Can you imagine taking nine months to rid oneself of a bad taste in the mouth? The Packers remarkable 15-1 season of 2011 took a huge jolt of indigestion after the New York Giants surge to the Super Bowl included the 37-20 stunner of the NFC's top seed at Lambeau Field January 15. An entire off-season spent picking up the pieces can rid the Pack of that sour taste by opening 2012 with a victory. It will have to come against a San Francisco 49ers team that swallowed just as hard following a breakout 13-3 campaign and a playoff loss to yes, the Giants, in overtime, in the NFC title game. The Sunday afternoon debut at Lambeau is easily the premier game of the NFL's opening weekend. The Packers are anxious to answer some lingering questions, is the defense going to recover from a season in which they gave up more passing yards than any team in league history? Will the offense find a running game that won't include Ryan Grant who was let go and James Starks who is hurt again? We'll find out soon enough. Here's how I see the matchups.
The Packer defense would have preferred to play last year's Niners, much easier to defend a team conservatively focused on running the ball with Frank Gore grinding out 1211 yards and quarterback Alex Smith being very selective in the air. Smith was steady if unspectacular in throwing 17 touchdowns to a league low five interceptions. The 49ers realized the needed to upgrade in the air and went about adding compliments to dangerous tight end Vernon Davis and receiver Michael Crabtree by drafting A.J. Jenkins out of Illinois late in the first round, signing Mario Manningham off the Giants free agent list and coaxing Randy Moss out of retirement after one year away. If San Francisco does open up the attack, they will target some young defensive backs who will see action in the nickel and dime. Sure, Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and Morgan Burnett can hold their own but Sam Shields, Jarrett Bush, Casey Hayward, M.D. Jennings or Jerron McMillian will be sought out by Smith looking for matchups. The front seven must still contend with Gore but I feel they'll be up to it. Even against a large offensive line led by a pair of former first round picks in Mike Iupati and Joe Staley. Smith still endured 44 sacks behind that big line last year and with youthful energy from Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy added to the heat brought by Clay Matthews, the Packers hope Alex doesn't have enough time to find his new collection of receivers.
On offense, not many teams can contain the multiple array of playmakers at the disposal of Aaron Rodgers, maybe not even the vaunted 49ers defense. All 11 starters return to a squad that was the NFC's best, 4th in the league in yards allowed per game, second best in scoring defense. They piled up 42 sacks, led the league in turnover ratio at +28 and were the stingiest defense against the run allowing only 77 yards a game. Justin Smith and Aldon Smith are freakishly good on the right side of the 3-4 alignment. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are fly to the ball linebackers while Dahon Goldson and Donte Whitner lead the secondary at the safety spots. The Packers will sprinkle in some misdirection to have Rodgers get outside the pocket and get rid of the ball quickly, hoping to get receivers in space for extra yards. Any help from the running game will make play action more desireable and shots could be taken downfield. This defense will test Mike McCarthy's play calling rythym maybe more than any other all season.
This won't be the wild shootout of last year's 42-34 opener against the Saints, the Pack will be hardpressed to hit 30 points but they should score enough to purge that bad taste and get 2012 off to a rousing start. I like the Pack to win 26-20. On the link below, quotes from the locker room on how the players see Sunday's matchup.