GREEN BAY—You knew it would come to this. You knew it back on Sept. 9, as the 49ers were putting the finishing touches to a 30-22 win at Lambeau Field that, frankly, wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate.
Do you need to be reminded? The 49ers rushed for 186 yards; the Packers rushed for 45. The 49ers completed 20 of 26 passes. Their quarterback, the one that isn’t their quarterback anymore, had a 125.6 passer rating, 32.3 ratings points higher than Aaron Rodgers, who was sacked three times.
On that beautiful late-summer day in Green Bay, and by virtue of their punishing performance against the Packers, the 49ers were pronounced the team to beat in the NFC. Four months later, they are the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs, but much about the 49ers and the Packers has changed. These are not the same teams we saw in the season opener.
“A lot has happened. We’re a different football team. We’re different from four weeks ago. We’ll be ready to go,” Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy said.
What about the Packers is different?
For starters, a defense that featured six rookies make their professional football debuts, has matured. One of those rookies, cornerback Casey Hayward, is likely to win defensive rookie of the year honors. Rookie Nick Perry and second-year man D.J. Smith were in the starting lineup that day. They’re both on injured reserve now. Jarrett Bush was a starter at cornerback; he’s been replaced by Sam Shields, who’s playing at a star-quality level.
Cedric Benson was the Packers’ starting running back. He’s on IR now and DuJuan Harris, who had yet to join the Packers roster and was embarking upon a career as a car salesman, is now the team’s starting running back.
Bryan Bulaga was the Packers’ starting right tackle. He’s on IR now, replaced by rookie Don Barclay, who was on the bench then. Jeff Saturday was the Packers’ starting center; Evan Dietrich-Smith is the starter now.
“I don’t think we had our identity at that point,” Aaron Rodgers said following Saturday’s win over the Vikings. “We were trying a lot of different things.”
What, in fact, is the Packers’ identity now? Is it not change?
On that 72-degree afternoon at Lambeau Field, Greg Jennings caught five passes for 34 yards and Jermichael Finley caught seven balls for 47 yards. These days, there’s speculation that neither player will be with the team next season.
Change announced itself on that day in September in the form of second-year return man/receiver Randall Cobb leading the Packers in receiving with nine catches and returning a punt 80 yards for a touchdown. In the ensuing weeks, Cobb would add running back to his “slash” role, and it quickly became apparent that he was being groomed to be the team’s new star on offense.
What about the 49ers?
Well, they are different in the most important of ways: Coach Jim Harbaugh boldly made a late-season change at the most important position in all of sports. Alex Smith has been replaced by second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who will be making his postseason debut when the Packers and 49ers face each other at Candlestick Park.
“He can extend plays with his feet. The playbook is as big as when Alex was in there, so obviously he knows the offense,” Rodgers said.
“They’re a different team. We’ll look at the pass schemes, more recent. We’ll have to find a way to block up their Pro-Bowlers inside.”
In the time it took for summer to become winter, and that is the greatest of changes in Green Bay, the Packers and 49ers evolved into very different teams than the ones we saw at Lambeau Field on Sept. 9. What remains to be answered is: Will the result be different? Additional coverage - Packers vs. Vikings