Craig Massei, publisher, NinersDigest.com: They're a team that isn't quite as sure of itself after a sketchy final month of the season. The 49ers knew they were good entering the season opener at Green Bay and their performance against another elite team in a tough road venue confirmed it. The 49ers spent the remainder of the season playing like one of the very best teams in the NFL – when they played up to their potential. When they didn't, they could be taken down by the likes of the mediocre Rams – who tied them in overtime at San Francisco and beat them in overtime at St. Louis. There is a difference in the mind-set of the team now because there has been some turbulence in offensive consistency after the change to Colin Kaepernick at quarterback and the losses of starting wide receiver Mario Manningham, backup running back Kendall Hunter and contributing reserve receiver Kyle Williams to season-ending injuries. The 49ers seem to be a little bit confused about who exactly they are on offense these days, particularly with their uneven play-calling, which has not allowed the offense to get in rhythm. Defensively, they obviously are a different team without All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith, who missed the final 2 1/2 games of the regular season with a partially torn left triceps. The 49ers found out how very much Smith means to their defensive greatness when they were without him. Smith is practicing as though he'll return to play against the Packers, but with that injury, it's open to question how effective he can hope to be.
Bill Huber: If you're coaching the 49ers, are you starting Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick? It seems like a major gamble for a team that's so good in the run game and on defense.
Craig Massei: It's boom or bust from here on out with Kaepernick, and I wouldn't expect Alex Smith to ever take another snap in a 49ers uniform unless Kaepernick is forced to the sideline by an injury or some other unforeseen circumstance. The Niners have committed to Kaepernick, and it is the right choice, even though it has rocked the boat somewhat by the ripples it has caused within the team and offense with the smooth-and-steady Smith now watching from the sidelines. To be both blunt and honest, Kaepernick is better than Smith in practically every category as a quarterback except for experience and perhaps ability to protect the football. Kaepernick is bigger, faster, stronger, has a better arm and is much more of an elusive threat as a runner. He has a rare combination of talent as a playmaker, and that gives the 49ers the potential to be much more explosive on offense than they are with Smith, who is more of a game manager – but a very effective one. And therein lies the rub. The 49ers are so strong in other areas that an argument can be made they're better off with the smooth-and-steady Smith than with the risk/reward nature of Kaepernick, who still has some rough edges. But the move was made to Kaepernick because he has the skills to take the 49ers all the way, while the team had pretty much reached its ceiling with Smith as its QB. It's a gamble, to be sure, but Jim Harbaugh has had no qualms about taking it and he refuses to look back, and I agree without question it's the right decision as the team moves forward.
Bill Huber: What's the status of Justin Smith, and if he can't play or is limited, how big of an impact does that make on the defense?
Craig Massei: Well, let's put it this way: In the first six quarters after Smith went missing after being injured early in the third quarter on Dec. 16 at New England, San Francisco's second-ranked defense was ravaged for 753 yards, 66 points and 48 first downs by the Patriots and Seahawks. Those are astonishing numbers to be allowed by a defense that features six Pro Bowlers – five of them named NFC starters this year – and is so strong in so many areas and has so few weaknesses. But it's a testament to how great Smith is and how much he means to this defense. Aldon Smith, who lines up next to Smith in San Francisco's 3-4 defense, had a team-record 19½ sacks and seemed like a shoo-in to set a new NFL record for sacks heading into the New England game. With Justin Smith out, Aldon Smith didn't get a single sack the remainder of the season. That's three consecutive games without a sack to end the season by a guy who had at least one sack in each of the previous seven games. The 49ers actually have a capable backup to Justin Smith in Ricky Jean Francois, who has started in his place. But he's no Justin Smith. Nobody is. The 49ers are adjusting, but the loss of Smith has obviously resulted in a significant impact to the defense – a significantly adverse impact, as could be expected.
Bill Huber: Last year, the Packers had a first-round bye and were miserable in getting thumped by the Giants in the divisional round. Was the bye a good thing for the 49ers? And was the team struggling a bit down the stretch?
Craig Massei: The bye was a godsend for the 49ers. As mentioned above, they had been reeling a bit down the stretch after blowing out to a 31-3 lead early in the third quarter at New England (a game they barely held on to win 41-34 after the Patriots rallied to a 31-31 tie). They have been dealing with significant injuries – Justin Smith and Manningham in particular – and the extra week could help not only in allowing Smith to play in this game, but also to be able to play with effectiveness. The 49ers were anxiously watching the end of the Dec. 30 Green Bay/Minnesota game on video screens in the excitement of their season-finale postgame locker room, and you can imagine the celebration that erupted after Minnesota's game-winning field goal gave San Francisco a week off that it very much needed. The 49ers started preparing for the Packers last week – they had a pretty good idea who would win the Green Bay/Minnesota rematch – and the way the Packers rolled into the playoffs, the extra preparation time will help the 49ers, because their coaches are both solid and shrewd and make good use of their resources and any extra advantage that is given to them.
Bill Huber: This game sure looks like a heavyweight championship matchup. Statistically, the 49ers look like a Super Bowl team. The quarterback's been good, the run game is excellent and the defense is outstanding. If there's an Achilles heel for the Packers to exploit, it's ...?
Craig Massei: The winner of this game should be the odds-on favorite to not only reach the Super Bowl, but to win it. Both the 49ers and Packers are better than Atlanta, even playing the Falcons on the road. I'd worry more about the surging Seahawks, but they won't beat the Packers or the 49ers on the road. So here it is Bill, like you say, a heavyweight matchup. Even with their problems lately, the 49ers still have very few holes or flaws. So where do you look to exploit? I'd put a lot of attention on WR Michael Crabtree – who is having a breakout season – and force the 49ers to throw elsewhere. If you can bottle up Frank Gore, you throw the Niners out of whack as far as what they want to do offensively, but that's a difficult thing to do with San Francisco's superb offensive line. So you look to defense – and you run right at Justin Smith to see how he handles it. And if Smith isn't in the game, you run right at where he would be if he were playing. The Packers have to try and exploit a leaking San Francisco run defense, because if they don't, I'd expect things to turn out a lot like the season opener – Aaron Rodgers putting up decent enough passing numbers, but only because he was taking what the 49ers were giving him. The Packers can try to pick on San Francisco's secondary, but the Niners' top three cornerbacks are all solid cover corners and their two safeties are Pro Bowl starters this year. So, the Packers will have to search long and hard to find weaknesses, because there aren't many.