A Title Game Appearance Will Depend On These Key Guys

We've all been going through this matchup in our heads all week. We've listened to what the talking heads think. We know that neither team really resembles the ones that matched up in week one.

What really matters is where these teams stand right now. How healthy they are. And which match-ups does each team believe it can expose. Last year at this time, the Pack was getting set to defend their title as the top seed. This year they're a road underdog, but one that has been picked by many to move on to the NFC title game.

If they are to spring the mild upset, it will be because these guys stepped up in a big game and handled their business:

1) Erik Walden: The Niners will game plan to keep away from Clay Matthews and take their chances that right tackle Anthony Davis can handle Walden. Expect QB Colin Kaepernick to move to his right all night long. It will be up to Walden to make sure the dangerous young quarterback doesn't get around the edge. Facing Joe Webb gave him a taste of what to expect, but Kaepernick is infinitely more talented. But this is only his eighth career start and first playoff appearance so we don't yet know how he'll handle this spot.

2) Tramon Williams: Jim Harbaugh rolled the dice when he made the QB change and if he loses this game, the Monday morning quarterbacks will be out in force. While Alex Smith was solid, if unspectacular, Kaepernick is more dynamic and able to complete the big play. When he does that with his arm, he has invariably found receiver Michael Crabtree, who has become the only viable target in the passing game. Vernon Davis has been ignored and Mario Manningham is out for the year. So Williams will be charged with taking Crabtree out of the game and forcing Randy Moss to try on every play. If Williams is in shutdown mode, Kaepernick will be using his legs more than he wants to. Many of Crabtree's biggest plays have come from the slot. That may mean that Casey Hayward will be on him--big challenge for the talented rookie.

3) Charles Woodson: The old man's return was great to see and he finished second in tackles against the Vikings. It was a strange game because there was so little threat of the pass; Woodson was able to line up as an extra linebacker most of the time. This week will be much more challenging. Job one will be to shut down the run. Frank Gore's numbers have declined in the last six weeks, since backup Kendall Hunter went down with an injury and Gore was forced to take extra reps. Woodson has to keep Gore in front of him and make sure Vernon Davis doesn't awaken and make big plays across the middle.

4) Don Barclay: Let's face it: this is probably the most talented defense from 1 to 11 in the NFL. They have the best linebackers in the business, and Evan Dietrich-Smith will have to be stout and do his job to prevent Rodgers facing a rush up the middle. Marshall Newhouse will be charged with dealing with Justin Smith (more on him in a bit) and sack master Aldon Smith. But it's Barclay who needs to play huge in this game if Aaron Rodgers wants to take advantage of all of his weapons. Barclay will have to deal with all pro Ahmad Brooks, who will try to keep Rodgers in the pocket. The undrafted rookie has stepped in in a tough spot and held his own. This game will be a true test of how far he's come.

5) DuJuan Harris: The young running back has been a revelation and clearly is the favorite of the coaching staff right now. His work in the passing game last week against the Vikings' deep safeties look was huge and opened things up later for Rodgers. He runs hard and bounces off tackles and will need to show something on first downs. The 49ers are the best defense in the league on first downs. In the first meeting, Mike McCarthy had Rodgers drop back to pass on 52 of 61 plays. 31 plays were run out of an empty backfield. That will not be the case this time around. The Pack needs Harris to get four to five yards on first down to make things easier on Rodgers and they'll likely need him as a receiver against the aggressive pass rush of the 49ers.

6) Slot Receivers: The 49ers defense has been beaten all season by slot receivers. Randall Cobb was targeted nine times in the opener and caught all nine passes. Look for the Pack to use Cobb and Greg Jennings in the slot to get favorable matchups against Carlos Rogers and Perrish Cox. The outside guys, Nelson and Jones will try to pull the safeties their way to open things up along the seams. As always San Fran will be physical with the receivers are the line of scrimmage. The Packers need to fight through that and get into their routes, because Rodgers will likely be facing a lot of pressure all night long.

As for the 49ers, it boils down to one key guy on each side of the ball. Tough DE Justin Smith will start and try to play with a torn triceps. Here's what he means to the defense: the unit didn't give up 26 points all season, till his injury. It than gave up 28 to the Patriots in the second half and then 42 to Seattle the following week. They held Arizona to 13 points, but something called Brian Hoyer was starting at QB that week.

Smith's game is about using his hands and power to twist the left tackle out of the picture, allowing Aldon Smith to make his way to the quarterback. It's no coincidence Aldon got none of his 19.5 sacks after Justin went down. If Justin Smith is not close to his usual self, the Packers offense will function very effectively. If he looks good, the Pack may be in for a long day.

The second key player is obviously Kaepernick. The discrepancy at QB is the reason many of the wise guys are going with the Packers this week. As I mentioned earlier, Harbaugh put his neck out there when he replaced Alex Smith with the Milwaukee native and for many, this game will tell whether it was the right call. Kaepernick has proven to be smart, poised and electric at times. But Dom Capers will be ready to try to confuse him, show him things he hasn't seen on tape and force him into mistakes.

He's averaging one turnover per game. If the Packers get one, they'll likely win. They're 10-1 this season when they get at least one takeaway, 1-4 when they don't. Last year, the Packers put the ball on the ground repeatedly in the loss to the Giants. If they take care of the ball this time around, the 49ers will be challenged to engineer enough long scoring drives to keep Rodgers off the field.

While both teams suffered late season losses, the Packers seem to have a bit more momentum--the Niners' loss was much more punishing (in Seattle). They have the crowd, the lousy field conditions will favor the down and dirty defensive-oriented game they favor and the 40 degree temperature and windy conditions won't be ideal for a pass-happy team. I really believe the winner of this game will advance to the Super Bowl.

I'm thinking that when the clock is running out, the Pack will be trailing and have the ball. And Rodgers will be the story, leading his team in come-from-behind fashion against the favorite team of his youth--the one that passed him up with the first pick eight years ago. Rodgers daggers the 49ers late:

Pack 24 49ers 23


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