Criticized in Jacksonville for lacking discipline in his routes, Rison has been an angel thus far. "This place is good for him, just like it was for me," says Favre, who played with Rison for the Atlanta Falcons in 1991. "There's nothing here to do but work on football. Andre's finding that out."
Against all logic, Green Bay has become a garden spot for players from less successful organizations. "It's like a home for the refuse of society," says safety Eugene Robinson, a 12-year veteran acquired in an off-season trade with the Seattle Seahawks. The nightlife options may be slim and the weather may be grim, but, in Rison's words, "the vibe here is incredible." Defensive tackle Santana Dotson, who spent his first four seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, says he loves playing for the Packers because "everyone from the front-office executives to the janitor tries to get the players whatever they need to win."
Dotson's inside push and Robinson's reliability have helped the Packers go from a turnover-starved defense in 1995 to the NFC leader in takeaways this year. After producing 16 turnovers last season, the Packers ran their '96 total to 36 on Sunday, with three fumble recoveries. Robinson initiated ball-catching drills for defensive backs after practice, but he's quick to deflect the credit for the Pack's success at generating turnovers. While dining at a crowded Green Bay rib joint last Friday, Robinson waited for LeRoy Butler to leave the table, sucked down the last of his fellow safety's pitcher of Slice with grenadine and asked, "Do I get to talk about LeRoy now? He has great timing and a great feel for the game. If he doesn't make the Pro Bowl, it's a crime." Butler, who is tied for the Packers' lead in interceptions, with five, leaped into the air on a third-quarter blitz to level Denver quarterback Bill Musgrave and increase his team-high sack total to 6½.
One man definitely headed for Honolulu is Favre, who against Denver completed 20 of 38 passes for 280 yards and four touchdowns, which ran his season total to a league-high 35. Favre may have bolstered his MVP candidacy, but Elway, his chief competition, looked even more valuable while standing on the sidelines. With Musgrave (12 of 21 for 101 yards) playing a steady but innocuous game in his first NFL start, the Packers held the league's third MVP front-runner, Broncos halfback Terrell Davis, to 54 yards on 14 carries, and Denver looked like a different team.
Favre had reverted to some old vices in recent weeks, ducking out of the pocket too quickly and forcing balls into coverage. Sunday's effort was no masterpiece either. Favre, who was knocked woozy by Broncos defensive end Alfred Williams on the Pack's first play from scrimmage, later admitted he was a zombie for the first quarter. He threw two interceptions that could have been avoided and didn't look especially sharp until late in the third quarter, after Freeman's 51-yard catch-and-run had given Green Bay a two-touchdown lead. But Favre also choreographed moments of sheer brilliance, most notably on the game's first touchdown, 17 seconds before halftime. With the Packers leading 6-3 and the ball on the Denver 14, Favre stiff-armed 285-pound tackle Michael Dean Perry, took a step back and threaded a pass to Freeman in the back of the end zone.
After his much publicized stint in a rehab center over the off-season for addiction to the painkiller Vicodin, Favre has had his pain threshold tested all season. He tore two ligaments in his ankle during the Dallas game, his left knee needs to be cleaned out, and he's bothered by injuries to "both hips, my back, a shoulder—you name it. This is as bad as it's ever been." He's getting by on Motrin and willpower, the latter fueled by the fallout from his rehab stay and the rumors of alcohol abuse that accompanied it. "He's playing angry," Holmgren says. "He's had a chip on his shoulder all season."
Their 35-point victory and the clinching of their first back-to-back NFC Central titles in 29 years left the Packers feeling chipper, but not all was well. Said Jackson, "We made some big mistakes, and Dallas or San Francisco would have buried us." Before the game Denver's Shannon Sharpe, football's premier tight end, said he felt San Francisco and Dallas were the best teams in the NFC. Asked at game's end if the Packers had changed his opinion, he said, "Hell, no. I'd love to play them in the Super Bowl."
A rematch seems possible with the Packers on the verge of clinching home field advantage. They have won 25 of their last 26 at Lambeau, where the hardy fan support (there were just 78 no-shows on Sunday) and Mother Nature give the Pack an enormous edge. Green Bay has lost road games to the Cowboys in each of the last three postseasons, and Favre said, "Every guy in the locker room, in the back of his mind, thinks we have to have home field or we're in trouble. It's everything, really."
This was an hour after the game, and Favre took a sip of iced tea, which he earlier had joked was bourbon and water, and assessed the state of the Packers. "Maybe we're back," he said. "We struggled for a while, and people said our receivers couldn't get off the line. Well, let teams bump Antonio and Andre now and see if they can stop us."
There was a touch of steel in Favre's voice, and as he spoke, a chill could be felt throughout the league.