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Green Bay Packers @ San Francisco 49ers NFL Preview

Time for some deep insight on the biggest playoff game of the weekend (at least to Andy & I). I've been a Niners fan since the Joe Montana days and Andy's been a Cheesehead for many a year. If you want in-depth coverage, then read on! Andy Richmond, @bickley14 has been a part of a very successful NFL trading site this season, called NFL Insight. Here's the link to the original preview. All this weekend's matches will be covered in depth there.

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Green Bay Packers @ San Francisco 49ers NFL Preview

NFL Preview – Divisional Play-Offs 2012 Season

Game Keys:

Green Bay to maintain more balance this time around

The Packers hold a clear advantage at receiver they must use it

Keep Rodgers upright at all costs – handle the 49ers pass rush

49ers must establish the run to ease the pressure on Kaepernick

Can Kaepernick challenge and beat the aggressive Packers secondary

Turnovers – Rodgers rarely turns the ball over; Kaepernick must be mindful of ball security

Field position could be vital both teams have good punting and return units – a key battle

Kickers – both teams have problems in that department, who holds their nerve the best in a tight game.

Aggressive Packers defence to pressure Kaepernick, not only through Matthews but on a variety of creative blitz packages

Key players: Green Bay (DuJuan Harris) – San Francisco (Michael Crabtree)


Game Statistics

The 49ers and Packers have met on five previous occasions in the postseason with Green Bay winning four of them. The lone win by San Francisco came in the 1998 Wild Card Playoffs on Terrell Owens’ game-winning touchdown grab with three seconds remaining. The Packers won the most recent meeting in the 2001 Wild Card Playoffs.

‎The 49ers earned a chance to play at home in the Divisional round thanks to finishing with the second-best record in the NFC this season and that bodes well… sort of. At 19-9, San Francisco is tied for the second-most home playoff wins all-time but has never reached the Super Bowl as the No. 2 seed.

Aaron Rodgers comes into the weekend having thrown 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in the last four games including at least one touchdown pass in each of those contests. The four straight games with at least one touchdown and no interceptions are tied for the longest such streak of his career.

Colin Kaepernick threw for a career-high 276 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the 49ers’ win over the Cardinals in Week 17. The performance helped Kaepernick finish the year with a 76.8 Total QBR, trailing only Peyton Manning (84.1) and Tom Brady (77.1) among all qualified players during the regular season.

The Packers improved to 30-17 in the postseason all-time with their win over the Vikings in the Wild Card round. Their .638 win percentage in the playoffs is the best by any franchise in NFL history.

The 49ers defeated the Packers 30-22 in Week 1 of this season, snapping Green Bay’s eight-game winning streak in the series. San Francisco has not won consecutive meetings with the Packers since winning three straight between 1981 and 1987.

Including the playoffs, the Packers are just 6-15 in games decided by three points or fewer under head coach Mike McCarthy (1-3 this season). Since he took over as head coach in 2006, that .286 win percentage in such games is the worst in the NFL.

San Francisco ranked second in opponent points per game (17.1) and third in opponent yards per game (294.4) this season. It marked the second straight year in which the 49ers ranked among the league’s top five teams in each category.

Game Preview

Another re-match, way back in Week 1 the 49ers landed a signature victory against the Packers at Lambeau Field, showing that San Francisco’s run in 2011 was not a fluke. However, each team has gone through personnel changes that could lead to a different outcome this time around and most fans either attached to either of these two teams or the neutral amongst you will be looking forward to this one. Much will be decided by the two quarterbacks in this contest – the Packers Aaron Rodgers is a Californian native who was passed over by the side he supported as kid in the 2005 draft and Alex Smith who San Francisco took instead of Rodgers and was recently replaced by Colin Kaepernick as the 49ers starter, he was born in Wisconsin and said he used to cheer for Green Bay.

There’s an awful lot at stake here. Both teams are in Super Bowl or bust mode. It’s one of the best passing offences in the NFL against what may be the game’s best defence. It’s the 49ers, who play as physical as any club in the NFL on both sides of the ball, against a Green Bay team that can be a little more finesse offensively. The 49ers have one of the league’s stingiest defences and will be tasked with shutting down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offence. It worked well back in Week 1, and though Green Bay lost by just eight points, the game never really looked like it was out of San Francisco’s complete control.

Plenty of contrasts in style at play here and plenty of star players on display, although I wonder how much bearing and how much of a template that first week match-up will provide in the post-season.

