Can Aaron Rodgers knock off the 49ers in San Francisco?
The Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers Wild Card Game 8 p.m. EST Saturday will be one for the ages.
In preparation for this historical matchup, we have a full preview breaking down every position.
The Packers feature an explosive offense courtesy of Aaron Rodgers, but the 49ers work with a more balanced unit led by quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Each defense is capable of applying quarterback pressure, so whichever can shut down the run and blanket in coverage holds the edge.
But what about the coaches?
Mike McCarthy and Jim Harbaugh are among the NFL's best, which is why they're squaring off on Saturday. With the victor going to the NFC Championship Game, just one game before Super Bowl XLVII, let's see who holds the overall advantage.
Aaron Rodgers vs. Colin Kaepernick is an interesting comparison.
Both are extremely mobile, possess a strong arm and have impressive marksmanship.
One major disparity, though, is Rodgers' postseason experience and proven success. Since taking over Packers' signal-calling in 2008, Rodgers led Green Bay to a fourth Lombardi Trophy in the 2010 NFL Season. As for 2012, Rodgers finished with a 67.2 completion percentage and had 39 touchdowns to just eight picks.
Kaepernick, on the other hand, didn't start the season but has been on fire since taking over for Alex Smith. Tossing 10 scores against only three picks during the final seven games, Kaepernick also rushed for 415 yards on the season. Still, he has yet to experience the pressure of the postseason.
Rodgers' ability to spread the field and read pre-snap is simply on another level of development.
As the 2012 Season has progressed, the Packers have gotten reliable improvement from their ground game.
Utilizing a dynamic backfield with Alex Green and DuJuan Harris among others throughout the year, injuries did force Green Bay to depend on a number of ball carriers.
San Francisco however, was virtually the exact opposite.
Frank Gore was fed a steady diet each week, along with some Kendall Hunter and a small dose of rookie LaMichael James. Entering the postseason, the 49ers average 5.1 yards per carry and ranked No. 4 in rushing offense.
Despite Green Bay's increased improvement, the Packers averaged only 3.9 yards per rush and Aaron Rodgers was their best regarding per-carry average (4.8).
Given that the 'Niners also played in a tougher grind-it-out ball in a defensive division, San Francisco possesses a significant edge in the trenches.
The great thing about this matchup is each quarterback's array of receiving targets when surveying the field.
Injuries, though, have certainly been a factor this season.
According to ESPN's Adam Schefter back in December:
More brutal injuries: 49ers wide receiver Mario Manningham tore his ACL and PCL Sunday night vs. Seattle. Done for season.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 25, 2012
For the Packers, Greg Jennings missed all of October and November while Jordy Nelson missed practice on Wednesday, per the Packers' official website. Fortunately for Green Bay, it saw the emergence of Randall Cobb and James Jones, as the duo stepped up to combine for 144 receptions, 1,738 yards and 22 scores.
Michael Crabtree certainly had a solid campaign as well, but the Packers also hold an extensive amount of experience by comparison. Randy Moss certainly can stretch a defense, but he is 35 years old and we can't expect much from him on Saturday.
Not to mention Green Bay has the edge at quarterback.
Jermichael Finley and Vernon Davis are, without question, two solid receiving tight ends.
At the same time, their contributions must also be partly factored into each offense's rushing attack.
Complete tight ends are a significant competitive advantage because they can act as an additional offensive lineman or receiver. That versatile impact forces a defense to game plan accordingly, which takes pressure off the rest of the offense.
This season Finley finished with 667 yards on 61 receptions and scored twice. Davis had similar production overall with 548 yards on 41 catches and five touchdowns.
We must also take into account how much more the Packers air it out and San Francisco's ground game. Davis helped the 'Niners average over five yard per carry and averaged 13.4 yards per catch with 26 first downs.
Finley averaged only 10.9 per snag and moved the chains 31 times. Just from a percentile standpoint, 63.4 percent of Davis' catches went for a first down; only 50.8 percent for Finley.
This is one major reason why San Francisco ran the ball so well. Defenses couldn't afford to stack the box with that increased vulnerability in coverage.
The line of scrimmage is the most vital space of any football game and the ability to control the ball becomes a major advantage for one side.
Well, that begins and ends with the offensive line.
As arguably the most important unit of players to any team, the ability to tote the rock and protect the quarterback significantly increases odds of victory.
Looking at this matchup, the 49ers gave up 41 sacks this regular season compared to 51 for the Packers.
Additionally, Aaron Rodgers was sacked three times by the Minnesota Vikings in the Wild Card round. Fortunately for Green Bay, Rodgers is one mobile and accurate quarterback even in the face of constant pressure. The lack of pass protection from the Packers, though, did limit Mike McCarthy's offense and it's a key reason why they remained more one-dimensional.
San Francisco averages 5.1 yards per rush compared to only 3.9 for Green Bay. Any time a team can win the possession battle and keep the opposing offense off the field, a win is expected.
The 'Niners are more physical here, representative of their defense as well.
Before we get all concerned about Justin Smith's health, there is good news.
