NFL 2nd Round: Green Bay-San Francisco

There’s always one game in the NFL 2nd round that really shouts “Heavyweight Fight”, and the Saturday night matchup between Green Bay and San Francisco is it. The winner of this game will have a lot of support as the eventual Super Bowl champion. Both teams have been powers in the NFC for the past two seasons and the Packers have a recent title. Let’s dive into the matchup, set some historical context and then break down the betting lines and make predictions.

THE MATCHUP: The eyes of the world are on San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick. No one doubts his ability and I don’t think too many people doubt that he’s the long-term answer for this franchise at quarterback. What does trouble those who doubt is that perhaps it might have been better to ride Alex Smith one more year in a season where you can go the distance. The game with Green Bay provides a proto-type for arguments made on both sides.

Green Bay’s defense is healthy for the first time since early in the year, with Charles Woodson back and Clay Matthews fully locked in attacking the line of scrimmage. If Kaepernick gets rattled, this Packer defense can force him into turnovers and turn this potentially great game very ugly.

But the flip side is that Kapernick’s mobility and ability to create big plays outside the pocket is the antidote to a blitzing havoc-wreaker like Matthews. Smith might have been less susceptible to mistakes, but he wasn’t going to beat this Packer defense with big plays. Furthermore, San Francisco runs the ball between the tackles as well as anybody in the league, something else to give Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers pause before he gets too aggressive.

The phrase “heavyweight fight” can be further narrowed down to talk about Aaron Rodgers against this San Francisco defense. If Green Bay had any other quarterback—frankly including Tom Brady or Peyton Manning—they would have no shot in this game. Rodgers is the only quarterback who provides elite passing skills with outside-the-pocket mobility and it’s the latter that Green Bay desperately needs. Their offensive line is overmatched by San Francisco’s front seven, especially with Justin Smith expected to play.

Mike McCarthy has done a good job playcalling, using the run enough to create windows for Rodgers to throw the ball, but the Packer running game just isn’t very good. Rodgers has to be perfect if Green Bay is going to win. Normally that’s a recipe for certain defeat. But #12 is one of the few quarterbacks where perfection in a big game is at least an even money bet.

THE CONTEXT: These teams have a ton of recent history in the playoffs, going back to 1995, although this is the first meeting between the two since Rodgers supplanted Brett Favre as the Packer quarterback. The Pack and Niners played four straight years from 1995-98, with Green Bay winning the first three of those games, including the ’97 NFC Championship Game. They also won a first-round game in 2001 in Lambeau, a rare wild-card game where each team won 12 regular season games.

I also want to throw a game out there that doesn’t involve these two, but had a similar issue. The 2006 San Diego Chargers were 14-2, had the better team, but had a quarterback in Philip Rivers making his first playoff start. They were hosting New England, and the Patriots were getting a field goal. Did you go veteran future Hall Of Famer at quarterback, or up-and-comer and more complete team? It was the Pats that won that game, 24-21.

THE VIEW FROM VEGAS:  San Francisco opening at (-3) was really no surprise. The field goal is the customary courtesy given to the home team and the whole point of this article is just how evenly matched this game is. I am surprised there hasn’t been any downward movement—given the public’s desire to bet quarterbacks, I thought there would be more action on the Packers and the line would nudge off the threshold number and into the 2.5 area. Perhaps that might come later today and tomorrow morning when most casual bettors place their action. The total is on 45, which is the lowest of the four second-round games, although only by a point.

PREDICTION: I’ll open with the simple answer and then start covering my posterior. I’m picking San Francisco in a close one. Now the flip side—if I were at a betting window, I’d bet the Packers. In general, if you can get an elite quarterback against one making his first playoff start, and get a field goal, I think you just bet it blind and if you do it ten times, you probably go 6-3-1—or at least 5-4-1, which still turns a profit. The few areas where I’ve had handicapping success (and they are very few) have been sticking with strict application of a principle like this.

But I’m not betting, I’m just making a pick, and this is one of the areas where I think the kid comes through. I like the fact there’s been so much scrutiny on Kapernick. I think it will have him tested enough to at least narrow the gap between him and Rodgers sufficiently so that San Francisco’s superiority across the board can come through. I don’t like that Green Bay can’t run the ball when they get in close. I don’t like the troubles the Packers have had shutting down #1 receivers all year, and see Michael Crabtree having a good game. This one will be worthy of the prime-time spotlight and when it’s over let’s call it Niners 27-24 (though that would be a pointspread push, my official pick against the number is also San Fran).

Outright Winners: 3-0*
Pointspread Winners: 2-1
Totals Line: 1-2
*Recused myself from the Washington-Seattle case due to fan bias