A rivalry that once helped define the NFC in the 1990s is returning with a vengeance in the early stages of the 2010s.
The San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers once faced off six different times during a three-year stretch from 1996 to 1999. Four of those games came in the postseason: one in the Wild Card Round, twice in the divisional round and a fourth in the NFC Championship Game. The Packers won five and lost just one, with a 3-1 playoff record.
On Sunday, Green Bay will attempt to get back on the winning side of the ledger in a rivalry that has swung decidedly San Francisco's way.
The 49ers have won the last three meetings between the two clubs, including each of the last two season openers and last year's divisional round. San Francisco has a plus-28 point differential—trailing only once in the fourth quarter—over the three games.
Sunday's NFC Wild Card Round features the latest installment of this re-emerging rivalry, pitting the NFC North champion Packers (8-7-1) against the NFC Wild Card 49ers (12-4) at an expectedly frozen Lambeau Field.
Injury Report for Packers
|LB Brad Jones||Ankle||Probable|
|RB Eddie Lacy||Ankle||Probable|
|LB Clay Matthews||Thumb||OUT|
|LB Mike Neal||Abdomen||Probable|
|LB Nick Perry||Foot||Probable|
|DL Ryan Pickett||Knee||Probable|
The Packers are relatively healthy if you discount the 15 players already on injured reserve. Linebacker Clay Matthews (thumb) is the only player expected to miss Sunday's game, but he'll be a big absence.
Matthews leads the Packers in sacks (7.5) and remains one of the defense's few difference-makers. He had a sack and two tackles for losses in the season opener. Running back Eddie Lacy is still battling an ankle problem, but the injury appears to be healing.
Injury Report for 49ers
|WR Jon Baldwin||Illness||Probable|
|LB NaVorro Bowman||Wrist||Probable|
|CB Tarell Brown||Ribs||Probable|
|WR Michael Crabtree||Quad||Probable|
|C Jonathan Goodwin||N/A||Probable|
|RB Frank Gore||Knee||Probable|
|G Mike Iupati||Knee||Probable|
|CB Carlos Rogers||Hamstring||Questionable|
|LB Dan Skuta||Foot||Questionable|
|DL Justin Smith||Shoulder||Probable|
|CB Eric Wright||Hamstring||Questionable|
The 49ers will be concerned with the health of their secondary, which is dealing with two important injuries. Both Carlos Rogers, who was tasked with handling Randall Cobb in the slot back in Week 1, and Eric Wright, his potential backup inside, are battling hamstring injuries.
San Francisco will ask more out of Tramaine Brock—arguably the defense's best cover corner—and Perrish Cox, who played less than 100 snaps this season.
Can the Packers Finally Contain Colin Kaepernick?
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers has three straight failures in game-planning to stop Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers' versatile quarterback.
Back in the 2012 opener, Kaepernick came in for one play and sprung a 17-yard run, which set up David Akers' 63-yard field goal to end the half. Four months later, the 49ers unleashed Kaepernick on Capers, using the read-option to total 323 rushing yards, 579 total yards and 45 points. Kaepernick finished with 417 combined yards (record 181 rushing) and four touchdowns (two rushing).
Hellbent on ensuring the read-option wouldn't embarrass his defense again, Capers spent an offseason preparing to stop the evolving trend in the 2013 season opener. While the Packers contained the look and mostly shut down the run, Kaepernick instead put up career numbers passing the football, throwing for 412 yards and three touchdowns.
Overall, Kaepernick has accounted for 878 yards (203 rushing) and seven total touchdowns in the last two games against the Packers.
|2012 Divisional Round||17/31||263||2/1||91.2||16||181||2|
|2013 Week 1||27/39||412||3/0||129.4||7||22||0|
Kaepernick: 878 total yards, seven TDs
Will the fourth time be the charm for Capers and his defense?
The numbers don't suggest so. The Packers finished 2013 ranked 24th in points (26.8 per game) and passing yards (247.3) and 25th in total yards (372.3) and rushing yards (125.0).
There's simply very little that Green Bay's defense can claim to be above-average at, especially with Clay Matthews on the sidelines.
The 49ers may not rack up yards (just 24th in the NFL this season), but they can score (25.4 per game), win in the running game (137.6) and protect the football (second in the NFL in giveaways with 18).
