On a day only a polar bear, a penguin or a Green Bay Packers fan
could love, the quarterback of the NFC's best team was gripped
by a feeling that matched the bitter chill. On Sunday, in the
third quarter of a game he was sure Green Bay would win, Brett
Favre refused to join his Packers teammates and 60,712 fans in
basking in the glow of a 10-point lead in the arctic atmosphere
of Lambeau Field. It was the coldest game day in three years at
the NFL's most hallowed stadium, with a windchill that bottomed
out at five below, and it conjured up images of legendary coach
Vince Lombardi, his breath turning to thick steam.
Favre, however, was in no mood for syrupy Lombardi nostalgia.
With a 13-3 lead against a Denver Broncos team that seemed more
interested in securing a hot shower than a victory, Favre became
surly in the huddle as he exhorted his teammates to run up the
score. "I told them to pour it on all through the second half,"
Favre said later, "because I wanted to make a statement. It
wasn't so much directed at Denver, because I really don't think
they cared about winning this game. But I wanted other teams to
see what we can do when we have our house in order."
By day's end Lambeau seemed more daunting than it had all
season. After heeding Favre's call and rolling to a 41-6 win,
the Packers, now 11-3, had moved a step closer to securing home
field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, a pressing quest
given their 15-game winning streak at Lambeau. A few hours
later, after the San Francisco 49ers had been burned by the NFC
West-rival Carolina Panthers (page 34) and the Dallas Cowboys
had escaped with a victory over the Arizona Cardinals (page 94),
Green Bay had become the conference's clear-cut favorite to
reach the Super Bowl. And considering that Denver, now 12-2, is
the team to beat in the AFC, Sunday's game, viewed by many
observers as a Super Bowl preview, sent a Pack-is-back message
to NFL rivals.
In fairness to the Broncos, the game resembled a Super Bowl only
in terms of the final score. Denver had clinched home field
advantage in the AFC the previous Sunday, and coach Mike
Shanahan rested quarterback John Elway, whose sore hamstring
might have reacted adversely to Lambeau's tattered turf and cold
weather. "It just shows there's a fine line between winning and
losing when you don't have that edge," Shanahan said afterward.
For Denver, which escaped without suffering a significant
injury, this game was about survival. For Green Bay it was about
December 16, 1996
The Packers came into the season talking unabashedly of their
Super Bowl aspirations and then spent most of September and
October backing up that bravado with one impressive performance
after another. Then they stumbled badly in mid-November, losing
on consecutive weeks on the road, to the Kansas City Chiefs and,
by a lopsided 21-6 score, to the Cowboys. During that span,
Green Bay, without a big-time threat at wide receiver and with
no running attack to speak of, looked flawed, fragile and
frazzled. The Packers started slowly in their next two games,
wins over the St. Louis Rams and the Chicago Bears, and went
into the Denver game still wondering about their identity.
"Early on in the season, we were a confident, humbly arrogant
team," said wideout Antonio Freeman, who on Sunday, in his
second game back after missing four weeks with a fractured left
forearm, caught nine passes for 175 yards and three touchdowns.
"Then we came crashing back to earth. Now we're getting healthy,
and if we can get our swagger back, we like our chances."
And these Packers like defying convention. That was apparent on
Nov. 19, the day after the disaster in Dallas, when they put in
a waiver claim for wideout Andre Rison, also known as the NFL
Player Least Suited for the Heartland of America. Rison had been
cut loose the previous day by the Jacksonville Jaguars,
ostensibly for his lack of performance. But Rison attributes his
release to a power struggle with coach Tom Coughlin, a
disciplinarian who can best be described as a cross between
General Patton and a junior-high gym teacher. Rison, a four-time
Pro Bowl selection with a history of disciplinary problems, says
Coughlin resented his presence because he refused to submit to
Coughlin's authority and had become a locker room leader. "He
knew I had the team," Rison says, "and he couldn't handle that,
because he's such a dictator."
Rison and Coughlin clashed on numerous occasions, including
during a team meeting on the eve of Jacksonville's 28-25
overtime loss to the New England Patriots on Sept. 22. During a
speech Coughlin warned his players about the talents of the
Patriots' multipurpose scatback, Dave Meggett, and spoke of his
blueprint for victory. Recalls Rison: "He said, 'We're going to
keep it close until the fourth quarter, and then we'll win it at
the end.' He kept talking about how great Meggett was, and he
had our young players scared to death. I had had a few beers,
and I'm sitting back there listening, just shaking my head. When
he finished, I stood up and said, 'Forget that s---. We're going
to kick their ass in the first quarter, second quarter, third
quarter and the fourth quarter. And f--- Dave Meggett. We can
crush him like a little flea.' The players went nuts, and I even
had coaches coming up to me and thanking me. I told Coughlin,
'I'm in a position to reach them in a way you can't because of
their respect for me. They need to know you.' But he didn't want
to hear it, because he hated the fact that he wasn't the one
motivating the team."
After being waived by the Jaguars, Rison attended a party in New
York City to celebrate the release of a rap CD featuring him and
other NFL players. While cavorting at a SoHo club called Chaos,
he and Green Bay's star receiver, Robert Brooks, took time out
to watch on TV as the Cowboys shut down the Packers. Brooks, out
for the season after tearing knee ligaments in a 23-20 overtime
victory over the 49ers on Oct. 14, told Rison, "Man, we need you
tonight." Two days later Rison was in the office of coach Mike
Holmgren, listening to his new boss say, "The past is done. You
need us, we need you. Let's go do it."
