Divisional matchups: When the Packers pass

In Part 1 of our five-part series previewing Saturday night's NFC divisional playoff game, NinersDigest's Craig Massei and PackerReport's Bill Huber break down the matchups when the Packers hand the ball to Aaron Rodgers and the passing game.

NinersDigest.com's Craig Massei and PackerReport.com's Bill Huber analyze Saturday night's matchups. In Part 1 of a five-part series, we examine the Green Bay Packers' passing attack against the San Francisco 49ers' passing defense.

Packers passing offense

Everything in the Green Bay passing game revolves around quarterback Aaron Rodgers – though it's not quite the one-man offensive show of past seasons. It's interesting that Rodgers received nary a whisper from the national pundits when it came to MVP talk. I get it: Peyton Manning had a great comeback year to lift the Broncos to 13-3 and Adrian Peterson had a remarkable comeback year and posted arguably the greatest rushing season in NFL history. Whatever the order, they deserve to finish one-two in the MVP voting. Rodgers, however, led the NFL in passer rating, was first in touchdown-to-interception ratio and second in touchdown passes. He led a team that was demolished by injuries to 11 wins. His only sin was not duplicating last year's record-setting numbers.

With that said, an argument could be made that the Packers' offense of right now is better than the offense that lined up against the Giants in divisional round a year ago. Receiver-returner Randall Cobb, who was limited mostly to returns as a rookie last year, took a run at Darren Sproles' single-season record for all-purpose yards. His breakout season began with 230 total yards against San Francisco in Week 1, when he really was the Packers' only productive perimeter player. Moreover, chronically inconsistent tight end Jermichael Finley has been outstanding down the stretch. Outside of about a dozen plays in a game on Dec. 2, Rodgers had all of his weapons on the field last week for the first time since Sept. 30. Cobb and, especially, Jordy Nelson probably won't be 100 percent but they are elite performers. Greg Jennings, who missed half of the season with an abdominal injury that required surgery, has been outstanding the last couple of games. The ability of Jennings and Cobb to get yards after the catch will be critical, and Finley will need to make some plays against the Niners' elite safeties.

The running game is vastly improved from the Week 1 matchup. Amazingly, the Packers are going with DuJuan Harris and Ryan Grant in the backfield. Neither of those guys were on the roster until December. The pint-sized Harris stands just over 5-7 but is a tough customer who gets to full speed in the blink of an eye. The offensive line is seen as a liability in national circles based on Rodgers getting sacked 51 times. That's just not true, though that group rightfully will be a decided underdog against the 49ers' ferocious defensive line and linebackers. This Packers' offensive success will boil down to whether left tackle Marshall Newhouse and left guard T.J. Lang can block outside linebacker Aldon Smith and defensive end Justin Smith. Undrafted rookie right tackle Don Barclay will need to play the game of his life.

49ers passing defense

After finishing 16th in the NFL in pass defense last season, the 49ers made considerable improvement this season with the same four players that started for them in the secondary last year, when they were still pretty formidable stopping the pass. But with that group having a second season to play together as a unit, they were better this season, and an argument can be made that San Francisco's secondary is among the very best in the NFL.

It's not all about the secondary, of course, as San Francisco finished fourth in the NFL in pass defense this season because it is getting good push from the big boys up front and the linebackers behind them in the Niners' 3-4 scheme are doing their part rushing the passer and filling the intermediate lanes in coverage. But the secondary sets the tone here with a quality group of cover corners in starters Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers and nickel corner Chris Culliver to go with an imposing, athletic, rock 'em, sock 'em set of starting safeties in Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, both of whom were named Pro Bowl starters for the NFC this year.

Goldson and Whitner punish anybody who crosses the middle into their territory, and Goldson is a rangy ballhawk who plays a quality center field in deep coverage. The Niners will likely come at the Packers a lot like they did in the season opener with three cornerbacks – or more – on the field regularly with Rogers – a starter in last year's Pro Bowl and an alternate this year – moving inside to handle the slot and Brown and Culliver protecting the edges. Culliver was particularly effective in this role against the Packers in the opener.

Like they do against everybody – even against an elite passing team like the Packers – the 49ers will try to stop the run first and force Green Bay to the air. The 49ers have a premier pass-rushing threat from the edge in outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who set a team record with 19½ sacks this year, and Ahmad Brooks (6½ sacks) also is formidable from the other edge. The 49ers aren't the same, however, without All-Pro right tackle Justin Smith, who missed the final two games of the season with a partially torn left triceps but expects to return against the Packers.

Like it was in September, this figures to be one of the key matchups in the game, with both teams seemingly having improved in this area over the course of the season. The Niners, certainly, are gearing up to be tested by the best for the second consecutive year in a divisional playoff game at home after prevailing over Drew Brees and the Saints at this juncture last season.

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