GREEN BAY, Wis. — There was a feeling within the Packers locker room that they’d see the San Francisco 49ers again. Perhaps it was just hopefulness, looking for a way to get another shot at the team that came into Lambeau Field in Week 1 of the regular season and thoroughly outplayed Green Bay on both sides of the ball.
But that was four months ago. Now, the Packers are getting that rematch with the 49ers on Saturday night in San Francisco with the winner advancing to the NFC Championship Game and moving one step closer to the Super Bowl.
“We’re a different football team,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said this week when looking back at the Week 1 loss. “They’re playing differently. They have a lot of the same players, obviously, but we’ve got some different faces out there and we’re doing some different things.
“Teams kind of figure out their identity during the season. Week 1 is a learning experience for everybody, whether it’s win or lose. We lost that game, otherwise we’d be hosting this right now.”
Not hosting this game may not be a bad thing for the Packers. On their road to the Super Bowl two years ago, Green Bay won three consecutive games away from Lambeau Field before beating the Pittsburgh Steelers and claiming the Lombardi Trophy. This postseason, the Packers opened with a victory at home over the Minnesota Vikings but will now head to a warmer climate that may be more conducive to their pass-first offense.
“I think (the success in 2010) gives you the confidence that you can (win on the road),” Rodgers said. “This year, we had to learn again how to win, how to grow as a team, how to deal with adversity. We had to have some young guys step up and play some roles at the beginning of the season that you wouldn’t have expected. We lost some veterans over the course of the season to injury, but have gotten some of those guys back.
“We’re in this position, we’re excited about it, we have a tough test in front of us, but anything can happen.”
Though the Packers had a relatively easy playoff win last weekend when Minnesota had to start backup quarterback Joe Webb because of Christian Ponder’s injury, the 49ers had an even easier first round with a bye.
“We wanted to rest their minds, rest their bodies, and we came back to review specific things we thought we could fix and get better at, striving to get at least 1 percent better,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “After we knew Green Bay (won), all of our attention shifted to the Packers and to our preparation to this week.”
San Francisco (11-4-1) edged out Green Bay (11-5) for the NFC’s No. 2 seed after being part of a rare tie game. But the Packers didn’t perform well when they had a bye last season. Despite a 15-1 record, Green Bay was blown out at home in the divisional round by the eventual-champion New York Giants.
In order for the Packers to avoid elimination in that round again, their offensive line will have to give Rodgers time to throw. Rodgers was sacked more than any quarterback in the league this season, but he was under pressure far more frequently in games in which Green Bay lost. In the five Packers losses, Rodgers was sacked 26 times. In the 11 Packers wins, Rodgers was sacked 25 times.
“We understand that it’s going to be up to us to keep Aaron clean, let him make some plays back there in the pocket,” left guard T.J. Lang said. “That’s going to be a huge factor in how this game turns out.”
San Francisco’s defense is one of the best in the NFL, ranking second this season in points allowed and third in yards allowed. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith was second in the league with 19.5 sacks and defensive end Justin Smith — who Rodgers called “one of the top defensive players in the league” — is expected to play after missing two games with an elbow and triceps injury.
“People say they’re super tough because of the type of style of football they play, whether they’re running it down your throat or they’ve got a couple big hitters on defense,” Packers receiver James Jones said of the 49ers. “Every defense in the National Football League is trying to take your head off, (and) they’re going to do the same. Great players on that defense, physical defense.
“You’ve got to keep your head on a swivel.”
Though San Francisco’s defense is the biggest reason for the team’s success, just as important to the outcome of this game will be the performance of second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick. It wasn’t until Week 11 that Kaepernick got his first NFL start, playing initially because starter Alex Smith suffered a concussion. But, given Kaepernick’s solid play in a win over the Chicago Bears, Harbaugh stuck with him even after Smith was medically cleared.
“He’s improved in I would say all phases, really,” Harbaugh said of Kaepernick. “Not dramatically, though, because I think he was good to start with. Once he started, he was already good, but definitely I think across the board he’s improved.”
Kaepernick threw only three interceptions in 218 pass attempts this season, a ratio that is just as good as Rodgers’ largely mistake-free play. Kaepernick has, however, fumbled nine times.
But, even with his first playoff start approaching, Kaepernick isn’t backing down from the big moment.
“It’s another football game to me,” he said.
Regardless of the truth behind that statement, for the 49ers to win Saturday night, they’ll need their inexperienced quarterback to at least stay competitive against Rodgers, the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player. If Kaepernick is able to do that, San Francisco has an edge in several other areas that could give Green Bay trouble for the second time this season.
“This is a game that we as a football team are looking forward to,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “These are the types of games that you start working (for) as a football team back in April. We’re excited about this opportunity.”