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Top 10 Spotlight: NFC Wild Card Playoffs

Posted Jan 4, 2014

Colin Kaepernick and Vernon Davis raise their level of play in the postseason. Find out how.

The San Francisco 49ers are looking for the franchise’s first road playoff victory in the state of Wisconsin when they visit the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. The 49ers will play in their 42nd playoff game since 1980, the most in the NFL during that span. San Francisco, however, is 0-2 at Lambeau Field with losses in 1997 and 2002. Fast forward to present day, recent meetings have gone the 49ers way. Jim Harbaugh is 3-0 against Mike McCarthy’s Packers.

Here are the 10 storylines to track when the teams meet on Sunday.

10. Spark from L-James
Harbaugh noted that cold weather conditions will greatly impact the kicking game. The football will shrink in diameter and as a result, kicks and punts will be shortened. The 49ers coach, for example, estimated that kick-offs will travel 10-15 shorter in distance. That means returners like LaMichael James will have an even greater chance to impact the outcome in the kicking game. Punts might be aimed higher in the air to create greater hangtime for coverage units, but the kicking game will surely allow each returner to start their respective offenses with better field position than in games with normal weather conditions. James has provided a spark to San Francisco’s special teams in recent weeks. He’s averaged 26.8 yards per kick return. He also posted an average of 31.0 yards per return in the team’s Week 17 victory over Arizona.
9. Go-Go Gadget Plays
Justin Smith was pretty blunt in his assessment of game preparations. The second-team All-Pro defensive tackle said the 49ers have pretty much seen everything the Packers have done offensively on tape. The only thing that could catch San Francisco off-guard would be a gadget play. Smith hypothesized Green Bay might have a few trick plays in mind, ones where wide receivers could be throwing the football downfield. It remains to be seen if either team elects to use gadget plays in what figures to be one of the coldest games in playoff history. It’s more likely each team will use a straight-forward approach and see which side can win at the point of attack.

8. Lacy's Ankle

The Packers have five players listed as probable for Sunday. The most notable name would be Packers running back Eddie Lacy. The rookie runner is dealing with an ankle injury that caused him to be a limited practice participant all week. The injury is a key storyline to the game based on the second-round draft pick’s monster rookie season. Lacy rushed for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2013. With Aaron Rodgers dealing with a shoulder injury mid-season, Lacy became the bell cow of Green Bay’s offense. The balanced Packers offense is something the 49ers haven’t seen in three previous matchups. Green Bay was much more prone to throwing the ball all over the field. If Lacy’s ankle holds up, the Packers will likely use a 50-50 approach. They’ll also look to pick up rushing yards in three-receiver sets against San Francisco’s nickel personnel. It’s worth noting the 49ers allowed just 95.9 rushing yards per game, which was fourth-best in the NFL this season. San Francisco was also the only team to not allow a 100-yard rusher in the regular season.

7. Rodgers to Cobb
Perhaps the biggest X-factor for Green Bay’s offense is a 5-foot-10, 192-pound third-year receiver named Randall Cobb. The play-making receiver returned from injury to spark the Packers offense in a Week 17 victory that clinched the NFC North division title. Cobb caught a 48-yard, fourth-down touchdown pass to sink the Bears and bring his team to the playoffs. The improbable play showcased Cobb’s downfield talents and ability to impact the game with chunk receptions. In recent weeks the 49ers have surrendered big passing plays, something that wasn’t the case for most of the regular season. San Francisco allowed 48 plays of 20-or-more yards, ranking for third-best in the NFL.
6. Crabtree and Boldin vs. Williams and Shields
The 49ers have two of the most physical wide receivers in professional football. Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin welcome press-man coverage and seem to thrive when opponents utilize tough-guy tactics. Crabtree and Boldin have paired well in recent weeks, adding a spark to the 49ers offense in the team’s six-game win streak, five of which coincided with Crabtree’s return from an Achilles injury. The 49ers are 11-0 when scoring 21-or-more points in a game this season. Crabtree enjoyed his best playoff game last year against the Packers with nine catches for 119 yards and two touchdowns. Boldin, on the other hand, is coming off a 149-yard game in Week 17. Plus, who could forget the 11-year veteran receiver’s first game with the 49ers – a 208-yard debut at Candlestick Park? The Packers have surely studied their coverage against Boldin and will likely change up their approach. Tramon Williams and Sam Shields’ performances at cornerback will go a long way in helping Green Bay’s chances of being victorious.

