THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — The last time the Packers saw Colin Kaepernick in person, he was a meteor bolting through a flimsy defense. When Green Bay journeys to San Francisco for Sunday’s marquee matchup with the NFC champion 49ers, the defense better be a lot stingier or the Packers will get smashed up again.
Kaepernick set a postseason record for quarterbacks by rushing for 181 yards in San Francisco’s 45-32 divisional-round victory. Green Bay, which has a pretty effective passer of its own in Aaron Rodgers, looked inept when it came to slowing down Kaepernick and the Niners’ read option.
As Packers star linebacker Clay Matthews said, the read option “has become a big part of the league, and it causes you problems because it can make you unsure what to do.”
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers wants his guys to be aggressive and force the issue with Kaepernick and the versatile 49ers offense. That’s not easy, of course, with Frank Gore at running back, Vernon Davis at tight end and Anquan Boldin at wide receiver, all working with a stout line.
Rodgers actually is one of the better scrambling quarterbacks in the league, and no one throws on the run better, not even Kaepernick. He could keep off-balance a staunch 49ers defense led by linebackers Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith.
On Thursday night in the season opener, Peyton Manning matched the NFL record with seven touchdown passes in Denver’s 49-27 home victory over Super Bowl champion Baltimore.
Atlanta at New Orleans: Welcome back, Sean Payton. Now let’s see how much your presence means for the Saints.
New Orleans lost its first four games last season while Payton was suspended for the entire schedule due to the bounty scandal. He doesn’t want his return to be the focus at the Superdome, especially with the division rival Falcons and their equally prolific offense in town.
Sorry, Sean, it’s the big storyline in the Big Easy.
“I get it, because it’s a little bit unprecedented,” Payton said. “I’ve said this to our players: Teams are made up of large groups of players and coaches that are committed to the good of the common cause. I don’t buy into the idea that, ‘Well, now the head coach is back and they’ll be back to contending right away.’ There’s no evidence of that.”
Philadelphia at Washington, Monday: Here’s one to savor: Robert Griffin III, back from major knee surgery, running the read option.
And this: Chip Kelly’s fast-paced, versatile offense trying to match points with RG3 and the Redskins.
The furor over Griffin’s injury — and whether he should have been on the field in the playoff game against Seattle last January — was followed by daily, if not hourly, reports on his recovery. The reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year is back.
“I feel very good where Robert’s at,” coach Mike Shanahan said.
Kelly’s Philly version of the Quack Attack already is without receivers Jeremy Maclin and Arrelious Benn. But he does have DeSean Jackson, do-everything running back LeSean McCoy, and Michael Vick to run the show.
Houston at San Diego, Monday: Finishing off the opening weekend will be the Texans, who have never beaten the Chargers, but are favored over rebuilding San Diego.
Houston is built around stars like a RB Arian Foster, WR Andre Johnson, DE J.J. Watt and LB Brian Cushing, who just got a huge contract extension.
San Diego has few stars left and has concentrated on improving the defense, although new coach Mike McCoy is an offensive master. One thing to look for: How many sacks does Dwight Freeney have left as he comes over from Indianapolis through free agency?
Tampa Bay at New York Jets: Darrelle Revis was the Jets’ best player for most of his six years with them. A shutdown cornerback with big-play skills, he also was one of the franchise’s biggest headaches because of several contract disputes.
So New York dealt him to Tampa, and the NFL, showing its sense of timing — or sense of humor — scheduled him to return from last season’s knee surgery right back at the Meadowlands.
Considering the uncertainty at quarterback for Rex Ryan’s club — rookie Geno Smith starts — Revis could find himself with several chances for picks. And pick 6s.
Seattle at Carolina: Historically, the Seahawks don’t travel to the East Coast too successfully. That really shouldn’t be a factor to start the season, though, and this is one of Seattle’s best squads.
While versatile quarterbacks Cam Newton and Russell Wilson are focal points, how much the defenses can slow down the opposition will decide this one. Newton will face a superb secondary led by All-Pros Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, and each side has a terrific linebacker, Bobby Wagner in Seattle and 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly in Carolina.
