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NFC Wild Card Preview and Prediction: San Francisco 49ers vs. Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers

Aaron Rodgers

The San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers, two of the winningest franchises in NFL history, will go head-to-head in the playoffs for the second straight season when their NFC Wild Card game kicks off at 4:40 p.m. ET on FOX. The 49ers (12-4) tied with Carolina for the second-best record in the NFC, but are the road team this afternoon against the NFC North champion Packers (8-7-1). The Lambeau Field turf will indeed be frozen with temperatures expected to be below zero at the start of the game and to drop further as the night continues.

This represents the fourth meeting between these two teams in the last two seasons, with the 49ers winning the previous three. San Francisco and Green Bay have opened each of the past two seasons against each other and the 49ers also beat the Packers 45-31 in last year’s NFC Divisional Round out in San Francisco in a game that saw Colin Kaepernick rush for a quarterback-record 181 yards and two touchdowns.

4 Things to Watch

Rusty Rodgers?
If there was every any doubt regarding Rodgers’ importance to the Packers, then look no further than how the regular season played out. Entering its Week 9 Monday night matchup with Chicago, Green Bay was 5-2 and in its customary position atop the NFC North. However, a first-quarter sack of Rodgers by the Bears’ Shea McClellin changed everything, as the 2011 NFL MVP left the game with what was eventually diagnosed as a broken collarbone. Not surprisingly, the Packers fell to the Bears at home, 27-20, and then proceeded to go 2-4-1 without No. 12 under center. With Green Bay’s postseason hopes on the line, Rodgers returned last week for the finale in Chicago and after a shaky first half, bounced back strong and connected with Randall Cobb on a go-ahead, 48-yard touchdown pass to give the Packers a 33-28 lead with just 38 seconds remaining. The defense picked off Jay Cutler’s desperation heave into the end zone, securing Green Bay’s third straight division title and their fifth consecutive playoff appearance. Now the attention focuses to this matchup with San Francisco, which figures to be a much tougher test than Chicago, especially from a defensive standpoint. The 49ers finished the regular season fifth in the NFL in yards allowed (316.9 ypg) and third in points (17.0 ppg). Rodgers has had success in his career against the 49ers, averaging 319.5 yards passing and posting a 10:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in four regular-season games, but he’s just 2-2 in those contests and also lost to San Francisco in last year’s playoffs. What’s more, Rodgers has played one full game in the past two months and even his practice time has been limited during his recovery. The rust was pretty evident early on against Chicago, and even though he was able to get the job done, Rodgers knows the margin for error is even smaller in the playoffs, especially against a defense like the 49ers. The Packers wouldn’t even be in this position if not for their quarterback. The question is which one will show up this afternoon – the one that threw two interceptions in the first half last week or the one that carved up the Bears in the third and fourth quarters?

Kaepernick’s Track Record vs. Packers
It’s a very small sample size (two games), but Colin Kaepernick has certainly enjoyed playing Green Bay. He’s 2-0 against the Packers and has gotten the job done with both his arm and his legs. In last season’s Divisional Round win, Kaepernick set an NFL single-game record for rushing yards by a quarterback when he gashed Green Bay for 181 on 16 carries (11.3 ypc) and two touchdowns. He also threw for 263 yards and two scores as the 49ers overwhelmed the Packers 45-31 on their way to Super Bowl XLVII. The two teams met again to open this season, and this time Kaepernick did the damage with his arm, throwing for a career-high 412 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-28 win. Aaron Rodgers threw for a combined 590 yards and five touchdowns of his own in these two games, but it’s clear that Green Bay’s defense has not figured out how to slow down, let alone stop, San Francisco’s dynamic dual-threat. On the whole, Kaepernick’s 2013 season has been very uneven, as the Week 1 performance against the Packers was far and away his best game. However, he has been playing more consistently lately, as his 10:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the past six games, all wins, will attest. This also will be Kapernick’s first game against the Packers in Lambeau Field, as the previous two took place out in San Francisco. Ironically enough, Kaepernick was born in nearby Milwaukee, but he went to high school in California and starred at Nevada before getting drafted in the second round of the 2011 draft by the 49ers. How will this West Coast product fare in wintry Green Bay? It remains to be seen, but you know just seeing the Packers on the other side will bring a smile to his face.

Backfield Battle
It’s the classic young vs. old matchup in the backfield as Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy and San Francisco’s Frank Gore figure to be the primary ball carriers. Lacy has had quite the debut, as the second-round pick finished eighth in the league with 1,178 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. Gore was right behind him with 1,128 yards, making it the third straight time and seventh in his career that he rushed for more than 1,000 in a season. Gore also found the end zone nine times and perhaps most importantly, he has played in five more postseason games than Lacy. Gore boasts a 5.2 yards per carry average in the playoffs and he could find some room this afternoon against a Packers defense that gave up 125 yards rushing per game (25th) in the regular season. Seven different running backs rushed for more than 100 yards against Green Bay, including two such efforts by Chicago’s Matt Forte. Lacy may have the younger legs with considerably less mileage on them, but he’s going up against a San Francisco rushing defense that surrendered just 95.9 yards on the ground per game and no back broke the century mark against this unit. Even with explosive playmakers like Aaron Rodgers and Colin Kaepernick at quarterback to win in the playoffs you have to be able to run the ball successfully. There are seven years and 8,789 career rushing yards separating Lacy and Gore. So which one will gain the upper hand on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field?

