San Francisco versus Green Bay has become quite the occurrence over the last two seasons, as this marks the fourth time these teams have met in the last 16 months. With stable personnel and rosters during that time, each team has a good feeling for what the other brings to the table, meaning there won't be many surprises when it comes to game-planning for this one.
This game comes down to who can execute on both sides of the ball. Here are some fundamental matchups that will have the greatest impact as the game unfolds:
Packers passing game vs. Niners pass defense: The return of Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb proved crucial for the Packers even making it into the playoffs, as their improbable last minute, 48 yard touchdown connection propelled them to the NFC North championship. Their presence and seemingly healthy status is a game changer. Not to mention Jordy Nelson and James Jones, who with Cobb form an impressive trio of targets for Rodgers. The Niners have had great play out of Tarell Brown, Tramaine Brock and Eric Reid, however Carlos Rogers (who is questionable to play with a hamstring injury) has been the weakest link of the pass defense to this point. While no team will shut down Rodgers and the Packers pass attack, San Francisco is capable of slowing it down to the point where they shouldn't give up tons of points on defense. Rodgers can – and likely will – throw for upwards of 300 yards and multiple scores, but San Francisco can still win the game if that does happen. Even so, it is a concern because the 49ers have been a bit more vulnerable to the pass recently, giving up over a combined 700 yards and 4 TD's to the likes of Matt Ryan and Carson Palmer in their final two games.
Keep an eye on: Just how significant Cobb's return is. He makes this offense even more dangerous with his versatility and could cause miss-matches from the slot.
Packers running game vs. Niners run defense: Eddie Lacy has posted an impressive stat line in his rookie season, rushing for 1,178 yards and 11 TD's. Along with James Starks in the change-of-pace role, the rushing attack is much stronger than it was in last year's playoff game between these teams, surprisingly ranking 7th in the league in rushing yards per game. Lacy did struggle against the Niners in Week 1, averaging just 2.9 YPC on 14 attempts, though that was also his first career game.
San Francisco is relatively healthy up front, with Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Glenn Dorsey playing at a high level. Needless to say, the linebacking core is one of the top in the league as well. While any team rarely dominates on the ground against the Niners' front-seven, the improvement on this aspect of the Packers' offense at least benefits their passing game, forcing the Niners to focus on yet another offensive weapon in Lacy, if nothing else. Still, despite the vast jump in talent at the position compared to previous teams, you don't expect Lacy and the Packers running backs to be the reason why the 49ers lose this game.
Keep an eye on: Lacy's effectiveness early in the game. He struggled against San Francisco his first time around, but establishing some running room will open things up for Green Bay through the air.
Packers O-line vs. Niners pass rush: Green Bay's offensive line has given up 45 sacks this season, 9th most in the league and 2nd most among playoff teams (only Philadelphia has allowed more, with 46), though much of that had to do with constant injuries and shuffling on the line early on in the season. The starting five on the line are healthy and had an effective December, so the protection has gotten better. However, the Smith brothers have proved to be an impact duo when they're on the field together, and the fact they are both healthy and playing extremely well gives the Niners the upper-hand up front.
Getting to Rodgers early in the receivers' route progressions will be more of a factor than covering the routes themselves, because when Rodgers has time in the pocket it's nearly impossible to defend. San Francisco will want to knock Rodgers down a few times and keep the pressure on him, forcing him to take some hits in inevitably cold weather. Not that San Francisco is aiming to injure Rodgers, but if his collarbone injury is not 100% healed, a few hard hits can make it uncomfortable for him and may become a factor on his throws.
Keep an eye on: Pressure created from the other side of the Packer's line. Green Bay will slide coverage against the Smiths, so McDonald's ability to generate pressure will become a factor.
Niners passing game vs. Packers pass defense: Colin Kaepernick has beaten the Packers with his legs and with his arm on separate occasions, so which will the Packers game plan try to stop? In the season opener, Green Bay looked ready to stop the ground game of Kaepernick, but they payed for it by getting torched through the air for 412 yards and 3 TD's. The passing game took a nosedive since that opening game, finishing 30th in the NFL in passing yards per game. With Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree in action, the pass attack has been revived to a degree, but it will still be a challenge going up against Sam Shields and Tramon Williams. While much of the Packers' defense has struggled this year, this tandem has performed well. Vernon Davis' involvement, and subsequently the Packers' ability to defend him, will probably be the tipping point on whether San Francisco can establish an effective passing game or not.
Keep an eye on: Crabtree's continued progress back to full-health. He looks more explosive each week, and his ability to generate a big play may swing the tide of the game toward San Francisco at any moment.
Niners running game vs. Packers run defense: Frank Gore and the running game looked all out of whack against Arizona, but it's not as terrible as it seems. Arizona boasts one of the top run defenses in the league, while the Packers do not. Without Clay Matthews for much of the year, and once again for this game, Green Bay's defense has lacked play-making ability. They finished 25th overall against the run, allowing 125 yards per game on the ground. San Francisco doesn't struggle on the ground for long, so expect Gore and Kendall Hunter to bounce back from a bad game last week. The coaching staff surely decreased Gore's workload in the second half of the season with an eye towards keeping him fresh for the playoffs, so if San Francisco needs to ride him for 25+ carries they should expect him to shoulder that workload effectively.
Keep an eye on: Ryan Pickett at nose tackle. Jonathan Goodwin and company will have to keep Pickett from using his 6'2, 338 pound frame to stuff the line of scrimmage or else running between the tackles will become difficult.
Niners O-line vs. Packers pass rush: Green Bay has had some trouble getting to the quarterback this year. They've recorded a one-sack game in 4 of their last 5 and are clearly suffering from the loss of Matthews. With San Francisco's line intact, they've been able to keep the pressure off Kaepernick, which is significant for a guy that often locks in on one option. He will need that extra time to scan through his progressions rather than get too jittery and force throws that shouldn't be made. The lack of pressure may give Kaepernick the opportunity to show off his legs as well. He beat Green Bay with 181 yards and two scores on the ground in last year's divisional game between these teams.
Keep an eye on: Who can step up, if anyone, for Green Bay's front-seven. They simply need to apply more pressure than they've been doing if they want to finally stop Kaepernick.
Don't let the Packers record (8-7-1) fool you, this is a different team playing on the frozen tundra and with Rodgers at the helm. Taking the elements and home field out of the equation, San Francisco is a stronger, more complete team. However, home field and elements are a factor that should make this game close. Expect the 49ers to come out on top, but the weather will undoubtedly cause some mistakes for both sides. Whoever can play their style of football in spite of the conditions is going to have the best chance to move on.
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