The former Super Bowl champion and the postseason newcomer will be in the spotlight and can expect to face tough defenses Saturday night when the Packers visit the 49ers in a marquee NFC divisional playoff contest.
Rodgers is from Chico, about a three-hour drive north of the Bay Area. The only time he has played at San Francisco is in the preseason, and the former 49ers fan was overlooked by them in the 2005 draft with Alex Smith going No. 1.
“Home is really Chico,” said Rodgers, who produced an NFL-best 108.0 passer rating. “Chico I would say is in northern California, San Francisco I would say is Bay Area. So it’ll be fun to go back to the West Coast, a lot of people in the area, hopefully get a lot of cheeseheads from Chico coming down to the game and it’ll be a good test.”
Smith, meanwhile, led the second-seeded 49ers to last year’s NFC title game but has been replaced by Kaepernick, who was born in Milwaukee and went 5-2 as the starter. Kaepernick said he rooted for the Packers (12-5), and that he’s not in awe of his first playoff opportunity even though he’s going up against the reigning league MVP.
“Aaron Rodgers is a great quarterback,” Kaepernick said. “You see what he does on the field and you see performances he’s been having, so you can’t say enough about the guy. We’re going to have to go out and put up points.”
Kaepernick’s emergence as a starter is one of many changes since these teams met in the season opener as the 49ers (11-4-1) posted a 30-22 road victory. Smith completed 20 of 26 passes with two scores.
While Smith was mostly a stationary target and was sacked four times, Kaepernick’s mobility gives the Niners a completely new look. Kaepernick had a 17-yard carry in the opener and did not throw a pass.
“Colin Kaepernick just for the little time he has been a starter, is a lot more experienced, a lot more productive quarterback,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “He creates different challenges for us.”
The Packers had a healthy Cedric Benson back then, although he was bottled up for 18 yards on nine carries. Benson is out for the season, and undrafted DuJuan Harris is now the starting back after rushing for 47 yards in last Saturday’s 24-10 wild-card victory over Minnesota.
Although the 49ers finished around the middle of the pack with 38 sacks - Aldon Smith had an NFC-high 19 1/2 - their pass rush figures to be a major factor against Rodgers, who was sacked a league-high 51 times including three in the opener.
“There’s no other defense we’d rather go into a game than ours,” coach Jim Harbaugh said.
That defense figures to gain a boost with the return of tackle Justin Smith who missed the last two games with a partially torn triceps tendon. He has been practicing this week for the 49ers, who yielded an NFC-low average of 311.3 yards in the regular season.
“I think it’s just a matter of getting out there and going,” Justin Smith said. “I think like I said you just go out there and play until you can’t and be ready. I feel like I’ll be ready.”
The Packers’ defense will be facing another tough rushing attack after limiting Adrian Peterson to 99 yards last week. Green Bay may be helped after facing backup Vikings quarterback Joe Webb who ran for 68 yards and presents a similar threat on the ground as Kaepernick.
While Minnesota ranked second in the NFL with 164.6 yards per game on the ground, San Francisco was fourth at 155.7. Niners back Frank Gore had 1,212 yards, with 112 coming in the opener.
Green Bay has been bolstered by the return of star linebacker Clay Matthews who has played the last four games after missing four with a hamstring injury. Former Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson returned last weekend after the cornerback was out since Oct. 21 with a collarbone injury.
Woodson should play a key role in trying to slow down Michael Crabtree who has become Kaepernick’s favorite target with 35 catches for 538 yards in five December games. Crabtree also had four of his team-high nine touchdown receptions in that span.
Vernon Davis became a virtual non-factor once Kaepernick took over, with a combined 61 yards and no TDs over the last six games. However, the tight end has scored in all four games he’s played against the Packers, totaling 351 yards, and he had 10 receptions for 292 yards with four TDs in two postseason games last year.
“I’ll just wait for my opportunities. I’m sure they will come,” Davis said. “I said the same thing last year, even though I didn’t get the ball as much as I wanted last year, I said my opportunities will come. And maybe I’ll get them this week.”
The change to Kaepernick was made partially because the Niners struggled offensively in their 20-17 loss to the Giants in last year’s NFC title game. The Packers lost to New York in the previous round after a 15-1 season.
Green Bay may not be the more rested team, but that didn’t matter two seasons ago when it was seeded sixth and Rodgers guided them to three road wins and a Super Bowl triumph over Pittsburgh.
“It’s just something we know,” offensive lineman Josh Sitton said. “We have confidence in each other, and we feel we could go win anywhere.”
The Packers are 4-1 in the postseason against San Francisco.
The Niners could have a new kicker Saturday after signing Billy Cundiff last week since David Akers has missed seven of his last 18 field-goal attempts. Cundiff, cut by Washington this season after making 7 of 12 attempts, missed a potential game-tying 32-yard attempt in last year’s AFC title game for Baltimore against New England.
Akers converted 69.0 percent of his field-goal tries, with only Green Bay’s Mason Crosby lower at 63.6. Crosby, though, has made all four over the last two games, including three of 40 yards or more.