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11NFL Playoff Preview: San Francisco 49ers vs. Green Bay Packers

The final game of NFL wildcard weekend figures to be a good one. The 49ers and Packers met back in week 1 and in the divisional round of the playoffs last year, with San Francisco winning both games. These two teams should know each other pretty well, so it should be interesting. Let’s take a closer look:

HOW THYEY GOT HERE?
The Packers persevered over an eight-week period without quarterback Aaron Rodgers, enduring a five-game winless streak during that time, and thanks to a complete collapse by the Lions, Green Bay was in position to win the NFC North in week 17, when Rodgers returned and led the Packers to victory over the Bears to put them in the postseason. Things weren’t quite as complicated for the 49ers, who won their final six games and clinched a playoff birth in week 16. However, with Seattle winning the NFC West, San Francisco had to settle for a wildcard spot, despite winning 12 games this season.

SAN FRANCISCO OFFENSE VS. GREEN BAY DEFENSE
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick has had an uneven season and hasn’t always been a game changer with his arm, but he finished the regular season strong with 10 touchdowns and one interception over the final six games. The Green Bay defense has had their fair share of problems this season, especially over the last three weeks, and if that continues it may put Kaepernick in position to make plays with his arm, especially with the trio of Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, and Vernon Davis in place. Meanwhile, the 49ers know that they have a good rushing attack behind Frank Gore, with Kaepernick also being a threat to take off and make plays with his legs. The goal for the Packers on defense will be to stop the run as best they can and force Kaepernick to beat them with his arm, which will be their best chance to keep the game as low scoring as possible and keep the pressure off Rodgers and their offense as much as possible, although based on how Kaepernick has played in recent weeks, that doesn’t guarantee success for the Green Bay defense, as Kaepernick is capable of beating the Packers through the air, throwing for over 400 yards against them in week 1.

GREEN BAY OFFENSE VS. SAN FRANCISCO DEFENSE
Not only is Rodgers back, but so is Randall Cobb, and that combination came up big for the Packers in crunch time last week, with both of Cobb’s receptions going for touchdowns, and those two will have to come up big for Green Bay again this week. Rodgers did show some signs of rust, but he should be a little sharper in his second week back, and it should help that he has a nice collection of receivers, including Cobb, the reliable Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Jarrett Boykin, and emerging tight end Andrew Quarless. That group should be enough for a quarterback like Rodgers, although if the Packers need to rely on their running game, they can do so with potential rookie of the year Eddie Lacy, as well as James Starks, who had a big game against the Bears last week. Of course, things won’t come as easy against the San Francisco defense as they did last week against the Chicago defense. The Packers may have one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL, but they’ll be going up against one of the top rush defenses in the league, and whichever team gets the better of that matchup will have a distinct advantage, especially if the weather conditions make it difficult to throw the ball. As good as Rodgers can be, it will be tough for him if the Packers are forced to become one-dimensional on offense against a quality defense, so it’s imperative that the Packers run the ball effectively and maintain balance on offense, especially if the Green Bay defense struggles and the game turns into a shootout in the second half.

PREDICTION
It’s inevitable that the cold temperatures at Lambeau Field will become a factor, although it may end up helping the 49ers more than the Packers, as the strength of the 49ers is their defense, which should be largely unaffected by the weather. The Packers have made a great run to the playoffs, but the 49ers are a more balanced team and better suited for the postseason. It’ll be tough for both teams to throw the ball, and while Rodgers will have some success in the passing game, San Francisco has a better front-7 defensively, as well as a quarterback that can help move the ball on the ground, and those two areas will ultimately give the 49ers the edge. San Francisco 23, Green Bay 14.


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11Can the Green Bay Packers Survive Aaron Rodgers' Injury?

Few teams have been inundated with injuries the way the Green Bay Packers have been this season. But the Packers have found a way to survive injuries to players like Bryan Bulaga, Randall Cobb, and Jermichael Finley and remain one of the top teams in the NFC. They’ve been able to do so in large part because of the play of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. However, now that Rodgers has joined the list of injured players, and will miss roughly three weeks, is this one injury too many for the Packers? Can they survive three weeks without Rodgers?

