Second To None As the 49ers found out in the NFC title game, the NFL's best team and its best quarterback reside in Green Bay
They are the yin and yang of the Cheesehead Nation, one spewing
smoke from his ears, the other playfully kicking up dust. While
coach Mike Holmgren does his best to stomp the fun out of the
Green Bay Packers' drive for a second consecutive championship,
All-Pro quarterback Brett Favre is setting off stink bombs.
Forgive the rest of the Packers if they're a bit bewildered by
the conflicting demeanors of their two leaders. Holmgren and
Favre make Ted Kaczynski and Tara Lipinski seem compatible.
Holmgren may be one of the NFL's biggest control freaks, but
he's smart enough to know who rules the football universe. In a
driving rainstorm on Sunday, Holmgren put Green Bay's NFC
championship hopes in Favre's hands, and Favre flawlessly
delivered a 23-10 victory over the San Francisco 49ers at 3Com
Park. Watching the three-time MVP shred the Niners' defense--the
league's top-ranked unit in 1997--had to be disconcerting for
the AFC champion Denver Broncos, who gave up 41 points the last
time they faced Favre, late in the '96 season. For when Green
Bay and Denver meet in Super Bowl XXXII, John Elway, scarily
enough, will be the second-most-dangerous quarterback on the
Neither nerves nor blitzes nor the elements have been able to
slow Favre's march to San Diego, and unless the Broncos can come
up with something quick--handcuffs? itching powder in Favre's
jock?--they'll be hard-pressed to avoid another AFC washout in
the Super Bowl. After tearing up San Francisco with 222 passing
yards in a game the Pack was never in danger of losing, Favre
conceded that the prospect of facing a team coached by his close
friend and former mentor, Steve Mariucci, had made him
uncharacteristically jumpy. "I was real nervous last night," he
said while scarfing a spicy postgame hot dog in the nearly
deserted Green Bay locker room. "I said more prayers before this
game than before any game I ever remember. No formal prayers,
but just praying for, well, wisdom, I guess. We were playing a
great team with a great defense, and I just prayed that I'd play
smart and make good decisions."
On Saturday night Holmgren had made the best decision of all:
unveiling a strategy that entrusted Favre with killing the
Niners' spirit. Holmgren, who scripts the Pack's first 15 plays,
typically calls for no more than eight passes in that stretch.
This time he distributed a sheet to his players calling for nine
passes--the most pass-happy plan Favre remembers receiving
during his six seasons as Green Bay's quarterback.
As it turned out, this was the best script since Sling Blade.
When Favre is on his game, as he was on Sunday, it's the
defensive backs who should be saying prayers, and Denver corners
Darrien Gordon and Ray Crockett undoubtedly will be doing so in
the days ahead. Like Detroit Lions halfback Barry Sanders, with
whom he shared this year's league MVP award, Favre can humiliate
a defender on any play.
Throwing quickly and with amazing accuracy, Favre went right
after San Francisco cornerbacks Rod Woodson and Marquez Pope,
often connecting on slant routes the two have seen thousands of
times in practice and on film. The corners knew what was coming,
but they were powerless to stop it. The 49ers were determined to
gang up on Pro Bowl halfback Dorsey Levens and stop the run
early, leaving Woodson and Pope in single coverage on wideouts
Robert Brooks and Antonio Freeman. Favre's precision was such
that his receivers needed only to create the slightest opening.
Gordon and Crockett have had success playing aggressively of
late, but unless the Broncos can find a way to get to Favre as
soon as the ball is snapped, they'll be faced with a similar
dilemma. "We came out with the attitude that they had to adjust
to our scheme, rather than us changing for them," Packers
fullback William Henderson said after Sunday's game. "When we
have all our weapons in use like we did today, and Brett is
rolling, it's going to be hard for anyone to stop us."
Green Bay marched 68 yards on its first six plays. Four of them
were passes by Favre, and the count didn't include a play that
drew a 24-yard interference penalty against Woodson. The Packers
settled for a 19-yard Ryan Longwell field goal, but the tone had
been set. "I think their defensive players were rattled by that
first drive," said Ross Verba, the Packers' rookie left tackle.
"You could see it in their eyes."
Favre went for the kill early in the second quarter, two plays
after Green Bay free safety Eugene Robinson had intercepted a
pass by Steve Young and returned it 58 yards to the San
Francisco 28. The Packers sent three receivers to the right side
and split Freeman left. Freeman's quick inside slant spun Pope
in a circle, and Freeman crowed afterward, "I treated him like a
freak; I turned him out." Favre delivered a crisp pass at the
20, and the wideout raced past three flailing defenders for a
touchdown and a 10-0 Green Bay lead. This was the Pack's 14th
offensive play and ninth pass, and the 49ers defenders were
shaking their heads and quoting Busta Rhymes, wondering: What
the deally yo?
