Welcome to Divisional Playoff weekend, and this week's installment of UFR. Last weekend, the Packers beat the Vikings, setting up a meeting that will remind some of the mid to late 90's (and not always happily). This time around, the Packers are the established NFL powerhouse with a recent Super Bowl win and the 49ers are the upstarts with a lights out defense and an intriguing youngster under center.
Though the names and faces have changed, the storyline is no less compelling: both of these teams were in the running for the #2 seed in the NFC until the last week of the season. Both teams feature veterans with multiple pro bowls. Both are are very well coached. Each has a very good chance of advancing to the Super Bowl. But only one will advance to the NFC Championship.
This time around AJ and Diego share their thoughts on the different matchups: the most important matchup when the 49ers are on offense, defense, and their x-factor matchups.
Most important matchup on offense:
AJ: Much has been made of the pending QB duel coming to the Stick this Sunday...but the key matchup for the 49ers isn't Colin Kaepernick versus the Packer Defense. The key to this game for the 49ers is Frank Gore vs. the Packer front 7.
The 49ers won their season opener at Lambeau largely because they able to dictate the pace of the game. They'll need to do that again to keep the Packers in check.
Gore has historically owned the Packer defense...even when the Niners were terrible. In Saturday's game, he won't have to own them...but he will have to play his role: grinding out tough yards, forcing Morgan Burnett and Charles Woodson to play close to the line of scrimmage and chewing up the clock.
Look for the 49ers to get him involved early (especially from the "diamond" formation, which uses TEs Davis and Walker in the backfield and creates MASSIVE matchup problems for opposing defenses). If the 49ers use him properly in Saturday's game, they should be able to pull out a win.
Diego: WR Michael Crabtree vs CB Tramon Williams There are very few certainties in playoff games, but when it comes to this match-up one thing is certain about the San Francisco 49ers: if they succeed running the ball, they will most likely win. This is especially true with Frank Gore in the backfield the 49ers are 25-7 when Gore rushes for 100 yards or more, 8-0 during the Harbaugh tenure. Naturally, even with the attention Kaepernick no doubt commands from the Packers' defense, I expect Green Bay to focus their attention to shutting down Gore and LaMichael James, forcing Kaepernick to beat them with his arm (and hoping he won't beat them with his legs).
Enter Michael Crabtree, who not only has compiled the best season by a San Francisco WR in a decade, but who is also red hot coming off an impressive 5-game stretch (averaging 7 catches, 107.6 yards, scoring 4 TD's), including a career game against the Arizona Cardinals his last time out. If the Packers play the run the way I expect them too, Crabtree has got to take advantage of the opportunities that will be out there for him. The 49ers' best receiver declared on Wednesday that he is looking forward to bouncing back from his poor performance in the playoffs last year, and he MUST be involved in the game this Saturday if the 49ers are serious about the Quest for Six.
On the other hand, and another reason why I think the Packers will focus on shutting down the run game, Tramon Williams has plenty of experience being 1-on-1 against the opponent's best receiver. This season alone Williams has been given single coverage assignments against the likes of Brandon Marshall, Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Calvin Johnson, and he has fared pretty well. Williams is far from the pro-bowler he was in 2010, but he is still a legitimate #1 CB, which makes his matchup against Crabtree one to watch, and which may just be the most important matchup when the 49ers offense faces off against the Packers defense this Saturday.
Most important matchup on defense:
AJ: For the 49ers to effectively contain the Packers through the air, they'll need to put Aaron Rodgers on his back early and often. That highlights my next key matchup: Aldon Smith vs. Marshall Newhouse.
Prior to the bye week, the 49er most in need of rest other than Cowboy was Aldon Smith. As compared to the 2011 season, his snap count more than doubled through the first 13 games of the season. Over the season's last 3 weeks, it showed. Aldon was a step slow, and seemed unable to generate the kind of pressure off the edge that has become his trademark.
Newhouse is beatable. Very beatable. If the bye week had its desired effect on Aldon, he could be able to take advantage of Newhouse off of the edge...and that is exactly what the 49ers need.
Aldon Smith has displayed a knack for showing up in big games to this point in his career. If the 49ers plan on making a second straight appearance in the NFC Championship, he'll need to come up big. Really big.
