Talk about a tough road to glory. The Niners’ postseason is more like a gauntlet.
First, they had to go to Dallas and overcome a tough Cowboys team that was riding a hot streak. Mission accomplished. Now it’s on to Green Bay, where they’ll face the best quarterback in the league and some brutal weather. It’s expected to be a balmy 13 degrees at kickoff (5:15 p.m. PST) Saturday, before dropping into the single digits in the second half. Imagine that. Night football on the frozen tundra. With a short week to prepare.
The odds don’t get much better looking ahead, either.
If they survive in Wisconsin, the Niners would have to face either Tom Brady and the Buccaneers or Matthew Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams, hoping to beat them for the third time this season. The Super Bowl could bring any number of obstacles, from Derrick Henry and the Titans to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs to Josh Allen and the surging Buffalo Bills.
This is what keeps coaches up at night and fans glued to their couches. For most playoff teams, NFL means “Not For Long.”
But that’s alright. That’s OK. They’re gonna play ’em anyway. Head coach Kyle Shanahan is reworking the usual cadence for practice this week, with one less day to prepare for the No. 1-seeded Packers.
“Yeah, everything’s moved up one day,” said Shanahan, who knows the drill. “I think the biggest thing on this week is going to be about recovery. I doubt we get many full-speed reps in this week. The main thing is, we’ve just had two real physical games and a short week here, especially traveling. I’ll take it pretty easy on the guys this week.”
Indeed, the Niners came out of Dallas with a win, and an injury list.
Nick Bosa, who anchors the defensive line, went through the concussion protocol this week. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who already had a gimpy thumb, also sprained his throwing shoulder Sunday. Linebacker Fred Warner, the heart and soul of the defense, re-injured the same ankle that caused him to miss a game earlier this season.
Garoppolo and Warner showed a brave face to the media this week, saying they were confident they could play. Bosa is now cleared to play.
“Got to get the body right. Obviously, that’s first and foremost,” said Garoppolo. “You have to get the mind right for the defense you’re going against, the game plan that you’re putting in. So there’s a lot of balancing between all of that. … It’s playoff football. We know what time it is and there ain’t no time to rest right now.”
Warner echoed the sentiment, saying his MRI went well and he’s planning to go.
“Good news, for sure,” said Warner. “Tough games. Tough situations, like we’ve been in the last few weeks, and finding a way to win.”
So, let’s figure everyone straps it on for the big game. How do the Niners match up against Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay? Pretty good. The two teams met in Week 3, way back on Sept. 26. The Packers came away with a 30–28 victory. That was a long time ago, though, and both teams have evolved.
“I feel like we’re a different team now than we were then, as everybody is. I mean, you just start out the year and you go through a number of different players,” said Shanahan. “But football’s not much different. … There’s some little different wrinkles when you watch teams at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year, but most of the stuff stays the same. It’s just nice to see when a team’s executing better. When you feel like guys are practicing, playing better together as a unit. And I think we’re in a better spot now than we were at that time.”
Indeed, the Niners started the season with a 3–5 record, and it didn’t look like they were going anywhere. But new stars emerged, and others aligned, leading to a late-season rally that has now seen the team win five of their last six. None of those victories have been easy, either. If Giants baseball was “torture” far back in 2010, then these Niners are producing “anxiety.”
But fire forges steel. And it feels like this locker-room chemistry has clearly grown stronger.
“I think it’s done us well in some ways. Putting that pressure on your team early, it creates a mindset,” said Garoppolo. “It creates an atmosphere in the locker room … a sense of urgency that we have to win now and we have to make some plays. So I think that early on in the year, you obviously don’t want to start 3–5 … but it prepares your mind … for everything that you’re going to go against later in the season.
“We’ve been in playoff mode for a while now and coming off two big games in a row, it’s just every one of these games is big. That’s the type of season we’re in right now.”
That mindset has strengthened the team and galvanized the fan base, who are clearly engaged. They took over the Rams’ stadium for the last game of the season. And there was so much red at Dallas’ stadium, where the home crowd wore white, it looked like a candy cane out there.
Lambeau Field will be a different challenge. Mother Nature plays amazing defense. Luckily for the 49ers, Garoppolo grew up in Illinois and knows from cold.
“Yeah. I mean, I’ve played in the cold my whole life, so I don’t think it’ll be anything too crazy with that,” said Garoppolo. “But, yeah, just learning to adjust, changing whatever you have to change. That’s what this week of practice is for. You kind of get used to those things, so we’re in a good spot.”
Shanahan was a bit more honest about the weather, but he understands the import of this matchup. These two teams are marquee franchises. They’ve met in the playoffs nine times over the past 26 years. The two teams have won a combined nine Super Bowl trophies and 18 NFL championships.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Shanahan, “any time you can go play there in the winter. I would prefer not to, to tell you the truth. It’s a little bit cold for me, but I’ll be dressed warm. I don’t have to play, so I can load up with a bunch of layers.
“Just to be there in that atmosphere, though, is real cool. To go there in the playoffs, with the caliber team that they have, with the quarterback that they have, it is going to be a real special game. It’s going to be a huge challenge and it’s going to be something that I know everyone involved with us will remember for our lives.”
Editor’s note: Welcome to The Arena, a new column from The Examiner’s Al Saracevic. He’ll be exploring San Francisco’s playing field, from politics and technology to sports and culture. Send your tips, quips and quotes to firstname.lastname@example.org