Packers relish rivalry rematch
Have score to settle with 49ers
Monday, December 30, 2013 6:00 PM
CHICAGO - This narrow, crammed locker room has become a site of symbolism for the Green Bay Packers.
They celebrated an NFC Championship here. They won the NFC North title here last year. And on Sunday - in thrilling, made-for-cinema fashion - they did it again.
Balled-up rolls of black tape were scattered across the floor. Ankle wrap. Patches of grass everywhere. Players' shouts pinballed wildly off the walls. Again, the Packers took it to Chicago in Chicago, punching their playoff ticket with a 33-28 win. Through the euphoria, word quickly spread that the Packers would be hosting the San Francisco 49ers in the postseason. You know, Green Bay's current source of sciatica.
This script keeps getting better. Before exiting the locker room, defensive end Mike Daniels reflected.
"This is great. This is great," Daniels said. "We get to play our division rivals and then we get to play the 49ers right after."
"We just have to take care of business," he said.
If there's anything left in the tank.
This is as physically and emotionally draining as it gets. Injuries threatened the Packers' season, and heart-stopping finishes threatened their sanity. So often, players have been one failed third down, one broken tackle away from the golf course. The Packers lived to see another day here at Soldier Field, but do they possibly have enough fuel left for four more games?
Players emphatically say "yes." The season comes full circle against the team they played in the season opener.
"Heck, yeah," fullback John Kuhn said. "When you win, that tank doesn't go empty. It only fills up a little bit more."
Count on many players downplaying "revenge" this week. And don't buy it.
With the "579" memories fresh from that 45-31 playoff smackdown, the Packers played with a palpable edge in Week 1 at San Francisco. They suffocated the read option. They were on a war path to erase their (fair-or-unfair) "soft" perception. And then Colin Kaepernick went ahead and toasted Green Bay with his arm, throwing for 412 yards and three touchdowns.
The 49ers remain the obstacle in Green Bay's way to another Super Bowl.
"They can bring what they're going to bring, but we're going to bring what we're going to bring," outside linebacker Mike Neal said. "They're a good team. But we kind of owe them one.
"We owe them one from last year. Hopefully, we can get a win in our house."
Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb made their triumphant return Sunday. But the Packers are also down Clay Matthews, Jermichael Finley, Johnny Jolly and possibly more from that season opener. Issues on defense haven't necessarily been fixed. Kaepernick remains the same dual threat.
Arms crossed, cornerback Tramon Williams says all teams left are "0-0 now"" that "you can hit the reset button."
The Packers' defense has endured a strange, up-and-down season since that game. Survival mode must continue. Matthews' loss certainly was felt Sunday. The Packers had only one sack and minimal pressure all game. Matthews and Jolly are two of Green Bay's best run defenders.
Green Bay might not be able to contain - let alone shut down - this 49ers' offense, but maybe it can get the key turnover.
"Man, we've just been fighting," Williams said. "We've been through it all. The grittiness of the game. Just going out trying to get wins. We knew that we'd have to battle for the last month or two months. Every chance we got as a team, we stuck together. Anytime adversity presented itself, we stuck together.
"And we were able to get the wins that we needed and stay in the hunt. Eventually, we came out with it today."
The Packers erased late deficits in five of their last six games and won three of them. Injuries continued to mount. This season became so stressful coach Mike McCarthy incorrectly told his team they were eliminated from postseason contention after last week's loss to Pittsburgh.
Whoops. The 49ers are next.
Redemption, A.J. Hawk says, is not a factor. He doesn't approach it that way. With his seven solo tackles and one sack in the opener, Matthews sure played vengeful. The Packers would miss him. They'll need this giant wave of momentum to somehow overcome the harsh reality that this regular season took a toll.
"I think you can overcome everything," Hawk said. "But hopefully we have some momentum to help us. This game, we need to take some of these positive vibes from here. I hope so. We've lost some guys you can't replace. A guy like Clay, we don't know where he's at, when he's going to be back, those guys you can't replace them.
"But you can find a way to rally around each other and come together as a team and try to win it for those guys."
Sure doesn't hurt to have No. 12 at quarterback, too.
Said Hawk with a smile, "He can make up for a lot of stuff."