Do the 49ers Hold a Psychological Edge in Wild-Card Matchup vs. Packers?

Dylan DeSimone@@DeSimone80Correspondent IJanuary 3, 2014

Painfully cold weather and a time-honored quarrel between the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers headline this weekend's NFC Wild Card Round matchup, but the circumstances aren't everything. The coaches and players involved, giving their minds and bodies to the game, will directly influence the outcome more than anything.

As far as the in-game bouts go, there have been plenty of enticing previews, including a rundown of the positional battles from Bleacher Report’s NFC West lead writer Tyson Langland. X's and O's guru and ex-NFL safety Matt Bowen went on to pinpoint how running back Frank Gore and tight end Vernon Davis would be key to moving the ball early and often for San Francisco.

Venturing into Packers camp, Lead Writer Michael Schottey was also able to illustrate how quarterback Aaron Rodgers came back to life on that final drive versus the Chicago Bears and why the Packers are now as dangerous as anyone. Perhaps the proverbial “hot team,” even.

These analyses are all worth exploring in order to get a full understanding of how these teams match up on paper. 

And with everything factored in—weather, hot streaks, talent, home-field advantage and more—they also go to show how evenly matched the 49ers and Packers are this weekend. Execution will be key, but the collective mentality will also factor in. More often than not, the squad that plays fearless is the one that advances in close matchups. 

But who will that favor this weekend?

It’s been difficult to ignore that—despite the caliber of team the Packers field year in and year out—the 49ers seem to have their number. In two years, Green Bay hasn't maintained a significant lead in the series. It's a very real cold streak they're riding right now. 

Combined with the consistent winning of San Francisco, the storyline of the finesse team versus the smash-mouth team has taken precedence and could provide an interesting thematic element to the game.

Each team is self-aware and will not veer from its respective strengths, but as we've seen with the 49ers and Packers, rock never fails to beat scissors. 

When it comes down to it, the 49ers' plan is to take full advantage of their resources, which not only includes a beaming cache of talent but psychological warfare as well. Here is an overview of the cerebral aspect of Sunday's contest, including in-game matchups and a current take on the series. 


The Packers' MVP Has a Scarred Psyche

Part I: Defining the Green Bay Offense

The offense runs through Aaron Rodgers. Run and pass, we have to defend. He’s a dynamic quarterback, he can run if he has to, but he can definitely sling the ball. Running helps with the pass, but at the end of the day, they’re going to throw that ball. — 49ers All-Pro LB Patrick Willis

"Razor sharp" is how most would encapsulate Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback.

Without rattling off his list of accolades (and despite adversity), anybody who’s ever tuned into Fox on Sunday has witnessed the flawless execution—the fluid motion of his feet and upper body, all led by his eyes and exuding confidence. The precision darts. The hierarchical control he exhibits. Neither the opponent nor the situation ever fazes him.

It’s near-perfect quarterbacking.

Rodgers’ physical ability and knack for improvising—combined with this system of head coach Mike McCarthy’s and the impossible-to-halt tempo—leads to double-digits wins almost every year. Once the quarterback gets the offense off the ground, the team is awfully difficult to outscore.

However, the 49ers get wins against this team because they deny it that invaluable rhythm, and do this by getting in the head of its most important player.

Football is timing, trust and tempo—the Packers rely on this heavily, and when it works, that’s when you see this offense humming. That’s why repetitions in practice and camp are as important as anything, so it becomes second nature. And Green Bay’s offensive fire in particular thrives on this intrinsic functionality.

This is unlike, say, the Detroit Lions or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who live and die by the big play.

High-percentage passes are essential to Green Bay’s approach, which is a philosophy predicated on West Coast elements. They prefer to throw two jabs and a hook before winding up to deliver a haymaker. The 49ers don't allow them to get past the second jab, so they're constantly on Step 1, it seems. 

(And as we can see, Rodgers, with his accuracy and ability to throw receivers open, actually targets near the line of scrimmage quite a bit)

It’s not like Rodgers and Co. are hitting big play after big play, though they do connect quite a bit.

It’s precision football. So when they hit a brick wall, like they do when they meet this 49ers defense, it’s like a dead battery failing to turn over. Slants are broken up. There’s no time for slow-developing routes down the field. Play action has a nominal effect because they can’t run.

Then what do you try?

The Packers knew this was their weakness, and there's reason to believe that's why they drafted Eddie Lacy (Alabama) and Johnathan Franklin (UCLA) in 2013, the No. 1- and No. 2-rated running backs in the class, respectively, per NFL Draft Scout. They want to be able to win in January.

While they're headed in the right direction, this is still a unit that relies on the rhythm of the passing game, which they may again struggle to establish against the 49ers.  

