NFC North: Billy Cundiff

Final Word: Packers-49ers

January, 11, 2013
1/11/13
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: Packers-49ers | Seahawks-Falcons AFC: Ravens-Broncos | Texans-Pats

Five nuggets of knowledge about Saturday's Green Bay Packers-San Francisco 49ers divisional playoff game:

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!

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesAaron 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.)

Lions: Cutdown analysis

September, 5, 2009
9/05/09
8:15
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert


Check here for a full list of Detroit’s roster moves.

Biggest surprise: The word around the NFL was that Shaun Smith was going to open the season as a starter at defensive tackle. Instead, he was released Saturday. Smith is a big-bodied space-filler who figured to help solidify the Lions pass rush, and now they seem pretty thin once again in the interior of their defensive line. Defensive tackle Chuck Darby was also released, so you wonder who will start opposite Grady Jackson. Rookie Sammie Hill? Ikaika Alama-Francis? Landon Cohen? That’s all the Lions have left, at least for now.

No-brainers: The release of placekicker Billy Cundiff means the Lions feel reasonably comfortable that Jason Hanson is ready to kick after undergoing knee surgery last month. The Lions could always re-sign Cundiff later this week if Hanson proves otherwise. Meanwhile, it was time to bid farewell to longtime Lions running back Aveion Cason. Rookie Aaron Brown showed enough speed and playmaking ability in the preseason to let Cason move on. Finally, the Lions had no choice but to keep Kevin O’Connell as the No. 4 quarterback while Drew Stanton recovers from knee surgery.

What’s next: You can expect the Lions to be active on the waiver wire as long as they sit atop the NFL’s claim priority list. The Lions could continue claiming players for several days until they get their 53-man roster settled for Week 1. The next step for the team will be naming a starting quarterback. Neither Daunte Culpepper nor Matthew Stafford outperformed each other during the preseason, but Culpepper was sidelined by a toe injury that required eight stitches. Coach Jim Schwartz hasn’t tipped his hand and has suggested he might not make an announcement until shortly before the Sept. 13 season opener at New Orleans.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

It's been a long spring and summer for Green Bay rookie linebacker Clay Matthews, who has been limited off and on for months by a strained hamstring. In the most recent stretch, Matthews missed 13 practices and the Packers' first two preseason games -- leaving him with a tough climb to earn the starting job most observers considered would be his in Week 1 of the regular season.

Matthews, however, returned to practice Wednesday. He won't play in the Packers' preseason game Friday at Arizona but is on track to make his debut in the Sept. 3 preseason finale at Tennessee. (The same is true for linebacker Nick Barnett.)

According to Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Matthews has actually suffered three separate injuries to the hamstring this year. As a result, the Packers' medical staff took his recovery particularly slowly this summer. For now, it appears Brady Poppinga is the likeliest opening-week starter at the position previously reserved for Matthews.

Continuing around the NFC North:
The surge of young Packers tight end Jermichael Finely is pushing veteran Donald Lee to improve as well, writes Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press found no evidence of a "schism" in the Vikings' locker room over the arrival of Brett Favre. Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune on the schism: "Let's make this much clear: There are almost certainly some members of the Vikings who would like to see [Tarvaris] Jackson starting. Jackson might not have proven himself as a reliable starter in his first three seasons but he is well-liked by many of his teammates and from everything I've seen a good guy who often faces criticism head on." Chicago receiver Devin Hester is learning how strong quarterback Jay Cutler's arm is, writes Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times. Cutler is having a hard time getting excited for his return to Denver this Sunday night, writes Jeff Dickerson of ESPN Chicago. Detroit rookie safety Louis Delmas tussled with tailback Aveion Cason during practice Wednesday, notes Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press. Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham wasn't happy with the number of missed tackles Saturday at Cleveland, writes John Niyo of the Detroit News. The Lions signed placekicker Billy Cundiff to fill in for the injured Jason Hanson and Swayze Waters, notes Cotsonika.

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NFC NORTH SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 9/4
Sunday, 9/7
Monday, 9/8