NFC Playoffs: Packers-49ers: 5 things to watch
The teams: The Green Bay Packers (12-5) vs. the San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1) in an NFC Divisional Playoff game.
The time: 7 p.m. CST Saturday.
The place: Candlestick Park, San Francisco.
The TV coverage: FOX – WITI (Ch. 6 in Milwaukee), WMSN (Ch. 47in Madison) and WLUK (Ch. 11 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in booth and Pam Oliver and Erin Andrews on the sideline.
The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 80-41 (including 6-3 in the postseason) in his seventh season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. The 49ers’ Jim Harbaugh is 25-8-1 in his second year as the 49ers’ coach and as an NFL head coach.
The series: The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series 30-26-1 and also own a 4-1 advantage in postseason play. The 49ers are 16-11-1 all-time in San Francisco against the Packers, but Green Bay has won 13 of the past 15 meetings, including playoffs. The 49ers scored a 30-22 victory at Lambeau Field on Sept. 9. This marks the teams’ first playoff meeting since a 25-15 Packers victory at Lambeau Field in the 2001 NFC Wild Card round, and the teams’ first playoff meeting since Terrell Owens reeled in the game-winning touchdown in a 30-27 Wild Card victory in the 1998 NFC playoffs.
The rankings: The Packers’ offense finished the 2012 regular season ranked No. 13 overall, including No. 20 in rushing and No. 9 in passing. Their 11th-ranked defense finished No. 17 against the run and No. 11 against the pass. The 49ers’ 11th-ranked offense finished No. 4 in rushing and No. 23 in passing. Their third-ranked defense was No. 4 against the run and No. 4 against the pass.
The playoff road: The Packers beat NFC North rival Minnesota 24-10 last Saturday at Lambeau Field in an NFC Wild Card game. The 49ers, as the No. 2 seed, had a bye.
The stakes: The winners advance to the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 20 to face the winner of Sunday’s game between the No. 5-seeded Seattle Seahawks and top-seeded Atlanta Falcons. If the Falcons win on Sunday, the Packers-49ers winner would travel to Atlanta. If the Seahawks win, the Packers-49ers winner would host the NFC title game as the highest remaining seed.
The line: The 49ers are favored by 3 points.
The injury report:
Out – DE Jerel Worthy (knee), WR Jarrett Boykin (ankle).
Probable – WR Randall Cobb (illness), WR Jordy Nelson (ankle), RB James Starks (knee), TE Jermichael Finley (hamstring), OLB Clay Matthews (knee), OLB Dezman Moses (hamstring).
Probable – CB Tarell Brown (shoulder), S Dashon Goldson (shoulder), LB Clark Haggans (shoulder), RB Bruce Miller (shoulder), LB Aldon Smith (shoulder), DT Justin Smith (elbow/triceps), DT Will Tukuafu (neck), LB Navorro Bowman (shoulder), TE Garrett Celek (foot), LB Tavares Gooden (ribs), G Mike Iupati (shoulder), CB Carlos Rogers (knee), LB Patrick Willis (shoulder).
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Protection racket: Given the praise he had for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio must have a lot of confidence in his guys. If he didn’t, there’d be no reason to even bother playing the game, given Fangio’s scouting report on the reigning NFL MVP.
“He’s awful tough to defend,” Fangio began before lavishing on the praise. “After watching him a lot in the offseason once we knew that (Green Bay) was our first game and now going back to that, he reminds me of [former Miami Dolphins QB] Dan Marino in the pocket with his quick, accurate release. And he reminds me of [former 49ers QB] Steve Young out of the pocket. And that’s a hell of a tough combination to defend. And we’ve got to do a good job in our rush lanes of not letting him get out too much. We’ve got to do a good job of plastering in coverage that if he does run around we don’t lose our guys. And try to limit the big plays that he can make on the move. I don’t have a great answer for you. We’ve just got to try and not let it happen.”
The best way to prevent that: Pressure. And not just pressure, but pressure with only four rushers. While Young’s observation earlier in the week that the key to beating Rodgers was generating pressure with four was hardly revolutionary, it was absolutely true. Just ask Rodgers.
“Without a doubt. If you can cover with seven and pressure with four that’s the most difficult situation, and it’s not just for me. That’s for any quarterback that plays,” Rodgers said during his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com on Thursday. “There’s just not a lot of holes out on the defense. When you’re able to drop seven guys off and play with vision to the football – which, most teams that are able to do that are going to have at least three or four guys with vision to the football – the holes in the secondary become a lot smaller.
