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Point, counterpoint: Can a season-opener be considered a must-win game?


! Staff Writer Mike Spofford says yes.

Normally, I wouldn't even go here, because no matter how you slice it, it's one of 16 games. But there are some real special circumstances surrounding this opener, and it goes beyond simply the opponent.

Yes, the 49ers reached the NFC Championship Game last year and are a Super Bowl contender. This game will give one team the head-to-head nod in a potential playoff-seeding tiebreaker, which could decide home-field advantage in a rematch.

The thought of taking the Packers' fast-track offense in January to a rainy Candlestick Park – or whatever the place is called now (uh oh, am I starting to sound like Vic?) – is less than ideal. This Green Bay team isn't built the same as the one that beat the 49ers in the slop at Lambeau in the '96 playoffs or in the drizzle out west in the '97 NFC title game. There are no guarantees regarding the Wisconsin weather in January, either, but if weather is going to be a factor, you'd rather be at home.

All that said, however, the most compelling argument for Week 1 being a must-win has to do with Week 2. The Bears are coming to Lambeau four days after the Niners do, and the pressure mounts considerably on the Packers if they're 0-1 heading into that short week.

The rivalry with the Bears is big enough, as are the NFC North and potential playoff implications in that game. A loss to the Niners, in my opinion, would give the Bears a considerable psychological edge next Thursday.

I never take my predictions to the bank, but I don't see Colts quarterback Andrew Luck winning his first NFL start at Soldier Field on Sunday, which means the Bears should be coming to Green Bay 1-0. If the Packers are 0-1 with little time to rid themselves of the hangover from a loss, and Chicago has a chance to put the defending division champs in a two-game hole right out of the gate, the Bears will become the Sharks – they'll smell blood in the water.

Could the Packers respond in that situation? Of course they could, but dealing with that kind of adversity that early in a season could also wear on a team over the long haul, even if it comes out the other side OK in the short term.

In the end, Week 2 is more important than Week 1 for the Packers. I won't deny that. But to give your archrival, whom you've defeated four straight times and whose Super Bowl dreams you dashed two years ago, a chance to beat you while you're down?

Don't go there.

! Editor Vic Ketchman says no.

As much as I enjoy covering big games and would love to heighten the drama by deluding myself into believing the game I'm going to cover this Sunday will decide home-field advantage in a rematch between the Packers and 49ers, and maybe even more, I've been doing this long enough to know that's not likely. It's not likely because, well, that's what's supposed to happen.

Allow me to explain, please.

Most of the "experts," which is to say reporters such as myself, are predicting the Packers and 49ers will meet in the postseason, possibly for the NFC title. It's a logical prediction, based on the fact that the Packers and 49ers had the best records in the NFC last year. Now ask yourself: How often do seasons play out as expected?

At 9-7, was it logical for the Giants to win it all last year? Were the 49ers a preseason pick to finish 13-3 and host the NFC title game?

How about 2010? Was anybody picking the Packers to win six straight, including the Super Bowl, following a loss in New England that had the Packers on the brink of elimination?

Hey, things don't happen as we expect them to happen. The "L" in NFL doesn't stand for Likely.

This is a league that trends toward the unlikely. Why? Because it's a long season and in a long season things happen, such as injuries and bad weather and bad bounces and bad officials calls, all of which can decide one or two games that can change everything.

This Sunday's game is not a must-win game for either team. Emotionally, they'll each treat it as such because they have each other's deep respect. The 49ers know the road to the Super Bowl might very well go through Green Bay, and the Packers know the road to last year's Super Bowl did, in fact, go through San Francisco.

Between now and the end of the season, however, the 49ers will also play games against the Jets, Saints, Patriots, Giants, Lions and Bears, and all of whom are thought to also be hot in pursuit of playoff spots and home-field advantage, which means all of those games would also have to be considered must wins.

Over the course of the next four months, the Packers will face the Bears and Lions a couple of times each, and the Saints, Texans and Giants. Are all of those must wins? Of course not.

There will be lots of twists and turns in the road that is the 2012 season. Last year was the exception to the rule. One-loss seasons don't come along very often.

The old coach's axiom that the season is a marathon, not a sprint, is accurate. Championship teams usually have to battle back from adversity, as the Giants did last season. At some point in the year, winning it all is a notion that will have been moved into the unlikely category, as it was for the 2010 Packers.

Those are two teams, the 2011 Giants and 2010 Packers, that teetered on the brink of elimination. As they headed into the final weeks of their seasons, they had reached the point of having to win every game or they would be eliminated from championship contention. That's when each game truly becomes a must win.

We're a long way from reaching that point in this season.

Cast your vote in the poll on the right, please.

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