The Niners adjust, wisely.
I know exactly why Jim Harbaugh set a personal record for post-game giddiness Sunday in Green Bay. When he finished his post-game press conference, he hugged one veteran beat man, Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area and said, “I love you, Matt!” And he kissed another one, Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, on the top of the head and said, “I love you too, Matt!”
So many reasons to be happy. He’s got a kicker he can rely on, Phil Dawson—who booted Sunday’s 33-yard game-winner at Green Bay—after losing faith in David Akers last year. He’s got a pass rusher, Aldon Smith, who’s playing his best at the most important time of the year. He’s got fresh defensive linemen in Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, because the Niners purposely rested them a lot more this year. He’s got a versatile defensive line, too, as Glenn Dorsey showed Sunday. Dorsey had to play nosetackle for nine snaps in the San Francisco nickel package Sunday, and he’s not used to being a run-stuffer, but he filled in adequately against the Pack.
Harbaugh’s got an offense with the ability, now, to play two different ways with Michael Crabtree back from Achilles surgery, and Frank Gore able to grind out the tough yards even when the defense knows he’s coming. But mostly, Harbaugh was giddy because his quarterback, on Sunday, was the electric Colin Kaepernick of 2012. He knew when to run so smartly, taking off on four scrambles and three designed runs for 98 rushing yards, including the most important of the day—an 11-yard scramble that set up the winning field goal.
But put that run in context. Fifty-five minutes into the game, the wind chill at Lambeau Field was minus-17. Kaepernick, sleeveless (“It’s mind over matter,” he said), took over at his 20 in a tie game. Now, as important as scoring here was scoring without letting Aaron Rodgers have the ball back. Play after play, Niners players stayed inbounds. The clock ran down, and with 1:13 to play and 3rd-and-8 from the Green Bay 38, the game was on the line: Convert or punt to pin Green Bay back—but also leave the Packers with a minute to drive for the winning field goal. Kaepernick wanted to hit Crabtree, but he was covered. So Kaepernick sprinted left, evaded a linebacker, and ducked out at the 27. First down. Gore for five. Gore for two. Gore for three. Gore for two. Dawson’s 33-yard field goal won it. He kicked the ball through Green Bay corner Davon House’s arms, but House was offside, and Dawson would have had a re-kick had it been blocked.
This is the offense San Francisco will need if it’s to win at Carolina, with Kaepernick posing a dual threat and Gore pushing the pile. Funny thing: Carolina’s convinced it has the same thing, a quarterback who can beat you running or passing, and a couple of physical backs.
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Diary of a mad fan …
I asked Packers fan Kyle Cousineau, 33, to keep an account of his day at Lambeau Field Sunday. He lives a mile from the north end zone and has been to a ton of games over the years. None quite this cold though, with the temperatures in the single digits and wind-chills in the minus-teens at the wild-card game between the 49ers and Packers. He corresponded with our Emily Kaplan as the day went on.
Noon (CT): It’s about three and a half hours before kickoff, and it’s a very frigid three degrees—the kind of day where if you spit on the sidewalk it would freeze. I went outside a little while ago to gauge the weather, and decided on my attire: long underwear; jeans; a pair of sweat pants; a pair of thick, thermal coveralls; a thermal long sleeve t-shirt; a hooded sweatshirt; my big winter ski jacket; a scarf; a face mask; sunglasses to protect my eyes and lastly a pair of mittens with hand-warmers inside.
2:45 p.m.: Greetings from Lot 1 of Lambeau Field. The weather is about what I thought it would be. It’s still ridiculously cold. The scene at the tailgate party is a little more subdued than normal. It’s probably a perfect storm, if you will. First, there’s the ticket policy change this year, with the Packers not refunding money for unused playoff tickets, which has been a big ordeal out here. Couple that with the weather, which has at least something to do with it. (Did I mention it was frigidly cold?) But, of course we’re having fun. Eating chili from a portable camp stove, drinking a few Miller Lites. We’ll head inside to the stadium in about a half hour.
End of the first quarter: Before the game, everyone was fired up. I mean, it’s a home playoff game after all. Then after the Packers went three-and-out and had three straight punts to open the half, the crowd became a little bit on edge and dejected. The cold is on everybody’s mind. There have already been a few public service announcements: If you see somebody having trouble in the weather, don’t be afraid to tell an usher or text this number. Luckily, everyone seems to be doing OK. And I can feel all of my extremities. When we walked in we thought we were warm. Right now we’re comfortable. And by the end of the game, we’ll probably be freezing.
Halftime: It is getting colder and colder as time ticks away on the game clock. Considerably colder than when we were at the tailgate party, and when we got to our seats. It’s kind of a surreal scene. I’ve been to dozens of Packers games here over the years, and I’ve never seen a crowd not sit down for the whole game. Everyone is standing up. They only sit down when there’s a break in the action or a timeout.
End of the third quarter: As the drama on the field intensifies, the temperature drops. Significantly. The guy in front of me is wearing a thermometer around his neck, and right now it reads minus-15 degrees. A few minutes ago I took off my hat to adjust my facemask and my buddy was like, ‘Uh, your head is steaming right now.’ You’re going to sweat when you’re as bundled up as we are, and cheering and jumping around as much as we are. Truthfully, you know it’s cold but you don’t really think about it. You’re more focused on the game. And man, it’s become a really good game.
End of the fourth quarter: In the back of my mind, I had tempered expectations. The Niners lined up for the winning field goal with three seconds left, a 33-yarder, so obviously makeable. But maybe he’ll miss, maybe something magic will happen. So as Phil Dawson lined up for the field goal, I was hooting and hollering, going ballistic. I could see my breath in front of me, obviously, and that made me just cheer louder. Maybe, maybe … And of course he made it. That was it. I didn’t move for about 15 minutes. I just stood there, in our section, in silence. I watched all the players walk off the field, the fans file slowly out of the stadium. Everyone hung their heads; it was like a funeral procession. Afterward in the parking lot, win or lose, there’s usually some kind of noise. Somebody plays music, or we cheer because the Vikings or Bears lost. But today there was none of that. There’s just the cold.
8:45 p.m.: I’ve had some time to decompress, and I’ve warmed up, but that doesn’t make the pain go away. As far as cold goes, this was the second-worst game I’ve ever been to. The first was the NFC Championship game in ’08, Favre’s last game. That was a devastating loss. After that game, my brother and I just stood there. We didn’t say anything. Then we kind of just gave each other this look, then walked all the way home in silence. We didn’t talk the whole way. Today’s loss was a notch below that. The Packers are a way of life out here. They’re all we have. When they lose, it becomes winter. Three months of bitter cold and nothingness. Tomorrow they’re predicting minus-50 to minus-60 degree wind chill. Schools in the Green Bay area are already cancelled. Grocery stores are closed. So that’s what we have to look forward to … until the draft in May.
Frozen in Time: Check out SI photographer Simon Bruty’s best shots from Niners-Packers.