Monday November 2nd, 2009

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Now that it's over, and the circus portion of the Minnesota Vikings schedule has concluded with smiles and vindication all around, where do Brett Favre and his latest (and, according to him, greatest) team go from here?

Now that they're fresh out of Packers games, can the Vikings actually supply their own small-scale weekly storylines and still find a way to recreate the big-stage atmosphere they've thrived on so far in this most promising of seasons? Or are they hopelessly addicted to the rush of beating archrival Green Bay and destined to face a struggle to keep pushing the motivational needle quite so high?

Good problems to have, wouldn't you say, Vikings fans?

Watching Minnesota dispose of Green Bay for the second time in less than a month -- this time by an even more sizable margin, 38-26 -- I came to the realization that there's plenty more in store for Minnesota in 2009. This wasn't the mountaintop after all, and a steep downhill doesn't await. If anything, Favre and the Vikings might be even more dangerous now that the reunions are over, the comebacks and homecomings are old news, and the purple has reigned over the green and gold.

From here on out in Minnesota, it's just football. All football. And these guys, as we've discovered, are pretty good at football. And they're not too bad at side shows, either.

"I think we've handled distractions fairly well, so maybe we should continue having distractions,'' said Favre, the man of the hour on Sunday, after his four-touchdown-pass performance in a return to Lambeau Field that was one part football game and two parts civic melodrama. "We'll find out how good we are. We've had some tough tests, and for the most part we've responded very well.

"As I've said when talking about this football team and how good it can be, it's not done anything other than be 7-1. Granted, that's pretty good. But at this point, we've put ourselves in a good position. It's a pretty good position to be in at the bye week.''

True enough. Other than the 6-0 Saints, who in the NFC has inspired more confidence at midseason than the Vikings, owners of the biggest division lead in the NFL at 2½ games over both the 4-3 Packers and Bears? Minnesota has a pesky habit of letting opponents hang around in games a bit too long (see Baltimore at home, and the Packers here Sunday), but the Vikings can also put you away quickly -- witness their racing to a 24-3 early in the third quarter.

These Vikings are good, and they're starting to realize just how good.

"We can say this now. We can tell you the truth, since it's over, but this was a big game for us,'' said Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, one of Minnesota's five touchdown scorers. "We approached this like a late playoff game, because it pretty much was. We kill ourselves at times, but once we correct these little mistakes, we're definitely a Super Bowl-caliber team.''

It's an indication of how far these Vikings have already come that there was no sign of a snicker in any direction when Shiancoe dropped the words "Super Bowl'' into that last quote. Why not start thinking big in Minnesota? Who else has an Adrian Peterson, a Percy Harvin, a Jared Allen? Who else has the 40-year-old Favre playing as if he's never thrown an interception or taken a sack in his 19-year NFL career?

"I'm glad it's over, and I'm glad we won both,'' said Favre, of this year's ridiculously intense Vikings-Packers series, which was fraught with more meaning and emotion than any two football games have a right to be. "I'm not going to sit here and throw any daggers. We played about as good as we could play. They're a good team, and people are starting to realize we are too. That's the satisfying thing. That we played for the most part like we're capable of playing. We haven't underachieved.''

No they have not. The Vikings have raised their level of play significantly this season, and met almost every challenge so far. You can credit Favre and his almost matchless experience as the difference-maker, or you can build a case for a good young star-laden team coming together at just the right time for No. 4's benefit. It really doesn't matter how you frame it, the Vikings are winning, and winning demands no explanation. It's currency in the bank.

So much of Sunday was about Favre, of course, and his one-of-a-kind return to the very stadium where he had a one-of-a-kind relationship with Packers fans. But Allen got it just right when he said Minnesota's win over Green Bay was just as big for the Vikings and their season as it was for their legendary quarterback and his legacy.

"It's big, but we didn't do it for Brett though,'' said Allen, who had three more sacks Sunday and has 7½ of his NFL-leading 10½ sacks this season against the Packers. "We've got his back as a teammate, and we told him that all week. But we came out here to play the team, and the biggest thing was the Minnesota Vikings, we swept the Packers. It was a huge win for where we're trying to get. Our special teams are playing great. Our offense is playing great. And our defense is playing great. This is easily the best team I've ever been on.''

If you're the Packers, the story is so very different. At 4-3, Green Bay is realistically playing for an NFC wild-card berth at this point. The Packers trail the Vikings by 2½ games in the standings, but it's really a 3½-game deficit with Minnesota owning the head-to-head tiebreaker. Even worse somehow is the realization that Green Bay's entire organization had hoped this would be the game that moved it forever out of Favre's considerable shadow. But no such luck.

Until they beat him and move fully past his era, this Packers team remains somewhat tied to Favre for the foreseeable future, and will be measured more by what it did with him, and what it has not done without him. As one Packers official admitted to me early Sunday evening, this game wound up representing a page the franchise very much needs to turn, but couldn't.

But it's hard to see how the Packers can beat Favre and the Vikings until they learn to handle Minnesota's pass rush (a whopping 14 sacks in their two games), have some sort of answer for the electrifying Harvin (five catches for 84 yards and a touchdown, plus kickoff returns of 77 and 48 yards), and do a better job of containing Peterson (a game-high 97 yards on 25 rushes, with a touchdown, plus one back-breaking 44-yard reception).

"I think we're very talented, and halfway through the season we're where we want to be,'' said Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell, himself a former Packer and the apparent inspiration for the best sign seen at Lambeau on Sunday: "Welcome back, Ryan Longwell.''

"We have an amazing talent at tailback, and whatever you want to call Percy, he's phenomenal. And as these people saw today, Brett's playing as well as I've ever seen him. Say what you will about him, he's 40 years old, but he's in control of the offense and can wing it around anywhere.''

Favre can indeed still wing it. He made a few wince-inducing throws at times on Sunday, but when it was all said and done, he had 17 completions in 28 attempts, for 244 yards, four touchdowns, a 128.6 passer rating, and nary a sack or interception. In his two victories against his old teammates, he destroyed Green Bay with seven touchdown passes and no interceptions. No Good Brett, Bad Brett to be seen here. So far, just Great Brett.

"I hope that everyone in the stadium watching tonight said, 'You know, I hate that the joker's on the other side, but he does play the way he's always played, with his excitement and passion for the game,' '' Favre said. "As long as I play, that's not going to change. That's what people have admired about me throughout my career. That's all I can do.''

Favre and his 7-1 Vikings have done plenty so far. Circus sideshow and all. But watching them, you get the feeling they've got more to come. Maybe more than anyone had a right to expect.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.