- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 4, 2003

It should be simple math.

The Brett Favre-led Green Bay Packers plus Lambeau Field plus January playoff game equals a sure victory. After all, Favre is 81-12 at home and has never lost a playoff game at Lambeau (7-0).

And yet, the folks in Las Vegas have established the NFC North champion Packers (12-4) as just a 7-point favorite over the upstart Atlanta Falcons. Why this funny math?

Two words: Michael Vick.

The 22-year-old second-year quarterback he's started 17 regular-season games, Favre has 16 starts in the postseason is the unknown, the X factor in this equation.

The fact that Green Bay has never lost a playoff game at home and that Favre is perfect at Lambeau Field in sub-freezing weather would be enough to shake the confidence of most young teams.

But if any team isn't going to be intimidated by all that, it's the Falcons (9-6-1), the last visitors to win at Lambeau 23-20 on Nov. 18, 2001, with rookie Vick watching from the sideline. And Atlanta pushed host Green Bay to overtime before losing this year's opener 37-34 as Vick (281 total yards) just about matched Favre (290) yard for yard.

"We can take a lot of confidence from [the opener]," Vick said. "I think they underestimated us a little bit. We know it will be tough and cold. I have to manage the game and play within myself. I can't get too excited. I just have to go out, let things happen, let the other guys do their jobs and we'll have a pretty good shot."

The Packers had a clear shot at a first-round bye and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs before the New York Jets dealt them a 42-17 loss last Sunday, the second-worst of Favre's 11 seasons as their starter.

"We're going to look back in 20 years and go, 'Man, remember that shot we had. If only we had won that game,'" Pro Bowl guard Marco Rivera said. "We laid a big egg."

Despite that defeat and injuries that knocked all but eight starters from the lineup at one point or another this season and have top receiver Donald Driver and Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper questionable for tonight, the Packers had their best regular season since 1997.

"I'm very proud of our team and how they've handled themselves this year," said Packers coach Mike Sherman, in the playoffs for the second time in his three years. "To win 12 games in this type of season It's not time to jump ship on them, I promise you that."

Atlanta's Dan Reeves isn't jumping ship either even though his team won just one of its final four games after an 7-0-1 tear. If not for Carolina's upset of New Orleans last Sunday, the Falcons would be done after Cleveland beat them 24-16 with a goal-line stand in the final minute.

"We're kind of in a slump and I don't know what it's going to take to get over the hump," said Vick, who still nearly set a quarterback record with 927 rushing yards.

Or over the proverbial wall. In his first 10 starts (he missed one game with an injury) Vick completed 59.5 percent of his passes for 1,821 yards, nine touchdowns, two interceptions and a 90.4 passer rating. In his final five starts, Vick completed 47.9 percent of his passes for 1,115 yards, seven touchdowns, six interceptions and a 68.5 passer rating.

"All young players have to make an adjustment [from] college," Reeves said. "You could get more of a mental fatigue than anything else because it is a long season."

Counting preseason, this will be Vick's 20th game, one less than he played during his two years at Virginia Tech. And now he faces a Green Bay defense that led the NFL with 45 takeaways although it's vulnerable to the run.

"He's so talented," Favre said. "He can do things that obviously no one can do, at least hasn't been able to. If they can keep him healthy, the sky's the limit for the kid."

Today can be that next step.

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