All Packed In a showdown of division leaders Green Bay proved that it was ready for the playoffs by stopping the 49ers

December 23, 2002

Another fantastic finish was unfolding on a splendidly surreal
San Francisco Sunday, and Brett Favre was just another nervous
spectator cringing in the rain. The Green Bay Packers' clutch
quarterback paced the Candlestick Park sideline while Jeff
Garcia, his San Francisco 49ers counterpart, tried to pull out
this late-season showdown between playoff-bound rivals. The
Niners were driving in the final minute, and Green Bay's
six-point lead looked more fragile than Whitney Houston. With
San Francisco on the Packers' 14-yard line, Favre had a
flashback to a similar scene nearly four years earlier--the
1998 playoff game that ended with Steve Young's miraculous
25-yard TD pass to Terrell Owens and stopped the Packers' run of
consecutive NFC titles.

That wrenching defeat was the only one Favre had suffered in nine
previous starts against the 49ers, and on Sunday he had a knot in
his stomach as San Francisco marched down the field. "Man, that
was painful," Favre said afterward, rubbing his tummy for effect.
"I had confidence in our defense, but their offense is pretty
damn good, too. I knew somebody had to step up, and I was hoping
it wouldn't be him."

"Him" would be Terrell Owens, or TO, or the "cowardly" one, to
use the adjective Favre reserved for Owens last week during a
spirited defense of his best friend, Niners coach Steve Mariucci.
For a moment on Sunday, as the flamboyant wideout revealed his
inner cheerleader following a third-quarter 45-yard touchdown
catch, you could even call him her. But the Packers know that
Owens is the best receiver in football, and on the Niners' final
four plays of the game Green Bay's defenders made sure he had no
space to strut. The result was a 20-14 victory that kept the NFC
North champion Packers (11-3) in the hunt for home field
advantage throughout the playoffs and drove home the message that
they're more than just a man with a golden arm.

"Defense wins championships, and we took that last drive as a
challenge," said Marques Anderson, Green Bay's rookie strong
safety. "They have a hell of a player in TO, but we have a hell
of a team."

No Packer felt the sting of Owens's touchdown in 1998 more than
free safety Darren Sharper, who was one of four Green Bay
defenders in the wideout's vicinity when Young slipped and then
recovered to throw his famous over-the-middle spiral. Sharper,
then a first-year starter, slammed Owens to the ground, but the
receiver held on for the winning score. This Sharper image has
yet to fade. "It's one of those plays that sticks in your memory,
and you can't shake it," Sharper said last week. "I hit him as
hard as I could, and I remember thinking, This can't be
happening."

Since then Sharper has evolved into the Packers' defensive
leader, while Owens has morphed into a Sharpie-flashing,
coach-bashing renegade. One of the star wideout's frequent
complaints about Mariucci is that the coach's offensive approach
lacks a killer instinct, a charge echoed by Garcia earlier this
season. In a conference call with Bay Area writers on Dec. 11,
Favre stuck up for Mariucci, who was his quarterbacks coach in
Green Bay from 1992 through '95, saying, "It's unfair. If you
have a beef with him, go to his office. Be a man and tell him you
have a problem. Don't do it in the paper. That's kind of
cowardly."

"Brett needs to be worrying about his own s instead of tripping
on what's happening over here," responded Owens, who ended up
having a big day on Sunday--with eight receptions for 75
yards--despite almost constant double coverage.

Trailing 6-3 at halftime, the Packers opened up their offense
after intermission, with Favre (25 of 33 for 201 yards in the
game) whipping crisp passes into the stiff wind. His signature
throw, with 5:35 left in the third quarter, was a five-yard
touchdown pass to Donald Driver on a slant pattern.

