49ers Start 2012 Season with "What If? Bowl" vs. Packers

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49ers Start 2012 Season with
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Williams leaps at a chance for redemption with Ginn out for the opener.

When the fates conspired last January to have the New York Giants upset the mighty, 15-1 defending Super Bowl Champion, the Green Bay Packers, in the divisional round of the playoffs, you were a bit taken aback, weren't you?

It's okay to admit it, even if no one at 4949 Centennial Blvd. will. Almost no one predicted that the Giants would win up at Green Bay.

To a human, the collective thoughts of everyone at Candlestick Park moments after the 49ers pulled out a thrilling, you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it 36-32 win over the New Orleans Saints shifted from, "I can't believe Alex Smith just did that," to "Can he do it again next week at Lambeau?" 

The cat was let out of the bag even for Jim Harbaugh, whose MO is to keep his true feelings buried beneath 14 layers of defiant non-answers, when his father Jack, a former collegiate coach at Western Kentucky and other stops, revealed that Harbaugh had him on scouring Packers game tape for tendencies and tells.

The 49ers, to a man, expected to fly to Lambeau for the right to play in last season's Super Bowl. The Giants' 37-20 thumping of the Packers caught the team so off guard that the Niners' public relations department had to hastily put together auxiliary seating for the national media crush that would be visiting them as the host stadium for the title game vs. the momentum-riding Giants.

Well, we know how that turned out.

Still, as disappointing as the loss to the Giants was, as heartbreaking and tragic for the fans, you can't help but shake the feeling that it was unlucky more than anything else. Nothing that transpired over those four quarters plus overtime suggested that the Giants were the superior team.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Willis and co. stifled Eli Manning, but the Packers are another animal.

 

The 49ers were up 14-10, their defense was playing lights out, and they were about to get the ball back after a Giants punt with less than eight minutes to go. Even a three-and-out would've drained another couple minutes off the clock and put New York in a position of needing to drive down the field and score a touchdown.

It was The Kyle Williams Game, and that's that. A bad day to have a bad day.

The more interesting question, at least in this corner, is what would've happened had chalk prevailed in both divisional round games and the 49ers faced the Packers, on the road, instead of the Giants at home.

Oh, they would've surely been underdogs, we know that. But how would their defense have done against Aaron Rodgers and all of Green Bay's fleet receivers, against that offense that averaged over 40 points a game at home in 2011? 

How would Smith, who was so-so against the Giants even though he had two touchdown passes and no turnovers, have done against a Packers defense that was 31st in the league? 

Obviously, we'll never know the answer to those questions unless Doc Brown figures out how many jigawatts it takes to make the Flux Compacitor work, but Sunday's season opener at Lambeau is a tasty way to open the season nevertheless, even if both teams aren't exactly the same as the ones who tasted bitter defeat to the Giants a week apart nine months prior. 

You're probably aware of all the relevant ways the locals have upgraded themselves. Joshua Morgan is no longer a part of the receiving crew, but Randy Moss and Mario Manningham are. 

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Brandon Jacobs joins Manningham in defecting over from the Giants and he'll be the short-yardage/goal-line back. 

 

Alex Boone has taken over for Adam Snyder—who signed for too much money at Arizona—at right guard.

The Niners drafted a couple of skill position speedsters in the first two rounds of the draft in Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins and Oregon scat-back LaMichael James, but neither figures to be a big part of the team until 2013. 

Well, Ted Ginn is hurt—again—so there's a decent chance that James will be handling kickoffs in his stead, while the punt return duties will go to, you guessed it, Kyle Williams. 

The Packers, meanwhile, return practically the same roster as well, and why wouldn't they from a team that started the season 13-0? 

Center Scott Wells left for free agent riches in St. Louis, forcing the team to downgrade slightly there with graybeard veteran Jeff Saturday of Colts fame, and they let running back Ryan Grant go to sign ex-Bengal Cedric Benson. 

On defense, the team's brass might have been alarmed by the fact that Clay Matthews Jr. only had six sacks last season, so they got him a bookend pass-rusher from his alma mater in USC's Nick Perry, while also fortifying their defensive front with Michigan State's Jerel Worthy. 

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
The Pack drafted some help for Matthews Jr. in Perry.

Also, Green Bay's corners are healthy now, unlike most of last season, and future Hall-of-Famer Charles Woodson had made the transition to safety. 

 

On paper, this game figures to be a mismatch, not necessarily just because of the Packers vast offensive arsenal, but more so because coach Mike McCarthy's aggressive approach is built to take away the greatest advantage of the 49ers defense -- their ability to shut down the run. 

 

McCarthy is no fool, and he won't run the ball just for the sake of running it. Rather, he'll put Rodgers in the shotgun the whole game, spread the 49ers defense out and take advantage of the best match-up, whether it's Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson one-on-one outside or—more likely—tight end JerMichael Finley on either safety Donte Whitner or linebacker Patrick Willis. 

The only wrench in the plan might be that Packers left tackle Marshall Newhouse allowed 11.5 sacks last season, but he'll be going against a kid, in 49ers second-year man Aldon Smith, who hurt his hip early in preseason and hasn't played since. Smith will be rusty and stamina will be an issue with him. 

The Niners "D" are fine giving up empty yards. Their game is forcing turnovers and forcing foes to settle for field goals in the red zone. Rodgers is downright surgical in the red zone and almost as turnover averse as Alex Smith, so something will have to give there.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Can Aldon Smith recover his form after missing the preseason?

Offensively the 49ers game plan figures to be more varied. Harbaugh has been careful about keeping Moss and Manningham under wraps during the preseason.

It's natural to guess that the visitors will come out conservatively, trying to pound the ball with Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter to control the clock and keep Rodgers off the field, but I'm guessing Harbaugh knows they'll need 24 points, minimum to pull out the upset and to do that Smith is going to need to get his receivers, both old and new, involved. 

 

Both offenses figure to invade each other's territory plenty, so the game will come down to which one cashes in more for seven instead of three, and which one won't even need to make pit stops inside the 20 to score touchdowns—i.e. big play capability.  

 

On both counts I like the Packers more, until the 49ers show me all the "what if?"s from last January really are moot and this is an entirely new team with an offense that can match its defense.

Prediction: Green Bay 30 (-5), San Francisco 20

Other Games:

Philadelphia 34, Cleveland (+10) 13

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images
Still trying to prove he was the right No. 1 pick after all.

Chicago 27 (-10), Indianapolis 23

Detroit 31 (-8), St. Louis 17

New England 27 (-6), Tennessee 16

Kansas City 24 (+3), Atlanta 20

Jacksonville 20 (+4), Minnesota 13

New Orleans 27 (-8), Washington 20

Buffalo 26 (+3), New York Jets 13

 

Houston 27 (-13), Miami 10

Seattle 26 (-3), Arizona 16 

Tampa Bay 24 (-3), Carolina 20

Pittsburgh 23 (+2), Denver 20

Baltimore 20 (-7), Cincinnati 17

San Diego 30 (+1), Oakland 23

Season W-L Record (0-1). Vs. Spread (0-1). 

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