The San Francisco 49ers are set to face the Green Bay Packers this Sunday in the NFC Wild Card round of the playoffs.
We look at some of the key storylines, matchups and players to watch this week by welcoming Mike Spofford of Packers.com to answer three key questions on Sunday’s 49ers-Packers playoff matchup.
PHOTOS: Green Bay's Starting Lineups
1. Which player is most the underrated but essential contributor to Green Bay’s division title?
I would say rookie LT David Bakhtiari. When Bryan Bulaga went down with a season-ending knee injury in the preseason, the Packers turned over the QB’s blind side to a rookie fourth-round draft pick and he has impressed. He got a huge test in Week 1 against Aldon Smith, held his own (Smith had a sack on the second play of the game but only ½ sack thereafter) and the Packers haven’t looked back at that position. He has been a factor in the Packers’ improved running game this season, and he has had only two what I would consider rough games – at Cincinnati in Week 3 against Michael Johnson, and at Detroit on Thanksgiving when the entire team played poorly. If not for Eddie Lacy having such a fantastic first season and being talked about as a possible Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate, Bakhtiari would have received more attention as one of the NFC’s top rookies.
2. How close to 100 percent are Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb and what stood out the most from them against Chicago, besides the fourth-down touchdown?
Cobb played more than anticipated in his first game back after 10 games off and looked no worse for wear. As soon as he came into the game against the Bears, in the second quarter, he was getting open from the slot. He had only practiced for two weeks before being activated from temporary IR, so his impact with two TDs was somewhat unexpected, but it actually could have been greater after seeing the film. Rodgers wasn’t as deadly accurate as he usually is, but seven games off plus the cold, wind and drizzle in Chicago I’m sure were factors. He made a bad decision on his first INT and then an off-target throw that was deflected on his second, but the mistakes were minimized after that. Those were not easy conditions in which to attempt 39 passes and throw for 318 yards, and it doesn’t sound like the conditions will be any better this Sunday.
3. Which one-on-one matchup will have the biggest impact on Sunday’s game?
I’m not sure who’s going to be assigned to him, but the Packers’ coverage on TE Vernon Davis will be critical. The Packers are more banged up at linebacker right now than any other position, missing Clay Matthews and with Nick Perry, Mike Neal and Brad Jones all on the injury report last week (only Jones missed the game of those three). A.J. Hawk is the healthiest linebacker but he has had trouble guarding Davis in the past. Green Bay safeties Morgan Burnett and Sean Richardson didn’t play in Week 1, so that would be a change of pace against Davis. If the Packers decide to try a cornerback, the options are rookie nickel Micah Hyde or dime back Jarrett Bush. It will be interesting to see what Dom Capers prefers to do. In the Week 1 game, WR Anquan Boldin had the huge game with 13 catches for 208 yards and a TD, but I look for CBs Tramon Williams and Sam Shields, who are playing well right now, to prevent a repeat of that. Davis had six catches for 98 yards and two TDs in Week 1, and the Packers can’t let that happen again, either.
In addition, I’ve also answered three 49ers-related questions on the upcoming game for Packers.com.
1. Which player is most the underrated but essential contributor to San Francisco’s Wild Card berth?
Alex Boone. Just like your pick with Eric Bakhtiari, solid offensive line play never gets enough attention. Boone, San Francisco’s starting right guard, was the only player on offense or defense to play every single snap this season for the 49ers. That even included emergency duty at left tackle against the St. Louis Rams and Robert Quinn, recorded 19.0 sacks on the year. Boone matched up against the man with the second-most sacks in the NFL and shut him out that day. When three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley went down with a knee injury in Week 13, Boone moved back to his collegiate position as a blindside protector and showed he could hold his own. Fortunately for the 49ers, Staley’s injury was minor. He returned to the lineup the following week against Seattle and Boone resumed his duties at right guard. Boone’s toughness and tenacity is complimented by the hard-nosed nature of San Francisco’s starting right tackle Anthony Davis. Together, the right side of the 49ers offensive line is one of, if not the best right guard and right tackle combinations in all of football. The 49ers finished the year averaging 137.6 rushing yards per game, third-best in the league. San Francisco also finished fourth with 18 rushing touchdowns and sent two linemen, Staley and left guard Mike Iupati, to the Pro Bowl. Boone was chosen as a Pro Bowl alternate and should be a perennial Pro Bowler for years to come.
2. Which one-on-one matchup will have the biggest impact on Sunday’s game?
With the weather expected to be in the low 10s, I would think a run-oriented attack would benefit the 49ers against the Packers. With that being said, Frank Gore vs. A.J. Hawk is a matchup that could very well determine Sunday’s winner. The 49ers were bottled up on the ground when they hosted the Packers in Week 1 of the regular season. With Green Bay looking to stop Gore and the zone-read schemes San Francisco employed in last year’s postseason meeting between the teams, the 49ers struggled to run in the 2013 season opener. Gore carried the ball 21 times and only picked up 44 yards on the ground. Gore, however, went on to produce his seventh, 1,000-yard season of his nine-year career and had the second-most touchdown runs of his career with nine scores. In the regular season finale, Gore carried the ball 13 times for 14 yards against the Arizona Cardinals, the NFL’s No. 1 rush defense in the regular season. Gore’s success on the ground remains a crucial element to San Francisco’s success. The 49ers will keep pounding the run game and use multiple formations and a variety of runners to be productive in this postseason matchup. Gore still remains the centerpiece. It’s worth noting the 49ers are 28-7 when Gore rushes for 100-or-more yards. In the postseason, the 30-year-old back averages 96.4 yards per game. It will be up to Hawk and Green Bay’s run stuffers to limit the production of the future Hall of Fame running back. 3. What has been the biggest factor in San Francisco’s six-game winning streak to close out the regular season?
In the NFL, you can only go as far as your quarterback will take your team. Colin Kaepernick has quietly put together six really impressive performances and has led the 49ers to the playoffs in his first season as a full-time starter. In the final six weeks of the regular season, Kaepernick posted a 108.6-or-better quarterback rating in five of those games. The lone exception was in a victory over the NFL’s No. 1 overall defense, the Seattle Seahawks. Furthermore, Kaepernick has been make better decisions with more weapons in the lineup. The combination of Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin has been the team’s best one-two punch at wide receiver since the days of Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens. Those weapons working in tandem with a pass-catching tight end like Vernon Davis (the team’s leader with 13 touchdowns), allowed Kaepernick to not force the football into tight coverage. San Francisco’s signal-caller was able to attack the matchups he liked the most. Kaepernick finished the six-game winning streak with 10 touchdown passes and one interception. It was clearly his best stretch of football in the regular season and he closed the year with a 310-yard outing against Arizona. It was the first time he went over the 300-yard mark since his career-high 412-yard effort against the Packers in Week 1.