Tight matchup: In talking and writing about this game over the past week, it became clear that there truly is no favorite. The Packers and 49ers have the same number of advantages and disadvantages, which makes for what I think should be the most anticipated matchup of the divisional weekend. The 49ers are 2.5-point favorites at home, which basically means Las Vegas would consider this a pick 'em game on a neutral field. ESPN's panel of 14 experts is split -- seven picked the Packers and seven chose the 49ers to win. My NFC West colleague Mike Sando, who is 36-17 in picking his division's games this season, predicts a 28-24 win for the 49ers. Me? I don't make picks. Lucky meeeeeeeee!
Aaron Rodgers has three consecutive road playoff wins -- just one shy of tying an NFL record.
Rodgers on the road: We've noted that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has three playoff victories on the road in his career, a relatively modest number that nevertheless is two away from the NFL record. And it's worth noting that Rodgers was exceptional on the road during the regular season, even by his standards. He threw 22 touchdown passes and three interceptions in those eight games -- the second-best touchdown-interception differential (+19) in road games during the Super Bowl era. Only Tom Brady (+25 in 2007) has been better. This week, we also noted that Rodgers' low interception rate over his career gives him a head start for consistent playoff success.
Smith factor: Rodgers and the Packers should get an early gauge on how close 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith is to full strength. Smith was a key part of a defense that physically overwhelmed the Packers in Week 1, but he missed the final two and a half games of the regular season because of a triceps injury -- and the 49ers defense took a notable dive in his absence. Over that stretch, the 49ers' sack rate dropped by about half and linebacker Aldon Smith didn't have a single sack. The 49ers forced a turnover about once every 57 plays without Justin Smith as opposed to once every 41 plays with him, and opponents averaged 5.1 yards per play after managing 4.5 yards per play with him on the field.
Defending Kaepernick: The 49ers' bold midseason move to promote Colin Kaepernick to their starting quarterback meets a critical judgment point this weekend. Kaepernick brings a more explosive mixture of running the read-option and throwing downfield, but his ability to handle the pressure of the postseason has not been tested. Although it was an admittedly small sample size, the Packers gave up an average of 10 yards on the six read-option plays they faced last Saturday against the Minnesota Vikings. On the other hand, you have to assume the Packers -- now at full strength with linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive back Charles Woodson on the field -- will send heavy pressure at Kaepernick. The Packers' 40-percent blitz rate during the regular season was the fourth-highest in the NFL. Kaepernick completed 57 percent of his passes against the blitz this season, ranking No. 20 in the NFL. His Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) was 59.6 against the blitz and 86.5 against four or fewer rushers.
Kicking strategy: The teams have taken different approaches with inconsistent veteran kickers this season. The Packers never considered replacing Mason Crosby, who has emerged from an extended slump to convert five consecutive attempts over his past three games. The 49ers' David Akers, meanwhile, struggled for much of the season and has missed four of his past 10 attempts. He will kick in this game only after fending off a challenge from veteran Billy Cundiff, whom the 49ers signed for an extended competition during their playoff bye week.
(Statistics courtesy ESPN Stats & Information unless otherwise noted.)