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Not only will the 49ers be playing their home opener after a 2-0 start and a long wait for the return of fans, creating the potential for a frenzied atmosphere at Levi’s Stadium, but the Packers are facing an unfortunate injury situation that will likely leave them without three of their best players.
There’s really nothing the Packers can do about either circumstance.
Start with the injuries. Can the Packers go on the road and beat an NFC contender without three difference-makers?
Left tackle David Bakhtiari, edge rusher Za’Darius Smith and offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins all safely rank among the team’s eight best players. All three are expected to be out on Sunday night. Bakhtiari is on the PUP list, Smith is on injured reserve and Jenkins is doubtful to play with an ankle injury.
The talent will be missed, obviously, but the absences are also at key spots in this matchup.
Not having Smith will take away Joe Barry’s most disruptive player. He’s so productive and versatile. Why has the Packers front struggled early on to start 2021? Not having Smith at 100 percent has to be at least one of the reasons why. And the distressing part here is the 49ers have a terrific offensive line, giving Kyle Shanahan’s team an important advantage in this game. Without Smith, can the Packers create enough disruption to survive against one of the NFL’s most creative playcallers?
The offense is in a similar spot along the line of scrimmage.
The Packers will be down to their No. 3 preferred left tackle. That player – whether it is Billy Turner, Dennis Kelly or Yosh Nijman – will face Nick Bosa, an excellent young edge rusher who was described as a game-wrecker by LaFleur this week. He has eight pressures and three sacks in two games this season.
The Packers offensive line already had a difficult task ahead. Not having Bakhtiari or Jenkins – or All-Pro center Corey Linsley, for that matter – only complicates the matter. LaFleur’s team will start rookies at center and right guard, and for the third straight week, the starting five along the offensive line will look different.
It’s possible the Packers will start three players – all along the interior – with zero career starts in a true road environment. Week 1 doesn’t count; TIAA Bank Field was only half full and at least half were Packers fans. How will center Josh Myers, left guard Jon Runyan and right guard Royce Newman handle the environment? Nijman, an unlikely option at left tackle, has never started an NFL game.
The 49ers defensive front can be dominant. They could feast against this weakened and inexperienced form of the Packers offensive line. And they’ll be assisted by the setting.
After a season wrecked by the pandemic, fans are back in NFL stadiums. And Levi’s Stadium will be a packed house for the first time since…the 2019 NFC Championship Game. Like Monday night at Lambeau Field, Sunday night in San Francisco should be an incredible environment. There’s no doubt the 49ers will feed off that energy, and the noise and chaos will affect the Packers when they have the football. A team that stormed through fan-less NFL stadiums last year will face a true away crowd for the first time in a year and a half.
Here’s the thing, however, about situations like this: No one outside the building expects a team to respond and create the unlikely outcome. Most think the 49ers will win. Some think the 49ers will win convincingly. And considering past outcomes in San Francisco, and the circumstances of this latest visit, a blowout is in the cards.
But the Packers also have a chance to make a big statement. Go on the road and beat the undefeated 49ers in a chaotic primetime environment without three top players? No one will remember that disaster in Week 1. The Packers would be in possession of one of the best wins of the early 2021 season.
These are the kind of opportunities that can galvanize a true championship contender. The Packers have been to two straight NFC title games. Anything short of the next step in 2021 would be a failure, so a game like this one could be so valuable if the Packers use it as a chance to prepare for future big games in January and (possibly) February.
Mike McCarthy once said the Packers were “nobody’s underdog.” LaFleur’s team should feel the same. The circumstances aren’t favorable for Sunday night but every situation like this is an opportunity to prove something for a contender.