I haven’t really done an update on the Packers’ season on the blog, so I’ll sum it up for you briefly here: it was an insane roller-coaster. Green Bay started the season off strong, winning five of their first seven games. Their losses were to quality teams, too (34-28 to San Francisco in week 1, and 34-30 to Cincinnati in week 3). But then quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone in a 27-20 loss to the rival Chicago Bears, and the Packers’ season threatened to unravel completely. Backup quarterback Seneca Wallace got hurt after throwing five passes in the next game. Third-stringer Scott Tolzien muddled his way through two starts before the team brought back Matt Flynn, who had a few magical starts filling in for Rodgers in the past, but couldn’t stick as a starter with Seattle, Oakland, or even quarterback-starved Buffalo. Meanwhile, the team went winless until a pair of razor-thin wins against Atlanta and Dallas in weeks 14 and 15. Luckily, the NFC North has been playing so badly this year that they were still in the hunt for the division title when they played the Bears again in their final game with Rodgers back. Green Bay won 33-28 in a thrilling game that featured a weird fumble recovery for a touchdown by wideout Jarrett Boykin and the winning fourth-down catch by Randall Cobb with less than a minute left. You can see the highlights here:
That amazing win propelled the Pack into a re-rematch with the San Francisco 49ers, who have defeated them in week 1 of the last two years and in the playoffs last year. I’ll admit, when the matchup was announced, I groaned. But Las Vegas only favors the 49ers by three, so I thought I’d break down the matchup on the blog and see if Green Bay has any advantages they might exploit to pull off the upset. Here we go:
The Packers can still score points with the best of them, ranking third in total yards and eighth in points. Any team with Rodgers at quarterback is going to move the ball, but the team has plenty of other playmakers on the offense as well. The receivers are good as always. Cobb led the team with 954 yards and eight TDs last year, so you have to believe that he’ll be a threat after returning from injury. Jordy Nelson recovered from an injury-marred season last year to become one of the team’s most consistent threats, hauling in 85 balls for 1,314 yards and eight TDs. Jarrett Boykin, despite having gone to Virginia Tech, has emerged into a nice complementary piece, and James Jones always has been.
Many analysts thought the Pack’s offense would take a step back after receiver Greg Jennings left the team in free agency, but I would argue that the offense has gotten better due to the emergence of second-round pick Eddie Lacy at running back. Lacy, a popular choice for Offensive Rookie of the Year, gained 1,178 yards on the ground despite being targeted by defenses at times with Rodgers out. Lacy’s excellent running forced James Starks into a supporting role, which he is better suited for anyway. Starks posted the highest per-carry average in a season for his career (5.5), and was a good change-of-pace back.
Green Bay’s inexperienced offensive line has been decent. While they’ve been pretty good at opening holes for Lacy and Starks, they’ve allowed 45 sacks, seventh-most in the league. If they can shore up their pass protection, Green Bay should be able to rack up some yards.
San Francisco’s offense has taken a step back from last year, but looked good in six straight wins to close the season at 12-4. They slipped from 11th last year to 24th in total yardage, though they do score a respectable 25.4 points per game, which is comparable to Green Bay’s numbers. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick continued his stellar play, posting a 91.6 QB rating. While the 49ers didn’t run as much read option as last year, he still remains a dual threat, posting 524 rushing yards. Running back Frank Gore (1,128 rushing yards) must be accounted for, as must receiver Anquan Boldin, who proved he is not washed up by putting up 1,179 receiving yards. Tight end Vernon Davis (850 yards) and wideout Michael Crabtree (284 yards in 5 games) are also threats. The Niners’ offensive line is better than Green Bay’s, but I give the Packers a slight edge here, given their advantage at the most important position on the field.
Despite facing some personal issues, 49ers sackmaster Aldon Smith rebounded to post 8.5 of them in 11 games, so he will test the Packers’ green (no pun intended) o-line. Linebackers NaVorro Bowman (120) and Patrick Willis (82) led the 49ers in tackles and Tramaine Brock led them in interceptions with five. This is a well-rounded unit that allowed the fifth-fewest yards and third-fewest points in the league, and will be able to prevent the Packers’ offense from running wild.
Green Bay, on the other hand, has struggled on defense, ranking 25th in yards allowed and tied for 24th in points allowed. They have similar rankings against both the run and the pass. Green Bay held only three teams under 20 points this year, which shows that they have won their games largely by outscoring their opponents. A lot of their defensive struggles can be traced to the absence of linebacker Clay Matthews for extended periods of time, as he is the heart and soul of their defense. Fellow linebacker AJ Hawk has stepped up his game in Matthews’s absence, posting 5 sacks and leading the team in tackles, though he only recorded 74. Corners Tramon Williams and Sam Shields have made some key interceptions, but all in all, it hasn’t been enough. The Niners are much better-equipped to stop Green Bay’s offense than the Packers are to stop theirs, and they have a pronounced edge on this side of the ball.
Green Bay kicker Mason Crosby rebounded from a poor year last year to post an amazing 89.2% field goal percentage, with five of his field goals coming from 50 yards or longer. Crosby seemed to hit a mental block at several times last year, but he appears to have overcome that, and his awesome leg strength has been allowed to show itself. Punter Tim Masthay is steady but doesn’t put up great stats. Green Bay’s returners are pretty good; while they are rarely threats to take returns to the house, they have a high yards per return number, which indicates that they are able to set up their dynamic offense well with good field position.
San Francisco’s Phil Dawson has posted a similarly excellent 88.9% field goal percentage, and has also nailed 4 kicks from 50+ yards out. Punter Andy Lee has been solid, ranking eighth in the league in total yards and 15th in yards per punt, which will test Green Bay’s returners some. San Francisco’s return game is a tick below the Packers’, as they haven’t been able to break as many big plays in the return game. I think this is largely a push, as neither team seems to have a clear advantage here.
The 49ers very clearly have a better defense than the Packers, while the Packers’ edge on offense is only slight. The game is at Lambeau Field, so that narrows the gap somewhat between the two teams (though SF is 6-2 both at home and on the road and has had Green Bay’s number lately no matter where they play). I think the bettors have it right in making the Niners a field goal favorite, and I’m going with that margin in my final score: 49ers 30, Packers 27. In order for Green Bay to pull the upset, they’re going to have to come up with some big plays on defense, which I’m not convinced they’ll make enough of to win (anyone who watched that massacre at the hands of the Lions on Thanksgiving Day will agree with me). I admire the Pack for their resilience in the face of awful circumstances, and will be pulling aggressively for them, but I think their season ends here.
In the other Wild Card matchups, I like the Colts to prevail against the Chiefs, who have struggled against good teams and have already lost to Indianapolis once this year (and it wasn’t close). I think the Eagles will upset the Saints, as New Orleans seems to be a very different team on the road (3-5) than at home (8-0). And finally, I like the Bengals to finally break out of the first round and beat the Chargers. San Diego has shown heart down the stretch this year, but the Bengals have more talent on both sides of the ball.