Leader of the Pack With Brett Favre playing as well as ever--and on track for a fourth MVP award--Green Bay has won seven straight and emerged as the team to beat in the NFC
Brett Favre locked in on his target and barreled into the fray.
Man, it's been a long time since I've done this, the Green Bay
Packers' ebullient quarterback thought as he charged across the
wet Lambeau Field grass on Sunday, his fragile left knee be
damned. Wideout Terry Glenn had just turned a short Favre pass
into an apparent 47-yard touchdown, and the quarterback was
intent on reaching Glenn before the receiver could make his first
Lambeau Leap into the stands. As Favre ran frantically to the end
zone, he looked like the victim of one of his own classic pranks,
a man with hot sauce in his jock. When, finally, he slammed Glenn
to the ground and rolled underneath him, Favre screamed, "That's
why we brought your ass in here!"
Never mind that after a replay review, Glenn was ruled to have
been down at the one-yard line or that Favre sheepishly admitted
to Green Bay coach Mike Sherman after the game, "That was the
only time I felt any knee pain all day." Favre's brilliance has
always included a measure of recklessness, and this was a
33-year-old living legend at his finest--decisive, unpretentious
and willing to embrace the emotion of the moment.
"When something like that happens--and we had a lot of moments
like that today--you feel so powerful as a quarterback," Favre
said after the Packers had spanked the Lions 40--14 for their
seventh consecutive victory, the franchise's longest winning
streak since 1963. "You feel like you can make any throw or hand
off to whomever and something great is going to take place. I
don't know where we're going to end up, but it's impressive what
we've been able to do so far, and it sure has been a lot of fun."
When Favre has this much fun, football fans get goose bumps--and
the rest of the NFL feels the chill. With a league-best 8--1
record, Green Bay has the inside track for home field advantage
throughout the NFC playoffs, evoking memories of the 1996 season,
when Favre won his only Super Bowl. Considering the team's 11--0
postseason record at Lambeau and Favre's 32--0 record in home
games when the temperature at kickoff is 34° or colder, it's not
hard to predict who will have the psychological edge if the road
to the Super Bowl crosses frozen tundra.
"I know what it's like to go there in January, and it's not a
pleasant experience," says Lions free safety Eric Davis, who, as
a member of the Carolina Panthers in the '96 NFC Championship
Game, suffered a 30--13 defeat in 3° weather at Lambeau. "If
you're not acclimated to that weather, your body doesn't know how
to respond, and your fast-twitch muscles shut down. Everybody in
the league has a scary image of Green Bay in January."
In this unpredictable NFL season the race for home field is far
from over, especially when you consider that the Pack's remaining
schedule includes road games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and
the San Francisco 49ers, two of the NFC's three 7--2 teams. (The
other, the New Orleans Saints, handed Green Bay its only loss,
35--20, on Sept. 15.) All we know for sure is that Green Bay owns
a five-game division lead over the second-place Lions with seven
to play and is well on its way to winning the inaugural NFC North
After being shredded by Favre (26 of 39, 351 yards, two
touchdowns in less than three quarters of work) on Sunday, Davis
and the rest of the Lions (3--6) left Titletown as believers.
"They're f------ good," Davis said late on Sunday from his
suburban Detroit apartment. "They're smart and efficient on
offense, their defense makes you pay for every mistake, and they
know they have a future first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback who
will give them a chance to win every game. They're borderline
cocky, and that's what you have to be to be great."
In his 12th season Favre shows no sign of decline. In fact, if
his knee holds up, the NFL's only three-time MVP will likely add
a fourth. His garish 2002 numbers include a 65.7 completion
percentage, a 17--4 touchdown-to-interception differential and a
101.7 passer rating. "I don't think Brett would admit to this,"
Sherman says, "but he's at a level he hasn't been at before. For
one thing, whereas in past years he's led by example, now he's
more apt to let his leadership be known."
Making speeches does not come naturally to Favre. "I'm not a very
vocal person," he insists. "As outgoing and inclined to have fun
as I am, I backpedal when it's time to talk to the team, and I
have a hard time saying the right things or believing that what I
say makes a difference. Then again, there are guys who say all
the right things, and then they step on the field and aren't
worth a darn."
Like Joe Montana, the man he passed early in Sunday's game to
move into sixth place on the NFL's career passing yardage list,
Favre is a homespun hero who uses levity to lead. "I'm 100
percent convinced that all people, at any job, are at their best
when they're relaxed," he says. Thus the Pack's merry prankster,
who once tormented teammates by dousing them with cold water as
they sat on the toilet, is now expanding his repertoire. "The new
thing is doe piss," says backup quarterback Doug Pederson,
Favre's frequent hunting buddy. "I got a case of it sent to me,
and Brett soaked some into a sock and put it in [guard] Marco
Rivera's locker. Man, was it rank."
Four games into the season some observers were saying the same
thing about the Packers, whose Week 2 loss to the Saints came
amidst narrow victories over the Atlanta Falcons, the Lions and
the Panthers. A players-only meeting after the loss energized the
defense, which has forced at least two turnovers in every game
during the winning streak. "We talked about how we needed to stop
buying into our hype and questioning the coaches' calls, and just
play to our level," recalls free safety Darren Sharper, the
team's defensive leader. "From then on we started smacking people
in practice, just full-out tackling guys."
There were obvious exceptions, of course. "You hit number 4,"
Sharper says, "and you get a box lunch and a road map out of
town." This became especially true after the Packers saw their
season flash before their eyes during a 30--9 victory over the
Washington Redskins on Oct. 20, when Favre sprained the lateral
collateral ligament in his left knee on a third-quarter hit by
linebacker LaVar Arrington. Favre feared his career was over--I
never thought it would end like this, he thought when he heard
the pop in his knee--but after Green Bay's bye week he returned
for a Monday night game against the Miami Dolphins to extend his
record streak of consecutive starts by a quarterback (166 and
counting) and said on Sunday that he's "close to 100 percent."
As long as Favre stays healthy, his teammates believe they can
withstand any hardship, such as when Lions linebacker Chris
Claiborne knocked Pro Bowl halfback Ahman Green (mild concussion)
out of the game with a resounding hit midway through the second
quarter. The Green Bay offense kept on rolling, because Favre has
plenty of other playmakers in his arsenal, including a most
unlikely star--fourth-year wideout Donald Driver. In his first
three seasons Driver caught a total of 37 passes, including 13
for 167 yards last year while playing behind Antonio Freeman,
Bill Schroeder and Corey Bradford, all of whom have since
departed. On Sunday, Driver had 11 receptions for 130 yards. "I
don't want to say I knew he was that good," Favre says, "but I
knew he'd give effort that was beyond belief. I wish there were
52 other guys on this team just like him."
Driver's effort was apparent on the play of the day: that pass
from Favre to Glenn on a quick slant from the Detroit 47 with 31
seconds left in the first half and Green Bay up 23--7.
Glenn--whose erratic behavior led the New England Patriots to
trade him to Green Bay last March--beat bump-and-run coverage
from Chris Cash, made the catch and raced to the left sideline;
Driver sprung him loose by sealing off Davis at the 25.
Long after the game, as he sat in a room in Lambeau flipping a
half-full water bottle into the air, Favre remained giddy about
Glenn's big play, which set up Najeh Davenport's one-yard
touchdown run. "I've always been confident," Favre said, "but
this is the most confident I've ever been, and the reason is the
way the guys around me are playing. Donald made a great block,
and Glenn made the guy covering him look silly."
Take that last point as gospel. Favre happens to be an expert on