COMMENTARY | After a month of preseason action, the San Francisco 49ers are finally ready to play for games that count in the win-loss column.
Kicking off the new year, San Francisco will take on the Green Bay Packers. Even though they are one of the top teams in the NFC, the 49ers have had their number lately, winning two straight against them. In order to keep that streak intact, everyone from head coach Jim Harbaugh to the 53rd man needs to be on-point come Sunday afternoon.
So who will have the greatest say in helping guide the 49ers to a home victory? Listed below are five players to watch closely throughout the matchup:
Gore loves playing against the Packers. Last season, the 30-year-old running back averaged 115.5 rushing yards to go along with two touchdowns in two games against Dom Capers' defense.
Since the Packers have yet to stop the star rusher, Gore may be featured right from the start. Making him a focal point will not only slow down Clay Matthews from getting to Colin Kaepernick, but maintaining possession of the ball would also keep Aaron Rodgers off the field.
Even though Kaepernick is an efficient passer, and can take over a game single-handedly, Gore is the x-factor. His play will have a domino effect on both the 49ers' offensive and defensive units.
The third-year linebacker will be key in this showdown. If the 49ers want to contain Rodgers and the passing attack, Smith must make his presence felt early.
Rodgers' blind side could be a glaring issue for Green Bay, as starting left tackle Bryan Bulaga tore his ACL back in August and is out for the season. The next man up to keep his quarterback clean is rookie David Bakhtiari.
Stemming from last season, the Packers' offensive line is still a bit of a concern as it allowed the second-most sacks in 2012 (51). Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio could get creative and move Smith around to cause further confusion and havoc among Green Bay's pass protectors.
The Missouri product stated that accumulating 30 sacks in a season is "possible". This game should provide Smith with plenty of opportunities to climb towards that lofty milestone.
Kaepernick had his way the last time he saw the Packers. After a rocky start in the NFC Divisional round matchup, he shredded the Packers for 181 rushing yards- a postseason record for a quarterback.
Kaepernick won't catch Green Bay by surprise this time, as they had a whole offseason to prepare for the read-option. Should the Packers' front-seven contain the mobile signal-caller, Kaepernick will need to place his trust in his receivers.
This figures to be a high-scoring battle with Rodgers roaming the opposing sideline. In order to defeat the Packers, Kaepernick may need to rely more on his arm to come out on top.
With cornerback Chris Culliver sidelined for the entire season, Asomugha will be slotted as the team's third cornerback. Asomugha was a major disappointment in Philadelphia, but has a fresh slate in San Francisco.
Green Bay possesses a trio of talented wideouts in Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and James Jones, which may lead to Asomugha seeing a healthy amount of snaps.
The former Pro Bowler has a lot to prove. This game could act as a barometer in terms of seeing where Asomugha currently stands. Are his days of being a top corner over, or has he regained some semblance of his playmaking form? Rodgers, like the rest of us, will find out very soon.
The rookie safety will be presented with a daunting challenge to kickoff his NFL career. Given that Reid has just three preseason games of experience under his belt, it wouldn't come as a surprise to see Rodgers take some early shots downfield.
However, Reid has performed well throughout the preseason, and has the awareness to make an immediate impact. Fangio stated that "the learning and mental side of the game will not be an issue for him."
Whether Reid struggles or plays at a high level this Sunday, going up against a high-powered offense should provide him with a valuable learning experience moving forward.
Travis Chan is a lifelong fan of the San Francisco 49ers. He is currently covering the team on the Yahoo Contributor Network.
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