The marquee matchup of the NFL’s opening weekend will take place at historic Lambeau Field, with the Green Bay Packers hosting the San Francisco 49ers at 4:25pm EST on Fox. These two NFC stalwarts combined for 28 regular-season wins in 2011, and both clubs have Super Bowl expectations in 2012. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers led the Packers to a 15-1 mark a year ago before a 37-20 loss to the Giants ended their season in stunning fashion. The 49ers ascent under coach Jim Harbaugh was a top story around the league last year, and a stingy San Francisco defense was the catalyst. While these teams seem like opposites in personnel, a common bond is turnover margin. The Packers and Niners tied for the NFL lead in takeaways (38) last year and barely gave the rock away.
When the Green Bay Packers have the ball:
It all starts with Rodgers, who claimed the league’s MVP last year on the strength of 4,643 passing yards and 45 touchdown passes against only six interceptions. He probably has the best group of pass-catchers — Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver, James Jones, Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley — in the league, and they should lead the Packers offense to another stellar year. Any help in the running game would be welcome, and veteran tailback Cedric Benson could be a valuable addition.
The 49ers ranked second in scoring defense last season, and their play led the way to a 13-3 record and the NFC West crown. Inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are as good as it gets in the NFL, and outside rushers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks complete an amazing quartet. Their ability to rush past a reworked Green Bay offensive line and get to Rodgers will be a major factor on Sunday.
When the San Francisco 49ers have the ball:
Frank Gore and a powerful O-line led the Niners to a ranking of 11th in scoring last season at 23.8 points per game. Much of the offseason attention went to finding more weapons for quarterback Alex Smith, who is mainly known as a game manager. Randy Moss and Mario Manningham will join top targets Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree as San Francisco looks for more plays in the passing game in 2012.
The Green Bay defense is a high-risk/high-reward unit that prides itself on causing turnovers. The Packers were average against the run last season but terrible in coverage — allowing 4,924 pass yards, the most in NFL history. Obviously that number must improve this year, and their ability to take the ball away will be paramount once again.
The 49ers offense must win the time of possession game to beat the Packers in Lambeau. Smith must find his spots to convert third downs and not be baited into turnovers. He was excellent at protecting the ball last season, but Green Bay led the league in interceptions (31) by a wide margin. If San Francisco can keep Smith in good down-and-distance situations and control the clock, a close victory can be had. But if the Packers can cause any turnovers or get an early lead, it will be a long day for the 49ers.
Green Bay 23 San Francisco 17
---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)