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 title.
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 the subject.
COLOR PHOTO: COVER FLAP PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER (BRETT FAVRE) [COVER FLAP] The Pack Rolls On 7 IN A ROW Green Bay's Longest Winning Streak Since 1963 BRETT FAVRE: Laughing All The Way
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [T of C] LIFE AT THE TOP A seventh straight win made Brett Favre a happy Packer on Sunday.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER RUSH H0UR Davenport, taking a handoff from Favre and following William Henderson, ran for 73 yards on Sunday.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER SAFETY FIRST Sharper chipped in on special teams, returning a missed field goal 44 yards at the end of the first half.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS OVERDRIVE Against Detroit, the hardworking Driver caught nearly as many passes (11) as he did all of last season (13).
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER GROUND-LEVEL SEATS Lions defensive end James Hall could only sit and watch the play unfold after Favre had released a pass.
"I don't think Brett would admit it," says Sherman, "but he's AT A LEVEL he hasn't been at before."