GREEN BAY—The two teams that will face each other in Candlestick Park on Saturday night are not the same teams that kicked off the season in Lambeau Field.
You've heard that said repeatedly, but it's not just coachspeak, it's the truth. For starters, six Packers players that were in the starting lineup on Sept. 9 will not be in the starting lineup in Saturday's divisional-round playoff game.
The Packers of today are in no way representative of the team that was dragged up and down the field on Sept. 9 by an overpowering 49ers offense that made it look easy. The Packers defense that will step onto the field on Saturday night is a legitimate postseason outfit that's ranked 11th in the league overall and fourth in sacks per pass play.
Maybe it'll be that loss to the 49ers in the opener that'll be the Packers' greatest ally. Maybe the 49ers will remember how easy it was in the opener and think it'll be the same on Saturday. It won't. By halftime, that fact could be a pie in the face for the 49ers.
The Packers might get a little splash of water themselves when they find out how different the 49ers are. That paint-by-the-numbers offense the Packers faced in the opener is gone. Predictability has been replaced by improvisation, in the form of a hot-blooded young quarterback who has brought energy to the team and its fans.
Both teams are very different in ways that make each a better team, except for one: the injury 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith will try to overcome on Saturday night by wearing a brace on an arm with a troubled triceps.
Smith's injury is a problem for the 49ers because it has caused a late-season sacks slump for linebacker Aldon Smith. He was a serious defensive player of the year candidate when he reached 19.5 sacks, but he's been stuck on that number for a while. It's no coincidence that Aldon Smith's slump has been concurrent with Justin Smith's absence. Smith was injured in a Week 15 game in New England.
A great defense hasn't been as great in recent weeks. The Patriots scored 34 and Seattle 42. Clearly, the 49ers were not the same team without Justin Smith because his injury was times two.
He's expected to be back in the lineup on Saturday, but will he return as the player he was on Sept. 9?
Here are 10 things the Packers have to do to beat the 49ers.
1. Protect Aaron Rodgers—In a clash of run vs. pass, pass can't win if it's being sacked.
2. Stop Frank Gore—It starts with that on defense for the Packers. Stopping the run would put the game squarely in the hands of a quarterback in his first postseason start.
3. Win up front—The Packers lost up front on opening day.
4. Catch the ball—In a clash of run vs. pass, pass can't win if its passes aren't caught.
5. Win on the outside—The 49ers corners won on the outside in the opener.
6. Make them play run—Just enough to dull the rush.
7. Make him be a passer—Because you don't want Colin Kaepernick being a runner.
8. Play with energy—Candlestick is going to be on fire on Saturday night.
9. Deny YAC—Make the 49ers' passing yards be yards passing, not yards passing and running with the pass after the catch.
10. Get the feeling—Make this be your year. Additional coverage - Jan. 10