Two of the most storied franchises in NFL history meet up this Saturday in San Francisco when the 49ers take on the Green Bay Packers. The 49ers have won five Super Bowls in five trips, while the Packers have won four out of five, not to mention 9 other NFL championships from the pre-Super Bowl days. Both are looking to add to their trophy collection, and after the Packers had an easy warm up against a depleted Minnesota Vikings squad featuring inept quarterbacking from backup Joe Webb, the teams go head-to-head in a matchup of two of the top five teams in the league.
There is no shortage of playoff history between the two teams. The Packers own the series lead 4 to 1, despite 3 of the 5 being played at Candlestick. The games fell between 1996 and 2002, the height of the Brett Favre era and the tail end of the 49ers dynasty. Matt Maiocco has a good synopsis of each of the previous encounters.
The two teams met in Week 1 at Lambeau field to start off the 2012 season. The 49ers dominated most of the game, outgaining the Packers 377-324, with 186 of their yards coming on the ground. They had more first downs, forced the only turnover of the game, an Aaron Rodgers interception, and led 23-7 going into the fourth quarter. Then the biggest momentum swing of the game occurred when Randall Cobb returned an Andy Lee punt 75 yards for a touchdown. There was a flag on the play, a clear block in the back by the return team, that was inexplicably picked up by the replacement referees. The Packers were able to make the final score close 30-22, but the game was fairly one-sided. Frank Gore and Alex Smith led the offense, while NaVorro Bowman led the 49ers in tackles and had the interception of Rodgers.
While the replacement refs made this game closer than it should have been, the 49ers won't complain about them going into this game. Were it not for their primetime gaffe on Monday Night Football in the Packers-Seahawks game, a bizarre hail mary play that gave Seattle the victory, and will probably go down as the worst call in league history, then this game would be played in Green Bay, as the Packers would have finished ahead of the 49ers.
While most teams in the league will tout their growth throughout the season and claim to be a different team from the start of the season, the 49ers truly are a different team than they were in Week 1. In Week 10 against the St Louis Rams, starting quarterback Alex Smith left the game with a concussion and backup Colin Kaepernick finished the contest. He started the following week against the Chicago Bears and one of the more formidable defenses in the league and shredded them. In Week 12, once Alex Smith was cleared to resume playing, Coach Jim Harbaugh made the decision to stay with Kaepernick in one of the most hotly debated quarterback moves in memory.
Kaepernick will lead the 49ers offense in his first taste of playoff action. He's played excellent since coming on for Alex Smith, finishing third in the league in ESPN's Total QBR, behind Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, two first-ballot hall-of-famers. There will be no game bigger than this one for the second year player. He's played well in primetime this season, including his 4 touchdowns on the road vs the Patriots in Week 15, a critical game for the 49ers. While that won't compare to the pressure of the postseason, it's as good a prep as one could hope for. Mike Sando has a good comparison of Kaepernick and Rodgers over the final 7 weeks of the season. Kaepernick has outplayed Rodgers over that timeframe, coming in with a slightly higher Total QBR. Both teams went 5-2 in that stretch.
Michael Crabtree has been a revelation for the 49ers this season, finally living up to his high draft status. He came into the year with career highs of 72 receptions, 874 yards and 6 touchdowns. He bested each of those marks by a good margin, finishing with 85 catches for 1,105 yards and 9 touchdowns. He is the first 49ers receiver to top 1,000 yards since Terrell Owens in 2003. He was critical to the teams success in the passing game, coming on strong in the second half once Kaepernick took over under center.
Crabtree has also emerged as a go-to guy at critical moments. He converted 57 first downs, tops on the team, with much of his yardage coming after the catch, especially with Smith at quarterback. He did not fumble once this season. Green Bay cornerbacks Sam Shields and Tramon Williams have played well this season and completely shut down the Minnesota passing game in the Wild Card round, albeit against an overmatched Webb at quarterback. Luckily, Crabtree has excelled against good corners and had two of the best games of his career against Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson this season.
A big question for the 49ers in this game, and for the postseason as a whole, is who will be the secondary option in the passing attack. The logical choice would be Vernon Davis. Since Kaepernick has taken over, Davis has all but disappeared. He had 6 catches for 83 yards and a score in Kaepernick's first start, but tallied 6 receptions for 61 yards and zero touchdowns since. He still draws attention from defenses, his blocking in the run game is superb and the matchup problems he creates must be accounted for. Some production as a pass catcher would make Kaepernick's job a lot easier.
Other options in the passing game may include Randy Moss, who scored the first touchdown of the game in the opener against the Packers, and rookie first-rounder A.J. Jenkins, who has zero catches this season in limited playing time. The 49ers may also try to work No. 2 tight end Delanie Walker into the game. Kaepernick led the league in quarterback rating when targeting tight ends (per Mike Sando). Walker, like Davis, has speed and size, rendering safeties too small and linebackers too slow in pass coverage.
The 49ers running game has been among the best in the league this season. They finished 4th in yardage and 3rd in yards per attempt on the year. Frank Gore is again headed to the Pro Bowl after amassing 1,214 yards rushing and 8 touchdowns on the ground, to go with a return touchdown (on a fumbled snap) and a receiving score. Kendall Hunter had complimented Gore perfectly until his season-ending injury against the Saints in Week 12. LaMichael James is now the primary backup and has done well, though he tends to get the majority of his yards on big gains, while the majority of his runs go for minimal yardage. He fails to get the 5-yard gains that set up easy third downs and are critical to the 49ers' success.