This will likely be another bad matchup for the Packers defense. Capers must find a way to limit his defense's predictable shortcomings on Sunday.
Will the 49ers Hold Up Against the Run?
Running the football will be important to both sides but may be more so for the Packers.
Green Bay hasn't had problems throwing against the 49ers, who have given up 283 passing yards a game to the Packers over the last three meetings. And considering San Francisco allowed nearly 750 passing yards in the last two games of 2013, that trend will likely continue Sunday.
However, a one-man show with Aaron Rodgers hasn't been a winning formula against San Francisco.
The Packers have rushed for just 70.6 yards a game in the last three with the 49ers, including just 63 in the 2013 opener. Overall, Green Bay has just 49 total rushes over those three games—which highlights both the ineffectiveness of the run against the 49ers and Mike McCarthy's unwillingness to stick with it.
This season, Green Bay went 0-4 when rushing for less than 100 yards in a game.
On the flip side of that equation, the 49ers allowed 139.3 rushing yards a game in their four losses in 2013. And in the 12 wins, that average dropped to just 81.5.
The 49ers rank fourth overall in rushing defense and ninth in yards per carry allowed.
The Packers have run the football considerably better this season, ranking in the top 10 of rushing for all but one week of 2013. But large chunks of their rushing yards have come against the likes of the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys. The 49ers' front seven is an entirely different animal. A winning performance Sunday will likely require Green Bay's best effort on the ground.
Does the Weather Favor Either Team?
The forecast at kickoff Sunday is expected to be dangerously cold, with temps below zero and wind chills approaching 20-to-30 below. It'll simply be winter in Wisconsin, but there's no guarantee the conditions will favor the home team.
While hailing from warm and sunny California, the 49ers have built a roster well-suited to play—and play well—in cold, wintery climates.
Quality football in the harsh conditions typically comes down to executing at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, where the 49ers are well-stacked. Both the offensive line and front seven for San Francisco are among the NFL's best.
The Packers have become more physical up front on offense, but this is still a defensive front seven that can get pushed around at the point of attack. Green Bay lacks playmakers along the defensive line and the linebackers necessary to consistently shed blocks. That combination of missing parts has been a big reason for the problems stopping the run this season.
The obvious advantage in the running game should give San Francisco a chance to control the tempo and flow of the game. The 49ers are a perfect 8-0 this season when winning time of possession.
The 2007 NFC Championship Game feels like a distant memory, but its lessons still apply. In temps that eventually got down to nearly 30 below, the New York Giants controlled the football (40:01 to 22:34) and dominated the Packers in the run game, 134 yards to 28.
Green Bay can't get pushed around like that Sunday and expect to beat the 49ers. We should find out once and for all just how "tough" this Packers team really is.
Tale of the Tape
49ers 7, Packers 4
Very few of the positions were close one way or the other, save for maybe running back.
The 49ers have one of the game's more underrated players in Frank Gore, who put together his eighth 1,000-yard season in 2013. He's also second in the NFL in rushes over 20 yards (nine) and an accomplished pass protector. Kendall Hunter (4.6 yards per carry, three touchdowns) is a capable backup.
The Packers can counter with Lacy, the second coming of Marshawn Lynch and the front-runner to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. He nearly broke 1,200 yards and finished with 11 rushing touchdowns. Behind Lacy, the Packers have a proven veteran in James Starks, who helped fuel a Super Bowl run in 2010. This season, Starks averaged 5.5 yards and scored three touchdowns.
The 49ers got the slight edge, simply because Gore is a more polished overall player than the young, improving Lacy.
Prediction: 49ers 34, Packers 23
The Packers have a healthy Aaron Rodgers and a running game to protect him. That alone gives Green Bay a chance to beat any team left in the NFC field, including the 49ers. But if simply having Rodgers meant a Packers win, Green Bay wouldn't be 0-3 in the last three attempts against San Francisco.
The 49ers are the more complete team. They have an elite running offense that protects the football against turnovers. They win at the line of scrimmage and get takeaways on defense. And they mostly take care of business on special teams.
The Packers will need a near-perfect day from Rodgers and the offense, plus a turnaround stopping the run and a few takeaways on defense. That's a lot to ask of a flawed football team missing a number of key contributors.
Unless the 49ers crumble under the frozen conditions, the Packers won't be good enough on defense to hang with a bona fide Super Bowl contender.