Down 17-6, San Francisco (9-5) rallied when Garcia caught Green
Bay in a coverage lapse and heaved a looping pass to Owens, who
caught it in front of cornerback Mike McKenzie at the Packers'
17. Then the fun began. Owens carried McKenzie on his back for a
while, finally shed him at the five and cruised to the back of
the end zone, where he grabbed the pom-poms from a cheerleader
and boogied with the rest of the team's Gold Rush Girls. Said
Sharper afterward, "That wasn't too masculine."

Green Bay's macho answer would come later, after Garcia ran for a
two-point conversion to cut the Packers' lead to 17-14, and Ryan
Longwell followed with a field goal to stretch the margin to six
with 4:41 left. "Let's see what this defense is made of," Sharper
said to Anderson as they took the field for their biggest stand
of the season.

A third-round selection from UCLA, Anderson has been a
revelation, having picked off four passes and returned two for
touchdowns. He is a leading candidate for defensive rookie of the
year, though the Long Beach, Calif., native has yet to become
comfortable with Green Bay's climate or Packers-obsessed culture.
"Some people here are crazy," Anderson said last week as he
devoured a plate of ribs at a Green Bay restaurant. "I did a
signing in Milwaukee earlier this season, and a girl asked me to
scrawl my name on her arm in big letters. A few weeks later I was
down there again, and she walked over, rolled up her sleeve and
said, 'Remember me?' The girl had tattooed my signature onto her
arm! I didn't know what the hell to say."

The Packers had no answers for Garcia as he drove the Niners 60
yards on the first eight plays of the final drive. When Garcia
found tight end Eric Johnson (eight catches, 66 yards) on a
14-yard catch and run to the Green Bay 14 with a minute to go,
all eyes turned to Owens, but he never got the chance to dance.

After two incompletions sandwiched a three-yard run, it was
fourth-and-seven from the 11 with 26 seconds remaining, and as if
Sharper needed a reminder about his least favorite San Francisco
memory, his coach provided it anyway. Mike Sherman, who was the
Packers' tight ends coach in 1998 and watched Owens's
game-winning catch from an upstairs box, remembered the defensive
call on that play--Quarters, an alignment in which each of four
defensive backs is responsible for a quadrant of the end zone.
Sherman confronted his demons, then greenlighted defensive
coordinator Ed Donatell's call. "Same coverage we had back then,"
Sherman said later. "So we knew there was a chance it would go
their way."

As it turned out, the 49ers had no chance because furious
pressure forced Garcia to rush a throw that bounced short of
Johnson. "I couldn't be more proud of our defense," Favre said
after the game. "I always make a point of watching those guys,
and they're relentless. Half the time you don't even know who's
in there, but they never quit, and there's no substitute for
that."

The Packers can't let up now. Though they share the league's best
record with the Buccaneers and the Eagles, both teams hold
tiebreaker edges over Green Bay, which, in all likelihood, must
win its final two regular-season games (at home against Buffalo
and at the New York Jets) and pray for help to secure a
first-round bye. No matter their seeding, the Packers are secure
that in a league of parity, they'll enter the postseason boasting
the most potent quarterback and a defense well-versed in
preserving his handiwork.

Late Sunday night, on a festive flight back to Green Bay, several
defenders celebrated by playing cards, sipping mixed drinks (Grey
Goose Vodka, with a splash of orange and cranberry juices) and
mingling with the delighted leader of the Pack. "Brett made a
point of thanking us," Anderson said early on Monday morning.
"You could tell he really wanted to win this game."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER [COVER] True Grit Why the Packers Keep on Winning Green Bay Quarterback Brett Favre COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY V.J. LOVERO RUN TO DAYLIGHT With the offensive line opening huge holes, Ahman Green led the Pack ground attack with 90 yards rushing. COLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN GOTCHA! The relentless pressure of Rod Walker and his mates held Garcia to just 156 yards passing. COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO NOT SO FAST The Niners' Johnson looked as if he would grab this pass, but Antuan Edwards batted it away just in time.

"Defense wins championships," says Green Bay's Anderson, "and we
took that last drive as a challenge."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)