Credit quarterback Brett Favre for dubbing this Sunday's NFC
Championship Game between his Green Bay Packers and the San
Francisco 49ers the Game America Wants to See. Certainly, it is
the Game Fox Wants to Broadcast. This season's de facto Super
Bowl--when the AFC wins a Vince Lombardi Trophy, we'll change
our tune--pits the NFL's top two teams in what surely has become
a rivalry of unsurpassed bitterness.
Well, maybe bitter isn't the right word. On Sunday afternoon,
one day after his team had defeated the Minnesota Vikings 38-22
and 30 minutes after Green Bay had beaten the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers 21-7 in the divisional playoffs, Steve Mariucci asked
a reporter to hold his fire while the San Francisco coach
checked his voice mail. As Mariucci cradled the receiver to his
ear, a grin flashed across his game-show-host face.
Without benefit of a speakerphone, a shouting voice was audible:
"Moocher! The Pack against the 49ers! We're coming!" The
Klaxon-voiced caller was Andy Reid, the Packers' quarterbacks
coach, which, incidentally, was Mariucci's title during his
four-year stint with Green Bay from 1992 through '95. During
that time Mariucci made plenty of friends, none closer than
Favre, who lived a block away and whose daughter, Brittany, rode
the bus with Mariucci's son, Stephen, to the Catholic school
where they were first-graders. In the fall of '95, a few weeks
after Mariucci's wife, Gayle, gave birth to their daughter,
Brielle, Favre stopped by for a visit, nuzzled the infant, then,
holding her high in the air, said, "Horse walks into a bar.
Bartender says, 'Why the long face?'"
"Every time I see Mariucci, I tell him that joke, and every time
he laughs," Favre said after Sunday's game. "I'll walk up to him
on the field before the game this week and tell him that joke,
and I promise you, he'll laugh."
Forgive Mariucci if that laugh is forced. The tension at 49ers
headquarters in Santa Clara will be higher than usual this week.
It is all well and good that Mariucci's squad went 13-3 in his
rookie season as an NFL coach, and bully for him for winning his
first playoff game. But Mariucci knows better than anyone--"it
was unstated, but understood," he says--that Sunday's game at
3Com Park is the one he was hired to win.
You didn't have to see Eddie DeBartolo Jr. and his bodyguard
rough up two Packers fans outside Lambeau Field last
January--Green Bay had just beaten Eddie D's boys for the third
straight time, knocking them out of the playoffs for the second
consecutive season--to know that the 49ers' owner was in a bad
mood. Twelve days later coach George Seifert was nudged out in
favor of Mariucci; offensive coordinator Marc Trestman was
San Francisco's other off-season changes were surgical, not
sweeping. The team's most notable free-agent signings were
running back Garrison Hearst and 6'7", 325-pound guard Kevin
Gogan. Quarterback Steve Young was informed that he would be
handing off more than at any other time in his career. There has
been no arguing with the results: After suffering a concussion
in the opener, Young, 36, made it through the season unscathed,
partly because he threw less--only two NFL teams attempted fewer
passes than San Francisco did this season--and partly because he
has curbed his machismo. He finally realizes there is no shame
in avoiding tacklers by sliding to the ground or stepping out of
Before cracking his left clavicle at the end of a 45-yard run
against the Kansas City Chiefs on Nov. 30, Hearst became the
first 49er to rush for more than 1,000 yards since Ricky Watters
did so in 1992. "I'm ready to go, they just won't let me play,"
groused Hearst after a practice last week. (Doctors had said
that if Hearst played against the Vikings, he had a 50-50 chance
of reinjuring his collarbone.) Turns out the Niners didn't need
him because backup Terry Kirby was terrific. Kirby, who doesn't
hit the hole as fast as Hearst but who is a better outside
runner, rushed for a career-high 120 yards and two touchdowns on
25 carries last Saturday. Hearst, who underwent an X-ray on
Monday and was scheduled to have a CT scan on Thursday, is all
but certain to start against Green Bay.
Hearst's return should help San Francisco sustain
clock-consuming drives, thus idling a certain Mississippian. "We
want to keep Favre off the field," says 49ers linebacker Gary
Plummer. "The best defense is the one standing on the sideline."
Will Mariucci's familiarity with Favre give the Niners an edge
in trying to shut down the three-time league MVP? Believe this:
The guys who hired him were counting on it. "I don't think it
matters one bit," says Favre. "I mean, I don't know what I'm
going to do out there. How would he?"
