CHICAGO — Tramon Williams had just finished peeling off his green and gold Packers uniform, the one with mud stains all over it from a Soldier Field turf that had been mixed with equal parts freezing rain and snow, when he was asked about the 49ers going to Green Bay for a wild-card playoff game next Sunday. The evening forecast: 14 degrees, with a 30% chance of snow.
“It’s probably going to be pretty cold,” the cornerback said with a big smile. “Those guys are used to their nice, sunny California weather. Come down to Green Bay. It should be great.”
The script could not have been written any better for the Packers, who were on the brink of elimination a month ago but won the NFC North with a 33-28 win over the Bears last Sunday. The 49ers, fresh off a week of practicing in the mid 60s and sunshine, have to endure Lambeau Field in January. San Francisco has yet to play in freezing temperatures during Jim Harbaugh’s three seasons as coach; their playoff road the past two seasons has consisted of three home games and two visits to domes.
But Green Bay players know this is no ordinary California team. San Francisco is built to play in cold weather, with their bruising power rushing attack and physical defense. In the past two seasons, they did win games at New England and at Washington when the wind chill was in the 20s.
“We’re in for a tough challenge,” says Green Bay’s left guard, Josh Sitton. “They’re a hell of a football team.”
The Packers know this better than anyone. Green Bay hasn’t beaten San Francisco during Harbaugh’s tenure, losing all three matchups during the past two years, including last season’s 45-31 wild-card loss in which the 49ers totaled 579 yards, 323 of them on the ground. “Always a tough game playing them,” right guard T.J. Lang says.
The Packers are getting their offensive groove back with the return of quarterback Aaron Rodgers (collarbone) and receiver Randall Cobb (knee) from two-month absences. With running back Eddie Lacy, and receivers Jordy Nelson and James Jones, the Pack can beat you a variety of ways. The 49ers’ offense isn’t too shabby, either. After totaling more than 300 yards five times in their first eight games—including a season-high 494 in the opener against Green Bay—San Francisco has passed that threshold during every game of its current six-game winning streak.
As the defenses go, at least San Francisco has shown the potential to slow down an opponent. It has the league’s third-best scoring defense (17.0) behind the Seahawks and Panthers. And the 49ers are a top 10 defense in every yardage category. The Packers? Not so much. They are tied for 24th in points per game (26.8), and 24th or worse in every yardage category.
So regardless of where it’s played or what the elements are, this matchup will come down to one thing: Green Bay’s ability to stop the 49ers’ devastating power rushing attack.
In the past four weeks, including matchups against talented defenses in Seattle and Tampa Bay, San Francisco has averaged 31.5 rushing attempts and 158 yards (5.0 per carry) behind standout back Frank Gore. During the same time, only the Bears and Lions have given up more yards per attempt than the Packers (5.2). This doesn’t even include the 473 yards that Green Bay surrendered to the Vikings and Lions in back-to-back games in late November.
This wild-card game will be decided in the trenches: the 49ers’ offensive line, tight ends and fullbacks against the Packers’ defensive line and linebackers. “Absolutely,” says Packers veteran nosetackle Ryan Pickett. “I’ve been looking forward to something like this.”
Pickett should be careful what he wishes for. Every opponent knows what the 49ers are going to do. They line up with two or more tight ends on 39% of their snaps, far and away the most in the league. Yet they’re still successful. They’re coming right at you, and there isn’t a whole lot of flash to what they do. Good luck trying to stop them.
“The 49ers are pretty much a downhill team, so we’re looking forward to it. I love it. I wouldn’t pick anyone else,” Pickett says. “It gives us an opportunity to right some of our wrongs that we had in the past with them. It’s a great opportunity. They’re one of the better teams. And we have them at home, so I love it.”
San Francisco’s offensive line is one of the league’s biggest and most powerful. From left to right, the 49ers have Joe Staley (6-5, 315), Mike Iupati (6-5, 331), Jonathan Goodwin (6-3, 318), Alex Boone (6-8, 300) and Anthony Davis (6-5, 323). Tight ends Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek are used in the running game as well. The 49ers were dealt a big blow when fullback Bruce Miller had to be put on injured reserve, but Anthony Dixon and Will Tukuafu are capable replacements.
The Packers will counter with their base 3-4 defense, which was only on the field for four snaps against the Bears’ various spread looks. Pickett (6-2, 338) is wily veteran at 34, but he has started to slow down. End B.J. Raji (6-2, 337) has not consistently played like a first-round selection in a contract year. End Mike Daniels (6-0, 294) plays with leverage but is better rushing the passer than defending the run. This would be a game made for end Johnny Jolly, but he was placed on injured reserve (neck) on Dec. 21. Rookie Josh Boyd and veteran C.J. Wilson have seen their playing time increase since then.
At inside linebacker, A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones (the latter was out against the Bears with an ankle injury) have struggled to shed blocks. Outside linebacker Mike Neal, a converted end, plays very well against the run, but Andy Mulumba and Nick Perry can’t come close to compensating for the loss of Clay Matthews (hand).
If the Packers’ front seven doesn’t fit the run properly and get off blocks, it wouldn’t matter if the game were played on the moon: Green Bay is going to have a tough time stopping the run, to say nothing of winning.
“They’re going to be a tough opponent, no doubt it. Always have been,” Williams says. “They’ve had our number for the last couple of years. We’ve always been in the game. It always comes down to the end of the game and they always come up with the victory. We need to change that. It’s going to be tough once again, but we need to find a way to win the game.”