The 49ers proved last season was not a fluke in the 2012 season opener by beating the Green Bay Packers 30-22. If they want redemption after the shortcomings in last year’s playoff run under coach Jim Harbaugh, they will need to duplicate that season-opening effort Saturday.
San Francisco has changed dramatically since the Sept. 9 opener, most dramatically at quarterback, where Colin Kaepernick took over following an injury to Alex Smith on Nov. 11.
Wide receiver Michael Crabtree has evolved into the team’s No. 1 receiving threat since the change at quarterback. After the end of the regular season, Crabtree said he feels a need to atone for his poor showing in last season’s playoffs, in which he had only five catches for 28 yards over two games.
The offense will need to perform to keep up with Packers quarterback — and Cal product — Aaron Rodgers, who has widely been considered one of the best in the NFL since Green Bay won the Super Bowl two years ago.
“You see what he does on the field,” Kaepernick said of Rodgers. “You see the 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.”
The Packers’ offense will give the San Francisco defense all it can handle despite a lack of superstars beyond Rodgers. Their starting running back, DuJuan Harris, was selling cars as recently as November and has played in only five games this season. Their receiving load is evenly split between four targets, as Rodgers carves up opponents with short passes on long drives.
All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis said Rodgers’ multiple options aren’t worrisome, however.
“If we didn’t have four guys who could cover their four guys,” he said, “then maybe I’d be concerned or I’d be worried. But I feel like I have complete confidence in our DBs or whoever it is that’s out there on defense at that point in time to do the job that needs to be done.”
Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio compared Rodgers to a combination of Hall of Famers Dan Marino and Steve Young, saying part of their goal is to keep Rodgers from moving around too much behind the offensive line.
The anticipated return of defensive end Justin Smith should help that. Smith tore his triceps against the New England Patriots on Dec. 16, and he will be wearing a brace if he plays. The defense appeared diminished almost immediately upon his exit, as the Patriots rattled off 31 points in the second half and the Seattle Seahawks scored 42 against San Francisco the following week.
Willis wasn’t ready to make excuses, however.
“It’s the playoffs,” he said. “If it was to be easy, then everybody would say it was an easy game or they would try to take something away from it to make you less than you are. Let them be healthy, let us be healthy and let’s go play football.”
We’re making a head-to-head comparison of key elements the Niners and Packers are counting on for Saturday’s NFC divisional playoff game at Candlestick.
The Niners’ offensive line is one of the best in the NFL, and the combo of backs Frank Gore (1,214 rushing yards) and LaMichael James has been terrific. San Francisco gashed the Green Bay defense for 186 yards on 6.1 yards per carry when the two teams met in the season opener. When you add in QB Colin Kaepernick’s running ability, not many teams are better at grinding out a game on the ground. EDGE: 49ers
Since Colin Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith at QB, he has developed a special connection with receiver Michael Crabtree. Crabtree flourished down the stretch en route to a 1,105-yard season. However, tight end Vernon Davis disappeared with the change at QB. The Packers were among the league leaders in sacks and interceptions and received a boost last week when Charles Woodson returned to the secondary. EDGE: Even
While running back DuJuan Harris has provided a spark for the Green Bay ground game, the Packers still have trouble consistently moving the ball. Their leading rusher, Alex Green, finished the regular season with 464 yards and the team averaged just 106.4 yards per game, 20th-best in the NFL. The Niners’ defense was fourth-best in the league at stopping the run, making this a clear mismatch in favor of the 49ers. EDGE: 49ers
The 49ers were carved up in a six-quarter stretch between the New England Patriots game and Seattle Seahawks game. And through the air is where the Packers make their living. Everyone running a pattern is a target. WR James Jones led the NFL with 14 TD catches, but Randall Cobb (80 receptions) could be the matchup to fear. QB Aaron Rodgers threw for 39 TDs and just eight interceptions in the regular season. EDGE: Packers
Neither team is stable at kicker, as the Niners signed Billy Cundiff last week to compete with David Akers, who held on to his job despite missing 13 field-goal tries this season. Green Bay’s Mason Crosby hasn’t been much better, making just 21 of 33 tries. Randall Cobb returned a punt for a 75-yard TD when the two teams met the first time around. The Niners’ return game has been stable, but not spectacular. EDGE: Even
Mike McCarthy has an impressive 112-74 record in his seven seasons at the helm of the Packers. Oh, and a shiny Super Bowl ring to top it off. In his tenure, Green Bay has consistently been a top-notch offense and in the playoffs. Across the sideline, all Jim Harbaugh has done is resurrect a dying franchise. The Niners were a disaster until Harbaugh arrived and reeled off back-to-back winning seasons and trips to the postseason. EDGE: Even