GREEN BAY – It does, in fact, get better than this.
San Francisco at Green Bay in last year’s NFC Championship Game would have qualified as more important than Sunday’s 49ers-Packers regular season opener at Lambeau Field.
The eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants had other plans, however, so this game was put on hold until Sunday.
Now we will get answers to the most pressing two questions.
** Will the Packers’ revamped run defense stonewall the 49ers’ powerful running game? The 49ers rushed for 2,044 yards and an average of 4.1-yards per carry last season. Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore is the lead dog, but he has plenty of help in ex-Giants free-agent Brandon Jacobs, speedy second-round draft pick LaMichael James and shifty Kendal Hunter.
The Packers’ run defense will be tested in this pass-fail exam. If the Packers’ defense fails, the 49ers won’t have to pass much at all. They will be content to stuff it down Green Bay’s throat. The 49ers averaged more than 31 carries per game a year ago.
After an entire offseason spent talking about the Packers’ pass rush, the fact is that B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Jerel Worthy and the others better be ready to stop the run. Even if the Packers’ high-powered offense builds an early lead, the 49ers and head coach Jim Harbaugh won’t be quick to abandon the running game.
So what does that mean for Green Bay’s defense? Fortunately, a couple of factors are working in the Packers’ favor.
First, the 49ers aren’t quite sure what Green Bay’s defensive line is capable of. Where they attack in the run game (at linebacker D.J. Smith) seems obvious, but how well they execute it remains to be seen.
Second, the Packers’ linebackers are faster (even with Smith) and their defensive backs are much more physical in run support.
The 49ers simply won’t be able to lineup and run over Green Bay. The Packers’ humiliating 2011 season, coupled with a riled up home crowd, should carry the Packers’ defense in the opener.
** Can the 49ers’ highly regarded defense stop the Packers’ dynamic offense? The 49ers are led by a trio of Pro Bowl defenders – defensive tackle Justin Smith and inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman – who didn’t allow a rushing touchdown or a 100-yard rusher in the 49ers’ first 14 games last season. The Packers’ Cedric Benson is going to take a shot at both in the season opener.
Do the Packers have what it takes offensively to thwart the 49ers?
In a word, absolutely, because the Packers’ offense isn’t going to be as good as it was in 2011. It is going to be better.
Aaron Rodgers threw for more than 4,000 yards with 45 touchdowns to only six interceptions. His quarterback rating was record-setting. His third down efficiency was obscene.
Nevertheless, Rodgers can be better by not having to do so much.
He should benefit from at least the threat of a running game with Benson. He also should find it easier to move the chains as Alex Green develops into a reliable third-down back.
Starting receivers Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson are as dynamic a one-two punch as there is in the NFL. Second-year pro Randall Cobb is ascending and veterans James Jones and Donald Driver are reliable, able-bodied playmakers.
Tight end Jermichael Finley is completely healthy and ready to maximize his mammoth potential.
The Packers’ offense in 2011 won games by outscoring opponents. This season, the offense will win games by dominating the action. They will be able to run it when necessary and throw it when they prefer.
Rodgers’ ability to read defenses and manipulate play calls at the line of scrimmage is only going to increase as he matures.
The special teams is a concern in so far as punt and kick coverage, especially given the 49ers’ proficiency with Ted Ginn, Jr., one of the NFL’s best. Also, the Niners’ David Akers (a record 44 field goals in 2011) and punter Andy Lee (a record 44-yard net) are very good, but the Packers’ Mason Crosby and Tim Masthay also are among the best.
The Packers’ McCarthy and the 49ers’ Harbaugh are among the NFL’s most respected head coaches, and their staffs are hard-working and creative. The 49ers will use “jumbo” formations with massive defensive tackles, and the read option with backup QB Colin Kaepernick. The Packers also will be creative near the goal line.
So how does the opener play out?
After a sluggish start offensively, the Packers will get it ramped up in time to score a 34-24 victory over San Francisco. Rodgers will throw for three touchdowns, and Green will rush for another. As good as the 49ers’ defense is, it will be Green Bay’s defense getting its redemption.
Chris Havel is a Packers News expert and national best-selling author. His latest book is Lombardi: An Illustrated Life. Havel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. CDT on WDUZ FM 107.5 The Fan, or on AM-1400, as well as Fan Internet Radio (www.thefan1075.com). Havel also hosts Event USA’ Player Autograph Parties the evening before home games.