Much has changed since Week 1 of the NFL season when the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers faced off. Players have been lost to season-ending injuries, some have returned from injuries and quite a few players on both sides have emerged as stars since the first weekend of the season.
With the two teams meeting nearly four months after their first meeting, some of the expected stars still remain, like Aaron Rodgers and Colin Kaepernick. Then there are others, like Eddie Lacy and Andrew Quarless who will be expected to help carry the Packers.
A fact that will become true for one of these teams is that either the Packers or 49ers will have played the same team in their first and last game. But before the two teams kick off on Sunday at 4:40 p.m. EST in the final game of the Wild Card Round, here are a list of the stars that will show up in a big way in this pivotal showdown for both teams.
Randall Cobb, WR, Green Bay Packers
While it is unfair to use just six games in a season to say that a player will be a star in a playoff game, that's all Randall Cobb has played this season. Along with Rodgers, Cobb returned last week after both were on the shelf for several games this season.
But in his six games this year, Cobb has caught 31 receptions for 433 yards and four touchdowns. In fact, in last week's game against the Chicago Bears, Cobb finished with just two receptions for 55 yards, but both went for touchdowns—including the game-winner.
Here is a look at the play that sent the Packers to the playoffs from ESPN Stats & Info:
In his first game against the 49ers, Cobb finished with seven receptions for 108 yards and a touchdown. While repeating that type of production is difficult for any receiver in the NFL, Cobb is certainly one of Rodgers' favorite targets and will get plenty of opportunities to make plays on Sunday.
Colin Kaepernick, QB, San Francisco 49ers
All Colin Kaepernick has done in his career against the Packers is absolutely destroy their dreams. Last season in the Divisional Round, Kaepernick had a coming-out party with 263 passing yards and two touchdowns to go along with his 181 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
It also just so happened to mark the beginning of "Kaepernicking" as he ran for one of the most memorable touchdowns in his career:
If that was the only game he played against the Packers, their fans would have reason for concern. But it wasn't. The second-year quarterback came out in the first game of the regular season and torched the Packers again for 333 passing yards and three touchdowns with a much more modest 22 rushing yards.
Kaepernick finished the regular season with 3,197 passing yards for 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions, while rushing for an additional 524 yards and four touchdowns. He might not have another 150-plus rushing yard performance in him, but Kaep will be a huge factor in the 49ers' success.
Though Kaepernick hasn't enjoyed the best season and might not be seen as the same type of threat that he was last season heading into the playoffs, he is still an explosive playmaker that has to be contained if Green Bay is going to win this game.
Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers
In the "Where did this guy come from?" department, we have Eddie Lacy. The last time these two teams faced one another, Lacy put up just 41 yards with a touchdown in his first game as a rookie running back.
Since that game, the former Alabama star has amassed over 100 yards in six of the 14 games he's played in and tacked on 10 more touchdowns. Needless to say, he's arrived.
Another tweet from ESPN Stats & Info takes a look at the running back's production after initial contact:
Eddie Lacy: 531 rush yards after contact this season, 4th in the NFL; was held to 11 yards after contact on 14 rushes in Week 1 vs 49ers— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 2, 2014
While the last part of that tweet shows his numbers were considerably less against San Francisco, let's once again remember that it was the first game of his career. This will now be the 16th of his career. When rookies become starters for 16 games, they no longer play like rookies.
Throw in the potential of snow during the weekend and sub-zero temperatures on Sunday, according to weather.com, and the need for a running game becomes even more important. The Packers will need a huge game from Lacy to continue their late-season run into the divisional round.
Michael Crabtree, WR, San Francisco 49ers
Which team wins?
Since his return from injury, Michael Crabtree hasn't exactly set the world on fire in the receiving game for the 49ers. But what he has done is spread the field out for Kaepernick and given other receivers more open looks.
In fact, since his return, ESPN Stats & Info actually reported that Kaepernick's completion percentage has gone up:
Colin Kaepernick: 62% completion pct since Michael Crabtree's return from injury; had 57% comp pct in first 11 games— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 2, 2014
While Crabtree's return has led to the 49ers continuing a winning streak their current six-game winning streak, some don't believe that he is completely healthy yet. Prior to their game this past weekend, Arizona Cardinals' cornerback Patrick Peterson spoke to Matthew Barrows of the Sacramento Bee about Crabtree:
He’s slowly getting back into the groove, like he’s trying to get back in game shape, get back moving the way he used to. You can tell he doesn’t look as comfortable as he did when he was healthy. That’s going to come with time.
Whether Crabtree is at full health or not, he has been a crucial component to San Francisco's recent success. In just five games played, Crabtree is already the 49ers' third-leading receiver with 284 yards and a touchdown.
The likelihood of poor weather means the onus might be put on Frank Gore's shoulders. But with Crabtree on the field, along with Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin, Kaepernick should have no problems finding an open receiver on Sunday.