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Packers get second shot at San Francisco

The SportsXchange

Aaron Rodgers was "disappointed," "disappointed," "mad" and "disappointed" some more.

The quarterback said so himself in just his first few remarks to reporters in the Packers' media auditorium at Lambeau Field in the early evening of Sept. 9, a short time after they lost 30-22 to the San Francisco 49ers.

This was not the start to the 2012 season desired by the NFL's reigning MVP, who clearly took the defeat hard as he bemoaned what he felt were two critical mistakes of his doing.

Some minutes later, Rodgers came to grips with the setback, let the frustration go and found some solace before stepping away from the podium and exiting the room.

"It's one game," he said. "This (San Francisco) is a team that was in the NFC Championship last year. It's a good team. Hopefully, we see them down the road in the playoffs."

Here we are, four months later and the same teams' getting back together. This time, though, the stakes are a lot greater as the third-seeded Packers (12-5) travel to San Francisco (11-4-1) to play the second-seeded 49ers in the divisional round of the playoffs Saturday night.

"It's a single-elimination football game," Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy asserted.

The winner advances to the NFC Championship on Jan. 20, playing the survivor of the conference's other divisional game between No. 1-seeded Atlanta and fifth-seeded Seattle on Sunday. The loser is done playing until next summer, left with several days of disappointment from the maddening end to the season.

For the Packers, taking another shot at the 49ers is a San Francisco treat.

"We're a little thankful that we get the chance to play San Francisco again," fullback John Kuhn said. "They really whopped up on us first game of the season. So, we're looking forward to going out there and playing a better game."

What has to be better for Green Bay in the rematch?

"Pretty much everything. They whopped us pretty good," said Kuhn, who had a starring role in Green Bay's 24-10 wild-card win over Minnesota last Saturday with two touchdowns.

The 49ers imposed their brute strength on the Packers on both sides of the ball from the get-go. San Francisco rushed the football for 186 yards, allowed the Packers to run for only 45 yards (27 by a scrambling Rodgers) and never trailed in a game it led by as many as 16 points.

"When you run it, you want to run it good," McCarthy said. "We need to run it better this time; there's no doubt about it. We did not run the ball very well in Week 1. No different than the passing game, this (running the football) is important. You're going on the road; it will be a different environment than the first time we competed against these guys. We need to play much better than we did the first time."

And, McCarthy's revamped charges will arrive at Candlestick Park - where the Packers haven't lost since a controversial, last-second 30-27 setback to the 49ers in a wild-card playoff game 14 years ago -- with an air of confidence that the outcome Saturday will be different.

Eight players on the 53-man roster this week weren't on Green Bay's season-opening roster. And, four of those players, including halfbacks Ryan Grant and DuJuan Harris, were far from joining and contributing to the team at that point.

What's more, the Packers' starting lineup has turned over by six players.

Three of the changes are on offense. A budding Harris is now at halfback, where veteran pickup Cedric Benson started the season with a dud of nine carries for 18 yards. Undrafted rookie Don Barclay has been making strides at right tackle after replacing an injured Bryan Bulaga. And, with an endorsement from Rodgers, Evan Dietrich-Smith settled things down at center after the late-season demotion of accomplished veteran Jeff Saturday.

"We're a different football team," said Rodgers, then saying of the 49ers, "They're playing differently (since the Week 1 encounter). They have a lot of the same players obviously, but we've got some different faces out there and we're doing some different things. We didn't have a great opportunity to get the run game going out there (in the opening game), we tried to get Cedric going, and now we're at our fifth different starting running back in DuJuan Harris.

"Teams kind of figure out their identity during the season," Rodgers added. "Week 1 is a learning experience for everybody, whether it's win or lose. We lost that game. Otherwise, we'd be hosting this (game) right now."

While Rodgers will be the center of attention for the prime-time game, as he returns to his native Northern California to play the team he adored as a child but wound up spurning him as a young adult by not taking him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft, the Packers will get their first look at Colin Kaepernick as the 49ers' new offensive leader.

Kaepernick is set to make his first postseason start, less than two months after he replaced an injured Alex Smith, the guy San Francisco took over Rodgers in the draft.

Green Bay will try to counter Kaepernick's athleticism with a defense that has come a long way since being the NFL's doormat in 2011 and made three lineup changes since the teams last met.

Undrafted rookie Dezman Moses has been starting at the left outside linebacker spot, where top rookie Nick Perry was lost to a wrist injury. Brad Jones has found a home at inside linebacker, as the replacement for an injured D.J. Smith. Sam Shields went from being in the coaches' doghouse before the season started to becoming a late-season playmaker at cornerback, where Jarrett Bush was a shaky pick to be an opening-day starter.

"The thing is, when you face a running quarterback (like Kaepernick), he feels confident in his legs," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "If he feels he's in a bad situation, he feels confidence in his legs, so he'll run instead of throw a pick. That's normal for a quarterback that's really athletic. We always feel that we can get the ball if the opportunity presents itself. Hopefully, we can force him to do it (throw the football), and if we can, when the opportunity presents itself, we've got to make him pay."
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