NFL Preview - San Francisco (0-0) at Green Bay (0-0)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - No team put up more points in the NFL a season ago than the Aaron Rodgers-led Green Bay Packers.
The San Francisco 49ers, meanwhile, featured a defense that was one of the stingiest in all of football.
After failing to advance in the playoffs despite the best regular season in franchise history, the Packers look to get 2012 off on the right foot against a 49ers team that fell just short of a surprise Super Bowl appearance last year.
"It's exciting just getting out of preseason and playing some games that count," Rodgers said. "Playing the Niners, you know they are a big-time team. They are a team that has the pieces in place to make a Super Bowl run. They are a team we could play down the line, so it's going to be a great game, a great test for both offenses and defenses. I'm excited to get back out there."
Green Bay looked like the best team for much of last season, opening the campaign with a franchise-record 13 straight victories and winning all eight of its games at Lambeau Field en route to a 15-1 record.
The Packers also set a club mark with 560 points to lock up the NFC's top seed, but a defense that ranked last in the NFL was picked apart in a 37-20 loss to the New York Giants in the Divisional Round.
The Giants then went on to face the conference's second seed, the 49ers, who returned to the playoffs as champions of the NFC West for the first time since 2002 after amassing a 13-3 mark. San Francisco later found itself in the NFC Championship game for the first time since 1998 following a playoff win over the New Orleans Saints, but it too was bested by the eventual Super Bowl- winning Giants in falling, 20-17, in overtime.
The loss was a heartbreaker for the 49ers, who fumbled a punt in the extra quarter to set up New York's eventual game-winning field goal.
It was still a season of success for San Francisco, which posted a seven-win improvement from the previous year under then-rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh, whose defense yielded just 14.3 points per game thanks to excellent play across the board.
Though quarterback Alex Smith also thrived under Harbaugh, the offense was still lacking at times. That led to San Francisco being among the teams to court Peyton Manning this offseason, though it fell flat in that pursuit and was still able to re-sign Smith.
The front office then decided to give Smith and running back Frank Gore some additional help, adding a pair of former Giants in running back Brandon Jacobs and wide receiver Mario Manningham as well as bringing wide receiver Randy Moss out of a one-year retirement.
"We just have so many weapons," noted Smith. "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."
Moss comes into the fold and could be a Week 1 starter alongside fellow wideout Michael Crabtree. Few know just what he still has left in the tank, but San Francisco is hoping to get a glimpse of vintage Moss versus the Packers.
"He's good. He's darn good. We feel great about him," said Harbaugh. "He's on our team. We're ready to go to battle with Randy and all the guys."
The Packers will look to prevent Moss from returning to his old form and win their franchise-record sixth straight season opener under head coach Mike McCarthy.
Green Bay's perfect home record under McCarthy last year also extended the team's winning streak at Lambeau Field in the regular season to 13 in a row.
While the core of the Packers' offense returns, the unit will have a new look in the backfield with former Cincinnati Bengal Cedric Benson expected to make his regular-season debut with the club after signing late in the offseason.
Packers lead 30-25-1
Streak: Packers have won last nine meetings Last Meeting: Packers 34, 49ers 16 (Dec. 5, 2010 at Green Bay)
Packers HC Mike McCarthy vs. 49ers: 3-0 49ers HC Jim Harbaugh vs. Packers: 0-0 McCarthy vs. Harbaugh Head-to-Head: First Meeting
Notes: Counting the playoffs, Green Bay has won 13 of its last 14 encounters with San Francisco. The 49ers haven't beaten the Packers in regular-season play since a 24-20 road victory on Nov. 4, 1990 and have lost eight consecutive contests (6 regular season, 2 playoffs) at Lambeau Field. The 49ers last topped Green Bay with a 30-27 home decision in a 1998 NFC First- Round Playoff, with quarterback Steve Young throwing the deciding touchdown pass to Terrell Owens with just eight seconds remaining. Teams squared off five times in the postseason from 1995-2001, with Green Bay winning four of those bouts. McCarthy served as San Francisco's offensive coordinator in 2005 before becoming the Packers' head coach.
For all the positives that came out of the 49ers' season, the offense still left much room for improvement. That is evidenced by the fact that kicker David Akers was forced to connect on a league-record 44 field goals after a number of breakdowns in the red zone. They hope the addition of Moss can help solve that, though it has been a couple of years since he dominated the league. Set to begin his 14th season since a year away from the game, Moss' 2010 campaign saw him play for three different teams and log just 28 receptions. However, he owns the second-most touchdown catches in NFL history (153) and has caught 954 career passes. Moss, as well as the addition of Manningham (39 receptions, 4 TD with Giants), should take some of the pressure off of Crabtree (72 receptions, 4 TD) and tight end Vernon Davis, who ended last year second on the team with 67 receptions and a club-high six scoring grabs. Meanwhile, Smith (3144 passing yards, 17 TD, 5 INT) returns to helm an offense that had just 10 turnovers last year, tied for the lowest in the NFL. Gore (1211 rushing yards, 8 TD) returns as the franchise's all-time leading rusher.
