GREEN BAY, Wis. — It was clear that the Green Bay Packers did not want to think about last season’s divisional-round playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers. With the two teams matching up Sunday afternoon for the first time since the 49ers’ 45-31 win ended Green Bay’s 2012 season, the Packers are acting like that game was a lifetime ago and are trying to avoid adding any further significance to the rematch.
“This is a very important game because it’s the next game,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “It’s a new season. Everything that’s gone on in the past has been answered. It’s been discussed. But everything we’re doing is getting ready to win this game.”
McCarthy’s tone in his press conference told the story just as much as his words. McCarthy was direct and stern and never deviated far from generic responses.
“Our goal is really to score as many points as we need to,” McCarthy said when asked specifically about the running game. “It’s important to score more points than the opponent. That’s always been our focus.”
McCarthy wasn’t the only one downplaying the importance of the upcoming game at Candlestick Park.
“You have to move forward,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “It’s a new team, obviously. We’ve got a new roster and it’s all about the 2013 Packers. Guys are trying to figure out their role on this team and we’re trying to see how the identity of this team shapes out.”
Green Bay has 16 players on its current 53-man roster who weren’t active (or on the team at all) when the Packers were soundly defeated in San Francisco on Jan. 12. At that time, starting running back Eddie Lacy had just won a third National Championship at Alabama, starting left tackle David Bakhtiari was reeling from an abysmal 1-11 season at the University of Colorado, starting outside linebacker Nick Perry was on injured reserve and defensive lineman Johnny Jolly was still waiting to see if the NFL would ever reinstate him.
So, the attitude from McCarthy and Rodgers is somewhat fair. There are plenty of new players in Green Bay’s locker room who could help make Sunday’s result different from when these teams last met.
However, the majority of the key players remain in place for both teams. Perhaps most importantly, it’s still Rodgers against Colin Kaepernick in the battle of the quarterbacks. Though Rodgers is a former NFL Most Valuable Player and has a Super Bowl ring, Kaepernick was the better of the two in January. Rodgers was a respectable 26 of 39 passing for 257 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, but Kaepernick threw for 263 yards and ran for 181 yards.
“I don’t think pressure is the right word,” Kaepernick said in a conference call when asked about having a repeat performance. “You have to come out and perform no matter what, whether you had good season or bad season last year.”
The number that had the biggest impact in that game — aside from the final score, of course — was 579. That’s the total number of yards Kaepernick and San Francisco’s offense put up as the quarterback made the Packers’ defense look utterly lost and confused.
“579; that’s a number that will stick in our focus as a defense throughout the offseason,” McCarthy said at the Scouting Combine in February. “We’re studying the read option, the teams that are doing it in the NFL.”
Green Bay’s coaching staff visited Texas A&M this offseason to get some help from coach Kevin Sumlin. There was a lot of other prep work done, as well.
But this week has been about reviewing game film to get ready for Kaepernick and the 49ers. Though McCarthy wouldn’t go into detail, footage from the Packers’ postseason loss in San Francisco was part of it.
“You look at games that obviously you feel have input to your game-plan and how you prepare for the game,” McCarthy said. “Obviously, when you play a team in the past like we did last year, watching both games, your opportunity for the players to see the matchups, you look at all that tape and it’s part of the cut-ups.”
Don’t expect both of the 49ers’ victories over Green Bay last season to get San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh to take the Packers lightly.
“I remember those childhood, high school and college memories of coaches saying, ‘These guys are good but, gosh darn it, they’re not the Green Bay Packers!'” Harbaugh said in the conference call. “Here we are, preparing for the Green Bay Packers. It’s pretty neat.”
There’s very little Rodgers and Green Bay’s offense can do when the opponent scores 45 points. The Packers’ defense was deservedly given most of the blame for the loss last postseason, but for Rodgers, what he took from that experience is that they just need to score more points next time.
“We had 24 points on offense; that’s not bad against that defense, but we need to score enough points to win and we didn’t do that,” Rodgers said. “A couple drives there in the third quarter that really were frustrating, didn’t get enough points there. We had some opportunities. Playing a great team like this that you know can put up points, you have to maximize opportunities.”
There are a lot of must-see games on the NFL’s Week 1 schedule. But no matter how much McCarthy and Rodgers try to lessen the relevance of Packers-49ers, it’s not going to work. This game will go a long way in determining the team that belongs — and doesn’t belong — at the top of the NFC this season.