Monday, December 28, 1998

Not Ready for Prime Time Packers?

After a long absence from the playoffs, the "Cardiac Cards" are back as the NFC's last wild card team. Thinking about the Cardiac Card nickname got me to thinking what the catch phrase would be for this year's version of the Green Bay Packers. All I could come up with was the Not Ready for Prime Time Packers. We know for sure that they are not ready for prime time, because they lost all 4 of their night games this year (Minnesota, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay). Should we take any solace in the fact that the game, at San Francisco this Sunday, is being played in the afternoon, and not at night? Maybe.

It is a weird and wonderful twist of fate for me and my family, living here in the San Francisco Bay area, that the paths of the 49ers and Packers have crossed so many times in the last 3 years. We were lucky enough to have been there at Candlestick Park when the Packers took the wind out of the 49er sails for the first time, back in January of 1996, and we were there in the downpour last year, when they did it again. I am scouring sources for tickets again right now, and hope to be there again this Sunday.

This will be a week filled with hype around here. There will be non-stop sports talk radio about the 49ers and Packers. They will get Max McGee, or Jim Irwin, or Mike Holmgren, or Bob Harlan or who knows who else, as guests on the sports talk shows. They will have people calling in to whine about the Don Beebe touchdown, the absence of Jerry Rice last year, the absence of Steve Young the year before that, and a lot will be said about the absence of Bryant Young this year. It will be virtually impossible to get any work done this week (which is too bad, because I've got a lot of work to do).

There is no bulletin board material for the Packers just yet. On the local pre-game show yesterday, they had an interview with Gabe Wilkins where he talked a little bit about the Packers having the 49ers' number. He almost had a quotable quote, where he talked about how "we'll end that streak [next] week..." before tailing off with a barely audible "...hopefully" at the end. Ken Norton did say that the 49ers have played like "doo-doo" against the Packers in the past games, which I suppose excludes the possibility that the Packers were just a better team in at least some of those 5 games.

There has been a good deal of talk, so far, about how the 49ers are "due" to win a game against the Packers. I interpret that as showing MUCH less confidence than saying the 49ers WILL beat the Packers, or the 49ers are a better team than the Packers. Steve Mariucci had that "deer in the headlights" look during his press conference yesterday, even more than usual. Despite the 49ers' convincing victory over the Rams, he just seemed to be totally distracted and stressed out. There is much talk in the papers about how he may be fired if the Packers beat the 49ers again, usually as part of a plan to bring Holmgren here. And, strangely, Mariucci himself contributed to the craziness by telling John Madden, before yesterday's game, that Bill Walsh "might" be back with the 49ers as early as Monday. Madden of course blabbed this to the national audience during the game. Mariucci was swarmed after the game to be asked about this, and his story was that he was just "repeating" to Madden a "rumor" he had heard (apparently from the infamous Fred Edelstein). But why would he tell this to Madden? He had to know that it would create an uproar. Could he have been "instructed" to spread this rumor? By whom? There is nobody home in the front office, of course. And if he was not instructed, then why would he say such a stupid thing?

As for the game, I am nervous. I don't think either the Packers or the 49ers have much shot at going to the Super Bowl this year, although obviously funny things can happen in the playoffs. But we all know that the Packers have looked MUCH less consistent this year, losing three games to non-playoff teams (Pittsburgh, Detroit and Tampa Bay). Counter-balancing this somewhat is the fact that the 49ers have shown that they are capable of losing to just about anyone this year, although they have done a better job than the Packers have of pulling out most of the close ones. And then there is the "Packers have the 49ers' number" factor. I think there are two aspects to this, both of them good. The Packers' coaching staff really has a very good understanding of the 49ers, both because of Holmgren's years with the team, and because of Shurmur's many years of coaching against the 49ers. And then there is the psychological aspect of it. Much like the Packers could not find a way to beat the Cowboys until they were well past their prime, the same factor weighs on the 49er coaches and players. Are the Packers well past their prime at this point? I don't think so. But they are seriously hampered by injuries, which could have the same effect.

There is no secret about the weaknesses of the 49ers: defensive backs and, now, defensive line. All it will take is a quick strike or so by Favre and Freeman, and a serious, even if not overpowering, running game by Levens, and the Packers will be in good shape. So I am (cautiously) predicting a Packer victory, but I think it is going to be close and nerve-racking this time.

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