Leading into the season opener, much of the discussion about the match up between the Packers and 49ers revolved around Green Bay's ability to stop Colin Kaepernick and the read-option.
And it was a reasonable line of logic. Kaepernick gashed the Packers for 181 yards and two scores while the 49ers racked up 579 yards to win 45-31 in the divisional round of the playoffs the previous season.
After the Packers seemingly spent the entire offseason working to shut down Kaepernick's running game, he switched things up and passed for a career-high 412 yards in San Francisco's 34-28 win. It marked the third time in two seasons the 49ers had beaten the Packers. And like the previous season-opening win against Green Bay, it made a statement to the rest of the NFC.
Sunday, the teams will play for the fourth time in two seasons, but this time it will be in frigid Wisconsin, where San Francisco has never won a playoff game.
So when we compare Week 1's game at Candlestick, where it was 69 degrees and sunny at kickoff, let that be the first qualifier. This will be markedly different. It will be the first sub-zero game the 49ers will have played under Jim Harbaugh. Early weather reports say Sunday will feature a high of singe-digits and a low of well-below 0.
"We'll take our best players, we'll go to Green Bay and see if we can beat their best players," Harbaugh said.
Back to Sept. 8, 2013. The Packers came to the Bay Area embarrassed by their previous performance. They had a chance to start their season the same place the previous one hit the skids. The defense spent the entire offseason preparing to stop Kaepernick's read-option while Rodgers was ready to re-load with another All-Pro season under center.
San Francisco came out throwing, early and often. Not only did Kaepernick finish with a career high in passing yards, he also set a career-high in attempts with 39. In his first-ever start on opening day, he delivered in a new way that made many wonder about the 26-year-old's ceiling.
(With two losses in the next two weeks to Seattle and Indianapolis, where Kaepernick combined for 277 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions, those ideas were quickly disposed.)
Without using much of the read-option that kept the attention of defensive coordinator Dom Kapers all spring and summer, Kaepernick found Anquan Boldin 13 times for 208 yards, including a key fourth-down reception late in the game. Without any tape of Boldin on the 49ers, the Packers had to go by reputation alone when scheming against the veteran receiver. It didn't work, and injuries in the visiting team's secondary didn't help.
"It was a great performance," said Harbaugh of Boldin's 49ers debut. "Spectacular."
That day the Packers were without corner Casey Hayward who was later put on injured reserve with his hamstring injury. Starting safety Morgan Burnett was also out with a hamstring. And that's really where the 49ers took advantage.
Reserve Jerron McMillian replaced Burnett and it seemed as though offensive coordinator Greg Roman did everything he could to find him in coverage. It was McMillian who whiffed on Boldin on his 10-yard touchdown pass on a slant in the second quarter. McMillian finished with four missed tackles on the day according to Pro Football Focus.
Worse yet for the Packers' secondary: Kaepernick had a passer rating of 141.8 when targeting their two safeties McMillian and M.D. Jennings. Vernon Davis beat Jennings to the corner of the end zone for his 20-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter.
Expect the Packers' defense to adjust accordingly for Sunday with a full season's worth of 49ers tape to work with.
"We wanted to have a little extra time at the beginning of the week to make sure we did our due diligence looking at their whole season and lock it down on the things that are going to be evident in our game come Sunday," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday.
Defensively, the 49ers did just enough to hinder Rodgers and all his weapons. He still managed 333 yards passing completing 21 of 37, but San Francisco's front got to him enough to be effective, despite sacking him just twice.
Rodgers broke his left collarbone in Week 9 against the Bears. The Packers entered that game 5-2 and would go 2-5-1 before his return in Week 17's dramatic win over Chicago to win the NFC North. There's little doubt with Rodgers back Green Bay is a very real threat in the NFC.
But back to the defensive front getting to Rodgers, Pro Football Focus' Jeff Deeney (a must-follow on Twitter for dorky football statistics relating to the 49ers) provided a very telling stat: Rodgers was either sacked or threw the ball away 40.9 percent of the time he was pressured in the pocket this year - the most of any starting quarterback.
