The San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers met in the second round of last season’s playoffs. This time around, the two teams will meet in the first round, as the Packers host the 49ers at 4:40 p.m. Sunday on FOX.
The Packers (who have dropped to 14-1 on the Super Bowl futures at Bovada thanks to the return of Aaron Rodgers) are hoping for a better result. They were bounced from the postseason by San Francisco last year, and they’ve lost three straight to the 49ers.
Let’s take a look at what could make the difference this Sunday.
49ers X-Factor: Michael Crabtree
The 49ers’ passing game has labored and sputtered for much of the season, but in recent weeks, quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s level of play has improved, largely thanks to the return of Michael Crabtree. Crabtree is a reliable possession receiver who regularly gets open and is quick with the ball once he gets it. If Crabtree can create openings in the Packers’ secondary, tight end Vernon Davis might be able to find open seams on the opposite side of the field, creating big plays for the San Francisco offense.
Packers X-Factor: Jordy Nelson
The Packers need a big game from Jordy Nelson, who is a speedy receiver who needs to make plays of more than 20 yards in this game. The Packers, at their best, are a scoring machine. With Rodgers back at quarterback, Green Bay needs to try to outscore San Francisco, because the Niners’ offense isn’t nearly as strong as it was a year ago when it rolled past the Packers’ helpless defense in the divisional playoffs.
Key Injuries: Mario Manningham (49ers), Clay Matthews (Packers)
The Niners will have to live without Mario Manningham, which makes Crabtree that much more important at wide receiver. Depth has been a recurring problem for San Francisco this season.
The Packers will be without Clay Matthews, which is a big blow to their defense. Matthews led the team with 7.5 sacks, and he only played 11 games. The Packers will sorely miss their defensive superstar.
The 49ers might not be as strong on offense as they were a season ago, but they are still a three-point favorite. Last year, they rolled into the playoffs and were able to baffle opposing defenses with the read option. Kaepernick found a sweet spot as the 49ers’ quarterback, completing a remarkable run to the Super Bowl after starting the 2012 season as the backup to Alex Smith. However, it doesn’t feel like the magic is there this season.
At this point, San Francisco relies more on defense than offense. That might be enough to get the job done in Green Bay against a Packers team that’s been banged up — and is banged up — most of the season. Although it’s a cold-weather environment, the 49ers are the more physical of the two teams along the line of scrimmage. Unless that changes, they should be able to contain the Packers’ offense and earn a win on the road.