Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers — Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET (FOX)
When Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers lost to the New York Giants 37-20 in the NFC Divisional Playoffs last season, the opportunity for a second straight championship was not the only thing that was squandered.
Rodgers also missed out on what would have been the greatest opportunity for revenge of his young career since he got the chance to stick it to his former teammate and world-renowned texter Brett Favre.
Had the 15-1 Packers been able to take out eventual champion Giants like they had methodically done so frequently over that past season, they would have met the San Francisco 49ers. They were famously the team of Rodgers’ youth and the team that, even more famously, passed over Rodgers for Alex Smith with the No. 1 pick in 2005, leading to green room embarrassment only known by the likes of Brady Quinn.
But on Saturday, Rodgers will finally get his chance to knock his boyhood team—and this time he will be able to do it only a three-hour drive away from his hometown of Chico, CA.
Unfortunately for Rodgers, he may have missed his last opportunity to take down Alex Smith, which would have been surprising to hear after Smith’s Week 1 performance against Green Bay at Lambeau Field, when the Niners’ starter to begin the season went 20-26 passing for 211 yards and 2 touchdowns in the 30-22 San Francisco win (which honestly didn’t feel that close).
Smith has since been Bledsoe’d by Colin Kaepernick after a Week 10 concussion. It was a tough break for the former No. 1 overall pick, who was in the middle of the best statistical season of his career.
While it was a tough break for Smith, Kaepernick ended the regular season with the third-highest QBR in the league (two spots ahead of Rodgers), which more than justified Jim Harbaugh’s decision to stick with the hotter hand.
But the playoffs are a different monster and it is no guarantee that Kaepernick will rise to the occasion again against a battle-tested Green Bay squad.
Top wide receiver Michael Crabtree stepped up majorly in December, going over 90 yards receiving in four of the team’s five games. But WR Mario Manningham only recently tore his ACL and PCL. His loss will be crucial, particularly considering Vernon Davis has not played since suffering a concussion against Seattle three weeks ago and with Frank Gore’s productivity and usage has slowly decreased throughout the season.
Green Bay could not run the ball on San Francisco in the teams’ first matchup, and that was when they had their original first-string RB Cedric Benson. The Packers only rushed for 2.7 yards per carry in their Wild Card victory over the Minnesota Joe Webbs. There’s no shame in that, as Minnesota had a top 10 rushing defense during the regular season. But San Francisco had top three rushing defense.
But the Niner defense has been diminished by losing defensive end Justin Smith to a partially torn triceps tendon that he suffered against New England in Week 15. In San Francisco’s two games without him, they only recorded three sacks. Smith returns this weekend but if he is not back to his old self and the 49ers cannot get pressure on Rodgers (who was sacked a league-worst 51 times), they could be in for some trouble. In Green Bay’s five losses, Rodgers was sacked over 5 times per game. That means that more than half of those sacks (26) came in losses. San Francisco only had one legitimate test without Smith, which they failed miserably in their 42-13 loss at Seattle.
And while Green Bay can’t run, they can more than make up for it with Aaron Rodgers and a healthy trio of receiving threats in Greg Jennings, James Jones and Jermichael Finley. Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson have each been limited in practice this week but if the Packers can get any serious production out of those two in addition to Jennings, Jones and Finley, the Pack should be able to put four touchdowns on the board.
San Francisco has recommitted to Akers after signing Billy Cundiff (yes, this Billy Cundiff) to compete with him prior to the playoffs, giving a sense of just how desperate they were. They have since announced that they will go with Akers this weekend, but the Cundiff signing is a greater indicator of their lack of confidence in his abilities.
On the other side, Crosby has actually been better as of late despite owning the NFL’s worst field goal percentage (63.6 percent). He has made his last five attempts and his main struggles have come from 50 yards and beyond, where he is 2-9. Mike McCarthy will make sure not to put him in a situation where he has to make a kick from that distance, decisions that are made easier due to the fact that his team has converted on six of its last seven fourth-down attempts.
A back-and-forth contest will be decided by San Francisco’s injuries and Green Bay’s ability to manage their dysfunctional kicker. It also doesn’t hurt to have a quarterback named Aaron Rodgers, who will get his vengeance at long last.
Prediction: Packers 28, 49ers 27