One of the league's most heated conference rivalries reignites this weekend, as the 49ers march into Green Bay to face off against the Packers. In some respects, it would appear a trip to arctic Lambeau Field isn't the best draw in the postseason. The weather forecast, first and foremost, comes with its obstacles, while the return of Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb also figures prominently into the mix. Those aspects may not reflect the most ideal Wild Card match-up, but there are plenty of others that position this game as a great starting point for San Francisco.
Lambeau vs. Philadelphia
I admit, when Week 17 commenced, I was leery of the prospect of Green Bay getting into the big dance but also felt it was inevitable. When the dust settled and I learned that the 49ers would be the ones to face them this weekend, I grew even more apprehensive. I'd have been much more keen on, obviously, a miracle No. 2 seeding or at least a first round contest against Philly, Dallas, or Chicago. As the week progressed, however, I grew more excited and optimistic about the impending battle in Wisconsin. Analyzing the situation a bit further, I came to the realization that the Packers are actually a better draw compared to the Eagles. The weather and atmosphere in both stadiums present a challenge: both are going to be freezing and both have rabid fan bases. Yet, Green Bay doesn't project to be quite as bad for a handful of reasons:
- A pretty sizable snow storm is expected to dump approximately six to eight inches of snow on the ground in Philadelphia from Thursday to Friday. Although the forecast is clear for Saturday, it will still be a brisk 25-30 degrees and the field is likely going to be a mess. While Green Bay will be colder than that, at least the field should hopefully be in better shape with snowfall minimal or nonexistent.
- I truly think the atmosphere and crowd in Philly is going to be more ruthless than that of Green Bay. Firstly, it comes down to a regional difference. Philadelphia is part of the frenzied, intense, aggressive, high-strung East Coast where people talk quicker, yell louder, drink faster, you name it. Green Bay, meanwhile, is part of the U.S.A's midsection; things move at a more relaxed, sane pace and, generally, inhabitants have a more laid back demeanor and better temperament.
- Philadelphia is experiencing a rebirth of sorts and hasn't sniffed the playoffs in two years. They have an exciting, pocket passer in Foles, LeSean McCoy is the NFL's leading rusher, and there's a new energy under Chip Kelly. The Eagles also haven't been to the playoffs in two years, so the notoriously voracious fan base is going to be even more fired up for this year.
The element of familiarity should also not be overlooked in breaking down this game. San Francisco has yet to face Philadelphia with Chip Kelly and Nick Foles at the helm. Couple that with the fast-pace offense they run and the dynamic skills of Shady McCoy, and you quickly start realizing that things may be better off with the game being against Green Bay. This weekend's game will be the fourth contest between the two squads over the past two seasons. The 49ers know how the Packers play, they know the specific player matchups to pursue/avoid, they know the strengths and weaknesses; above all, they know what it takes to beat them.
How they stack up on defense
Speaking of strengths and weaknesses, the 49ers match up well with Green Bay from that perspective. Despite a disheartening lapse in pass defense over the past two games, San Francisco usually fares better against pocket passers such as Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees than they do against more mobile quarterbacks. They have issues to correct this week given the 400 yards they surrendered to interception-prone Carson Palmer and the possible absence of Carlos Rogers, but the Packers' suspect pass protection (Green Bay ranked 9th in the league in total sacks allowed) should present the opportunity for San Francisco to make things difficult on Aaron Rodgers.
As dangerous as Rodgers is, the 49ers can't lose sight of Eddie Lacy. The rookie running back has amassed 1,178 yards on the ground this year despite being hobbled by an ankle sprain through much of December. The 49ers run defense has been stout this year, ranking 4th in the league in yards allowed per game. If the Niners can shut down Lacy early, it may prematurely force Green Bay to be more one-dimensional through the air.
How they stack up on offense
Switching gears to the offense, the 49ers' bread-and-butter lies in the run game. San Francisco boasts the league's third-best rushing attack while the Green Bay defense allowed over 2,000 yards on the ground and a 4.6 yard per carry average, ranking them 25th and 27th in the NFL, respectively. With the wind-chill temperatures expected to drop below zero, it's imperative that the Niners' ground game gets going early and exploits a Green Bay rush defense that, although meager on paper, held San Francisco in check during the Week 1 battle. Ever the competitor, Frank Gore is going to need his legs underneath him in this one. The 49ers all-time leading rusher should have some good space to work with since the Packer defense will have to spread out in focusing on Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, and Colin Kaepernick. Hopefully, we'll see a heavier dose of Kendall Hunter in the gameplan as well, for a nice change of pace and speed on the edge.
