After a tough 23-20 loss at New Orleans in Week 11, the 49ers were sitting at 6-4, and their playoff berth was far from assured. San Francisco had lost two straight against NFC contenders in the Panthers and Saints, and they were struggling to finish big games.
Six games later, and San Francisco is a playoff team for the third-straight season. The 49ers rattled off six consecutive victories to close the season, including wins over the No. 1 seed Seattle Seahawks, as well as the red-hot Arizona Cardinals.
Now, the 49ers haven't been steamrolling their opponents. The past four games have been competitive contests in the fourth quarter, including against four-win Atlanta, and Arizona this past week. Matt Ryan and Carson Palmer both threw for over 340 yards, and the team combined for only five sacks in those games. These deficiencies will be tested this coming week at Green Bay when the 49ers face All-Pro quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers and the rest of the Packers offense pose major matchup problems for the Niners. With three legitimate receivers in Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb, as well as a 1,000-yard rusher in Eddie Lacy, San Francisco cannot take anyone for granted. For the first time in the Rodgers era, the Packers have a legitimate running game that will keep defenses honest.
The major problem for San Francisco over the past few games has been big plays deep.
Against Atlanta, Matt Ryan had his way with the secondary. Roddy White had 141 receiving yards, including a 39-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter. Unheralded Drew Davis also had a 59-yard catch. The damage was greater this past week at Arizona. With two legitimate receivers, Carson Palmer was able to spread the field.
Palmer's performance was his second-best in terms of yardage (his best was against the Jacksonville Jaguars), throwing for 407 yards and two touchdowns. Big plays once again plagued the 49ers defense. Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd caught completions of 49 and 44 yards respectively, with speedster Andre Roberts being a disruptive force in the slot.
One can only imagine the damage Rodgers could do with a full week of preparation. The Niners obviously cannot stop him fully, but they need to do their best to curtail long balls, like they have given up in their past two contests.
Offensively, Colin Kaepernick needs to step up. In his past two contests against Green Bay, he has been an unstoppable force throwing and running the football. In last season's playoff game, Kaepernick showed off his running ability with 181 yards rushing and two scores. In Week 1, the second-year starter was difficult to stop passing the ball sans-Michael Crabtree, throwing for 412 yards, by far his best passing effort of the season.
It is important to note that this week's game will be played at Lambeau Field, while the previous two victories were at Candlestick. The weather could be a factor, forcing the Niners into a one-dimensional scheme that will force Kaepernick to make big throws.
San Francisco heads into Green Bay with a lot of question marks on both sides of the ball, despite entering the playoffs with a six-game winning streak. This week's contest will be the closest of this season, testing this veteran 49ers squad to its limit.