NFL Playoff Preview - San Francisco (12-4) at Green Bay (8-7-1)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The San Francisco 49ers have gotten the best of the Green Bay Packers in three meetings since the start of the 2012, including a postseason victory in last season's playoffs.
Enter the great equalizer: winter at Lambeau Field.
Winter is coming for the wild-carding Niners, who visit the NFC North champion Packers on Sunday afternoon.
These two clubs have seen plenty of each other over the past two seasons. San Francisco snapped an eight-game slide in Green Bay with a 30-22 win in Week 1 of last season, though the temperature was hardly a factor given the game took place on Sept. 9.
"You just have to block it out," said 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick of adjusting to the cold weather.
Kaepernick took over as the starter for San Francisco midway through the 2012 campaign and helped his club get the better of the visiting Packers in last season's divisional contest en route to a Super Bowl appearance and loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
San Francisco opened its 12-4 campaign with a 34-28 victory over Green Bay, with Kaepernick outgunning Aaron Rodgers in a game that featured 879 yards of total net offense.
After torching the Packers with his legs during the playoffs, Kaepernick did it with his arm back in Week 1 with 412 passing yards and three touchdowns to zero interceptions.
In his Niners debut after coming over from a Ravens team that beat San Francisco in last season's Super Bowl, Anquan Boldin had 13 receptions for 208 yards with a touchdown.
Rodgers threw for 333 yards with three touchdowns, getting picked off once.
Rodgers ended this season with a 104.9 passer rating, becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to surpass a 100 rating in five straight seasons. A broken collarbone sidelined him for seven straight weeks but he returned to lead Green Bay to a season-ending victory over the Chicago Bears to secure the Packers' third straight division title.
Rodgers shook off some early rust to march Green Bay 87 yards for a game- winning drive, converting three times on fourth down. That included a 48-yard touchdown throw to Randall Cobb on 4th-and-8 with 38 seconds to play.
"I looked outside to make sure we had a big play there," Rodgers said. "From the throw I missed Andrew Quarless on earlier in the drive, I knew I had to get a little bit on it to make sure I didn't way underthrow him. When that ball came down and he got into the end zone it was just pandemonium."
The former MVP finished the game 25-for-39 for 318 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions for the Packers, who won three of their last four games to finish the season 8-7-1.
Cobb, who had been out since fracturing his right tibia on Oct. 13 against Baltimore, caught both touchdown passes by Rodgers, while Jordy Nelson had 10 grabs for 161 yards.
Despite having an inferior record to the Niners, the Packers will play host this weekend and are making no apologies for doing so.
"Everybody's record right now is the same. We're in the tournament. There's 12 teams with a chance to the win championship," said Rodgers. "That's how we're looking at it. We won our division to give us the right to host a home playoff game and we're going to try and make the most of it."
San Francisco, in the playoffs for a third straight season, has won the NFC West in the previous two campaigns before getting unseated by the 13-3 Seattle Seahawks. The Niners had a chance to win the division in Week 17 and did its part by besting Arizona 23-20, but the Seahawks bested the Rams to lock up first place.
"Players, coaches don't control who you play, where you play, when you play. The thing you control is how you play," San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh said.
Boldin made nine catches for 149 yards and a touchdown against his former Cardinals team and Kaepernick threw for 310 yards with a pair of scores.
San Francisco, though, needed Phil Dawson's 40-yard field goal as time expired to win its sixth straight game.
Including the playoffs, the Packers have won 13 of their last 17 versus the Niners and San Francisco is 11-23 all-time in Green Bay.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Much is being made about the 49ers having to travel to Green Bay and just how it will impact the West Coast club.
Not shockingly, the Packers think it will be to their advantage for the most part, especially early on, while the Niners are dismissing the elements.
"I do," said Rodgers on if the cold will have an influence. "Winter is coming. It's here in Green Bay. That is definitely going to have an affect on the game.
"Not everybody in this locker room is from the great state of Wisconsin, but we do practice in it, live in it. I think we'll be a little bit better at adapting to it initially, but once the game starts it's about who can execute. In the cold weather, it does some different things to the football and it's about taking care of the football in the playoffs and making some big plays."
And while Kaepernick has played a majority of his NFL football in California and played his college ball in Nevada, he was born in Milwaukee and should be motivated to do well at historic Lambeau Field.
