he Packers and 49ers are linked in a number of ways. They were common playoff opponents in the mid and late '90s as the Pack rose to the top of the NFL. They represent the two franchises in the past 20 years to be able to move from one Pro Bowl QB to another without skipping a beat.
And they are the two franchises that drafted quarterbacks in the first round of the 2005 draft. We all know how that worked out. Five years later, the 49ers' choice Alex Smith is a healthy backup to former Raven and Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith. Aaron Rodgers, meanwhile, is statistically the second best passer, just behind Philip Rivers, in NFL history.
Nevertheless, the 49ers came into this season with high hopes. Many assumed they would waltz through the NFC West and contend for the conference title. The QB play is a main reason they find themselves at 4-7. But with their division historically bad, they find themselves just a game out of first place and still in the thick of things.
The Niners are coming off their most impressive game of the season, where they ran up and down the field on the Cardinals and their defense shut down the weak post-Warner Arizona offense. The crippling blow came when their best offensive player, Frank Gore, suffered a hip injury during the game and he's lost for the season. The offense revolved around Gore and will now be in the hands of veteran Brian Westbrook and rookie Anthony Dixon.
Westbrook got 23 carries on Monday night, the fourth most in a productive career that has seen some big games against the Packers when he played for the Eagles. He's not built for that kind of workload and is a liability in pass protection--one reason he hadn't been used all season until Monday.
The Packers will look for soft spots on the Niners offensive line, where rookie first round pick Anthony Davis has been slow to come around at right tackle. He did prevent Darnell Dockett from getting to the QB in the last game--but Dockett was playing injured. Expect some help for Davis as he tries to keep Clay Matthews away from Troy Smith. This has a three sack day feel to it for the Claymaker. The 49ers may also be without center Dave Baas (concussion). If he doesn't go, Tony Wragge would step in--he hasn't started a game since 2006 and would be asked to set the pass protections at the line of scrimmage.
Where SF is legit is on defense. Their 3-4 is upper echelon and it's led by the best middle linebacker in the game, Patrick Willis. He and veteran Takeo Spikes make a solid tandem that's tough to run against. Their secondary is spotty though and if Rodgers has time he should be able to make hay against a suspect unit that may be missing CB Shawntae Spencer.
Former Steeler Jeff Reed will handle the kicking duties, since Joe Nedney is still not ready to return from injury.
For the Packers, this is the only home game in a five-game stretch--and they will salute the '29 champs with the blue and gold uniforms of that era. Coming off a last second loss in Atlanta, the Pack figures to be ready to show why most NFL types believe they are as good as anyone in the NFC. Expect a bit more attention to the running game--we may get our first glimpse of running back James Starks. He believes he will be active, though doctors have cleared Dimitri Nance to play, so the coaching staff will decide which one suits up.
Intangibles go the Pack's way in this one. The Niners played a road game on Monday night and are being asked to hit the road and head east for a noon kickoff, which will feel like 10am to them. QB Troy Smith is 3-1 as a starter, but is two weeks removed from being shutout at home by the Bucs. He hasn't faced the kind of looks and pressures Dom Capers has in store for him, and there's no Frank Gore to bail him out.
Defense rules the day at Lambeau. Pack 31 49ers 10.
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