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Explosive Green Bay Packers host stingy San Francisco 49ers

It was no big secret what the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers needed to improve on in the offseason to get back into Super Bowl contention.

The 49ers, who boasted one of the NFL's stingiest defenses last year, appear to have fulfilled their needs by adding playmakers on offense. The Packers still have concerns in their secondary, but somehow found a way to better an offense that was one of the most explosive in NFL history.

Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Packers host Alex Smith and the new-look 49ers on Sunday in a matchup of defending division champions hoping to start quickly after home playoff exits.

Green Bay entered last season's playoffs as the favorite to win the Super Bowl after going an NFL-best 15-1. With Rodgers directing the offense, the Packers, winners of 13 straight regular-season games at Lambeau Field, led the league in scoring with an average of 35.0 points - fifth-best in NFL history.

Green Bay hosted the New York Giants in a divisional playoff game, but the offense wasn't sharp and the defense - a weakness all season - struggled mightily in a 37-20 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champs.

"That's a very important game and you want to play your best in the most important games, and we did not accomplish that," coach Mike McCarthy said.

While Rodgers routinely frustrated defenses, setting the NFL single-season record with a 122.5 passer rating and franchise records with 4,643 yards and 45 touchdown passes, his own defense made Packer fans sweat.

Green Bay allowed 4,924 passing yards - the most in NFL history. A poor pass rush contributed to the secondary's struggles, as the Packers' 29 sacks ranked 27th.

"We know that wasn't us. You can look at the tape from the previous years and look at the one last year, and it just wasn't the same," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "We know that, and that's why we came into training camp refocused, ready to go."

The Packers, who are without linebacker Desmond Bishop after he tore his right hamstring in the first preseason game, will start Williams with safeties Charles Woodson and Morgan Burnett, but it is still uncertain who will occupy the other corner position in the opener against an improved San Francisco offense.

The 49ers went 13-3 last season to win the NFC West, and defeated New Orleans 36-32 in the divisional round of the playoffs before losing to the Giants 20-17 in overtime of the NFC title game.

"I think that feeling is still there," Smith said of failing to make the Super Bowl. "As much as we all talk about pressing delete on last year ... I don't think that anyone is pressing delete on the taste in our mouth."

Smith threw for a career-high 3,150 yards and 17 touchdowns last year, and his five interceptions were tied for the third-fewest in NFL history with a minimum of 400 attempts. He was playing with a wide receiving corps that was considered one of the league's worst, and that unit managed just one reception in the NFC title game loss.

To give Smith some help, San Francisco found some wideouts with more than a few big games on their resumes.

The 49ers added the 35-year-old Randy Moss after a year out of football along with Super Bowl XLVI hero Mario Manningham. They signed another former Giant in Brandon Jacobs and drafted Oregon's LaMichael James to boost the depth at running back behind three-time Pro Bowler Frank Gore, though Jacobs is uncertain for the opener after suffering a knee injury in the preseason.

Even if he can't, San Francisco feels like an offense that averaged 23.8 points a year ago - 11th in the NFL - is poised to improve.

"We feel, obviously, much further along than we were last year," left tackle Joe Staley said.

While there are new faces on offense, the 49ers return every starter from a defense that was second in the league in scoring at 14.3 points per game.

Anchored by All-Pros Patrick Willis and Justin Smith and second-year linebacker Aldon Smith, San Francisco became the first team in NFL history not to give up a rushing touchdown through the first 14 games. It allowed a league-low 77.3 run yards per game and three total rushing TDs.

"We have great expectations. We have big hopes. We've got big dreams," said Jim Harbaugh, the reigning NFL Coach of the Year.

The defense will likely have its hands full in the opener.

Jordy Nelson had team highs of 68 catches, 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns, while Greg Jennings had nine TD receptions, Jermichael Finley eight and James Jones seven.

"We're deep," said Donald Driver, who had six TDs.

The Packers opted not to bring back running back Ryan Grant, instead signing Cedric Benson, who is coming off his third straight 1,000-yard season with Cincinnati.

"I don't know how you would like to quantify it, but anytime you have another weapon on your offense, it certainly helps," McCarthy said.

The Packers haven't faced San Francisco since Rodgers threw for 298 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-16 win over the Troy Smith-led 49ers on Dec. 5, 2010.

Green Bay has won nine straight regular-season games over San Francisco since 1990, tied for the longest active winning streak by any team versus a single opponent.

Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press

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