That's the question on everybody's mind, including the Packers': "What if they're not quite the balanced offense they want to be? And can they do enough to help Rodgers maintain an offensive rhythm when a pass-heavy approach doesn't work?"


Part II: Nightmarish Front 7

You can see it. It’s as clear as day. In each of their past three meetings, the 49ers’ hair-raising defense did not allow No. 12 to play his game, and as a result the whole offense looked out of sync. This unit just couldn’t lift off—not to where it was at its best, threatening to score on every down.

Sure, Rodgers had 300-plus yards, three touchdowns and a 100-plus rating in Week 1, but it was not the methodical, ever-dangerous Packers we know. They left a lot of points on the field, mainly because they were pitted against one of the NFL's consistently top-ranked scoring defenses, which is a takeaway machine to boot. 

The reason San Francisco is able to inflict psychological damage is because it has an onslaught of mutant-like bruisers in the box and a disciplined defensive backfield headed up by one of the best secondary coaches in the NFL today in Ed Donatell.

It's about tight coverage and rapid fire up front.

And as a whole, they’ve always taken pride when it comes to intimidation.

Linebacker Clay Matthews mocked the team in pregame last year, sarcastically calling them the “big bad 49ers." However, the man is not wrong. They lay body-rocking hits regularly, getting extra support from the safeties. But this team wins games with an A+ front seven. They kill plays near the line of scrimmage before they can ever really get started. 

San Francisco has five All-Pros in its front seven alone, including second-team elect Ahmad Brooks—the team’s left outside linebacker—who is having a career year in 2013 with 60 tackles and 8.5 sacks. 

They’re strong inside at the linebacker position as well with perennial All-Pro Patrick Willis.

So three- and four-man rushes are not abnormal. From a personnel standpoint, San Francisco matches up well because like we’ve talked about, it can generate pressure and stop the run with only a few bodies in the box.

It’s a tremendous strategic advantage, but on top of that, the hit can come from anywhere at any time, which frightens quarterbacks in particular.

Up front, they attack, bringing one of the league's top sack artists in third-year stud linebacker Aldon Smith, who glows with natural ability. With Smith breathing down the neck of Aaron Rodgers—averaging over a sack per game in his budding career—there’s a very real fear factor.

Then, of course, the bogeyman is 3-4 end Justin Smith—one of the NFL’s premier defensive linemen putting the finishing touches on a terrific career.

All in all, this group can psych out a team.  

And for Green Bay in particular, it is susceptible on the edges, and Rodgers already has a sense that he can’t sit back in the pocket. Subsequently, all trust in his internal clock goes out the window.

In three games, Rodgers has been sacked six times for negative-44 yards and has been planted in the ground 13 times overall. Pressures have also been constant, as San Francisco typically bludgeons the left side of Green Bay's O-line. This front incites panic, and Rodgers will have flashbacks of running from this defense.

This also bodes well for the Niners, considering how this season panned out for Green Bay.

This year, 40.9 percent of the time when Aaron Rodgers was pressured, he was either sacked or forced to throw the ball away (38 of 93 pressures; 20 sacks, 18 throwaways). This was a league high, according to Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus.

These are dead plays. They’re as good as anything (a tackle for loss, incompletion, etc.) because it helps the 49ers achieve three-and-outs and get off the field. And it’s all about pressure.

So the Packers know they’re limited on chances, especially if this front is in Rodgers’ vicinity pretty regularly. And if he feels the game rests on him alone, he may be inclined to force things with limited opportunities. 

This is when Rodgers begins to get happy feet.

On each Green Bay snap, it’s like the offense is starting the game over, as if it’s the first throw of the game. They don’t let Rodgers get warm, whether it’s building confidence or benefiting from a hot receiver.

Then, Rodgers becomes restless and tends to make an uncharacteristic decision, like this pick down the field to cornerback Tarell Brown or not accounting for NaVorro Bowman over the middle, down eight points in the fourth quarter.

For the 49ers, it is a war of attrition, and Rodgers is shell-shocked.  

They attack periodically, play very tight assignment-based football and wait for their chances. Rodgers also knows that even if he isn’t the one to make the mistake, the San Francisco defense plays so heads-up that every throw could be his last of the series. That puts the onus on the team’s MVP even further:

Believe it or not, Rodgers has thrown a pick in every single game versus the 49ers since 2012. Even more unbelievable is that, according to the numbers, he’s the least likely starting quarterback today, or in the past 50 years for that matter, to throw an interception.

That’s a bit of a mind scrambler.