The biggest change will be at quarterback for the 49ers where the sophomore Kaepernick got the nod from coach Harbaugh after Smith was injured. Smith led the second-seeded 49ers to last year’s NFC title game but has been replaced by Kaepernick and his emergence is one of many changes since these two met in the season’s opener. Smith despite going 20 of 26 in that first game was mostly a stationary target and was sacked four times, Kaepernick’s mobility gives the 49ers a completely new look and one that is more in keeping with the modern NFL – he’ll certainly create a different challenge for the Packers than Smith did.

Rodgers as usual will always create problems for any defence and I’d have to say that the Packers defence has also got healthier and a new look since then. Talking of defence the San Francisco version will also be playing a big part in this game, although the 49ers finished around the middle of the pack with 38 sacks – Aldon Smith had an NFC-high 19 1/2 – their pass rush figures to be a major factor against Rodgers, who was sacked a league-high 51 times including three in the opener. The return in that defensive unit of the other Smith (Justin) is also welcome news for the 49ers and especially his namesake Aldon who has not appeared as effective without him in the line-up. Justin Smith can help the Niners defence regain its swagger. The 12th-year pro was injured early in the second half of a Week 15 win over the Patriots, and his remarkable pass-rush skills were sorely missed over the final 10 quarters of the regular season. The 49ers’ defence surrendered a total of 86 points in that span, looking nothing like the impenetrable force that had dominated the NFL for most of the 2012 campaign. Smith excels at executing stunts and games off the edge, displaying unbelievable chemistry with second-year defensive lineman Aldon Smith; before Justin Smith was injured, the duo’s impeccable timing produced a number of disruptive plays off the edge. It’s amazing how much of Aldon Smith’s production has been generated by the execution of a loop or stunt with Justin Smith. The veteran uses all of the tricks in the book, including a grab-and-hold manoeuvre that frees Aldon Smith on the inside.

Defensively the Packers have had a season where their work on that side of the ball has been called into question but as a unit I think they are getting better and the return of Charles Woodson has given the young but effective secondary a great lift. That D will be facing another tough running offence this week after limiting Adrian Peterson to 99 yards last week. Green Bay may be helped after facing backup Vikings quarterback Joe Webb, who ran for 68 yards and presents a similar threat on the ground as Kaepernick.

Slowing the San Francisco offence has been evolving since the quarterback change – Michael Crabtree is now a very active threat and is Kaepernick’s favourite target with 35 catches for 538 yards in five December games and I expect Woodson will be giving him plenty of attention. While in the same timeframe Vernon Davis who used to play very active part in the 49ers offence has become a non-entity with just 61 combined yards and no TD’s, I just wonder if he might be more active this time against the Packers though as in four games versus Green Bay he has totalled 251 yards and scored in all four games, that could well be something to watch out for.

Green Bay may not be the more rested team, but that didn’t matter two seasons ago when they were seeded sixth and Rodgers guided them to three road wins and a Super Bowl triumph over Pittsburgh and the Packers are 4-1 in the post-season against San Francisco.

As I said earlier many will be looking to make the game in September the template for this game but too much has changed since then for that to apply and I think we have to take a look at this head-to-head with fresh eyes and a new outlook. The winner will either take a trip to Atlanta or host the surging Seahawks for a chance at a Super Bowl berth. It’s hard not to like the chances of whichever club wins this game, and with that, let’s break down what it will take for each team to get the W and move on.

I’ll start with a question and one that may well be key to this game – can the Packers get a ground game going? We all know that the Packers can move the ball through the air via Rodgers and all of the variety and array of targets that he has; we’ll discuss those in a moment. You have to know that San Francisco are one of the most difficult teams to run on and perhaps as they did back in Week 1 the Packers don’t even try, but this is a different Green Bay team and I believe that they are more committed to trying to make the run work than ever now, that may have been caused by this fact that in the three games that Rodgers dropped back to pass the most, Green Bay found themselves 0-3. Never did Rodgers drop back more this year than in Week 1, and the chief reason for that was a complete lack of any running game. The only Packer running back to touch the ball in that game was Cedric Benson (who has since landed on I.R.) and the results showed exactly who was in charge of that battle; Benson managed 18 miserable yards on nine carries as Green Bay quickly lost all semblance of a balanced offense. The Packers didn’t use a running back on 31 plays in Week 1 against the 49ers, dropping back to pass on every one of those plays. Although Aaron Rodgers had his best success passing in the game from those sets, the lack of balance hurt the Packers. Green Bay is 2-14 when dropping back to pass at least 70 percent of the time since 2008 (85 percent in Week 1 this season).

