The Green Bay Packers seemed to have everything they could want in place for their opening round NFL Playoff showdown against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday afternoon: A healthy Aaron Rodgers, a sold-out Lambeau Field filled with fans in green and yellow and frigid conditions that the franchise has thrived in throughout its decades of success in the NFL.
But as Troy Aikman pointed out in the pregame portion of the telecast, the 49ers personnel and style of football makes them a noticeably better cold-weather team than the Packers.
Nobody in the league runs the ball more often than the 49ers, and few if any running backs in the league have the nose for the first down marker and the lower body power of San Francisco's bell cow, Frank Gore.
Surprisingly, it was quarterback Colin Kaepernick who led the team in rushing on Sunday, getting 98 yards via gazelle-like strides while deciding to tuck the ball and scramble a total of seven times.
His most impressive run of the game – and for that matter, the entire season – took place with just over four minutes left in the first half and San Francisco trailing 6 – 7.
Kaepernick made his decision to bolt the pocket just a few seconds into the play, knifing directly through the center of the field before angling out toward the left sideline and eventually being tackled at the 13-yard line. Frank Gore scored on a 10-yard run a few plays later to make the score 13 – 7, and Mason Crosby connected on a short field goal a few minutes later to make it 13 – 10 at the half.
After a scoreless third quarter, the action picked up in the final frame as Aaron Rodgers was able to scramble out of the grasp of two 49ers that had him dead to rights on a 4th & 2 play before he found an open target and connected with him deep into 49er territory.
It led to a Packer touchdown that briefly gave them a 17 – 13 lead, but San Francisco needed only a minute and a half to put together a 63-yard scoring drive of their own and pull back ahead 20 – 17.
Rogers drove his bunch deep into San Francisco territory once again as the clock ticked down toward the five-minute mark in the game, but they were unable to get across the goal line and forced to settle for another Crosby field goal that tied the score at 20.
It looked to many educated football minds as though the game was headed for overtime, but the 49ers put together a brisk yet methodical drive that got them well within the range of kicker Phil Dawson on a brutally cold day that made the ball noticeably more difficult to kick and catch. Dawson's effort was nearly blocked, but in the end it sailed just inside the right upright, giving the 49ers a 23 – 20 victory.
The next step of the NFL Playoffs for San Francisco will be a trip to Carolina to face a Panthers team that beat them 10 – 9 on their home turf earlier this season.
The Packers will go home, heal their injuries and prepare for an off-season in which they will likely address a few shortcomings at key positions. A huge positive as the team moves forward is the play of Eddie Lacy, who at times on Sunday resembled a young Stephen Jackson while bashing his way down the frozen, yellowish Lambeau turf.
Despite the increase in the scoring and the tempo throughout the fourth quarter, this game can still certainly be categorized as an old-fashioned slugfest. "We've got a lot of tough guys, and they generate a lot of toughness," said Coach Jim Harbaugh in the post-game interview. He rattled off a list of core players, all of whom are etching their names into modern-day 49er history.