That day Rodgers was pressured on 15 of 41 plays, completing just 4 of 12 throws. With the defensive front healthier now than at this point last year, look for more elaborate stunts than were run in the regular season to get to the quarterback.
Against the Bears' porous defense, Rodgers was pressured just seven times - even against 16 Chicago blitzes. The most notable pressure came on Rodgers last pass of the game, when he hit Randall Cobb for the game-winning touchdown with 0:46 remaining. Rodgers felt pressure on the left side, received a key block from fullback John Kuhn and a found a wide-open Cobb after a coverage breakdown in the Bears' secondary to go ahead 33-28.
Cobb's two receptions on the day were both touchdowns. It was his first game back since returning from injured reserve after breaking his leg Oct. 13 against the Ravens. Cobb has given the 49ers fits in the two regular season games against them, combining for 185 yards on 16 receptions. He also returned a punt for a score in the season opener in 2012. But in last season's playoff game he was held to 24 yards on five receptions.
"(Cobb's) obviously one of our primary playmakers. At the early start of the year we thought we had a chance to have one of or our best year offensively and Randall's definitely a big part of that. So it's great to have him back," said McCarthy.
In Week 1 of this season, Cobb did most of his damage against Carlos Rogers in the slot. Rodgers completed all three passes to Cobb when Rodgers was in coverage, including his 5-yard TD in the first quarter. He finished with seven catches for 108 yards. Rogers status is day-to-day after suffering a hamstring injury late in the 23-20 win in Arizona.
Green Bay's other prolific receiver Jordy Nelson has been a model of consistency all season. He was Rodgers' No. 1 target in the season opener, amassing 130 yards on seven catches (10 targets), doing most of his damage against the recently retired Nnamdi Asomugha. Nelson finished the regular season with 85 catches for 1,314 yards.
In place of Asomugha, who last played with San Francisco in Week 3's loss to the Colts, is Tramaine Brock, who came in to make an immediate impact on the defense. Brock's had the best season of any 49ers' cornerback marked by his team-leading five interceptions. His presence will be the most notable change on San Francisco's defense since that September match up. Eric Wright, a former division rival of the Packers during his one season with the Detroit Lions in 2011, could see a lot of time in the slot against Cobb or Nelson if Rogers can't play.
For the Packers' offense, the notable changes come at tight end and the overall balance provided by rookie running back Eddie Lacy. Andrew Quarless has replaced Jermichael Finley at tight end after he underwent spinal fusion surgery in October against the Browns.
Quarless has struggled in run blocking assignments, but has been a dependable receiving threat. Quarterbacks have completed 70 percent of their passes to him on the year.
"He's been solid for us," Rodgers said. "J-Mike went down, we had a few weeks there where we didn't have a lot of production out of the tight ends. And then something obviously clicked in for Andrew and he's been playing really well the last four, five weeks, finding ways to get open and catching the football, which is obviously really important as a pass-catcher. So, happy with his progress. You see the potential in practice all the time with him and it's fun to see it carry over into games."
To compliment Boldin, the 49ers will have Michael Crabtree back healthy and Quinton Patton taking over for the injured Mario Manningham. Those two receivers will provide Green Bay another element of the unknown.
Patton made just three catches during his rookie year, with the biggest being his clutch 29-yarder that set up Phil Dawson's 40-yard game-winning kick against the Cardinals. His skill set is unique among the 49ers' batch of receivers.
"(Patton's) going to make a lot more things viable to us," Colin Kaepernick said. "We can do a lot ore things, different personnel groups, different things like that. He's just another to the puzzle now."
Handicapping Sunday's tilt is more difficult that one might think given how much has changed between these two teams over the last 18 weeks, including the conditions at Lambeau Field in January.
*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*
Follow Editor in Chief Chris Biderman on Twitter.