So, it's not like Rodgers is one to get rattled, but he understands the pass rush will be coming regardless, players won't be wide open, he'll be faced with high-density coverage looks, and overall, it'll be tough to establish a rhythm versus the defense.

It’s nothing to be red in the face over, either, as Tom Brady and Drew Brees are two more that have had similar issues versus this unit, going back to 2011.

Affecting a quarterback's psyche and making him hear footsteps is one of the trademarks of this defense and a psychological advantage the 49ers defense almost always has. The Packers know they’re going to get physically destroyed in negative-30 degree wind chill and that their treasure, Aaron Rodgers, is going to struggle to create plays outside the pocket. 

If that’s not a psychological advantage in itself, what is?


“49ers Have Packers Figured Out” vs. Treacherous Overconfidence

The playoffs alone give you an extra motivation. It’s a new season. It’s been an up-and-down regular season, but now we’re in the tournament and one of 12 teams with a chance to win it all. We just have to approach it that way.—- Packers All-Pro QB Aaron Rodgers

While the Green Bay Packers haven’t been able to defeat the Jim Harbaugh-led 49ers in three consecutive outings since 2012, the playoffs are a different ballgame, especially when you’re the home team.

And after all, it is a new year.

It is also mildly alarming how dismissive people have been of the Packers this week. The last time a playoff game favored the road team this much was when quarterback Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints traveled to Candlestick Park to play the resurgent Niners in 2011, and NFL fans remember how that went.

Depending on how the Packers respond, it could give them just the kind of chip they need for the pendulum to swing the other way.

Green Bay also has reason to have some extra bite this Sunday. With star defenseman Clay Matthews out of the lineup, they'll be leaning on scrappy team football combined with a physical punch on offense. 

Even more motivation for them to play mad? The Packers are 3.5-point underdogs at their own place, which is some insult, per Bovada. 

Right now, there are many giving the 49ers the edge because they:

  • Travel well
  • Are built for cold weather
  • Have the NFL’s longest current win streak entering the postseason (six)
  • Are 3-0 against Green Bay with two different quarterbacks, playing at home and away, as well as the regular season and the playoffs
  • Match up well on paper

Then again, how many times in a row can you expect to shut down a team this good? So even if you’re one that buys into trends, you have to believe San Francisco’s chance of losing becomes even more likely each time it lines up against this team.

Something is bound to give. 

Moreover, Green Bay played eight games without Aaron Rodgers and still made the playoffs. They don’t wilt. Not to mention, when they won the Super Bowl in 2010, they were a 10-6 team playing out of the wild-card spot. This isn't unfamiliar territory or anything too intimidating. 

The 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, 2011 New York Giants and 2012 Baltimore Ravens have also done the same in recent years, making the tournament about the "hot team." 

All things considered, it makes this look like a trap game for the 49ers, so it's a psychological advantage that could actually favor Green Bay.  


49ers Unveiling Offense vs. Packers Leaky Defense

Philosophically, the 49ers find it advantageous to be the team that plays the entire season like a hand of cards. They do not reveal what they’re doing or allow tells, no matter how much the moment may call for it. The reason being, once it’s the postseason and all the chips are down, they’ll still have that wild card.

Last year it was the development of the read-option, as quarterback Colin Kaepernick plastered the Green Bay run defense for 181 yards on the ground and nearly 450 all-purpose yards and four total touchdowns.

They looked indefensible. They revealed new plays and were 10 steps ahead of Green Bay from a cerebral aspect. Even something as simple as instruction to run against man-to-man coverage worked wonders.

Green Bay should be terrified of being made an example of again in the first round of the playoffs because of this. The truth is, San Francisco's offensive agenda has the potential to be prolific. 

And with Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers at the controls, being innately overaggressive, this puts the Packers at risk even more. And that is all the more perilous with a defensive unit that misses tackles. There are holes in the lineup and they’re predictable in terms of scheme, so they're exploitable.

At the moment, the 49ers have an intriguing young running back in LaMichael James on the bench, a rookie wide receiver in Quinton Patton who has a budding chemistry with the quarterback, and a 6’4”, 267-pound jump-ball tight end in Vance McDonald. Each finds themselves as a breakout candidate here with potential to help in the red zone as well as to create chunk plays. 

Third-year pro running back Kendall Hunter is also capable of a shouldering performance.

Evidently there are several players in the running for increased roles come playoff time, one or all of which may come with new wrinkles tailored around their particular skill sets, much like Kaepernick’s in 2012.

From what we can see, with their ingenuity and personnel, the 49ers have endless ways to attack teams, and the crazy notion is that they’ve saved the good stuff. What an overbearing thought for the Green Bay staff and its players to endure before a playoff run.


Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference, advanced statistics by Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus


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