First year starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick will have to make veteran decisions to beat the Packers.
Saturday evening’s divisional round contest between the host No. 2 seed San Francisco 49ers and the visiting No. 3 seed Green Bay Packers pits a re-match from week one of the regular season, when the 49ers escaped with a 30-22 victory.
However, that game was such a long time ago that the media should really stop asking both teams about any specifics they can “take away” from it.
The game was played nearly four months ago. When it comes to film, these teams are going to be much more focused on footage of recent weeks rather than their long ago head-to-head match-up.
Mainly because these two teams are playing completely different football than they were back at the start of the season. Of course the most notable change is at quarterback for the 49ers where it is now Colin Kaepernick instead of Alex Smith, but the Packers weren’t firing on half as many cylinders during September as they have been down the stretch.
That said, while film study will focus primarily on recent weeks, there is one critical concept we can all take away from how the 49ers were able to win that week one duel.
San Francisco won that game on the ground. The 49ers totaled 377 yards of offense against Green Bay, 186 of which coming from their rushing attack. Comparatively speaking San Francisco had just 191 passing yards. The Packers on the other hand rushed for just 45 total net yards compared to 279 through the air.
Case in point, the 49ers were victorious by picking up first downs with their legs, winning the time of possession battle, and by extension, keeping Rodgers off the field.
Now sure, Kaepernick does have the big time arm that can be relied upon to win shoot-out/track meet type of games in the future, but that time has not yet fully arrived. If San Francisco is forced to rely on Kaepernick’s arm on Saturday, chances are they won’t be successful. Put another way, if Kaepernick’s favorite receiving target in wide receiver Michael Crabtree has a bigger offensive impact than running back Frank Gore, I’ll expect the Packers to have won the game.
Make no bones about it, the general formula for San Francisco’s success will be the same as it was in week one, and that’s to run the ball, play strong defense and mistake free football.
Speaking of mistake free football, Kaepernick cannot make the same crucial game management error which he made in St. Louis earlier this season. After putting the 49ers in position for a late go-ahead field goal in week 13, Kaepernick ran out of bounds which stopped the clock. The mistake gave the Rams a much easier time coming back down the field the following drive to tie the score.
While Kaepernick has managed to limit his interceptions (throwing just three in seven starts) this season, if a similar situation were to occur on Saturday, Kaepernick will be putting the game in Aaron Rodgers’ hands, which is the last thing the 49ers want.
In other words, Kaepernick needs to do his best Alex Smith impersonation.
And with the way the 49ers are built, Kaepernick doesn’t have to carry the load for the 49ers to win, he simply has to make smart decisions with the ball. We all know he has the skill to put up big plays in the passing game, we saw that in New England in week 15.
What we don’t know yet about Kaepernick is whether or not he can close out the big game by moving the chains. In that same New England game we saw the Kaepernick led offense sputter in their many attempts to put the game away.
Fortunately for the 49ers, they certainly have the talent up front and in the backfield to chew up the clock. Not to mention Kaepernick has a tremendous ability to run the ball himself as he racked up 415 rushing yards and added five rushing touchdowns this season.
However, with young quarterbacks, you just never know what’s going to happen and this will mark Kaepernick’s first ever playoff start. A critical incompletion instead of pulling the ball down and running could be the little difference between moving on or being eliminated.
Therefore, Kaepernick’s decision making is what I will be focusing on because we know the 49ers defense will make their plays, and we know the Packers offense will make theirs.
Andrew Bensch writes for TheFanManifesto. Follow him on twitter at @ViewFromBensch