Although the run game is more indicative of the 49ers identity under Harbaugh, who are we kidding...all eyes will be on Colin Kaepernick when the offense is on the field. The young quarterback seems to have rejuvenated his game now that Michael Crabtree is back in action and he'll have to continue that surge if the 49ers want to notch a victory. He managed an impressive 310 passing yards against a top-flight Arizona defense last week; his highest yardage total of the season came against Green Bay in Week 1. Heading into his second postseason go-around, Kaepernick should be a bit more comfortable this time. He has the game film of what he's done to the Packers in the past for reassurance and study material.
Like many teams, Green Bay may initially sell out to the run on the defensive side of the ball and crowd the line in disguised blitzes, daring Kaepernick to beat them with his arm downfield. Kaepernick must take advantage of that early on to ensure the defense respects the aerial attack. The Packers rank 24th in the league against the pass and with the bevy of receivers he now has at his disposal, the 49ers signal caller will have his chances.
Exploiting the absence of Clay Matthews
Matthews is the Packers' biggest weapon in trying to slow down Colin Kaepernick, In their Week 1 matchup, the man with the Fabio mane was tasked with spying and pass rushing the 49ers quarterback. Without him in the lineup due to a broken thumb, the 49ers' third-year quarterback should have some more breathing room and additional time to make plays down the field.
Four Niners to watch
1. Aldon Smith
The 49ers pass-rusher has been very quiet since his return in November, registering only four sacks over two games in the final half of the season. He, along with 2014 Pro-Bowl selection Ahmad Brooks, will be depended on mightily in harrying Rodgers into sacks and poor decisions. If there was ever a time for a breakout performance from No. 99, this is it.
2. Quinton Patton
The darling of the preseason and, thankfully, the Arizona Cardinals game looks poised to finally start cashing in on his potential now the he's healthy. Coming off of a circus catch to close last week's game, the feisty young wideout from Louisiana Tech has displayed innate playmaking ability, albeit from a small sample size. Patton could be a real x-factor who slips through the cracks of a defense more focused on shutting down players like Davis, Crabtree, and Boldin.
3. Eric Wright
If Carlos Rogers is unable to go, the 49ers will call upon Wright to fill in as the nickel cornerback while Tramaine Brock and Tarell Brown will handle the starting duties. Rogers may have slowed some in his older age, getting beat from time to time, but he's still a weapon against the slot and sound all-around corner. The Packers' heavy reliance on the pass and their bevy of wide receivers means the 49ers will be featuring a five-man secondary pretty frequently. It's crucial that Wright can step into this role and prove he's not a liability
Fooch's note: If Wright's hamstring is an issue, Perrish Cox or Darryl Morris would play in his place.
4. Phil Dawson
The Niners won on the leg of "Phil the Thrill" last weekend and they'll need him at the top of his game again this weekend. Special teams are a vital component to victory, even more so in the playoffs during inclement weather. Spanning a 15-year career, Dawson has only tasted postseason action once...and it was ten years ago (playing 14 years in Cleveland will do that to a man). Despite a Browns loss to Pittsburgh, Dawson was 2 for 2 on field goals in a game that was about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. More importantly, his experience kicking through the cold, swirling winds off Lake Erie in Cleveland shows he's well acclimated with the kind of conditions he'll face on Sunday.
At the end of the day, it's about winning one game at a time. This one game, however, could serve as the catalyst for a Super Bowl run. The players know what's at hand, what's at stake, and what it takes to get to the big one. The bitter taste left from the past two postseasons remains prominent; heck, I think Harbaugh still wears that hat with last year's Super Bowl logo on it as a vivid reminder of what slipped away...and as motivation to get back there.
Defensive deficiencies aside, Green Bay is still a formidable squad with Rodgers under center. This is a significant first round challenge for San Francisco; the game reads more like an NFC Championship heavyweight bout than a Wild Card contest. If the Niners can win Sunday, it will go a long way in terms of confidence and preparation for the tough road games ahead, especially if a trip to Seattle comes to fruition. As Jimmy Dugan (played by Tom Hanks) once said in the 90's movie "A League of Their Own" (I know, I know... it's a girls baseball movie but I'm in a female-dominated family and it's applicable here):
"It's supposed to be hard, if it wasn't hard everyone would do it; the hard is what makes it great."
It's the playoffs. It's supposed to be hard. And although we've rarely seen it this season, when the 49ers are clicking on both sides of the ball, they're the best in business. Coming away with a quality victory, in extreme conditions, on the road would serve as the perfect starting point for the 49ers because if you can win at Lambeau in January, you can win anywhere.