Playoff Primer: 49ers @ Packers

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This game won’t be cold. It will be arctic. It will be the sort of weather that penguins consider perfectly cozy. It’ll be so cold that the Packers just signed a combat expert for these exact conditions…

sub zero

This will likely be among the coldest games in NFL history, with the temperature at gametime expected to at about -14 with the wind chill (that’s -25 in Canadian), which will come through gusts of 18-19 MPH. There’s also a 20-30 percent chance of snow, because why the hell not.

The immediate reaction here is to say this weather favors the Packers, and while that’s not entirely wrong, I think it will be mostly wrong. Much like the 49ers’ roster, the Packers are human, and they feel cold just like regular humans. Yes, most of the Packers’ key contributors on both sides of the ball have played in Green Bay for quite some time, and they’re more experienced in cold weather. That’s a plus, but this isn’t normal cold. This is a uniquely frigid kind of cold that keeps sane humans inside and no more than five feet away from a heater.

With those strong winds, this will quickly become a game where grounding and pounding happens often. That’s good, because both teams have a running back who’s pretty skilled at the running and bruising thing.

Packers offense 49ers offense
Total yards P/Game 400.2 (3rd) 323.8 (24th)
Passing yards P/Game 266.8 (6th) 186.2 (30th)
Rushing yards P/Game 133.5 (7th) 137.6 (3rd)
Packers defense 49ers defense
Total yards P/Game 372.2 (25th) 316.9 (5th)
Passing yards P/Game 247.2 (24th) 221.0 (7th)
Rushing yards P/Game 125.0 (25th) 95.9 (4th)

If this becomes a slug ‘em out sort of game, stopping said slugging will be paramount. For one team, that’s a real problem.

The other numbers that matter: We know a healthy Aaron Rodgers is pretty good at quarterback, which was fully on display last week against the Bears in his first game back from injury when he connected with Randall Cobb for the game-winning touchdown (his return is a big deal too after he was rather efficient with two touchdowns on two catches). These teams have met twice over the last calendar year (Week 1 of this season, and the divisional round last January), and in those 49ers wins Rodgers finished with 590 passing yards, with five touchdowns and and two interceptions.

But again, let’s close our eyes and imagine a game where passing — or at least deep passing — is restricted. When I do that, I see a poor ending for Eddie Lacy. He wasn’t yet the Packers’ feature back in Week 1, so making a comparison there isn’t accurate. But let the record show Green Bay was held to only 63 rushing yards then, far below their season average. In Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis, Lacy now faces the league’s quickest and most imposing inside linebacker tandem that combined for 224 tackles this year, and the 49ers have allowed only seven 100-yard rushers over their past 79 games, dating all the way back to 2009, and none this year.

The injuries that matter: Clay Matthews’ continued absence is massive. Even if the Packers win it’s unlikely we’ll see him for a while due to a thumb injury, and today that makes the task of containing Colin Kaepernick’s read-option running far more difficult. A year ago Kaepernick ran for 181 yards against the Packers, setting a new single-game record for quarterback rushing while scoring twice on the ground (on runs of 20 and 56 yards). After an offseason of study Kaepernick was far more restricted in Week 1 of this season, with just 22 yards on seven carries (just 3.1 YPC). But that came with a healthy Matthews.

The 49ers have an equally concerning defensive injury. Cornerback Carlos Rogers will likely sit with a hamstring problem, which gets even more troubling with backup/slot corner Eric Wright dealing with a hamstring problem of his own. While the weather could limit Rodgers and a Packers passing offense that had two +100 yard receivers in Week 1 (Cobb and Jordy Nelson), a secondary playing without its top corner after giving up 755 passing yards over the final two weeks of the season doesn’t lead to good vibes.

The difference maker: Frank Gore. Over their last nine games the Packers have allowed an average of 157.2 rushing yards per week, which has included five games with a 120-yard rusher. Between the weather and Matthews’ absence, Gore might run for 500 yards.

The matchup to watch: The Smiths vs. the Packers offensive line. Despite Josh Sitton being named an All-Pro, Packers quarterbacks went down 45 times this year, and the Smiths — Justin and Aldon — combined for 14 of the 49ers’ 38 sacks, even with Aldon missing time.

The 49ers will win if… Gore chugs as expected, and Kaepernick once again picks apart the open passing lanes created by the threat of a run and the Packers’ focus on it. That’s what he did in Week 1 while completing 69 percent of his passes for easily a season single-game high of 412 yards with three touchdowns (he only had one other game with more than 300 passing yards). Michael Crabtree’s return has added a missing dynamic, with his average of 7.5 yards after the catch on 19 receptions.

The Packers will win if… They can overcome whatever passing hazards the weather presents, and outgun the 49ers. That may often prove difficult with the wind gusts, but with Lacy likely bottled up by Bowman and Willis, Rodgers needs to let it fly against a secondary playing without its top cornerback.

Fearless prediction you can maybe laugh at later (or now?): 49ers 17, Packers 14