Aaron Rodgers just smiled when asked if he thought it strange that a team with a dozen victories in 16 weeks should be forced to play on the road against a team that managed to win just one more game than it lost during the regular season. That will be the case Sunday when the 8-7-1 Packers, champions of the NFC North, welcome the 12-4 San Francisco 49ers to Lambeau Field.
"Everybody has the same record now," Rodgers said. "We're just happy to be in the tournament. We're one of 12 teams that has a chance to win a championship."
Welcome to the second season. Welcome to a new year. 2014 began with the Packers beginning their preparation for the 49ers. Rather than conduct a full scale practice inside the Don Hutson Center, the team instead worked out in their recently completed indoor walk-through center, just down the hall from the locker room. It's a 35 yard long synthetic surface field, perfect for an introductory workout. While it wasn't considered a formal practice, the team still issued it's first injury report of the week. Clay Matthews has already been ruled out with his twice broken right thumb. Two players did not participate, Nick Perry with a foot injury and Mike Neal with an abdominal strain. Ryan Pickett was limited with a sore knee, Brad Jones and Eddie Lacy were limited with ankle sprains. Notice who did not make the list? Both Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb. Mike McCarthy said both came through the Chicago game in good shape and they'll be fine.
For the fourth time since September of 2012, the Packers will meet the 49ers. This will be the 7th playoff meeting all time. While the Packers had San Francisco's number during the Mike Holmgren (an ex-49er assistant), Brett Favre salad days, winning three out of four meetings in the 90's, the tables have been turned. San Francisco spoiled the season opener a year ago at Lambeau when Alex Smith was still their quarterback. By the playoff meeting in the Divisional Round last January, he was replaced by Colin Kaepernick. We all remember what happened that day at Candlestick. 579 yards and 45 points were rung up on the Pack with the read option QB piling up a record 181 yards rushing and two scores. The Packers spent the entire off-season figuring out ways to slow down the read option offense that spooked the Pack in the playoffs. So when the season opened at the Stick in September, the defense was ready and able to stop the run. Kaepernick riddled the secondary with 412 yards passing in a 34-28 Niner victory. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers will get another shot at the San Francisco offense on Sunday. When talking with Capers on Tuesday, he said sure there's the 49er schemes that cause problems, only because they have talented players across the board that could successfully run any scheme.
It would be a mistake to apply all the pressure on the defense in Sunday's matchup. In the September meeting at the Stick, the offense turned the ball over twice, deep in their own end, giving the Niners short fields for points. And the offense did move in front 28-24 in the 4th quarter of that game. Back then, Lacy was just getting his feet wet as an NFL back and fumbled on his 4th pro carry. He hasn't fumbled since and has gained over 1100 yards rushing. The emergence of the Pack's ground game and the balance it provides McCarthy's play calling, makes this unit more dangerous. More on the matchups coming later this week.
The weather forecast for the weekend is calling for extra layers of clothing almost by the hour. High temperatures on Sunday will be in the single digits and keep in mind, kickoff is at 3:40 PM. It won't be long before the sun sets and that will drive the temperature to sub-zero numbers before halftime and they could drop to 10 to 15 degrees below zero, almost Ice Bowl like cold.
The Packers have to be concerned that as of this posting on Wednesday evening, over 7000 tickets are still available. While the local media is expressing worry about the possibility of a blackout in Green Bay, Milwaukee and Wausau markets, I expect the league to give the team an extension on the sellout deadline, normally 72 hours before kickoff. That would allow them to go to Friday to exhaust the supply and even if they don't the franchise will likely buy out the seats, take the hit and allow the blackout to be lifted. The lagging ticket sales happened for a variety of reasons. Invoices went out in December and the playoff ticket money was due ($300,00 plus) per most seats, by mid month. With Rodgers still watching, playoff prospects were still bleak back then. The holidays were fast approaching and that money might be better spent elsewhere. The Packers also adjusted their policy on playoff ticket money. Instead of refunding the cost if the playoffs were missed, they were keeping the cash and applying the money toward next season's tickets which put off some fans. Finally, the aforementioned weather forecast. Baby it's cold outside.