While the 49ers rarely gave the ball away, the Packers led the NFL with 31 interceptions. A team-leading seven of those were by veteran defensive back Charles Woodson (74 tackles, 2 sacks), who is slated to appear in his 200th regular-season game and will now be deployed at strong safety in the base defense. Corners Tramon Williams (64 tackles) and Sam Shields (45 tackles) added four picks each, while playmaking linebacker Clay Matthews (50 tackles, 6 sacks) took one of his three interceptions back for a touchdown. Despite the turnovers forced, the Packers struggled to stop opposing offenses all season and yielded a league-high 411.6 total yards per game. So, it is no surprise that Green Bay's defense could see as many as five rookies on the field at any given time, though only one is penciled in as a starter in left outside linebacker Nick Perry, the team's first-round pick in April's draft. D.J. Smith (43 tackles, 1 INT), meanwhile, starts inside with A.J. Hawk (84 tackles, 1.5 sacks) after 2011 leading tackler Desmond Bishop (115 tackles, 5 sacks) landed on injured reserve due to a hamstring injury sustained in the preseason. Nose tackle B.J. Raji (22 tackles, 3 sacks) anchors the Packers' front three and is key to stopping the run.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Franchise records fell by the bunches last year for the Packers, who set new marks in points and total yards (6,482) in a single season. Rodgers (4643 passing yards, 45 TD, 6 INT) set a new NFL record with a 122.5 passer rating in 2011, and his 29 straight games at home with a touchdown pass is a franchise best as well. Green Bay would love for its quarterback to repeat his MVP performance from last year and returns most of the 2011 weapons that he used. No. 1 wideout Greg Jennings (67 receptions, 9 TD) is back after missing the final three regular-season games of 2011 with a knee injury that prevented him from a fourth straight 1,000-yard receiving season. Veteran Donald Driver (37 receptions, 6 TD) also returns, though his role is likely to be reduced behind 2011 breakout star Jordy Nelson (68 receptions, 1263 yards, 15 TD). The wideout caught a touchdown pass in a club-record eight straight home games a season ago, two shy of the NFL mark. Tight end Jermichael Finley (55 receptions, 8 TD) is another solid target for Rodgers, who will be handing the ball off this season to Benson (1067 rushing yards, 6 TD with Bengals). The running back comes to Green Bay after three straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons with the Bengals. Rodgers will also be dealing with a new center, as Green Bay signed former Colt and five-time Pro Bowler Jeff Saturday.
The 49ers' 3-4 defense will be put to the test right away as it tries to duplicate last season's success. San Francisco matched a franchise record by allowing a mere 23 touchdowns and became the first team in NFL history to not give up a rushing score through its first 14 games of the season. The Niners yielded just three scores on the ground overall and gave up a mere 26 points off turnovers. The play of inside linebackers Patrick Willis (97 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and NaVorro Bowman (143 tackles, 2 sacks) were key and highlight a very deep group for San Francisco. Willis has made the Pro Bowl in all five of his NFL seasons, while Bowman excelled in his first year as a starter. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith (37 tackles, 14 sacks) posted the second-most sacks by a rookie in NFL history despite playing mostly on just third downs. While Willis may have the most talent of the group, defensive tackle Justin Smith (58 tackles, 7.5 sacks) has arguably the most heart and highest motor. He was a constant force in 2011 and extended his string of consecutive starts to 171. San Francisco also returns a secondary that played well and had cornerback Carlos Rogers (43 tackles, 6 INT) and safety Dashon Goldson (67 tackles, 6 INT) both finish tied for fourth in the league in interceptions. Corner Tarell Brown (40 tackles) added four picks.
This contest will mark the third straight season that the NFC's top two seeds from the previous campaign meet in Week 1, and there is no reason for either the Packers or 49ers to think they can't be in this spot again next season. Both are expected to once again challenge for their respective division titles, though it is Green Bay that enters this contest as the favorite. Following up a disappointing finish to what was an outstanding campaign at home certainly helps, as does nearly the total return of a nearly-unstoppable offense. If any team can challenge Rodgers and company, it is the heat- bringing 49ers, who are out to prove that 2011 was no fluke. While the pressure is more on the favored Packers, the NFC North heavyweights should exit Week 1 on a positive note.