GREEN BAY, Wis. -- They gathered in the visitors' locker room at Lambeau Field on a wet and frigid January afternoon 17 years ago, searching for collective focus, ferocity and inspiration.
What they heard in the adjacent training room made the San Francisco 49ers discombobulated and queasy.
Minutes before the Niners' 1996 divisional-roun playoff game against the Green Bay Packers, team doctors tried administering a pain-killing injection to the torso of star quarterback Steve Young, who'd broken two ribs the previous weekend. When the first shot didn't take, the doctors tried moving the needle to another location -- and then another, and another, and another. Young would receive more than 30 shots in all, screaming in agony during each increasingly futile attempt to block the pain.
As motivational moments go, let's just say it was the polar opposite of a Vince Lombardi speech. The rattled Niners gave up a pair of long punt returns to the Pack's Desmond Howard in the first eight minutes, fell behind 14-0 and came to terms with Young's incapacitation after two series, handing over the offense to backup Elvis Grbac. That 35-14 defeat in the freezing rain marked the end of the George Seifert era and underscored the emotional impact of a wounded leader on a team's psyche.
I bring up that unpleasant 49ers memory because, as the Packers prepare to host San Francisco in Sunday's first-round playoff game at Lambeau, I'm convinced that the home team -- despite three defeats to the Niners in the past 16 months, including a demoralizing setback in a divisional-round game at Candlestick last January -- will take the field with a breezy confidence, perhaps even an aura of indomitability.
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When a team has a transcendent quarterback as its clear-cut leader, and that quarterback is taken away, the psychological adjustment is real and pronounced. The backup might perform well (as Young did in relief of Joe Montana before becoming The Man in San Francisco), and others might raise their games to compensate, but it is very hard to feel whole.
Packer Backers and 49er Faithful understand this more than most fan bases, as these franchises have been blessed with more quarterbacks who fit this description than most, particularly in the post-merger era.
In Green Bay, they've been treated to Hall of Famers Arnie Herber and Bart Starr (who led the Pack to victories in the first two Super Bowls), iconic likely Hall of Famer Brett Favre (who rode that '96 playoff victory over the Niners to the team's first championship in 29 years) and Rodgers, who currently ranks with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady as the best in the game.
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The disquieting sight of Rodgers suffering a broken collarbone on that "Monday Night Football" defeat to the Chicago Bears in early November impacted more than the Lambeau fans. The Packers seemed mentally unprepared to deal with their leader's absence, going 0-3-1 over the following four weeks before saving their season with a two-game winning streak that included an epic, come-from-behind, 37-36 road triumph over the Dallas Cowboys.
Still, I can't imagine the Pack doing what it did last Sunday if Rodgers had still been sidelined. Spurred by his return, the Packers went into Chicago and battled the Bears on even terms, kept their composure during a tight game and converted a series of huge fourth downs -- including Rodgers' escape-artist-special, 48-yard, game-winning touchdown pass to Randall Cobb.
This is why, though the defending NFC champion 49ers are a more talented and well-rounded team, I'm not convinced they'll enter Sunday's game with a mental edge over their opponents.
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Right now, with Rodgers' aura of invincibility restored, the Packers believe they can overcome anyone or anything, that the normal rules of rationality do not apply. It reminds me of the mindset once expressed by Favre, as only the inimitable Mississippian could, in a 1997 interview with Playboy. In explaining to the interviewer why heavy turbulence on the team's charter flight never fazed him, Favre described his belief thusly: "We're the Green Bay Packers! ... I feel safe on the plane. Like we all could rescue one another if the plane went down."
Back then, the Packers felt similarly when they got into a jam on the football field. Favre, of course, was the guy they counted on to save them.
And after seven long weeks, Rodgers returned to the cockpit at Soldier Field and proved he's the Top Gun of this era for the green-and-gold.
This is not to say that he'll have it easy on Sunday against the Niners. Although he's no Rodgers (not yet, at least), San Francisco's third-year quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, certainly carries the potential for greatness. Indeed, the Packers have seen Kaepernick at his most dangerous, having surrendered 181 rushing yards -- the most by a quarterback in NFL history, regular season or playoffs -- and 263 more through the air to the QB in the Niners' 45-31 playoff victory last January.
Kaepernick was far less prolific for the bulk of the 2013 season, as defenses crowded the box and exploited the Niners' dearth of receiving options, a situation that has improved since the late-season return of star receiver Michael Crabtree from an offseason Achilles tear. In last Sunday's regular-season finale, a 23-20 road triumph over the Arizona Cardinals, Kaepernick had perhaps his best game since the opener, throwing for 310 yards and two touchdowns without an interception.
If Kaepernick can stay hot on the Frozen Tundra on Sunday, the Niners will be thrilled. Undoubtedly, his teammates have faith that he will elevate his game when the stakes are highest. However, believing he can and knowing he will are two entirely different mental states. The latter attitude is what the Packers will carry with them into Lambeau, and the shivering fans will feel it, too -- and if things go well for the home team early, it's capable of building to a cacophonous crescendo that hijacks the moment.
Should that happen, the Niners will retreat to the visitors' locker room and hear a different kind of screaming than the anguished moans their predecessors heard before that playoff game at Lambeau 17 years ago -- equally unpleasant, and a further illustration of the power a transcendent quarterback projects onto a team's collective psyche.