You'd be hard pressed to ask for a better game to open up the 2011 NFL season, as defending Super Bowl champ Green Bay opens at home against NFC contender New Orleans.
This could well be a preview of this season's NFC Championship game. And while both teams try to move out to a quick start to avoid the hole they each dug for themselves in last season's first half, both have question marks coming into the game.
For the Packers, the big question mark has to be the running game. The Pack hopes that with the emergence of James Starks to go with starter Ryan Grant, they can end up with a "greater than the sum of its parts" rushing offense.
In 2010, Green Bay was 24th in the league in rushing yards per game at 100.4 and tied for 25th in yards per carry at 3.8.
And despite the standard perception that Starks was spectacular in the playoffs, it was really only the rookie's breakout performance in the wild card round against the Eagles that backs up that impression. Starks rolled up 123 yards in the game in Philly, but only averaged 3.9 per carry for the entirety of the playoffs. So, certainly the running game for the Packers remains an open question.
One wrinkle Packers coach Mike McCarthy showed a bit more of in the preseason is the no-huddle offense. It remains to be seen how much of the no-huddle Green Bay will utilize in the regular season, but the no-huddle was effective in the preseason in controlling the tempo of the game and allowing the Packers to dictate the game to the defense.
If the running game remains a shortcoming for Green Bay, then running a no-huddle and using the short passing game to control the ball could be an effective way for the Packers to set up the big play that quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the squadron of Packer receivers is always looking for.
Regardless of the effectiveness of the Packers running game, Green Bay is all about the passing game. The Saints were dead last in the NFL last season with only nine interceptions and ranked 18th in the league with an 83.2 defensive quarterback rating.
Green Bay and Rodgers should be able to move the ball through the air as Greg Jennings, the returning Jermichael Finley, James Jones, Donald Driver and Jordy Nelson all look to catch their share of balls. If Nelson and Jones in particular can overcome last season's propensity for dropped passes, Rodgers should be looking at a huge game and an even bigger season statistically this year than last.
As for the Saints, they ran the ball even less than the Packers last season. Even with a running back- by-committee approach of their own, featuring rookie Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory, the focus for New Orleans will once again be Drew Brees and the passing game.
The problem for New Orleans is that they face a defense in Green Bay that was the best in the league against the pass in 2010. Second in the league with 47 sacks, the Packers harried opposing passers into a league-worst 67.2 quarterback rating.
Brees promises to have another big year, but he will have his hands full in this game against arguably the best corners in the league in Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson. In fact, the Packers have probably the best secondary in the league, period. Add in the ferocious inside, outside pass rush featuring Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji, and you could find plenty of teams in the league easier to pass against.
Ultimately, this game will come down to who can move the ball and control the game more effectively through the air. The Saints will have a great season throwing the ball, and these two teams may well meet again in January.
But for this week, the Packers should have a much easier time with the New Orleans defense than the Saints will have with Green Bay's.
It will be close for a half, but look for the Packers to pull away in the second half and move out to a 1-0 start.
Prediction: Packers 34-21
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