Mud-loving Pack leaves its hurt in San Francisco

From The Sidelines

January 12, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Green Bay Packers, who are virtually unbeatable on their frozen tundra, showed they're also pretty good in a mushy marsh yesterday.

The Packers were smiling when a steady rain turned the turf at what used to be called Candlestick Park into a quagmire for the NFC title game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Wide receiver Antonio Freeman, who caught four passes for 107 yards and a touchdown, called it the Packers' kind of weather.

With a temperature of 56 degrees at kickoff, it was 51 degrees warmer than in Green Bay yesterday, but the conditions were sloppy and the Packers thrive in such adversity. Quarterback Brett Favre said it was like Lambeau Field without the cold weather.

The Packers jumped to a 10-0 lead and then watched the rain and their defense stifle the 49ers, 23-10, and send Green Bay to Super Bowl XXXII against the Denver Broncos in San Diego in two weeks.

In playing the Broncos, a popular AFC punching bag over the years, the Packers are favored by 13 1/2 points to join the Pittsburgh Steelers as the only teams to win back-to-back Super Bowls twice.

The NFC has won 13 straight Super Bowls and the Packers have the look of champions. They're healthy, they have a big-time quarterback in Favre, a pounding running back in Dorsey Levens and a tenacious defense. John Elway will be a sentimental favorite, but there's never much sentiment in the Super Bowl.

The Packers probably would have beaten the 49ers in any conditions. It's the third straight year they've knocked the 49ers out of the playoffs.

But the rain did ruin a duel between Favre and Steve Young. They are the only two quarterbacks who have won both a Super Bowl and an MVP award to go head-to-head in a playoff game. But it wasn't a day for throwing. By the second half, Levens said the ball seemed to weigh 50 pounds and Packers coach Mike Holmgren said that throwing it was like putting a shot.

The difference was the Packers were able to run and the 49ers couldn't. The 49ers had 15 rushing yards in the first half and 33 for the game. That's not a formula for making the Super Bowl.

In the end, the 49ers weren't as good as their 14-3 record. They fattened up during the year on such teams as the Rams and Saints. They're not in the Packers' class. But then nobody else in the NFL is, either.

Highlights and lowlights of the Packers' slosh through the mud to the Super Bowl:

Turning point: Trailing 3-0 early in the second period with a first down at the Green Bay 30, the 49ers decided to get cute and called a reverse to Terrell Owens. He bobbled the handoff and lost 7 yards. That set up a third-and-eight play two plays later and the Packers came with the blitz. Eugene Robinson picked off Young's pass intended for Brent Jones and returned it 58 yards to set up the Freeman touchdown that made it 10-0. With the lead in the rain, the Packers were in control.

Ground game: Garrison Hearst, who came back from a broken collarbone, never got in sync. He ran eight times in the first half for 12 yards and was benched. Terry Kirby wasn't much better in the second half, gaining 21 yards in six carries. By contrast, Levens, who said Holmgren challenged them to run the ball against the tough 49ers defense, gained 114 yards.

Slick move: After the 49ers got a field goal to cut the deficit to 10-3 with 58 seconds left in the first half, the Packers took over on their 27 and called a running play. They then didn't call time, giving the impression they were going to run out the clock. But Favre took the snap with 11 seconds left and went deep to Freeman, who made the catch on the ground, even though Marquez Pope grabbed him. That set up a 43-yard field goal that gave the Packers a 10-point lead and momentum.

Favre file: Steve Mariucci, who coached Favre in Green Bay, made a big mistake when he noted last week that Favre makes big plays, but also tends to make more mistakes than Young. That gave Favre incentive to prove he doesn't always make mistakes in big games. He didn't yesterday as he passed for 222 yards, didn't throw an interception and was sacked just once. The Packers had a good game plan that emphasized the quick slant pass against the 49ers' bump-and-run coverage and Favre executed it flawlessly.

Young file: Young opened the game by completing his first 10 passes. But the 11th was intercepted and put the 49ers in a hole they couldn't get out of. Once he had to throw in the second half in the rain in a comeback effort, it was a hopeless situation.

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