GREEN BAY, Wis.
The first flurries on the drive north to Green Bay began falling around Sheboygan. Just as the weatherfolk had predicted, there would be snow for yesterday's Packers-Seahawks playoff game, snow for what might be Brett Favre's final appearance at Lambeau Field. (With Bionic Brett, one can never be too sure.)
When you're traveling from Chicago to this city of 100,000 — the erstwhile Toilet Paper Capital of the World, tucked away in a remote corner of Lake Michigan — you're traveling up what used to be pro football's spinal column. The Bears and Packers endure, of course, but all along the way are smaller burgs that once were homes to NFL teams.
In fact, if you started the trip — in the 1920s, anyway — just below the Windy City, you would eventually pass through the territories of the Hammond (Ind.) Pros, Chicago's Bears and Cardinals and, crossing over into Wisconsin, the Kenosha Maroons, Racine Legion, Milwaukee Badgers and finally the Packers. Seven franchises in all, stretched along less than 200 miles of what are now Interstates 94 and 43.
Football has always mattered in these parts — in ways we urban "sophisticates" couldn't possibly understand. So you can imagine how much Favre means to Wisconsinites, this scruffy, 38-year-old quarterback who brought the Pack back one more time.
In the beginning, remember, when Favre came to Green Bay in 1992 from the Falcons, the Packers were little more than a memory — a mental snapshot of Jim Taylor running the power sweep behind Jerry Kramer, a dusty black-and-white photograph of Don Hutson catching a pass over his shoulder. Only twice in the post-Lombardi Era, twice in 25 seasons, had the club gone to the playoffs. Back then, you referred to the Packers, if you referred to them at all, in the past rather than present tense.
But then Favre arrived, along with a brainy coach (Mike Holmgren, now directing the Seahawks) and an unblockable defensive end (Reggie White), and another Green Bay chapter was written. In '97, "Titletown, U.S.A." even got to celebrate its NFL-record 12th championship. And this year, the good times are still rolling — so much so that 72,168 Packers fans, the largest Lambeau crowd ever, could dare to dream yesterday of a 13th title as their 13-3 team came flying out of the tunnel.
Three hours later, after a classic 42-20 victory that looked like it was staged in a snow globe, Green Bay was in the NFC Championship game — miraculously. I say miraculously because, well, it's never very good playoff strategy to fumble twice in the first two minutes and stake your opponent to a 14-0 lead, especially with the weather being such a dicey proposition. Had the conditions worsened, had the footing become too slippery or the ball too slick to throw, Seattle's 14 points might have begun to seem like 40.
"When we were down [two touchdowns]," Favre said, "I was not, I have to admit, optimistic. It was exactly the kind of game I didn't want to be in, where we have to throw the ball against that defense [on a bad-weather day]. We haven't been in that situation a lot."
Fortunately for Green Bay, 16 seasons in the Great White North have taught Favre a few things about coping with the elements. The guy doesn't have ice water in his veins, he's got Prestone. How else to explain his heroic performance against a Seahawks "D" that was so solid in a first-round win over the Redskins?
Thirty-eight-year-old quarterbacks aren't supposed to play the way Favre did, hardly missing a pass (18 of 23 for 173 yards and three scores) and skittering around like a rookie. Indeed, if they hadn't seem him do it, oh, about 100 times in his career, the 'Hawks would probably be wondering this morning how No. 4 escaped the rush late in the first half and, barely keeping his feet, flipped the ball underhanded to tight end Donald Lee to convert a big third down, one that set up the Packers' fourth touchdown.
"I'm sure it looked slow and unathletic," Favre said. "Somebody [on the defense] grabbed my jersey and I spun out of there. ... I'm stumbling, stumbling, stumbling. Finally, I got enough balance where I could look up, and lo and behold there's ol' Donald running open. Boy, what a backbreaker [for Seattle]. If I tried that play 10 times, nine times I probably fall flat on my face or it falls incomplete."
Brett had many fine moments at the expense of the Seahawks, but that was the signature Favre Play yesterday, the latest bit of improvisational genius for which Brett is renowned. And when Ryan Grant popped over from the Seattle 3 on the next play to make it 28-17, you knew the 'Hawks, unlike the Packers, weren't going to come back. (For starters, they would have had to hire a guide, preferably of Eskimo extraction, to lead them through the blizzard — and point out where the end zones were. By the end of the third quarter, it was hard to tell.)
The victory wasn't entirely due to Favre, though. After the two early turnovers/touchdowns, Green Bay's feisty young defense spent the rest of the game wrecking Seattle's offensive plans (and when possible, teeing off on the Seahawks' receivers). Shaun Alexander, the former league MVP, was a total non-factor, and Matt Hasselbeck, the ex-Packer, didn't come close to keeping up with his mentor, Favre.
Then there's Grant. Has any player — in the history of the NFL — ever started a playoff game so horrifically (the two fumbles were his) and ended it so terrifically? Before he was done, the second-year man from Notre Dame had rushed for 201 yards and three TDs, both club records for the postseason. (And the Packers, as previously noted, have participated in a few postseasons in their time.)
Even with the outcome no longer in doubt and the snow coming down ever harder, the assembled masses, accustomed to such inconvenience, stayed and whooped it up to the very end. Grant was duly impressed. "I don't ever think I've heard a crowd that loud," he said. "I think people will remember this game."
Undoubtedly. As will a certain aging-but-far-from-aged quarterback.
"That was awesome," Favre said. "It's amazing. I've played a long time up here, and this is the first time it's snowed like that. I've always wanted to play in a game like this."
At one point, he playfully threw a snowball at Lee — and connected (for an uncredited completion). The tight end retaliated — "and thank God it hit me in the facemask," Favre said. "Might have chipped a tooth."
It was Brett Favre's day, all right.