Craig Massei, publisher, NinersDigest.com: A lot is currently being written regarding how different the Packers are now than the Green Bay team San Francisco played back in September in the season opener at Lambeau Field. What are the biggest differences between the Packers of today and the Packers of four months ago? What significant changes have taken place in those four months to make the Packers into the team they are entering the NFC's Final Four weekend?
Bill Huber, publisher, PackerReport.com: Offensively, they have a running game. No, it's not the sledgehammer attack fielded by the 49ers, but they can run the ball. It's been a season-long goal for coach Mike McCarthy, which is why the Packers signed Cedric Benson during training camp. In Week 1, it was a disaster, with 14 rushes for 45 yards. Over the final eight games, however, the Packers rushed for at least 113 yards six times, got 95 in another game and had 72 (but a 4.6 average) in a shootout at Minnesota. Two interesting things: First, it's who's running the ball. Benson suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 5. They put him on the special IR list but the injury never healed. Alex Green, a third-round pick in 2011, never emerged after tearing his ACL last season. James Starks, a hero of the Super Bowl run in 2010, just can't stay healthy. So, the Packers added 5-foot-7 DuJuan Harris to the roster on Dec. 1 and brought back veteran Ryan Grant on Dec. 5. Harris, of all people, is the go-to back. He's extremely quick and packs a punch with his 203 pounds.
Second, why the focus on the running game with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback? Because opposing defenses decided playing Cover-2 was the way to slow the Packers' offense. The answer? Run the ball to get one of those safeties closer to the line of scrimmage. So, to finally answer your question, the offense is more diverse. Defensively, the Packers entered the season counting on a bunch of rookies and second-year players. Those players have grown into their roles. In Week 1, cornerback Casey Hayward played three snaps. This week, the second-round pick was named to the all-rookie team with six interceptions.
Craig Massei: ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, a guy we got to know and respect during his time as a 49ers quarterback, said recently that Aaron Rodgers is "the best quarterback in the league and I don't think it's even close." That is sort of the view from my perspective as well after watching Rodgers put up another phenomenal season. What makes Rodgers so good? What kind of steps did he take in his progression as an elite QB this season? Is he a better QB now than when the season started, and how does this year compare to his MVP season of 2011?
Bill Huber: Rodgers never loses a game. Never. He's the NFL's career leader in interception percentage and passer rating. That's what stands out to me. He can throw the ball into tight windows – throw the receiver open, in the Packers' lingo – yet knows that fine line of not forcing the ball into coverage for a critical error. I point to his footwork and athleticism, as well. Yes, he's taken a lot of sacks but he's made so many big completions because of his ability to buy his receivers an extra second or two.
This season has been every bit as good as 2011, when he set a bunch of records and the Packers fielded the second-highest-scoring team in NFL history. Up until last week (and with the exception of about a dozen plays on Dec. 2), he hadn't had his full complement of receivers on the field at the same time since Sept. 30. His offensive line has been a revolving door, as has the backfield. And yet he led the NFL in passer rating and the team won 11 games.
Craig Massei: That said, what do the 49ers need to do to throw Rodgers out of rhythm and take him out of his game? How do you slow down the guy, or do you just try to contain him? What did Rodgers and the Packers learn from what the 49ers did against them defensively in the season opener? Can the 49ers follow that same blueprint on defense to success again, or will they have to change things up this time around?
Bill Huber: I'm not revealing any secrets here: Get pressure with four, drop seven into coverage and hope your four rushers can get home before his four or five targets can get open.
It's what worked for the 49ers in Week 1, when their secondary bottled up everyone other than Randall Cobb. It's what's worked for the Giants, both in the playoffs last season and in their game this year. The 49ers, obviously, are well-equipped to do just that. They only have six Pro Bowl defenders, after all. It's a winning blueprint against every quarterback in the league, not just Rodgers. So, I don't think the 49ers need to change a thing. Now, if Justin Smith isn't healthy and Aldon Smith isn't a game-changing menace, the Niners are going to be in a pickle.
Craig Massei: Knowing how much Rodgers seemed to want to be a 49er during his pre-draft visit here in 2005, this figures to be an emotional game for the Northern California native in what may be his final chance to play before local fans at Candlestick Park before the 49ers move their home stadium to Santa Clara in 2014. Have there been any signs this week that Rodgers might be extra-hyped for this game because of those circumstances? Do you believe he stills holds any grudge against the Niners because they passed him over for Alex Smith with the No. 1 overall selection that year? Will any of this be any kind of underlying factor in this game?
Bill Huber: If he holds a grudge, it's against his own head coach. McCarthy was the 49ers' offensive coordinator at the time and is as responsible for the selection of Alex Smith as anyone else. Funny how things work out. Does it bother Rodgers? Sure. He holds a grudge as well as anyone else in professional sports. Will it affect his play – good, bad or otherwise? No, I don't think so. That's a long time ago. He's won a Super Bowl and is well on his way to the Hall of Fame. Would it make a victory Saturday night any more special? Yeah, probably, but I don't think it's adding motivation or making this a grudge match or anything like that.
Craig Massei: The 49ers had a productive day offensively in the season opener and the Packers didn't do much to slow down running back Frank Gore, the guy who makes San Francisco go on that side of the ball. Green Bay appears to have made some considerable strides defensively as this season progressed, but is stopping the run – Gore in particular – still a major concern for the Packers entering this game? What can you tell us about the Packers' defense and what they'll try to do to thwart a San Francisco offense that has weapons and more playmaking potential with a more athletic QB than the Packers faced in September?
Bill Huber: Statistically, the Packers appear to be in big trouble against Gore. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers' basic plan is always the same: stop the run and make the quarterback beat him on third-and-long. In the last six games, the Packers gave up 147 rushing yards to the Giants, 240 to the Vikings, 135 to the Lions, 83 to Chicago, 79 to Tennessee (the Titans had four starters on injured reserve) and 217 to Minnesota. In the playoff game, the Packers managed to hold Adrian Peterson to 99 yards, but was that good run defense or was that the Packers taking advantage of Joe the Plumber of Spud Webb or whoever the heck was playing quarterback? We'll get into this more in our matchup series, but the Packers have three good run-stopping defensive linemen, but those guys can't play every down. So, it's going to be vital for those run-stoppers to hold firm on first and second down and the defense to get off the field on third down so the big guys don't get worn out. As for the athletic quarterback, Joe Webb ran for 68 yards on seven runs. Plus, the Packers had troubles stopping the read option. The Vikings, inexplicably, stopped running it for the second and third quarters. Granted, they didn't spend a minute preparing for Webb or the option. The outside linebackers will have to keep leverage and funnel everything inside.