Green Bay Packers: 5 Keys to a Divisional Playoff Win vs. the 49ers
The Packers lead the series 4-1.
Candlestick Park has been the locale for three of the postseason games between the two squads, although the stadium was called 3Com Park in those days.
The Packers won two of those three games (including the 1997 NFC Championship Game), with the only loss coming on a 25-yard touchdown pass from Steve Young to Terrell Owens with just three seconds remaining in the game, as the Niners won 30-27 in the 1998 NFC Wild Card Playoff game.
In an ironic twist, in those previous three contests, the Packers had a head coach (Mike Holmgren) who was born and raised in San Francisco and had been on Bill Walsh's staff before he was hired by the Packers.
There will be more irony on Saturday night as quarterback Aaron Rodgers of the Packers plays against a team that he always wanted to play for, growing up just three hours to the north of San Francisco, in Chico.
The game will most likely be a tight contest, so the Packers need to play to their strengths, but also cover up their weaknesses with various formations and schemes.
There are a number of keys to victory for the Packers, and I've listed five of them.
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If the Packers defeat the 49ers on Saturday night, one of the main reasons will be the play of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers is coming off another excellent season in 2012, throwing 39 touchdowns, compared to just eight interceptions, for 4,295 yards. Rodgers also led the NFL in passing, with a 108.0 quarterback rating, which was tops in the league.
Speaking of quarterback ratings, Rodgers is the top-ranked quarterback in NFL history with a 104.9 quarterback rating, based on 1,500 attempts (171 touchdown passes versus just 46 picks, for 21,661 yards).
No other quarterback has a rating above 100.
In addition, Rodgers is also the best-ever rated postseason quarterback in NFL history, throwing 16 touchdown passes, compared to four interceptions, for 2,055 yards. That adds up to a 105.4 quarterback rating.
Rodgers had another solid playoff game against the Vikings last week, throwing for 274 yards (to 10 different receivers) and one touchdown pass versus no picks.
But how does Rodgers perform against the 49ers?
In three games vs. San Francisco, Rodgers and the Packers are 2-1. Rodgers has thrown seven touchdown passes, versus just one pick, for 945 yards. That gives Rodgers a 109.4 quarterback rating against the Niners.
Bottom line, based on Rodgers' track record in the postseason and against the 49ers, one can see why his performance is vital if the Packers expect to win.
The Green Bay Offensive Line
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The offensive line that the Packers will put out on the field against the 49ers on Saturday night will have two different players on the unit compared to the opening game of the 2012 season.
Don Barclay will start at right tackle this time, replacing Bryan Bulaga, who suffered a season-ending hip injury midway in the 2012 season. Barclay has played well overall, although he does have issues with pass protection at times.
Evan Dietrich-Smith is now the center for the Packers, as the team decided to make a position change there with a couple weeks left in the season, putting veteran Jeff Saturday on the bench. Dietrich-Smith has also played solidly since the change.
In the first game of the 2012 season, the offensive line allowed three sacks to the 49ers. However, in that contest defensive end Justin Smith was healthy, and that is definitely not the case this time. Smith is trying to play through elbow and triceps woes, and his effectiveness is in question.
The injury to Justin Smith has definitely affected outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who has not recorded a sack since Justin Smith's injury. Aldon Smith led the 49ers with 19.5 sacks in 2012. He is also dealing with some injury issues to both his elbow and shoulder.
Bottom line, the Packers have to give Aaron Rodgers a clean pocket in the passing game. In addition, the offensive line needs to generate a much better running game this time against the 49ers, as the Packers were only able to rush for 45 yards (27 yards by Rodgers).
The running game has looked much better in recent weeks, as running back DuJuan Harris has become a solid addition to the run game.
The Green Bay Receivers
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When the Packers met the 49ers the first week of the 2012 season at Lambeau Field, the receivers of the Packers did not have much YAC (yards after catch).
