GREEN BAY, Wisc. -- Mike McCarthy made a profound statement by saying quarterback Aaron Rodgers had "probably his finest hour as a Green Bay Packer" with his late-game heroics at Chicago last weekend.
Two days later, the head coach issued another eye-opening statement.
When asked specifically about coordinator Dom Capers and the importance of the impending wild-card playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday for Capers' struggling defense and perhaps his future with the team, McCarthy had this retort Wednesday: "Dom Capers is a competitor. It's a very important game to all of us. This isn't a contest to see who this game's more important (for). We're a football team. We know that one area needs to play to the other and so forth. But, the defense needs to play its best game of the year."
Strong words in that latter sentiment may speak to what else may be on the line other than the rejuvenated Packers' trying to get to the second round of the playoffs for the fourth straight year.
With the offense for Green Bay (8-7-1) back to optimum strength with the return of Rodgers and receiver Randall Cobb for the thrilling NFC North-clinching win at Chicago in Week 17, the challenge is clearly on the defense to rise to the occasion.
The Packers are meeting the 49ers (12-4) for the fourth time in 16 months. The common thread in Green Bay losing each of the previous three meetings is a letdown by the defense.
The 49ers won those games by scores of 30-22 at Green Bay in the 2012 season opener, 45-31 at San Francisco in the divisional round of the 2012 playoffs and 34-28 back at San Francisco to start this season.
What's more, the 49ers gashed the Packers for yardage totals of 377, 579 and 494 yards in those games, respectively.
"They're a talented group," Capers said about the current San Francisco offense, which finished the regular season ranked third in rushing but 30th in passing and 24th for overall production.
"They have very good skill on this team," Capers added. "They have (Michael) Crabtree back now to go with the addition of (Anquan) Boldin at receiver. Vernon Davis is a rare guy (at) tight end. They've got one of the best offensive lines in the league and a young quarterback (Colin Kaepernick) who is very talented. Frank Gore (is) a physical runner. So, they have a lot of weapons."
As much as Kaepernick has endured an up-and-down first full season as San Francisco's starter behind center, the Packers have made him look like a perennial league MVP in the teams' last two meetings.
In Kaepernick's breakthrough performance in the playoffs last January, he set a league record by a quarterback with 181 rushing yards, coupled with 119 yards on the ground from Gore.
After Capers and his staff spent a big chunk of the offseason trying to solve the mystery that was defending the read option executed so well by Kaepernick that the Packers weren't prepared to defend in the postseason, the 49ers threw another curveball.
San Francisco went heavy on the pass in the Sept. 8 season opener at Candlestick Park. Kaepernick went to town against a Green Bay defense missing top safety Morgan Burnett and playmaking nickel back Casey Hayward, both of whom were out with hamstring injuries.
Kaepernick completed 27 of 39 passes for a career-high 412 yards and three touchdowns.
Green Bay's ability to bottle up Gore and Kaepernick in running situations in that game didn't matter in the final outcome.
"They depend so much on their run game and their run game setting the tone," Capers said. "They have a big, physical offensive line. If you can run the ball, then it opens up your play-action passing game. It doesn't put as much pressure on the (offensive) line to sit and pass protect because you're not in as many predictable situations where people (on defense) are just going to pin their ears back and come.
"I think one of the keys (Sunday) is not let them get the good mix of the run and the pass where they keep you off-balance. You have to be able to get them in more predictable situations."
The conundrum for Capers this week in drawing up another game plan for the 49ers is trying to predict how they will want to try to play on offense in the latest rematch. With Kaepernick at the controls, they have dominated going with the run in one game and then with the pass in the latest game.
"Obviously, we've watched the last three times we've played them," linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "For the most part, we did stop the run pretty well last time, but they torched us through the air. So, we've got to find a way to kind of stop both of them. (But) I don't know. I don't have any secret answer for you or any special potion, but we're working on it. We're making sure everyone has everything right and we're all playing together, basically."
Green Bay will have Burnett on the back end for this game, but the Packers will be without their defensive leader. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who had team highs of 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in the regular season, is sidelined indefinitely after reinjuring his surgically repaired broken right thumb in the Week 16 loss to Pittsburgh.
That takes away the Packers' best pass rusher to potentially disrupt Kaepernick in the pocket and also one of their more assignment-sure players for being disciplined against the run.
The Packers may stick with undrafted rookie Andy Mulumba, who had their only sack in the win at Chicago, at Matthews' right-side spot. Nick Perry, who lost his starting job on the left side to Mike Neal in recent weeks, has been effective when shifted to the right side but seen diminished playing time of late, in part because of a lingering foot injury.
The maligned Capers is hopeful his defense, which finished the regular season ranked 25th against the run and 24th against the pass, will finally have an answer for the 49ers based on one positive aspect.
Green Bay tied for 21st in the league with just 22 takeaways, but it has produced 12 in the past five games.