SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The anxiety-filled green room and draft day seem so long ago now to Aaron Rodgers.

Still, on this weekend, any lingering feelings of frustration about how far he dropped will be directed right at the team that passed him up with the No. 1 pick nearly eight years ago.

Rodgers brings the high-scoring Green Bay Packers (12-5) to Candlestick Park on Saturday to face No. 2 seed San Francisco (11-4-1) in prime time for a place in the NFC championship game. He'll take the field in the very venue where he became a regular fan as a boy rooting for Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Steve Young.

Rodgers, who appeared in a preseason game at Candlestick in 2008, will play his first meaningful game at the stadium at last, as an eighth-year pro. He will look to avenge a 30-22 season-opening home loss to the 49ers.

"It will be fun. I went to a few baseball games there growing up, and saw a game there when I was in college," Rodgers said. "Stadium's got a lot of tradition. Looks like we're kind of fortunate with the weather right now. Still wonder what that's going to be like.

"But it will be a night game, it will be loud, it will be a great environment and it should be a good show for the fans."

Rodgers is putting on quite a show, all right.

He returns to Northern California, where he became a college star for California across San Francisco Bay in Berkeley, with a healthy cast of receivers and the swagger of a Super Bowl champion.

When Rodgers dropped to No. 24 in the 2005 draft after Alex Smith went No. 1, he was asked about his disappointment. He so matter-of-factly said, "not as disappointed as the 49ers will be that they didn't draft me."

Now, everybody in the Bay Area and beyond will be watching his every move again.

He already upset some friends he couldn't accommodate with tickets. Family first, with everybody else making the 4-hour trek from his hometown of Chico left to fend for themselves.

Most important, of course, is getting Green Bay one step closer to another Super Bowl. Last season's chance at a repeat championship came to a screeching halt at the hands of the Giants in this very round at Lambeau Field.

The Giants came to San Francisco the next week and won the NFC title game, 20-17 in overtime.

Just as the Niners moved on from that heartbreaking loss and used it as a motivational push each day this season, the same goes for Rodgers after being slighted by his beloved San Francisco on draft day.

"It's been a long time since the green room," Rodgers said. "I have a lot of good memories growing up watching Steve Young and Joe Montana on TV and the Super Bowl wins and being a 49ers fan. That was a team I enjoyed watching and dreamt about playing for. I'm eight years removed here, and obviously I'm really happy with the situation I'm in."

A lot has changed in that time for San Francisco, too.

The QB the 49ers picked ahead of Rodgers — Smith — spent the season's second half on the bench as coach Jim Harbaugh promoted second-year pro Colin Kaepernick. He will make his playoff debut Saturday.

In an odd twist, Kaepernick was born in Milwaukee and adopted before moving to California at age 4. Yes, he began as a toddler Cheesehead, then changed allegiances "when I got drafted," Kaepernick said.

He has never met Rodgers. He still knows plenty.

Even San Francisco's opportunistic, ball-hawking defense realizes just how hard it will be to rattle Rodgers or get him off his game. He hasn't thrown an interception in five straight games and 177 passes. His receiving corps is intact again at last, each of the big four of Greg Jennings, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and James Jones capable of game-breaking catches and career performances.

Jennings has 19 receptions for 226 yards and three touchdowns over the last three games.

The 49ers will need big performances from Aldon Smith and Justin Smith, the defensive pass-rushing menace expected back after he missed the final two regular-season games with a partially torn left triceps. Not to mention their talented seconardy.

Beating some of the NFL's top quarterbacks hasn't proven too much for San Francisco so far. Aside from the win against Rodgers in the opener, the Niners beat Drew Brees in New Orleans and shocked Tom Brady in New England.

"We've played some of the best quarterbacks this year and have done well," linebacker Patrick Willis said. "This Saturday is going to call for our best. We can't afford to not play our best football, play our best defense. There's no tomorrow, there's no next week."

Harbaugh has been impressed just how well Kaepernick seems to understand the magnitude of this task, while also remaining unfazed by the added hype and attention.

"It's a bit savant-like the way he's handling it so far this week," Harbaugh said. "So, that's really encouraging."

Poll the players and coaches around the 49ers and everybody believes Kaepernick is perfectly ready for his biggest game yet.

"I don't think we're going to see any big eyes," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said.

This was the matchup everybody expected in last year's NFC championship game until New York came along and spoiled both teams' plans.

