Monday January 7, 2013

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The San Francisco 49ers can toss their film from the season opener against Green Bay in the trash for as much good as it will do now.

Cedric Benson is gone, and the Packers’ running game is now powered by DuJuan Harris and Ryan Grant -- neither of whom was on the roster Dec. 1, let alone back in September.

Randall Cobb, whose 75-yard punt return gave the Packers a fleeting chance late in the 30-22 victory by San Francisco, is now one of Aaron Rodgers’ favorite receivers.

And a defense that may as well have been holding rookie orientation for all its newcomers is now a savvy, stingy bunch of veterans.

"A lot’s happened," coach Mike McCarthy said. "We’re a different football team. We’re a different football team than we were four weeks ago."

The Packers (12-5) play San Francisco (11-4-1) Saturday night in an NFC divisional game after beating Minnesota in the wild-card round. The 49ers are early 3-point favorites.

San Francisco has had its share of changes this season, too, the most significant being coach Jim Harbaugh’s decision to stick with Colin Kaepernick after Alex Smith recovered from his concussion.

But that’s nothing compared with the Packers, who’ve had so many injuries and lineup changes that defensive coordinator Dom Capers was watching film of the season opener Sunday partly to remind himself of who was -- and wasn’t -- on the field back then.


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More than a dozen starters or projected starters have missed a game or more with an injury, including: Charles Woodson, who played Saturday for the first time since breaking his right collarbone Oct. 21; Greg Jennings, who missed eight games with a torn muscle in his groin; Clay Matthews and Jordy Nelson, who missed four games each with hamstring injuries; and Benson, who played only five games before a season-ending foot injury.

Change has been the only constant on the offensive line the second half of the season, with the Packers on their fifth starting lineup. Same in the secondary, where three players started at right corner over the last seven games.

That kind of upheaval would doom most teams, but the Packers have managed to thrive. Somewhere amidst the chaos, they not only found solutions, they found themselves.

"Everybody starts the season and has an idea and vision of who you want to be," McCarthy said Sunday. "But the reality of it is, you go through a 16-week season, there’s a lot of things happen. There’s obstacles that you have to get through. There’s injuries to different players, players coming in, players going out. I think all those things factor in to who you really are and who you think you are."

The biggest difference the 49ers will see is in the running game. Green Bay managed a measly 45 yards on the ground in the opener, and Rodgers and Benson were the only two ball carriers. Rodgers, not Benson, led the Packers.

"I don’t think we had our identity at that point," Rodgers said. "We were trying a lot of different things."

The running game still wasn’t clicking when Benson got hurt, and the Packers had only minimal success with Alex Green and James Starks.

It took the pint-sized Harris to bring Green Bay’s offense into balance, a speedy and elusive back whose surprising power gives defenses fits. After cracking the 100-yard mark three times in the first eight games, the Packers have done it in five of the last seven.

Defensively, the Packers may not have as many takeaways as they did last season, but they’re far more consistent and aren’t likely to get burned by the same thing twice. Or three times in the case of Adrian Peterson. After bulldozing Green Bay for 409 yards in the first two games, Peterson was held to just 99 on Saturday night.

Green Bay finished the regular season with 47 sacks, fourth-best in the NFL, and had three more Saturday night. It limited Minnesota to 10 points, the eighth time in the last 11 games the Packers have allowed 20 points or fewer.

BALTIMORE 24,
INDIANAPOLIS 9

BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Ravens want one long final ride for Ray Lewis. Having disposed of Andrew Luck and the Colts, they now face a more imposing challenge.

Next up, Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.

Anquan Boldin set a franchise record with 145 yards receiving, including the clinching touchdown in the Ravens’ 24-9 victory Sunday over Indianapolis in an AFC wild-card game. The win delays star linebacker Lewis’ retirement for at least another week as Baltimore (11-6) heads to top-seeded Denver (13-3) next Saturday.

The Broncos beat the Ravens 34-17 three weeks ago.

"I wanted Denver," Boldin said, "because they beat us.

"We’ll make it different."

And he wanted the Broncos because it prolongs the Ravens’ pursuit of their first NFL title since the 2000 season, when Lewis won the first of two Defensive Player of the Year awards.

Lewis, who made 13 tackles Sunday, ended his last home game in Baltimore at fullback, of all things, for the final kneel-down. He then went into a short version of his trademark dance before being mobbed by teammates.

He followed with a victory lap, his right arm, covered by a brace, held high in salute to the fans after playing for the first time since tearing his right triceps on Oct. 14 against Dallas.

"My only focus was to come in and get my team a win. Nothing else was planned," the 37-year-old Lewis said. "It’s one of those things, when you recap it all and try to say what is one of your greatest moments.

"I knew how it started but I never knew how it would end here in Baltimore. To go the way it did today, I wouldn’t change nothing."

He would like nothing more than to change past results against Manning, who was 2-0 in the postseason against Baltimore while with the Colts.