At first glance, it would seem like Green Bay has a manageable schedule for the next three weeks, with home games against the Eagles and Vikings, and a road game against the Giants. However, without Rodgers that schedule may be harder to traverse than people think. While the Eagles have been maddeningly inconsistent this season, they’re also coming off a 49-point outburst last week, and if their offense performs close to that level against the Packers, the Green Bay offense could have a hard time keeping up with Rodgers and key skill position players on the sidelines. The Giants shouldn’t be considered an easy win either, as they’ve won their last two games and possess enough talent to give the Packers problems, especially with Green Bay being far from full strength. Minnesota may seem like an easy win as well, but without Rodgers nothing should be taken for granted.

With Rodgers, the Packers would have been considerable favorites to win all three of those games. But if they lose one or possibly two of those three games because Rodgers is injured, it could have a lasting effect on their season, even after Rodgers returns. Following Green Bay’s loss to the Bears on Monday night, the Packers are now in a three-way tie for first place in the NFC North along with Chicago and Detroit. It’s unlikely that that all three teams will be able to make the playoffs, which means that in the NFC North there could be a thin line between winning the division and missing the postseason altogether, and if the Packers trip up during Rodgers’ absence, it could make all the difference at the end of the season.

What makes Rodgers’ injury particularly worrisome is the fact that it’s on top of all the other injuries the Packers have been forced to endure this season. Backup Seneca Wallace would have a far easier time filling in for a few weeks if the rest of the Green Bay offense were at full strength. But while Rodgers has been able to get by a lackluster group of receivers, such a task won’t be so easy for Wallace, who was just 11 for 19 for 114 yards Monday night against a Chicago defense that’s average at best.

Against the Bears, Green Bay converted just one of their nine third-down opportunities, which is a concern for the Packers after Wallace did not look impressive throwing the ball down field. The Packers will try to establish the run more with Rodgers out, and that has a chance to work with the emergence of rookie Eddie Lacy, but even with close to 200 yards rushing and nearly seven yards per rush against the Bears, Green Bay was still unable to score more than 20 points without a reliable passing attack.

Being without Rodgers for three weeks doesn’t necessarily signal the inevitable collapse of the Packers, but it puts them in a difficult spot while being in the midst of a tight division race. Rodgers is the primary reason why Green Bay has been able to withstand all of the other injuries they’ve had to key players this season, and he was easily the player they could least afford to lose. Between their running game and their defense, the Packers may have enough to endure three weeks without Rodgers. But the margin for error is thin in the NFC North, and a few games without Rodgers could end up making a big difference.


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11Monday Night Football Preview: Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears

Week 9 concludes with a division matchup of old and bitter rivals on Monday night, and with plenty to be gained and lost in the game, lets’ take a closer look at the Packers and Bears.

WHAT’S AT STAKE
At stake in this game is first place in the NFC North. With a win, the Packers can remain atop the division, while a win by the Bears would mean a three-way tie for first place along with the Lions. The Bears probably need this game a little more after losing three of their last four games, and while they have a fairly manageable schedule the rest of the season, falling to 4-4 will make it hard for them to win the division and give them an uphill battle in the wildcard race. Meanwhile, the Packers want to keep up the momentum they’ve built during their current four-game winning streak, while maintaining their lead in the division, with both the Bears and Lions close behind.

CHICAGO OFFENSE VS. GREEN BAY DEFENSE
The Bears have had a well-balanced offense that’s had no trouble scoring points all season long, but with Jay Cutler out of the lineup, things may not run as smoothly. Josh McCown played well in relief of Cutler two weeks ago, but that was against Washington’s defense, and Green Bay’s defense will be a big step up in competition. The Bears will have to establish their running game in order to take some pressure off McCown. If they can do that, McCown should be competent enough to get the ball to Chicago’s talented receiving corps of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Martellus Bennett. However, the Packers have been great at stopping the run this season, as they are huge across the defensive line, and McCown could struggle if Chiago becomes one dimensional. The x-factor in this matchup could be the health of the Packer’s linebackers, as Clay Matthews is expected to miss the game, while a couple other guys are banged up. If Green Bay’s linebackers struggle it’ll be easier for the Bears to run the ball, and tougher for the Packers to bother with McCown with their pass rush, which would make it easier for the Bears to replace Cutler without skipping a beat.