According to Steve Corkran of the Contra Costa Times:
Coach Jim Harbaugh channeled his inner Tennessee Ernie Ford on Wednesday in saying he expects defensive lineman Justin Smith to play against the Green Bay Packers.
"God willing and the creek don't rise, he's going to play," Harbaugh said of Smith, who missed the final two regular-season games with a partially torn triceps tendon.
And, given that San Francisco ranks No. 4 against the run, as well as allowing only 3.7 yards per attempt, Smith's expected return will make a strong impact. Green Bay has yet to really dominate a game between the trenches offensively, and the 'Niners' specialty is stuffing the run at the point of attack.
Green Bay gives up 4.5 yards per rush and ranks No. 17 against the run. If the New York Giants last season taught us anything, it's that the Packers have yet to prove they can crush opponents up front.
Smith will draw double-teams and when facing one-on-one situations he will produce. B.J. Raji can make a similar impact for Green Bay, although San Francisco's offensive line is much better at chipping to the second level and extending running lanes.
One reason why the 49ers are so disciplined against the run are their linebackers.
Patrick Willis, Navorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks play fast and downhill at all times.
Green Bay presents stud pass rusher Clay Matthews, but doesn't get nearly as much from the rest of the corps.
Take Weeks 11 through 14 as a prime example of the effects of Matthews' absence.
During this four-week span, the Packers recorded just seven sacks and gave up 632 rushing yards. On the year, Green Bay recorded 47 sacks; however, 13 came courtesy of Matthews.
For certain does his impact greatly enhance Titletown's front seven, but San Francisco's best tacklers are its linebackers. Willis and Bowman combined for 269 tackles and Smith collected 19.5 sacks with three forced fumbles.
Because of a complete set of 'backers, the 49ers are considerably more consistent against the run and able to apply quarterback pressure when needed.
If there was any issue with the Packers' secondary throughout 2012, it was due to the absence of Charles Woodson.
Woodson missed all over November and December before returning to action in the Wild Card Tound.
His presence helped Green Bay limit the production of Adrian Peterson, as the Pack held pro football's leading rusher to 99 yards.
In each regular season meeting vs. Minnesota (with Woodson sidelined) Green Bay allowed Peterson to gain 210 and 199.
San Francisco's secondary need not worry about the opposing ground game, because its front seven takes care of that facet of the game.
When defending the pass, though, the 49ers are quite solid by only giving up a 59.4 completion percentage. Interestingly enough, Green Bay does San Francisco slightly better in allowing only a 55.1 completion percentage and recording 18 picks.
The Packers must also get this game into a pass-happy affair, because Woodson and Co. will lock down better in coverage to give Aaron Rodgers extra possession and, thus, opportunities to make plays himself.
The Packers and 49ers are quite even across the board on special teams.
Neither kicker was consistent on field goals, as David Akers is 29 of 42 and Mason Crosby was 21 of 33 this regular season.
As for the return game, Randall Cobb's 75-yard punt return for a touchdown against the 'Niners in Week 1 was the lone attempt taken back to the house. Ironically, that was the only punt or kickoff return San Francisco gave up in 2012.
The combo of Cobb and Jeremy Ross averaged 27 yards on kickoffs and 11 on punts, which squeezes past everyone for San Francisco: The 'Niners had five different players return at least four kickoffs (two on punts).
Punter Andy Lee also had a great season by averaging 48.1 yards per attempt with 36 inside the 20-yard line. Green Bay's Tim Masthay averaged 43.5 and dropped 30 inside the 20. Despite the punter's ability to knock one downfield, though, it's the return man's responsibility to change the field position.
And Cobb gives the Packers a distinct competitive advantage when he waits back deep.
Coaching at this stage of this season comes down to experience.
Jim Harbaugh and Mike McCarthy are two great coaches and this chess match will be fascinating to watch.
Also, Harbaugh's impact on the 'Niners the last couple years has been tremendous.
He took over a 6-10 team and led San Francisco to the NFC Title Game in his first year. Once again, Harbaugh has the 49ers back in the No. 2 seed with a second consecutive Division Championship.
McCarthy has been with the Packers since 2006 and this is his sixth postseason appearance. In winning Super Bowl XLV for the 2010 campaign, McCarthy solidified his resume as one of the best in pro football.
Plus the Packers have only seen one losing season during his tenure (2008). Harbaugh isn't far behind because of his complete NFL experience that includes being a player, but McCarthy's postseason success with Aaron Rodgers at the helm speaks volumes.
Running Backs: 49ers
Wide Receivers: Packers
Tight Ends: 49ers
Offensive Line: 49ers
Defensive Line: 49ers
Defensive Backs: Packers
Special Teams: Packers
Overall: Packers 5, 49ers 5
This is obviously one even matchup and, just as what unfolded in Week 1, Green Bay and San Francisco will be close in Round 2.
Despite the level playing field, victory comes in the form of ball control and winning the possession battle. The 49ers rushed for 186 yards in the initial meeting, held the ball six minutes longer and limited Green Bay to just 45 rushing yards.
Although each team has found way to work on/around their weaknesses since September, the more physically impending offensive and defensive line still control throughout.
Edge: San Francisco
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