Since then Green Bay have tried to get the running game going via a variety of backs with Alex Green initially getting most of the carries and the Packers even tried to reignite an old flame by re-signing Ryan Grant. However if recent games have been anything to go by, it will be DuJuan Harris who will be handling the bulk of the load – Harris has rushed for three scores and forced seven missed tackles, a tremendous haul considering he’s only been on the field for 100 snaps and he does have the potential to at least provide the offence with some more balance and keep San Francisco somewhere near honest. DuJuan Harris has averaged 4.3 yards per rush between the tackles this season, including playoffs. The Packers had six running backs with at least 25 runs between the tackles this season, and Harris’ 4.3 rate ranked as the highest. Cedric Benson gained only 17 yards on eight rushes between the tackles in Week 1 against the 49ers.

Of course the aforementioned Justin Smith who is expected to be back will play a huge part in controlling the run game along with Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis, if San Francisco shut the run game down early that will force the Packers into an imbalance offensively, allowing Aldon Smith to pin his ears back and do what he does best, which only bodes well for San Francisco. Aldon Smith has 33.5 sacks in his career, including postseason, but only 1.0 of those sacks have come with Justin Smith off the field. As a team, the 49ers have recorded a sack once every 14.8 dropbacks with Justin Smith on field this season and once every 26.8 dropbacks with him off the field.

So while I expect the Packers to pay due respect to the run game and maintain some sense of balance it will be in the passing game where Rodgers has real options, only possibly Denver have as many options as Green Bay have in that respect. Greg Jennings is back to health and is getting back in tune with Aaron Rodgers. Jordy Nelson also remains a high-end option, but he did get injured late in last week’s game although it looks like he will make this week’s gig. and James Jones is capable of exploiting single coverage and is scoring touchdowns at an excellent pace, while Randall Cobb will align all over the formation. Cobb is potentially Green Bay’s most dangerous all-around weapon. And a player that I really like and so does Rodgers who looks for him out of plenty of slot formations and across the middle. Also, TE Jermichael Finley has quietly been a major contributor during the second half of the season having seemingly cured his “passion” for dropped balls. The 49ers excel in coverage but are not really sophisticated with their coverage schemes, often keeping two safeties deep and playing a lot of man coverage and I expect to see them in plenty of nickel and dime defence.

Rodgers whilst not an RG3, Russell Wilson or Cam Newton is still an extremely mobile QB and he can hurt you with his legs as well as his arm and he is also spreading the ball around extremely well to all of his pass-catchers. Ten different Packers caught a pass last week, which is the most in postseason history – over Green Bay’s past four games, Rodgers has an 11-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and while this is a much vaunted San Francisco defence they did allow a combined 76 points against New England and Seattle in Weeks 15 and 16, respectively. The reigning NFL MVP has been sensational, particularly over the last 11 regular-season games. During that span, Rodgers completed 66.5 percent of his passes with 29 touchdowns against just four interceptions. Most importantly, though the Packers had a non-existent running game and an injury-ravaged defence, they were able to compile a 9-2 record over that span that let them enter the postseason as one of the NFL’s hottest teams. Rodgers has carried Green Bay, picking apart coverage with pinpoint passes to receivers all over the field. His efficient distribution stresses defences horizontally and vertically while allowing the Packers’ playmakers to make plays in the open field. Receivers Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb and tight end Jermichael Finley are rounding back into form. The deadly passer and his explosive receiving corps could combine to spark fireworks at Candlestick Park.

Turning the tables now how will the 49ers cope with an improved Packers defence and one that can be aggressive and create pressure, something that Kaepernick will have to deal with and as with most young quarterbacks, keeping Kaepernick upright will be of utmost importance. With a clean pocket, he has a QB rating of 112, but it’s been a different story under pressure. When rushers get home, Kaepernick’s rating drops to 64.5, completing a shade over half of his passes with no touchdowns. The Packers sent five or more pass rushers 40 percent of the time in the regular season (fourth highest), including 46 percent of the time against the 49ers in Week 1. Alex Smith completed 11-of-12 attempts against such pressure in the game and a league high 73 percent for the season. Colin Kaepernick’s 57 completion percentage was the 20th-highest in the league this season and it will be up to left tackle Joe Staley to keep his quarterback safe and sound versus the biggest Packers pass rushing threat Clay Matthews, although I can see defensive end Mike Neal who has the second most Packers sacks this year turning out to be a big threat also especially if he can get matched up against Mike Iupati, who has struggled with penalties this year and looks as though he could be vulnerable. Matthews had 2½ sacks when these teams met during the regular season and two last week, but Staley has had an excellent season and is now one of the top left tackles in the league.