The Niners had adopted a regression-therapy approach to stopping
Favre, reasoning that by shutting down Levens early and pressing
Favre's receivers they could make him revert to the wild,
reckless quarterback who once threw 24 interceptions in a
season. But Holmgren seems to have tamed this pony. In the
second half Favre showed his maturity by allowing Levens to
grind out yards--he had 71 of his 114 after halftime--and drain
the clock as the rain came pouring down. Favre, who completed 16
of 27 passes, called an audible on only four or five plays, even
though he probably could have feasted on the 49ers secondary.
While Young had some tenuous moments throwing into the wind,
Favre simply generated his own gusts. "The difference in this
game was arm strength," said LeRoy Butler, Green Bay's Pro Bowl
strong safety. "Steve threw into the wind; Brett threw through
Six days before the game Butler had told Favre, "Don't worry if
you turn it over. Our defense will win it. The burden is on us."
Favre glared back and said, "No, no, no--I'm going to get that
s--- done." Both were right. The Niners, supremely confident
they could run the ball against the Packers, went nowhere.
Mariucci benched halfback Garrison Hearst, coming off a broken
left collarbone that had sidelined him for four games, after he
gained only 12 yards on eight first-half carries; Hearst's
replacement, Terry Kirby, ran six times for 21 yards. Green Bay
frustrated San Francisco's blockers with inside stunts and new
blitzes featuring Butler on the weak side.
The Niners threw their share of blitzes at Favre, and he read
them expertly. "It's hard to blitz him," 49ers strong safety Tim
McDonald had said earlier in the week, "because the guy is so
tuned in, he picks it up before the snap."
Recognition was rampant for both teams--no surprise, given the
incestuous nature of their rivalry. While Favre and Mariucci,
who from 1992 to '95 was the quarterbacks coach in Green Bay,
made the best of an awkward situation, Holmgren was grouchy even
by his lofty standards. He prohibited his players from receiving
calls in their hotel rooms and barked at players to stop making
phone calls to Mariucci.
Some players call Holmgren Mussolini; Favre is more like
Federico Fellini. During the Pack's 21-7 divisional playoff
victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Bucs defensive tackle
Warren Sapp got in Favre's face after one hard rush and said,
"I'm going to be after your ass all day." Favre patted the
288-pound Sapp on the gut and said, "With that tummy, I don't
think you're going to make it." Last Saturday, as he concluded a
production meeting with Fox announcers, Favre set off a stink
bomb. "John Madden had some sort of adverse reaction," Favre
said. "He was bracing himself against the wall, looking ill."
Yet Holmgren was in his element on Sunday as he delivered a
fiery pregame speech, telling the Packers to "go for the
jugular...dominate...kick their ass." Butler says Holmgren "was
turning red. You could just feel the heat wave." Favre,
meanwhile, played it cool, asking teammates as they rode the bus
to the stadium, "Hey, guys, what do you say we kick some ass?"
With two weeks to prepare for the Broncos, Favre and Holmgren
undoubtedly will be more polarized than ever in their
approaches. Maybe their good cop/bad cop routine is by design.
Says Verba, "Asses were tight this week, but Brett Favre is the
leader of the Pack when it comes down to it. He keeps us loose."
But as much as some Green Bay players bitch about Holmgren's
overbearing authority, they love having him on their sideline
come Sunday. "Mike is the smartest coach in the league," Butler
says. "The only coach who should be compared with him is dead,
and that's Lombardi."
The next test for Favre is against Elway, who sat out the teams'
last meeting, a 41-6 Green Bay victory that came after Denver
had already clinched home field advantage throughout the AFC
playoffs. "It's stupid to bring that one up," Favre says. "It'll
be great to go into a big game against John. He's probably the
quarterback I'm closest to among the guys who've been around for
a while. We play alike, I think. I patterned my game after his.
I admire him so much--the way he plays, the way he carries
Ah, Brett, the paragon of decorum. While waiting for his hot dog
in the Packers locker room on Sunday, Favre, 28 going on 12,
dispensed some advice to Mariucci's 11-year-old son, Adam.
"Smell this," Favre urged, offering a tiny vial of yellow
liquid. Adam complied and recoiled; the liquid had the scent of
rotten eggs. "Here's what you do," Favre said, handing the boy
the vial. "Take this to school tomorrow. And at recess, put one
drop somewhere and see what people do. One drop'll kill 'em."
It's a game plan Holmgren would hate, but one to which the coach
could probably relate. One dose of Favre might be all the
Broncos can take.
Only Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino has thrown more touchdown
passes in a four-year span than the Packers' Brett Favre has
over the last four. Even more remarkable is the disparity
between the top two passers' totals and those of their closest
Quarterback Seasons TD passes
Marino 1984 to '87 148
Favre 1994 to '97 145
George Blanda, Oilers 1960 to '63 111
Dan Fouts, Chargers 1978 to '81 111
Daryle Lamonica, Raiders 1967 to '70 111