Wild Card Weekend is history, and now it's time for the top-seeded teams in the AFC and NFC to enter the playoff fray. The stakes couldn't be higher in the divisional round, with the right to play on Championship Sunday on the line. Let's take a closer look at all four games.
When the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers square off in this NFC Divisional Playoff Game, it won't be the first time they've met this season. In Week 1, the 49ers ran roughshod over the Packers behind Frank Gore's 16-carry, 112-yard effort on the ground. Alex Smith provided an efficient complement through the air, completing 20 of 26 passes for 211 yards with two scores, while the 49ers' vaunted defense sacked Aaron Rodgers three times, disrupting his timing from the pocket. Most importantly, the unit dominated the line of scrimmage, completely controlling a game that was not nearly as close as the final score of 30-22 would seem to indicate. The rematch offers plenty of intrigue, with Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick set to make his playoff debut. The second-year pro was inserted into the lineup when Smith suffered a concussion in Week 10. Despite Smith's return to health, Kaepernick has held the starting job with his ability to add more explosiveness and diversity to the offense. With Rodgers playing at the top of his game, the battle between the reigning NFL MVP and the youngster could make this postseason affair an instant classic.
Player to watch
DuJuan Harris, RB, Packers: The second-year pro has stepped into the limelight since rushing for 70 yards in the Packers' regular-season finale against the Minnesota Vikings. While that's a pedestrian number by conventional standards, the modest production added balance to the Packers' pass-heavy attack. Most importantly, Harris' emergence as a viable option on the ground alleviates the need for Rodgers to drop back 40-plus times, making him less susceptible to the 49ers' potent pass rush. If Harris can reach the 70-yard mark on 15 or more carries, the Packers should be in great shape offensively.
Colin Kaepernick, QB, 49ers: When Niners coach Jim Harbaugh pulled the plug on the Alex Smith era, it was with the intention of making the 49ers' offense more dynamic behind the ultra-talented Kaepernick. The second-year pro responded well, completing 62.7 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns against just three interceptions since taking over in mid-November. Although Kaepernick has suffered through his fair share of growing pains, it is no coincidence that Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss have played bigger roles in the game plan since the 25-year-old's insertion into the lineup. Kaepernick has a stronger arm than Smith, and his athleticism allows the 49ers to utilize some of the zone-read option that has taken the NFL by storm.
Matchup to watch
Packers LT Marshall Newhouse vs. 49ers OLBs Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks: The Packers' pass-protection issues were a primary concern throughout a regular season in which they surrendered 51 sacks, second-most in the NFL. The leaky protection prevented Rodgers from fully maximizing the explosiveness of a receiving corps that few opponents can contain otherwise. Newhouse will have the arduous task of protecting Rodgers' blind side against a pair of powerful, dynamic pass rushers off the edge in Smith and Brooks. Smith in particular is an athletic freak, capable of transforming speed into power, which frequently leads to sacks on bull rushes. Newhouse must anchor and hold his ground while also using his lateral quickness to shadow Smith on the corner. Brooks can wreak havoc off the edges, too. Newhouse could be in line for a long day if he doesn't bring his "A" game to Candlestick Park.
Did you know?
The 49ers and Packers last played a playoff game in San Francisco in 1998, when Terrell Owens hauled in a 25-yard scoring pass from Steve Young to give San Francisco a 30-27 victory. ... In 2005, when Packers head coach Mike McCarthy was the Niners' offensive coordinator, San Francisco ranked last in total offense and 30th in scoring (14.9 points per game); in the 2012 regular season, Green Bay ranked 13th in total offense and fifth in scoring (27.1 points per game). ... Rodgers has 85 career starts and 2,918 career pass attempts; the two quarterbacks he'll have faced in the 2012 playoffs -- Kaepernick and the Minnesota Vikings' Joe Webb -- currently have a combined 10 career starts and 405 career pass attempts. ... Kaepernick has the third-best passer rating (99.9) among qualified quarterbacks since becoming the Niners' starter in Week 11, behind Rodgers (108) and Peyton Manning (105.8).
The 49ers were widely considered the favorites to win the NFC until a pair of shaky performances during the final month of the regular season showcased their vulnerabilities. The Niners' Week 13 loss to the St. Louis Rams and Week 16 defeat against the Seattle Seahawks certainly gave the Green Bay Packers a blueprint for beating San Francisco. Still, it's tough to knock off the 49ers in front of their home fans following an extra week of preparation. This will be a four-quarter affair, with the 49ers slipping past the Packers in a nail-biter.