Aaron Rodgers completed 30 passes for 303 yards, but the Packers only averaged 5.9 yards per pass attempt, as opposed to the season's average, which is almost two yards better (7.8).
Except for one play in which James Jones broke a tackle, and scampered for 49 yards, the big play was almost non-existent in the passing game.
Look at the breakdown in the numbers...
James Jones: Four receptions for 81 yards and a a touchdown.
Randall Cobb: Nine receptions for 77 yards.
Jordy Nelson: Five receptions for 64 yards.
Jermichael Finley: Seven receptions for 47 yards and a touchdown.
Greg Jennings: Five receptions for 34 yards.
You will note that Rodgers did not complete a pass to a running back in the game either. That pattern has definitely changed, as Rodgers is utilizing the check-down pass and screen passes to his backs a lot more recently.
The 49ers tackled very well that Sunday in Green Bay, and were allowed to manhandle the receivers of the Packers by the replacement officials.
The Packers need to make sure that doesn't happen again on Saturday night.
The Green Bay Defense
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The Packers defense did not have a very good game against the 49ers in the season opener at Lambeau Field. The Packers gave up 377 total yards, including 186 yards rushing.
Frank Gore led the way with 112 yards rushing on just 16 attempts.
The defense of the Packers also allowed quarterback Alex Smith to pick them apart, as he completed 20-of-26 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns.
Things will be a bit different in the game on Saturday night.
For one thing, Colin Kaepernick will be starting at quarterback for the 49ers.
The 49ers will be missing some players, too. Running back Kendall Hunter (41 yards rushing), wide receiver Mario Manningham (four catches for 29 yards) and wide receiver/punt returner Kevin Williams (20 yard punt return) are now all on injured reserve for the 49ers.
The Packers will be missing some players defensively, as well. Outside linebacker Nick Perry, inside linebacker D.J. Smith and defensive end Jerel Worthy have also been lost for the season.
However, the Packers will be playing two players that never played against the Niners in the opener, plus have another player who had only a minor role in that game.
The Packers will have defensive end Mike Neal and outside linebacker Erik Walden in the game on Saturday night. Both have been playing exceptional football as of late. Both were suspended the first time the teams met in 2012.
Also, rookie cornerback Casey Hayward will be playing in the slot position in the nickel defense of the Packers, unlike the first game. Hayward has had a great rookie season, as he has picked off six passes and also broke up a team-high 27 passes.
The Packers need to contain the running threat of Kaepernick at quarterback and force the second year player into making mistakes. The overall run-game defense has to improve, much like it did last week against the Minnesota Vikings in the first round of the playoffs.
Bottom line, the Packers need to be sure with their tackling, stay in their assigned gaps and look for opportunities for creating a turnover.
Winning the Turnover Battle
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The Packers learned a very painful lesson in the postseason last year, when Green Bay had four turnovers in their 37-20 defeat by the New York Giants in a NFC Divisional Playoff game.
Ironically, the Packers had set a franchise record during the regular season, as the team only had 14 turnovers the entire season.
Conversely, when the Packers went 4-0 in the postseason in 2010, including a victory in Super Bowl XLV, the Packers won the turnover battle. The Packers did have five turnovers that postseason, but the defense of the Packers also created 11.
In the last three games the Packers and 49ers have played, the games have been almost turnover-free. In 2009 and 2010, when the Packers beat the 49ers both times, it was a San Francisco quarterback who threw an interception in each game.
However, in the opening game of the season this year, it was Aaron Rodgers who throw a key interception in the 4th quarter just as the Packers were starting a drive to try and tie up the game.
Rodgers is not prone to throwing interceptions though, and actually has the best touchdown pass to interception ratio (3.71) in the history of the NFL.
Bottom line, the Packers have to be very conscious of protecting the football, and also be aggressive in trying to force a turnover by the 49ers.
The team that wins the turnover battle in any given game is almost always the winner of that contest.