GREEN BAY OFFENSE VS. CHICAGO DEFENSE
Aaron Rodgers appears largely unaffected by the loss of several key skill players, as he’s still throwing for roughly 300 yards per game, and consistent production from rookie Eddie Lacy has made things easier for him, as the Packers have a more balanced offense than in year’s past. Jordy Nelson is also stepping his game up with so many injuries around him, as he’s gone for over 100 yards receiving in two of the last three weeks. The Chicago defense has been dreadful for most of the season, and even against a depleted Green bay offense, they should have their hands full. The Bears have the fewest sacks this year of any defense in the NFL, and being unable to put pressure on the quarterback can be troublesome against a quarterback like Rodgers. However, the Chicago defense has been good at forcing turnovers, and that could be their only hope against the Green Bay offense. Without forcing a couple turnovers, it could be a long night for the Chicago defense.

PREDICTION
The Bears have had two weeks to prepare for this game, and they need to win a little more than the Packers do, but unless they’ve made monumental strides on the defensive side of the ball, it’s hard to imagine them beating the Packers at Lambeau Field. With plenty of preparation and good players around him McCown will be fine, but he won’t outplay Rodgers, and the Chicago defense won’t provide much support. Green Bay 38, Chicago 21.


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11NFL Official Bill Leavy Downgraded After Bad Call

Week 1 of the NFL season can get pretty sloppy for both teams and referees, as both players and officials get back into the swing of things with limited preparation. However, one referee made a mistake so egregious, the league downgraded him, putting his chances of officiating playoff games in jeopardy, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter

Bill Leavy gave the San Francisco 49ers two third downs in a scoring drive that helped them beat the Green Bay Packers after a scuffle following the end of the play was mishandled.

After a third-and-6 play at the Green Bay 10-yard line in the second quarter,  49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was hit out of bounds by Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. Matthews was hit with personal foul penalty, but so was 49ers tackle Joe Staley for unsportsmanlike conduct in a scuffle after the play was already dead. However Stanley shouldn’t have received a personal foul, since both penalties came after the play ended with Kaepernick stepping out of bounds without gaining a first down, making them dead ball penalties.

The league said Sunday the penalties were dead-ball fouls and the ball should have been spotted at the Packers' 6, making it fourth-and-2. However, officials gave the 49ers another third-and-6 play, which became a 10-yard touchdown pass from Kaepernick to wide receiver Anquan Boldin to take a 14-7 lead with just under nine minuets to play in the first half.

"The down should have counted," Leavy said after the game. "The penalties were both dead ball, and they should have offset at the spot where the runner went out of bounds. And it would have been fourth down."

The rule in question states, "Dead ball fouls by both teams are offset at the succeeding spot, and the down counts, and any disqualified player or players must be removed ..."

Sources: ESPN, CBS Sports


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1149ers Fan Falls To His Death During Sunday’s Win Over The Packers

The San Francisco 49ers victory over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday was a little less sweet because of something that happened to one of the team’s fans. Shortly after kickoff on Sunday afternoon, a 49ers fan fell to his death from an elevated pedestrian walkway at Candlestick Park.

Police spokesman Gordon Shyy says off-duty medics and police officers gave the man first aid until an ambulance arrived but their efforts were unsuccessful. Witnesses to the accident said that the man appeared to be intoxicated before his fall.

49ers spokesman Bob Lange released a statement:

“We would like to express our deepest condolences to the family during this difficult time,” he said.

It’s unclear how far the man fell, The Inquisitr reported.

Elsewhere in the NFL, two fans that were at the Colts/Raiders game in Indianapolis were injured when a barrier that they were leaning against collapsed. After the barrier gave way, the fans tumbled down onto the walkway that the players use to get to the locker room.

Colts spokesman Avis Roper said there was no immediate word on the severity of the fan’s injuries.

Sources: The Inquisitr, USA Today


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11Green Bay Packers Search for a Running Game

For as long as Aaron Rodgers has been the starting quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, they have been a pass-heavy offense. However, with their contingent of receivers not quite as impressive as it used to be, it might be time for the Packers to become more balanced offensively. Judging by the fact that they were 20th in the NFL in rushing last year, and haven’t had a running back gain 100 yards in a single game since the 2010 season, Green Bay has a long way to go to develop a consistent and productive rushing attack.