Cincinnati at Chicago: A very intriguing game out of the gate for the Bengals, who many see as a Super Bowl contender — or at the very least, an AFC North winner. A win at Soldier Field over the revamped Bears under new coach Marc Trestman could stamp Cincinnati as a force.
To get it, the Bengals will need a big effort from star DT Geno Atkins, who just got a huge contract. If he can unnerve Bears QB Jay Cutler, who can be rattled, Cincinnati would prosper.
Two standout wideouts, Cincy’s A.J. Green and Chicago’s Brandon Marshall, will be on display.
New England at Buffalo:
The Patriots, winners of nine straight openers, dominate the Bills like no one else, winning 18 of the last 19 meetings and 23 of 25. Don’t look for Tom Brady’s streak of games with TD passes (48, second only to Drew Brees’ 54) to end against an injury-depleted secondary.
Plus, there’s Buffalo’s quandary at quarterback, where it can only hope first-round pick EJ Manuel, who will start, has fully recovered from his preseason left knee injury.
Yet, somehow, Bills receiver Stevie Johnson is not-so-cautiously optimistic about the opener.
“I don’t think they’ve got nobody to stop me for real,” Johnson said, referring to the Patriots’ questionable defense. “And I think we’ve got guys in the receiver room that’s as good as I am ... if not better.”
Oakland at Indianapolis: The Raiders have the look of the worst team in football. The Colts look like they could push Houston to the limit in the AFC South.
Oakland, with nearly $50 million going to players no longer on the roster, is playing it coy about its starting QB, Terrelle Pryor or Matt Flynn. Unless Ken Stabler is coming back in his prime, it might not matter against an Indianapolis team that went from 2-14 in 2011, earning it the top draft pick (Andrew Luck), to 11-5.
The uncertainty at quarterback means the Raiders will force feed RB Darren McFadden, who when healthy is very dangerous. Indy was 29th against the run last year.
New York Giants at Dallas: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones loves the idea of his team being featured in prime time. He must hate the idea of playing the Giants, who have never lost in Jerry’s billion-dollar house, going 4-0.
Breakaway receiver Victor Cruz is back from a bruised left heel, something Eli Manning finds critical for New York.
“Definitely, it’s good to have all your weapons out there, one of your top receivers,” Manning said. “It’s good to get him running around. I’m excited he’ll be back for this opening game.”
Tennessee at Pittsburgh: Yes, the NFL is a passing league, and when Ben Roethlisberger is healthy, the Steelers can do major damage through the air.
Still, this has the look of whatever team runs most effectively will take charge. While the Steelers’ backfield is a jumble after the presumed starter, rookie Le’Veon Bell, sprained his right foot, the Titans have Chris Johnson, a one-time 2,000-yard rusher.
Pittsburgh has won 10 straight home openers, longest active streak in the league.
Kansas City at Jacksonville:
Both of these teams were 2-14 on merit last year. Only one, Kansas City, seems ready to distance itself from the cellar.
Andy Reid is following an approach in KC that is similar to the one that helped him turn the Eagles from doormats to contenders. He brought in a quarterback, Alex Smith, who has a good grasp of his West Coast offense, and he inherits a lot more talent with the Chiefs than new coach Gus Bradley does with the Jaguars.
Jacksonville’s best chance is for Maurice Jones-Drew to be unstoppable in the ground game.
Miami at Cleveland:
The Browns have won four straight over Miami. To get to five, new coach Rob Chudzinski needs his offense to pound the ball with Trent Richardson.
The Dolphins are considered a potential challenger to New England in the AFC East, but after a difficult preseason, expectations might have been tempered. They brought in Mike Wallace as a deep threat to complement Brian Hartline in the passing game, but with Bush gone to Detroit, who will run the ball?
Arizona at St. Louis:
The Rams went 4-1-1 in the division, and considering how strong San Francisco and Seattle were last season, that’s impressive.
If St. Louis truly is on the upswing in its second season under Jeff Fisher, it will get more production in the deep passing game. The tools are there with QB Sam Bradford and first-round pick Tavon Austin.
Bruce Arians parlayed an interim coaching gig in Indianapolis after Chuck Pagano underwent treatment for leukemia into NFL Coach of the Year honors. And now, at age 60, his first head coaching assignment, with a Cardinals team that fell apart after a 4-0 start in 2012.