Eighteen weeks is a long time, and an awful lot can change in said time. For both the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers, this is especially true. The two teams are set to meet at Candlestick Park in San Francisco for one half of the NFC's Divisional Round, and many are drawing conclusions based on the first meeting this season.
That's not a smart move, given the current makeup of both teams. For one, the Packers ended up starting the season with a 2-3 record, while the 49ers went 4-1 over the same span. Fast forward to now, and they share almost identical records, with the 49ers getting the edge (and thus, the NFC's No. 2 seed) with an 11-4-1 mark.
A tie with the St. Louis Rams is what separates the teams (though San Francisco would have held the head-to-head tiebreaker, of course). Billed as a potential NFC Championship game matchup heading into Week 1, this is close enough as one of the NFL's top quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers will take on one of the NFL's top defenses in San Francisco.
Other differences in these teams are varied across the board. Green Bay has seen Rodgers return back to MVP-candidate form after struggles at the start of the season, while the 49ers made a switch to Colin Kaepernick despite a winning record mid-season. Green Bay has injuries to guys like Jermichael Finley and Jordy Nelson, while the 49ers may have a limited Justin Smith or Justin Smith at all.
There's plenty of other differences between these teams and their Week 1 iterations, but let's move on to some background on both below.
Meet the 49ers
San Francisco has had a very weird season to this point. In two games against the Rams, they went 0-1-1, and made a switch from Alex Smith to Kaepernick at the quarterback position, despite a winning record. As such, the 49ers have the NFL's 23rd-ranked passing offense, which would be worrying if not for the general efficiency of said quarterbacks and the fact that they hold the NFL's fourth-best rushing attack.
Kaepernick is very much a part of that rushing attack, as he is second on the team behind Frank Gore with 415 yards, averaging 31.9 per game. Gore is having another quietly stellar season in San Francisco, with 1,214 yards, while rookie LaMichael James has added 125.
The 49ers are coming off a bye week after besting the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17 to gain that edge. The bye week has been crucial to them, with the injury to Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith. He's recovering from a partially torn triceps tendon, and likely wouldn't play if this wasn't the playoffs. Still, he's practicing with no restrictions.
That said, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has said that Smith will be pulled if he is too hurt or is not producing immediately. Fangio has said he'd rather have a player at 100 percent and full speed than stick with an injured Smith. If Smith is pulled, Ricky Jean Francois will take over his spot.
The other primary concern is kicker David Akers. He's been dealing with a nagging injury that has led to a very poor season, and the 49ers have brought in Billy Cundiff to compete. It's anybody's guess as to which kicker will handle the duties on Saturday.
Last season, the 49ers made it to the NFC Championship Game, but were eliminated by the New York Giants. That was head coach Jim Harbaugh's first year at the helm, and he's just the eighth coach since 1970 to win a division title in his first two seasons.
Meet the Packers
Green Bay made it to this point by besting the Minnesota Vikings in the Wildcard Round, 24-10. This was just one week after falling to Minnesota, 37-34, which allowed the Vikings into the playoffs. Some have said they played a soft game, given that they were up against Joe Webb and not Christian Ponder due to injury, but they've advanced and that's all that matters.
Rodgers is the be-all, end-all for the Packers. They have the 20th-ranked rushing offense in the NFL, and are ranked No. 9 in the passing game. He struggled to start the season and it showed in the team's record, but he's looked much better of late.
Through the first four games, Rodgers had average-yards-per-pass stats of 6.89, 6.84, 5.72 and 7.78. Over the past four games, he's had 8.08, 9.00, 9.13, and 8.30. In the NFL, those numbers can easily mean the difference between winning or losing (and they did, for the most part).
While the Packers may have something of a pass-only offense, they have a dynamic defense backing them up. Sure, there's some negative aspects, like the fact that they allow 118.5 rushing yards per game, but they are No. 11 in the league against the pass, and pile up the game-changing stats.
They are No. 8 in the NFL with 18 interceptions and No. 4 in the league with 44 sacks, led, of course, by linebacker Clay Matthews. He's got 13 on the season, and is eying the rematch with 49ers left tackle Joe Staley. Against Staley, Matthews racked up three sacks and broke the veteran tackle's nose.
But San Francisco does boast one of the NFL's top offensive lines at this point in the season. One of the X-factors in the vein is Kaepernick, who likes to scramble, which the Packers are naturally adept at stopping due to their exotic secondary blitzes. It's an intriguing matchup, to be sure.
Local Takes: 49ers
Anthony Ly of Niners Nation takes a look at the dual-threat capabilities of Kaepernick and what he could do against the Packers if given the opportunity:
Again, the biggest question mark will be how Green Bay defends the most effective dual-threat quarterback they've faced all season. If they let Kaepernick run wild, chances are, he'll carve them up through the air as well.
Local Takes: Packers
Evan Western of Acme Packing Company took a look at the changes both teams have experienced since Week 1:
When looking at the rosters, these two teams are verry different from their week one identities, but for very different reasons. The Packers went through a lot of injuries and adversity, but emerged with a deeper team that has been getting key players back on the field in the past few weeks. Meanwhile, the 49ers have a different identity on offense because of a change at quarterback, but remain relatively similar otherwise. Saturday night will determine if these changes affect the results on the field.
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The Packers have been the more consistent team down the stretch. Aaron Rodgers' ridiculous numbers -- 39 touchdowns to eight interceptions -- look routine (for him) at this point. I'm not all that confident in this pick considering the game is in San Francisco, but the Packers will pick up the road victory.
The pick: 30-27, Packers
San Francisco opened as three-point favorites for the game, and the line remains relatively unchanged on most books, according to OddsShark. This essentially means that odds-makers see the matchup as even, but San Francisco gets the small swing due to the game being at Candlestick Park.