The Green Bay Packers have spent nearly three years pulling a massive psych job on the San Francisco 49ers, and LeRoy Butler believes a mind-meld is a terrible thing to waste. Late in the third quarter of Sunday's showdown at Lambeau Field, the Niners were on their way to securing mental liberation—not to mention a clear path toward home field advantage all the way to the Super Bowl—when Butler, the Packers' strong-willed strong safety, gathered his defensive teammates on the sideline and got inside their heads. Despite two missed extra points, a gift-wrapped safety and a dropped touchdown pass by 49ers wide receiver J.J. Stokes, San Francisco held a 22-19 lead and appeared poised to pour it on. "Wake up!" Butler screamed. "Hey, we own these guys. Let's go out there and dominate from here on out."
Though lacking the larger forums enjoyed by quarterback-actor Brett Favre (There's Something About Mary) and defensive end-sociologist Reggie White (there's something about everyone else), Butler is the most commanding voice in the Green Bay locker room. His oratorical skills would be superfluous, of course, were he not also one of the top big-game performers in the NFL. Shortly after he had delivered his tongue-lashing and the Packers had tied the score at 22, Butler sacked Niners quarterback Steve Young. On the next play Butler, while nearly prone on the Lambeau turf, killed the San Francisco possession with a lunging tackle of running back Terry Kirby. Moments later Favre delivered his second sideline scoring bomb of the game to wideout Antonio Freeman, this one for 62 yards, and psychological order had been restored: With Butler and friends limiting the 49ers to five yards on 18 fourth-quarter plays, Green Bay cruised to a 36-22 victory that left both teams with 6-2 records.
This isn't a rivalry, it's a relationship out of a Pat Benatar song. The two teams have met five times since January 1996, and the Packers have won every game, including victories in each of the past three postseasons. "It's a mountain we've got to climb," Young, who absorbed a career-high nine sacks, said after Sunday's game. "They're challenging our ability to win a championship, and we've got to overcome that."
The Pack knows what it's like to be somebody's punching bag. From 1991 through '96, Green Bay went 0-8 against the Dallas Cowboys, a streak that included three consecutive playoff defeats. "We have the 49ers down just as Dallas had us down, and we want to keep them there," Butler said. "Once you lose that edge, they can be dangerous, so it's important to preserve it at all costs. When Antonio scored that touchdown in the fourth quarter, the Niners got it in their minds: 'Oh, no, here we go again.' But that's the big difference between us and them—we know how to perform in big games."
The last big game in which Green Bay asserted itself so thoroughly was a 23-10 victory over San Francisco in January for the NFC title. Two weeks later the Packers were stunned by the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII, and holes opened up all over Cheese-head Nation.
First, coach Mike Holmgren worked out an escape clause in his contract allowing him to seek employment elsewhere as a coach and general manager following this season, meaning a man for whom a street is named in Green Bay might be skipping town before this winter's snow has melted. Then White, a future Hall of Famer, gave a rambling speech to the Wisconsin state legislature in which he lashed out against homosexuality and offended members of virtually every ethnic group. The Pack lost three defensive starters, cornerback Doug Evans, free safety Eugene Robinson and defensive end Gabe Wilkins, to free agency. Pro Bowl halfback Dorsey Levens broke his right leg in Green Bay's second game, and last month the Packers suffered lopsided defeats to two division rivals, the Minnesota Vikings and the Detroit Lions. The Vikings, who snapped the Packers' 25-game Lambeau winning streak, were 7-0 before losing 27-24 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, adding pressure to a tense situation.
What better time for the first truly sexy game of the 1998 season, one pitting the NFC's two best quarterbacks? "The league is searching for a big game, and this is probably the biggest one of the season," Favre said last Friday. "Minnesota came out and jumped all over us, and we feel like these guys have a better team."
But despite its warts, Green Bay, pending the outcome of its Nov. 22 rematch with the Vikings in Minnesota, appears to be the team to beat in the NFC, if only because of its quarterback. Could anyone but Favre throw interceptions on three consecutive possessions and still outplay Young, who seemed tentative in the face of the Packers' tremendous pressure?
San Francisco planned to attack Green Bay with its three-headed monster: wideouts Jerry Rice, Stokes and Terrell Owens. But Young's 12-yard touchdown pass to Rice with 2:47 left in the first quarter—which made them the highest scoring quarterback-receiver combination in NFL history (they've produced 80 touchdowns, one more than the Miami Dolphins' Dan Marino and long-retired Mark Clayton)—was the longest gain by a 49ers wide receiver in the game. By contrast, Favre's first pass of the day, on the opening play from scrimmage and a mere nine seconds into the game, was an 80-yard scoring strike to Freeman, his favorite pass connection.
But another of Favre's connections, to Niners coach Steve Mariucci, his mentor in Green Bay from 1992 to '95, is a source of irritation to Mariucci's old boss, Holmgren. Before last January's game between the two teams, Holmgren ordered Favre and other Packers not to speak to Mariucci on the telephone. "It didn't matter to me—we were going to talk either way—but I understood Mike's perspective," Favre says. "With me and Mooch, the coach-player relationship is really nonexistent. It's just a close friendship."