Now that the exhibition is officially over, we can finally start examining regular season match-ups.
On September 9th, the San Francisco 49ers will travel to Green Bay to take on Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. This Week 1 regular season match-up is set for 1 p.m. PT on Sunday, broadcasting on FOX as America's Game of the Week.
NFL fans everywhere are thanking the schedule-maker for this one.
This is a potential NFC Championship preview in the season's first slate of games. When talking about the conference, it's the 49ers and Packers that lead the discussion as favorites to win it in 2012. Either the Niners or the Pack could be representing the NFC in this year's Super Bowl.
There are a few story lines linking individuals from both organizations. Aside from the obvious Alex Smith v. Aaron Rodgers headline, former colleagues in Vic Fangio and Dom Capers will be facing off as the team's respective defensive coordinators.
The 49ers head coach, when he was a player, wore a Chicago Bears uniform from 1987-1993. So, needless to say, he is not fond of green and yellow. Harbaugh's competitive nature should have him fired up for this one. And a good thing for Harbaugh and his team is that this will not seem like completely uncharted territory.
Looking At The Teams
As we can see in this image courtesy of NFL.com, it is predicted to be a close match-up with the Packers as 51% favorites.
This will be a match-up of great offense versus great defense.
This offseason, the 49ers have tried to upgrade their offense while the Packers have worked toward improving their defense. Both organizations realized their strong suits and made moves to become more balanced football teams.
San Francisco brought aboard players like Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James to add some much-needed weapons to the offense. Meanwhile, Green Bay is expecting big things from Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy on defense.
The Packers dedicated their first six draft picks in 2012 to defensive football.
The 49ers clearly have a lot of advantages on the defensive side of the ball. San Francisco led the NFL in most defensive categories in 2011, and are looking to improve on those numbers this year. Green Bay will be quite the test for this unit, but the 49ers play great defense and are capable of limiting this seemingly unstoppable, high-octane offense.
Largely in part because the Niners know what to expect: This offense revolves around Aaron Rodgers.
San Francisco is also carrying over confidence from a big-time post-season win against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, who have a similar functionality as the Pack. A lot of the success the Niners had against the Saints' pass-happy offense was by rushing three to four players and dropping the rest into coverage.
This was a winning formula for the 49ers because their defensive line can successfully pressure the quarterback with only a few guys. And the fact is, the 49ers defensive backs can cover for longer than offensive lines can contain San Francisco's defensive front.
The Tale of Two Quarterbacks
In the 2005 NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers had the No. 1 overall pick and selected Utah's Alex Smith instead of hometown quarterback Aaron Rodgers from Cal. It was a move that would connect these two players and grant their franchises with a unique decade-long identity.
Both players took quite different, but interesting roads to their relative success.
In Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers sat patiently behind one of the league's all-time great quarterbacks in Brett Favre. The drama-filled saga eventually culminated in a Super Bowl victory for Rodgers and the Pack, but not without a draining and scrutiny-ridden journey preceding it.
Over in the Bay Area, Alex Smith went through a catalog of offensive coordinators, while battling injuries and being denied a reasonable team situation in which to succeed. He was drafted to a defensive-minded team with no offensive identity nor detailed-oriented path on how to achieve one.
The 49ers threw Smith into the fire and he got burned.
Who do you think will secure the victory in the Week 1 match-up at Lambeau?
But then there was Jim Harbaugh, who in Cinderella fashion, resurrected the career of this once-termed bust in a remarkable turnaround season. After pitiful back-to-back losing seasons, Harbaugh turned a 6-10 ball club into a 13-3 Super Bowl contender in the span of a few months -- mind you, he was hired during a shortened league-year.
And the nature of football comes full circle when the paths of these two organizations cross once more. Entering 2012, the 49ers and Packers are hot on the trail, working toward bringing home the highly-coveted Lombardi Trophy.
Smith and Rodgers have met before, but not with this sort of undertone -- now both quarterbacks are leading title contenders.
