The teams: The Green Bay Packers (8-7-1) vs. the San Francisco 49ers (12-4) in an NFC Wild Card Playoff game.
The time: 3:40 p.m. CST Sunday.
The place: Lambeau Field, Green Bay.
The TV coverage: FOX – WITI (Ch. 6 in Milwaukee), WMSN (Ch. 47 in Madison) and WLUK (Ch. 11 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in the booth and Pam Oliver and Erin Andrews reporting from the sidelines.
The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 88-49-1 (including 6-4 in the postseason) in his eighth season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh is 39-13-1 (including 3-2 in the postseason) in his third season as coach of the 49ers and as an NFL head coach.
The series: The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series, 30-27-1, and the postseason series, 4-2. The 49ers have won the last three meetings, including a 45-31 victory over the Packers at Candlestick Park in the 2012 NFC Divisional Playoffs.
The rankings: The Packers' third-ranked offense was No. 7 in rushing and No. 6 in passing in the regular season. Their 25th-ranked defense was No. 25 against the run and No. 24 against the pass. The 49ers' 24th-ranked offense was No. 3 in rushing and No. 30 in passing. Their fifth-ranked defense was No. 4 against the run and No. 7 against the pass.
The line: The 49ers are favored by 3 points.
The injury report: Green Bay – Out: OLB Clay Matthews (thumb). Probable: ILB Brad Jones (ankle), RB Eddie Lacy (ankle), OLB Mike Neal (abdomen), OLB Nick Perry (foot), DT Ryan Pickett (knee). San Francisco – Questionable: CB Carlos Rogers (hamstring), LB Dan Skuta (foot), CB Eric Wright (hamstring). Probable: WR Jon Baldwin (illness), C Jonathan Goodwin (not injury related), LB Navorro Bowman (wrist), CB Tarell Brown (ribs), RB Frank Gore (knee), G Mike Iupati (knee), DT Justin Smith (shoulder).
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
New man: The Eddie Lacy the 49ers saw in Week 1 and the Eddie Lacy they saw on film as they prepped for Sunday's game couldn't be more different. The Lacy that made his NFL debut was indecisive, lost a fumble and was – yes, nervous.
"Oh yeah, in that game? Yeah. He definitely had some big eyes," running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said at midweek. "He warmed up as the game went on. I think he figured out this is just football, but the start of that game there were definitely some jitters."
That may be surprising given that Lacy played the collegiate version of pro football at Alabama, where appearances in the BCS Championship Game are an annual occurrence. Whatever jitters he felt that day, though, he has overcome since. Lacy finished the regular season having rushed for 1,178 yards (4.1-yard average) and 11 touchdowns in essentially 14 games, as he suffered a concussion on his first carry in a Week 2 victory over Washington and missed the following week's game against Cincinnati.
"It's not uncommon for a rookie get that feeling going into the first game. Haven't seen it since," Van Pelt said. "Once he started rolling in that game, I think he felt, ‘This is what I do.'"
The Packers will need him to do what he does in order to win Sunday. Lacy has been bothered by a sprained right ankle since initially injuring it Dec. 8 against Atlanta, and it was bad enough that he wore an orthopedic immobilizing walking boot throughout the weeks that followed. But this week, Lacy practiced on Thursday in pads for the first time since the injury. Against the No. 4 run defense in the league, it will be tough sledding, but Lacy understands how vital he will be.
"I definitely feel a lot better," Lacy said. "I think I developed a lot (since the opener). I'm playing a lot faster, a lot calmer. I think I'm a much better player now than I was then.
"I can't even start to describe how I felt that game. That was the first time for me, but it's in the past, so I'm not too much worried about it."
Run, run, run: Packers fans may find it hard to believe after watching Colin Kaepernick throw for a career-high 412 yards in the regular-season opener against their team – and not have another 300-yard passing game until last week's regular-season finale – but the 49ers' offense is predicated on running the football. And we're not talking the read-option here. Running back Frank Gore finished ninth in the NFL in rushing – right behind Lacy – with 1,128 yards, and with 505 rushing attempts, only the Buffalo Bills (546) and Seattle Seahawks (509) ran the ball more often during the regular season.
Defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said his gut feeling was that the only team the Packers faced this year that was more run-oriented was Minnesota, and while the stats might not bear that out, there's another factor: The 49ers are variable in their run game, using different schemes and personnel groups. The 49ers frequently bring in an extra offensive lineman to run block, a la Mike Sherman's old U-71 package with Kevin Barry back in the early 2000s.
"Minnesota probably doesn't have as much variation as they have. Minnesota just runs that I-back and lets [Adrian Peterson] take over," Trgovac said. "They have a lot of different variations and they've got a guy holding the ball that can run.
"Against this team, you have to let your instincts take over because they give you a lot of different stuff. They're a power team. They're an option team. They run misdirections. They'll run the fullback plays and they'll run the counter plays, so you just have to let your instincts take over because they do a lot of stuff running the ball."
Let's not forget that Kaepernick is certainly capable of running like crazy, as evidenced by his 181-yard effort in the Packers' NFC Divisional Playoff loss last year. This year, Kaepernick finished the regular season having run 92 times on designed runs and scrambles for 524 yards (5.7-yard average), including seven attempts for only 22 yards in the season opener.
"It's tough. It's tough. We take away him running and he'll beat you throwing," veteran defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. "Dual-threat quarterbacks are always a defense's nightmare. It's going to be tough but we feel confident in our game plan and what we have in store."
Feats of Clay: Matthews certainly created a stir in the opener with his diving out-of-bounds clothesline of Kaepernick on a scramble – Matthews was fined $15,000 for the hit, although the fine was later cut in half on appeal – but the other things Matthews did in that game was serve as an effective spy against Kaepernick running, generate pressure (one sack, one QB hit and two QB hurries, per Pro Football Focus) and record eight tackles. If there's a game in which Matthews will be missed, this is it.
"You're going to miss Clay no matter who you're playing against, because Clay's one of those difference-makers where, he can make plays," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "But we feel good about the guys that we have, and I think you're going to see them play with a great effort and they understand where we are. It's playoff time, you've got to prepare to play your best football. I think that's the mindset of our guys, and we expect to go out and do that."
Matthews is out indefinitely after breaking his right thumb for the second time this season. The first time it happened, Oct. 6 against Detroit, he underwent surgery, missed four games, was wholly ineffective wearing a club cast upon his return and then switched to a fiberglass cast before re-breaking the thumb against Pittsburgh Dec. 22. In the Packers' first game without him – take 2 – they started Mike Neal and undrafted rookie Andy Mulumba at outside linebacker against the Bears, rather than 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry. Perry then was yanked not once but twice for mistakes.
"I think he's fighting through some things," outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said of Perry, who has missed practice time with a foot injury that dates back to Oct. 13 at Baltimore. As for his mistakes against the Bears, Green held back.
"That's what I call growing pains," he said. "We're going to have growing pains with young kids playing this position that haven't played this position very long. You're going to experience some of that but you hope that once they experience it that they won't make the same mistake twice. That's called growing pains."
The Packer can ill-afford to have those kinds of growing pains Sunday.
"I feel good about where they are, I feel good about the preparation. I know they're going to play hard and physical and lay it on the line with their brothers," Greene said. "We may have some growing pains here and there with these young kids playing this position but it is what it is. They're going to try to lay it on the line for the organization, for each other, and play as hard as they can."
Turning back the clock: In the opener, Anquan Boldin torched the Packers' secondary for 13 receptions and 208 yards, and he did that without Michael Crabtree lining up at the other wide receiver spot. While Boldin didn't do all the damage – tight end Vernon Davis caught six passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns – it was astonishing how the Packers were simply unable to cover him.
