San Francisco at Green Bay
When: 4:40 PM ET, Sunday, January 5, 2014
Where: Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisconsin
When San Francisco has the ball: After displaying an improved run defense at the beginning of the season the Green Bay Packers have quickly fallen to the bottom of the NFL standings in total defense and rush defense. With run stopping tackle Johnny Jolly out for the season and star outside linebacker Clay Matthews out with a broken thumb the 49ers should be able to exploit the Packers defense on the ground. After dominating Green Bay on the ground in last year’s playoffs the 49ers defeated the Packers in the season’s opener in San Francisco through a 407-yard passing effort from Colin Kaepernick. The Packers pass defense is healthier than they were in the opener due to the return of safety Morgan Burnett and corner Tramon Williams, but the Green Bay secondary has had an up and down season and has struggled against good quarterbacks. If Kaepernick and company can overcome the frigid conditions in Green Bay they should be able to score on the Packers defense. The key for San Francisco is to limit turnovers and put touchdowns on the board when they visit the red zone.
Advantage: San FranciscoWhen Green Bay has the ball: The Packers are a different team with Aaron Rodgers at the helm. The former NFL MVP returned after missing nearly two months with a collarbone injury and helped the Packers defeat the Bears to win their third consecutive NFC North. The Packers also saw elite slot receiver Randall Cobb return versus Chicago, giving the Packers the Packers a healthy receiving corps for the first time since week three. With Cobb, Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Jarrett Boykin the Packers have a deep and talented groups of receivers, as good as any foursome in the NFL. Green Bay is missing tight end Jerimichael Finley, but Andrew Quarless has filled in admirably and become a big target in the last quarter of the season. The big difference for Green Bay is the fact that they’ve established a running game. The combination of Eddie Lacy and James Starks has 1,671 yards and 15 touchdowns. Lacy is a powerful back who’s given the Packers a physical presence they haven’t had in years while Starks gives them a nice change of pace when he comes in. Even with Aaron Rodgers out for nearly half the season the Packers finished 7th in the league in rushing offense, averaging just four yards fewer per game than San Francisco. Even without Aaron Rodgers for half the season Green Bay averaged 25 points per game. With Rodgers they are extremely deadly, as evidenced by the 28 points they scored on San Francisco in the season opener. Rodgers was rusty in the first half versus Chicago last week but once he got his rhythm in the second half the Packers offense looked deadly.
Advantage: Green BaySpecial Teams: On paper the 49ers have a significant advantage. They have perhaps the best punter in football, Andy Lee, combined with an excellent veteran kicker in Phil Dawson. The 49ers return and coverage units are top notch. Green Bay is a solid punter in Tim Masthay and their veteran kicker, Mason Crosby, has had a bounce back season. Green Bay has struggled in their coverage units, both kickoffs and punts. With 15 players on injured reserve the Packers have had roster upheaval all season, affecting their special team units. The wild card in the special team’s battle will be the weather and how the 49ers adjust top playing in a cold environment. Green Bay will have played in a cold environment in four of their past five games, so their special teams units are acclimated to playing in the cold weather. Since taking over as the Packers primary returner rookie Micah Hyde has proven sure handed and dangerous.
Advantage: Slim advantage to San Francisco
Home Field Advantage: The frozen tundra hasn’t been as big of a home field advantage in recent years for Green Bay. San Francisco is a team well built to thrive in a cold environment. Sunday’s weather is expected to be particularly frigid, with game time temperatures likely below zero degrees and dropping. Green Bay’s string of cold weather games cannot be underestimated, particularly when it comes to the quarterback matchup. Green Bay logical path to victory is to not turn over the football while Aaron Rodgers outplays Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers quarterback has had a solid season and proved his value in last year’s playoffs, but has never played in the conditions he’ll see on Sunday. If Rodgers puts together a strong performance and Kaepernick struggles the Packers could very well pull an upset. The frigid temperatures could be a massive factor in the game and are a critical element to watch.
Advantage: Green Bay
Prediction: The national consensus is that the 49ers will find themselves in a tough battle but should prevail due to a superior running game and defensive advantage. With Aaron Rodgers healthy the Packers are a major wild card in this year’s playoffs. When the two teams met in September the 49ers won by six points, but Green Bay had the lead 28-27 in the fourth quarter. Prior to Rodgers injury the Packers were 5-2 and rolling. If Green Bay can somehow muster up enough defense to stop the 49ers in the red zone and hold them to field goals they could very well pull the upset. Expect an extremely close game with the Packers winning late due to a strong performance by Rodgers.
Green Bay 27 San Francisco 23