The Packers were so ineffective at running back last season that Rodgers, who doesn’t exactly spring to mind when the phrase dual-threat quarterback is mentioned, was second on the team in rushing, as well as second to wide receiver Randall Cobb in yards per rush. Of course, Green Bay did well to recognize their deficiency and addressed it in the draft, picking up Eddie Lacy in the second round and Johnathan Franklin in the fourth round. They also bring back last year’s leading rushing Alex Green and James Starks, who led the team in rushing in 2011. A wildcard in the group could be DuJuan Harris, who started both of Green bay’s playoff games last season, but is still recovering from a knee injury and may not have the opportunity to earn a spot on the team. It’s from that group of backs that the Packers will hope to find some answers in their running game this season.

Despite being a rookie, Lacy may be the favorite to become the starter. Green Bay was so desperate for a running back that they considered taking Lacy in the first round, and they were lucky that he was still available when they were making their second round selection. Lacy has a great combination of power of speed. He has the look and size of a power back, and is great at breaking tackles, but he also has surprising foot quickness and can be incredibly shifty. Lacy is perhaps best known for his patented spin move, which work wonders in college, even against SEC defenses, and the Packers are hoping it will translate to the NFL. Green Bay drafted Lacy with the hope that he would become their starter, and there should be little doubt that he is the most talented running back on their roster. The only thing left to do is for Lacy to go out on the field and produce, and prove that he should be Green bay’s starter this year.

Of course, with so many issues with their backfield heading into the offseason, the Packers also drafted Franklin as reinforcement. Franklin doesn’t have great size, so he’s likely to be a part-time change-of-pace back, but he does have the skills to play on every down. He’s fast and shifty, which means he fits the mold of a back up in the NFL, but he has the secondary skills to play an even larger role. Perhaps most importantly, Franklin has good receiving skills coming out of the backfield, which is something that Lacy doesn’t do well, and something that the Packers will look to utilize, which should guarantee him plenty of playing time as a rookie.

However promising Green Bay’s rookies may be, Green and Starks should not be counted out. For a team with such high aspirations, experience is at a premium at all positions. Although Green and Starks haven’t proven to be all that productive in the past, they should not be counted out of the running back competition, nor should Harris. Ultimately, the Packers hope they can get something substantial out of this group of five running back candidates. There appears to be enough talent to make that happen, but Green Bay will also need strong play from its offensive line, and make a commitment to running the ball and having a balanced offense. Until we see all those factors come together, we won’t know for sure if the Packers will have an improved running game in 2013, something they may need if they hope to be contenders in the NFC.


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112013 NFL Bounce Back Candidates

While Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson were setting career highs and approaching/smashing records, other highly-regarded players had disappointing 2012 campaigns. Many of 2011’s studliest stars didn’t enjoy similar success the following year, but some of these underperformers shouldn’t be counted out going forward. Here are three receivers poised for a bounce-back season.

1. Larry Fitzgerald

Season                 Receptions         Yards/Rank         YPR        Touchdowns
2011                       80                           1411/4TH               17.6        8
2012                       71                           798/41st                 11.2        4

Those who strapped themselves down, self-medicated using their preferred and available substance, and watched the 2012 Arizona Cardinals should not hold their franchise player responsible for the 4-0 beginning gone horribly wrong. Not only does Fitzgerald have no need to hold himself accountable; he deserves an award of the highest honor for maintaining his composure throughout some of the most atrocious, unwatchable “quarterback play” the NFL has ever seen.

Just how bad were the 2012 Cardinals “quarterbacks,” you ask? The following sequence actually happened during the November 18th contest in Atlanta:
1. Cardinals’ Touchdown (7-0 ARI)
2. Cardinals’ Field Goal (10-0 ARI)
3. Cardinals’ Field Goal (13-0 ARI)
4.  Coach Whisenhunt Looks At Stats Sheet And Sees That John Skelton Is Leading The Cardinals To Victory With A This-Must-Be-A-Misprint 2/7, 6 Yards Statline
5. Rookie Ryan Lindley Replaces John Skelton
6. Cardinals Lose (Despite 5—Count It—5  Matt Ryan Gifterceptions)

The remarkable composure and self-control exhibited by Fitz throughout the 2012 season is something to marvel at. Every grateful NFL fan owes Larry Fitzgerald a thank-you card for not pulling a Barry Sanders and retiring solely because his team single-handedly destroyed his passion for the game of football.

