GREEN BAY, Wis. - In the days before last month's crucial meeting with the St. Louis Rams, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia characterized the game as the biggest of his NFL career.
He wound up playing miserably in the 27-14 loss to the Rams, and to a degree, he says now he was dragged down by the pressure he so readily heaped on himself before the season-worst 13-for-36 passing performance and 25.9 efficiency rating in the Dec. 9 game.
It won't happen again in today's first-round playoff game against the Green Bay Packers, Garcia said, because he has learned from his biggest mistake of the season.
"There came a point in that Rams game where I really started to press," Garcia said. "I was trying to make the perfect throw, the perfect play so we could get back in the game. I think in doing so, that really takes you out of your element.
"Obviously, we weren't clicking well as a team and I know a lot of that comes back toward me. I probably wasn't the player I've been throughout most of my career but you take away that experience, you grow from it, and I believe I've rebounded just fine from that."
Garcia, who earned a second consecutive Pro Bowl berth last week, said he's taking a different approach into the game against the Packers.
He's embracing it as a challenge and a reward for the team's unexpected success this season after a two-year playoff drought.
"I look at this as just a great opportunity, a time to really enjoy what football has brought to me," Garcia said. "Yes, it's the NFL. It's playing Green Bay on the frozen tundra. It's stuff that I probably never imagined four or five years ago, and now I'm living it. It's just extremely exciting and I'm going to live it up."
Garcia came in for some heavy criticism from fans after the Rams loss dropped the 49ers out of a first-place tie in the NFC West, but coach Steve Mariucci took the view that his quarterback would be better just for going through that kind of big-game experience.
It is a view, Mariucci said, that has been borne out by his play down the stretch. After his flop in St. Louis, Garcia led the 49ers to consecutive wins over Miami and Philadelphia, both playoff teams, and punctuated his personal rebound by throwing for four touchdowns last Sunday in a 38-0 win over New Orleans.
Cornerback Tyronne Drakeford, signed by the 49ers last week to help a banged-up secondary, said Garcia has made tremendous strides since he last watched him closely in 1999. Drakeford was with the Saints at the time and remembers preparing to play Garcia, only to learn a poor performance the week before against Pittsburgh had led to his benching in favor of Steve Stenstrom.
"He seems like he's very sure of himself now and the team supports him," Drakeford said. "Whereas back in 1999, it was probably more like, `OK, I don't want to make a mistake. I don't want to do something wrong.' "
Guard Ray Brown said the 49ers know Garcia can put points on the board at Lambeau because he did it last year, when the Packers edged the 49ers, 31-28, in a game that turned on a controversial pass-interference call against the 49ers.
"He should look at the film because that performance showed he has the ability to go in there and lead this team to a victory in Green Bay," Brown said. "We just have to keep the officials out of it and be efficient with the ball."