|Your Humble Correspondent with Family & Friend|
When it was announced that the Vikings had made starting quarterback Christian Ponder inactive for the
Saturday night playoff game against the Packers, the logical reaction was to think of this as a plus for the Packers. The Packers had a huge problem stopping Adrian Peterson in the regular season, and the Vikings beat the Packers last week in the regular season finale largely because Ponder played the game of his career so far, putting the Packers in the position of having to defend not only Adrian Peterson, but also a newly-productive Christian Ponder. With Ponder out in favor of Joe Webb, the argument would be, the Packers could now focus almost exclusively on stopping Peterson.
That was not my reaction. I had just arrived at my seat in Lambeau Field when my brother-in-law Bruce Casper sent me a text message that Ponder was inactive. I didn't really believe him (he has been known to BS me, from time to time), but I quickly confirmed that it was true. But I have been writing for over 10 years about what I call the Brad Hoover Syndrome, where a backup player gets an unexpected start against the Packers, and turns out to be the key player in the Packers' loss. Ever since Brad Hoover got a start for the Panthers in a 2000 Monday Night game against the Packers, in place of Tim Biakabatuka, I have treated these situations as potential poison.
Thankfully, in this case things worked out exactly as they should have. I had not seen Joe Webb play since he replaced Brett Favre (then with the Vikings) a couple of years ago. In the first series, I realized that I had forgotten how mobile the guy is. He and Peterson combined to run the ball down the field, leading to the Vikings getting their only lead of the day, at 3-0. But I soon also remembered what a poor quarterback he is. He is inaccurate, and makes poor decisions under pressure. Twice he threw "pop-ups" as he was under extreme pressure, and only his lucky stars prevented these passes from being intercepted or returned for touchdowns. I could not help but be troubled by the second half, after the Packers took a 24-3 lead. They seemed to go to sleep, coasting for the rest of the way, with one 3-and-out after another. Not a great plan, and one to be avoided at all costs in a game against a team with more firepower.
So now the Packers will be coming out here to Northern California to play the 49ers. This game has so many echoes for me. The very first playoff game I ever attended was Packers at 49ers, in January 1996. It was the coming out game for the Packers. Sure, they had been in the playoffs the two prior years, but had not made much noise. And here they had to play the defending world champion 49ers, at Candlestick, in the second round of the playoffs. I almost didn't go, thinking that they would probably lose, but since I had attended every Packer game since 1980 in Northern California against the 49ers or Raiders, I decided I had to go. (That streak is still alive, and I will be there Saturday night.) That January 1996 game was the first time you really had to look at the team and say "these Holmgren/Favre/White Packers might actually win the Super Bowl." They didn't, that year, but did so the following season.
That game was the first of four years in a row where there were playoff games between the Packers and 49ers, with three of those games in San Francisco. There was the euphoria of the emergence of the Packers in January, 1996, the dismantling of the 49ers at Lambeau in the freezing rain the next year (the year of Super Bowl XXXI), the drowning of the 49ers at Candlestick in the heavy rain the following year (the year of Super Bowl XXXII) and then finally, the Terrell Owens game at Candlestick the following year, where both teams were well past their prime (the Terrell Owens game was also Mike Holmgren's last game as Packers' head coach and, for that matter, the last radio game for Max McGee and Jim Irwin).
Local media here in the days leading up to the game have been surprisingly guarded in their outlook for the game. "Rodgers has edge vs. 49ers," said one article, while "QB duel would not favor S.F.," said another. There was coverage of the fact that former 49er owner Eddie DeBartolo still has nightmares about the Packers and Cowboys. And of course there has been coverage everywhere of the ironic fact that California-native Rodgers grew up as a 49er fan, while Wisconsin-native Colin Kaepernick grew up as a Packers fan. So this is a huge personal game for both starting quarterbacks, and of course the chip on Rodgers' shoulder is legendary by this point. The Packers have played inconsistently at times during this season, but whereas they lost 3 of their first 5 games, they have won 10 of their last 12, and they are probably healthier now than they have been in months. Sure, the Packers could lose this game, and they could lose it badly if the 49ers get in a rhythm and the Packers get in a rut. But I like the Packers' chances against a young QB playing his first playoff game, and against a fearsome defense, but one that is a bit banged up at the moment.