Divisional Preview: San Francisco Hosts Green Bay for a Week 1 Rematch
By: Kim O'Hara | Posted: January 11, 2013
San Francisco opened its 2012 season at Green Bay, and for one of these two teams, its first opponent of the season will also be its last. The 49ers claimed the first round in Week 1 behind running back Frank Gore's game-high 112 rushing yards (and touchdown). Then-quarterback Alex Smith threw his first of two touchdowns to receiver Randy Moss. Gore's importance hasn't diminished (the 49ers are 9-1 when Gore is the game's leading rusher), but Smith lost his job to second year quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Moss has been little more than a decoy throughout the season.
The Packers have experienced no such rushing consistency this season. Six separate players (quarterback Aaron Rodgers and running backs Cedric Benson, James Starks, Alex Green, Ryan Grant and DuJuan Harris) have posted team-high rushing performances in 2012. Due to equal parts injury and poor offensive line play, Green Bay has had to rely largely on its passing attack to earn victories. Harris, a second year player who has spent most of his NFL career bouncing from practice squad to practice squad before earning a chance with the Packers. He's made the most of his opportunity, leading all rushers with a combined 117 yards and a touchdown in his first two games.
Health concerns haven't been limited to Green Bay's running backs. Packers receivers Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb have all battled a variety of ailments this season; neither Nelson nor Cobb participated fully in practice through Thursday (both were limited in Thursday's practice). James Jones may be the least heralded of Rodgers' receivers, but he's become a reliable target for his quarterback, particularly in the end zone. Key defensive injuries also struck home in Green Bay, as linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive back Charles Woodson both missed several games with respective hamstring and collarbone injuries. Woodson's return made a significant difference in stopping both the running and passing games.
The 49ers are reeling from a significant defensive injury themselves. Defensive end Justin Smith believes he is nearly recovered from a slight triceps tear he suffered in Week 15, but his effectiveness is a big question mark. There's no question that San Francisco's defense is weaker without Smith on the field, as evidenced in a Week 16 loss at Seattle, so logic dictates even a less-than-full-strength Smith will be better than no Smith at all. Despite Harris' most valiant efforts, Green Bay is essentially a one-dimensional, pass-first team. Smith's presence should help expose as much this weekend.
Smith will have the support of one of the (if not THE) best linebacking tandems in the NFL. Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks will terrorize the Packers' questionable offensive line for four quarters, slowly wearing down the will of their opponent. The four combined for two sacks in Week 1; it's safe to assume they'll tally as many or more this weekend.
It's impossible to ignore this matchup's biggest x-factor: Colin Kaepernick. Head coach Jim Harbaugh, who elected to continue with Kaepernick as his starter after Smith recovered from a midseason concussion, has at times looked brilliant for his gutsy choice, while coming under fire for his recklessness at others. This is, without a doubt, the biggest game of Kaepernick's career. He's a proven entity in terms of speed and his ability to maintain accuracy on the run and emerged a winner in his last biggest-game-ever (at New England), but the playoffs are an entirely different animal.
He'll go against a defense that may not rank among the top in the NFL, but earned a Super Bowl victory just two years ago. Smith proved last season how well he handled postseason pressure in a brilliant performance against New Orleans in the divisional round and a near-victorious showing against New York with a Super Bowl berth on the line (though Smith struggled mightily on third down against the Giants' fearsome pass rush).
Niners fans have called Harbaugh's decision-making into question in recent months. If Kaepernick struggles in his first postseason outing, expect such concerns to approach a fever pitch. Fortunately for San Francisco, its offense, though Adrian Peterson-less, is more well-rounded and efficient than Minnesota, and its defense is far more dominant than the Vikings, the opponent Green Bay beat easily in Lambeau Field last week. It won't be a blowout and it won't come easily, but the 49ers have too many answers for all of Green Bay's weapons not to advance to its second consecutive NFC Championship.
Kim O'Hara is the Associate Editor of TheFootballGirl.com. She is an avid fan of sports in general, but the NFL in particular. She has also been a contributor to ESPN the Magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @KimOHaraTFG
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