The Green Bay Packers’ 24-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings in the Wild Card Round set up a rematch with the San Francisco 49ers, who defeated Green Bay 30-22 in the season opener at Lambeau Field.
Each coach has admitted this week that both teams are vastly different than the versions that faced off back in Week 1. Will that dynamic change the outcome of Saturday’s Divisional Round matchup in San Francisco? Here’s my take on why the second bout between these NFC heavyweights could either be different or the same:
Why it could be different
- Packers have evolved on offense: In the season opener, Green Bay was little more than an extension of the offense that crumbled under its own weight in the previous postseason. The Packers handed off to Cedric Benson just nine times for 18 yards, and by the second half, Mike McCarthy had all but abandoned the run. Over the last four months, McCarthy has evolved. The Packers have averaged almost 30 rushing attempts a game since Week 9, and the result has been the NFL’s No. 12 overall rushing offense over that span (122.5 yards/game). McCarthy will still want his four receivers on the field for a high percentage of snaps—forcing the 49ers into a dime defense, where one interior linebacker exits—but nine rushing attempts won’t happen again Saturday. The Packers have finally started to establish a more physical identity running the football.
- Kaepernick’s double-edged sword, Smith’s health: Two important changes from the 49ers side: A switch at quarterback, and the health of All-Pro defensive end Justin Smith. Colin Kaepernick, not Alex Smith, will start under center for the 49ers Saturday, and that reality might just represent a double-edged sword for Green Bay. An ultra-athletic quarterback with a big arm, Kaepernick opens up the 49ers playbook and makes his offense even more difficult to defend. In games against Chicago and New England, Kaepernick was very impressive. But he’s also a quarterback with seven career starts and zero playoff appearances, so everything about the atmosphere will be new to him Saturday. Both the Rams and Seahawks also found ways to make Kaepernick very average during the regular season. On the defensive side, Justin Smith continues to battle with a partially torn triceps. He’s practiced this week and will likely play, but how limited he is in his functional strength remains to be seen. The 49ers defense looked awfully vulnerable with Smith out of the lineup, and Aldon Smith failed to register a sack without his strong-man defensive end helping to anchor the edge and stunt outside. His health Saturday could swing this game either way.
- Aaron Rodgers, playoff mode: The Packers quarterback talked at length last week about establishing a legacy in the postseason, but his legacy in the most important games is already impressive. Rodgers is the NFL’s leader in playoff passer rating, and his three 300-yard games are tied for first in franchise history. He now gets a chance to go home to California, with an opportunity to knock out his former favorite team and the franchise that passed on him in the 2005 NFL draft from the postseason. Talk about adding to the legacy. The 49ers did a better job against Rodgers in the season opener than the numbers suggest (303 yards, 2 TDs, INT), but he’s starting to heat up late in 2012-13. Rodgers hasn’t thrown an interception in 177 pass attempts, and his 11 touchdowns over the last four weeks rank first in the NFL. Expect there to be an edge to Rodgers’ game Saturday.
- The dreaded word, blueprint: No one likes to hear the word blueprint, especially against Rodgers and the Packers offense. But if there’s any defense that can pull off such a winning plan, it’s this 49ers team. Not only can Vic Fangio’s defense get pressure without blitzing, but San Francisco can also stop the run with just six players in the box. In the season opener, the 49ers played All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis on less than 70 percent of the total snaps, yet still shut down the Packers run game in nickel and dime defenses. Fellow interior linebacker NaVorro Bowman is just as good if not better at stopping the run. If the Packers can’t run the football against six-man fronts Saturday, it might not matter how “in the zone” Rodgers is. The 49ers will load the secondary with players and get after Rodgers with a talented four-man rush that includes Aldon Smith (19.5 sacks) and Ahmad Brooks (6.5).
- Pound, pound, pound, with a chance to throw: Colin Kaepernick isn’t Eli Manning, and it’s difficult to envision him slicing and dicing a veteran secondary solely through the air. But what Kaepernick can do is provide a passing element to an otherwise dominant running game. For the Packers defense, that equation has been trouble in 2012. The 49ers ran for 176 yards in the first meeting, and Alex Smith was efficient in the passing game. Manning threw three touchdowns in New York, but the Giants also rushed for nearly 150 yards on the ground. The Vikings rode Adrian Peterson in Week 17, but also received a flawless effort from Christian Ponder. Kaepernick and the 49ers can replicate that plan Saturday. While the Packers contained Peterson in the Wild Card Round, Joe Webb was incapable of making plays in the passing game. The same won’t be the case for Kaepernick, even in his first playoff start.
- Rested and ready: In the lead up to Week 17 in Minnesota, most of the Packers talked about the opportunity to get rested and healthy by winning and securing a first-round bye. That didn’t happen, and now it’s the 49ers’ luxury. Instead of preparing for a playoff game this past week, Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers were able to rest tired bodies and do extra work scouting, especially of the Packers. Eric Branch of the San Francisco Gate Chronicle reported Saturday night that the 49ers were using practice squad receivers to mimic Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson, and a reserve tight end as Jermichael Finley. The San Francisco defense will be prepared to face the Packers offense, who was at full strength in September when the 49ers mostly contained them. On offense, a week off should help a power running team more than it would a timing, passing offense like the Packers.
Note: Hat-tip to Greg Bedard at the Boston Globe for the format of this story.
Zach Kruse is a 24-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at email@example.com.