If a player's worth can accurately be gauged by how his play affects his team when he's not in the lineup, then by that measure Justin Smith may be the most valuable player in football.
The 49ers give up half a yard more per play when Number 94 sits. Their sack rate nearly doubles when he takes the field. Without him the 49ers, like most teams, need to blitz to get steady pressure on the quarterback. With him, they're the Super Bowl version of the New York Giants against Tom Brady: four guys getting it done up front, leaving seven in coverage. For anecdotal evidence, look at Aldon Smith: from Defensive Player of the Year candidate to Claude Rains in just three weeks.
So, with the big guy listed as 'probable' for tonight's prime-time showdown with Green Bay, we're optimistic. A steady pass rush combined with the power running game was enough to keep Aaron Rodgers on the bench much of the time at Lambeau Field back in September, and keeping the game's top quarterback off the field is the best way to beat the league's best passing team. Just ask all those coaches who opposed Joe Montana years ago. Rodgers is more willing than most QBs to leave a risky play on the field and take a sack, because he has such great confidence in himself and in his receivers he figures there'll always be a next time. Keeping those 'next times' to a minimum will be the job of Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Frank Gore, et. al., and getting those sacks will be much easier if Justin Smith is there to tie up two blockers and allow Aldon Smith to roam free. We should have some idea of how well it's all working before halftime.
Not a few have opined they believe this game will decide the winner of the Super Bowl. We'll abstain from such comments ourselves, at least as long as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady remain in the tournament. But this weekend is without a doubt the real highlight of the NFL season. The pretenders were excused last week, and of the eight teams and four games scheduled for today and tomorrow we don't see a dog in the bunch. While leaning sympathetically in the direction of Houston, Atlanta, and Denver in the other games, we only sell out one way, now and forever: GO NINERS!