Diego: DE Justin Smith vs OG T.J. Lang At this point, it would be a shock if Cowboy didn't suit up and start for the 49ers against the Packers on Saturday, but questions remain about how effective he will be. Needless to say the 49ers are willing to find out the answers to those questions, because it's pretty clear how effective they are (or aren't) when he is not on the field.
Giving up 83 points in 2 ½ games wasn't a coincidence, Smith is a major difference maker for this defense and as AJ said last week, the defensive MVP for San Francisco. You can find excuses for the Patriots' 28-point comeback (see Brady, Tom) and/or the Seattle massacre (ie: the Seahawks are for real, they showed up ready to play in a primetime game at home), but there is no pretext for making Brian Hoyer look like a pro-bowler at times two weeks ago at Candlestick Park, or allowing William Powell to gain 40 yards on his first 8 carries. We have seen what the 49ers' defense looks like with Ricky Jean-Francois at LDE and it's time to see if a limited Justin Smith can provide this unit with the lift they will most definitely need against a Green Bay offense that has the weapons to be lethal.
When the 49ers beat the Packers back in week 1, Green Bay did not attempt a single run towards their left side (according to Pro Football Focus), you can bet that will not be a fact after Saturday's rematch. Furthermore, Lang and his neighbor on the left, Marshall Newhouse, did not surrender a single sack to the Justin/Aldon Smith combo back in September, Aldon's sack coming on an outstanding single play and not charged on Newhouse. On Wednesday, Lang referred to his performance with Newhouse in the season opener as one of their better technique games as a pair. Lang also had plenty of praise for the Cowboy, stating that the 4-time pro-bowler, "doesn't wear out, he doesn't get tired, you've got to make sure you're ready to throw those boxing gloves on for 60 minutes. It's going to be a brawl". That is an accurate description of Justin Smith, but nobody knows what he'll be like playing on a partially torn left triceps tendon.
In order for the 49ers to win their initial playoff game this postseason, Justin Smith will have to provide the San Francisco defense with a boost that takes their performance closer to who they were before he was injured in New England the best unit in the league in points allowed.
The X-Factor matchup
AJ: There is one matchup that will dramatically affect the outcome of this game...and it's one that Green Bay might not be prepared for: the running ability of Colin Kaepernick...especially as it pertains to limiting Green Bay's best defender, Clay Matthews.
When the 49ers last played the Packers, Alex Smith was under center and Clay Matthews was able to apply consistent pressure off of the edge.
Colin Kaepenick presents a unique problem for Matthews and the Packer pass rush. If the 49ers exploit the Pistol as much as I think they will, it should force the Packers into reading the play instead of pinning their ears back and rushing the passer, that will allow Kaepernick time to exploit the Packer secondary, a unit that has been far from stellar against elite competition.
Essentially, the threat of the run from the QB position makes the most recent iteration of the 49er offense far more difficult to defend. It is going to play a huge role in Saturday's game.
Diego: TE Vernon Davis vs FS Charles Woodson shocked? I understand, but keep in mind my thoughts on the Crabtree/Williams matchup and the necessity for the passing game to be a big factor in this game. It's time for Vernon Davis to get back in the spotlight.
Last postseason, Davis made the most out of his first time in the playoffs, having perhaps the best game of his career against the New Orleans Saints, and then practicably becoming the only threat on offense against the New York Giants. This season the 49ers TE has seen a significant drop in his statistical numbers, having his worse season since 2008. In spite of that, he remains optimistic about his role in the offense, noting the satisfaction of last season's winning year even though his numbers weren't as good as they were in 2010, when he was a pro bowler.
Clearly the chemistry between Davis and Colin Kaepernick is far from what we used to know as the 11-to-85 connection, but both Kaepernick and the coaching staff are surely preparing for the Packers to place a lot of their focus on Crabtree, occasionally shadowing him with a second defender, which means Davis and the rest of the receiving corps will have plenty of 1-on-1 opportunities. I think the world of Charles Woodson, in my eyes he will be a lock for the Hall of Fame, but the 15-year veteran is far from the outstanding coverage player he was during his prime, as exemplified by his move to safety. Woodson still brings a lot of positives to the Green Bay defense, most importantly his contributions in run defense as well as his pass defense in short areas, so it would make sense for the 49ers to test him whenever possible with Davis on a deeper routes. Moreover, his run AND pass blocking against Woodson will be very important in this matchup as well, an aspect of Davis' game that is often overlooked.
