The San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers have been rivals since the mid-1990s when Steve Young and Brett Favre went head-to-head on so many occasions. That rivalry has been renewed over the past couple years, and another chapter will be written when they meet in this weekend's Wild Card Round.
Green Bay will host San Francisco at Lambeau Field after winning the NFC North on the final day of the season; however, the Niners are favored to win on the road. The 49ers have had the Packers' number, but Green Bay has an opportunity to get some revenge on the playoff stage.
Here are the top storylines to keep track of when the Packers and 49ers do battle in the postseason for the second consecutive year.
Aaron Rodgers' Return
No one player makes an entire team, but there is no denying the fact that the Packers are leaps and bounds better when Aaron Rodgers is under center.
Green Bay struggled without its All-Pro quarterback for seven weeks but was able to hang in there long enough for Rodgers to return in Week 17 and lead the Packers to the NFC North title by beating the Chicago Bears. Now that Rodgers has a game under his belt, it will be very interesting to see how he performs against the 49ers.
Rodgers threw for 318 yards and two touchdowns against Chicago, but he also threw two interceptions. San Francisco's defense is far superior, so Rodgers will need to be a bit better when it comes to making decisions with the ball. One thing working in Rodgers' favor is that he is among the NFL's best cold-weather quarterbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Info:
If weather reports are accurate, the Packers vs. 49ers clash could be one of the coldest playoff games ever. Per Kurtis Alexander of the San Francisco Chronicle, the wind chill could plummet to minus-30 degrees Fahrenheit:
"You can get frostbite within 30 to 40 minutes in these temperatures if you're not covered up," said Roy Eckberg, a meteorologist with the weather service in Green Bay. "It's been about 15 to 20 years that we've seen an arctic outbreak this severe."
The Niners are seemingly a team that is built to play well in cold weather, but that doesn't mean that they like it. Rodgers threw for 333 yards and three touchdowns in the Packers' Week 1 loss to the 49ers at San Francisco. The weather may prevent Rodgers from putting up such gaudy statistics this time, but he knows how to play in the elements as well as anyone.
Colin Kaepernick's Packer Dominance
Niners signal-caller Colin Kaepernick didn't become an elite quarterback after trending in that direction during last year's playoffs, but he appears to be rounding into form at the perfect time. After torching the Packers to the tune of 412 passing yards and three touchdowns in Week 1, Kap went into somewhat of a tailspin. He has been the driving force behind San Francisco's late-season run, as evidenced by this tweet courtesy of 49ers.com's Taylor Price, though:
Kaepernick was unable to break 300 yards passing after his 400-yard outburst against the Packers until Week 17. He threw for 310 yards and two scores to eliminate the rival Arizona Cardinals from playoff contention, and he enters the postseason in fantastic form. It is no accident that Kaepernick's improvement has coincided with the return of wide receiver Michael Crabtree from injury. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Kaepernick has been far more accurate with Crabtree in the lineup:
Although playing in the cold isn't ideal, Crabtree's presence is a big reason why Kaepernick may be able to excel against the Packers again. His virtuoso performance in Week 1 came without Crabtree, which is certainly encouraging. Also Kaepernick threw for 263 yards and two touchdowns against Green Bay in the playoffs last year while adding an insane 181 yards and two scores on the ground.
Kaepernick has the Packers' number, and Green Bay must figure out a way to solve him.
Clay Matthews' Absence
The Packers don't have a great defense as they show vulnerability against both the run and the pass, but they are capable when they pressure the quarterback. That can be said for many NFL defenses, but it is especially true when it comes to Green Bay. The main source of the Packers' pass rush is outside linebacker Clay Matthews, but they will have to cope without him against the 49ers as he is officially out, according to Pro Football Talk:
Matthews has missed five games this season due to injury, and he is currently dealing with a thumb ailment. Matthews has been dominant for the Packers when healthy over the past couple seasons, but durability is a major concern. He racked up 7.5 sacks in just 11 games this season and dropped the quarterback on 13 occasions in 12 contests in 2012.
His efficiency is impressive, but it won't do the Packers any good against the 49ers since he'll be in street clothes.
Matthews' absence figures to play a huge role in the game due to the fact that Kaepernick can beat the Packers in so many ways. Even if Matthews isn't getting sacks, he's capable of setting the edge and preventing outside runs.
Without that threat, though, Kaepernick won't have to respect the Packers defense quite as much. Most of the focus in this game is on offense, but Green Bay's hole on defense could potentially be the biggest deciding factor.
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