Fitzgerald only hauled in nine fewer passes than his 2011 total, but the 613-yard discrepancy did more than enough to solidify his 2012 season as a bust. The start wideout’s 798 yards marked the only time since his rookie season that he played 16 games and failed to surpass the 1000-yard mark. With the addition of Bruce Arians’ downfield passing attack and real-quarterback Carson Palmer, Fitzgerald is a virtual lock to make up for his lackluster 2011 performance.

2. Dwayne Bowe

Season                 Receptions         Yards/Rank         YPR        Touchdowns
2011                       81                           1159/13th             14.3        5
2012                       59                           801/40th              13.6        3                                             

Dwayne Bowe is no Fitzgerald, but the supremely-talented Kansas City receiver enjoyed an indisputably-disappointing season as his Chiefs sputtered to an NFL-worst 2-14 record. His yardage totals in 2011-2012 may not display the discrepancy immediately visible from Fitzgerald’s statline, but his on-field impact diminished in more ways than the numbers state.

The Chiefs’ “offense” routinely found itself in holes thanks to routine deficits, and “quarterback” Matt Cassel consistently proved incapable of leading a come-from-behind passing attack. Kansas City was a run-first team without any discernible weapons outside of Bowe and Jamaal Charles, and thanks to said deficits, the “offense” was doomed. The lack of a balanced attack hindered Bowe’s ability to warrant defensive attention and stun opposing defenses with big plays downfield, but with a revamped surrounding cast led by Coach Andy Reid and QB Alex Smith, Bowe should return to top-15 receiver status with ease. 

3. Jordy Nelson
 

Season                 Receptions         Yards/Rank         YPR        Touchdowns
2011                       68                           1263/9th                18.6        15
2012                       49                           745/50th                15.2        7             

Unlike Bowe and Fitzgerald, Nelson had the luxury of catching balls from an honest-to-God quarterback. Although his Packers finished the season on a 9-2 run, Nelson suffered hamstring and ankle injuries in the second half of the season that he was never able to fully recover from. The fifth-year pro began the year on pace to notch a 91/1216/11 statline, but missed four games and never returned to early-season form upon his return.

Prior to 2012, Nelson only missed 3 games in 4 seasons, signifying an avoidance of the dreaded “injury-prone” tag to this point in his career. If he can stay off the injury report, Nelson has every reason to match his career-high numbers from 2011. Greg Jennings is gone, Aaron Rodgers is better than ever, and Coach Mike McCarthy has vowed to improve  Green Bay’s 25th ranked rushing “attack.” With a surrounding cast of proven weapons including Randall Cobb and James Jones, defenses are unlikely to zero-in on Nelson. Pending a healthy season, Jordy will be a regular on the Monday morning SportsCenter highlight reel.

 


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112013 NFL Draft 5 Biggest Surprises: Packers, Bills, Eagles, Jets and More

If there’s one thing you can count on during the NFL Draft, it’s being surprised, and this year’s draft did not disappoint in that department. Here are the five biggest surprises of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Eddie Lacy was the fourth running back taken – Lacy was thought of as a possible first round pick, especially with the Green Bay Packers picking 26th overall, but Lacy managed to stay on the board until the 29th pick of the second round when Green Bay’s patience paid off for them and they were able to take him anyway. As surprising as it was for Lacy to fall that far, it was even more surprising to see three other running backs come off the board before him. The Bengals had coveted Giovani Bernard all along, but Lacy being passed up by the Steelers and Broncos for Le’Veon Bell and Montee Ball respectively was unexpected.

The Buffalo Bills took E.J. Manuel in the first round and not Ryan Nassib – This pick sent quite a few jaws to the floor. Ever since Doug Marrone became the head coach of the Bills, many speculated, and some even assumed, that Buffalo would draft Nassib after spending his college years with Marrone at Syracuse. But the Bills shocked everybody when they took Manuel 16th overall to be their quarterback of the future. Marrone’s connection to Nassib had many thinking he would be going to the Bills in either the first or second round while Manuel was not thought of by many to be a first rounder. Manuel may actually fit the offensive system Buffalo is going to run better than Nassib, but it was still quite a shock to see Marrone pass up the quarterback he groomed in college for someone else.

