The San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers are two of the most storied franchises in the entire NFL. Both have great fanbases, multiple Super Bowls and, ironically enough, quarterbacks who grew up rooting for the other team.
But when it comes to two teams that are as offensively explosive as these two teams—just ask the Packers defense what Colin Kaepernick is capable of—tight games like these typically come down to great performances from players not expected to excel in the playoffs.
Before taking a look at the X-factors for this game, let's first discuss why many of these players are not tight ends or receivers. As The Weather Channel is predicting, Sunday's NFC Wild Card Round will be played literally on a frozen tundra, as temperatures are expected to dip below 0 degrees during the game.
In terms of how cold this game could get, the Packers official Instragram account posted a picture from the "Ice Bowl" played between the Dallas Cowboys and Packers back in 1967 at Lambeau Field. The caption below the picture reads "The Ice Bowl was played on this date, 46 years ago. Could Sunday be as cold?":
So when looking at potential game-changers for this matchup, it's fair to say that the running game and defenses will be of the utmost importance. With that said, here are the X-factors for both the 49ers and Packers in Sunday's NFC showdown.
Aldon Smith, OLB, San Francisco 49ers
After winning team MVP honors for the 49ers last season, Aldon Smith was suspended earlier in the season and only played 11 games this year. But he's made those 11 games worth it, finishing with 8.5 sacks in 2013 and looking for more heading into the playoffs.
In a game where freezing temperatures will force both teams to run the ball at an unreal rate, Smith's importance will be on both rushing the passer and stopping the run. But when the Packers look to throw the ball, as they likely will need to do if they get down early, Smith's previous numbers against the Packers show that he knows how to attack them.
Between last year's playoff game and the season opener, Smith has a total of seven tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio told Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area that he's confident in Smith despite his issues earlier in the season.
"He’s played very well down the stretch here,” Fangio said. “He drew a lot of attention last week in their pass-protection plan because they saw the way he was playing. And I feel good about where he is.”
Along with a defense that includes AP All-Pro Navorro Bowman and several other defensive playmakers, Smith will shine for the 49ers on a day where they need him the most.
James Starks, RB, Green Bay Packers
Eddie Lacy has certainly been the workhorse for the Packers this season and is one of the biggest reasons why they are in the playoffs, but James Starks has certainly not been out of the picture.
With 89 carries this year, Starks has rushed for 493 yards and four total touchdowns. While those aren't numbers to write home about, let's take a look at his numbers in Packers' wins versus losses.
|Starks in Packers' Wins vs. Losses|
This is not to say that Starks' success is the biggest difference maker for the Packers, but when he is able to supplement the great running of Lacy they have flourished. Lacy's success this season was due in large part to the fact that he had both Starks and rookie Johnathan Franklin spelling him during games.
Starks would be able to carry the load in the playoffs, as he did back in 2010 when he was the running back as the team won the Super Bowl. But Starks understands his role now and is playing well heading into the playoffs, as he told Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
"It’s a different season," Starks said. "New players. New schemes. Different teams. It’s football, it’s fun, you enjoy it. The playoffs are always intense. It’s a fun atmosphere, you enjoy it and we’ll be ready.”
In his last two games, Starks has rushed for 135 yards on 21 carries, which comes out to a 6.4 average yards per carry. In order for the Packers to crack the 49ers' stout rushing defense, they will need multiple backs to show up in a big way.