GREEN BAY, Wis. — 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.”
Sports Writer Janie McCauley in Santa Clara, Calif., contributed to this report.
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