Cinderellas rose and fell. Expansion teams expanded beyond
anyone's wildest dreams and then contracted under the pressure
of playing championship-level football. The Denver Broncos
surfaced as a genuine threat to the NFC's 12-year lock on the
Super Bowl and then submerged. Wise old hands cautioned, "Don't
forget Dallas and San Francisco." Now they're forgotten.
The one constant in this strange NFL season has been the Green
Bay Packers, preseason favorites to win it all, heavily favored
throughout the playoffs, enjoying even more favor now that the
end is near. And stepping into the batting cage to take their
cuts against Brett Favre's 100-mph fastball, we find the New
England Patriots. Step right up, fellas. A hundred bucks if you
can turn on his high, hard one. It ain't so tough.
O.K., so the Patriots' championship game victory wasn't as
convincing as Green Bay's. New England squeezed out its win
against the Jacksonville Jaguars with turnovers and special
teams, while the Pack was making true believers out of the
Carolina Panthers. Are you saying the Patriots don't have a
chance? Stop right there. They have a hell of a chance.
To win the first quarter. After that it will probably get tougher.
For some reason Favre, the NFL's MVP this season and last, is a
slow starter. He was one for his first five and two for his
first eight against Carolina, and only 9:40 into the game Sam
Mills, the Panthers' crafty old linebacker, suckered him into an
interception and returned it to the Green Bay two to set up
Carolina's only touchdown.
It was a pattern we'd seen before. Favre missed his first two
and fumbled an early handoff against the San Francisco 49ers the
week before. Against Denver four weeks before that, he was one
for his first four and fumbled a snap. His first four passes
fell incomplete against the St. Louis Rams. He missed his first
two against the Dallas Cowboys. And so on. You get the point.
"That's how he plays the game," Packers coach Mike Holmgren
says. "He gets excited. We talk on the sidelines. He settles
down. I don't want to take away one of the things that makes him
great. His emotion is what makes him great, what makes him Brett
It's not a new phenomenon. There have been Hall of Fame
quarterbacks who entered games so pumped up that it took them a
while to find their rhythm. Former Cowboy Roger Staubach, for
instance, was notoriously wild-high at the outset. But the great
ones settled down. So does Favre. Then he kills you.
Green Bay hasn't dominated the first quarter of games this year.
The first has been the Packers' lowest-scoring period (76
points). The offense failed to generate a touchdown in 10 of its
18 first quarters, counting the playoffs. It produced no points
in five of them, including Sunday's game against Carolina, in
which the Packers ended the first 15 minutes on the short end of
a 7-0 score. Then, when Green Bay got into its rhythm, it was
lights out for the Panthers, and what was left was an assault on
Carolina's two-year-old record book--most yards rushing by an
opponent (201), most total yards by an opponent (479) and on the
other side of the ball, a club record-tying low for yards
rushing (45). The latter should come as no surprise because, in
addition to having the NFL's No. 1 scoring offense, Green Bay
also led the league in scoring defense and total defense.
How can the Patriots hope to beat this machine? One way. Jump
the Packers early. Get on them while they're in their dormant
phase. Sow the seeds of confusion, indecision, indigestion.
We realize this is a slender thread upon which to hang a battle
plan. What I saw in Sunday's game against Jacksonville was a New
England team that got lucky early and showed plenty of fire,
particularly on defense, and then, hampered by an offense that
shut down cold, went into a deep freeze as the Jaguars made a
run. Two turnovers bailed out the Patriots, so you can hardly
say that they're coming into Super Bowl XXXI riding a high.
New England's offensive coordinator, Ray Perkins, and its
assistant head coach in charge of defensive backs, Bill
Belichick, have been head coaches in the NFL. They know how to
put together a game plan. Perkins's unit had a rough time
against the Jaguars. O.K., the bitter cold played a part in
Foxboro, and the Patriots' offense will be operating under a
dome in New Orleans. But Perkins still has to look at that Green
Bay defense and ask, Whom do I go after?
Carolina took a shot at left cornerback Craig Newsome and got a
few completions, and I'm sure New England will give him a taste
of rookie wideout Terry Glenn early, but it's a risky way to
travel for a whole game. The Packers' secondary is the best in
the game, and the man who turned it into such a cohesive unit is
Eugene Robinson, a 12-year veteran who came over from the
Seattle Seahawks in an off-season trade.
