GREEN BAY—Aaron Rodgers gave a very simple answer.
Asked what sounded like a complex question on Wednesday about what he’s learned from the previous three meetings with the San Francisco 49ers that can help the Packers on Sunday, Rodgers replied, “You have to play well to beat them.”
It wasn’t a snide or smart remark, either. It was matter-of-fact and truthful. The 49ers don’t beat themselves with turnovers and they don’t get gashed repeatedly for big yardage, two ways games are often given away.
In the three games against Green Bay dating back to the 2012 opener, San Francisco has turned the ball over just once on offense. Its defense has allowed only three of 49 runs to go for longer than nine yards and just seven of 120 pass attempts to explode for more than 30.
The 49ers force their opponents to be at the top of their game all the time, and that’s the challenge the Packers face in this NFC wild-card playoff matchup.
“The defense needs to play its best game of the year,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “We need to improve off of how we’ve performed here in the past. Offense, we need to get better, too.
"This is playoff football. Everybody understands our production needs to jump up here."
A big help to the defense would be continuing its takeaways ways of late. Having struggled in that area most of the season, with just 14 turnovers through the first 12 games, the defense has come up with eight – and some crucial ones – over the last four contests.
The Packers’ only takeaway in the three 49ers games was Sam Shields’ pick-six early in the playoff game a year ago. The 49ers fumbled only twice and recovered both times.
“I’d say it brings about a confidence, knowing that you can get the ball back,” defensive lineman Mike Daniels said of the unit’s vibe regarding turnovers lately. “That’s a critical part of the game.”
Offensively, it’s not as though the Packers have played poorly against the 49ers, but so far it hasn’t been good enough.
San Francisco is loaded defensively in its front seven, and Rodgers named nearly every starter on that side of the ball as he talked about the challenges they present.
“It’s hard to pick out just one with them because there are so many big names and guys that play well,” he said. “The film doesn’t lie.
“It’s a talented defense. There’s not a recipe I think to get after them. You have to be very accurate with the football and you have to execute your offense as well as you can.”
The Packers are hoping the return of receiver Randall Cobb to a full-time role can help create matchups to their liking and stress the 49ers, but the 49ers have faced Cobb all three times previously.
The true wild card is probably the Packers running game, which hasn’t looked like it does now in any of the prior meetings. James Starks hasn’t carried the ball against San Francisco since 2010. In Week 1 this season, Eddie Lacy was playing in his first pro game and fumbled for the first and only time.
“Totally different back. Night and day,” receiver James Jones said of Lacy, who has been battling that bum ankle but is expected to practice on Thursday this week. “He’s way more comfortable, way more confident.
“They’ll have to account for him, and I know by them watching film and seeing what he’s done during the season, they know he’s not the same player he was in Week 1. It’s good for us to have him in the position he’s in now.”
Combining Lacy with Starks, the Packers ground game has a solid track record as well as options that it didn’t have with Cedric Benson in the 2012 opener, DuJuan Harris in the playoffs last year, and the debut-making Lacy four months ago.
“The way they run hard, they finish runs,” receiver Jordy Nelson said of the current backfield duo. “They fall forward, so you gain that extra yard or two, which makes a huge difference on third down.”
The other difference-maker in this game could be the brutally cold weather, which the Packers are accustomed to, having played three cold-weather games in the last month while the 49ers’ last two road trips were to Tampa and Arizona.
With a strong-armed quarterback in Colin Kaepernick, running back Frank Gore and that stout defense, San Francisco seems built for the cold, so the Packers don’t believe the 49ers will make any major adjustments. Rodgers acknowledged the weather will have an effect on this game, most likely the passing attacks.
“It is different,” Nelson said. “A lot of it is how your hands are cold. The ball is hard. It stings a little bit. I don’t think they’ll have a problem.
“We’re used to it, and we’ll practice outside these next couple days and we have for the last few weeks. It’s something a little to our advantage because we’ve been here, but again, just like anything, it’s not going to win the game for us.”
Which brings it all back to what Rodgers said initially about simply playing well. There’s no substitute for that.
“You just have to not make mistakes, to be honest with you,” Nelson said. “That’s how it’s going to be all throughout the playoffs, no matter who you’re playing. It’s going to be quality teams, quality defenses, and you have to play quality football.”