional Packer attack
With Pro Bowl Safeties Donte Whitner and FS Dashon Goldson, in addition to CB’s Tarell Brown and Carlos Rodgers (who experienced a career year in 2012), the Niners fourth ranked passing defense is healthy and matches up well with Greg Jennings and Randall Cobb. Jennings has been catching his stride lately with 3 TDs in as many games and Cobb is healthy; however, the Niners will need to keep the Packer deep threats in front of them. With the front seven likely to limit the Packer ground game, the San Francisco secondary will need to limit buy not completely ground the league’s top quarterback.
This is the most interesting of the three games this weekend that feature rematches of regular season lop-sided affairs. The unknown that is Kaepernick in this situation makes this game a virtual pick ‘em in the eyes of many. Questions surrounding Justin Smith’s healthy only further muddy the picture of what the outcome could be. If Smith is healthy and Kaepernick is not caught in the moment it would be hard to pick against the 49ers in a game at home against a team that is 4-4 on the road. The Packers offense will likely be rendered one dimensional against San Francisco—however, that one dimension happens to be the best player in the league. The Packers were workmanlike in taking apart the Vikings last weekend; meanwhile, the Niners have been prone to embarrassing performances on defense in the absence of Smith. Nonetheless, I am counting on Smith to return in grand fashion and Kaepernick to seize the moment. Rodgers will have a strong day but in the end will move to 0-19 when attempting to comeback against better than .500 opponents. This could be one for the ages.
San Francisco 28 Green Bay 27