You would be hard pressed to find an NFL analyst who hadn’t picked either the Green Bay Packers or the San Francisco 49ers to come out of the NFC. It’s almost a letdown that they won’t meet in the conference championships, but I’m just glad we get to see these two play in January. They met once before in October, but so much has changed since that game that it’s almost a worthless reference. Just to get it out of the way: the 49ers beat the Packers in Lambeau Field 30-22.
What’s the difference between now and then? Well, there are tons.
Since that opening week matchup between these two NFC powerhouses there have personnel changes aplenty. The 49ers had to deal with injuries and prima donnas, and as a result have lost Mario Manningham, Kendall Hunter, and Kyle Williams to the season ending IR. The prima donna, well, that was Brandon Jacobs. And seeing as he has been a non factor from Week 1 forward, he is barely even deserving of mention really.
The worst injury of all for this 49ers squad has to be the one currently hindering their all world defensive tackle Justin Smith. Speculation is that he has a torn triceps muscle, and he is currently listed as probable for Saturday’s tilt. There are certain triceps tears you can play through - it’s a weird injury that way - and if he can play through it on Saturday, that will be a huge boost for this Niners defense. Especially in the pass rush. Justin Smith is the lynchpin of this defense, and although his sack numbers are way down from last year, his level of play certainly is not. Just ask Aldon Smith who hasn’t registered a single sack since Justin got hurt.
The biggest change up though for the 49ers since these two teams last met, is the change at quarterback. Alex Smith went down with a concussion in Week 9; Kaepernick was given a chance to start and has run away with the job since. You can make the case that Alex Smith should have kept his job and the team’s play as a whole really hasn’t been the same since he went down, but there’s just so much Kaepernick can do that Smith can’t. It’s also worth noting that Kaepernick has probably been the best part of the Niners since Week 9, too. What Kaepernick brings to the table is the ability to not only run with the ball, but get the deep ball going. Something Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman desperately wanted to get going this season. Kaepernick’s speed also allows the 49ers to run the read option, which is something the Packers haven’t had to defend against all season. Yes, they did play the Seahawks in Week 3 but Seattle really didn’t have that part of their offense down yet. This gives the 49ers a decided edge on offense.
The Packers aren’t exactly the same team as they were in Week 1 either. A whole lot has changed, and just about all of it has been good. Their 9-2 record over the last eleven games is a pretty solid indication of that. They are a healthier team at just about every position other than running back, and even then, their injuries at that position have almost helped them in a weird off hand way. Dujuan Harris and Ryan Grant are now the two lead backs in this offense -- following injuries to Alex Green and Cedric Benson -- and they’ve been doing great. Harris, in particular, is averaging 4.6 yards a carry, and is getting rave reviews out of Green Bay.
The Packers with a running game? Now that’s something to be reckoned with.
If the 49ers can’t find a way to slow the Packers offense down they don’t have a chance in hell. Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL and is only one road playoff victory short of setting the consecutive road playoff victory record at four. If he has time in the pocket, he will dismantle the Niners. Fortunately for the Niners, it does sound like Justin Smith is going to be playing in this game, and getting to Aaron Rodgers hasn’t been all that difficult this season. He’s been sacked 51 times on the year, and keeping that kind of pace alive is the Niners best chance of keeping their season alive too. It won’t be easy, though. Rodgers will have all his favorite weapons at his disposal, and God, there are oh so many.
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Where do you even start with this group? I guess with the league's most underrated receiver in James Jones, or maybe it’s most versatile in Randall Cobb. Anyways... his receivers are good. That’s the bottom line. The secondary will have its hands full to be sure, and the 49ers depth and role players are all going to have to be on the top of their game to stop this offensive juggernaut. Come to think of it, pretty long checklist of things to do to keep Green Bay under control.
The Niners retooled offense is going to need another performance like week one to help its defense sneak away with a victory. In Week 1 Alex Smith went 20 of 26 for 211 yards, and Vernon Davis was still a part of this offense. LaMichael James however, was not. I’d like to see the 49ers work some read option plays with both James and Gore lined up alongside Kaepernick in the pistol. James’ elusiveness and speed make him a wildcard any time he touches the ball. Back to Vernon Davis though – if he’s a no show, it’s going to tough sledding. They need him to return to form as a reliable option in the passing game. Having reliable tight ends is always great when you’re against Clay Matthews and the Green Bay pass rush.
It’s going to be a tight game, but I like the Niners to come out on top. This game is at home, and the Packers have zero experience playing the read option. Aaron Rodgers can take control of just about any game he plays in, but defense wins championships and the Niners have an amazing defense. Especially if Justin Smith returns. The Niners should have been in the Super Bowl last year, and I don’t expect them to bow out in the divisional round this year.