“Now, when you can move the pocket, extend those plays, the holes begin to open up a little bit. But if you have time to go through your progressions against a four-man rush, you can make some plays. ‘There’s going to be someone open,’ we always say, and it might just be a check down, but those check downs are body blow, and those body blows add up after a while. But if you are getting pressure with four and I don’t have any time to get to my check down then it’s going to be a long day.”
Even with Rodgers’ ability to move within and outside of the pocket, the Packers’ offensive line will have to play well. While Justin Smith and Aldon Smith get most of the accolades (deservedly so) and will be huge challenges for left guard T.J. Lang and left tackle Marshall Newhouse, undrafted rookie free-agent right tackle Don Barclay and right guard Josh Sitton will have their own challenge with the less-publicized pair of Ray McDonald and Ahmad Brooks, who Rodgers said “are both very talented players. More people talk about the ‘Smith’ side, but they’re equaled out by a very talented group on the other side as well.”
It’ll be up to the line to neutralize that. The line as currently configured – Newhouse, Lang, center Evan Dietrich-Smith, Sitton and Barclay left-to-right – will be playing its fourth game together following veteran Jeff Saturday’s benching before the Dec. 23 game against Tennessee. When the teams met in Week 1, Bryan Bulaga was at right tackle and Saturday was at center.
“I think when you have a couple of injuries starting with Bryan and then moving forward, then having Evan in there, I think they’ve had a lot of reps together, 200 plus reps (now),” offensive line coach James Campen said. “That helps, and I think they’re progressing in the right direction. As far as being cohesive and calls and those things, they’re fine. So I expect them to play their best game this week.”
I spy: For as much as is being made of 49ers second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick making his first NFL postseason start – the kid took over for Alex Smith and started the final seven games – the Packers certainly aren’t talking about Kaepernick like they view him as inexperienced or unprepared.
“He's been doing an excellent job for his team ever since he stepped in,” Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said. “From what I've seen, on film, he's been throwing the ball well. Obviously everyone knows about his running ability. That's the main thing that you watch, but he's been getting it done with his arm. Obviously, they have a balanced attack and that's what makes them tough to play. Some of the throws that he makes, some of the reads that he makes, he's kind of ‘before his time,’ you could say, right now. He's doing an excellent job for his team.”
Because Kaepernick isn’t simply a running quarterback who can occasionally complete a pass – he’s 136 of 218 (62.4 percent) for 1,814 yards with 10 TDs and three INTs (98.3 rating) this season while running 63 times for 415 yards and five TDs – the Packers defense must decide how to defend him, and that likely will entail employing a spy, at least part of the time.
Whether that spy will be inside linebacker Brad Jones, outside linebacker Clay Matthews or safety Charles Woodson – all of whom have done it before – remains to be seen.
“If you’re having a problem with your rush lanes in terms of a guy identifying seams – because if you’re rushing four, there’s going to be a seam or two in there – they can tie you up,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “So, (a spy) gives you a second-level guy to where maybe if that quarterback pulls the ball down, it’s not a 20-yard gain (but) maybe it’s a 6- to 8-yard gain. There’s different ways. We’ve got different ways of doing it. If we’re playing an athletic quarterback, you always have some element of it. How much you use it kind of depends on how much you need it.”
Asked what the downside is of spying, Capers replied, “Sometimes, you can get caught in between to where you’re neither fish nor foul. You’re sitting there waiting for that quarterback so you aren’t rushing, and then you’ve got him more tied into the quarterback so you don’t get as much coverage out of him. What you’re doing is it’s kind of an in-between deal to where if you rush five, you’re designating five guys to go get the quarterback right now or if you rush four and you drop seven, you’ve got those seven guys in coverage. So now, if you go to a four-man rush, you’ve got six guys in coverage and that guy’s kind of in between, that’s why you’ve got to pick your spots.”
Tightening up on TEs: Once upon a time, 49ers tight end Vernon Davis was best known for then-Niners coach Mike Singletary’s diatribe about his attitude. (“I want winners!”) Then, in 2009, he emerged as one of the NFL’s elite tight ends, posting career highs in receptions (78), receiving yards (965) and touchdown catches (13). He also had a terrific two-game run in last year’s postseason (10 receptions, 292 yards, four TDs.)
But after the way Davis finished the regular season – only six receptions for 61 yards in the final six games – the Packers can only hope he remains that unproductive against them on Saturday night. Davis’ lack of productivity has coincided with Kaepernick’s ascension to the starting QB position, but 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Davis’ attitude has been excellent – even after Davis confessed that the season has been “stressful” for him.
