The first round of the NFL playoffs concludes late Sunday afternoon, with the San Francisco-Green Bay matchup at Lambeau Field (4:40 PM ET, Fox) expected to be played in temperatures that will be well below zero. Let’s take a look at the Notebook Nine, our key focal points to take into the game, drawn from personnel matchups to history to the Vegas line.
- *The NFL might as just well put a San Francisco-Green Bay postseason matchup on the schedule when they release it every year. The Niners and Packers played each other every year from 1995-98, again in 2001 and now meet for the second straight season. And these have been some consequential matchups. There was the Packers’ arrival as an NFC power (1995), the only 1st-round game in history to feature two 12-win teams (2001), a controversial finish (1998), and Colin Kaepernick’s coming out party (2012).
- *Las Vegas has set the 49ers as a 2 ½ point favorite, a byproduct of three consecutive wins by San Francisco over Green Bay starting with the first regular season game of last year at Lambeau, and the 49ers’ 12-4 record compared to the Packers’ 8-7-1. The Over/Under is 46.5, which projects out to San Francisco win of 25-22. Let’s just say 24-21 to make it sound like a normal score.
- *The running backs would be key to this game in any case, but even more so with the weather conditions. Frank Gore is a veteran, Eddie Lacy is young, but they’re both physical runners who went over 1100 yards. Both have been a little banged up down the stretch, and neither played well in their regular season finale, but the foundation for any offensive success starts here.
- *Kapernick’s numbers are substantially inferior to counterpart Aaron Rodgers, but the 49er quarterback has been playing his most consistent football down the stretch. That coincides with the return of Michael Crabtree, giving him a real deep threat to go with Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis.
- *Rodgers should have his own opportunities to find open receivers. Not only does he have Randall Cobb back healthy, to pair alongside Jordy Nelson, but both 49er corners, Carlos Rodgers and Eric Wright are going to be dealing with bad hamstrings.
- *Green Bay does everything well offensively, except protect the quarterback, making it unsurprising that the law of averages caught up with Rodgers when he broke his collarbone. If San Francisco’s outside linebackers, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, catch up with Rodgers on Sunday, all those good things the Packer offense can do will be negated.
- *San Francisco’s offense has a rare combination—the ability make big plays, while minimizing turnovers. Kaepernick ranks seventh in the NFL in yards-per-pass, and the offense as a whole leads the league in not giving away the football. The Niners aren’t always efficient—they rank 25th in completion percentage, but they can take their shots and still protect the ball.
- *The contrast between the defenses couldn’t be starker. We can drop all kinds of numbers, but they boil down to this—San Francisco’s does everything well, Green Bay’s does nothing well.
- *Our final point is simple, and it’s Aaron Rodgers. Number 12 has a 66.6% completion rate, he gets 8.74 yards-per-pass, he has a 17/6 TD-INT ratio. He converted three consecutive fourth downs with the season on the line last week in Chicago. If Green Bay wins, he gets the bulk of the credit. If they lose, he deserves almost none of the blame.
I’ve been back and forth on this game. When I did a playoff preview podcast at Prime Sports Network, I picked the 49ers, based on the simple rationale that they’re the more complete team—by a lot—and I don’t believe a quarterback is enough to make the difference, particularly when Kaepernick is playing well himself.
As game time gets closer I’m having second thoughts. Not about my original rationale, but about the weather. I live in Wisconsin, and we’re battening down the hatches for nasty cold, the kind you don’t even want to function in. In my podcast, host Greg DePalma opined that in this kind of environment you take analysis and throw it out. That’s what I’m doing, and I think Green Bay copes a bit better than Frisco and gets the win.