"I don't think my dream was to play in freezing weather, but to be in the playoffs and have this opportunity, yes, it's part of the dream," stated the quarterback.
"He'll be fine," Harbaugh said of Kaepernick. "He's played up in Reno. They had some cold weather games there, cold and windy."
No matter the weather, the Packers need to find a way to stop Kaepernick. They saw the quarterback throw the ball up the field back in Week 1 after getting torched on the ground by Kaepernick during the playoffs.
In that 45-31 victory, Kaepernick threw for 263 yards with two touchdowns while also setting an NFL single-game record with 181 rushing yards. He scored twice on the ground, including a 56-yard run while helping put the run-option in vogue.
"That's why you game plan. We're preparing for it," said Packers coach Mike McCarthy of the read-option. "Obviously it was a factor in the outcome of last year's game."
Kaepernick has a number of options on offense, including tight end Vernon Davis, who caught 13 of Kaepernick's 13 touchdown passes.
In six career games versus the Packers, including playoffs, Davis has 23 catches, 493 yards and six touchdowns.
Boldin was also a welcomed addition as he led the Niners with 85 catches and 1,179 yards to go along with seven touchdowns. His teams are 8-3 in the playoffs and he has played in two Super Bowls with one win.
While Rodgers is regarded as one of the top quarterbacks in the game and Green Bay's offense averaged over 400 yards per game this season, the Packers added a solid run game to the mix, spearheaded by second-round pick Eddie Lacy.
The Alabama product set franchise rookie records with 1,178 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, with 10 of those coming in his last 11 games.
"He's a very physical runner," noted Harbaugh of the opposing back. "He's got really good vision. Ability to break tackles and make yards after contact. Has a sense for the end zone. All those things. Been a real good back right off the blocks."
Lacy has been running on a sore ankle, but McCarthy said he came out of Week 17 good and it helped that James Starks was able to rush for 88 yards on 11 carries versus the Bears.
The addition of the run game will help keep the Niners' third-ranked defense honest, though San Francisco is yielding just 95.9 rushing yards per game.
The Niners have an excellent front seven, led by linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis on the inside and Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith.
Bowman led the Niners with 145 tackles and was the only player in the NFL this season to log 100-plus tackles, five-plus sacks, four-plus forced fumbles and a pick-six.
Brooks and Smith, meanwhile, tied for the club lead with 8 1/2 sacks.
One thing Rodgers may exploit is the fact that starting Niners cornerback Carlos Rogers may not play due to an unknown injury.
"We want to be an up-tempo team," said Rodgers. "We want to get a lot of plays run, try to wear the defense out a little bit. We have a different type of attack now that Eddie is playing so well and James Starks is playing so well."
The Packers' rank just 25th in defense, but have come up with 44 sacks this season. They will be without star linebacker Clay Matthews for a sixth time this season due to a thumb injury. He re-injured the thumb in Week 16 and did not play versus the Bears.
Linebacker A.J. Hawk led the Packers with 118 tackles to go along with a career-high five sacks, while defensive tackle Mike Daniels (6 1/2) and linebackers Mike Neal (5) and Nick Perry (4) all set career highs in sacks.
Cornerback Sam Shields had a 52-yard pick-six in last season's playoff meeting and has four interceptions in his past five postseason games.
One would think that two clubs having played three times in two seasons would offer a sample of how things will go this Sunday, but that isn't really the case.
The Niners have more weapons on offense than before with a seasoned Kaepernick and a healthy Michael Crabtree joining Boldin and Davis, while the presence of Lacy in the Packers' backfield is an interesting wrinkle.
For San Francisco, the big thing will be how the club handles the cold, a factor that may slow the club down early.
"I think our players want to play winning football, no matter what the circumstances," said Harbaugh. "So, regardless of what's coming forward, it's not relevant. I think the most relevant thing is that we want to play, we want to coach and participate in winning football no matter what the circumstances, home or away."
Both teams come in having had success to end the season. The Niners have not lost since Nov. 17, while all three of Green Bay's wins in December came with the Packers being down by eight points or more in the second half.
"There is merit to going into the playoffs and coming out of an experience that has you prepared for playoff football," said McCarthy. "I don't know how we could be better prepared for playoff football than what we've been through the last four weeks. I'd take our four-week experience over everything. We'll see what happens."
Home-field advantage and proven resilience may be enough for the Packers this weekend.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 28, 49ers 27
01/02 13:31:43 ET