And regardless of how they got there, both of these organizations find themselves at the top of their conference battling for supremacy. This game represents more than just getting that first win, but rather a sixty-minute power-struggle for respect.
Both of these teams want to be the unquestioned alpha in the NFC, so this match-up really couldn't be anymore confrontational. It should be a real battle of wills in this Week 1 showdown, but it is Smith and Rodgers who will command a great deal of attention.
Summary: This just goes to show why Aaron Rodgers was a league MVP and Super Bowl champion. San Francisco is arguably better in more overall facets of the game, but because of the Packers' QB, Green Bay is favored to win this.
On paper, San Francisco should be winning the majority of individual match-ups. But NFL games for the most part cannot simply be measured in terms of roster versus roster -- there is more to it than that. This Packers-49ers match-up could go any which way on opening weekend.
A Friendly Rivalry
Capers had positive things to say about the 49ers defensive coordinator:
I've got so much respect for him. He is so intelligent. He knows what he is doing. He understands the game. [Fangio] is very matter-of-fact. He is very competent. In this game, my experience with players, if they know you can help them have success and win, they are going to listen to every word you say.
Fangio draws his system from the same school of thought Capers preaches with his group in Green Bay. The 49ers and Packers bring familiar 3-4 schemes to the game, and both pride themselves on taking the football away.
There will be four very good outside linebackers in this game, two representing each team. Clay Matthews and Nick Perry will be looking to have a bigger day than Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. All four players are pass-rush specialists, as their position necessitates that skill set in this particular defensive system.
The defensive backs to highlight are the No. 1 corners for each team: Charles Woodson and Carlos Rogers. Similar to how Capers uses Woodson, Fangio moves Rogers around quite a bit, asking him to do different things. We've seen Rogers challenge teams' No. 1's, line up in the nickel, and even blitz off the edge.
Both Woodson and Rogers should be very active players in Week 1.
In terms of the defensive line, San Francisco has Green Bay beat. However, they have talent up front with nose tackle B.J. Raji, who is disruptive as a run-stopper and pass-rusher. There is a potential mismatch there with Raji lining up over center Jonathan Goodwin.
Goodwin allowed five sacks in 2011, and while he is looking to improve, there are usually some bumps in the road in Week 1.
Keys to the Game
Green Bay: The Packers want to establish and maintain their high-tempo offense, and force the 49ers into a shootout. While Green Bay will want to have balance on offense, this should turn into Aaron Rodgers throwing the ball 45-50 times. If the Packers can manage an identical or better turnover ratio than the Niners, it could be the difference between a win or loss.
San Francisco: First off, the 49ers want to slow this game down in all phases. The defense will want to prevent Rodgers and the offense from finding a rhythm, while running the ball efficiently on offense. The Niners will want to take this one play at a time, and capitalize on the opportunities given to them. The theme for San Francisco in Week 1 should be physicality and ball control. The team needs to set the tone, take care of the ball on offense and relentlessly pursue it on defense.
Impact Player & Game MVP: Justin Smith
The Green Bay Packers are at a tremendous disadvantage here.
The mismatch of the day is not only the 49ers d-line over the Packers o-line, but the particular match-up between Justin Smith and left tackle Marshall Newhouse. The Packers have questions on the offensive line and it could lose them this game. A lot of football games -- especially the sort of games the Niners like to play -- are fought and won in the trenches.
Justin Smith is the unquestioned leader of the 49ers' ferocious defensive line, and he is in a position to take this game over. He is a pivotal figure in this defense, coming off a season where he was considered for the league's Defensive MVP. Smith could have a field day with Green Bay's blindside protector, and thus assaulting Rodgers for sixty minutes.
Smith is battle-tested and thrives in pressure situations. He also knows that in order to win a Super Bowl before he hangs it up, the 49ers are going to have to go through the Packers. By the time this one is over, Green Bay's offense is going to know they got in a fight.
Prediction: 31-24 SF
As coach Harbaugh would say, I'm excited for this competitive challenge.