They're not being called the best team in the NFL by everybody. Not just yet, at least. But the…
Keys to the game: 49ers/Packers
This is the ultimate test for this rendition of Vic Fangio's rugged and relentless 3-4 defense – finding a way to beat one of the best system quarterbacks of this NFL era. Rodgers is a master of coach Mike McCarthy's variation of the West Coast scheme, a true gunslinger with a quick trigger who can shoot holes in a defense from every angle. Whether it's harassing him with blitzes, getting steady pressure with its formidable front four, or confusing him with different looks and coverages, the San Francisco defense must keep Green Bay's MVP quarterback ill at ease in the pocket throughout the afternoon and disrupt his rhythm as much as possible.
Set the tempo with ground game
San Francisco's best chance to take this game to the Packers is to establish the pace and pulse of the afternoon with a driving power rushing attack that served the 49ers so well on offense last season. In fact, that pretty much was San Francisco's offense in 2011, so the Packers will know what's coming. That doesn't mean they can stop it. The 49ers need to control the flow with Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and a grinding ground game that eats the clock, wears down the Green Bay defense and keeps the explosive Packers' offense off the field.
Contain the big plays of WRs Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson
Jennings leads the NFL in both 25-yard and 40-yard gains over the past five seasons. Nelson was second in the NFL last season with an average of 18.6 yards per reception and third in the league with 15 touchdown catches. These two explosive Green Bay wideouts are big plays waiting to happen, and they have a quarterback who knows where to find them and can get them the ball. Even with Jennings missing the final three games last season with a knee injury, this pair averaged more than 151 yards receiving per game and averaged 16.4 yards per catch when they were on the field together last season. The Niners must keep those big-chunk gains that each can provide at any time to a minimum.
Stretch the field and spread the offense with Moss, Manningham and Davis
The 49ers brought in proven veteran receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham for a reason, right? Now's the time for San Francisco to start showing everybody what the reason is. Opposing defenses could gang up on San Francisco's strong run game and crowd its underneath passing patterns last season because they didn't have to worry about the 49ers going deep with their passing game. Besides Davis slipping behind overmatched safeties, the Niners didn't have the firepower to keep defenses honest with the long ball last season. They do now. And now is no time to wait to show what their new weapons can do – and what they can do for an offense that ranked 29th in passing and 26th overall in the NFL last season. The Packers allowed a NFL-record 4,924 yards through the air last season, and the Niners need to exploit that early and often. Davis could benefit most from improved field-stretching on the edges – he has averaged 23.7 yards per catch with three touchdowns in San Francisco's past three games against the Packers.
Win the turnover battle
Sounds simple. This is a key for every team in every game. But it takes on increased significance for the Packers and 49ers, who both were takeaway machines last season. The two teams shared the NFL lead with 38 takeaways each, and both were outstanding at protecting the football too – the 49ers led the NFL in fewest turnovers with 10 and the Packers were next with just 14. That's an astounding combined turnover differential of plus-52 for these two teams during the regular season last year, when they combined to win 28 of 32 games. Think that stat had anything to do with all those wins? You bet it did. And in a game of this magnitude with two teams that are this good, you bet it will again Sunday.
Superiority on special teams
The 49ers had the best special teams units in the NFL last season, and they played a huge factor in the team's success on a weekly basis. But Green Bay's units weren't far behind. David Akers led the NFL in scoring last year with 166 points, but Green Bay kicker Mason Crosby wasn't far behind with 140 points while connecting on 24 of his 28 field goal attempts. Andy Lee might have had the best season ever for a NFL punter in 2011, when he led the league with a 50.9-yard average and NFL-record 44.0 net, but Tim Masthay set Green Bay franchise records at 45.5 and 38.6. Ted Ginn was one of the NFL's premier return specialists last season, but so was Green Bay's Randall Cobb, who joined Ginn as one of just three players to return both a punt and kickoff for a TD in 2011. Ginn was listed as questionable with an ankle injury earlier this week and appears unlikely to play Sunday , which could be significant factor. Kyle Williams would likely handle punts with Kendall Hunter the likely choice on kickoff returns in Ginn's absence. San Francisco's coverage units also excel, so the Niners need to pick up on these units where they left off last season to gain an edge.
Get hot in the red zone
This could ultimately be the most significant key of the game. The Packers are going to score points Sunday. The 49ers have to match them. That means not regularly settling for field-goal attempts at the end of offensive drives, like the Niners did 52 times last season. Akers made an NFL-record 44 of them, which is great, but San Francisco needs to get seven points on those trips more often this season, and particularly on Sunday against the Packers. The 49ers ranked a distant 30th in the NFL last season in scoring touchdowns once they reached the red zone of opponents, succeeding just 40.7 percent of the time. That has to be better in 2012, and that has to start here. And it goes both ways, because the Green Bay offense was excellent in the red zone last season, scoring TDs 65.2 percent of the time to rank third in the NFL. Who wins in the red zone Sunday likely will have a big impact on who wins on the scoreboard.
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