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49ers vs. Packers: Underdog Role Suits Green Bay Just Fine

For the Packers, the key to winning might just be playing like they've got nothing to lose.

Kevin C. Cox

The weather forecast in Green Bay for this Sunday's playoff game between the Packers and 49ers calls for the temperature to be somewhere between zero and submerging-yourself-in-liquid-nitrogen. It's also what many are pointing to as the reason the Packers' 319-game sellout streak is in danger of ending. While saving money and not making long drives up to Green Bay and not freezing your balls off on a metal bleacher seat are fine reasons to watch at home, there's another factor that many fans are unwilling to admit impacting their decision. And that is - why pay all that money if you don't think the Packers can win?

That's not my belief, but I've heard it echoed a good deal over the last week. Ignoring all debate on whether or not these people are "true fans", it's hard to argue with their rationale. The Packers have lost three straight games versus the 49ers and though it's not completely reflected in the final score, two of those losses were downright ugly. Not to mention, the 49ers are, for the most part, a healthy team while the Packers have been one of the most injury-riddled teams in the league. So it's no wonder there's a belief that, for the Niners, the Packers are merely a bump in the road on their way to the divisional round.

Something tells me the Packers don't mind one bit.

After all, they've thrived as underdogs before. And while we hear all the time about players creating their own perceived mental slights as a way to gain a psychological edge, the motivation the Packers need for this game needs no manufacturing. It's all in writing:

579 total yards
Kaepernick's 181 yards rushing
Boldin's 217 yards receiving

And so on. The numbers are there and so are the measurables of one of the league's most imposing teams. Patrick Willis. Justin Smith. Joe Staley. Colin Kapernick. Boldin. Davis. These are large, physical specimens in a league full of large, physical specimens. But that's just what makes sports so interesting to watch - there's nothing formulaic about it. On paper, the 49ers look like the better team and yet, there's something that can't be measured in 40 times or bicep diameters.

Call it intangibles. Call it heart. Hell, call it the Tebow factor if you really want to go crazy, but it's clear that even teams obsessed with quantifying player performance care about the mental side of things. Look no further than the Packers. Though he didn't come right out and say it, I thought McCarthy's decision versus the Bears to kick the extra point when the team was down by two with just under 12 minutes to go sent a very clear message:

Don't panic.

We talk all the time about "coaches getting the most from their players" and while that certainly has something to do with scheme and putting them in advantageous positions to make plays, it also has to do with managing the team's mindset. Sometimes that means motivating players by getting them fired up and throwing shit around the locker room. Others, like in the case of last Sunday, it means keeping calm and not eliciting an air of desperation by going for two when it was clear there were more points (and opportunities) to be had.

Ripple effects based on decisions made (or not made) are difficult to identify (and next to impossible to predict), but I thought the cool-headed nature McCarthy displayed earlier paid off as the Packers calmly executed three fourth-down conversions in that fateful drive.

This week, McCarthy's task will be even more difficult, but that's only because the 49ers are a better team than the Bears. They're bigger, faster, stronger and all-around just more talented. But to give his team a mental edge? That shouldn't be so difficult. He merely needs to point to the detractors. The lack of faith shown by unclaimed seats at Lambeau. The pundits who say they have no shot.

Then remind the team - they've done it before.

It may seem like ages ago in NFL years, but the last time the Packers were this doubted in a playoff game and this big of an underdog was none other than 2010. They faced an Eagles team with Vick on fire, a buzzsaw of a team in the Falcons, and the team that always makes things difficult - the Chicago Bears. You could argue all these teams at some positions had more talent than the Packers and yet, the Packers showed up for all three playoff games on the road and dismantled these teams one by one. Having Aaron Rodgers blossom into the league's best QB certainly helped, but looking back, you can't help but remember the edge that team played with. Like a team looking to prove people wrong. This Sunday, the playoffs start with the 49ers visiting Lambeau as convincing favorites.

It's quite possible the Packers have them right where they want them.