Last January, the 49ers entered the playoffs with a strong defense and consistent offense. They have neither this January, and it would be a big surprise if they get past a better and strongly motivated Green Bay team at Candlestick Park on Saturday.
The defense was anchored by Justin Smith, but he has a partially torn triceps that has sidelined him for most of the past three games. Early assessments said he would need months of recovery time, but Smith is determined to be in the starting lineup Saturday. Most likely, he won’t last beyond the first series.
Before the injury to the “Cowboy,” Aldon Smith was on pace to set the NFL season record for sacks. In the past three games, he didn’t record even one sack. Coach Jim Harbaugh had said it was fatigue that slowed Aldon Smith, but those blocking him should be just as fatigued.
The lack of consistency on offense is equally problematic. Young quarterback Colin Kaepernick has made some brilliant plays, but there have also been many three-and-outs and timeouts called because he couldn’t get the play off in time. Not surprising for a young quarterback, but not encouraging for a playoff team.
Equally important, with Kaepernick at quarterback, the 49ers’ offense hasn’t been able to give the defense much rest.
In the 1980s, Bill Walsh and his defensive coordinator, George Seifert, would talk at the start of each week and Walsh would ask Seifert what the offense could do to help the defense. Against good offensive teams, Seifert would tell him the 49ers’ offense needed to get many first downs to keep the other offense off the field. Walsh’s offense was geared to that, constantly “moving the chains,” which is why the St. Louis Rams’ coach, John Robinson, said Walsh was a great defensive coach.
The 49ers ran that kind of offense last year, with Alex Smith as quarterback, but they aren’t doing it with Kaepernick.
In addition, the defense will have to cope with Aaron Rodgers, who has passed Tom Brady as the best quarterback in the league. The Packers are all motivated to avenge the season-opening loss to the 49ers in Green Bay, and Rodgers has his own reason to be motivated. He grew up in Chico as a 49ers fan, wanting to be the next Joe Montana, and then the 49ers passed him over in the 2005 draft to take Alex Smith. At this point, it seems that Rodgers got a break because he didn’t have to deal with a dysfunctional team — as he acknowledged this week — but he’s always nursed a grudge against the 49ers because of that.
This will be his first game playing at Candlestick since that draft. Giving the best quarterback in the league an additional incentive ... well, you can connect the dots.
And that doesn’t even address the kicking game. The 49ers brought in another kicker, Billy Cundiff, because of David Akers’ inconsistency, but Cundiff missed a 32-yard field-goal attempt for the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs last year, which is why he was available.
Last year, the Niners got within two fumbled kicks of the Super Bowl. They won’t get that close this year.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A look at the five previous playoff meetings between the Niners and Packers, in which the 49ers are 1-4:
Packers 25, 49ers 15
Jan. 13, 2002, Lambeau Field
RECAP: Niners QB Jeff Garcia hit Tai Streets with a 14-yard TD pass followed by a 2-point conversion to tie the wild-card matchup 15-15 in the fourth quarter, but the Packers scored the game’s final 10 points. The Niners were held to just 71 yards rushing on 21 attempts.
49ers 30, Packers 27
Jan. 3, 1999, Candlestick Park
RECAP: Niners QB Steve Young hit Terrell Owens with a 25-yard TD with three seconds left, leading to the memorable “Owens! Owens! Owens!” call by broadcaster Joe Starkey. Garrison Hearst ran for 128 yards in the wild-card win, one of the more exhilarating postseason games in franchise history.
Packers 23, 49ers 10
Jan. 11, 1998, Candlestick Park
RECAP: In the NFC Championship Game, the 49ers were stymied offensively and held to just 257 yards. The Niners managed a paltry 33 yards rushing. Two turnovers doomed the Niners, who watched Packers running back Dorsey Levens rush for 114 yards and a score.
Packers 35, 49ers 14
Jan. 4, 1997, Lambeau Field
RECAP: Green Bay jumped out to a quick 21-0 lead, watched the Niners pull within 21-14, then motored on for an easy win. While the yardage totals were similar (210-196), five 49ers turnovers, including three Elvis Grbac interceptions, were ultimately too much to overcome in the divisional playoff game.
Packers 27, 49ers 17
Jan. 6, 1996, Candlestick Park
RECAP: Four Niners turnovers coupled with Brett Favre throwing for 299 yards and a pair of TDs helped Green Bay jump out to an early three-touchdown lead and never look back. Niners QB Steve Young had to chuck it 65 times to try and make up for a nonexistent running game.