"I always get excited playing the Packers," Harbaugh told Packers beat reporters during a Wednesday afternoon conference call. "I remember youth football, I remember high school football, I remember in college football, (Michigan legend) Bo Schembechler, and my youth coach, Tom Minnick. We're getting ready to play the Ann Arbor Rams and they were good. They were probably the best team in the league. ‘Gosh darn it, guys, it's not like we're playing the Green Bay Packers today! You can beat these guys.' Bo Schembechler one time, we were getting ready to play Notre Dame in the opener and Notre Dame was ranked high, he said the same thing. ‘These guys are good and it's going to take our best effort to beat them but, for God's sake, they're not the Green Bay Packers!'
"Here we are playing the Green Bay Packers."
Here we are, indeed, for the third time in 12 months.
The Packers are one of the NFL's elite teams, but the 49ers have been better during that span. The 49ers won last year's season-opener at Lambeau Field, 30-22, then beat the Packers in the divisional playoffs at Candlestick Park, 45-31.
Neither game was as close as the final score indicated. In Week 1 last season, the Packers got a disputed punt return for a touchdown by Randall Cobb and a late touchdown to make it a one-score game. In the playoffs, the 49ers rattled off three consecutive touchdowns before the Packers managed a cosmetic touchdown in the final moments.
"There was a lot of offense that game – both sides," Harbaugh said, downplaying his team's dominance. "We got a couple big plays and we got a big turnover on special teams. It was a very competitive football game and we got a few breaks. Whenever you play the Packers, one thing you know is you're going to have to be at your best. That's what we're focused on today – having the best meetings of the year, having the best practice of the season, so that we can be at our best and give ourselves a chance."
The Packers' defense must be at its best too. Or, at least, drastically better than it was in the games against the 49ers. In Week 1, Alex Smith completed 20-of-26 passes and Frank Gore's 112 yards led a running game that churned out 186 at a clip of 5.8 yards per carry. Even though San Francisco converted just 2-of-9 on third down, it owned the ball for 33 minutes.
In the playoff game, the number "579" will live in infamy. Colin Kaepernick, having replaced Smith several weeks earlier, had a game for the ages with 444 total yards that left the Packers' defenders gasping for air and bickering with each other. He completed 17-of-31 passes for 263 yards and decimated the Packers by scrambling and optioning his way for 181 on the ground. The 49ers' offense dominated in every way imaginable, including converting five times on third-and-8 or longer.
"It wasn't the read option in the first half," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said last week. "It really was us having people covered up and he'd pull the ball down and run for first downs. And it didn't make any difference if we'd rush four, five, six or had a guy near him. He just made plays. The third down was really big."
Coach Mike McCarthy believes his defense, with some new and improved personnel, is pointing in the right direction after his first unit delivered a strong preseason.
"I look where our defense is at based on the way it's come through training camp," McCarthy said on Wednesday. "Of the three phases of our football, our defense is definitely playing the best coming out of training camp. Everybody understands the challenge in front of them. We understand the challenge the 49ers' offense presents us. If I was going to point to who I am leaning on, I'm leaning on our defense, in particular the defensive line based on their performance to date."
The Packers have had all offseason to craft a game plan to combat Kaepernick, Gore, tight end Vernon Davis and the Niners' powerful offensive line.
"That's what the NFL is. There's going to be game-planning on how to stop a team," Kaepernick said in his conference call. "We're doing the same thing as far as trying to figure out what we can do to hurt them."
Meanwhile, Harbaugh was as loose as can be — at least by his tightly wound standards — on Wednesday. His team reached the NFC Championship Game in 2011 and the Super Bowl in 2012, and has dominated the Packers in their most recent showdowns. So, channeling the raspy voice of Schembechler, Harbaugh went back to the well one more time.
"I just think it's awesome," he said of facing the Packers. I remember those childhood, high school and college memories of coaches saying, ‘These guys are good but, gosh darn it, they're not the Green Bay Packers!' Here we are, preparing for the Green Bay Packers. It's pretty neat."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.