- Rob Demovsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- So this is how a rivalry builds.
Play three times in a 12-month stretch, including twice on opening day and once in the playoffs in between. Make comments about hitting the opposing team’s quarterback. Then hit the opposing team’s quarterback. And then listen to that quarterback’s head coach suggest that defensive player is dirty.
That’s where things stood on Monday between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers. The only problem, from the Packers’ perspective, is that they failed to win any of those games, including Sunday’s 34-28 loss in the opener at Candlestick Park.
By now, you know three main parties involved. There’s Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who was penalized for hitting 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick late after he ran out of bounds on a second-quarter scramble -- a play Matthews admitted was not smart.
And then there’s 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who on Monday criticized Matthews for his hit and then mocked him for the way he scuffled with 49ers tackle Joe Staley after the play, saying Matthews threw a punch and a slap.
“I think that young man works very hard on being a tough guy,” Harbaugh said Monday of Matthews. “He’ll have some repairing to do to his image after the slap.”
Those comments did not sit well with the Packers.
Coach Mike McCarthy called the hit on Kaepernick a “bad decision by Clay” but defended Matthews by saying he is “not a dirty player, by no means.” McCarthy also said he addressed Harbaugh’s comments during Monday’s team meeting and added, “as always, we’ll stay above it.”
Matthews’ penalty overshadowed what was a strong individual performance that included eight tackles and one sack.
“It was unfortunate, the sideline play,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Monday. “But I think he just misjudged where he was, really. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen. But I like the aggressiveness Clay plays with. He plays with his heart and a lot of emotion. I’ve been with Clay now, this is five years. I certainly don’t believe that [he is a dirty player].”
When asked whether Matthews’ hit on Kaepernick was a dirty play, Packers cornerback Jarrett Bush said: “Yes and no.”
“I thought it was the heat of the moment,” Bush said. “Clay went for the hit. You never know if the quarterback is going to continue running down the sideline, and he made sure that he didn’t come back in bounds. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t take it back. He finished the play. That’s what we call finish, you know, fight, finish and focus. I’m pretty sure a lot of their players, they’ve done some of the same things. It’s a heated rivalry, and he kind of got after it a little bit too much.”
As for that rivalry, Bush admitted it has become one-sided.
“We’ve fallen short, but we’ll get there,” Bush said. “I feel like we’ve just got to put the pieces together, and I believe we will. Like I said, a lot of the coaches, even the players are like, ‘We’ll see them again in the playoffs.' We’ve just got to make it count.”