After seeing some of the slapstick stunts the San Francisco
secondary pulled against Minnesota, it isn't hard to guess what
part of the Niners' defense Favre will attack. There was Vikings
wideout Cris Carter scoring the first of his two touchdowns on a
66-yard first-quarter bomb after free safety Merton Hanks bit
hard on a play-action fake. There was Jake Reed pulling down a
53-yard bomb over 5'11" nickelback Tyronne Drakeford. What's
more, cornerback Marquez Pope, who missed 11 games with a foot
injury, has been rusty since his return five weeks ago, and
corner Rod Woodson, who strained his left calf against the
Vikings, has been repeatedly flagged for pass interference and
holding. While San Francisco expected Woodson to be a team
leader when they signed him last June, the club didn't know he
would be a leader in penalties. The 32-year-old, seven-time Pro
Bowl player has been penalized a dozen times this season,
including once for interference on Sunday.
"He's not as agile as he once was," says 49ers secondary coach
Jim Mora Jr. "He's got to hold and grab a little bit more, and
he's getting caught some." Mora also believes Woodson's
"belligerence" toward the officials over the course of his
11-year career, the first 10 with the Pittsburgh Steelers, may
be working against him. "I think [the officials] are pissed at
him a little bit."
"There's no question you can move the ball on these guys,"
Carter said after Saturday's game. "But you have to be able to
run and pass. You have to do a better job of keeping them off
balance than we did."
Two San Francisco defensive players in particular are determined
to keep their balance--and prevent Green Bay running back Dorsey
Levens from gashing the Niners the way he did the Bucs (112
yards and one touchdown). Tackle Bryant Young, slowed by an
ankle injury this season, is now close to full strength. His
colleague Dana Stubblefield had 15 sacks this season, a huge
number for an interior lineman, and was named the NFL's
defensive player of the year. Unlike Green Bay's solar-eclipsing
noseguard, Gilbert Brown, both Stubblefield and Young have the
stamina to play the whole game.
In their emotional 34-17 Monday-night win over the Denver
Broncos on Dec. 15, the 49ers threw off John Elway's timing with
uncharacteristically frequent blitzes. Do they draw up a similar
game plan for Favre? Mariucci was lukewarm to the idea. "If you
have a real sharp quarterback who audibles well and hits his
quick throws well, like Brett, then you think twice about
blitzing." Defensive coordinator John Marshall hedged, saying he
never goes into a game "planning to blitz a lot." Don't believe
it. Look for the Niners to blitz their brains out.
A pair of plays on Sunday served as reminders of how futile it
is to plan for Favre's out-of-pocket freelancing. On Green Bay's
first scoring drive, Favre looked left, only to find that
primary receiver Derrick Mayes had been knocked down. Favre
pumped in that direction anyway, then spun around. As he rolled
to his right, he threw a 26-yard strike to Antonio Freeman. Four
plays later Favre was flushed from the pocket before rifling a
bullet to tight end Mark Chmura for the game's first touchdown.
Most Packers opponents spend the week before the game talking
about the importance of keeping Favre in the pocket. San
Francisco strong safety Tim McDonald refuses to buy into it:
He's too smart. "People talk about it, but then they can never
do it," he says. "He's going to break the containment. You have
to try to make him one-dimensional"--by taking a big early lead
or stopping the run, or both.
Or you can hope that his receivers drop the ball, as happened
five times against Tampa Bay. But Favre was partly to blame
because he's throwing serious gas these days. "The week off
really gave my arm life," he said of the Packers' first-round
bye while inhaling toasted ravioli in a Green Bay restaurant
last Friday night. "I tore up Derrick Mayes's thumb in practice
the other day. And I threw a ball that went right through
[linebacker] Seth Joyner's face mask and bruised his eye." Which
prompted coach Mike Holmgren to ask Favre, "Are you trying to
kill our players?"
After Sunday's game Joyner marveled at Favre's arm strength.
"Imagine how hard he must be throwing for the nose of the ball
to come through my mask and [for the ball to] compress enough so
the point hits me in the eye. I was in a lot of pain. I thought
there was permanent damage." He pulled his helmet out of his
locker. "See, I put a new cage on it, with more bars," he said.
"Favre's not going to do that to me again."
Favre's not going to do that to me again. You couldn't have
blamed Mariucci if he'd made an identical vow around the time of
his second Thanksgiving as a Packers assistant. While Favre
acknowledges that Mariucci has a keen football mind, he also
points out, with glee, that his friend and former position coach
"is the only person in NFL history--and this is a coach we're
talking about, not some rookie--who's fallen for the
Thanksgiving turkey trick twice. The one where you leave a
notice for the rookies that there's a free turkey for them at
the grocery store, and they show up and the store has no idea
what they're talking about. Mooch fell for it one year, and when
we did it to him again the next year, he fell for it again!"
When these friends meet at midfield after the game this Sunday,
there will be no need for the winner to ask the loser, Why the