COMMENTARY | San Francisco's victory over the Green Bay Packers in Week 1 was not as close as the 30-22 final score would indicate.
The 49ers physically abused the Packers on both sides of the ball and if not for a strange penalty reversal on a punt return, Green Bay loses by two touchdowns.
But both teams have undergone considerable changes since that game.
San Francisco made about as big a change as a football team can make when they replaced Alex Smith with Colin Kaepernick. The offense has been more explosive with Kaepernick, but also more susceptible to turnovers and lulls. Kaepernick playing at home will help, but this Green Bay defense eats young quarterbacks for breakfast, particularly Charles Woodson who is one of the best ever at baiting quarterbacks into bad throws.
Green Bay no longer has outside linebackers covering receivers - Dom Capers' plan to use the uber-athletic Nick Perry in coverage was thankfully a short-lived project. Jarrett Bush is where he belongs: on special teams only.
Casey Hayward has evolved as one of the best slot corners in the game and B.J. Raji has regained his footing as one of the elite defensive tackles in football.
The key to this match-up, though, isn't so much what has changed, but rather what has stayed the same.
San Francisco's defense looks much as it did to open the season with the punishing pass-rush and ball-hawking secondary. Their linebackers are the best in the game and make plays from sideline to sideline. Physical secondaries have given Green Bay problems, particularly when the pass-rush is as good as the 49ers, and this group of defensive backs is as physical as they come.
On the other side, Green Bay is rushing the ball considerably better than they were early in the year. Greg Jennings, who got hurt in this game the first time around, is back and looks close to 100%. Ditto for Randall Cobb who was the bright spot for the Packers in the earlier meeting.
And lest we forget, the Packers still have the reigning league MVP under center. In Week 1, Aaron Rodgers completed 30 of his 44 passes for 302 yards with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception.
Tom Brady is the only other quarterback to throw for 300 yards against this defense. That was also the only other time San Francisco won while allowing the opponent to score at least 20 points.
New England was able to protect Brady during his frantic comeback in that game, something the Packers won't be able to do as well. The difference is, Green Bay's defense is considerably better than New England's and is much less likely to fall into a double-digit hole, even on the road.
Despite a limited running game and a developing receiver core, Green Bay had success throwing the ball against the 49ers. Considering how well James Jones and the aforementioned Cobb have played this season, the Packers' biggest advantage will be when those two face San Francisco's third and fourth defensive backs. Don't expect Green Bay, even with an improved rush attack, to take its best weapons off the field, remembering too that Patrick Willis will be off the field in nickel and dime packages.
The double moves won't be an option as often this week with the pressure San Francisco can generate, but if Jones and Cobb, or Jennings when he is in the slot, can win those 1-on-1 match-ups, then Green Bay's offense can be successful.
Jermichael Finley's emergence in the second half of the season will also be huge as the middle of the field will be the place to attack this San Francisco defense.
Green Bay's offense is better now than it was 17 weeks ago and so is the defense. San Francisco's defense has struggled down the stretch, giving up 34 to New England and 42 to Seattle. In fact, against playoff teams this season, the 49ers defense is giving up 25.2 points per game, more than a touchdown worse than their season average.
In those same games, San Francisco is averaging just 22 points scored per game, and managed just one touchdown in three of five games.
Colin Kaepernick has only played in two of those games, beating New England and getting blown-out by Seattle. This uneven trend of uneven performances is part and parcel of starting an inexperienced quarterback.
There's no way to know how Kaepernick will respond to the big stage. Green Bay knows what Aaron Rodgers brings and we know he can win on the road. Rodgers is 3-1 away from Lambeau in the playoffs, and the one was an overtime loss to Arizona in his playoff debut - a game in which he was brilliant in the second half.
The Packers have also been much more consistent against playoff teams, averaging 26.6 points per game against playoff defenses, just a shade under their 27.1 point per game average. Defensively, Green Bay has allowed 24.8 points per game against playoff teams, only about 3 points worse than the season average.
Put another way, both Green Bay's offense and defense have been better against playoff competition this season than San Francisco. Moreover, the numbers indicate the Packers have been much more consistent throughout the year If you take a look at the averages, they're also indicative of two teams who played similarly against like competition.
Green Bay's average scoring output against playoff teams is just a point higher than San Francisco's average defensive effort. On the other hand, San Francisco is scoring just a little under the Packers' defensive average.
If those averages were to hold, that would mean Green Bay walks away with a narrow victory.
That would certainly be a difference from the first time around, but given how both teams have changed - and perhaps more importantly, how both teams have remained the same - it seems prudent to expect a close game.
And if that's the case, given the most important difference in San Francisco - Kaepernick instead of Smith - and the most important mainstay for the Packers - Rodgers - the edge has to go to Green Bay. Winning on the road won't be anything new for Rodgers and Green Bay. That has certainly stayed the same.
Peter Bukowski lives in New York and has been covering sports since 2007. He is an award-winning television and newspaper reporter. Follow him on Twitter @BukoTime
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- San Francisco
- Green Bay
- the Packers
- Green Bay Packers
- Colin Kaepernick
- Aaron Rodgers