- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 19, 2002

Green Bay's Brett Favre defined the quarterback position from 1995 to 1998 with his magical improvisations. St. Louis' Kurt Warner has been "the man" the last three seasons, triggering the most prolific offense in NFL history. Tomorrow the league's two best passers will duel for the first time when St. Louis plays host to Green Bay in an NFC divisional playoff game.

That Warner, the MVP this season and in 1999 when the Rams won the Super Bowl, was cut by the Packers in training camp in 1994 adds spice to his matchup with Favre, who led Green Bay to the 1996 title and was the MVP from 1995 through 1997.

Warner, who was hit in the throat during the Rams' regular-season finale Jan. 6 against Atlanta, was ordered by doctors not to talk any more than necessary this week. For a while, it was uncertain whether he would be able to call signals tomorrow. Warner's quotes were sent via e-mail to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

"I didn't know if I belonged [in 1994], but the longer I was there the more I felt that I [did]," recalled Warner, an undrafted rookie out of Northern Iowa who was behind Favre, former Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer (now with Detroit) and ex-Rose Bowl MVP Mark Brunell (now Jacksonville's starter) on Green Bay's depth chart that summer.

"I saw how good [the other three quarterbacks] were and felt that I fit right in. That was a confidence builder in the fact that I knew I could play at that level and helped me not to give up [when he didn't make the NFL until 1998 as the backup to Rams starter Tony Banks]."

Warner said he doesn't have any hard feelings toward the Packers.

"They gave me a shot, I wasn't ready and I am the most blessed man in the world to be where I am right now," he said. "If I would have made the team, I would still be on the bench and nobody would know a thing about me, so in a way I'm glad I didn't. Brett was just on the upswing of his career. He had all the talent [and] all the intangibles. He's the one quarterback that I like to watch. He has such a flair for the dramatic. But as much as I like to watch Brett play, I hope I don't see too much from him this weekend."

Favre said he really didn't remember much about Warner's Green Bay experience.

"Kurt seemed like a nice guy, and we got along fine," said Favre, who led Green Bay past San Francisco 25-15 last week. "He has played extraordinary. A lot of people at the end of that [1999] season said, 'This is a one-year deal,' but Kurt has answered those questions. It just goes to show that anyone regardless of draft status, regardless of age can become a premier player in this league."

Of course, as both quarterbacks took pains to point out, tomorrow's game will be much more than just Warner vs. Favre. The Rams' Marshall Faulk led the NFC with 2,147 yards from scrimmage. Fellow halfback Ahman Green of the Packers was second with 1,981. Green Bay's Bill Schroeder (Warner's 1994 training camp roommate) led NFC receivers with 17.32 yards per catch, closely followed by St. Louis' Isaac Bruce (17.28) and Torry Holt (16.83).

The Packers topped the NFC with 39 takeaways and were second with 52 sacks. The Rams led the NFC in defense, becoming the eighth team to pace a conference on both sides of the ball.

Four of the previous seven won the Super Bowl. But the 1973 Rams and the 1987 49ers lost their playoff openers. That San Francisco team was the last NFC No. 1 seed to do so.

Eagles-Bears The way these teams play defense, the offenses could feel today as if they're recreating the "Fog Bowl" they staged in their last playoff meeting in 1988 at Soldier Field.

Chicago allowed an NFL-low 203 points, five fewer than Philadelphia. The Eagles led the league in red zone defense (six of the eight teams left finished in the top nine in that category, the exceptions being top seeds St. Louis and Pittsburgh, which plays host to defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore tomorrow). Chicago, which also allowed an NFL-low 17 sacks, is 8-0 in games decided by fewer than eight points.

"If we're going to win, we have to outplay their defense," said Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher of the 13-3 NFC Central champion Bears, who haven't been in the playoffs since 1994. "They make a lot of big plays. If they score, we feel like we need to score on defense. It's going to be decided by whoever makes more big plays on defense."

Donovan McNabb, who was dominant in last week's 31-9 rout of Tampa Bay, is excited about his first start in his hometown, but the Eagles' quarterback isn't as pumped as defensive tackle Paul Grasmanis, whom the Bears cut in 1999 after three years with the team.

"I want to throw it in their face," Grasmanis snarled. "I want to go in there and stomp on them. I want to tell them they made a mistake."

Patriots-Raiders New England, the AFC's Cinderella story, begins its playoff quest tonight at home (probably in the snow) against Oakland. The Patriots (11-5) are just the 10th team to recover from an 0-2 start and win a division title and the first since they did it in 1996 en route to taking the AFC championship.

However, five of those nine teams didn't get past this round and only one, Dallas in 1993, won the Super Bowl.

Oakland's Jerry Rice, who looked a decade younger than his 39 years while catching nine passes for 183 yards and a touchdown in last Saturday's 38-24 victory over the New York Jets, needs one touchdown to tie Emmitt Smith and Thurman Thomas with a playoff-record 21 and just six yards to become the first receiver with 2,000 in postseason.

"I still feel explosive," said Rice, the greatest receiver ever. "I feel like I can go out there and take a game over if I have the opportunity."

The Patriots are 11-3 with Tom Brady at quarterback and have won six in a row. New England has the AFC's top red zone defense and is 8-1 when halfback Antowain Smith scores.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Patriots linebacker Roman Phifer said of the first playoff game of his 11-year career.

"There's no telling when I might get it again."

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