San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) passes against the New Orleans Saints during the second half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The 49ers defeated the Saints 31-21. (PHOTO: US PRESSWIRE)
The Green Bay Packers will take their show to the Bay Area for another crack at the San Francisco 49ers on Jan. 12 in the NFC divisional playoff round. The teams opened the season at Lambeau Field in a game the 49ers won 30-22.
PHOTOS: 49ers top Packers at Lambeau
Here are five storylines to watch heading into Pack-Niners, part II:
1. Can Kaepernick? San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith played near-flawless football in last year's playoffs and was his standard surgical self (20-for-26, 211 yards, TD) in upending Green Bay in Week 1. But he isn't playing anymore. Now it's time to find out if coach Jim Harbaugh's gamble on Colin Kaepernick, who will make his eighth NFL start, comes up aces or goes bust. Will Kaepernick's big arm and long strides burn a Packers defense that will surrender chunks of yardage? Or will he fall prey to wily veterans like Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews - not to mention cagey coordinator Dom Capers - who know how to mask their intentions before making game-changing plays?
2. Chess match: Assuming wideout Jordy Nelson is available, look for plenty of three- and four-wide sets from the Packers offense, especially since Swiss Army Knife Randall Cobb can line up in the backfield. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers showed little offseason rust on opening weekend (303 yards, 2 TDs, INT) and has been at his MVP-best lately. And spreading out the 49ers could force Patrick Willis off the field in substitution packages and may be the most effective stratagem to beating them, especially if sack master Aldon Smith (he bagged Rodgers once in the opener) doesn't get loose. And remember, Drew Brees and Eli Manning - both are pocket wizards who can take a hit, just like Rodgers - undressed the vaunted Niners defense in the 2011 playoffs. San Francisco will need hard-hitting safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner to send a message if the pass rush can't.
3. Matchup to watch - Packers front seven vs. 49ers offensive line: San Francisco's front five may be the most physical quintet in the league, and tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker don't get enough credit for their physicality. They're the main reason the Niners manhandled the Pack for 186 rushing yards back in September, including 112 (on 16 carries) from Frank Gore. But Green Bay has found a groove and limited Adrian Peterson to 99 yards Saturday, an effort they can be take pride in. Prior to Peterson's 199-yard outburst in Week 17, the Packers' previous two opponents rushed for a total of 162 yards. If Green Bay can put the Niners on their heels - and their O-line isn't as stout in pass protection - and put the game on Kaepernick's arm, they'll surely take their chances.
4. Mr. Smith goes to the trainers' room: All-pro Justin Smith treats blockers like a bouncer treats overserved frat boys. But his health, or lack thereof, will likely figure prominently in the 49ers' fortunes. San Francisco ceded 753 yards, 66 points and 48 first downs to the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks in the six quarters after Smith went out with a partially torn triceps in Week 15, before allowing a dysfunctional Arizona Cardinals offense to look serviceable in the regular-season finale. Equally as telling, Aldon Smith doesn't have a single sack since his namesake was sidelined, a clear indicator of Justin Smith's ability to devastate a pocket from the inside while closing running lanes and opening paths to the quarterback. Though he'll likely strap it up, Smith could be an Achilles rather than a strongarming force.
5. Just for kicks: They entered the season with resplendent resumes, but the 49ers' David Akers (69%) and Packers' Mason Crosby (64%) were the most scattershot field-goal kickers in the league among those with at least 15 attempts in 2012. The 49ers have grown so skittish over Akers, who was a sniper in 2011, that they signed Billy Cundiff last week, and he was worse (58%) than anybody in an early season hitch with the Washington Redskins. (In fairness to Akers, he is dealing with the aftereffects of offseason double hernia surgery.) Playoff games frequently come down to one kick. This one could come down to several if the goalposts continue looking like the broad side of a barn to these struggling specialists.
Why the Packers will win: Rodgers is in peak form (11 TD passes, 0 turnovers last 5 starts) and operating with a full quiver, and the team as a whole is healthy. Meanwhile, the wounded San Francisco defense looks more prone to bleeding out than biting back.
Why the 49ers will win: They can bludgeon the Pack, maybe on both sides of the ball. And Kaepernick is more than a game manager, equally adept at making 50-yard gallops or showcasing his flourishing chemistry with receiver Michael Crabtree. If the young quarterback avoids mental errors, he can trigger an offensive explosive enough to compensate for a battered defense.
By Nate Davis