No such closeness exists between Mariucci and Holmgren, who has made no public effort to champion his protégé's career. It's a touchy subject, especially in the wake of the mother of all Holmgren rumors: that exiled San Francisco owner Eddie DeBartolo, who recently settled his legal troubles in Louisiana and is expected to regain control of the Niners following the season, wants to make a run at Holmgren as coach and general manager. That almost certainly won't happen, because DeBartolo has told Mariucci that he wants to discuss a contract extension. But Holmgren is likely to command big bucks elsewhere, and Sunday's victory did nothing to hurt his reputation. One person close to Holmgren called the matchup with the 49ers "a bigger game for him than any he's ever coached. If he wins, he becomes the front-runner for a lot of jobs. If he loses, maybe he doesn't seem so smart."
"It's definitely personal when he plays these guys," Packers defensive tackle Santana Dot-son said after the victory. "At the start of the week he told us, 'Don't take anything I do this week personally'—then he went ballistic a few times." How keyed up was Holmgren? During the previous week's 28-10 victory over the Baltimore Ravens at Lambeau, Holmgren angrily yanked left tackle Ross Verba for a play after Verba was called for his third penalty. "The cameras caught that, but what people didn't see is that he jacked me in the head," says Verba, who is 6'4", 302 pounds but has the ego of a much larger man. "Grown men or not, that's not right." (Holmgren later publicly apologized to Verba for berating him, acknowledging that two of the penalties were questionable.)
Verba and his teammates aren't rattled by the rumors, about which Holmgren has steadfastly refused to comment. "Everyone sort of feels like, Hey, the group we have here is about to be broken up, so we might as well enjoy the end of our run," says wideout Derrick Mayes. "That doesn't mean we won't be good next year; it just means things will be different. We have so much talent here, and maybe we haven't always played to our potential. But we know that when we turn it on, we're tough to stop, and other teams know that too."
So, while the Niners were done in by their weaknesses—pass protection (left tackle Jamie Brown was particularly vulnerable to outside rushes), pass defense (cornerback Marquez Pope had trouble staying with Freeman, and free safety Merton Hanks's penchant for gambling killed San Francisco on each of Freeman's touchdowns) and shoddy special teams play—the Packers overcame most of theirs. Running back Travis Jervey (17 carries for a career-high 95 yards) had by far his best game since he replaced Levens, and Freeman (seven catches for 193 yards) solidified his stature as a burgeoning star. "I want to get to that next level, and a big part of it is stepping it up when stakes are high," said Freeman, who before the season opted not to sign an extension with Green Bay and thus will be a free agent in 1999. "I want to be a big-game assassin."
He got help from fellow wideout Robert Brooks, a former All-Pro who has been slowed all season by back pain. In an effort to restore his health, Brooks recently began ingesting daily doses of wheat grass mix, a liquid he figures must be of extreme nutritional value because it's so distasteful. "I had two shots of it this morning," Brooks said after the game. "I killed the taste with some carrot juice." The 49ers had trouble stomaching Brooks's leaping 30-yard touchdown catch, during which he stayed inbounds by gracefully angling his second foot onto the end zone pylon. That gave Green Bay a 16-0 advantage with 9:44 left in the first quarter and continued an alarming trend for San Francisco: In their previous four meetings the Niners had fallen behind the Packers 21-0, 6-0, 21-0 and 10-0.
Though the 49ers fought their way back and took the lead this time, the Pack's defense shut them down when it counted most. In sharp contrast to its embarrassing fade-out at the end of Super Bowl XXXII, the Green Bay defensive line got stronger in the late stages of Sunday's game. Rookie defensive end Vonnie Holliday has emerged as a force, but the biggest burst of energy has come from the 36-year-old White, who retired briefly in April before deciding to fight through his back pain and play another year. He had three sacks to increase his season's total to 11—he is the league's career leader with 187½—and put him on pace to eclipse his single-season high of 21 in 1987. Is it wheat grass? Divine intervention? "He went to a witch doctor," Dotson joked, "but he won't admit it."
If White is the heart of the Packers' defense, Butler is its soul. Playing on a left ankle so badly sprained he had trouble walking two days before the game, he nevertheless was all over the place. He blitzed from the right side to sack Young on the Niners' first play from scrimmage and never let up. "We've got a lot of nice, quiet guys in here, but I think I make up for it," Butler said, as he limped out of the locker room. "Sometimes you need a little attitude. It's good for everybody to know you have confidence, and this was the type of game that helps us regain our status. We were in a daze for a while, and it's my job to snap us out of it."
The 49ers, until further notice, remain under the Packers' spell.