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NFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Green Bay Packers vs. San Francisco 49ers


The Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers will get together for the second time this season when Saturday’s NFC Divisional playoff game kicks off at 8 p.m. ET on FOX. The champions of the NFC North and West divisions opened the season against each other, but the stakes aren’t the only things that have changed for this matchup. Besides a change of venues, from Lambeau Field to Candlestick Park, injuries during the season mean there will be some different faces in key positions for the rematch, most notably who will be at quarterback for the home team. While Alex Smith led the 49ers to a 30-22 season-opening victory in Green Bay, he sustained a concussion midway through the season and has since been replaced by Colin Kaepernick, who will be making his first career playoff start. Nothing’s changed under center for the Packers, as reigning league MVP Aaron Rodgers aims for his fourth straight postseason road victory.

When the Green Bay Packers have the ball:
Green Bay’s 24-10 win over Minnesota in the Wild Card round serves as a perfect illustration of how the Packers' offense has gone this season. In that game, the Packers had 326 yards of total offense, with more than 75 percent of it coming via the pass (250 yards). During the regular season, more than 70 percent of the yards gained by the Packer offense was courtesy of Aaron Rodgers’ right arm, as he finished eighth in the NFL in passing yards (4,295) and second in touchdowns (39). As a team, the Packers ended up 13th in total offense with 359.4 yards per game and fifth in scoring offense at 27.1 points per contest. This would not have been possible without another MVP-worthy season from Rodgers, who was the league’s top-rated passer (108.0) and threw just eight interceptions, despite being sacked an NFL-high 51 times. Rodgers doesn’t do it alone of course and he has a host of weapons to throw to, namely wide receivers Randall Cobb, Greg Jennings, James Jones and Jordy Nelson and tight end Jermichael Finley, and one or more of these will need to be at the top of their game against an able San Francisco secondary and its hard-hitting linebacking corps. In the first meeting against the 49ers back in Week 1, these five were responsible for catching all 30 of the completions Rodgers had, with Jones and Cobb each hauling in a touchdown. Following that game everyone but Jones dealt with some sort of injury issue that caused each to miss at least one game, if not more. Entering this contest, the quintet is still not at 100 percent health, with Nelson and Cobb still nursing their injuries, but all five should be out there, which will allow Rodgers more targets to throw to in hopes of finding holes in the 49ers’ coverage schemes. The real problem for the Packers' offense in the opening loss to the 49ers, as well as throughout the season, was the lack of consistent production from the running game. Rodgers’ was the team’s leading rusher in that game, with only 27 yards, as starting running back Cedric Benson was held to just 18 on nine carries. Benson suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 5, resulting in a bit of revolving door in the backfield after that, with Alex Green, DuJuan Harris and James Starks all getting their shots. For this game, it looks like Harris, who was promoted from the practice squad in December after Starks got hurt, will get the call, although Starks could be back in there as well. After averaging 4.6 yards per carry over the last four regular-season games, Harris put up 100 total yards, including 47 and a touchdown on the ground, in the win over the Vikings. Harris’ pass-catching skills (5 rec., 53 yds. vs, Minnesota) also gives Rodgers yet another option when he drops back to throw it. Against Minnesota, Rodgers completed 23 passes to 10 different receivers, so he’s not afraid to spread the wealth around. With Rodgers leading the charge, the Packers’ offense has done a good job of protecting the football, just 16 turnovers in the 17 games they have played, which will be key to sustaining drives in an attempt to wear down the 49ers’ defense.

San Francisco’s defense was the NFC’s best during the regular season, as evidenced by its six representatives on the conference's Pro Bowl roster. The 49ers, who finished third in the entire NFL in total defense (294.4 ypg) and second only to Seattle in scoring (17.1 ppg) had five players — free safety Dashon Goldson, linebacker Aldon Smith, defensive lineman Justin Smith, strong safety Donte Whitner and linebacker Patrick Willis — get voted in as Pro Bowl starters for the NFC side with linebacker NaVorro Bowman joining them as a reserve. That’s what happens when you hold teams to 94.2 yards rushing and 200.2 yards passing per game. Both marks were good for the top spot among NFC teams and fourth in the league overall. In the season-opening win in Green Bay, the 49ers held the Packers to just 45 yards rushing and limited Aaron Rodgers to 303 through the air, picking him off once and sacking him three times. San Francisco didn’t rack up a ton of sacks during the regular season, collecting 38, but Aldon Smith is definitely someone the Packers will need to keep their eye on. Even on a team with All-Pro talents like Willis, Bowman and Justin Smith, Aldon Smith is the team’s leading contender for Defensive Player of the Year honors, as he has racked up 19.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception. The 49ers also don’t force a bunch of turnovers, coming in with 25, but this unit relies more on its discipline, cohesiveness, athleticism and competitive fire to shut down opposing offenses.

