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You gotta believe

By the time kickoff rolled around Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field, most everyone on hand knew the Green Bay Packers were desperate for help. Their playoff dreams dying one scenario at a time, the Packers suddenly found themselves dealing with agonizing circumstances beyond their control as outcomes around the NFL conspired against them.

All of which produced the weirdest sort of game against the Denver Broncos, as the Packers played out a contest that went from meaning everything to meaning nothing and back again.

You saw it, right? It was over. I mean over. And then, suddenly, almost inexplicably, it wasn't, and the Packers were NFC North champions.

Brett Favre thinks he knows why it all happened, and from whence the help came. And the Packers quarterback didn't mean just the obvious, that season-saving gift that the Arizona Cardinals presented Green Bay late Sunday when they upset the Minnesota Vikings in miraculous fashion and knocked them from the NFC playoff field.

Favre, fresh off one of the most emotionally draining weeks of his life, was thinking a bit bigger picture.

"I felt like he was watching,'' said Favre, meaning his father, Irv, who died last Sunday and was buried on Wednesday in Kiln, Miss. "Something's going on here.''

Something indeed. It'll strike some as pure sentimentality and others as hyperbole. But when Favre got wind of the details of Arizona's ridiculously improbable 18-17 win over Minnesota, which concluded in Tempe, Ariz., just minutes before the Packers' 31-3 throttling of the Broncos was complete, sending the Green Bay fans into a state of delirium, he didn't know what else to make of it other than divine intervention.

After watching the Cardinals convert a fourth-and-25 touchdown pass with no time remaining to an unknown receiver named Nathan Poole, a play that capped a 12-point Arizona comeback in the game's final two minutes, we're not of the mind to disagree.

"I've been around people who have lost a family member or lost someone close to them and they say that that person is there watching, or the angels, whatever,'' Favre said. "I'd say two weeks ago I didn't really believe in that. But I think we better start believing in something, because the odds were against us and they were really [against us] at the end of the Arizona game.

"And to have happen what happened in the Oakland game [he threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns], it's hard to do that against air, when you're just going out by yourself and throwing the ball. This is so unbelievable it's beyond my comprehension. I haven't ever been a part of anything like this. I don't know what it is, but right now I'm riding it.''

As it has been since 1992, as Favre goes, so go the Packers. But what in Favre's story could compare to the past six days, when he lost his father and boyhood coach and still managed to lead Green Bay to the two critical victories it had to have to overtake the Vikings and reach the postseason?

For the longest time on Sunday, it looked as if no matter what the Packers did against Denver, it wouldn't be enough. Green Bay (10-6) seemed headed home thanks to playoff tiebreaking procedures that benefited Seattle and Minnesota. It appeared that a painful ending to a painful week was at hand for the Green Bay family.

And then, football's version of a miracle unfolded hundreds of miles away at Sun Devil Stadium, giving Favre a reason to finally smile. The Packers must now prepare for a first-round home game next Sunday against Seattle (10-6) and former Green Bay head coach Mike Holmgren.

"To say I'm shocked that we not only got in, but we're division champs would be an understatement,'' Favre said. "I knew we were going to win the football game but that wasn't enough. We did what we needed to do, and taken care of our business, and I was just hoping for help.

"Right toward the end, when our game was pretty much won, I turned around and looked at our fans and they were going crazy. All of a sudden there was just a loud roar that just kind of continued. It was an unbelievable feeling to see our fans and everyone just kind of seize the moment.''

Years from now, many of the snapshots we remember and cherish the most about Favre may be from this past week. Surely he has never stood taller or seemed more human to us than these days, as we watched him deal with his loss even while he continued to win on the football field.

The best moment Sunday came once the Vikings' loss in Arizona was official, and the Packers' celebration had begun. Favre took a Lambeau Leap into the stands, soaked up his fans' adoration, pushing the decibel level to new heights.

"As you can imagine, it's been very difficult,'' Favre said. "It's been a long week in some ways and a short week in others. My emotions right now are numb, to be honest with you. I've cried as many tears as I could possibly cry. But I'm so proud of this team and what we've been able to overcome. As difficult as it's been, it's been very uplifting to be a part of this team. I don't know what's going to happen from here on out, but it's been a lot of fun. A lot of fun. And that's probably helped me as much as anything.''

With Green Bay's win-but-lose backdrop looming over the game, the regular-season-ending affair had a strange feel to it even before it began. And that was only accentuated by Denver head coach Mike Shanahan's decision to do his part for Green Bay's playoff hopes and start the Broncos' jayvee unit.

With Denver (10-6) locked into either the AFC's No. 5 or No. 6 playoff seed entering Week 17, Shanahan rested half his team. Well, not half, really. But six offensive starters and one on defense sat, and only three of those names made this week's injury report.

The Broncos played without their four biggest stars on offense -- running back Clinton Portis (ankle), receiver Rod Smith, tight end Shannon Sharpe, and quarterback Jake Plummer -- and also were missing guard Dan Neil (ankle), fullback Reuben Droughns and cornerback Kelly Herndon (hand).

The mini-Broncos were initially led offensively by third-string quarterback Jarious Jackson, who made the first start of his four-year NFL career, presumably because offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak couldn't get loose in time. But after Jackson underwhelmed Shanahan with a 4-of-9, 41-yard, one-interception performance on the first three drives, the Broncos turned to veteran backup Danny Kanell early in the second quarter, trailing 7-0. Not that it really mattered.

Led by a team-record 218 rushing yards from running back Ahman Green, including a team-record 98-yard rushing touchdown, the Packers had more than enough to put down the watered-down Broncos. But without some outside help, and maybe a little luck, all of Green Bay's hard work looked destined to go for naught.

"The odds were against us this week,'' Favre said "I think everyone assumed and anticipated Minnesota winning. Our guys were, as I'm sure a lot of our fans were, asking for help yesterday as well as today. In some ways we got it, but most ways we earned it. I felt like we deserved it.

"To win that game and not get in, that would have been a shame. The way we're playing right now, I know this team is capable of going all the way. We just had to get in first. We've done that, and now anything's possible.''

In Green Bay, after Sunday's stunning turn of events, the believers are everywhere.