Robinson surveys things from his free safety position and gives
the cornerbacks a sense of security. He'll lull a quarterback
into a false read and then swoop over for the interception. He's
the reason strong safety LeRoy Butler has reverted to his
flamboyant blitzing (6 1/2 sacks this season), gambling style.
"He allows Butler to be himself," says Holmgren. "What a pickup
Eugene Robinson was for us."
I get a feeling that Perkins's game plan will be aimed at two
linebackers, Brian Williams, active but in only his second
season, on the weak side, and Ron Cox, filling in for injured
George Koonce in the middle. New England tight end Ben Coates
has been invisible of late as a pass catcher. He has been
effective splitting out and then cracking back on the running
plays, an assignment that fullback Keith Byars also handles
well. I see this twosome more involved in the passing game,
putting those linebackers to the test.
Curtis Martin and the ground game? Well, everyone talks about
establishing the run, but the most effective rushing usually
comes later in the game, when those big D-linemen get a little
tired from chasing the passer. If the Patriots try to run early,
they'll make the acquaintance of Gilbert Brown, a 325-pound
monster who anchors the middle, a ferocious run-stopper when
There were times when New England's defense caused my eyes to
pop open on Sunday. Did you see the job that end Willie
McGinest, one of those slender, half-lineman, half-linebacker
types, did against pro football's premier tackle, Tony Boselli?
Positively amazing. Power rush, finesse moves--you name it. The
guy was the best player on the field, and linebacker Chris
Slade, a perimeter pass rusher with terrific closing speed,
wasn't far behind. And how about the wild packages Belichick put
together, blitzing nickel- and dimebacks in tandem, occasionally
coming with both safeties. Positively eye-catching, in the style
of the Pittsburgh-Carolina zone blitzes, but if Belichick tries
that approach against Favre, the game will be over early.
Sure, a blitz by Carolina nickelback Toi Cook pressured Favre
into his early interception, but, wow, did Favre make up for it.
He completed passes with people hanging all over him. He used a
two-handed basketball pass to convert a third-down play into a
first down when two guys had him in their grasp. He completed
passes throwing off his back foot; he corkscrewed his body Joe
Montana-style and let it fly; he stared a safety blitz in the
eye and laid a perfect fade pass into the hands of wideout
Antonio Freeman for six points. I put a stopwatch on that one
when I reviewed the tape. The ball was gone in 1.7 seconds, no
time at all. I put another one on the screen he threw to running
back Dorsey Levens for 66 yards with linebacker Kevin Greene,
totally unblocked, bearing down. It was gone in 1.63. And a
25-yarder to Freeman on a quick count, before the defense was
set, clocked out at 1.3 seconds.
You want to blitz him all day? Good luck. If his quick
deliveries don't get you, the running game will. Against the
Niners it was Edgar Bennett pounding through the mud. On Sunday
it was a heavy-legged 235-pounder with surprising quickness,
Levens, who ran for 88 yards on 10 carries, the seventh time in
the last 10 games that he has averaged five or more yards per
For most of the season Green Bay's running game was more of an
annoyance than a serious weapon, something to keep people
interested while the Packers were trying to figure out what
Favre would do next. Now it's a force. The Packers' offensive
line is Hoglike. Left guard Aaron Taylor has emerged as one of
the NFL's best run blockers. Left tackle was a problem until the
late-season insertion of 32-year-old former Raider and Jaguar
Bruce Wilkerson, a free-agent gamble who has paid off. He always
was one of the league's sturdy drive-blockers, but he needs help
on pass plays. And to make the act complete there's 248-pound
fullback William Henderson, who came into the league in 1995 as
a smash-mouth type, a decleater. Now he has learned the finer
points of position blocking.
The result of all this is an NFL rarity, a run versus pass
imbalance that shows, over the last three games, an average of
42 runs to 24 pass plays. The theme you heard in the Panthers'
locker room was shock, even amazement, at the way the Packers
ran the ball. "Hey, bud, they gashed the hell out of us," said
Greene. "To stop Green Bay you've got to do three things: Stop
the run, stop the run, stop the run."
What can the Patriots do against Favre and the thumpers? Work
the offensive tackles with Slade and McGinest, as they did
against Jacksonville, stunt this twosome, let them hit the gaps
and hope that they don't tire out. Pray for dropped balls. Hope
that Favre's early flutters extend longer than usual. Get plenty
of rest. Visit Preservation Hall and the Cafe du Monde. Enjoy
the week, because I don't think Sunday will be any fun.
The pick: Packers 31, Patriots 13.