Ice Bowl II?
In 1967, the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers met on Dec. 31, 1967 to play for the NFL Championship with the winner going to Super Bowl II. This game was played at Lambeau Field and would later be known simply as the Ice Bowl, as the game-time temperature was about minus-15 degrees with an average wind chill around minus-48. The Packers wound up winning, 21-17 on a late rushing touchdown by Hall of Famer Bart Starr, and the Ice Bowl is considered one of the greatest games ever played. Now while there’s no way to tell if today’s contest will even come close to matching up with the Ice Bowl, one way in which it will be similar is when it comes to the mercury, or lack of, in the thermometer. The temperature at kickoff (4:40 p.m. ET) is expected to be well below zero with one forecast projecting the wind chill to drop to as low as minus-51 degrees. In other words, this could be the coldest game ever played in NFL history, so one way or the other; the weather will be a factor. And while Green Bay is certainly more accustomed to playing in wintry conditions than San Francisco, it’s safe to say that few, if any, Packers ever played in sub-zero temperatures like the ones they are expecting. The team needed an extension to make this a sellout, which is all you need to know considering this is Lambeau Field and the Packers we are talking about. Those fans loyal enough to brave these conditions to cheer on their beloved home team should be rewarded, and not just with the 70,000 hand warmers and free coffee and hot chocolate the team has said it will provide. The players meanwhile don’t have an option, although they will have a front-row seat to what could end up being a historic game.

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San Francisco Key Player: Vernon Davis, TE
Davis tied his career high with 13 touchdown catches this season, which also tied him for third in the NFL. The big athletic target can be a difference-maker for the 49ers on offense, as he caught a touchdown pass in all but four games of the 15 he played during the regular season. He and Colin Kaepernick clicked in the playoffs last season, connecting on 12 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown in three games. In fact, Davis has been at his best in the postseason with a total of 22 receptions for 546 yards and five visits to the end zone in five games. That’s good for a ridiculous average of 24.8 yards per reception. The 49ers are obviously hoping for similar results in these playoffs, as a productive Davis only makes Kaepernick and the passing game as a whole that much more dangerous.

Green Bay Key Player: Randall Cobb, WR
Aaron Rodgers wasn’t the only welcome sight for the Packers’ offense in Week 17. Cobb, who had been on injured reserve since breaking his shin in Week 6 against Baltimore, also returned against Chicago and caught two passes, both of which went for touchdowns. The biggest was the 48-yarder that gave his team a 33-28 lead with 38 seconds left. The defense picked off the Bears’ desperation heave as time expired, giving Green Bay the NFC North crown and its fifth straight playoff berth. Jordy Nelson may be the Packers’ leading receiver this season, but Cobb’s explosiveness and big-play ability adds another element to this offense. Last season, he led the team in receptions (80) and yards (954) and also posted 1,256 return yards and another 132 on the ground, while scoring nine total touchdowns. He’s yet to really break out in a playoff game, but his mere presence in the lineup deepens a wide receiving corps that’s going up against the NFL’s seventh-ranked passing defense. Rodgers’ return came in just the nick of time for the Packers, but it was Cobb who was on the other end of the eventual game-winning touchdown pass. Can the two repeat this success this afternoon?

Final Analysis

These two teams are pretty familiar to each other, as this is the third time San Francisco and Green Bay will have played in a little more than a year. The 49ers have won the first two, but both games were on their home turf, not the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field. The Packers also come into this game riding high, as Aaron Rodgers returned from his broken collarbone to lead his team to a third straight NFC North crown in exciting fashion last week against Chicago.

Colin Kaepernick has been a nightmare for the Packers’ defense to contain, as he ran wild against them in last season’s playoff win and carved them up with his arm back in Week 1. Green Bay’s defense has had its issues this season and will be without linebacker Clay Matthews, who is the unit’s heart and soul and one of the NFL’s top sack specialists.

And then there’s the weather. It’s going to be brutally cold at Lambeau, perhaps the coldest game in NFL history. With temperatures this frigid, the condition will be a factor for both teams, so don’t be surprised if the offenses struggle to put points on the board.

That’s why I think defense will be the deciding factor in this one and even though Rodgers certainly makes the Packers a threat, the 49ers’ defense is one of the best in the league, as this is basically the same unit that played in last year’s Super Bowl. San Francisco’s talent and experience on that side of the ball will win out, as Jim Harbaugh’s team tames both the elements and the Packers, setting up a potential Divisional Round showdown in Seattle next week.

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San Francisco 23, Green Bay 20