As a reward for finishing the regular season tied for the second-best record in the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers get what may be one of the coldest playoff games in league history.
Doesn’t seem fair to the defending NFC champions. But the playoff-tested 49ers are up for the challenge of hitting the road, trying to return to the Super Bowl. It starts Sunday with a wild-card game against the Green Bay Packers at frigid Lambeau Field.
“Even when you have a home playoff game it’s not easy. We understand that it’s all about the team that’s playing the best at the moment and that’s how you do it,” safety Donte Whitner said. “It doesn’t matter where we play.”
Well, maybe this weekend it might.
The high temperature on Sunday might be in the single digits — if the 49ers (12-4) and Packers (8-7-1) are lucky. The wind promises to make it feel even colder.
The coldest game on record is the 1967 championship game, known as the “Ice Bowl” won by the Packers 21-17 over the Dallas Cowboys at Lambeau on New Year’s Eve. The temperature dipped to minus-13, and the wind chill that day made it feel like minus-48.
“Cold weather in Lambeau Field, it’s a tough place to play,” Packers fullback John Kuhn said. “I’m sure they’ve got all kinds of ideas and plans of how they’re going to prepare for the weather, so it’s going to come down to execution on game day and whoever does that best.”
Five things to watch ahead of Sunday’s game:
WARM-WEATHER TEAM?: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers shared his trick for playing in the bitter cold: “Eat a lot of chicken noodle soup.”
San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis liked that one: “Chicken noodle soup’s pretty good, can’t argue with that. Give me a ‘W’ and that will take care of all the warmth I need.”
The 49ers took the practice field on New Year’s Day with the temperature in the mid-60s. Sunday’s high in Green Bay is projected to be 8 degrees.
Coach Jim Harbaugh spoke of “keeping it simple” on the road regardless of thermometer reading.
“Just get warm and make plays,” tight end Vernon Davis said.
CAPTAIN COMEBACK: Funny how one player can change the Packers’ playoff outlook.
When that guy is Rodgers, anything is possible.
Green Bay won a third straight NFC North title in large part because of the fourth-quarter drive led by Rodgers last week in a 33-28 win over the Bears. It culminated with a stunning 48-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb on fourth-and-8 with 38 seconds left.
That left collarbone that kept him out for nearly two months is fine now. He’s healthy just in time to face a nasty defense that’s ranked fifth in the league.
STOPPING BOLDIN: Among the tall tasks for the Packers’ defense will be dealing with receiver Anquan Boldin.
Green Bay got thoroughly embarrassed by Boldin in Week 1, when the wideout had 13 catches for 208 yards and a touchdown. He finished the regular season with 85 catches for 1,179 yards and seven TDs.
The 49ers also have Michael Crabtree back after the receiver missed the opener with an Achilles tendon injury.
“Both of their receivers are strong, they’re good with the ball in their hand after the catch,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Friday. “You’ve got to tackle them because they’ll run through arm tackles.”
SPY GAME: In two games, Colin Kaepernick has beaten the Packers with his arm and his legs.
Kaepernick was on the passing end of Boldin’s big day in September. A year ago, he had a quarterback playoff record of 181 yards rushing against the Packers out of the read-option.
Making things tougher for the Packers is that they’ll be without linebacker Clay Matthews (right thumb), the defender Capers would have employed to “spy” on Kaepernick.
“If you’re going to spy a guy, you’ve got to have a guy that can match Kaepernick in terms of running,” Capers said. “Doesn’t do any good if you can’t catch him.”
EASING EDDIE: Rookie running back Eddie Lacy apparently won’t let a sprained right ankle slow him down.
Coach Mike McCarthy said his 1,100-yard rusher looked good this week in practice. The ankle has bothered Lacy for much of the past month, though the bruising back keeps on barreling over defenders.
It presents the 49ers with an unwelcome dilemma: focus on Rodgers or Lacy?
“He’s hard to bring down. You have to pick and choose your poison,” Whitner said. “He takes a load off Aaron Rodgers.”
REID NEARLY SPEECHLESS AFTER LOSS
Andy Reid was almost speechless.