Back in September, San Francisco linebacker Ahmad Brooks said the win at Green Bay might be an "eye opener" and "maybe we'll see them again in the NFC championship."

He was only one week off.

Now, San Francisco wants to make sure it is still standing next week.

"We still feel we're just as good as we were last year," Willis said. "Hopefully this is a new season."

Same sentiments are coming from the Green Bay side. The Packers won three road games on the way to their championship two years ago, so why not keep a good thing going away from Lambeau Field?

And coach Mike McCarthy is counting on Green Bay being better equipped to pound the ball in the run game.

"We have to be," the coach said, "it's the playoffs."


AP National Writer Nancy Armour in Green Bay, Wis., contributed to this story.


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  • 1. Peyton Manning And the Broncos

    It feels as if Peyton Manning and the Broncos have not played a big game in a month or more, even though they had to win games — they are up to 11 straight heading in — to clinch the AFC West, earn a first-round bye by beating the Ravens in Week 15 and then lock up the top spot in the AFC playoffs. The dominant victory in Baltimore sets up a theme that has been echoed with three of the four games this weekend, which are rematches and rematches of three fairly one-sided affairs: We know we’ll see a different team this time around. The 49ers are saying it about the Packers, the Patriots are saying it about the Texans and the Broncos are most certainly saying it about a Ravens team they thumped 34-17 in a game that was nowhere near as close as the score suggests.

  • 2. Ray Lewis

    Ray Lewis was outstanding Sunday against the Colts. He made 13 tackles and played every defensive snap (plus one as a fullback for the final kneeldown on offense — nice touch, John Harbaugh) despite a triceps injury that kept him out since Oct. 14. Manning was held in check, relatively speaking, by a Lewis-less defense in the first game, but he has beaten the Ravens nine straight times (including twice in the playoffs). They have not beaten Manning since 2001, when Lewis and the Ravens looked like a dynasty. The Broncos are 13-3 at home in the playoffs, but the Ravens are no slouches on the road in the postseason, going 7-5 with four of those road wins under Harbaugh’s watch since 2008.

  • 3. Anquan Boldin

    WR Anquan Boldin was a crucial figure in the Ravens’ wild-card victory over the Colts, going up to make several big grabs in a 5-145-1 receiving day, a Ravens team record for receiving yards in the playoffs. He must be clutch again Saturday against a Broncos team that held him without a catch in Week 15. The signature moment of the game was Broncos CB Chris Harris intercepting a pass — intended for Boldin — and running back 98 yards for the knife-in-back score just before halftime. That can’t happen again for Baltimore. Boldin, 32, might not separate well, but he can outmuscle most DBs. Interestingly, that was the last interception Joe Flacco has thrown. Bet you didn’t realize that.

  • 4. Packers' Second Chance

    The 49ers dominated the first matchup in Week One in Green Bay, taking 10-0 and 23-7 leads, with the Packers only getting back in the game thanks to a Randall Cobb punt return that should have never happened (there was a clear block-in-the-back penalty missed). But the Packers were getting a young defense up to speed, which appears now to have happened. They steadily improved on that side of the ball against the power running of Vikings RB Adrian Peterson and will face a similar hurdle with the 49ers’ Frank Gore, who ran 16 times for 112 yards in Week One. But the most obvious change since then has been the QB switch in San Francisco, as Jim Harbaugh benched an effective but limited Alex Smith for Colin Kaepernick, who has opened up the offense with his strong arm and running skills but also made it more prone to cold snaps. One other fascinating development: Both teams have developed bad kicking problems, although Mason Crosby (3-for-3 on FGs the last two weeks, including a 51-yarder) appears to have gotten his act straight. But the Niners are expected to carry two kickers — David Akers and Bill Cundiff — into Saturday’s game. Whom will they call on? Akers has been terrible pretty much since Week One, when he hit a 63-yarder at Green Bay.

  • 5. Packers vs. Zone-Read Plays

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  • 6. Aaron Rodgers vs. 49ers' Pass Rush

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  • 7. Deja Vu for Falcons?

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  • 8. Seahawks' Secondary vs. Falcons' Receivers

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  • 9. Can Falcons Stop Marshawn Lynch?

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  • 10. Matt Schaub Must Deliver

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  • 11. Patriots' Tight Ends vs. Texans

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  • 12. Texans' Rushing Offense vs. Patriots

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*All captions via Pro Football Weekly