For the fourth time in the last two seasons, the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers will face off against each other and, for the second straight year, battle in the playoffs.
With not much changing in regard to players on the field, coaching will be a key factor in determining who escapes Green Bay with a victory on Sunday. Both teams feature some of the very best that the NFL coaching world has to offer.
While the hard-hitting matchup on the field is something to keep your eyes on, the chess game between the opposing coaches will be just as intense.
Tom Clements vs. Vic Fangio
It's no secret that Green Bay offensive coordinator Tom Clements, a former Notre Dame and Canadian Football League quarterback, loves to throw the ball. The return of All-Pro gunslinger Aaron Rodgers had to be a welcome sight for Clements. Green Bay is sixth in the league in passing yards per game and third overall in points scored at 26.1.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, they might be without one of their best defensive backs against the pass-happy Packers.
Carlos Rogers, who injured his hamstring in the Week 17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, should be a game-time decision on whether he'll play. If Rogers is unable to go, the 49ers will have to substitute Eric Wright or newly signed Perrish Cox to play the nickel against Green Bay.
Vic Fangio on Carlos Rogers: "His injury is not as bad as originally feared." #SFvsGB— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) January 2, 2014
With this in mind, Clements, who already utilizes a spread attack, should highlight Rogers' injury by running a lot of three and four wide receiver sets.
Fangio rarely calls blitzes due to the pressure he is able to get from rushing four or five players. If outside linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks can get to Rodgers early and often, that should help out a hampered San Francisco secondary.
Dom Capers vs. Greg Roman
Since wide receiver Michael Crabtree has returned, the 49ers offense has been clicking. Adding another weapon to Colin Kaepernick's arsenal has helped fellow playmakers Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis get open.
What will be the best unit on the field between Green bay and San Francisco?
Also, it's changed the way offensive coordinator Greg Roman has play-called. The 49ers are a power running team, but with Crabtree in the picture, Roman is able to call plays that have resulted in bigger plays than the 49ers have been accustomed to. For example, last weekend against the Cardinals, the 49ers opened up with two screen passes to Boldin and two wide receiver reverses.
This bodes well for the 49ers going up against a Green Bay defense that allows scoring in bunches. Green Bay has allowed 26.8 points per game this season and are without outside linebacker Clay Matthews for the sixth time this season.
Getting pressure on Kaepernick, while forcing him to stay in the pocket, is key for Capers and the Packers. In order to get that pressure, Capers will have to dial up schemed pressures from a multitude of different sources in order to keep Roman and Kaepernick on their toes.
Mike McCarthy vs. Jim Harbaugh
The biggest challenge for these two teams and their coaches this weekend will be gauging the weather and how it affects the game on the field. The entire game plan is contingent upon this, and whoever wins this game might be the team that adapts the best to freezing cold temperatures.
If passing becomes nonexistent due to the cold, both Jim Harbaugh and Mike McCarthy should lean on the run and their two premier backs. Frank Gore and Eddie Lacy are both runners who like to make one cut and burst downhill with their shoulders down. Handing the ball off to these two backs might be the best choice for these coaches if negative temperatures mandate it.
Aside from assisting coordinators with play-calling, both coaches will have to use their timeouts and challenges to their utmost potential. And this is something that Harbaugh and the 49ers have struggled with.
With such a complicated offense involving audibles at the line of scrimmage, San Francisco has consistently mishandled its timeouts. The 49ers must avoid burning timeouts if this game goes down to the wire.