We know that Kaepernick is a mobile quarterback but he’s also a young and relatively inexperienced one and he may want to lean on his running game to establish himself in the game – remember this will be his first experience of playoff football and the whole experience speeds up from here. With that thought in mind it may well be the 49ers rely once again on Frank Gore to provide the early traction he opened his regular season by rushing for 112 yards on just 16 carries in Green Bay on a day when San Francisco rushed for 186 yards in total. The 49ers feature one of the most physical and diverse running games in the league in terms of formations and personnel groupings. LaMichael James brings fresh legs and big-play ability as another new wrinkle to this power running game. A problem that Green Bay’s defence has had all year is allowing a lot of production to opposing backs as receivers, and both Gore and James could have success in this department – an area that the Packers need t work on and due to their aggressive nature they can sometimes over pursue in this facet of the game and that leads to big gains.

The run game can only take San Francisco so far and to keep up with the likely offensive production from Green Bay (they are a mighty hard side to shut down completely) the 49ers are going to have to challenge the aggressive Packers secondary. With Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams on injured reserve it has been up Michael Crabtree to lead the receiving corps and he’s undoubtedly a favourite target for Kaepernick, since the loss of Williams and Mannigham, Crabtree has picked up 538 yards in his last five games – Crabtree saw an average of 10.4 targets per game in that span, far above his average of 6.0 through the first 11 games of the season.

Behind Crabtree though the receivers are a little weaker and rather underwhelming and the Packers hold a clear advantage in this department. They also have a very fine secondary with which to cover the 49ers in the aerial game with Tramon Williams, Sam Shields and the excellent rookie Casey Hayward forming a formidable band and some of their numbers are staggering. Williams despite being persistently targeted has only allowed a 53.3% completion rate; Shields now back after an ankle injury ranks very highly in the coverage charts and Hayward has allowed QB’s just a QB rating of 30.8 when throwing at targets he is covering. With the lack of depth at receiver I’ll be expecting Kaepernick to use his tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker, neither had huge seasons from a numbers perspective but they do have a talent for getting deep downfield and will need attention. Fortunately the Packers have Charles Woodson back in action; he can line-up all over the defence and has the ability to pull the defensive strings to confuse any quarterback let alone a young one like Kaepernick, he also excels covering tight ends. Green Bay have been rigid against opposing tight ends of late and if they can take Davis and Walker out of the equation it may lead to Kaepernick having greatly reduced targets. If the Packers can get ahead early and force the 49ers to air it out, this ball-hawking secondary may be able to put the game away on their own.

Just one final thought about the special teams and specifically the kicking game and it’s something I touched on in one of my blogs this week in a section called “Kicking Off” and it may well be worth bearing in mind. It’s not quite the smallest handicap of the weekend, the 49ers are required to give the Packers 3 points but it’s certainly the game that could well be the closest and when a game gets close it is often those rather mercurial or enigmatic types called kickers that can decide the game. Well this game features three of the least accurate in the NFL; San Francisco’s David Akers and Billy Cundiff joined the Packers’ Mason Crosby at the bottom of the NFL’s rankings for field-goal accuracy this season. Akers was 35th out of 37 qualifying kickers with a 69.0 percentage. Crosby (63.6) and Cundiff (58.3) rounded out the rankings. The 49ers have not yet announced which kicker will take the lead against the Packers – but if it comes down to a field goal of 50 yards plus then these figures don’t make good reading Akers is 2-6, Cundiff 0-2 and Crosby 2-9; I hope somebody has made the coaches – Harbaugh and McCarthy aware of those numbers.

Just something to think about especially if you are taking short prices about a field goal even from short range to decide the game, Akers, Cundiff and Crosby are not the most reliable bunch ever.

The Packers are still the more popular team, so it’s no surprise they’re being backed even as the underdog despite the fact the 49ers won the season opener 30-22 in Green Bay. Sharp bettors also jumped on the Packers plus-3 as they’re playing their best football of the year at the right time. Green Bay, including that opening loss, started 2-3 but has gone 10-2 SU and 9-3 ATS since their loss at Indianapolis in Week 5.

The 49ers have gone 4-3 ATS since Colin Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith as the starting quarterback, but they’ve failed to cover two straight and three of their past five and the Rams game which Kaepernick blew with an intentional grounding penalty and an interception is enough evidence for some to side with the Packers an point to Kaepernick being beatable under pressure – I think it’s too early to make such a strident call but that sort of incident is clearly influencing some punters.

The Packers play a rare roll as the underdog here, a scenario we only saw twice in the regular season when they went 1-1 from such a situation; this is a fascinating game and I really have tried to put aside my allegiance to the Green and Gold here but in a game that has great trading potential I’d rather side with the Packers at the prices nut it will come as no surprise to see this come down to a very close game similar to the handicap mark – although I really hope we don’t have to see one of the shaky kickers have to convert to win it in the dying seconds. For me if you distil this game and it comes down to quarterbacks and in that one-on-one you have to take Aaron Rodgers every time despite the obvious potential of Kaepernick; if he makes a mistakes here it could be a long summer for Coach Harbaugh.

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