The offensive line has been a major boon for the 49ers this season. All five starters garnered Pro Bowl recognition of one form or another and they finished the season ranked first in Football Outsiders adjusted line yards. They've fared worse in the passing game, finishing 29th in FO's adjusted sack rate, though Kaepernick's allusiveness has dramatically reduced the number of sacks the team has allowed in the second half of the season. He'll need to be on his toes with Clay Matthews III leading the Packers' pass rush. He led the team with 13 sacks and tallied 2.5 against Joe Staley in the Week 1 matchup, a performance that Staley would rather forget.
Much has been made of the Packers' struggles against the run on defense. They finished 17th in the league against the run. They've been gouged during three games against two of the best running teams in the league, Minnesota and San Francisco. If you discount those games, the Packers gave up 96.3 yards per game, good for 6th in the league. B.J. Raji is the bulk that plugs up the middle and the 49ers had success running to the outside in the Week 1 meeting.
For the Packers, the offense begins and ends with Aaron Rodgers. He is the best quarterback in the league over the last two seasons. This season he finished with a 108.0 quarterback rating, tops in the league for the second consecutive season, to go with 4,295 yards and 39 touchdowns. All this despite a revolving door at receiver, with both Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings missed significant time.
The injuries at receiver have allowed Randall Cobb to emerge as an all-around playmaker, not just a return specialist. He led the team in receptions and yards and figures to be critical against the 49ers. He had 9 catches for 77 yards in Week 1. Another player to look out for is Jermichael Finley. While the tight end has been in and out of the doghouse, and rumors about his imminent departure from the team persist, the 49ers struggled against Aaron Hernandez and Brady in Week 15 and Finley had 7 catches and a touchdown in Week 1.
The 49ers will look to limit Aaron Rodgers by getting to him early and often. They had three sacks in Week 1 and Rodgers finished with one of his lowest quarterback ratings of the year. Justin Smith's health will be crucial. He's missed the last two and a half games with a partially torn triceps muscle and his absence has been felt across the board. Aldon Smith, on pace to set the single-season sack record heading into Week 15, was held sackless over the final three contests. Rodgers is just as effective when pressured as he is when unhurried. The negative yardage on sacks could help to limit a Green Bay team that finished 9th in third down conversions.
The Packers running game will feature recently signed DuJuan Harris. Since joining the team in December he's gained 4.6 yards per carry, compared with the team's 3.9 yard average on the year. Running success hasn't necessarily correlated to victories for the Packers, though. It has been a key to defeating the 49ers, so establishing the run should be a priority for Green Bay. In Week 1 the Packers were held to 45 yards on 14 carries, 3.2 yards per attempt.
Against Rodgers, the 49ers defense needs to continue doing what they've done all season. They've tackled well and limited yards after the catch, which has helped them to defeat many of the highest ranked passing attacks this season. They faced 3 of the top four passing teams in the league (Patriots, Lions, Saints), as well as the 8th ranked Packers, and were victorious against each. Conversely, they were 1-3-1 when teams rushed for over 100 yards. The Packers, despite the addition of Harris, aren't going to move the ball on the ground with their 20th ranked running game and a line that finished 25th in adjusted line yards (Football Outsiders).
The Saints game is a prime example of the 49ers' defense and the job it has done against premier passing attacks. Drew Brees had 262 yards and 3 touchdowns, but also threw 2 interceptions. Most tellingly, he had 17 completions to receivers and tight ends for 193 yards. Only 30 yards after catch were given up on those 17 completions. Sure tackling by safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, both of whom received Pro Bowl recognition, should continue.
The wild card in this game may be special teams. The 49ers were one of the best units in the league last season, but have regressed in 2012. David Akers, who set a record for field goals made in 2011, and tied the record for longest field goal in league history with his 63-yarder vs Green Bay in Week 1, has been atrocious of late. He's only 9 of 19 on kicks over 40 yards this year. Billy Cundiff was signed to give some competition following two easy misses by Akers in Week 17. Harbaugh, however, named Akers the kicker for this Saturday's game. Few will be confident if he has to line up for a critical kick.
How Harbaugh handles kicking situations will be something to watch. Akers has been accurate from under 40 yards, making 20 of 23 kicks. Some advanced stats point to the benefits of going for it in short yardage situations once on the opponents side of the field as opposed to attempting longer field goals. For the Packers, kicker Mason Crosby hasn't fared any better. He's made only 64% of his field goals on the season and has made 2 of 9 from beyond 50. Randall Cobb may also factor into the special teams equation. His 75-yard punt return brought the Packers back into the Week 1 game, even if it was of dubious validity. Andy Lee will be punting the ball away from him all day.
The two teams are truly evenly matched and this is the marquee matchup of the Divisional round. The 49ers pass defense should prove to be the difference. They've been successful against the best passers in the game this season. The New York Giants were the highest rated passing team to defeat them this season, coming in at 15th. But Ahmad Bradshaw ran for 116 yards on them in his second-best effort of the year. The Packers don't have that capability. I expect Aaron Rodgers to get his totals. Unless Colin Kaepernick cracks under the pressure, the 49ers are too well-rounded. He needs to outplay Rodgers, but Rodgers faces the far tougher defense and is limited by his one-dimensional offense. It's going to be extremely close, and if it comes down to a game-winning field goal, the entire football watching world will be on edge. The 49ers win 27-24.