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NFL Playoff Preview - Green Bay (12-5) at San Francisco (11-4-1)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Had the Green Bay Packers notched a home victory over the San Francisco 49ers back in Week 1, this Saturday's divisional-round matchup could very well be taking place at historic Lambeau Field.
Instead, it will be the Niners looking to duplicate their season-opening victory and advance to the NFC Championship Game for a second straight season as the two division winners battle at Candlestick Park.
After reaching the playoffs for the first time in nine years a season ago, the second-seeded 49ers bested the New Orleans Saints before dropping a 20-17 overtime decision to the eventual-champion New York Giants at home in the NFC Championship Game.
Looking to build off that season, the Niners opened up the 2012 campaign with an exciting 30-22 victory at Green Bay on Sept. 9, snapping an eight-game slide to the Packers that included the playoffs.
San Francisco got three field goals from David Akers in the victory, including an NFL record-tying 63-yard boot and quarterback Alex Smith threw two touchdown passes as the Niners ended the Packers' 13-game regular-season home winning streak.
The Niners also left the Packers pretty impressed.
"We knew going into Week 1 they were a very good team. They were in the NFC Championship Game last year, so it was no surprise to use when we played them the type of football team they are," Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy said this week. "And it's no surprise to me that we're sitting here as the No. 2 and No. 3 seed teams in the NFC that we're playing this weekend."
The 49ers earned their seeding by winning the NFC West for a second straight season on the strength of a 11-4-1 record. They won four of their first five, three of their final four and were 6-1-1 at home on the campaign.
San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh became just the eighth head coach since 1970 to win the division in each of his first two seasons and second in team history, joining George Seifert.
That won't mean much to Harbaugh if he can't advance his club any further in the postseason and he hopes that the experience gained last season, as well as the addition of a veteran like Randy Moss, can give his team an edge this time around.
"Yeah, there are definitely more of our players that have been through the playoffs and can personally share with the first or second-year players who haven't been through the playoffs, what that experience was like to them," noted the coach. "They can personalize it from conversation to conversation. And I hope and think that our young guys are taking advantage of that."
Harbaugh would love to start building a postseason resume similar to that of McCarthy and the Packers, one that includes a Super Bowl title to cap the 2010 season.
The Packers own the NFL's top playoff winning percentage at .638 (30-17) and are the lone NFC team to make it to the divisional round in each of the last three seasons. They have also won 14 of their last 19 road games since the start of the 2010 postseason.
And neither coach is reading too much into the Week 1 decision. Though it will likely be reviewed by both clubs, neither Harbaugh or McCarthy expects this meeting to be played the same way.
"The first game is definitely something we'll use as far as our game planning and go back and look at the matchups and so forth, but they're a different team too. Everybody is. We're a different team than we were four or five weeks ago," said McCarthy, who served as offensive coordinator for the 49ers for one season in 2005.
Green Bay is coming off its second straight NFC North title -- it won the Super Bowl as a sixth seed two seasons ago -- and added another playoff victory to its tome last weekend with a 24-10 triumph over the Minnesota Vikings.
The Packers avenged a Week 17 loss to the Vikings -- another defeat that cost them a bye and home-field advantage in this round -- and held MVP candidate Adrian Peterson to only 99 rushing yards on 22 carries.
The 10 points allowed were the fewest by Green Bay in a playoff game since a 23-10 win over San Francisco on Jan. 11, 1998 in the NFC championship Game.
The Packers, in fact, are 4-1 all-time versus the 49ers in the playoffs and are meeting for the first time since the wild-card round on Jan. 13, 2002, a home win for the Packers.
Green Bay is visiting San Francisco for the first time since 2006 and in the postseason for the first time since Jan. 3, 1999, the Niners' lone playoff win over the Packers.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
One area that will certainly be different than the first matchup is San Francisco's quarterback situation, which will see Colin Kaepernick under center as opposed to Smith.
Smith lost his starting job to his backup following a concussion and Kaepernick took advantage of his opportunity by going 5-2 as a starter, winning all three games at home. He threw 10 touchdown passes to three interceptions this season and also ran for another five scores in addition to 415 yards.
His ability to make plays with his legs is something the Packers will have to keep an eye on, though they did a decent job of preventing mobile Vikings quarterback Joe Webb from making any big plays last weekend and McCarthy doesn't want his defense to change its style too much just because of the matchup.
"They've had an extra week to prepare, so there will be some new wrinkles as there always is. But at the end of the day, we've established our brand of football and that's what we're taking to San Francisco to win," he said.
That is something that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers does well. His 105.4 postseason quarterback rating is the highest in NFL history and he led the league in passer rating for a second straight season.
Rodgers spreads the ball out very well and McCarthy praised his ability to communicate with his offense despite opposing crowds cranking up the volume.
