Thursday, January 2, 2014

Previewing The 49ers-Packers Wild Card Playoff Rematch

It took Aaron Rodgers just one game to remind football fans of just how dominant he truly is. The former league MVP returned to the field Sunday, after missing the previous seven games with a broken collarbone. He threw for 318 yards and two scores, including a season-saving 48 yard bomb to Randall Cobb in the final minute to beat the Bears and clinch the NFC North title. The victory sets the stage for a first round playoff rematch with the San Francisco 49ers this Sunday at Lambeau Field.

During the seven games that Rodgers missed, Green Bay went to a battle a trio of damaged goods under center in Senaca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn. The result was a 2-4-1 record, and a drastic drop off from being third in the league in scoring (28.8) to ninth (25.6). But despite being the most important piece of the Packers puzzle that went missing, Rodgers was far from being the team's only sidelined stud. Wide receiver Randall Cobb missed ten weeks with a blown knee before returning just in the nick of time in week 17. They also lost tight end Jermichael Finley to a possible career ending neck injury, and line backer Clay Matthews is expected to miss this week's game (in addition to the final two games of the regular season and a month midseason) with a fractured thumb.

With the return of Rodgers and Cobb, the Packers are beginning to look more and more like the 2012 versions of themselves. A team that lost to the 49ers 45-31 in this same playoff round a year ago. In that game Green Bay's defense proved to be their Achilles' heel. Second year quarterback Colin Kaepernick torched them to the tune of 181 rushing yards, 263 passing yards and a pair of both rushing and passing touchdowns, in one of the most dominant playoff performances in recent history. It remains the best game of Kaepernick's young career.

The Packers defense hasn't improved much from last year. They rank 26th in the league in points allowed per game and 25th in yards allowed per game. But the one aspect of Green Bay's game that they have drastically improved this time around is the running game. At this time last year their starting running back was the inefficient DuJuan Harris. Now they have the should-be Rookie of the Year in Eddie Lacy, a power back who finished up the year with 1,178 rushing yards and 11 rushing scores (2nd best in NFL) despite missing a game plus with a concussion. Pounding the rock has become the 49ers' bread and butter in recent years (3rd in both YPC and total rushing yards in 2013), but if the Packers can get Lacy going early it could go a long way in winning the time of possession battle, which would keep their highly vulnerable defense off the field for as long as possible.

Green Bay will have home field advantage Sunday, but please don't let that trick you into believing that they're by any means the favorites to win this game. San Francisco has won their last three matchups between these two teams, and closed out the regular season on a six game winning streak. Over the course of this most recent winning streak Colin Kaepernick has started to really hit his stride, boasting a 10:1 touchdown to interception ratio. The Niners also finished four games ahead of Green Bay in the wins column.

Granted, the fact that Aaron Rodgers missed close to the half the season has a lot to do this with, but not one player on the Green Bay Packers was selected to the 2013 Pro Bowl. On the other hand, San Francisco will be a sending a league best eight players to Hawaii.

The reigning NFC champs have the experience, confidence, and talent to make another deep playoff run this season. They haven't turned the ball over since week 14, and the only noticeable flaw that they had during the season, a lack of options in their passing game, has been eliminated since the return of wide receiver Michael Crabtree from his serious ankle injury. Anyone who watched this team last year knew just how much Kaepernick loved going to Crabtree, as evident by his three targets during the team's failed goal possession to conclude Super Bowl XLVII. He helps stretch the field, opening things up for their running game, as well as shorter passes to Anquan Bolden and Vernon Davis.

I'm expecting this to be the most exciting game of the Wild Card weekend, and I don't think it will get nearly as out of hand as it did last year. But with that being said, I think we're well on our way to repeating the same outcome, as San Francisco cruises to their fourth straight win over their storied rival. I just can't see Green Bay's matador defense getting the necessary stops to come out on top. Aaron Rodgers may be the best quarterback in the league, but football remains a team sport, and until this defense can rise to a league average level the early playoff exits will continue.

Prediction: 49ers 34, Packers 31

-fresh (@danye33)

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