On offense, the 49ers get their choice of movable force and stoppable objects.
Football Outsiders ranks Green Bay as the second-to-worst defense in all of football, and it’s not because of a strong deficiency in one particular area. Green Bay is ranked 28th against the pass and 30th against the run, worst among all the NFC playoff teams.
To make it worse, one of their marquee players, Clay Matthews, will be out with a thumb injury. That’s not to say they’re without any talent on their defense—Mike Daniels, who plays about half of Green Bay’s snaps as a pass-rushing defensive end, earned a grade of 21.1 grade on Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and has racked up 39 hurries on the season. That being said, there’s a reason Green Bay isn’t sending anyone to the Pro Bowl: They simply aren’t as good as they have been in the past few seasons.
While it would be tempting for the 49ers to try to follow up on their Week 1 performance, in which Colin Kaepernick threw for 412 yards against a shell-shocked Packers secondary, expecting healthy doses of the read-option. Adding Michael Crabtree back to the mix with Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis gives the 49ers three legitimate receiving targets, and it’s been a while since the 49ers have had the potential to put up quite as effective of a passing attack.
However, with temperatures expected to plunge into the single digits, if not lower, a healthy dose of Frank Gore might be the preferred way of attacking the Green Bay defense. It’s conventional wisdom that teams that can run the ball succeed more when the temperature drops to these frigid levels—Advanced NFL Stats did a study a few years ago on the effects of weather on the passing game, noting that, while wind affects the passing game more, teams playing in cold weather watch their passing numbers drop across the board, no matter if they’re a cold-weather team or a warm-weather team.
So, in frigid conditions, the 49ers may decide to lean on the running game. That’s not a bad strategy against Green Bay; the Packers are allowing 125 yards per game on the ground and 4.6 yards per carry. If anything, they’ve been trending down as the season goes along; they allowed teams to rush for over 100 yards in six of their last eight games.
The Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings nearly had two running backs break 100 yards (which bodes well for both Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter) while the Philadelphia Eagles saw LeSean McCoy rumble for 155 yards. I’d expect a 49ers victory to be highlighted by a bruising running game that grinds out yards in the trenches—an old school approach, but one that is fit for weather like this.
On defense, the 49ers will have to cover for the possible absence of Carlos Rogers—he’s fighting a sore hamstring at the moment, as is his backup, Eric Wright. The cold weather is not an ideal time or place to be dealing with a hamstring injury, so San Francisco might have to help out their troubled secondary by limiting Aaron Rodgers’ time in the pocket.
This is where the two Smiths come in, Aldon and Justin. They will be lining up and attacking Packers rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari, who has had a solid season at left tackle. Still, dealing with two of the NFL’s premier pass-rushers, in the playoffs, in the freezing cold...that’s a daunting challenge for any player, much less a fourth-round rookie.
A 49ers victory will likely see Bakhtiari overwhelmed by Aldon’s speed and Justin’s power, which will prevent Rodgers from settling in the pocket. In the first matchup between these two teams, Aldon had two sacks, two more quarterback hits and four hurries—most of it working against Bakhtiari. If he can put up numbers like that again, it would go a long way towards helping the secondary contain Rodgers and that vaunted Green Bay passing offense.
Shutting Rodgers down entirely is probably too much to ask. However, if he finds himself on the turf four or five times this game, the 49ers’ odds of winning increase dramatically.
What would a San Francisco 49ers loss look like in Green Bay?
Turnovers would likely be a cause of the 49ers offense stuttering to a halt. The Packers defense has forced multiple turnovers six times this season, including their most recent five games. The 12 turnovers forced since Week 13 are tied for third over that time period, with only the Falcons and Seahawks forcing more.
The 49ers have done a very good job of avoiding turnovers this season—over that same five-week time span, they’ve only given up the ball twice, tied for fewest in the league—so a turnover-filled day would be uncharacteristic of their recent form. They have had multiple turnovers in five games, however, including a five-turnover game in Seattle back in Week 2, so it’s not out of the question that Green Bay could generate some momentum with turnovers, especially in the frigid weather.
A Packers victory will very likely mean they will have won the turnover battle. And at least one such takeaway probably will occur in a key situation, one that sets up the Packers with a short field or takes 49er points off the board.
On defense, a 49ers loss would probably be accompanied by headlines proclaiming Aaron Rodgers to have returned to full health. This isn’t the same offense that Football Outsiders has ranked 16th in recent weeks; the return of Rodgers, as well as Randall Cobb, gives them a fully loaded offensive arsenal that would be the envy of many teams throughout the league.
The Green Bay passing game is getting healthy at the same time that San Francisco’s secondary is battling injuries, and if there’s one matchup that could help the underdog Packers pull out a victory out, it’s attacking that injury-plagued unit—you can imagine Rodgers attacking C.J. Spillman or Darryl Morris, forced into the dime package due to injury, and picking up huge chunks of yardage through the air.
As good as Eddie Lacy has been this season—and he’s been quite good—I think the most likely path to a Green Bay win is in a shootout. If Rodgers and his receivers can overcome the effects of the cold weather and have a 300-plus yard passing day, I’m not sure the 49ers have enough offensive firepower to keep up. A poor defensive showing would likely lead to San Francisco going home.
All in all, I think the 49ers are well set up to win this matchup and move on to the divisional round of the playoffs. The Packers aren’t a pushover by any means, especially now that they’re healthier on offense, but their Achilles heel—an oftentimes porous defense—will likely come back to hurt them on Sunday.
Making the playoffs at all, considering the injuries they suffered, is a credit to this Packers team and should be lauded. Getting this far with no Pro Bowlers is a difficult feat indeed. At the end of the day, however, I think the 49ers are simply the better team, and that will help lead them to victory on Sunday.