49ers/Packers: What we learned

Five things we learned about the 49ers during their resounding 30-22 victory over the Green Bay Packers in Sunday's season opener at Lambeau Field.

The Niners have reached the top of the NFL heap
The 49ers are as good as any team in the NFL. They very well might be, today, the very best team in the league. There's a distinction there that became clear during their dismantling of a Green Bay team that pretty much was the NFL standard over the past two years. Last year, in their rise back to prominence, the Niners demonstrated that they could play with any team. But there's a difference between playing with the best teams and beating them convincingly on their home field, where the Packers were undefeated last season and had won 13 of their last 14 games. There 49ers were a team with no holes Sunday, and that's no aberration – they are solid everywhere across the board. And better than solid in several key areas. With the Niners finally showing enough ability to strike regularly and move the ball through the air to complement a strong ground game, San Francisco has the offense to hold its own next to the best defense and special teams in the NFL. That's an extraordinary combination that will be difficult to beat on every given Sunday. The 49ers may not be a great team, but they have the ingredients to get there. They have taken the next step to a level above.

Alex Smith is a legitimate front-line quarterback
Despite finishing ninth in the NFL with a 90.7 passer rating, Smith wasn't a top-10 NFL quarterback last season. He is now. Maybe Smith really did just need better coaching and better players around him to reach his potential. He has both now, and he is now more than just the caretaker quarterback that many made him out to be – with some justification – last season. Take away two off-target throws at the end of the first half, and Smith was money the entire game, slicing and dicing the Green Bay offense with crisp throws and buying time with his legs when needed. There was a certain aura about Smith on Sunday that has rarely been seen before as he played with a coolness and command that goes with being a true winning quarterback. It was on the big stage, with a QB Smith has been compared to unfavorably in a big way, and Alex simply thrived as if he were the one directing a record-setting offense for a team that had recently won a Super Bowl. The stats were superb – a 125.6 passer rating, for example – but Smith's play went beyond mere numbers. It's finally time to say Alex is A-OK as the quarterback to lead this team that is loaded almost everywhere around him.

Frank Gore still has the juice
A lot of observers thought that now, in his eighth season, Frank Gore finally would be giving way to a running-back-by-committee approach in which his featured role in the offense would be diminished from what it has been most of his career. They thought the fact the 49ers brought in all those reinforcements at running back during the offseason was a sign he was slowing down. Well, Gore still has a lot left. In fact, he looked a guy who still might be around a while as a NFL force rather than an overworked running back who is in decline. Gore ran with the power and burst of his prime against the Packers, and it will only help him that the Niners will earmark a few more carries than last year each game for understudy Kendall Hunter, who is an emerging force in his own right. But Gore left no question that he can still handle the load as the featured back in an offense that's built around a power rushing game.

Randy Moss is still a veritable touchdown maker
A year away from the game didn't seem to affect Moss's penchant for getting open or hitting paydirt. Moss only played 21 snaps against the Packers, but he still managed to catch all four passes that came his way while creating both space and separation between him and defenders. With the 49ers lined up at the Green Bay 14-yard line and Moss split wide, you'd think that the Packers would have at least a couple of defenders shadowing him. But one quick slant move to his right, and Moss was cruising wide open into the end zone, where he snagged the 154th touchdown reception of his career, moving him past former 49er Terrell Owens for second place on the all-time list behind the greatest of them all, Jerry Rice. The 49ers now have another legitimate red zone target to go along with Vernon Davis, and that also will create some space for Michael Crabtree as an option when the Niners get down near the goal line. Anybody who didn't think Moss was still the same touchdown maker at age 35 that he was earlier in his career has another thing coming.

NaVorro Bowman is now as indispensable to the 49ers defense as Patrick Willis
It's true. Bowman has crossed over to that rare air where only Willis and a few other middle linebackers in the NFL reside. It was telling on Sunday that when the Niners brought in cornerback Perrish Cox for their dime package, Willis was the middle linebacker to leave the field while Bowman remained. Bowman has made major strides as a coverage linebacker, as evidenced by his athletic interception of Aaron Rodgers in the fourth quarter that made sure the game didn't get away from the Niners. Nobody would suggest that Bowman has overtaken Willis as San Francisco's best linebacker – which would make him arguably the best linebacker in the league – but the fact that he stood side-by-side with Willis on the All-Pro team last season in just his second season is no fluke. In what figures to be one of the Niners' most consequential games of the season, Bowman was on the field for 59 of San Francisco's 61 defensive plays while Willis was in on 48 plays. Bowman led the 49ers with 11 tackles; Willis chipped in with six. Willis is the player San Francisco's defense is built around, but one of the building blocks next to him has become just as important to the team's defensive scheme and success too.

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