CANDLESTICK PARK SAN FRANCISCO
SATURDAY 8 P.M. EST
Of the eight remaining teams, none has won it all more recently than the Packers, who brought the Lombardi Trophy home two seasons ago. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady may get more MVP votes, but it's Aaron Rodgers who had the highest passer rating this season (108.0) and in postseason history (105.4). There he was, completing passes to 10 receivers in last Saturday night's businesslike, 24--10 wild-card win over the Vikings. With apologies to Manning and Brady and Adrian Peterson, Green Bay's quarterback is playing as well as or better than anyone is playing at any position. Period.
That includes the gifted 25-year-old quarterback Green Bay will face in its divisional playoff, Colin Kaepernick, he of the scintillating speed, powerful and accurate arm, and vast upside. Of course the kid hasn't won a playoff game—he's never played in one. Rodgers, meanwhile, was the MVP of Super Bowl XLV.
Kaepernick was holding a clipboard during this season's first Battle of the Bays (sorry Tampa, one playoff appearance in seven years has altered the lexicon), a 30--22 Niners victory at Lambeau. Green Bay's defense that day featured six rookies. The unit has since matured and found its "identity," according to Rodgers. Distilled to one word, that identity might be better. Cornerback Casey Hayward has since played his way into Defensive Rookie of the Year consideration. After missing nine games with a broken left collarbone, the ageless safety, Charles Woodson (36, in Earth years), returned on Saturday and was instrumental in "holding" Peterson to 99 rushing yards. After missing a month with a left hamstring injury, linebacker Clay Matthews came back with a vengeance on Dec. 16, twice sacking the Bears' Jay Cutler, then adding four more in his next three games, including two against the Vikings last Saturday. When Matthews is on the field, "we are a different defense," says coach Mike McCarthy.
McCarthy has decided that Green Bay's feature back will be one DuJuan Harris, a second-year player out of Troy who was twice cut in the preseason, by the Jaguars and the Steelers, before signing with the Packers' practice squad in late October. During his 2½ months out of football, Harris pounded nails as a contractor and sold cars. But then, Rodgers doesn't need a Pro Bowler in the backfield: The Packers' leading rusher en route to the title after 2010 was Brandon Jackson, whose 703 yards ranked 33rd in the NFL. What Rodgers needs is a halfback who knows the system, who can pick up a blitz and who is enough of a threat to bring a safety down into the box—which creates more space for Rodgers to carve up the secondary. Harris fills that bill.
After that early loss to San Francisco, the Packers ... kept losing, dropping two of their next four before winning nine of 11. Rodgers now sees the early struggles as not necessarily a bad thing. Postseason success, he contends, is often linked "to some of the adversity your team has faced during the season, how battle-tested you are."
Green Bay is facing the toughest battle of its season in San Francisco, and Rodgers seems fine with that. He knows that these games are usually won by the team that has the better quarterback.
When Green Bay has the ball ...
The Packers will hope to emulate the Seahawks' 42--13 pasting of San Francisco on Dec. 23, when Seattle got 111 rushing yards from Marshawn Lynch. Niners DE Justin Smith missed that game with a torn left triceps; if he can't go or if he's (more likely) compromised, Green Bay's hogs won't need to double-team him much, freeing up help on OLB Aldon Smith, the NFC's sack leader. Either way, RB DuJuan Harris will rush directly at Aldon, who is still learning to use his leverage to take on and shed blockers.
Randall Cobb is a speedy, sure-handed, dynamic receiver who has emerged in his second season as Green Bay's premier big-play threat, usually from the slot. When there he'll face CB Carlos Rogers, who at 31 has lost a step and been lit up by similarly quicksilver slots, such as the Rams' Danny Amendola and the Patriots' Wes Welker.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Yards per passing snap allowed by Sam Shields and Tramon Williams, both top 25 for CBs.
Sacks, hits and hurries allowed by Marshall Newhouse, seventh most among left tackles.
JARRED BY CLAY Matthews had two sacks, two QB hits and a hurry against the Vikings' Joe Webb last Saturday. Another young QB is in his sights.