The Green Bay Packers hosting a wildcard playoff game at Lambeau Field seemed impossible to imagine just a month ago.
But here they are, welcoming the San Francisco 49ers in to the frigid cold for a shot at traveling to either Seattle or Carolina for a shot at the NFC Championship Game.
Can quarterback Aaron Rodgers build upon his monumental return by knocking off a 49ers team that has given the Packers all kinds of fits over the past two years?
San Francisco 49ers (12-4) Analysis: San Francisco enters the playoffs as one of the league’s hottest teams. Winners of their last six, the 49ers haven’t been thoroughly beaten by a team since late September when the Indianapolis Colts somehow went to Candlestick and won 27-7.
The 49ers reside in the NFC West which should be called the all-defensive division because all four of it’s teams have top ten defensive units. San Francisco ranks 7th in the league in pass defense (221.0 yards per game) and a nasty 4th in rush defense (95.9 ypg). Veteran defensive lineman Justin Smith is dealing with a nagging shoulder injury and you can bet that he will be playing as he’s not missed a game all season.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s best friend has been the Packers because this team has made his career. In last year’s divisional playoff round, the young Kaepernick broke an NFL record with 181 rushing yards. During week one this season, he threw for a career-best 412 passing yards in another win. With the weather expected to be below zero, expect Frank Gore and the San Fran. rushing game to be a bigger factor in the fate of this one.
Green Bay Packers (8-7-1) Analysis: The way the Packers backed in to an opportunity at the playoffs was just bizarre and their season finale against the Chicago Bears was exhilarating. Facing a 4th and 8 late in the fourth quarter, they benefited from a blown coverage by the Bears and danced in to the NFC North crown. The Packers have to feel revived and motivated to make the most of an unexpected situation.
One reason the Packers can feel a little better about playing the 49ers this time around is their much improved rushing game. Eddie Lacy, who said he feels much healthier than last week, has helped the Packers establish the 7th ranked rushing offense at 133.5 yards per game. Lacy (3) and James Starks (6) have combined for nine runs over 20 yards which is a welcomed change from the recent struggles in that department.
A reason the Packers should worry about their match-up with the 49ers is the defense and it’s inability to make stops. Without Clay Matthews, the defensive line has failed to create a pass-rush and opposing quarterbacks have been able to pick apart the secondary. Green Bay’s safety play has ranged from bad to non-existent. Both the rush defense (125.0 ypg) and pass defense (247.2 ypg) rank 24th in the league.
Brutally Honest Prediction: San Francisco 21 Green Bay 20
Green Bay is in serious danger of having the game blacked out in local markets because no one wants to sit through freezing temperatures when HD television has become such an easy luxury. While that seems like a bad thing, it can also be a good thing for the Packers if the cold can help a more experienced Rodgers over Kaepernick. The only problem is that San Francisco’s team is perfectly built for cold weather games. They excel at stopping the run and running the ball. Look for the 49ers to hold on to a close win to continue it’s successful streak against the Packers.
TV Coverage: FOX 3:40 PM CT; Joe Buck (play-by-play), Troy Aikman (color) and Pam Oliver (sidelines).
Betting Lines: San Francisco favored by 2.5 points and the over/under set at 47.5 points.
2013 Record straight up: 11-4-1
2013 Record against the spread: 11-5
2013 Record in over/under: 11-5
Week 17 Pick Redux: Predicted the Packers to win 34-27 over the Packers (actually GB 33 CHI 28); Hit straight up, against the spread (-2.5) and the over (52.5).
Do the Packers have a shot at winning this game or are the 49ers simply the better team? Let me know by commenting below.
Nick Grays is a senior writer at the Sports Bank where he covers the Wisconsin Badgers and Green Bay Packers. He also enjoys sharing Fantasy Advice and pretends to be a Golf expert from time-to-time. Follow him on Twitter by clicking here or visit his blog Nick Knows Best. If social media is not your thing, shoot him an email at email@example.com.
*Pictures obtained from midwestsportsfan.com and armantitletown.com