The 2012 season began at Lambeau Field for ESPN.com's NFC West and NFC North bloggers. The San Francisco 49ers had a Week 1 date against the Green Bay Packers, which meant that Mike Sando and Kevin Seifert would be working side by side in a game that figured to be a (very early) playoff preview.
Except -- oh, that's right -- Sando got caught up in Russell Wilson-mania, bailed on the trip to Green Bay and left Seifert to chronicle the 49ers' thorough wire-to-wire victory. So it's only fair to let Seifert have the first word in this discussion of Saturday night's rematch in the divisional playoffs at Candlestick Park.
Seifert: Yeah, Mike, I remember turning to you during the game to express surprise at how much better the 49ers seemed that day -- and there was only an empty seat next to me. I know you were busy tracking your guy Russell Wilson, but I can tell you firsthand that the 49ers just physically manhandled the Packers that day. They walked into Lambeau, took a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter and never looked back. Both teams have changed since then, but there was a clear physical advantage there. I remember seeing Frank Gore just bulldozing into the second level and popping outside, an issue the Packers would face later in the season against Adrian Peterson as well. (Gore gained 72 of his 112 yards outside the tackles.) So I'll ask you: Are the 49ers still as physical of a team as they were in Week 1?
Sando: That’s just how we roll in the NFC West, Kevin. It has become the new Black and Blue division. The 49ers are still a physical team. Their offense is pretty much unchanged from that standpoint. I expect a rested Gore to run the ball effectively. And if the 49ers are smart, they’ll involve Colin Kaepernick in the running game, adding another dimension. The big question for San Francisco is whether the defense can be as physical with Justin Smith playing through a triceps injury. Smith will have had 27 days between games by the time he suits up for this one. If he’s full strength, the 49ers will be just as physical now as then. If not, the entire defensive front is compromised. San Francisco doesn’t have great depth along the line.
Seifert: We'll dive deeper into that Justin Smith issue in a bit, but let's pick up with the 49ers' read-option capabilities with Kaepernick. I realize it's a small sample size, but the Minnesota Vikings had some success last Saturday night using Peterson and Joe Webb in a similar type of option arrangement. They ran the read-option six times and gained 65 yards on it. Gore isn't as dominant of a runner as Peterson, but I would say Kaepernick is a more reliable scrambler than Webb. Regardless, I think the 49ers could have some success with it Saturday night. It's a lot to keep track of. But even typing the name "Joe Webb" reminds me what can happen when a quarterback makes his first NFL playoff start. Kaepernick has to be a bit of a question mark in this game. Doesn't he?
Sando: Kaepernick is a different kind of question mark. The conventional and advanced stats say he has been as good or better than Alex Smith. Kaepernick ranks third in Total QBR (76.8) behind Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Matt Ryan is fourth and Aaron Rodgers fifth. That doesn’t happen by accident. But the identity of the offense is changing and the process has been a little unsettling for a team that had a pretty strong identity for more than a year. The offense can be much more explosive with Kaepernick. He has had a couple of 50-yard runs in fourth quarters and his arm strength has opened up the field, but Gore hasn’t been as comfortable running from the Pistol formation. It throws off his timing. Vernon Davis has disappeared from the passing game. Kendall Hunter, Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams have landed on injured reserve. Randy Moss’ playing time is up. There has been a lot of change packed into a short window and there’s a sense almost anything could happen, good or bad.
Seifert: Well, that certainly settles things. Anyway, I was in the Packers' locker room Saturday night after they beat the Vikings, and the Packers seemed to have every expectation that the 49ers would try to run the ball down their throats, especially with an inexperienced quarterback making his first playoff start. They know Gore steamrolled them in Week 1, but they feel as though they've had a lot of practice against Peterson since then. Even though Peterson had 409 yards against them in two regular-season games, the Packers did a nice job bottling him up in the playoffs. (Most of Peterson's 99 yards in that game came after the Packers had a three-score lead.) But we've now spent, oh, about 800 words discussing Gore and Kaepernick in this matchup and still have barely mentioned the two most important words in this game: "Aaron" and "Rodgers." With all due respect to the Smiths, Justin and Aldon, Aaron Rodgers will be the best player on the field Saturday night. You can have your Colin Kaepernick.