He couldn’t explain how the Chiefs’ defense blew a 28-point lead or why Kansas City’s offense could only generate two field goals in the final 28½ minutes. He didn’t bother to reflect on how a promising 9-0 start turned into yet another first-game playoff exit for the Chiefs. And he didn’t dare try to put a bitter 45-44 wild-card loss into historical context.
“Sometimes the game speaks for itself, so you don’t have to say a whole lot,” Reid said when asked about his postgame locker room speech.
For the Chiefs (11-6), it was a crushing blow to a remarkable turnaround season.
They went from 2-14 to the playoffs behind Reid and new quarterback Alex Smith and for most of the first three quarters, it looked as though Kansas City would finally end a two-decade drought without a postseason win. And when the Chiefs led 38-10 with 13:39 left in the third quarter, it seemed all but assured that they would be moving on next weekend.
Instead, they watched helplessly as Andrew Luck led the Colts on the second-largest playoff comeback in NFL history.
Kansas City closed the season with three straight losses, six losses in their last eight games, and a record-breaking eighth straight playoff loss.
“Any time you’re leading like that and then have them battle back and then take it and losing by a point is a tough pill to swallow,” Smith said.
Especially on a day on which Luck appeared to be pressing. The Colts quarterback turned things around by throwing three of his four touchdowns in the second half, scoring on a fumble return and connecting with a wide-open T.Y. Hilton on a 64-yard go-ahead TD pass.
“One for the ages,” said Pagano, Indianapolis’ coach.
Indianapolis (12-5) became only the second playoff team to rally from that big a deficit, according to STATS. Buffalo rallied from 32 points to beat Houston 41-38 in January 1993, though that one required overtime.
The teams’ 1,049 combined total yards is an NFL postseason record, and their 89 combined points is third.
Luck was an incredible mix of good and bad, finishing 29 of 45 for 443 yards, the second-highest yardage total in franchise history for a playoff game. He also matched his career high with three interceptions. Hilton broke franchise playoff records with 13 catches and 224 yards, and also caught two TDs.
“I don’t know if it ever crossed my mind on how it would be remembered,” Luck said after winning his first playoff game four seasons quicker than it took his predecessor, Peyton Manning. “When I took a knee, and you feel the buzz and the energy of the crowd and see your teammates’ faces, that makes it special.”
GRAHAM GETS IT FOR EAGLES
After erasing nearly a half-century of road playoff frustration, a trip to Seattle shouldn’t be intimidating for Drew Brees, Shayne Graham and the New Orleans Saints.
Graham’s 32-yard field goal, the fourth of the game for the recent addition to the team, won the wild-card game on the final play, 26-24 over the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday night. Brees, who threw for a touchdown and guided the 34-yard drive to the winning kick, didn’t need to be a big star because the Saints’ running game and defense — along with Graham’s leg — provided the heroics.
“It’s just, man, believing in each other, ignoring what everyone else has to say,” Brees said.
New Orleans had been 0-5 in postseason games outside of the Big Easy since entering the league in 1967. The Saints (12-5) will play at NFC top-seed Seattle next Saturday; they lost there 34-7 in the regular season.
“It’s loud, it’s crazy, they’ve got a good thing going there,” Brees said of the next challenge. “Obviously, they’ve only lost one game there in the last two years. But having been there less than a month ago, I think that serves us well, what to expect, how to prepare for it.
“But we’re going to need our best game, that’s for sure.”
This was not their best offensive game, by far. But Graham, now with his 10th team after being signed by the Saints just over two weeks ago to replace long-time kicker Garrett Hartley, also connected from 36, 46 and 35 yards.
“I didn’t feel an ounce of fear,” the 13-year veteran said. “If I had been here for 14 years or for one game, my job is the same. I feel like I’ve been adopted into a family.”
Brees threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Lance Moore, Mark Ingram rushed for 97 yards and another score, and the Saints’ defense slowed Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense just enough.
The Eagles wound up 10-7 in Kelly’s first year as coach. He guided them from worst to first in the NFC East, but they were only 4-5 at home.
“I didn’t think winning the division was a surprise to us and we’re disappointed we didn’t move forward,” Kelly said.
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