While the return of Aaron Rodgers has the Green Bay Packers feeling confident offensively, the challenge falls on their much-maligned defense to contain Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers.
That’s something the unit has failed to do against the dual-threat quarterback, who hopes to lead the defending NFC champions to their seventh straight victory Sunday in a wild-card game at Lambeau Field.
Although he denied rust was a factor after missing seven games with a broken collarbone, Rodgers struggled in the first half Sunday, going 14 of 22 for 145 yards with two interceptions at Chicago.
The three-time Pro Bowler, however, came back strong in the second half, connecting on 11 of 17 for 173 yards with two touchdowns – including the go-ahead 48-yard TD pass to Randall Cobb with 38 seconds left.
"My arm felt good. Mentally, I felt good," Rodgers said on his weekly radio show. "I prepared hard all week, but there’s always going to be some sort of re-indoctrination period, if you will. It was kind of like the preseason for me."
Despite going 0-4-1 during a stretch in which Rodgers was injured in a loss to the Bears on Nov. 4, the Packers (8-7-1) rallied to win three of their last four to claim a third straight NFC North title.
Green Bay, though, has struggled defensively over the past nine weeks, ranking 29th with 30.0 points, 30th with 404.2 total yards and 31st with 157.2 rushing yards allowed per game over that span.
Making matters worse, pass-rushing linebacker Clay Matthews will not play after breaking his right thumb for a second time this year.
"We’re a playoff football team," coach Mike McCarthy said. "Our identity has changed. This team has embraced it, and we know it’s going to take the full game to get it done, and that’s the way we play."
Kaepernick is playing well heading into this meeting, completing 61.8 percent of his attempts for 1,395 yards with 10 TDs and one interception during San Francisco’s six-game winning streak.
He’s proved to be a nightmare matchup for McCarthy’s defense, accounting for 895 total yards and seven touchdowns in two career starts against the Packers.
The third-year pro ran for a quarterback-record 181 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-31 victory over visiting Green Bay in an NFC divisional playoff game Jan. 12. Kaepernick then threw for a career-high 412 yards and three scores to lead the 49ers (12-4) to a 34-28 home win over the Packers in the Sept. 8 season opener.
Anquan Boldin had 13 catches for 208 yards and a touchdown in that contest en route to a team-best 85 catches for 1,179 yards and seven scores on the season. Vernon Davis added two TD receptions in the opener, and finished tied for third in the NFL with 13 scores.
"Green Bay is a completely different team than the team we saw in Week 1, as we are," Boldin said. "For us, we would like to carry that momentum. We are in a six-game winning streak."
Frank Gore was limited to a season-low 14 yards on 13 carries in a 23-20 win at Arizona on Sunday, but he could play a prominent role against Green Bay’s poor run defense. He’s rushed for an average of 91.7 yards while scoring in each of his last three meetings with the Packers.
A sprained right ankle has bothered Green Bay running back Eddie Lacy, but McCarthy said the rookie came out of Sunday’s game in better condition than he did the previous contest. He finished with 66 yards and a touchdown, giving him 356 yards and five scores over his last four games.
Lacy was limited to 41 yards on 14 carries with a TD in the first meeting of the season with the 49ers, who have the league’s fourth-best run defense at 95.9 yards allowed per game.
Rodgers threw for 333 yards with three touchdowns and one interception in that matchup, while receivers Cobb and Jordy Nelson combined for 14 catches for 238 yards and two scores.
Cobb had missed 10 games with a broken shin before returning Sunday. Though he caught only two passes in his 37 snaps, both went for touchdowns.
Rodgers has connected on 66.7 percent of his attempts for 1,535 yards with 12 touchdowns and three picks in five career meetings with the 49ers, though Green Bay has dropped the last three.
He’ll face another difficult test against a San Francisco team that ranked third in scoring defense at 17.0 points and fifth in total defense at 316.9 yards per game.
Linebacker NaVorro Bowman has been playing at a high level alongside Patrick Willis with three sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in December.
Cornerback Carlos Rogers remains optimistic he’ll play after injuring his right hamstring against the Cardinals.
"In terms of a challenge, our guys know the challenge," said coach Jim Harbaugh, who hopes to guide the 49ers to their sixth Super Bowl title. "Being in the playoffs is a chance at the ultimate chance."