A heavyweight title match kicks off 2011 season

In one corner, you have the Super Bowl champion, a title-holder, and there’s no doubt that its reign atop the sport has only just begun.

In the other corner, you have a champion from a year past — knocked off their perch by a stunner in Seattle — who wants nothing more than a chance to prove it is still the king of the ring.

On Thursday night, in the first game of the 2011 season, the showdown between the Packers and the Saints will be a heavyweight bout between the last two Super Bowl winners. A title unification match, of sorts.

After studying these two teams on tape all preseason, here’s our “tale of the tape,” a position-by-position breakdown, on who has the upper hand:

Quarterback

In Round 1 of our breakdown, both QBs have knockout potential with huge right arms. And they throw haymakers early and often.

Both Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are top-five QBs with championship rings. They are the definition of franchise quarterbacks and are as precise and decisive as you can ask from a signal-caller. Expect heavy pressure to be sent at both, and expect them to “bob and weave” their way through the pocket and make big-time throws regardless of the bodies flying around them.

Judge’s score: Draw

Running backs

The Saints invested a first-round pick in Mark Ingram for a reason — he’s a tough, downhill runner who will barrel toward holes before they open up. Same goes for his counterpart, a proven veteran, Pierre Thomas. Add Darren Sproles‘ abilities as a runner and pass catcher, and New Orleans has a trio of playmakers.

Conversely, Green Bay lost Brandon Jackson to free agency and is relying heavily on a young James Starks and veteran Ryan Grant, who returns after missing nearly all of 2010 with an injury.

New Orleans wins with this trio in Round 2.

Judge’s score: New Orleans, 10-8

Wide receivers

There is no shortage of speed or depth with these corps. Both teams’ offenses spread the field and get their receivers in positions to be effective.

But Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and Jordy Nelson might have the big-play edge on Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem. Green Bay’s 42 plays of 25-plus yards was second only to the explosive Chargers in 2010, and Rodgers’ accuracy helped his receivers average 6.1 yards after catch. This leans our preference toward Green Bay in a close Round 3.

Judge’s score: Green Bay, 10-9

Tight end

This matchup for the tight end position might be as marquee as the quarterbacks — and just as hard to score. We’d love to see these two power forwards, Jermichael Finley and Jimmy Graham settle it on the hardwood — might have to give the edge to the ex-Miami (Fla.) basketball player Graham — but on the football field, Finley has the edge. Both Finley and Graham cause matchup problems for any NFL defender, whether that be a corner, safety or linebacker. We’ve only seen a glimpse of these matchup nightmares — but seen just a bit more of Finley. He was on pace for an All-Pro type of year before his season-ending injury in 2010, and we expect him to get back on track early in 2011.

Both sides hit the mat in this round.

Judge’s score: Green Bay, 9-8

Offensive tackles

All four tackles were important pieces for championship offensive lines, but they aren’t the strengths of either team. Chad Clifton is an aging left tackle but remains solid for the Packers. Opposite of him, rising star Bryan Bulaga, who shined last year in his rookie campaign, is still developing.

In 2009, the Saints used Zach Strief as an extra tackle in run situations, but he is now playing every down at right tackle and will have to match up with some of the league’s premier pass rushers. Jermon Bushrod remains at left tackle, but he has always been shaky versus pure rush ends.

On the same token, the Saints’ tackles have performed better than the Packers’ this preseason — Brees has only been sacked once — but on the whole, we still feel better about Clifton and Bulaga being back for one year. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Judge’s score: Green Bay, 10-9

Guards/center

All that room Brees has to step into throws is provided by two All-Pro guards Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans. Arguably two of the best in the game, they are dominating in pass protection and especially bruising in the run game. It’s no rare occasion to see Evans and Nicks burying defensive tackles several yards down the field.

And, oh yeah, adding NFL All-Decade Team (2000s) center Olin Kruetz is nothing to sleep on.

Green Bay’s hole at left guard, left by the departing Daryn Colledge, could be the Achilles’ heel of the Packers’ offense. Converted tackle T.J. Lang and rookie first-round pick Derek Sherrod have looked overmatched at guard this preseason.

The Saints win this round with plenty of body blows.

Judge’s score: New Orleans, 10-8

Defensive tackle

While New Orleans added Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin to play alongside Sedrick Ellis, Green Bay lost Cullen Jenkins to the Eagles. This hole in the Packers’ defense will only be multiplied by New Orleans’ ability to pound the ball through Green Bay’s defense in the running game.

