SANTA CLARA -- Many different personalities have been mentioned as crucial factors in Saturday's 49ers playoff game. One of those personalities is being generally forgotten and ignored.
That's hard to believe. Because this particular personality is quite a spectacle. A corroded, nasty, leaky, reeking spectacle.
Candlestick Park will play as significant a role for the 49ers against the Green Bay Packers as any other element of the matchup. But somehow, the 'Stick has receded into the "key difference" background amid all the discussion over quarterbacks and field goal kickers and torn triceps muscles. Go figure.
Keep score. At some point Saturday, the stadium will figure into the outcome. It'll either be the crowd noise, or a patch of wet grass, or a sudden whipsaw breeze off the bay, or something else unforeseen. Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers' head coach, is rooting hard for all of the above. Asked this week to name his favorite thing about Candlestick, he answered in about half a second.
"The mystique," Harbaugh said.
And how to describe that mystique? Let's see. If Candlestick Park were a human being, it would be one of those old guys hanging out on the docks, bumming a cigarette and smelling of stale beer while getting ready to scream unintelligible obscenities at anyone who asks for directions -- and reminding the passer-by that Joe Montana once roamed these docks and left behind some juju that will destroy souls.
Thankfully, Candlestick is entering its long-overdue euthanasia phase. The 49ers will transfer business to their new Santa Clara stadium for the 2014 season. But that prospect brings up a somewhat melancholy thought: Should they lose, Saturday could be the final playoff game at Candlestick. There are no guarantees the 49ers, even if they qualify for the 2013 postseason, will have a home game.
In other words, we should all soak up every inch of Saturday's sights and sounds and smells. If Saturday's contest were being played in Green Bay at Lambeau Field, there would be much gushing about the tradition and lore of the magnificent edifice, acknowledging the huge edge it might give the Packers.
Phooey. Candlestick has just as much lore -- and provides just as much of an edge. People find this fact hard to believe, but Lambeau is only three years older than Candlestick, which opened in 1960. True, the 49ers did not move there from Kezar Stadium until 1971, when the 'Stick was renovated from an incredibly awful baseball park into a really bad multipurpose structure. Yet the 49ers still have played host to 26 postseason games at the 'Stick, most of any stadium in NFL history.
The home team also has largely dominated those games. The 49ers have won eight of their last 11 playoff contests at Candlestick and own an overall 19-7 postseason record there for a .731 winning percentage. The Packers' playoff record at Lambeau is 13-4, a nearly-identical .765 winning percentage.
Steve Mariucci, who coached seven playoff games at the 'Stick -- including one of most memorable victories in 49ers history -- was talking Friday about the old heap of junk. His emotions, even over his cell phone, teetered dangerously close to fondness.
"There's something about that old feel of Candlestick that gets you in the mood for football," Mariucci said from Los Angeles, preparing for his NFL Network gig. "It's quite a place."
For example, Mariucci was talking about the Candlestick playing field's quirks ("We all know it can be very damp, especially during night games, especially outside the numbers.") when he suddenly paused. You could almost see sense him smiling.
"You know," Mariucci said, "because Candlestick is a baseball stadium that was turned into a football stadium, the acoustics are not quite as conducive to be as noisy as some of the football-only stadiums. But for the way that thing is built, man, it still gets pretty darned loud. That's just because of the fans. Boy, it gets wound up in there."
The 49ers are counting on that Saturday. During the regular season, Candlestick can be rather ... uh, ennui-intensive. On a typical sunny Sunday afternoon, fans often tailgate to very last moment and are late entering the stadium. Then they hang around in the beer lines, or sit and wait for something to happen before getting excited. For playoff games, the script flips. Everybody is in their seats half an hour before kickoff. Decibels blow up.
"I really feel like our fans especially understand it's playoff time," Harbaugh said. "There's kind of a locking-of-the-gates feel, like there are 60,000-70,000 people that are on our side, fully on our side."
"It's a way bigger buzz than the regular season," agreed offensive tackle Alex Boone. "You definitely notice."
The players feel the hum long before kickoff. The tunnel from the locker room to the field is the same tunnel once used by the baseball Giants from their clubhouse to the dugout that still exists. Ask any 49er about that walk, especially before a playoff game. His answer will be borderline gothic or biblical.
"It's always cold down there," said tight end Vernon Davis. "You can see your breath."
"It's really damp in that tunnel with all the rusty pipes and water dripping," said safety Donte Whitner. "It's like a dungeon. But just knowing the history of who's walked through that tunnel ... there's just so much tradition. And then you come out into the light."
It's good to know that the players do respect the mythology dripping off those walls. Whitner remembers being a high school sophomore in 1999 and watching the 49ers' playoff victory over the Packers when Terrell Owens made the game-winning catch with three seconds left.
Mariucci can also close his eyes and see that play -- four receivers running vertically down the field, with multiple Green Bay defenders being drawn toward Jerry Rice on the left sideline, leaving Owens open briefly over the middle with quarterback Steve Young hitting T.O. perfectly an instant before he's hammered by a massive hit that fails to dislodge the ball. Mariucci can even recall former 49ers great R.C. Owens standing near the goal post and trotting happily into the end zone to celebrate with the players.
"You can see it on the film," Mariucci said. "You know, the 49ers really need to get into that new stadium in Santa Clara. But there will be some great memories left behind."
Not just yet, though. More memories are waiting to be deposited Saturday night. The NFL's most historic playoff stadium will not be euthanized quietly.