When the San Francisco 49ers have the ball:
Even with the support of one of the league’s top defenses, San Francisco’s offense has shown to be more than capable of holding its own this season. Led by the league’s fourth-best rushing attack, the 49ers finished the regular season ranked 11th in total offense, two spots ahead of Green Bay. The offense averaged 155.7 yards rushing per game, as running back Frank Gore posted his sixth 1,000-yard campaign with the 49ers and became the franchise’s all-time leading rusher in December, earning him another Pro Bowl invite. Gore had 112 yards rushing against the Packers back in Week 1 on just 16 carries, and he should factor heavily once again into the 49ers’ game plan. The Packers did a much better job of containing Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson the third time they faced the NFL's leading rusher, but can’t afford to relax against the 49ers’ ground game. Besides Gore, the 49ers also have a legitimate rusher in quarterback Colin Kaepernick. It was Alex Smith, and not Kaepernick, who led San Francisco to victory in Green Bay back on Sept. 9, but this is Kaepernick’s team now. The second-year pro out of Nevada is 5-2 as the starter, posting a 62.5 completion rate for 1,608 yards passing, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. Kaepernick also has rushed for 415 yards (6.6 ypc) and five touchdowns. Green Bay got a taste of what to expect with Kaepernick when the Packers faced Joe Webb last Sunday, but Kaepernick is more seasoned than Webb, who was making his first start of the season, and is a more polished passer. The 49ers don’t rely on the pass nearly as much as the Packers do, but they have capable weapons of their own in wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss and tight end Vernon Davis. Davis has been pretty much invisible since late November, but he’s come up big in the playoffs before. Last season the athletic tight end caught a combined 10 passes for 292 yards and four touchdowns in the 49ers’ two postseason games. Besides Gore, the 49ers’ offense is represented on the NFC’s Pro Bowl roster by offensive linemen Mike Iupati and Joe Staley, as San Francisco has one of the better offensive lines in the entire league. Besides playing tough, physical defense and employing a run-heavy offense, this team is typical of a Jim Harbaugh-coached squad in that it protects the football. The 49ers turned it over just 16 times during the regular season, with Kaepernick responsible for only five of them (3 INTs, 2 fumbles).

After Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson gashed the Green Bay defense for 409 yards rushing the first two times they played, the Packers’ defense rose to the occasion in last Saturday’s Wild Card affair. The Pack held the seventh player in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards to 99 on 22 carries in the 24-10 victory. This type of performance will need to be repeated against San Francisco’s ground game, which was the league’s fourth-ranked attack, if the Packers want to leave the West Coast with a win. During the regular season, Green Bay’s defense held opponents to less than 120 yards rushing per game, but it did surrender 186 to the 49ers back in Week 1. The Packers also will have to deal with a different starting quarterback in this one with Colin Kaepernick under center instead of Alex Smith under center, but should be better prepared to defend against a more mobile quarterback having faced the Vikings’ Joe Webb last week. Like Webb did last Saturday, Kaepernick also will be making his first career playoff start, so look for Clay Matthews and company to do their best to try and rattle the second-year signal caller. One of the ways they will go about this is with pressure, as the 49ers yielded a high number of sacks (41) for a team that doesn’t throw the ball that often. The Packers were fourth in the league in sacks with Matthews’ 13 leading the way. Matthews had 2.5 of the team’s four sacks the first time around against the 49ers, and will look to replicate that success Saturday night. The Packers’ defense also received a boost in the return of secondary leader Charles Woodson last week. With Woodson back in the lineup, the Packers held the Vikings to just 10 points, including a touchdown late in the fourth quarter after the outcome was decided, and forced three turnovers. Similar production in the takeaway department against the 49ers would bode well for the Packers’ chances on the road.

Key Factor:
Green Bay is 4-1 in its history in the playoffs against San Francisco, with the most recent meeting occuring on Jan. 13, 2002. The Packers won 25-15 with Brett Favre out-dueling Jeff Garcia in Lambeau Field. This time around it’s Aaron Rodgers against Colin Kaepernick, the former coming back to his native California to face the team he grew up rooting for, while the latter is making his first career playoff start. Postseason experience under center aside, head coach Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers teams are built around strong, physical defenses and punishing running games, two facets typically needed to have success in the playoffs. This year’s edition of the 49ers is no different in that respect, while these two elements, especially the running game, appear to be the Packers’ most apparent question marks. As long as Kaepernick executes the plays that are called and doesn’t try and do too much on his own, the 49ers’ defense and ground game should be able to outlast the Packers’ aerial assault. Another interesting subplot for this one has to do with the kickers. David Akers and Mason Crosby have both struggled miserably at times this season, finishing the campaign as the league’s least-accurate field goal kickers. In fact, the 49ers recently signed Billy Cundiff as an insurance policy, although Harbaugh has already said he is sticking with Akers for this game. Whomever ends up kicking for the 49ers, he will be the one that puts the finishing touches on a hard-earned victory that puts the home team in the NFC Championship Game for the second season in a row.

Prediction:49ers 23, Packers 20


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