Because I'll be traveling all day Friday to one of my favorite cities, today's the day for my Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers NFC Divisional Playoff preview. Saturday night's winner at the Stick will play for the Conference Championship next week. Under Mike McCarthy, the Pack has reached that game twice, it happened in year two but they endured the horrible overtime loss at Lambeau to the New York Giants. Two years ago, the Packers beat the Bears in Chicago on their way to the Super Bowl 45 victory. The 49ers got to the title game last season, in Jim Harbaugh's first year on the job. Remarkable considering he took over a team without the benefit of an off-season or training camp because of the NFL lockout. A franchise with five Vince Lombardi trophies, wants to get back to the big game in a big way after they lost at home, in overtime, to yes, the Giants last season. Both of these teams were considered favorites for the George Halas Troph when the season began, and here they are. The Niners are a field goal favorite, rightfully so, they beat the back 30-22 on opening day and by a half-game, earned the number two seed and are playing at home. But neither team exactly steamrolled into the playoffs. San Francisco was 8-2-1 when the traveled to St. Louis on December 2 and were beaten in overtime. They struggled to beat Miami at home, nearly blew a 31-3 lead at New England, got roasted by Seattle and trailed in their finale to Arizona before pulling out a 27-13 victory. The Packers got humbled in New York just after Thanksgiving but reeled off three straight tough division wins, routed Tennessee and failed to clinch the two seed in the last second loss at the Metrodome. While byes are nice, I think the Packers really needed that Wild Card victory over the Vikings to re-capture their mojo heading to Candlestick. So let's break it down:
When the Packers have the ball.
San Francisco is a stingy, fast and hard hitting defense with Pro Bowlers at every level. First and foremost, Aaron Rodgers has to be both precise and careful. Relying solely on quick read routes in the passing game will be a hard way to make a living. There must be some semblance of a running game. Back in September, Cedric Benson managed a scant 18 yards on 9 carries, Rodgers led the team in rushing with 27. If DuJuan Harris can give the offense anything at all, it will be easier to find matchups on the perimeter. The offensive line will have to weather the Smith boys on the rush. Justin Smith is back from a partial triceps tear. While he was away, sack leader Aldon Smith (19.5), was quiet. Together, they are trouble. The Packers will be better off going right at inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. They're too fast to try and pull them to the flanks. Formation and motion will be helpful in getting safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner to show their hands in coverage. The Packers receivers can win matchups on the outside and against nickel packages. Take a page from the Giants 26-3 romp at Candlestick back in October. No sacks, no turnovers, strong on the ground and only two penalties. Sure they settled for four field goals but that victory was convincing.
When the 49ers have the ball.
The Pack got just a glimpse of the read option with Joe Webb last weekend, they'll get a steady dose Saturday night with Colin Kaepernick. But the 2nd year pro who banished Alex Smith, a quarterback with a 104.1 passer rating through the first nine games, to the bench, is still the secondary running threat. That's because the Niners have Frank Gore, one of the most consistent backs in the league, who piled up 1214 yards this year. San Francisco has three number one picks on their offensive line. They're big and punishing. The secondary should be able to hold their own against Michael Crabtree, who really developed this year with a team high 85 receptions. Backups have had to step up with injuries to Mario Manningham and Kevin Williams. Randy Moss was an afterthought with only 28 catches, but he does enjoy playing against the Packers. Rookie A.J. Jenkins is now getting significant playing time. The toughest matchup for the Packers in the air will be against a pair of really good tight ends, Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. They combined for 69 catches and 8 touchdowns. It must be a concerted and disciplined effort down to down because of Kaepernick's mobility. Force him to win with his arm.
While Mason Crosby has battled through his slump, the Niners have a confidence crisis themselves. Veteran David Akers endured some late season yips and they signed Billy Cundiff during their bye week. May the best man kick Saturday night. Both punters have been very good in different ways. Andy Lee has a stronger leg but Tim Masthay is deft with his situational punts. Ted Ginn is a veteran returner and rookie LaMichael James from Oregon has speed on kickoffs. The Packers have gotten a return boost from Jeremy Ross of late but don't be surprised to see Randall Cobb still handling punt returns. The cover teams are comperable but San Francisco has given up a punt return touchdown this year.
I believe the Packers are more than capable of putting together a complete game, it will be needed against a team intent on finishing a playoff run this year. San Francisco went 6-1-1 at home this year and while my heart sides with the Pack, my head tells me the 49ers will advance, 26-24.
I've had my say, let the Packers have theirs. On the link below, a trip through the locker room with comments from the guys in advance of what should be a terrific night in San Francisco.