30-22 losers in Green Bay during Week 1, the Packers now travel to San Francisco for a chance to advance to the NFC Championship Game with a win over the 49ers.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said this week (per the Wausau Daily Herald) that both teams have changed considerably over the last four months. Is that good or bad for his team?
In the following slides, we'll present five reasons why the Packers could avenge their Week 1 loss Saturday in San Francisco.
In the first meeting, the Packers were the same offense that mostly crumbled under its own weight in the previous postseason to the New York Giants. High-volume passing, with little-to-no production on the ground made up a decent summary of how the Packers offense attacked San Francisco.
A full season later, Green Bay is no longer that offense.
Despite a revolving door at running back, the Packers have stayed committed to running the football. Over the second half of the season, Green Bay has actually received production from the running game, too.
To beat the 49ers on the road, the Packers have to be more physical than in the first meeting. The last 16 games have served as a testing ground for a new-look Packers approach, especially on offense.
The dynamic of Colin Kaepernick starting over Alex Smith at quarterback is somewhat of a double-edged sword.
On one side, the ultra-athletic, strong-armed Kaepernick gives the 49ers a weapon at the quarterback position that Smith simply wasn't. His ability to expand the playbook makes the 49ers much more difficult to defend, at least in theory. In several starts, that was exactly the case.
But on the other side, Kaepernick is still an inexperienced quarterback without a previous playoff start. And in losses to St. Louis and Seattle, Kaepernick was average to below average and looked like a first-year starter.
With Smith at the helm, the 49ers were a safe, efficient offense that didn't take many chances but also didn't shoot itself in the foot. While Kaepernick can provide things Smith can't, starting the young quarterback also makes the 49ers more vulnerable to a one-and-done postseason.
Make no mistake about it, Colin Kaepernick is light years better at the quarterback position than Joe Webb, the Vikings quarterback Green Bay stomped in the Wild Card Round.
But by starting Webb, the Vikings gave Green Bay a valuable gift—playing a similar offensive style as the one the Packers will see Saturday in San Francisco.
The Packers responded to the challenge of an athletic quarterback admirably, while even containing superhuman running back Adrian Peterson to just 99 yards on 22 carries. The combination of Kaepernick and Frank Gore is at least comparable to Webb and Peterson.
The 49ers will have to make plays in the passing game to beat the Packers Saturday. The Vikings never had a chance in the Wild Card Round because Webb was unable to do anything through the air, despite some success running the football outside the pocket.
The 49ers defense is much more than just one elite player, but the effect Justin Smith's injury has had on that side of the football has been staggering.
Smith, maybe the most dominant 3-4 defensive end behind Houston's J.J. Watt, is still dealing with a partially torn triceps muscle in his left arm. In terms of functional strength, the injury is significant—but also one he's expected to play through Saturday (per the Times-Standard).
If Smith is limited or, at any point, has to leave the game, the 49ers would be losing a vital part of their pressure package. His impact extends past just Smith's own contributions, too.
Without Smith in the lineup, outside linebacker Aldon Smith has failed to record a sack. A part of a devastating duo of inside-outside stunts, the Smiths work together as well as any linebacker-end combination in football.
More than just the quarterback position goes into the outcome of a playoff game, especially one between two teams as good as the Packers and 49ers.
But if there's any single factor that favors the Packers Saturday, it's the ability of quarterback Aaron Rodgers to take his already elite play at the position to another level in the postseason.
Rodgers carved up the Vikings Saturday at Lambeau Field. In 2010, Rodgers put together arguably the most dominant four-game postseason stretch of all time as the Packers marched to Dallas and won the Super Bowl.
The 49ers did a better job against Rodgers in Week 1 than the stats indicate, but this is a different type of game and a different kind of situation. San Francisco better be prepared for Rodgers at his all-time best Saturday.