Thursday, January 10, 2013

49ers vs. Packers

The Green Bay-San Francisco tilt pits two preseason favorites and legit Super Bowl contenders against each other. Both teams met Week 1 with the Niners coming out on top, but a lot has changed since then.

The biggest change is obviously Colin Kaepernick being the starting quarterback as opposed to Alex Smith. Smith plays a very neat and clean game, but the move to Kaepernick gives the 49ers' offense a new element, and one that could get them a Super Bowl. Kaepernick, like Smith, has been good at not turning the ball over, getting picked off only three times in seven starts. Yes, this is his first year as a starter and yes, he has made mistakes, most notably his muffed handoff against the Rams, but his ability to run and throw on the run are something that teams have a lot of trouble preparing for. Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson have thrived as dual threat QB's and Kaepernick hasn't been too far behind them. His numbers aren't gaudy due to the Niners having big leads often, but his play has spoken for itself, most notably in San Fran's battle with the Patriots. He'll have his hands full with the Green Bay pass rush featuring Clay Matthews, but the San Fran offensive line is one of the best.

The running game has obviously benefited Kaepernick and it's thanks in a big part to Frank Gore who has had a monster season while staying healthy. Unfortunately for the Niners, Kendall Hunter is hurt and Brandon Jacobs didn't pan out, so their depth at the position is a little thin, but it will be interesting to see what LaMichael James, the former Oregon speedster, does with increased touches. The Packer defense has struggled a lot against the run this year, and I don't see that changing in this one. If Gore can keep churning out first downs, it will keep the game at the pace the 49ers want to play at.

Two pass catchers could play a big part in this game, both currently on opposite ends of the Kaepernick spectrum. Michael Crabtree seems to have finally broken out into the player everyone thought he would be, catching five touchdown passes in Kaepernick's seven starts, while piling up 595 yards. Vernon Davis, on the other hand, has disappeared, catching only six passes in the past six games. This may be alarming to some, but it's worth noting that Davis was quiet near the end of last season, only to be a huge weapon in the Niners' two playoff games. It would be wise for head coach Jim Harbaugh to incorporate him more in this game.

I understand that San Francisco has a very talented defense even with Justin Smith out, but Aaron Rodgers is Aaron Rodgers. I expect him to have a lot of success through the air. He has been on a tear for Green Bay and has that fire in his game that was similar to when the Packers won the Super Bowl two years ago. What Rodgers must do is limit mistakes and protect his receivers. Against New Orleans in last year's playoff game, the Niner defenders routinely lit up multiple Saints' players with bone-jarring hits. That really set the tone for the game, and it's not the kind of game the Packers will want to play. Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings have been bothered by injuries all year, but they should be good to go in this one. Add that to the emergence of James Jones and Randall Cobb and Rodgers has four rock-solid targets to throw to. It's going to be interesting to see how Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman, and the rest of the defense match up against these talented players.

The Packers haven't had a running game all year, but that may have changed now. DuJuan Harris has stepped in as the lead back, and while he hasn't been spectacular, he's been good enough to contribute. Harris is a hard-nosed runner who will look to try and pound away at the fourth-ranked run defense of the Niners, which is much easier said than done.

It would be a shame if a game as great as this one should be comes down to a missed field goal, but it certainly would not be a shock. Both teams have had issues with their kickers. Mason Crosby has only made 21 of his 33 field goal attempts for the Packers, while San Francisco has to decide between a shaky David Akers (29 of 42 field goals this year) or last year's AFC championship game goat, Billy Cundiff. Let's hope these boys can "kick" the problems to the curb. And if they can't, they'll likely be kicked to the curb themselves.

This game is eerily similar to last year's Niners-Saints playoff game. There's an MVP caliber quarterback going against one of the best defenses in football. Last year, I thought that the Saints would win, but the Niners proved people wrong and showed they can beat a big time QB. However, I'm going to have to bet against San Fran again. Rodgers just seems like he's in another world right now and that nothing will stop him. I think the 49ers will be able to provide enough offense and limit Rodgers enough to keep the game close, but in the end, it's Green Bay going to the NFC championship game.

Packers 34, 49ers 30

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