Wow, a regular, straight game preview for an NFL regular season game. I've never done one of these before! For those who are a bit out of the loop, the Green Bay Packers take on the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field, in what could be a preview of the NFC Championship Game.
The last meeting between the two teams was in 2010, in what was a bit of a rough year for the 49ers. The Packers won that game 34-16 as part of their run to the playoffs, and eventually, the Super Bowl title. San Fransisco fired Mike Singletary that season and hired Jim Harbaugh during the offseason, and they've transformed into a completely different team since then.
Last season, the Niners rode a fearsome defense and the game-management skills of Alex Smith to the NFC Championship game, when a fumbled punt return by Kyle Williams led to an improbable upset road win by the New York Giants. They have roughly the same team as they did last year, and they enter this season as one of the big favorites to win the Super Bowl. Unfortunately for them, they kick off the season with their toughest game of the year, a road test at Lambeau.
While the Packers aren't expected to improve on their 15-1 regular season in 2011, it's tough to argue that their team didn't get better in the offseason. The team's most important players all stuck around, Marshall Newhouse started camp as the left tackle instead of being unexpectedly thrust into the role, and all of the rookies that have been brought in on the defensive side are upgrades over the guys who played in their places last season.
The 49ers are not dealing with much in the way of injures, though their two missing players could be significant. Ted Ginn, the primary return man, is not expected to play. This means that Williams is going to get the nod, Niners fans will be hoping he's completely over his playoff mishap. Brandon Jacobs is out as well, but the 49ers have plenty in the way of depth at running back. Frank Gore and LaMichael James should be able to shoulder the load.
Green Bay is without a running back of their own, James Starks. He was the No. 1 back coming into camp, but his fumble before picking up a turf toe injury has left a bad taste in everyone's mouth. Cedric Benson will have to pick up an injury or play very poorly to be displaced. Expect to see plenty of Alex Green in Starks' absence. Tom Crabtree, Rob Francois, Davon House, Jamari Lattimore and Sean Richardson were all limited in practice as well, and they're good candidates for the inactives list. We might get more information on the status of those players on Friday night. B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett have both recovered from injuries and had full participation on practice this Thursday.
San Francisco's fierce pass rush could cause some problems for Aaron Rodgers, especially since Justin Smith and Aldon Smith are likely to be stacked up on Green Bay's left frequently. It will be crucial for Rodgers to get rid of the ball quickly, and the Packers will probably be able to set up their team to allow him to do just that. The Niners have a solid pass defense, but Parrish Cox and Chris Culliver should have some trouble with Randall Cobb, Donald Driver, and Greg Jennings when he moves to the slot. Jermichael Finley should have a mismatch against whoever covers him as well. Because the Niners' pass rush and run defense are so spectacular, the Packers will probably look to spread them out and execute quick passes as often as possible.
Going the other way, the 49ers will probably pound the ball and try to control the clock. Jarrett Bush should have some trouble with whoever he has to cover and Vernon Davis is a heck of a weapon, but those mismatches are only going to get exploited once Green Bay has been softened up by the run. The 49ers will want to give their defense as much rest as possible while keeping Aaron Rodgers off the field. The Packers' run defense is also very questionable, while the 49ers can rotate their backs without a drop-off in talent. Expect the Niners to run the ball up the middle early and often. Hopefully for the Packers, Raji is completely healthy, because he'll have to be at his best.
Kickoff is at 3:15 p.m. local time, 4:15 p.m. ET and 1:15 p.m. PT on Sunday. You'll get the game on FOX unless you live in the Seahawks, Cardinals, Panthers or Buccaneers broadcast area.
Previous game coverage
Series History | Key Matchup - Newhouse vs. A. Smith | Key Matchup - A. Smith vs. Woodson | Key Matchup - Moss vs. Williams | Injury update | Fantasy outlook | Start/Sit advice | Week 1 picks | Biggest absence - Davon House | Five Niners to watch
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