By Connor Buestad (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Jim Harbaugh thrives on this type of stuff. Lives for it. The feature game on Wildcard Weekend, going on the road to Green Bay, the expected freezing cold temperatures (high of 3 degrees, low of -24), Seattle with homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. Secretly, I think this is exactly how Harbaugh would draw it up if he had the choice. The four game Super Bowl mountain is there to be climbed, and Jim and the Niners are ready and willing to fight their way up it regardless of who or what gets in their way.
Even though the New York Football Giants have recently proven otherwise, conventional wisdom suggests it is extremely difficult to go on the road, in below zero temperatures, before a loud and passionate fanbase, and beat Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. Fortunately, the 2013 version of the San Francisco 49ers turns out to be a pretty darn good football team.
Owners of the third best record in the NFL, the 12-4 Niners will be the only road team to be favored this weekend (-3). Riding an impressive six game winning streak to close out the regular season, San Francisco seems to be hitting their stride at exactly the right time. Better yet, SF has had Green Bay’s number as of late, beating the Packers three times in the last 16 months. This includes last year’s 45-31 Divisional Playoff win versus the Pack inside the late Candlestick Park, not to mention this year’s home opener in which Colin Kaepernick had his best game of the season against Green Bay.
For better or worse, the sunny California skies of early September in which the Niner offense operated so masterfully under will not be present this Sunday. Far from it. It remains to be seen how the speed of Kap’s passes will be received in the frigid conditions inside Lambeau. No word on whether there’s a “broken finger” prop bet in place for Sunday, but Boldin, Crabtree and Davis will be tasked with the unenviable duty of catching icy bullets from Kap all evening long.
Even coming off a lackluster performance in Arizona last weekend, it is safe to assume Frank Gore will shoulder much of the Niner’s offensive load come Sunday. Facing what is a relatively bad Packers defense, it should come as no surprise if the Niners O-Line is able to open up nice holes for Frank to run through all game long.
From the opening kick, the chess match between Jim Harbaugh and Mike McCarthy should be interesting to watch. Will Green Bay, without an injured Clay Matthews, try to stuff the box and force San Francisco to pass? Or will McCarthy decide to play it straight up, honoring the exploits of SF’s proven aerial attack of Kap, Crabs, VD, and Boldin? How hard headed will Jim Harbaugh be in said chess match? How much will the weather really become a factor?
On the other side of the ball you have the Lambeau legend in the making that is Aaron Rodgers. Beyond being athletic enough to “make every throw on the field," Rodgers' leadership, experience and overall competitiveness is what has kept Niner Faithful awake at night all week long leading up to Sunday. From his days as a high schooler in Chico without a college scholarship offer, to being passed up by San Francisco in the draft, to his years tucked in the shadows of the infamous Brett Favre, Rodgers has always seemed to play with something extra to prove. No matter how often the Niners’ D-Line gets to Rodgers, Number 12 won’t fade. It is almost assured that he will put up a considerable amount of points on the board on Sunday. The question is whether or not Kaepernick and co will be able to consistently counter with points of their own.
It is no secret that the Super Bowl champion often emerges out of Wildcard Weekend. You’d certainly have to like the Niners chances in the Divisional Round, riding what would be a seven game winning streak, playing a team fighting off a week of rust. But first, the Niners must prove to its Faithful that they can go into an icy Lambeau and steal the cheese from one of the most passionate fan bases in the history of sports. The sellout controversy aside, the Packers fans that do show up will be shirtless, inebriated and hungry to defend their frozen turf.
We all remember the two times the Niners have ventured out to Wisconsin to play the Pack in the playoffs. The 1996 contest was a mudbowl featuring Elvis Grbac, Dorsey Levins and Desmond Howard, while the 2001 tilt gave us a steady dose of Brett Favre and Ahman Green. Both resulted in gutwrenching defeats and long plane rides back to the Bay. Sunday will feature Colin Kaepernick, Anquan Boldin and Boobie Dixon, versus the likes of Aaron Rodgrs and Eddie Lacy, and a frozen playing surface. Let the chess match begin, we’ll see if the third time is indeed the charm.