Credit quarterback Brett Favre for dubbing this Sunday's NFC Championship Game between his Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers the Game America Wants to See. Certainly, it is the Game Fox Wants to Broadcast. This season's de facto Super Bowl—when the AFC wins a Vince Lombardi Trophy, we'll change our tune—pits the NFL's top two teams in what surely has become a rivalry of unsurpassed bitterness.
Well, maybe bitter isn't the right word. On Sunday afternoon, one day after his team had defeated the Minnesota Vikings 38-22 and 30 minutes after Green Bay had beaten the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 21-7 in the divisional playoffs, Steve Mariucci asked a reporter to hold his fire while the San Francisco coach checked his voice mail. As Mariucci cradled the receiver to his ear, a grin flashed across his game-show-host face.
Without benefit of a speakerphone, a shouting voice was audible: "Moocher! The Pack against the 49ers! We're coming!" The Klaxon-voiced caller was Andy Reid, the Packers' quarterbacks coach, which, incidentally, was Mariucci's title during his four-year stint with Green Bay from 1992 through '95. During that time Mariucci made plenty of friends, none closer than Favre, who lived a block away and whose daughter, Brittany, rode the bus with Mariucci's son, Stephen, to the Catholic school where they were first-graders. In the fall of '95, a few weeks after Mariucci's wife, Gayle, gave birth to their daughter, Brielle, Favre stopped by for a visit, nuzzled the infant, then, holding her high in the air, said, "Horse walks into a bar. Bartender says, 'Why the long face?' "
"Every time I see Mariucci, I tell him that joke, and every time he laughs," Favre said after Sunday's game. "I'll walk up to him on the field before the game this week and tell him that joke, and I promise you, he'll laugh."
Forgive Mariucci if that laugh is forced. The tension at 49ers headquarters in Santa Clara will be higher than usual this week. It is all well and good that Mariucci's squad went 13-3 in his rookie season as an NFL coach, and bully for him for winning his first playoff game. But Mariucci knows better than anyone—"it was unstated, but understood," he says—that Sunday's game at 3Com Park is the one he was hired to win.
You didn't have to see Eddie DeBartolo Jr. and his bodyguard rough up two Packers fans outside Lambeau Field last January—Green Bay had just beaten Eddie D's boys for the third straight time, knocking them out of the playoffs for the second consecutive season—to know that the 49ers' owner was in a bad mood. Twelve days later coach George Seifert was nudged out in favor of Mariucci; offensive coordinator Marc Trestman was likewise whacked.
San Francisco's other off-season changes were surgical, not sweeping. The team's most notable free-agent signings were running back Garrison Hearst and 6'7", 325-pound guard Kevin Gogan. Quarterback Steve Young was informed that he would be handing off more than at any other time in his career. There has been no arguing with the results: After suffering a concussion in the opener, Young, 36, made it through the season unscathed, partly because he threw less—only two NFL teams attempted fewer passes than San Francisco did this season—and partly because he has curbed his machismo. He finally realizes there is no shame in avoiding tacklers by sliding to the ground or stepping out of bounds.
Before cracking his left clavicle at the end of a 45-yard run against the Kansas City Chiefs on Nov. 30, Hearst became the first 49er to rush for more than 1,000 yards since Ricky Watters did so in 1992. "I'm ready to go, they just won't let me play," groused Hearst after a practice last week. (Doctors had said that if Hearst played against the Vikings, he had a 50-50 chance of reinjuring his collarbone.) Turns out the Niners didn't need him because backup Terry Kirby was terrific. Kirby, who doesn't hit the hole as fast as Hearst but who is a better outside runner, rushed for a career-high 120 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries last Saturday. Hearst, who underwent an X-ray on Monday and was scheduled to have a CT scan on Thursday, is all but certain to start against Green Bay.
Hearst's return should help San Francisco sustain clock-consuming drives, thus idling a certain Mississippian. "We want to keep Favre off the field," says 49ers linebacker Gary Plummer. "The best defense is the one standing on the sideline."
Will Mariucci's familiarity with Favre give the Niners an edge in trying to shut down the three-time league MVP? Believe this: The guys who hired him were counting on it. "I don't think it matters one bit," says Favre. "I mean, I don't know what I'm going to do out there. How would he?"