On Sunday, the 12-4 49ers will take on the 8-7-1 Packers in the Wild Card round at Lambeau Field. This will be the seventeenth time since the NFL realigned in 2002 in which a team with a lower record than the opponent will host a playoff game.
The 49ers ride the strength of a six game win streak into the game, along with three straight victories over Green Bay. The biggest difference about the 49ers team that will take on the Packers Sunday from the one that took the field week 1 will be the addition of Michael Crabtree.
The Packers also come into the game on a bit of a roll having won 3 of their last 4, including what amounts to a play in game last week against the Chicago Bears. After spending most of eight games without Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback returned last week to lead the Packers to victory. In addition to a now healthy Rodgers, the Packers also saw the return of Randall Cobb to the lineup last Sunday.
1) Will Green Bay become more balanced?
In the 3 previous meetings between these teams, the Packers have averaged just over 18 rush attempts per game. This is where the addition of Eddie Lacy might greatly impact this game. As the season has gone on, the Packers became more willing to work the running game. In 5 of the 8 games that Rodgers started and finished this season the Packers attempted 30 or more rushing attempts, and they did this in 9 games this season overall.
Why is this important you might ask. While most of the attention this week has focused on the 49ers pass defense, they have lost only 1 game since Jim Harbaugh took over in which the opponent has thrown the ball for over 300 yards, they have gone in the opposite direction against teams that are committed to running the ball.
Under Harbaugh the 49ers have face 10 opponents who tried to run the ball 30 or more times against them. In those contests the 49ers have a record of 1-8-1.
2) Which 49ers running game will show up?
The 49ers struggled last week in Arizona against the number 1 run defense in the league with only 83 yards on 23 carries, 37 of those yards coming on end arounds to wide receivers. While the run game dropped off last week the three weeks prior saw the 49ers average 183 yards on the ground.
In their week 1 meeting the Packers did a good job of shutting down the run, holding the 49ers to 90 yards on 34 carries. The Packers commitment to stopping the run opened up opportunities in the passing game and Colin Kaepernick took full advantage, throwing for 412 yards and 3 touchdowns.
With weather reports saying the temperature at kickoff will be around 0 degrees it might be tough sledding to move pass the ball. This would put an added emphasis on the run game. Will the 49ers get the run game they had in Arizona, or the one they had the 3 weeks prior?
3) What effect will weather have on the game?
With current weather forecasts calling for Green Bay to have a high temperature of -3 degrees with a low of -20 there is a possibility that this could be the coldest game in the history of the NFL, even colder than the famed "Ice Bowl'.
Both teams will be dealing with the conditions and it will be interesting to see how the conditions effect the players and playcalling throughout the game.
4) How will the new look 49ers defense hold up?
As I write this both Carlos Rogers and Eric Wright are dealing with hamstring injuries. Rogers injured his hamstring during the game on Sunday in Arizona and Wright joined the injury list after practice on Thursday. If Rogers and Wright are unable to go on Sunday there wouldn't be much of a change in the 49ers base defense as Tarell Brown would step back into the starting lineup to replace Rogers.
Where it gets complicated is when the Green Bay goes 3 wide, which usually means the 49ers would shift to their Nickle package. According to Jeff Deeney of ProFootballFocus, the Packers have lined up with 3 or more wide receivers 77% of the time this season including 87% during week 1.
Not having Rogers or Wright available would force the 49ers to press either Perrish Cox or Daryl Morris into action. The two have combined for a total of 77 snaps this season. While Morris has not been targeted Cox has had 10 passes thrown into his coverage. Of those 10 Cox has given up 7 receptions for 66 yards and a touchdown. The touchdown coming during the week 1 game against Green Bay.
5) Can the 49ers overcome history?
Since NFL Realignment in 2002 there have been 15 instances in which the Wild Card team came into the game with a better record than the division winner. Despite having a worse record in the regular season the division winning home team has won 9 times.
49ers 23 Packers 21