Sando: That’s an interesting take on Kaepernick. I think he’s better than that. He went into Gillette Stadium, threw four touchdown passes and had the 49ers up 31-3 on Tom Brady. Kaepernick and Rodgers both have 5-2 starting records since Kaepernick entered the lineup. Kaepernick is averaging more yards per drop back in part because he has taken half as many sacks (since Week 11, when both have been starting). Kaepernick has a higher Total QBR over that span. He has 10 touchdown passes and three picks. Rodgers has 14 TDs and three picks. Rodgers is completing 67.6 percent of his passes, while Kaepernick is at 62.5 percent. I’m giving the QB edge to the Packers in this game, but I’m not sure it’s as lopsided as conventional wisdom would suggest. Is Rodgers playing lights out, or was Greg Cosell -- the NFL Films analyst -- right when he said Rodgers is "leaving an awful lot of plays on the field" through tentative play from the pocket?
Seifert: There is no doubt Kaepernick has been productive and efficient. We in the NFC North were his first victims -- the Week 11 romp over the Chicago Bears. But as you're fond of saying, Mike, usually we can find a statistical split to tell whatever story we want to tell. So on Rodgers-Kaepernick, I'll just throw out a few things. First, Rodgers enters this matchup having thrown 11 touchdowns without an interception over his past four games. Kaepernick has seven touchdown passes and three interceptions in his past four. Rodgers is 5-2 as a postseason starter and has the highest passer rating (105.4) in NFL playoff history. If my math is right, Kaepernick is winless as a playoff starter. Finally, on Cosell's analysis, I will say that other media observers have made similar suggestions about Rodgers' tentativeness. Ron Jaworski is one. I'm not smart enough to know how many plays Rodgers has left on the field. But I do know I would rather him pass up a few, and take a few extra sacks, than follow a more reckless approach that might hit a few more big plays but also almost certainly lead to more mistakes. Rodgers makes enough big plays; he led the NFL in touchdown passes per attempt (7.1 percent) this season. But he also has the single-best quality for a quarterback in the playoffs: He rarely throws interceptions. Rodgers' career interception ratio is 1.73, the best in NFL history by a long measure. Of all the statistical indicators, interceptions might be the one most directly correlated to postseason success and failure.
Sando: That brings us back to the beginning. Justin Smith and that 49ers defense must affect Rodgers. I’m not sure they’ll be able to do that well enough. Aldon Smith had 19.5 sacks this season, but none after Justin Smith played his final regular-season snap against New England in Week 15. When it comes right down to it, I’m less sure what to expect from the 49ers on either side of the ball. Their special teams also have gone from major strength to consistent liability -- at kicker, in the return game and in coverage. The more I think about this game, the more I think Kaepernick has to be Rodgers’ equal, or close to it. That’s a lot to ask, but the 49ers made the quarterback change with this type of game in mind. And when I think about the Packers' allowing three touchdown passes to the Vikings’ Christian Ponder in a meaningful Week 17 matchup, I’m inclined to take the 49ers at home. You won’t see me at the betting window putting a wager on it, though.
Seifert: The best thing the Packers have going for them in this game, I think, is that they have built a more balanced offense around Rodgers in the second half of the season. If you think back to Week 1, they were such a pass-happy offense that they ran more than half of their plays against the 49ers -- 31 of 61 -- without a single running back on the field. Now, they're in a position where they've run for at least 100 yards as a team in six of their past nine games. I think this is a great and fun matchup. Heading west to win a playoff game at Candlestick is tough -- just ask the New Orleans Saints last year -- but it's not impossible to envision a Packers victory. Hopefully Mike joins us this time.