GREEN BAY — The crisis in the seats has been averted.
Green Bay Packers fans, as always, will fill Lambeau Field despite the bitter cold predicted for Sunday’s NFC wild card playoff game with the San Francisco 49ers.
That means the crisis has shifted to the playing field, where the Packers will try to avoid losing to the defending NFC champions for the fourth time in 16 months.
The anticipated sub-zero temperatures and Arctic Circle wind chills have been the topic of discussion all week while the Packers — like two of the other three NFL teams hosting playoff games — scrambled to sell tickets, but the truth is the conditions will affect the game far more than the attendance.
That’s why the up-and-down Packers probably should be favored to beat the talent-rich 49ers today, though by the slimmest of margins.
Like, say, an inch.
Yes, an inch, which is the difference between the hand size of the quarterbacks — Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick — as measured at the NFL scouting combine when they entered the draft. Rodgers’ hands (101/8 inches) are large for a quarterback; Kaepernick’s hands (91/8) were the smallest among the 18 quarterbacks at the 2011 combine.
Even though the 49ers have the NFL’s best roster, won six straight games to finish 12-4 and own the Packers since the start of the 2012 season, Rodgers could be the great equalizer for a Green Bay team that didn’t punch its playoff ticket until the final minute of the regular season. That is especially true in today’s conditions, where Rodgers’ large hands and cold-weather experience should serve him well.
There is much more to this game than the size of the quarterbacks’ mitts, of course, but once you get done dissecting the 49ers’ 1,450 yards of offense in the past three meetings, the sorry state of the Packers’ defense without linebacker Clay Matthews and how Green Bay’s offense is suddenly whole with the return of Rodgers and wide receiver Randall Cobb, you eventually come back to the quarterbacks.
Rodgers is one of the top three in the NFL and appears to be back in form after returning from a seven-game injury absence last week, just in time to lead Green Bay past Chicago and into the playoffs. Kaepernick twice destroyed the Packers’ defense in calendar year 2013 — with his feet in a 45-31 playoff victory in January and with his arm in a 34-28 win in September — but, despite his Wisconsin roots, he has never played in anything close to the conditions he’ll face today.
Unlike the Ice Bowl 46 years ago, Lambeau Field won’t turn into a skating rink today. The electric blanket under the field failed miserably in the 1967 NFL championship game and the field effectively was concrete by the second half. That reduced the footing to something between treacherous and non-existent.
With heating elements under the field that should actually work today, footing shouldn’t be a major problem. Handling the ball will be, however. The ball freezes in extreme cold and its surface becomes very slick. Throwing spirals, handling the ball and securing it tightly, all with ice-cold hands, can become dicey.
“The ball is going to be harder and that’s really the No. 1 obstacle,” 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “It’s more about the ball and the grip.”
No one knows that better than Rodgers, who has played in Green Bay since 2005.
“It definitely does change the texture of the football,” he said. “So you have to factor that in when you’re tossing the ball to a back or when you’re throwing it. You have to make some small adjustments.”
Rodgers’ large hands and experience gripping the ball in cold weather give the Packers an edge in that regard. And though some will say this fixation on hand size is a trivial matter, think about it this way: The three best quarterbacks in Wisconsin over the past 25 years — Rodgers, Brett Favre and Russell Wilson — all have very large hands.
Kaepernick does not, which could make it hard for him to consistently spin the ball today. So how can the Packers turn Kaepernick’s potential weakness to their advantage? They can start by saving their defensive game plan from the season opener and using it again.
Stung by the 579 yards they allowed in the playoff game, including 323 on the ground, the Packers stymied the 49ers’ running game in September, holding it to 90 yards on 34 carries. Of course, focusing all that attention on stopping the run freed up Kaepernick to throw for a career-best 412 yards.
Kaepernick experienced a throwing slump after that game, but he’s been red-hot over the past six. Still, he’s not going to match his season-opening numbers again, not with the temperature below zero and the wind potentially blowing. The Packers need to make him beat them with his arm.
It’s possible the 49ers, who are built like a cold-weather team, will simply overrun the Packers’ defense and reduce their dependence on Kaepernick’s arm. However, the Packers had a 6-2 mark in games Rodgers started and finished and, when you couple his return with an emerging running game, it evens up today’s game pretty quickly.
Against a 49ers team that has become their nemesis, the Packers couldn’t have been handed a better setting in which to spring an upset.