Mike Glennon was drafted before both Ryan Nassib and Matt Barkley – With all due respect to Glennon and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it’s hard to fathom how Glennon was off the board before either Barkley or Nassib. There wasn’t a lot of consensus on the pecking order of quarterbacks in this year’s draft, but most had Barkley and Nassib ahead of Glennon. Surprising as it was to see Barkley and Nassib wait until the fourth round to get selected, it was even more surprising to see Glennon come off the board even earlier in the third round.

Geno Smith dropped to the second round – No one was more surprised (and visibly upset) that Smith left Radio City Music Hall Thursday night without a home than Smith himself. Other than Ryan Nassib possibly going to the Bills, it was assumed that Smith would be the first quarterback drafted and that he would go somewhere in the first round. In the end, there just weren’t enough teams willing to use a first round pick on a quarterback considering how weak this year’s class was at that position, although once the second round started Smith didn’t have to wait too long to hear his name.

Tyler Bray went undrafted – It’s unusual for the most talented quarterback in a class to go undrafted, but then again this was an unusual class of quarterbacks. It’s no surprise why Bray went undrafted; despite his great talent he has some character issues, isn’t known for having a great work ethic, and lacks leadership, as well as several other essential intangibles for the quarterback position. However, it was still surprising to see none of the 32 teams take a chance on drafting Bray, while quarterbacks like Sean Renfree and B.J. Daniels were selected.


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115 Lessons Learned from Green Bay Packers vs. San Francisco 49ers

Here are five points that sum up last night’s NFC playoff game.

  1. We found out what Colin Kaepernick is made of.

I’m not even talking about the record-setting 181 rushing yard performance. Starting in your first playoff game has to be nerve-wracking enough, and when it begins with a pick-six, that definitely has to do a number on your confidence. The second-year quarterback wasn’t fazed, though, and he rebounded to outplay Aaron Rodgers.

  1. The 49ers can still get to the QB.

A banged-up Justin Smith didn’t slow the 49ers down, as they were able to disrupt Rodgers all night long. The first half was tight, but in the second the 49ers defense stepped up and made plays. Harbaugh and the coaching staff adjusted to the Green Bay offense and amassed turnovers, sacks, and other mistakes from the Packers’ O.

  1. The Packers could use an electric running back.

DuJuan Harris was commended for his fill-in play, and rightly so. The 11-53 stat line isn’t overly impressive, but he managed to play better than the other runners who have filled in for the injured Cedric Benson. Benson appears to still have some gas left in the tank, so I am not suggesting an outright replacement. That being said, with all their firepower at the receiver position, Green Bay would greatly benefit from a quick Darren Sproles-like running back lining up in the backfield.

  1. Michael Crabtree is Emerging

In his fourth season, Michael Crabtree is finally coming into his own. He has been a solid receiver for the past two years, but Colin Kaepernick found instant chemistry with him and has elevated the receiver’s game. Crabtree isn’t just benefitting from a QB who happens to like him; he’s been making great plays with his hands and feet for weeks. Last offseason San Francisco was evidently disappointed with their receiver production and signed Randy Moss and Mario Manningham as a result. Crabtree has been producing at the level that earned him a top-ten draft pick, and his emergence is taking the San Francisco offense to the next level.

  1. Colin Kaepernick is on his way to becoming a superstar

Not trying to slurp the Kaepernick Kool-Aid like everyone else, but this guy is the real deal. Sure, defenses will learn to prepare for him, but his skillset is lethal. When he needs to squeeze it in there, Kaepernick’s fastball rivals that of top-tier NFL QBs. His touch passes down the field, such as the one to Vernon Davis, are a thing of beauty. When you combine that with breakaway speed that is all part of a kid who has an unquestionable work ethic and doesn’t seem to have a huge ego, we are looking at a star.


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11NFL Playoffs Preview: San Francisco 49ers vs. Green Bay Packers

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.

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.


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