We'll see Sunday whether a reconstituted secondary that has gone through a few personnel combinations can do any better. This time around, they'll play Sam Shields and Tramon Williams outside at cornerback, rookie Micah Hyde in the slot as the nickel corner and veteran Jarrett Bush as the sixth defensive back in the dime. Also, veteran safety Morgan Burnett, who's certainly had his ups and downs this season, missed the first game with a hamstring injury, forcing the Packers to start M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian at safety. Now, McMillian is no longer with the team and Jennings no longer plays full-time, sharing snaps with Sean Richardson.
Boldin, who was acquired in a trade from Baltimore in the offseason, finished with 85 receptions for 1,179 yards on the season, and the Packers' best chance of containing him could be that Williams is finally playing like he did during the team's last long playoff run, in 2010.
"I think Tramon's play has increased since the New York (Giants) game (on Nov. 17) until this game," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. "Everybody asks me about the 2010 Tramon. That's what you're seeing. He played no better in 2010 than he's played since the New York game. That's what he is right now. That's what everybody (outside the building) has been waiting for."
When Hyde began struggling in the slot at midseason, Williams moved there and the Packers played Shields and Davon House outside. Since moving him back outside, and with the coaches keeping Williams on the left side and Shields on the right, Williams seems to have gotten back into a comfort zone.
"When you do your film study, you know where you're going to be, you know who you're going to see, and you can feel out where certain guys are at on the field and know what teams are going to do from that aspect of the game," Williams said. "Sometimes, if you're moving around when you're studying film, you find yourself looking at one side but realistically you're going to be moving around, so you're not going to always know what's going on."
The big chill: The weather was a topic of conversation all week long. The forecast seemed to get worse and worse with each passing day. The Packers practiced outside on Thursday and Friday – well, at least for their 11-on-11 periods, they did – and the 49ers came in a day early from the West Coast to do a walkthrough Saturday at Ray Nitschke Field. The team is even offering fans two free cups of coffee or hot chocolate at the game.
The most recent forecast from the National Weather Service was calling for a kickoff temperature around 5 degrees. Where the mercury will fall when the fourth quarter arrives is unclear, but the projected lows for Sunday are between minus-20 and minus-25 degrees. Wind chills will be between minus-30 and minus-50 degrees at some point Sunday evening. Although they should be between minus-15 and minus-30 during the game.
"It's a challenge. It's different," McCarthy said. "It's not something that you do every single Sunday. This is not the norm. Anytime you get outside the norm for whatever your occupation, it's obviously challenging mentally and physically. That's definitely going to be the case Sunday."
Wind and precipitation certain have an impact on games. What will the cold do, other than cause rampant frostbite for the underprepared? The biggest impact could be on special teams, where the flight of the ball will be significantly affected and the principal characters spend most of the game on the sideline.
"The ball is definitely harder when it's cold out. No doubt about that," Packers punter Tim Masthay said. "Thankfully, the ball is not exposed for the entirety of the game. There's a guy that's taking care of the balls, so they're at least not just sitting out. But they are hard. It's hard to keep your legs loose. For me as a punter and a holder, it's hard to keep my hands functioning completely normal. Those things all factor into punts and holding. Especially the bitter cold, like it's supposed to be, presents significant challenges.
The 2013 Green Bay Packers simply being in the playoffs is a remarkable story. Lose Aaron Rodgers for nearly two months and start three different quarterbacks in his stead? Lose Randall Cobb for 10 games, Jermichael Finley to a career-threatening neck injury and a host of other key offensive players? Play defense with essentially one proven playmaker – Clay Matthews – and watch him break his thumb not once but twice? Rally in the fourth quarter for three victories and a tie in the second half of the season – the only games you didn't lose during that period? You get the idea. The question now is whether the story continues or ends here. And there's no more perfect opponent for the storyline than the 49ers, who booted the Packers out of last year's playoffs in embarrassing fashion. The guess here is that at Lambeau, in arctic conditions, the story continues. Packers 26, 49ers 23. (Season record: 12-3-1)
– Jason Wilde
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