For the second round in a row, the Saints are too strong for the Packers.

Judge’s score: New Orleans, 10-9

Edge rushers

No Will Smith for the Saints this week. Clay Matthews is Clay Matthews. And Dom Capers‘ defense always puts players in a position to get after the quarterback.

While New Orleans and coordinator Gregg Williams has constructed a defense based on collective pressure, Green Bay has a pass rusher who is unblockable one on one.

In this round, the Packers have a chance to break the Saints’ offensive rhythm and pressure Brees.

Judge’s score: Green Bay, 10-9

Linebackers

Love the depth of Green Bay’s corps, which was surely tested during an injury-riddled run to the Super Bowl in 2010. That has to be a credit to the Packers’ linebacker coaches, Winston Moss and Kevin Greene, who were both being considered for coordinator jobs in the offseason.

The Saints still have their quarterback of the defense in Jonathan Vilma and veteran Scott Shanle, but New Orleans has never seemed to replace the production of Scott Fujita since he left for Cleveland.

Judge’s score: Green Bay, 10-9

Cornerbacks

The Packers’ cornerbacks play better on-the-ball defense than the Saints’ — period. Tramon Williams and Sam Shields proved they can lock up two of the league’s best passing teams in the 2010 NFC playoffs in Philadelphia and Atlanta.

What about Charles Woodson, you ask … ?

Judge’s score: Green Bay, 10-8

Safeties

While Woodson might be classified as a cornerback on paper, he is as hybrid a player as this league has seen in the secondary. Woodson has been asked to be a box player, a blitzer, a centerfielder, and a shutdown corner.

Combined with Pro Bowler Nick Collins, a healthy Morgan Burnett, and vet Charlie Peprah — who proved his worth last year filling in during the Super Bowl run — the Packers are stacked at the back-end of their defense.

Malcolm Jenkins has improved since moving from corner to safety, but he will miss the veteran presence of Darren Sharper.

Judge’s score: Green Bay, 10-9

Special teams

Even though Reggie Bush has left for a lead-back role in Miami, New Orleans found its specialty player in Darren Sproles. Courtney Roby is still a consistent special teams contributor for the Saints, as well.

Green Bay, however, hasn’t had a pure returner of merit in recent years, and the Packers are hoping to get more production from the return game with rookie Randall Cobb. But we haven’t seen enough of him to say he’s Desmond Howard yet.

Judge’s score: New Orleans, 10-8

Saints vs. Packers: Tale of the tape
Saints
Rounds
Packers
Draw
QB
Draw
X
RB
WR
X
TE
X
OT
X
X
G/C
X
DT
Edge rush
X
LB
X
CB
X
S
X
X
ST
Venue
X
Draw
Coaches
Draw
X
Significance
Winner
X

Venue

Being at home doesn’t assure a win, but taking a dome team out of their comfort zone — or the Saints out of the Louisiana Superdome — can have an impact (and the Saints certainly need no reminder of their trip to Seattle in last year’s playoffs). Now, they have to visit the defending Super Bowl champs in their backyard, and the venue could be a factor at some point in the game. Whether it’s kicking into a gust of wind or an untimely false start due to crowd noise, the Saints face an uphill battle with the sultry smell of bratwurst in the air.

Judge’s score: Green Bay, 10-9

Coaches

This is where the balance of the quarterback matchup will be tipped. If Brees dissects the Packers, credit Sean Payton‘s play-calling. If the same goes for Rodgers, credit Mike McCarthy. Both pull the strings for their respective offenses and both have commanded their units to Super Bowl victories.

Too close to call.

Judge’s score: Draw

Significance

New Orleans is coming off of a humiliating defeat in the playoffs to Seattle and must feel like this is their chance to reclaim glory versus the new Super Bowl champions. Green Bay, on the other hand, is coming off the high of all highs, but true champions are never content and the Packers are setting their sights on positioning themselves in the NFC North for a 2011 title run.

Something’s gotta give, and we think the Saints are in urgent need of hitting the ground running in 2011.

Judge’s score: New Orleans, 10-9

Final score: Green Bay, 141-140

From the score, it looks like this game could go either way. While the matchup favors the Packers on paper, neither of these teams is a paper champion — and that’s why they have rings around their fingers.

Jon Blau, “Playbook” video editor/researcher

“Playbook”, the ultimate football Xs and Os show, airs Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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