Jim Harbaugh and his San Francisco 49ers will be hoping that the third time’s the charm as they begin their third playoff run together. Harbaugh has led the Niners one step farther in each of his first two seasons, losing in the NFC Championship game in 2011 and the Super Bowl in 2012. This postseason, San Francisco will begin on the road in the Wild Card round after getting a bye in each of the last two years. The 49ers will have to bring their “A” game as they face off with a rejuvenated Green Bay Packers team that is getting healthy on offense at the right time.
Colin Kaepernick had his best performance throwing the football as a professional when the two teams squared off in Week one earlier this season. After rushing for 181 yards against the Packers in last year’s playoffs, Kaepernick and the rest of the 49er offense flipped the switch and attacked Green Bay through the air. With the Packers geared to stop the read option and the running game, Kaepernick threw for 412 yards and three touchdowns en route to a 34-28 victory. Anquan Boldin was dominate with 13 catches for 208 yards and a score while Vernon Davis added two touchdowns. The 49ers did have a tough time slowing down Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb who combined for 14 receptions and 238 yards. Both receivers also found the end zone once.
Players to watch
This game could very well be decided by how well both quarterbacks play. After struggling for most of Weeks 2-11, Kaepernick has started to find his stride. He is averaging 232 yards passing over his last six games and has 10 touchdown passes to only one interception during that span. The second year quarterback is also completing over 61 percent of his passes during the streak, which has helped the 49ers go 6-0 to finish the season. There is no doubt the return of Michael Crabtree in Week 13 has helped open up the offense, but Kaepernick is still the one who has to pull the trigger on it all and he has been successful in doing that recently.
For Green Bay, they are obviously a very different team when their franchise quarterback is healthy. With Aaron Rodgers out with a broken collar bone, the Packers went 2-4-1 in games started by other quarterbacks this season. The combination of Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn combined to throw 10 interceptions and only eight touchdown passes as the team struggled to replace their star. In comparison, Rodgers threw 17 touchdowns and only six interceptions during his time under center in 2013. Rodgers also has a legitimate running threat behind him which is something the Packers have lacked in recent years. Rookie Eddie Lacy has been a welcome addition and helped carry the team in Rodgers’ absence. For the season, he has 1178 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns.
Game changing factor
Entering the playoffs last season, Justin Smith and Aldon Smith were both playing with injuries that required offseason surgery and were not close to 100 percent. Because of that, a 49er defense that only allowed 17 points per game in 2012, gave up 31, 24, and 34 in their three playoff games. With both players healthy, the front seven should be able to have a huge impact on the game. In addition to the Smith’s and standout linebacker Patrick Willis, San Francisco has gotten career years from linebackers Navorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks. Brooks set a career high with 8.5 sacks in 2013 and Bowman has played so well he will be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. Bowman has been dominant of late, recording 3.0 sacks, two interceptions (including one for a touchdown), two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in December alone. No other NFL player did that in the course of the entire season, let alone one month.
Stats to know
The Packers defense ranks in the bottom 10 in the league in almost every defensive category. The have allowed 5956 total yards (25th), 428 points (24th), and 5.9 yards per play (28th). The 49ers should be able to pick and choose how they want to attack them and be successful either way, especially with Clay Matthews out with a thumb injury. If the Niners want to throw the ball, they can do so against a Green Bay unit that has given up 3956 total passing yards (24th), 30 touchdowns passes (27th), and 6.8 yards per passing attempt (25th). If they want to play keep away from Rodgers they can grind it out against a rushing defense that allowed 2000 rushing yards (25th), 16 rushing touchdowns (25th), and 4.6 yards per carry (27th).
It’s no small task to beat a Packers team at Lambeau Field with a quarterback like Rodgers, especially with the weather expected to be very cold. If any team is poised to do so though, it’s the 49ers. Under Harbaugh, the team is 18-7 on the road including last year’s NFC Championship game. Other than two lopsided losses at Seattle, San Francisco’s other five road losses have been by an average of just under 6 points a game. Look for the 49ers to make enough plays on defense to keep the Packers in the 20’s and force a turnover or two. With the offense being able to move the ball on a bad Green Bay defense, the 49ers should be moving onto the Divisional Round.
Photo: Mike Roemer/Associated Press
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