The NFL has saved the best divisional matchup for last on Saturday, as the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers will renew their rivalry while bringing a close to the first half of the Divisional Round in prime time at Candlestick Park (8 p.m. ET, FOX).
San Francisco enters this weekend's much-anticipated NFC Divisional battle as the favorite and rightfully so. The 49ers topped the Packers at Lambeau Field earlier in the season and are playing at home following a first-round bye. But if there was ever an underdog capable of winning big on the road, it would be Green Bay.
With a spot in the NFC Championship Game on the line and kickoff fast-approaching, let's take a closer look at the biggest keys for each team in this win-or-go-home showdown.
Key for Green Bay Packers
Take Advantage of Colin Kaepernick's Inexperience
While San Francisco boasts the obvious home-field advantage on Saturday night, Green Bay will have an advantage of its own, facing off against a second-year quarterback set to make his first career postseason start.
Not that Colin Kaepernick is the same level of quarterback as Minnesota's Joe Webb, but consider this: The Packers forced Webb, who was making his first career playoff start, into two turnovers. Green Bay also sacked Webb three times in its rout of the Vikings.
Sure, Kaepernick has seven regular-season starts under his belt and only five total turnovers over that stretch, but the playoffs present a different sort of pressure. If the 49ers get behind or become stagnant, Kaepernick could begin to press and makes bad decisions.
Green Bay must pressure the passer from the opening drive and continue to present him with different coverage looks and blitzes throughout the night.
Exploit San Francisco's Secondary
The 49ers defense is one of the best in the NFL, and it ncludes San Francisco's secondary that ranked fourth against the pass during the regular season. But to say that Aaron Rodgers and his plethora of talented wideouts can't overcome it would be outright foolish.
Green Bay will certainly have its work cut out for it on Saturday, but if Rodgers can get in a groove early on and settle down his offensive line and receivers, it could be a long night for Carlos Rogers, Dashon Goldson and the 49ers' secondary.
With weapons like Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley all running routes at Candlestick Park, the Packers will have a huge advantage in the passing game and will need to capitalize in order to outscore their opponent on the road Saturday night.
Keys for San Francisco 49ers
Establish the Run Early
San Francisco features one of the best rushing attacks in all of football, racking up nearly 156 yards per game on the ground during the regular season. And Jim Harbaugh's Niners would be wise to establish that successful running game early on Saturday in order to wear down the Packers' defensive front and break off devastating runs late in the game.
In the regular season meeting between these two teams, San Francisco rushed for 186 yards on 32 carries, averaging nearly six yards per rush. Running back Frank Gore only carried the ball 16 times in that game but was remarkably efficient running behind the Niners' strong offensive line, picking up 112 yards and a touchdown.
Clearly, the Packers had no answer then, and they may not now. Green Bay ranked 20th defending the run during the regular season and ranked 26th in yards per carry allowed, giving up 4.5 yards per run on average.
Offensively, the 49ers would be best suited establishing the run on Saturday night rather than trying to beat Charles Woodson and the Packers' superb secondary through the air.
Pressure Aaron Rodgers
Defensively, the 49ers must aim to quiet Aaron Rodgers. The 2011 NFL MVP makes Green Bay's offense go, and if he's constantly under pressure, he'll have a hard time getting them started.
San Francisco's defenders got to Rodgers several times in the regular season at Lambeau Field last September. The Niners sacked him three times and forced him into a back-breaking interception late in the game.
With sensational pass-rusher Aldon Smith leading the way, San Francisco will need to send everything it has at Green Bay's offensive line, knowing that if it doesn't get to Rodgers soon enough, he'll likely pick the secondary apart.
Green Bay has become a better running team as of late with the emergence of DuJuan Harris, who can make plays as a runner and a receiver. But the key in keeping the Packers off the scoreboard and ultimately to winning the game is stopping Rodgers and the Pack's vaunted aerial attack.
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