“Vernon is on the field as much, other than the offensive lineman and quarterbacks, as much or more than every other player. So, he’s got something to do every play. He’s done a good job with that,” Roman said. “Day-to-day, his attitude has been great and he’s a mentally strong guy that doesn’t whither. Not getting a lot of balls, but stays focused. It’s coming, at some point.
“While many people point to one statistic – ‘Well, how many catches does this guy have?’ – the reality of it is, every play, he is critical to the success of the 49ers. From our standpoint, he’s had a really good year.”
The Packers certainly respect him, having seen him have big games before: Six catches for 108 yards and a TD in 2009; four catches for 126 yards and a TD in 2010; three catches for 43 yards and another TD in the Sept. 9 regular-season opener. Thus, they won’t be taking him lightly, especially since tight ends have been an Achilles’ heel for Capers’ defense over the years.
“You have to always be aware of Vernon Davis because he’s a tight end body type with the speed of a wide receiver. If you aren’t careful, they lull you to sleep playing the run and all of a sudden he can get out of there vertically up the field,” Capers said. “He creates matchup problems. (He’s) had a couple good days out here on Lambeau against us vertically. I’ve come out of those games saying, ‘Geez, if we just didn’t give him a play up the field …’ I still think that’s one of the keys because of the way they play. You play the run and you’ve got a tight end that’s got the speed of a receiver, so you’ve got to be careful that he doesn’t get the matchup that they want.”
Capers said the 49ers prefer multiple tight-end sets, and that’s in part because they have another excellent tight end in Delanie Walker, who caught 13 of his 21 passes on the season in the last six games, gaining 246 of his 344 yards and scoring two of his three touchdowns while Davis’ numbers dipped.
“I’ve had a lot of respect for Walker for quite a few years now because he brings such versatility to their offense. You’re going to see the guy line up as a wide receiver, you’re going to see him line up at tight end, you’re going to see him line up in the backfield. He’s their movement guy; he does a lot of movement things,” Capers said. “They run a lot of multiple-tight end schemes – they’ll have two, they’ll have three out there. They’ll have three and bring in another lineman. They use a lot of different personnel groups, and that’s kind of their game. They’re going to do a lot of the same things out of a lot of different personnel groups, give you a lot of looks formation-wise, shifting, motion. I think they play to their personnel and their tight ends are one of their strengths.”
How Capers opts to defend the tight ends remains to be seen, but look for Charles Woodson to have at least some role. Capers could also use some of his cornerbacks, even if they aren’t as big physically as the guy they’ll be covering.
“Those tight ends definitely are a big part of our offense. They run like receivers and are big like tight ends,” Tramon Williams said. “They’re definitely going to present a challenge. They can spread the field, get down the seams, things like that. You also got their receivers that can do the same. It’s definitely going to be a challenge but we’ll be prepared.”
Kicking themselves?: The Packers and 49ers took decidedly different approaches with their struggling kickers. Green Bay stood by Mason Crosby through thick and thin – and an alarming number of missed field goal attempts – while San Francisco decided to spend its playoff bye week conducting a kicking competition between scuffling David Akers and free-agent signee Billy Cundiff.
In the end, both the Packers and 49ers wound up in the same place: With their guys keeping their jobs, at least for Saturday night’s game.
“I feel like he gives us the best chance,” Harbaugh said in picking Akers. “Suffice it to say we feel confident in David giving us the best chance to win. (He) responded like a football player does. Competed and not really more to say about it.”
Well, there’s a little more to say about it. Harbaugh said Cundiff will remain on the roster, despite Akers getting the nod. It was Cundiff who missed a 32-yard field goal in the AFC Championship Game last January for Harbaugh’s brother John and the Baltimore Ravens, a kick that would have tied the game in the waning seconds of what was instead a loss to the New England Patriots.
The Packers never felt the need to put Crosby on the hot seat, and he has now made his last five field-goal attempts. He’s now 22 for 34 on the year, while Akers is 29 of 42.
“He went through a progression of his work and then putting it together on the field. His performance in the games has been solid. I feel good about where he is,” Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said of Crosby. “I think you look at what he’s done the last couple games and how he finished the season. He had some tough times that he dealt with and I think it shows what kind of character he is. He kept working and kept plying his trade. I look forward to seeing him kick.
“You could see when he missed a kick, he’d get disappointed, but I think that’s natural. I didn’t see anything unnatural. He just grinded through it.”
