Behind Enemy Lines: Inside the Packers

In Part 2, does the return of Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb make the Packers a legit contender? Or is Clay Matthews' absence too much to overcome? Plus, the big chill and more as we go Behind Enemy Lines again with Niners Digest's Chris Biderman.

Niners Digest: With Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb coming back and playing well last week, have the Packers suddenly become the scary team in the NFC that could surprise some people?

Bill Huber: Well, I'm not so sure about that, but at least they can't be dismissed as pretender.

Rodgers, well, what he means to the team goes without saying. In terms of points per starts, he's the highest-scoring quarterback in NFL history. He also boasts the highest passer rating and lowest interception rate in NFL history. He's an absolute maestro at the line of scrimmage, whether it's changing a run to a pass or adjusting the blocking.

Cobb's absence can't be overstated. He missed 10 games with a broken tibia, including the 2-5-1 stretch without Rodgers. Without those two — as well as Jermichael Finley (neck) — the Packers fielded a pretty watered-down offense. Cobb is the offense's one big-time run-after-catch presence. It's a dimension the offense sorely missed during their slump. 

Does that make the Packers a scary team? Sure, but they don't line up on defense.

ND: 2. Speaking of defense, without Clay Matthews and Johnny Jolly, how big of a void do those two players leave up front, especially against the run? Does the Packers' D have the talent to stop the 49ers after what we've seen in the previous three matchups?

Bill: The defense was a below-average unit with those two for most of the season. For all the pushing and shoving and trash-talking, Matthews was one of the game's dominant players in Week 1. He's the heart beat of the defense, not to mention its top pass rusher. Without him against Chicago last week, the Packers got one sack and almost no other pressure on Jay Cutler. Now, the Packers have to contend with Colin Kaepernick with Mike Neal (a converted defensive lineman), Andy Mulumba (an undrafted rookie) and Nick Perry (a disappointing first-round pick who is far less than full strength with an injured ankle/foot. Good luck.

Without Matthews and Jolly — who returned from a three-year suspension and stint in prison because of drug problems to become the team's best run-stopping lineman — I just don't see how the Packers stand a chance of getting to the Super Bowl. Maybe they can beat the 49ers but beyond that? I just don't see it.

ND: Please explain what a minus-20 degree wind chill means to a person from California and how it can affect a football game?

Bill: Shoot, a minus-20 wind chill might be a day in Bermuda compared to the recent forecast. Accuweather predicts a high of minus-5 and a low of minus-20, with "RealFeel" temperatures ranging from minus-23 to minus-51. With kickoff at 3:40 p.m. and sunset at 4:27 p.m., most of the game will be played with the "warmth" of the sun but a frigid memory. It's going to be a cold, miserable night of historic proportions. It's got a shot to be the second- or third-coldest game in NFL history.

So, what does that mean? A frozen football comes incredibly slippery. When your hands get cold, they lose their feeling. So, you've got a quarterback with cold hands and a receiver with cold hands trying to catch a slippery football.

Still, I'm not sure what that means for Sunday. Yeah, it will be a shock to the Niners' system. Still, for a piece I'll be writing for Sunday, I'm going to write about how the 49ers seem perfectly built to win a football game like this one. If a game is going to be won in the trenches, it'd be hard to bet against the Niners' offensive line, big Frank Gore and a physical defensive front seven.

ND: Marshawn Lynch has given the 49ers trouble in the past because of his physical and punishing running style. Is Eddie Lacy a similar type of running back? The sample's been small, but how much balance has he given the Packers' offense?

Bill: Interesting, because Aaron Rodgers compared Lynch — his former Cal teammate — to Lacy this week.

Lacy has been a savior and has performed far better than anyone could have expected. He wasn't much of a factor in Week 1, when he was benched after fumbling. In the last 13 games, Lacy is the NFL's leading rusher. 

With Lacy — and a vastly improved offensive line — the Packers put defenses in a pickle. Do you bring a safety to the line of scrimmage, which invites Rodgers to attack downfield? Or do you keep both safeties deep, which invites Lacy to pound away? It's been a winning formula for the Packers, but the Niners' defensive front is so good that it might be able to stop Lacy without help from a safety.

ND: Colin Kaepernick's success against the Packers has been well documented. But after running so successfully in the playoffs last year and passing for 412 yards against them in Week 1, what is the Packers approach to slowing him down?

Bill:Maybe this is where Mother Nature shows up in the Packers' favor. Can Kaepernick throw the ball on a cold, windy, miserable evening? Maybe he can, maybe he can't.

His legs, I think, will be the issue on Sunday. Without Matthews, are the Packers' outside linebackers good enough to keep Kaepernick from running wild? I don't think they are. Are the inside linebackers athletic enough to keep up with Kaepernick? They haven't been in previous matchups. Are the safeties good enough to stop Gore and Vernon Davis? I haven't seen any evidence to suggest they are. As I wrote the other day, if I were a betting man, I'd say Niners coach Jim Harbaugh has pulled back on the reins just a bit, knowing full well that Kaepernick is more important in the playoffs than he is in the third quarter of some midseason game. 

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