#3 Green Bay Packers (NFC North Champion)
- 2012 Record: 12-5 (defeated Minnesota 24-10 in Wild-Card Round)
- Regular Season Point Differential: +97 (7th)
- Strength of Schedule: +1.2 PPG (t-9th)
- Offensive PY/P Rating (including playoffs): 3.20 (7th)
- Defensive PY/P Rating (including playoffs): 1.75 (12th)
- Net Yards per Pass Attempt: 6.6 (12th)
- Yards per Carry: 3.9 (22nd)
- Net Yards per Pass Attempt Allowed: 5.7 (7th)
- Yards per Carry Allowed: 4.5 (26th)
- Number of Bona Fide Superstars: 2 (Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews)
- Unintentional Comedy Potential: High
#2 San Francisco 49ers (NFC West Champion)
- 2012 Record: 11-4-1
- Regular Season Point Differential: +124 (4th)
- Strength of Schedule: +2.5 PPG (4th)
- Offensive PY/P Rating (including playoffs): 3.36 (2nd)
- Defensive PY/P Rating (including playoffs): 1.45 (2nd)
- Net Yards per Pass Attempt: 6.9 (8th)
- Yards per Carry: 5.1 (3rd)
- Net Yards per Pass Attempt Allowed: 5.3 (3rd)
- Yards per Carry Allowed: 3.7 (3rd)
- Number of Bona Fide Superstars: 4 (Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Navorro Bowman)
- Unintentional Comedy Potential: Medium
7:00 P.M. Saturday, January 12th, FOX (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver, Erin Andrews)
Jim Harbaugh seems like he’d be a real pain in the keester to play pickup hoops against. Or chess. Or Pictionary. Or any vaguely competitive activity in general, really. I had a tennis coach my first two years of high school who had a lot of Harbaugh in him. He was, in a word, INTENSE. Oh, he was a pretty nice, well-meaning guy and all that crap, but I’m pretty sure he cared more about the outcomes of our matches than everybody else on the team combined. One day at practice he got tired of us being the weak-kneed pansies that we were and devised a wonderful drill in which he would drill the ball as hard as he possibly could at us while we were standing at the net. For every ball we missed or got pegged by, we had to do twenty-five pushups. For about forty-five minutes, he wailed away at the ball with a controlled fury in his eye, only stopping to shout “FINISH THOSE PUSHUPS FASTER AND GET BACK IN LINE.” I’m not sure I learned any valuable tips from the experience – other than if you do ten pushups at a really slow pace, someone who’s not watching terribly closely will believe you’ve done twenty-five – but it did give me some great insight into what COMPETITIVE FIRE was all about. In related news, we lost all but one of our meets that year.
Does this mean Jim Harbaugh occasionally gets ticked off at his team and has them all line up five feet away from the Jugs Machine as punishment? CAN’T RULE IT OUT. But it’s hard to argue with the results in this case. The above-average defense he inherited from Mike Singletary in 2011 has ratcheted up its level of play to the point where it has arguably been the best defense in the league over the past two years. But the REAL area of improvement Harbaugh’s engineered in his two years as 49ers coach is on offense. After Jeff Garcia left the Bay Area in 2004, thus bringing an end to 25 almost uninterrupted years of 49er quarterback excellence, the 49ers struggled mightily to score points against what was continually one of the easiest slates of defenses in the league. In the seven seasons from 2004 to 2010, the 49ers only averaged 17.76 points per game, a lower average than every team in the league except Oakland and Cleveland. In the two years Harbaugh’s been on the job, the 49ers have averaged 24.28 points per game against one of the tougher slates of defenses in the NFL. And this year has been particularly fruitful: they’re ranked eighth in the league in Net Yards per Pass Attempt and third in Yards per Carry and second overall in Predictive Yards per Play (primarily due to the tough defenses they’ve faced).
And the 49ers have been that successful on offense despite going through quarterbacking upheaval, which may suggest that ‘ol Jim might know a thing or two about putting offenses together. The 49ers were excellent offensively with Alex Smith at the helm and even better after Colin Kaepernick took over for a concussed Smith on November 11th and never gave the job back. The common thread both quarterbacks were able to rely on, of course, was an outstanding running game. Left tackle Joe Staley and left guard Mike Iupati are headed to the Pro Bowl and center Jonathan Goodwin had an excellent case for Hawaii as well. Aided by Harbaugh’s unorthodox run plays and linemen-pulling techniques, Frank Gore and the rest of the 49er running backs enjoyed gaping hole after gaping hole throughout the season. That was true with Smith as starting quarterback and also under Kaepernick. The 49ers passing game has jumped a level with Kaepernick at the helm, however, for a few reasons: Kaepernick is more mobile, takes far fewer sacks and, unlike the overly cautious at times Smith, will take shots downfield often. If you had told me even four months ago that the 49ers would have one of the top five offenses in the league this season, I would have smirked and shouted “REGRESSION TO THE MEAN! REGRESSION TO THE MEAN!” Give loads and loads of credit to that crazy old coot Harbaugh for proving me EXTREMELY wrong.
So that’s why, even though Aaron Rodgers is indeed lining up under center against them, the 49ers have a very good shot at advancing to the NFC Championship. At the time it occurred, the Packers’ 30-22 loss to San Francisco the opening week of the season seemed to be more a case of a team coming out flat and not being ready to play than anything else. As the season has progressed, however, and we’ve more accurately gauged each team’s quality, I look back on that game and think: you know, Green Bay actually played pretty well that day. And considering they needed the aid of an illegal block in the back on a Randall Cobb punt return touchdown just to make it a one-score game, that’s not a good omen for this weekend. The 49ers present one of the worst possible matchups for Green Bay’s two glaring weaknesses: run defense and pass protection. Getting Charles Woodson back is enormous for Green Bay’s ability to run complex schemes defensively, which is a vital weapon against a young quarterback. And there’s every chance Aaron Rodgers could hop the Packers on his back and (almost) single-handedly carry them to a win – he does it every time he faces the Bears and it’s annoying as crap. But the biggest weapon of all in this game may reside on the San Francisco sideline. And given he’s had two weeks to prepare for this game, the result may just be as annoying for Green Bay as Week 1’s.
Projected Final Score: San Francisco 49ers 28, Green Bay Packers 20
Team to Bet On If Gambling Were Legal: 49ers (-3)