Though he has picked up the complex Green Bay offense quickly,
Rison has yet to make an impact (eight receptions for 65 yards
in three games). He caught only one pass on Sunday; he spent
most of his time on the field drawing attention away from
Freeman. As they sat in the weight room long after the game,
Favre apologized to Rison for missing him on a deep route and
vowed to get him more involved in an offense suddenly stocked
with weapons. Pro Bowl tight end Mark Chmura returned on Sunday
after having missed three games with a sprained left arch and
caught four passes for 70 yards, while Green Bay's other
talented tight end, Keith Jackson, had a touchdown catch. And
while halfback Edgar Bennett (nine carries, five yards) went
nowhere, backup fullback Dorsey Levens, who plays in one-back
sets, ran for 86 yards on 14 carries.
Criticized in Jacksonville for lacking discipline in his routes,
Rison has been an angel thus far. "This place is good for him,
just like it was for me," says Favre, who played with Rison for
the Atlanta Falcons in 1991. "There's nothing here to do but
work on football. Andre's finding that out."
Against all logic, Green Bay has become a garden spot for
players from less successful organizations. "It's like a home
for the refuse of society," says safety Eugene Robinson, a
12-year veteran acquired in an off-season trade with the Seattle
Seahawks. The nightlife options may be slim and the weather may
be grim, but, in Rison's words, "the vibe here is incredible."
Defensive tackle Santana Dotson, who spent his first four
seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, says he loves playing for
the Packers because "everyone from the front-office executives
to the janitor tries to get the players whatever they need to
Dotson's inside push and Robinson's reliability have helped the
Packers go from a turnover-starved defense in 1995 to the NFC
leader in takeaways this year. After producing 16 turnovers last
season, the Packers ran their '96 total to 36 on Sunday, with
three fumble recoveries. Robinson initiated ball-catching drills
for defensive backs after practice, but he's quick to deflect
the credit for the Pack's success at generating turnovers. While
dining at a crowded Green Bay rib joint last Friday, Robinson
waited for LeRoy Butler to leave the table, sucked down the last
of his fellow safety's pitcher of Slice with grenadine and
asked, "Do I get to talk about LeRoy now? He has great timing
and a great feel for the game. If he doesn't make the Pro Bowl,
it's a crime." Butler, who is tied for the Packers' lead in
interceptions, with five, leaped into the air on a third-quarter
blitz to level Denver quarterback Bill Musgrave and increase his
team-high sack total to 6 1/2.
One man definitely headed for Honolulu is Favre, who against
Denver completed 20 of 38 passes for 280 yards and four
touchdowns, which ran his season total to a league-high 35.
Favre may have bolstered his MVP candidacy, but Elway, his chief
competition, looked even more valuable while standing on the
sidelines. With Musgrave (12 of 21 for 101 yards) playing a
steady but innocuous game in his first NFL start, the Packers
held the league's third MVP front-runner, Broncos halfback
Terrell Davis, to 54 yards on 14 carries, and Denver looked like
a different team.
Favre had reverted to some old vices in recent weeks, ducking
out of the pocket too quickly and forcing balls into coverage.
Sunday's effort was no masterpiece either. Favre, who was
knocked woozy by Broncos defensive end Alfred Williams on the
Pack's first play from scrimmage, later admitted he was a zombie
for the first quarter. He threw two interceptions that could
have been avoided and didn't look especially sharp until late in
the third quarter, after Freeman's 51-yard catch-and-run had
given Green Bay a two-touchdown lead. But Favre also
choreographed moments of sheer brilliance, most notably on the
game's first touchdown, 17 seconds before halftime. With the
Packers leading 6-3 and the ball on the Denver 14, Favre
stiff-armed 285-pound tackle Michael Dean Perry, took a step
back and threaded a pass to Freeman in the back of the end zone.
After his much publicized stint in a rehab center over the
off-season for addiction to the painkiller Vicodin, Favre has
had his pain threshold tested all season. He tore two ligaments
in his ankle during the Dallas game, his left knee needs to be
cleaned out, and he's bothered by injuries to "both hips, my
back, a shoulder--you name it. This is as bad as it's ever
been." He's getting by on Motrin and willpower, the latter
fueled by the fallout from his rehab stay and the rumors of
alcohol abuse that accompanied it. "He's playing angry,"
Holmgren says. "He's had a chip on his shoulder all season."
Their 35-point victory and the clinching of their first
back-to-back NFC Central titles in 29 years left the Packers
feeling chipper, but not all was well. Said Jackson, "We made
some big mistakes, and Dallas or San Francisco would have buried
us." Before the game Denver's Shannon Sharpe, football's premier
tight end, said he felt San Francisco and Dallas were the best
teams in the NFC. Asked at game's end if the Packers had changed
his opinion, he said, "Hell, no. I'd love to play them in the
A rematch seems possible with the Packers on the verge of
clinching home field advantage. They have won 25 of their last
26 at Lambeau, where the hardy fan support (there were just 78
no-shows on Sunday) and Mother Nature give the Pack an enormous
edge. Green Bay has lost road games to the Cowboys in each of
the last three postseasons, and Favre said, "Every guy in the
locker room, in the back of his mind, thinks we have to have
home field or we're in trouble. It's everything, really."
This was an hour after the game, and Favre took a sip of iced
tea, which he earlier had joked was bourbon and water, and
assessed the state of the Packers. "Maybe we're back," he said.
"We struggled for a while, and people said our receivers
couldn't get off the line. Well, let teams bump Antonio and
Andre now and see if they can stop us."
There was a touch of steel in Favre's voice, and as he spoke, a
chill could be felt throughout the league.