Vernon Davis may have had a down year numbers wise in 2012, but his skills have not diminished at all. He is the same, most complete TE in the game, he was last season when he shined in the playoffs, and if the 49ers can find a way to get him going again this week, then the Maryland product may just become the difference maker in helping San Francisco return to the NFC Championship game.
Two Minute Drill
- In his week one matchup with Clay Matthews, Joe Staley had what I consider his worst game of the season. If you're looking for scrappy play (and maybe a little jawing) pay careful attention to these two.
- In week one, Kendall Hunter provided an explosive change of pace for Frank Gore. For the 49er run game to have the kind of effect it did in the season opener, LaMichael James will need to do the same.
- In what limited action he's seen to date, AJ Jenkins has been all but invisible. Will this be the game that he finally shows up?
- Steve Young's opinions on Colin Kaepernick seem to represent what the majority of the 49ers fan base thinks: "The calculus for this game is that you can't put him in a situation where he's in a hole and he's got to pass his way out of it". Count me as part of the majority.
- As much as I hate the thought of it, Perrish Cox and/or Tramaine Brock may end up factoring into this game. Green Bay has at least 4 playmaking wide receivers, and I expect them to test San Francisco's depth at corner back. Again, this position needs to be addressed in the upcoming NFL Draft.
- It may be all smoke and lead to nothing, but Greg Roman's name sure has been getting thrown around as a possible head coaching candidate this past week, more specifically in Jacksonville where new Jaguars GM Dave Caldwell may look to replace Mike Mularkey. Apparently Caldwell and Roman were college roommates back in the day at John Carroll University. If Roman indeed bolts, colored me intrigued with the idea of Chris Ault replacing him as offensive coordinator ...
Divisional Round Picks:
The constant out of our picks last week was the number 2: We agreed on 2 games, we disagreed on 2 games, and ultimately we both finished 2-2. Let's see if we break the tie this week as we look at some very intriguing matchups (SPOILER: we'll remain tied).
Texans at Patriots
AJ: Same story, different week. As much as I'd like to think that this one will at least be fun to watch, I get the distinct impression that the Texans are going to get beat down, hard. Patriots.
Diego: Two things: 1) everyone and their momma remembers the beat down New England put on Houston in week 14. These teams aren't much different than the ones that faced off (also in New England) back then, and 2) Houston was unimpressive in their win last week over Cincinnati. Patriots.
Ravens at Broncos
AJ: The Ravens are riding high after beating up the Colts last week ... but the Broncos are the best team in the AFC. Ray Lewis got a win in his last home game ... but a Super Bowl just isn't in the cards for the Ravens. Broncos.
Diego: Denver may just be the most complete team in the playoffs at the moment. Unless Flacco earns a fat contract by playing lights out in this game, this will be the last time we will see Ray Lewis - a legend - on the field. Broncos.
Seahawks at Falcons
AJ: The Falcons are the better team, and they're playing at home. But that will not give them a win. Matt Ryan cannot get it done in the clutch...and no matter how favorable the matchup, the Falcons will find a way to blow it. Seahawks.
Diego: This is the worst possible matchup for Atlanta, a very good run defense to go with a CB tandem that theoretically matches up well with one of the best WR tandems in the game. That puts the weight on Matt Ryan's shoulder to carry this team to a victory. On the other hand, Marshawn Lynch's matchup may allow him to go on Beast Mode, and Russell Wilson should benefit from that. Seahawks.
Packers at 49ers
AJ: The Niners are on the verge of something really special. This team is a good game away from another crack at the NFC Championship. Pound for pound, player for player, they are simply the better team here. The Packers have Aaron Rodgers...but that won't be enough. 49ers.
Diego: This is probably the closest matchup of the week. Both teams want to make up for the lost opportunity last season. I'm very much on the fence in this one, but I need to go with the home team. 49ers.
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