In a way, it’s probably unfortunate that two of the NFC’s best teams have to open the season against one another.
After all, come Sunday night, either the Green Bay Packers or San Francisco 49ers will face the challenge of climbing out of an 0-1 hole in a season with just 16 games.
Yet on the flip side, what better way for a team to test itself right out of the gate? After months of front-office news, the draft, minicamps, summer injuries and meaningless exhibitions, this Sunday’s season opener for the 49ers at Lambeau Field is the real deal.
The Packers, with one of the NFL’s most potent offenses, vs. the Niners, one of the league’s best defensive teams.
“Huge challenge,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers told reporters in Green Bay this week, when asked about the 49ers defense. “This is probably the premier defense in the league. I mean, if you look at them position by position, and then as a group, in my opinion, there has to be an argument for most dominant defensive players in the league.”
Rodgers ticked off the names of defensive linemen Justin Smith and Ray McDonald and linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, among others, in noting that San Francisco features a “front seven … as good as anybody’s.”
On paper, Sunday’s matchup comes down to a battle between the 49ers defense vs. the Packers offense.
The Niners – who return every key player from that side of the ball -- were No. 2 in the NFL last season in scoring (just 14.3 points allowed per game), No. 4 in total defense, seventh in sacks and tied for first in takeaways, with 38.
Green Bay, meanwhile, scored more points than any team in the league in 2011 at 35 points per game, were No. 3 in yards per game (405.1) and third in passing yards per game (307.8).
If San Francisco can contain the Packers offense, and set up a lower-scoring game, then the Niners could be well-positioned to start the season with a win. Oddsmakers have made Green Bay a 4½- to 5-point favorite.
To do that however, the Niners will have to clamp down on Rodgers’ favorite targets – receivers Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Donald Driver and tight end Jermichael Finley. San Francisco’s solid run defense also will need to contain running back Cedric Benson, signed after three straight 1,000-yard seasons in Cincinnati.
Both teams spent the offseason improving areas they believe needed strengthening, so the 49ers – criticized last year for being conservative offensively – added Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins to the wide receiver corps, and a pair of running backs in Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James to give the offense more versatility.
Though the 49ers didn’t show much new offensively in summer games, it’s expected that Sunday’s game will reveal a few more wrinkles.
“We just have so many weapons,” 49ers quarterback Alex Smith told the media this week. “So much of this game comes down to matchups sometimes. We have a lot of guys that can do a lot of unique things. I think that’s a good problem to have. The more matchup problems you can create, the better.”
For the Niners, opening the season in storied Lambeau Field in front of a rabid Packers crowd is a perfect first test.
After Sunday, the 49ers will know where they stand. Was last year’s 13-3 team a fluke?
The Niners don’t think so. They’re ready to prove otherwise.
“Couldn’t ask for a better place to start the season,” new starting right guard Alex Boone told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group this week. “It’s historical, and we’re ready to go.”