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Pack, Niners meet on Memory Lane

The dominant teams of the ‘90s finally back in the playoffs

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — Linebacker Bernardo Harris thinks everything is right with the NFL again: The 49ers and the Packers are squaring off in the playoffs.

The two old powerhouses met four times in the playoffs in the 1990s.

"In the 1990s, the dominant teams were the Packers, the Cowboys and the Niners," Harris said. "We took turns beating each other, getting to the Super Bowl. We've always had to go through them or they had to go through us."

These two teams aren't quite back to elite status.

"We have two quality teams, two 12-4 teams that played in tough divisions and couldn't win it," Harris said. "So, we have to go the wild-card route and play a big game. You couldn't ask for more."

The Packers and 49ers took divergent paths back to the playoffs.

Retired general manager Ron Wolf said one of his greatest prides as he looks back on his career is that the Packers avoided the crash and burn that Dallas, Denver and San Francisco had to go through.

"We don't look at it as a crash and burn," Steve Mariucci said. "We look at it as a controlled burn because we needed to make a lot of moves. We needed to say goodbye to some of our premier players because of salary cap restraints. But we didn't make that an excuse."

The 49ers underwent a roster, front office and ownership shakeup and won 10 games total in 1999 and 2000. They came back to go 12-4 this season, earning a wild-card game against the Packers at Lambeau Field on Sunday.

The Niners rebounded behind a potent offense featuring Jeff Garcia, Garrison Hearst and Terrell Owens and a no-name defense that recorded three shutouts in the last six weeks.

If the Niners had a controlled burn, the Packers did a slow seethe.

Reggie White retired and Mike Holmgren left for Seattle after the Packers lost an NFC wild-card game at San Francisco three years ago.

Ray Rhodes went 8-8 in his one season as coach in 1999 and Mike Sherman went 9-7 last year, both missing out on the playoffs by one game.

"The two games that constantly get to me are the two Chicago games the last two years, in '99 and 2000, up at Lambeau," Wolf said. "We win those games, we're in the playoffs."

Still, the Packers never needed to dip below .500.

"It's a sense of pride to me the fact that the Packers didn't crash and burn," Wolf said. "It's still the only team that hasn't gone through that."

And Green Bay never got the benefit of a fifth-place schedule.

"Well, we had the best quarterback in the league," Wolf said. "That certainly helps."

Brett Favre, who battled thumb and elbow injuries the last two years, was healthy this season and took third in the MVP voting after throwing for 3,921 yards and 32 touchdowns with just 15 interceptions and a career-low 22 sacks, including the gimme to Michael Strahan last week.

While Favre doesn't have the receiving corps he once did, he does have Pro Bowl running back Ahman Green, whom Wolf heisted from Holmgren in his second-best trade — behind Favre — out of the 89 he orchestrated.

Wolf said he thought the Packers, despite an injury-decimated defense that's susceptible to the run, could make a run deep into the playoffs.

"You don't go 12-4 with smoke and mirrors," Wolf said.<