There might not be a wild-card matchup with juicier storylines than the Green Bay Packers facing the San Francisco 49ers at Lambeau Field.
The temperature is expected to drop well below zero degrees. The Niners have won the last three games between these teams, knocking the Packers out of the playoffs last season. Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb are back in action for Green Bay.
It's going to be fun. But what will ultimately decide this showdown? Which players will be the key performers for their teams?
Let's break down the two main advantages each team has in this game.
San Francisco Advantage: The Defense
The Niners might have the best defense in all of football. They allowed the fourth-fewest yards per game, third-fewest points and forced 30 turnovers, tied fifth. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman was an Associated Press first-team All-Pro, while Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks were second-team selections.
In their six team-game winning streak, the Niners allowed just two opponents to reach 20 points, and the Falcons scored the most with 24. And while the bitter cold temperatures expected for Lambeau Field may not be preferable, they probably favor the Niners' brand of physical defensive football over the Packers passing attack.
Slowing down Green Bay's offense when it gets clicking is no easy task, but if there is a defense capable of doing it, it's San Francisco.
Green Bay Advantage: Aaron Rodgers
It seems safe to say that any rust from missing a huge chunk of the regular season is a non-factor for Rodgers.
Quite simply, the Packers are one of the NFL's most dangerous offenses with Rodgers under center. And Rodgers has an excellent postseason record, going 5-3 in the playoffs with a Super Bowl title. Plus, he has a running game to lean on this year with star rookie runner Eddie Lacy, so he doesn't need to put everything on his own shoulders.
You can bet the other NFC participants were less than pleased to see Rodgers and the Packers reach the postseason. In fact, one anonymous scout said as much to
Aaron Rodgers' downfield heave hadn't even found Randall Cobb's hands when the thought had to cross through the collective minds of the NFC playoff field: No matter how they got here, the Green Bay Packers can be a scary team in January with their star quarterback back under center.
"Been hoping they get knocked out for weeks," a high-ranking scout for another playoff-bound NFC team told USA TODAY Sports, speaking on condition of anonymity for competitive reasons.
There are 21 other positions on the field, but at the most important one, the Packers have the advantage. You can bet the Niners were wishing they were facing a different quarterback in this one.
San Francisco Advantage: The Running Game
While Colin Kaepernick threw for 412 yards and three touchdowns in Week 1 against the Packers this year, this Niners offense is centered around the run. And the Niners featured the running attack very heavily in both wins against the Packers last year, rushing for 323 yards in the divisional round in last year's playoffs and 186 yards in Week 1 last season.
The Niners leaned on the read-option with less regularity this season, but could they bring it back in such brutally cold conditions, especially after it worked so well against Green Bay a year ago?
Whether they do or not, expect a heavy dose of Frank Gore. The veteran running back was brilliant again this season, rushing for 1,128 yards and nine touchdowns, and was a huge reason why the Niners were third in rushing offense this year.
And he's a huge reason why the Packers' 25th-ranked run defense will have its hands full in this game.
Green Bay Advantage: The Wide Receivers
Outside of Denver, there isn't a more dangerous trio of receivers than Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and James Jones. And as if that wasn't enough to deal with for the Niners, they may have to do so while being very shorthanded at corner.
From Bill Williamson of ESPN:
The San Francisco 49ers are headed to Green Bay on Friday with questions at cornerback—as there has been all week.
The team listed Carlos Rogers and his replacement,Eric Wright, as questionable to play in Sunday's wild-card game. Both players have hamstring injuries. It appears Wright may have a better chance of playing than Rogers.
Wright was injured in practice Thursday but returned Friday. Rogers missed practice all week after getting hurt Sunday at Arizona. His optimism waned as the week went on.
That's potentially trouble for San Francisco.
Finally reunited, the Packers' trio at wide receiver torched the Chicago Bears in Week 17, combining for 18 receptions, 257 receiving yards and two touchdowns. In other words, expect the Packers to go "bombs away" against the Niners.
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