Green Bay vs. San Francisco: 5 Keys to the Game for the 49ers
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The Niners did not enter the 2013 postseason without question marks, but they are hopeful the much-needed bye week will have sorted out many of the concerns that have surfaced over the past month.
Here are five keys to the game the 49ers must use to dominate the Pack and advance to the NFC Championship Game for the second time in as many years.
Get Michael Crabtree Involved Immediately
Crabtree is a vital part of the 49ers' success and must be used often against Green Bay.
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Fourth-year wide receiver Michael Crabtree capped off the finest season from any 49ers wideout since 2003 in style.
Crabs lit up the Cardinals secondary in Week 17, catching eight passes for 172 yards and two scores. The former Texas Tech star set career marks in receptions (85), yards (1,105) and touchdowns (9).
Obviously, Crabtree has been a key contributor in the 49ers offense all season, but even more so down the stretch. It's crucial for QB Colin Kaepernick to continue to force-feed his No. 1 wideout the ball early and often in this game.
That's not to say the 2012 NFC West champs shouldn't be pounding the rock out of the gate, because when they do, it almost always bodes well for them. But when you need to move the chains on third down to keep your defense fresh, No. 15 is the man to look for.
Don't Forget About Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and Randy Moss
The 49ers must also awaken the beasts that are Frank Gore and Vernon Davis Saturday night.
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In case some of you have forgotten, the Niners have a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end at their disposal.
Vernon Davis fell off the face of the pigskin planet the final six games of the year from a pass-catching perspective. The veteran hauled in just six passes during that span.
But let's not forget that VD found the end zone four times in two playoff games a year ago. We can only assume he'll rise to the occasion once again if provided an opportunity.
The same goes for Frank Gore, who slowed down the stretch after a marvelous start to the season. Expect the rock to find itself in his grasp plenty as the Niners look to set the tone early in this contest.
And then there's Randy Moss. The future Hall of Fame WR who's seen a limited role throughout the season but has surely saved his best football for the month of January. No. 84 made his way to the Bay on a mission to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Kaepernick has the arm to find him anywhere on the field.
Jim Harbaugh needs to make sure the two get their chances to hook up when the Pack are least expecting it.
Get the Football Through the Uprights
Akers hasn't been able to pound the rock with teammates nearly enough this year.
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Get the football through the uprights. Sounds simple enough, right?
Yeah, on extra-point attempts.
David Akers' well-documented struggles this season forced the team to sign kicker Billy Cundiff in order to create a little competition during the bye week. Akers made just 29-of-42 attempts on the year, leading to an abysmal conversion rate of 69 percent.
Harbaugh is sticking with Akers heading into the game (per CSN Bay Area), which may be an unsettling feeling for much of the 49ers faithful. Then again, going with a guy like Cundiff, who missed 5-of-12 attempts in five games for Washington in 2012, can't be too comforting either.
Akers needs to reward Harbaugh for keeping faith in the veteran kicker. For all we know, the 49ers' playoff life will depend on it.
Eliminate the Deep Ball
Chris Culliver has made a name for himself with plays like this one all year.
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Aaron Rodgers' arsenal will be in full force Saturday night. Should he find ample time in the pocket to scan the gridiron, the reigning NFL MVP will have plenty of places to deliver the football.
It's up to the Niners' more than capable secondary to prevent Rodgers from hitting his receivers deep down the sidelines.
When these two met in the season opener, Rodgers completed six of his 11 passes that went 10 yards or more downfield, according to Pro Football Focus. The six completions went for just 126 yards and a TD.
Rodgers threw for 303 yards and two touchdowns in the Packers' 30-22 loss to San Fran, but the majority of that yardage came late in the game and on throws of 10 yards or less.
The 49ers know they can count on Chris Culliver and Tarell Brown to get the job done. Carlos Rogers, however, has had an up-and-down season to this point and will need to pick it up for the postseason run. Perrish Cox, the team's No. 4 CB, will likely see plenty of action as well. Cox saw 55 snaps in Week 1 because Green Bay spends a considerable amount of its time on offense employing a four-receiver set.
The Niners cornerbacks, along with safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, must eliminate the deep threat and buy time for the defensive line to infiltrate the pocket.
Give Kaepernick as Much Space as Possible
Colin Kaepernick will be making things happen against the Pack, so long as he's given the time.
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The 6'4", 230-pound Kaepernick is a thrill to watch, and it's essential the offensive line keep him upright so fans of the Red and Gold can see the second-year pro at his best.
San Francisco has one of the NFL's finest sack masters in Aldon Smith, but Green Bay has a lethal weapon of their own in outside linebacker Clay Matthews.
Left tackle Joe Staley completed another impressive regular season, but one of his few performances to forget in 2012 came in Week 1, when he allowed Matthews to take down Alex Smith on three separate occasions.
If the Niners have to send reinforcements, so be it. But they cannot afford to let Matthews be a continuous terror in the backfield once again. Kaep is capable of pulling off some exciting feats with both his arm and his legs, but like any signal-caller, he's much more effective without the added pressure.
The longer San Fran can neutralize the Packers pass rush, the more they can extend drives and keep Rodgers spectating from the sidelines.