"Aaron Rodgers is a great quarterback. You see what he does on the field," said Kaepernick. "You see the performances he's been having, so you can't say enough about the guy. We're going to have to go out and put up points."
In last Saturday's win over the Vikings, Rodgers tied an NFL postseason record by completing a pass to 10 different receivers and he has not thrown an interception in five straight games and 179 consecutive passing attempts.
None of his targets last week went to veteran wide receiver Donald Driver, who found himself inactive and has become the odd-man out thanks to the presence of Greg Jennings, Randall Cobb (who had a 75-yard punt return for a score in Week 1), James Jones and Jordy Nelson.
Nelson did not practice on Tuesday or Wednesday due to a nagging ankle issue and he was unable to play a full game last week versus the Vikings.
Of interesting note, Rodgers grew up in Chico, CA and was drafted out of the University of California the same year that the Niners opted to take Smith first overall. Rodgers will be playing his first NFL game at Candlestick Park.
Kaepernick, meanwhile, grew up a Packers fan having been born in Milwaukee. As a fourth grader attending elementary school in California, he wrote that he one day hoped to play for the Niners or Packers.
The 49ers rode one of the league's top defenses throughout the regular season, finishing second at 17.1 points allowed per game and third in total defense with 294.4 yards per game. They finished fourth overall both against the run and pass, but did yield 303 passing yards to Rodgers in Week 1.
San Francisco did pick off the former Super Bowl MVP once and sacked him three times, including one by linebacker Aldon Smith.
"They're a very unique defense. They can get at you a lot of different ways," Rodgers said of San Francisco.
Smith led the NFC with a team-record 19.5 sacks and has recorded 10.5 sacks in his past five home games. He teams with leading-tackler NaVorro Bowman and the outstanding Patrick Willis -- all three Pro Bowlers -- to form one of the top linebacking groups in football.
One key for the Niners is the expected return of Justin Smith, a high-motored defensive lineman who hasn't played since hurting his triceps in Week 15. He provides plenty of heart and energy to the defense.
The Packers hope that their defense is in top form after ranking 11th in the regular season in scoring and total defense and also struggling in the Week 17 loss at Minnesota.
However, Green Bay yielded a respectable 324 yards to the Vikings and chunk of that came late with the game already decided.
While Justin Smith's return is key for the Niners, safety Charles Woodson came back last weekend for the Packers after missing nine in a row because of a broken collarbone. He had six tackles and has recorded 38 interceptions since joining the Packers in 2006, including the playoffs.
"It was great to have him out there. He's a fabulous football player," McCarthy said of Woodson, who had 1 1/2 sacks and a forced fumble Week 1 versus the Niners.
Linebacker Clay Matthews has also dealt with injury this season, but had two sacks, four tackles and a forced fumble last weekend versus the Vikings.
Another key area will be in the kicking department.
Though Akers was solid in Week 1, he has missed seven of his last 17 field goal attempts, so the Niners signed Billy Cundiff this week. It is unknown who will handle the kicking duties this weekend.
Cundiff, best known for missing a 32-yard field goal in the closing seconds of the AFC Championship Game last year while with the Ravens, was cut by the Washington Redskins back in October after making just 7-of-12 field goals.
While Harbaugh opted to bring in some insurance, McCarthy has stuck with Mason Crosby all season despite his struggles.
Crosby missed 12 of his 33 field goal tries this season and went just 2-for-9 from 50 yards or further. He did make his lone try versus the Vikings last weekend, but it was only from 20 yards out.
Week 1's matchup between these two clubs was thought to be a possible NFC Championship preview, but that anticipated encounter will come one week early.
This has the potential to be a very close matchup, with the edge going to whoever comes out on top: Rodgers or the Niners' defense.
Smart money could be on Rodgers, who has posted a passer rating of 110 or better in four of his seven career postseason starts. That means the guy comes to play in big spots and he has plenty of weapons at his disposal.
"I just try to be focused. I touch the ball every play and guys are counting on me to play well. I take that to heart and I know my role as a quarterback and a leader and I try to go out and play well for my guys." said Rodgers, who has helped Green Bay average 30.7 points per game over its last six.
Harbaugh has talked about Kaepernick's growth on the field, but there is no doubt that this Saturday will be the biggest test of his young NFL career.
"Just being in the situations he's been in. The way he's handled himself in those situations, at this point we could say just about everything that a quarterback could face," Harbaugh said of Kaepernick. "And he's done well. So, I'm not saying it's dramatic improvement in any one area because I think he was good to start with. But, there's been good improvement across the board."
The 49ers' defense is good enough to keep Rodgers in check, but it is just so hard to keep a good quarterback down.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 23, 49ers 20
01/10 12:46:07 ET