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Looking Ahead to San Francisco

January 7, 2013

Like all NFL clubs, the Packers have strengths, flaws and question marks. A closer look at those advantages, imperfections and uncertainties provides a glimpse into the chances of the Packers winning their second Super Bowl in the past three seasons.

Positives

Sam Shields and Charles Woodson are both healthy and playing dominant football. Bouncing back after a lackluster 2011 season, Shields’ star has risen dramatically. During Saturday’s playoff victory over the Vikings, he pulled in an interception and posted a team-high seven tackles.

Charles Woodson returned from a collarbone injury that kept him out for most of the season. Despite the absence, it didn’t take long for Woodson to make his presence known. Seemingly in or around every play, the leader of the Packers’ locker room lifted the defense – both physically and metaphorically – and gave the unit the spark they needed to be dominant.

The culmination of individual players peaking and the defense steadily improving led Aaron Rodgers to claim his defense is playing at a “championship level” in a post-game interview. Whether or not Rodgers’ proclamation proves true or not remains to be seen, but if Rodgers continues his superb play, he may not need a championship defense.

The Packers quarterback is in the prime of his career and has some of the best pass catchers in the game at his disposal. Add in the emergence of running back DuJuan Harris and Rodgers’ return path to the Super Bowl is beginning to take shape.

Negatives

The 49ers destroyed the Packers in Week One of the regular season. The final score was much closer than the actual game, and the Packers were outplayed and out coached.

Two completely different teams will take the field on Saturday at Candlestick Park, but Mike McCarthy and his coaching staff will need to perform at a much higher-level to escape San Francisco with a victory.

In addition to being well coached, the 49ers execute their game plan very well. Frank Gore is a talented back who will test the Packers’ linebackers and the 49ers’ defense plays fast and delivers unforgiving hits.

If the Packers are able to get off to a fast start on Saturday evening – something that has eluded the offense on many occasions this year – the team should be able to equalize San Francisco’s rushing attack. Green Bay is capable of coming back from behind but a slow start makes matters much more difficult for both the offense and the defense.

The Packers will need to be at the top of their game in every aspect – coaching and execution – if they expect to move on to the NFC Championship Game.

Question Marks

A season long question mark, Mason Crosby seems to have regained his form as of late. The sixth-year kicker has converted his last five field-goal attempts and appears to have recaptured the swagger that led the Packers to spend a sixth-round draft choice on the kicker back in 2007.

Crosby’s missteps this season have not derailed the Packers, but the stakes are elevated in postseason football. Mike McCarthy’s decision to stay with Crosby all year could pay dividends or it could spell defeat.

Aside from the final regular-season game in Minnesota, the Packers defense has played extremely well in final month of the season.

The question remains, however, which defense will show up in San Francisco? The unit that allowed Adrian Peterson to run for almost 200 yards and Christian Ponder to throw for three touchdowns or the group that stymied Jay Cutler and Matt Forte?

Perhaps more important than kickers and defensive play is the turnover battle. The second most important statistic in almost every game, the team that creates more turnovers usually wins.

Fortunately for the Packers, Aaron Rodgers and the offense rarely turn the ball over. Unfortunately for the Packers, neither do the 49ers. Both teams gave away the ball 16 times this season.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Packers created 23 turnovers and the 49ers fashioned 25. Relatively mistake-free football has been an asset to both teams this season.

Playing clean, efficient football helped both the Packers and 49ers claim 11 wins during the regular season. The team that continues that trend will likely come out victorious on Saturday.

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