Welcome to what is currently one of the most heated out-of-division rivalries in the NFL: the Green Bay Packers vs. the San Francisco 49ers.
The 'Niners have had the upper hand, knocking off the Pack twice in the past year, including a 45-31 drubbing in last year's divisional round of the postseason. Covers.com likes the NFC West runner-up to continue that momentum, making the Niners the only road favorite (-2.5) in this weekend's Wild Card Round.
Don't be so quick to write off the Packers, though. Both of those previous defeats came at Candlestick, while Sunday's clash will take place at the Frozen Tundra—literally—at Lambeau. Moreover, Green Bay isn't exactly as undermatched as its 8-7-1 record indicates—the Packers went 6-2 with Aaron Rodgers, who has returned from a broken collarbone and already has a thrilling win at Chicago under his belt.
This is arguably the most anticipated matchup of the weekend, and it's for good reason.
Date: Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014
Time: 4:40 p.m. ET
Where: Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wis.
Odds: San Francisco (-2.5), via Covers
Key to the Game: Battle of the Quarterbacks
Usually when you have a game that will take place in potentially sub-zero temperatures, as well as two hard-nosed running backs, you expect the contest to be won in the trenches. But this one will come down to the passing games.
Let's start with the Packers.
Workhorse rookie Eddie Lacy has gotten better as the season has progressed, and Mike McCarthy will give him plenty of volume, but efficiency will be tougher to come by—the Niners allow just 3.9 yards per carry and 95.9 rushing yards per game.
Rodgers is going to have to beat San Francisco, and against the 49ers' dangerous pass rush, he's going to have to get the ball out quick. As Cian Fahey of Bleacher Report and Football Outsiders shows, that hasn't been a problem this season:
With Randall Cobb healthy again, the explosive playmaker will be key as the Packers employ lots of screens and quick hits. And with slot corner Carlos Rogers battling a bad hamstring, Cobb and Rodgers, who connected seven times for 108 yards and a score in this Week 1 matchup, are going to have a field day.
On the other side of the ball, the 49ers will be less inclined to pass. Frank Gore is a beast, and the Packers give up a healthy 4.6 yards per carry.
Niners guard Mike Iupati isn't fooled by the stats, though, via Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle:
"It doesn't matter about the stats," Iupati said. "It just matters about that day, that game. You can have the worst stats and it comes game day and you can ball out. They have a great defense."
Now that doesn't mean San Francisco will turn to the air 40 times. But even with the Packers' leaky run D, the Niners must establish some offensive balance and put the ball in Colin Kaepernick's hands, especially when you consider Kaep is 44-of-70 for 675 yards, five touchdowns and one interception with 203 rushing yards and two scores against the Packers in the last two meetings.
Moreover, since Michael Crabtree rejoined the team, Kaepernick is completing 61.7 percent of his throws (season average is 58.4) for 8.2 yards per attempt (7.7), seven touchdowns and just one interception.
The Niners, according to teamrankings.com, throw the ball 47.45 percent of the time, which is the lowest mark in the league. On Sunday, they would be well-advised to increase that number.
Prediction: San Francisco 31, Green Bay 34
Cold weather, schmold schmeather. These teams are both talented and healthy on the offensive end, and they're both going to put up points.
It may come down to who has the ball last, but in what should be a close game, I'll take Rodgers at Lambeau almost every time, even against a very good defense.
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