NFL Preview - Green Bay (0-0) at San Francisco (0-0)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Two different quarterbacks, same results for the San Francisco 49ers last season against the Green Bay Packers.
The two clubs meet for the third time in less than 12 months on Sunday at Candlestick Park, where the 49ers and starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick begin defense of their NFC championship against the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers.
These two NFC heavyweights meet on Kickoff Weekend for a second straight year as the 49ers began their march towards a Super Bowl berth with a 30-22 victory in Green Bay.
San Francisco got over 100 yards rushing and a touchdown from running back Frank Gore, while Alex Smith completed a pair of touchdown throws.
Smith, though, would not be under center when the clubs rematched on Jan. 12 in San Francisco in the divisional playoff round. By then, Kaepernick fever had gripped the Bay area after the second-year quarterback had taken over for a concussed Smith on Nov. 11 versus St. Louis. He went on to win five of seven starts down the stretch and played well enough to keep the job even when Smith -- who was traded to Kansas City in the offseason -- got healthy.
Any ideas that may have been a bad decision were erased in Kaepernick's postseason debut, when he guided the Niners to a 45-31 win over Green Bay. He threw a pair of touchdown passes and also ran for 181 yards, setting an NFL single-season rushing record by a quarterback, while scoring twice with his feet.
Green Bay will try to do a better job of containing Kaepernick on Sunday as it begins its quest for a third straight NFC North title. Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh thinks both clubs are similar to those that faced off in January.
"Definitely tweaks are made, changes are made and anytime you go into a first ballgame I think you have those kinds of questions and lack of full understanding," said Harbaugh of how hard it is to project the changes each club made. "So, a bit of uncharted waters so I think both sides, and any side, going into a first game."
While the 49ers open the season without wide receiver Michael Crabtree due to an Achilles injury, Anquan Boldin will make his regular season debut with the club. He was acquired in a trade over the offseason after helping the Baltimore Ravens beat San Francisco in Super Bowl XLVII.
San Francisco is 13-2-1 at home under Harbaugh, who is looking to become the first coach in franchise history to win on opening day in each of his first three seasons.
The 49ers have won three of their last four openers overall and snapped a nine-game losing streak to the Packers in the regular season with last year's Week 1 win.
That loss also halted head coach Mike McCarthy's five-game winning streak on opening day for Green Bay and the franchise will try to add to its 52 victories in Week 1. That is second all-time behind only Chicago's 53.
"I'm looking to make a jump in the win column," said McCarthy of this weekend's matchup. "That's really what the goal is, to win the football game."
The Packers, coming off their fourth straight season of at least 10 wins, tying a club record, are 9-4 in September over the last four seasons.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Kaepernick begins his first full season as a starter and will have to make due without Crabtree, who had 85 receptions and nine touchdowns last year, and Mario Manningham, who joined Crabtree on the reserve/physically unable to perform list due to a knee injury.
The quarterback gave a short answer when asked how he feels going into the season as the starter.
"You have to win," Kaepernick noted.
The offense still has playmakers in Boldin, Gore and tight end Vernon Davis, who could line up on the outside at times to make up for the lack of depth at the receiving position.
Gore, meanwhile, is coming off another 1,000-yard rushing season and his fourth Pro Bowl appearance, but will need to continue to adjust to the read option under Kaepernick.
One of the 49ers' biggest strength is their offensive line, which was one of three units last year to have the same starting five in every game. It is anchored by star left tackle Joe Staley.
The Packers finished last season top five in the league with 47 sacks, but linebacker Clay Matthews and company struggled to contain Kaepernick's read option. They'll look for better luck this weekend.
"We had the entire offseason to focus on it," said Matthews of Kaepernick's playmaking ability. "If you look a the progression of the league ... there's quarterbacks around the league that present problems not only with their arms, but their legs too."
Matthews ranked fifth in the league with 13 sacks despite missing four games due to a hamstring injury, while cornerback Casey Hayward led all rookies with six interceptions.
Tramon Williams could give the Packers some playmakers at corner if he can find his form from 2010, when he had a career-high six interceptions.
Rodgers is perhaps the best quarterback in the league, at least statistically speaking as he led the NFL last year with a 108.0 passer rating and 4.88 TD/INT ratio. He was also second in the league with 39 passing touchdowns and has not thrown a pick in 144 straight pass attempts in the regular season.
Rodgers threw for 303 yards with a pair of touchdown passes in Week 1 last year versus the Niners and completed another two TD throws in the postseason rematch.
"I expect us to play well. That's what we're paid to do," said Rodgers. "We've taken a lot of practice reps, played a lot of football together. There's going to be some guys in stress positions based on matchups, but we expect to come out and put up some points."
Wide receiver Randall Cobb scored on a 75-yard punt return in last season's opener and set a single-season club record with 2,342 combined net yards last year.
Cobb, though, won't handle return duties this year as he moved up the wide receiver depth chart following the offseason departure of Greg Jennings. Rodgers still has plenty of targets in Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Jermichael Finley.
Jones led the NFL with 14 touchdown catches in 2012, while Finley set a club record for tight ends with 61 receptions.
Green Bay's offense will also feature two rookie starters in running back Eddie Lacy and left tackle David Bakhtiari.
Lacy, a second-round selection, is looking to balance out the offense and ran for 1,322 yards with 17 touchdowns last year with Alabama.
Lacy will hit the fire early as he tries to find running room against San Francisco's linebackers, perhaps the best unit in all of football.
Led by Pro Bowl regular Patrick Willis and leading tackler NaVorro Bowman, the Niners also have one of the best pass-rushing linebackers in Aldon Smith.
Willis is likely to play despite undergoing surgery on a fractured right hand five weeks ago. It is unknown if he will wear a cast.
"Honestly, I really feel like if I going to be out there on the field, I can't let it affect my play. I don't want to cheat my teammates of anything but everything I have," said Willis. "If I'm out there on the field, I've got to be ready to go. No excuses. If I got to make a tackle, I'll make a tackle. If I got to cover, I'll cover. Whatever needs to be done."
Smith's 33 1/2 sacks are the most by a player in league history over his first two NFL seasons and he had a club-record 19 1/2 sacks a season ago.
San Francisco's secondary does have its concerns, especially when corner Chris Culliver was lost for the season due to a knee injury in camp. They still have a Pro Bowl at strong safety in Donte Whitner, while 2013 first-round draft pick Eric Reid will start alongside him in place of free agent departee Dashon Goldson, who was also a 2012 Pro Bowler.
San Francisco and Green Bay again enter this season as favorites to come out of the NFC and have made winning a recent habit.
The Packers lead the NFL with a 26-6 mark since 2011, while the Niners are third at 24-7-1.
The 49ers grabbed the recent edge in this series with two wins last year and the Packers looked lost trying to defend Kaepernick. They've had a whole offseason to prepare for the young signal-caller this time around, but still might not have the talent to do so.
San Francisco is likely to still give up big numbers to Rodgers, but has the ability to outgun the reigning NFC North champs.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 31, Packers 24
09/05 14:24:57 ET