Back-to-back playoff rematches for the Green Bay Packers (12-5) couldn’t measure any further apart in familiarity.
In earning a spot in the NFC Divisional Round, the Packers had to beat the Minnesota Vikings just six days after losing to Minnesota in Week 17.
To earn a trip to the NFC Championship Game, Green Bay will have to beat the San Francisco 49ers—a team the Packers lost to 125 days earlier in the season opener, 30-22.
Football teams rarely change much in six days, although the Vikings did lose their starting quarterback between Week 17 and the Wild Card Round. With four months and three days in between, however, both Green Bay and San Francisco couldn’t be any more different than the versions that faced off in Week 1.
Can the Packers avenge another regular-season loss despite the time gap? Or will the same script play out Saturday?
Below, we run down some things you could watch in the Divisional Round and a prediction.
Kaepernick vs. extra pressure
The Packers increased their sack total to a very respectable 47 this season, up 18 from 2011′s disappointing 29. At least part of that bump can be attributed to Dom Capers’ use of the blitz, which the Packers defensive coordinator called at a higher rate than just three teams this season. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Green Bay brought five or more rushers on 40 percent of the defensive snaps this season, good for fourth-most in the NFL.
Facing Colin Kaepernick instead of Alex Smith at quarterback likely means more blitzing from Capers. Whereas Smith completed almost 73 percent of his passes against the blitz this season (best in the NFL), Kaepernick finished under 57 percent and saw his total QBR drop by over 17 points when facing five or more rushers. With a young quarterback making his first playoff start, expect Capers to send even more blitzes than usual Saturday.
Old or new approach?
In the first meeting, Green Bay ended with just nine called running plays—a trend that almost certainly won’t be replicated Saturday. But the idea of spreading out the 49ers and winning the game through the air—which Adam Czech at AllGreenBayPackers.com also wrote about this week—has a statistical foundation. Over the 31 plays in the opener in which the Packers had no running backs on the field, quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed 21-of-28 passes for 229 yards and a touchdown. With one or two backs in the formation, Rodgers was just nine-of-16 for 74 yards and an interception.
Green Bay has become a much more physical offense since Week 1, and Mike McCarthy isn’t likely to abandon the running game like he did in the first meeting. But getting Patrick Willis off the field (he played just 68 percent of the snaps in Week 1) by using the spread offense produced much better results in the opener that most realized.
Few teams are more physical in the run game as the 49ers, but don’t count out San Francisco’s ability to get the football into the hands of its top receiver, Michael Crabtree. Selected one pick after the Packers took B.J. Raji in the first round of the 2009 NFL draft, Crabtree recorded his first 1,000-yard receiving season in 2012 and finally looked like the No. 1 option he was drafted to be.
Kaepernick has leaned heavily on the fourth-year receiver since taking over, and especially so over the last five games. Since the start of December, Crabtree averaged seven receptions on 11.2 targets and added 538 of his 1,105 total yards. With an emphasis on stopping the run, Packers cornerback Tramon Williams is likely going to draw a lot of man-to-man coverage on Crabtree Saturday. Green Bay needs their top cornerback to win a majority of those single coverages.
Matchup to Watch: Packers LT Marshall Newhouse vs. 49ers OLB Aldon Smith
With an undrafted rookie likely to have his hands full with Ahmad Brooks on the right side, Packers left tackle Marshall Newhouse will be expected to take on the NFC’s sack leader one-on-one for a high number of snaps Saturday. Smith, who finished with 19.5 sacks, beat Newhouse for one in the season opener.
However, it’s the 49ers’ stunt pressures that both Newhouse and left guard T.J. Lang must be aware of Saturday. 49ers defensive end Justin Smith, who is expected to play despite a partially torn triceps, is one of the best in the business at pushing the left guard into the left tackle and creating an open lane for the outside linebacker. It’s no coincidence that Aldon Smith didn’t record a sack without Justin Smith in the lineup late this season. Facing two All-Pro-caliber players, Newhouse and Lang have to play a near perfect game on the left side to keep Rodgers upright Saturday.
The Packers have the highest-rated passer in NFL playoff history, while the 49ers are starting a second-year quarterback with zero playoff experience. That reality alone is enough to justify picking Green Bay on the road, where the Packers have blazed Super Bowl trips before. However, the 49ers are as physical as they come on both the offensive and defensive lines, and there’s no substitute for being able to control a football game in the trenches. Rodgers should be terrific, but the Packers probably can’t beat the 49ers in San Francisco without Kaepernick giving the ball away two or three times.
49ers 33, Packers 27 (Season record: 11-6)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.