That approach was consistent with Crosby’s personality. Now, he wants to reward his team’s faith in and patience with him.
"That’s just kind of how I go about my business, how I do things," Crosby said. "I feel accountable to my teammates, to the organization, to myself, to my family. There’s a lot of things that I really put into it. So for me, it’s easy to stay motivated and stay focused. I try not to get too high or too low with stuff and just work hard, work through things and make sure I detail my work so when the time comes you’re going to make that kick.”
And if Saturday night comes down to a last-second kick to win it?
“If that opportunity comes, I’m ready," Crosby replied. "I’m ready for that first one, that last one and my mindset through the playoffs – and toward the end of the playoffs here – is to just finish everything."
Talking turnovers: There may be no more blatantly obvious stat that decides winning and losing more than turnover differential. But when it comes to these two teams, it’s even more profound.
As pointed out in a terrific breakdown at Grantland.com by Bill Barnwell, in five of the Packers’ 16 regular-season games, they failed to get a takeaway. They lost four of those five games, with the only victory coming over New Orleans on Sept. 30. One of those four turnover-less games was their Sept. 9 loss to the 49ers, who had the game’s only takeaway, a Navorro Bowman interception on Rodgers.
Conversely, when the Packers forced at least one turnover, they went 10-1. In those 11 games, they had multiple takeaways in seven, and their only loss was a one-takeaway game at Indianapolis on Oct. 7. Last week in the NFC Wild Card round, the Packers forced three Minnesota turnover and coasted to a 24-3 victory. According to Barnwell, the Packers are just 1-13 when they fail to force at least one takeaway in a game under McCarthy, including 1-10 with Rodgers at quarterback.
The Packers – and Woodson specifically, given his success against young QBs in recent years – are obviously hoping that Kaepernick, making his first postseason start, will turn it over. If he does, their chances of winning increase exponentially.
“I think their scheme helps him,” Capers said. “When you’ve got a solid running game the way he has – and they play-action pass a lot and they run the read-option series, they do a lot of different things – I think they do a nice job of coaching him to where he hasn’t made the critical mistakes that you see a lot of those young guys make.”
On the flip side, the 49ers are plus-37 in turnover differential under Harbaugh (No. 2 in the NFL over that period, behind New England’s plus-42 and ahead of Green Bay’s plus-31) and they were 8-0-1 this season when they won the turnover battle.
“In any game, that’s a key statistic,” Harbaugh said. “Who scores the most points is the biggest indicator of who wins and loses the game. But, turnovers are essential, are a big statistic in who wins and predicts who’s going to win the game. So, taking care of the football, (is important). I think neither one of us, you or I, would be going out on a limb by saying ball security and turnovers will play a big part in the game.”
And that’s where Rodgers comes in. He’s on a 177-attempt streak without an interception, and while he did fumble five times this season (losing four), his turnover-averse nature will be vital.
“I think I have played pretty consistently as far as my style of play and my performance. I’m going to go through my progressions and I’m going to throw it too the open guys, I’m not going to force a ton of throws,” Rodgers said. “I’m going to be aggressive when I need to, but a situation like it was on Saturday (against Minnesota), it was more about taking care of the football than forcing a blind throw.
“We talk about in the quarterback room all the time the no-no’s of playing quarterback. It’s no blind throws; if you can’t see a guy, don’t throw it. Don’t throw it late down the middle. Some of those (against the Vikings) would have been late in the drop back, late on the time clock, late down the middle. And, no premeditated decisions. So if you’re not doing any of those three things, you’re probably playing a pretty good game.
“Sometimes you have to fight against the urge to when you’re thinking, ‘This guy is got to be open here,’ but just continue to stay true to your progression and trust your eyes, knowing that, that guy is going to be in the right spot. But the no blind throws and no late down the middle is something I think is really helped me to not be a guy who’s turning the ball over a lot.”
What a tough call. Both teams have their imperfections but are legit Super Bowl contenders with playmakers on both sides of the ball. Defensively, the 49ers need Justin Smith to tilt the field despite his triceps injury. Offensively, the Packers have to allow the reigning NFL MVP to make the breathtaking plays he can make when given time. The bet here is that this game comes down to whether the Packers’ offensive linemen can protect Rodgers. If they can, Rodgers will be Rodgers and the Packers will win. If they can’t, the 49ers will be back in the NFC Championship Game for the second year in a row. The guess here is that it’s the latter. 49ers 27, Packers 24. (Season record: 10-7)
– Jason Wilde