For the second time in as many seasons, the Packers and 49ers will meet in the playoffs after facing off in the season opener. The two conference heavyweights are scheduled to lock horns for the second time in 2013 on Sunday in the NFC Wild Card round.
As was the case in 2012, when San Francisco swept Green Bay in the two meetings, the teams know that the opponent faced in the season opener will be significantly different than the one preparing for the start of postseason play.
"A lot's happened," coach Mike McCarthy said before last January's showdown, via the Associated Press. "We're a different football team. We're a different football team than we were four weeks ago."
McCarthy could say the same about this year's club. Back in September, the now 12-win 49ers edged the Packers by six in San Francisco.
"We know we have to play these guys a little different than last time," McCarthy said Monday, via the Packers' official site. "Our defense is different than in Week 1."
So much goes into the time between Week 1 and the start of the postseason that change is to be expected. Those four months separating the two games include season-changing injuries, lineup adjustments and philosophy shifts.
A season ago, the 49ers won by eight in the opener with Alex Smith under center, and then bulldozed the Packers by two touchdowns with Colin Kaepernick and the read option in the NFC Divisional Round.
The Packers were also a different team—seemingly better on defense as the season progressed, and with an improving running game—but the result remained the same.
The buildup to this game feels somewhat similar. The changes in the two teams are evident, but will the ending reverse course?
While the 49ers have remained relatively healthy all season, the Packers have been devastated by injury. A total of 15 players are currently on injured reserve, including seven who were on the 53-man roster when the 2013 season kicked off in San Francisco.
Among those seven are tight end Jermichael Finley, cornerback Casey Hayward, defensive end Johnny Jolly and running back Johnathan Franklin. Also, as many as seven of the original 22 starters in Week 1 either won't participate Sunday or will have more limited roles.
Clay Matthews, arguably the best defender in Green Bay's arsenal, won't play because of a broken thumb that required a second surgery. He led the Packers in sacks with 7.5.
One other starter, safety Jerron McMillian, is no longer on the Packers roster. He was cut in early December, despite playing 81 snaps in the season opener.
Overall, eight of the 53 players on the Packers active roster now were not with the team in Week 1. That's just the business of the NFL, especially on a team that has battled so many bumps and bruises during the course of a 16-game season.
Meanwhile, the 49ers remain almost perfectly intact, with the exception of fullback Bruce Miller (injured reserve) and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (released). Cornerback Chris Culliver was hurt before the season and didn't play in Week 1.
A shifting roster in Green Bay has created a football team that doesn't play exactly the same as the one initially presented in the season opener.
In the five-point loss back in September, the Packers allowed just 90 rushing yards on 34 attempts, goof for an average of just 2.6 yards per carry. Frank Gore managed just 44 yards on 21 attempts, and the highly anticipated read option was a non-factor.
With Jolly, B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett handling blockers up front, Green Bay began the season as one of the top-3 defenses against the run.
The Packers have since regressed, bottoming out over the second half of the season.
|Week 1 vs. SF||34||90||2.6||1|
Source: Pro Football Reference
Since Week 9, a span of nine games, Green Bay has allowed the second most rushing yards (1,415) and the second-worst yards per carry (5.2). Only the Chicago Bears, who finished the season ranked at or near the bottom of the NFL in all the major rushing defense statistics, were worse over that stretch.
That regression could be a big problem against the 49ers, who ran the football over 500 times in 2013 and finished third in rushing yards (2,201). Over San Francisco's last four games—all ending in wins—the 49ers rushed for an average of 158.0 per contest.
On the other side, Green Bay will feel better about the way they are running the football since Week 1.
In that game, the Packers rushed only 19 times for 63 yards. Eddie Lacy, Green Bay's rookie running back, finished with just 41 yards, his third-worst total of the season (discounting the win over Washington, in which Lacy left with a concussion after one carry).
|Week 1 vs. SF||19||63||3.3||1|
Source: Pro Football Reference
From Week 2 on, the Packers rushed for 2,073 yards, the sixth-most in the NFL. Green Bay averaged 138.2 yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry, the third-best mark. The 16 rushing touchdowns ranked fifth.
Lacy has been the workhorse of that improvement. He finished the season just 22 yards shy of 1,200, with 11 touchdowns and four 100-yard games over his 15 appearances.
Behind Lacy, James Starks rushed for 493 yards and three touchdowns, while averaging 5.5 yards per carry.
"We're a much better running team today than we were then, just for the simple fact of how Eddie and James Starks are playing," McCarthy said. "Week 1 was Eddie's first game. Eddie's in a different place today."
The Packers will get a chance to prove how far their running game has come. The 49ers defense ended 2013 ranked in the top 10 of opposing attempts (seventh), rushing yards (fourth), rushing average (ninth) and rushing first downs (sixth).
In the passing game, the Packers are down a top target from Week 1, while the 49ers just recently gained one.
Green Bay will be without Finley, who caught five passes for 53 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting. The Packers tight end suffered a career-threatening neck injury in October and was later placed on injured reserve.
Finley's departure robbed Green Bay of its big, imposing target in the middle of the field and on designed quick hitters. Against the 49ers in Week 1, the Packers went to Finley four different times on such a play, where Finley sprints to the flat and the receivers to his side immediately block out in front. One of the four went for a touchdown.
Instead of Finley, the Packers now lean on Andrew Quarless, who has played well down the stretch but who lacks the overall skill set of Finley.
Kaepernick and the 49ers are on the opposite end of the spectrum.
Back in the lineup is receiver Michael Crabtree, who caught 85 passes for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns in 2012. He missed the first 11 games of this season after tearing his Achilles tendon.
His return is probably bad news for the Packers.
Over three career regular-season games against Green Bay, Crabtree totaled 198 yards receiving and one touchdown. He also caught nine passes for 119 yards and two scores in the 45-31 win last January.
Which team has improved most since Week 1?
Considering the 49ers' best passing performance of the season came in Week 1 against these Packers—a 404-yard explosion that saw Anquan Boldin catch 13 passes—it's difficult to see Green Bay improving greatly against an offense that now has its best receiver back.
However, if there's any hope for Dom Capers' defense, it's that the 49ers haven't been a consistent passing team since Week 1. San Francisco ranks just 30th in passing yards, and Kaepernick completed less than 60 percent of his passes. His passer rating was 91.6, which ranked 10th in the NFL.
Overall, the 49ers had 10 different games with less than 200 yards passing this season.
Yet that lack of production can be partly explained away by the fact that 49ers attempted fewer passes than any team in football this season. After Kaepernick threw 39 times in the season opener, the 49ers quarterback averaged just 25.1 over the last 15 games.
Kaepernick's rushing attempts are also down, from nearly 10 a game over his seven starts in 2012 to right around six in 2013. The 49ers are depending more on the power run game and less on the read option.
These are clearly two different teams than the pair that met in San Francisco to kick off the 2013 season. Those changes will likely mean an altered product on the field Sunday, when the Packers and 49ers face off for the right to move on to the NFC Divisional Round.