The rivalry renewed between the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers just got a face-lift, as they now square off in today’s Divisional Playoff Game at Candlestick Park. From 1995-2002, the two teams have been preventing each other from establishing dynasties, including five playoff games. To date, the Packers hold bragging rights with a 4-1 playoff record against their inter-conference rivals.
Despite the 49ers lackluster playoff record, however, I believe the 49ers will come out on top. They have a better coaching staff, better players and home-field advantage.
In Week 1, the 49ers shocked the world. They manhandled Green Bay at Lambeau Field, en route to a 30-22 victory. The win was labeled a statement victory and powered the 49ers to runner-up on ESPN’s Power rankings. Since then, both teams have changed dramatically.
On one side, you have the 49ers making a quarterback change mid-way through the season, and on the other, you have the Packers scrambling for linebacker depth after losing Nick Perry and D.J. Smith to season-ending injuries.
So what does this all mean for two teams that have vastly changed? Everything. The heart and soul of the 3-4 defense starts with the linebackers, and the Packers simply have none. Aside from Clay Matthews and A.J. Hawk, the Packers need to incorporate a linebacker by committee approach as incumbents Brad Jones and Erik Walden are serviceable, at best.
The 49ers offensive line, which includes two starting Pro Bowlers in Joe Staley and Mike Iupati, should use this to their advantage by running the ball early and often. It will not only get running back Frank Gore his touches, but it will also extend the time of possession. Meaning, Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be on the sideline.
As for Green Bay’s game plan against Kaepernick, I have two words—good luck. Although the Packers’ defense racked up four sacks and six quarterback hits in their prior meeting, there’s a new quarterback behind center, and this one is mobile.
If the Packers hope to have any success against Kaepernick, they will need to initiate the blitz. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers loves to apply pressure, so look for him to use free-safety Charles Woodson to disrupt Kaepernick’s timing. In doing so, look for the 49ers to counter this attack with quick slants and multiple tight-end sets.
Now, let’s talk about the reigning MVP; the man known for the “discount double-check,” and “championship belt celebration artist,” Aaron Rodgers. How does the 49ers’ defense stop him? By applying pressure up the middle and keeping him in the pocket. Rodgers is last year’s NFL MVP, and it’s not by accident.
If the Niners hope to have any chance of beating the Packers today, they will need to collapse the pocket and prevent him from scrambling to his right. Rodgers is one of the best, if not the best quarterback when rolling to his right. He has the arm strength to make accurate throws on the run, so the 49ers’ secondary needs to be cautious at all times.
With the game turning into a Kaepernick versus Rodgers debate, I believe the key match up will be between the Packers’ offensive line and 49ers’ front-seven.
The Packers offensive line has given up the most sacks of any team in the league (51). And with right tackle Bryan Bulaga out, and Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday benched, the Packers’ line grows thin.
On the other side of the ball, you have a hungry 49ers’ defense thirsty for sacks. With Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith returning from a torn triceps injury, the sacks should follow subsequently. In his absence, no player has suffered more than outside linebacker Aldon Smith, as he was unable to record a single sack in Smith’s absence. With the Smith brothers cohesively back in action, look for the 49ers’ defense to turn it up a notch and generate some sacks.
If the 49ers can stick with the run, win the turnover battle and contain Rodgers, they will win. And I predict all three of those things will happen, as the 49ers win a nail-biter 27-24.