Final Word: NFC North

September, 7, 2012
9/07/12
1:30
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Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

History-making: The Green Bay Packers have a nine-game winning streak against the San Francisco 49ers, who haven't defeated the Packers in the regular season since Nov. 4, 1990. (They did knock the Packers out of the 1998 playoffs.) Both starting quarterbacks for this game, Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith, were 6 years old at the time. Eleven of ESPN's 14 experts picked the Packers to win Sunday, but overall it's one of the best Week 1 matchups in recent memory. The teams combined for 28 victories last season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there has been only one opening game in NFL history where the opponents have combined for more. (1999, Minnesota Vikings at Atlanta Falcons.)

[+] EnlargeMarshall Newhouse
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastLeft tackle Marshall Newhouse and the Packers' offensive line will face a fearsome 49ers' rush.
Important matchup: There has been plenty of discussion about the return of 49ers receiver Randy Moss, both to the NFL and Lambeau Field. (People forget he already has been back once since his infamous 2004 mooning, a three-catch performance for the Vikings in 2010.) The Packers' pass defense remains unsettled from a personnel standpoint, but to me the bigger matchup will be the Packers' offensive line against the 49ers' powerful defensive front. Can the Packers maintain the line of scrimmage against beastly defensive end Justin Smith and speedy pass-rusher Aldon Smith? The best way to stop an elite offense, as the 49ers proved in their playoff victory against the New Orleans Saints, is to dominate the line of scrimmage and collapse the pocket. The Packers' defense might have improved, but is it ready to carry the team to victory if the Packers' offense gets overwhelmed at the line of scrimmage? Not sure about that.

Lions' advantage: The St. Louis Rams enter the season on a seven-game losing streak, have lost 33 of their past 40 road games and don't appear equipped to capitalize on the Detroit Lions' injury-riddled secondary. (Safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Chris Houston aren't expected to play.) All 14 ESPN experts have picked the Lions to win at Ford Field, and this should be an easy Lions victory. One development I'll be watching: How will the improvement of receiver Titus Young, and the presumed emergence of new slot receiver Ryan Broyles, affect the Lions' attack? We saw only glimpses of both players in the preseason. Let's see what they can put on tape Sunday for future opponents to fret about.

Testing Urlacher: The Chicago Bears' revamped offensive scheme will get an early test from the Indianapolis Colts' bookend pass-rushers, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. But if I'm the Colts, I'm doing a little testing of my own. Despite middle linebacker Brian Urlacher's insistence that his surgically repaired knee is sound, there is every reason for rookie quarterback Andrew Luck to test him repeatedly in the deep middle portion of the field. The Colts are heavy underdogs in this game, and aren't likely to win if they play it safe. It's quite possible Urlacher will do his thing and keep the middle mostly clean of big gains. But it would be criminal for the Colts not to at least find out.

Immediate urgency: Almost all of the national attention on the Vikings-Jaguars game has centered on the extent to which tailback Adrian Peterson will play after a 260-day recovery from two torn knee ligaments. But from the bigger picture, this game -- and next week's affair at Indianapolis -- represents a referendum on whether the Vikings can be written off as a rebuilding team. If they have any designs on competing in 2012, based on how their schedule shapes up, the Vikings need to claim victory in both of these highly winnable games. Owner Zygi Wilf told players this week that Sunday is the most important season opener in his eight-year tenure. Suffice it to say, however, the Vikings haven't engendered much national confidence. Six of ESPN's 14 experts have picked the Jaguars to win in the Metrodome.

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NFC NORTH SCOREBOARD