5. Davis in the Playoffs
Don’t sleep on Vernon Davis. When it comes to playoff games, nobody comes up bigger than San Francisco’s No. 85. In fact, Davis has produced at least 100 receiving yards in four of his five playoff appearances. Davis’ 109.2 yards per game (546 receiving yards) in the postseason is the second highest average in NFL history. Davis also has five touchdown catches in the playoffs, which is tied for fourth among tight ends in league history. With a 100-yard receiving game against the Packers, Davis would record his fifth career 100-yard receiving game in the playoffs. It would be the most by a tight end in NFL history, beating the previous mark of four 100-yard games by Keith Jackson. Needless to say, Davis turns his game on to another level in the playoffs. He can also outrun any Green Bay linebacker and figures to be a key matchup for San Francisco’s offense to utilize on Sunday.

4. Rogers, Wright and Cox

Slot cornerbacks, perimeter cornerbacks, any defensive back for that matter will be a huge factor when facing Rodgers and the Packers. It just so happens that Carlos Rogers’ 53-game streak of consecutive starts for the 49ers could be in jeopardy. Rogers is dealing with a hamstring injury that kept the veteran cornerback out of practice all week. Rogers tested his hamstring on Friday, but wouldn’t reveal if he would play or not. San Francisco’s fourth cornerback, Eric Wright, is also dealing with a hamstring issue. The first-year member of the 49ers has been a solid addition to the depth of the defense, but is not guaranteed to play. Both cornerbacks are questionable. That makes the recent signing of Perrish Cox a very important aspect of this game. Cox can play in both the nickel and dime coverage schemes and will likely see a lot of playing time with Green Bay utilizing three and four-receiver sets on Sunday.
3. Cold, Cold and More Cold

Harbaugh’s “By any means necessary” mantra won’t be tested any more than it will on Sunday. The 49ers coach has consistently said that playoff games are “only for the tough.” In this case, it will be for the toughest, most focused team on the field. The weather could be anywhere from 7 degrees to -18. Wind chill will also be a factor. However, both teams will have to deal with it. To get prepared for the circumstance, the 49ers are holding Saturday’s walk-through practice outside in Green Bay. From there, the keys will be figuring out which shoes to wear in the game to give players the best footing possible. Coaches will also walk on the field to determine which parts of the field are harder than others. It could very well impact play-calling in key moments in the game. If you’re going to sit in the stands at Lambeau on Sunday, more power to you. You are tough.

2. Gore Type of Game
Cold conditions. Poor footing. Windy atmosphere. Sounds like a game for Frank Gore. San Francisco’s all-time leading rusher has produced his seventh 1,000-yard rushing season and has shown that he remains one of the best interior runners in the NFL. That hard-charging style will pair well with a frigid game-time scene. Gore is also dominant in the postseason. The 49ers leading rusher averages 96.4 yards per game in his playoff career. It’s the fourth-best average per game in NFL history.
1. 'Kap' Back at Home
There’s no place like home. Although Colin Kaepernick has never started a game in the state he was born, Kaepernick has enjoyed his best games against the Packers, the team he grew up rooting for. Kaepernick produced a single-game NFL record for quarterback rushing yards with a 181-yard rushing performance against Green Bay in the NFC Divisional Playoffs last season. In Week 1 of 2013, Kaepernick enjoyed his best single-game passing marks. The 49ers signal-caller threaded the Packers secondary to the tune of 412 yards. Kaepernick is 19-7 as a starter, 12-4 in 2013, and finished the year with an average of 13.2 yards per completion average, second highest in the NFL. Now, it’s all about Kaepernick continuing his effective play in the playoffs. The third-year pro is the only quarterback in league history with a 100-plus quarterback rating and 200-plus rushing yards (264) in a single postseason.

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