Sunday’s NFC wild-card playoff game at Lambeau Field will be the fourth meeting between the two teams in the past 17 months. They played in Week 1 of the 2012 season and again in the divisional round of the playoffs that season. They opened the 2013 season against each other again.
The 49ers won all three games.
ESPN.com 49ers reporter Bill Williamson and Packers reporter Rob Demovsky discuss what, if anything, might be different this time around.
Demovsky: Bill, the Packers have seen quarterback Colin Kaepernick beat them with his feet like he did in last year’s playoff game, when he rushed for 181 yards, and also beat them with his arm, like he did in the season opener this year when he threw for 412 yards. What has he been doing better lately, running or throwing, and how do you think coach Jim Harbaugh will try to attack the Packers’ defense this time around?
Williamson: Rob, he’s been a pass-first quarterback all season as he showed in Week 1. That was his best game of the season. But Kaepernick has been playing at a high level in the past five games with Michael Crabtree back on the field. Kaepernick’s Total QBR during the past three weeks is the highest in the NFL. Rob, I’m intrigued to see what the offensive attack is going to be. We all remember the cat-and-mouse game in Week 1 about the read-option attack that never materialized. I could see the 49ers hitting the Packers with it early to get them off-balance and try to go back and forth throughout the game.
Rob, what do you think the Packers are expecting from Kaepernick this week?
Demovsky: I’m not sure they know what to expect. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers pointed out that last year, the 49ers had the bye week in the first round of the playoffs and therefore had plenty of time to tinker with their game plan and install new looks like the read-option. They don’t have that luxury this time around. That said, maybe Harbaugh didn't use much read-option during the season because he wanted to keep his quarterback from getting hit. Now that it’s win-or-go-home time, maybe he’d be more willing to risk it. Either way, the Packers know they have to limit the big plays -- whether on the ground or through the air -- that have killed them in the previous meetings.
In the opener this year, receiver Anquan Boldin dominated the Packers. Now that Crabtree has returned, what dimension has he added to the offense?
Williamson: It’s changed everything. This is a much better, varied, dangerous offense. Crabtree is not 100 percent, but he is still able to help. It makes Boldin even more dangerous. He was double- and triple-teamed because the 49ers didn't have many weapons. With a trio of Crabtree, Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis, Kaepernick has some firepower.
Rob, do you think the Packers are giving Boldin extra thought this week because of the damage he caused in Week 1?
Demovsky: I’m sure they are, but they've changed the way they cover since that game. They’re more willing to match up Sam Shields on the opponent’s best receiver now, whereas early in the year they simply played Shields on one side of the field and Tramon Williams on the other. They’re also cognizant of what the return of Crabtree means for the passing game. Also, the Packers didn't have safety Morgan Burnett in the Week 1 game and although Burnett has had an inconsistent year, they’re hoping his presence on the back end helps slow down the 49ers' passing game.
From here, the 49ers look as though they have one of the NFL’s best group of linebackers with Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks. What makes those guys so effective and how can the Packers attack the heart of the 49ers' defense?
Williamson: And don’t forget Aldon Smith. The young star has been playing at a high level for the past month-plus. He came back in November after missing five games while receiving treatment for substance abuse. But you are right; Bowman, Willis and Brooks all made the Pro Bowl. They are dominant. Bowman has been playing out of his mind and he is a legitimate NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Rob, do you think containing the linebackers is the key for offensive success from Aaron Rodgers’ unit?
Demovsky: That’s certainly going to be one of the keys, because they could impact both the passing game when their ability to pass rush and the running game because of how they can clog up the middle, where Eddie Lacy likes to churn out yards. The Packers’ second-level blocking is going to be more critical in this game than perhaps at any time all season. If they let those linebackers get loose, it could spell trouble.