On a day only a polar bear, a penguin or a Green Bay Packers fan could love, the quarterback of the NFC's best team was gripped by a feeling that matched the bitter chill. On Sunday, in the third quarter of a game he was sure Green Bay would win, Brett Favre refused to join his Packers teammates and 60,712 fans in basking in the glow of a 10-point lead in the arctic atmosphere of Lambeau Field. It was the coldest game day in three years at the NFL's most hallowed stadium, with a wind-chill that bottomed out at five below, and it conjured up images of legendary coach Vince Lombardi, his breath turning to thick steam.
Favre, however, was in no mood for syrupy Lombardi nostalgia. With a 13-3 lead against a Denver Broncos team that seemed more interested in securing a hot shower than a victory, Favre became surly in the huddle as he exhorted his teammates to run up the score. "I told them to pour it on all through the second half," Favre said later, "because I wanted to make a statement. It wasn't so much directed at Denver, because I really don't think they cared about winning this game. But I wanted other teams to see what we can do when we have our house in order."
By day's end Lambeau seemed more daunting than it had all season. After heeding Favre's call and rolling to a 41-6 win, the Packers, now 11-3, had moved a step closer to securing home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, a pressing quest given their 15-game winning streak at Lambeau. A few hours later, after the San Francisco 49ers had been burned by the NFC West-rival Carolina Panthers (page 34) and the Dallas Cowboys had escaped with a victory over the Arizona Cardinals (page 94), Green Bay had become the conference's clear-cut favorite to reach the Super Bowl. And considering that Denver, now 12-2, is the team to beat in the AFC, Sunday's game, viewed by many observers as a Super Bowl preview, sent a Pack-is-back message to NFL rivals.
In fairness to the Broncos, the game resembled a Super Bowl only in terms of the final score. Denver had clinched home field advantage in the AFC the previous Sunday, and coach Mike Shanahan rested quarterback John Elway, whose sore hamstring might have reacted adversely to Lambeau's tattered turf and cold weather. "It just shows there's a fine line between winning and losing when you don't have that edge," Shanahan said afterward. For Denver, which escaped without suffering a significant injury, this game was about survival. For Green Bay it was about revival.
The Packers came into the season talking unabashedly of their Super Bowl aspirations and then spent most of September and October backing up that bravado with one impressive performance after another. Then they stumbled badly in mid-November, losing on consecutive weeks on the road, to the Kansas City Chiefs and, by a lopsided 21-6 score, to the Cowboys. During that span, Green Bay, without a big-time threat at wide receiver and with no running attack to speak of, looked flawed, fragile and frazzled. The Packers started slowly in their next two games, wins over the St. Louis Rams and the Chicago Bears, and went into the Denver game still wondering about their identity.
"Early on in the season, we were a confident, humbly arrogant team," said wideout Antonio Freeman, who on Sunday, in his second game back after missing four weeks with a fractured left forearm, caught nine passes for 175 yards and three touchdowns. "Then we came crashing back to earth. Now we're getting healthy, and if we can get our swagger back, we like our chances."
And these Packers like defying convention. That was apparent on Nov. 19, the day after the disaster in Dallas, when they put in a waiver claim for wideout Andre Rison, also known as the NFL Player Least Suited for the Heartland of America. Rison had been cut loose the previous day by the Jacksonville Jaguars, ostensibly for his lack of performance. But Rison attributes his release to a power struggle with coach Tom Coughlin, a disciplinarian who can best be described as a cross between General Patton and a junior-high gym teacher. Rison, a four-time Pro Bowl selection with a history of disciplinary problems, says Coughlin resented his presence because he refused to submit to Coughlin's authority and had become a locker room leader. "He knew I had the team," Rison says, "and he couldn't handle that, because he's such a dictator."
Rison and Coughlin clashed on numerous occasions, including during a team meeting on the eve of Jacksonville's 28-25 overtime loss to the New England Patriots on Sept. 22. During a speech Coughlin warned his players about the talents of the Patriots' multipurpose scatback, Dave Meggett, and spoke of his blueprint for victory. Recalls Rison: "He said, 'We're going to keep it close until the fourth quarter, and then we'll win it at the end.' He kept talking about how great Meggett was, and he had our young players scared to death. I had had a few beers, and I'm sitting back there listening, just shaking my head. When he finished, I stood up and said, 'Forget that s—-. We're going to kick their ass in the first quarter, second quarter, third quarter and the fourth quarter. And f—- Dave Meggett. We can crush him like a little flea.' The players went nuts, and I even had coaches coming up to me and thanking me. I told Coughlin, 'I'm in a position to reach them in a way you can't because of their respect for me. They need to know you.' But he didn't want to hear it, because he hated the fact that he wasn't the one motivating the team."
After being waived by the Jaguars, Rison attended a party in New York City to celebrate the release of a rap CD featuring him and other NFL players. While cavorting at a SoHo club called Chaos, he and Green Bay's star receiver, Robert Brooks, took time out to watch on TV as the Cowboys shut down the Packers. Brooks, out for the season after tearing knee ligaments in a 23-20 overtime victory over the 49ers on Oct. 14, told Rison, "Man, we need you tonight." Two days later Rison was in the office of coach Mike Holmgren, listening to his new boss say, "The past is done. You need us, we need you. Let's go do it."
Though he has picked up the complex Green Bay offense quickly, Rison has yet to make an impact (eight receptions for 65 yards in three games). He caught only one pass on Sunday; he spent most of his time on the field drawing attention away from Freeman. As they sat in the weight room long after the game, Favre apologized to Rison for missing him on a deep route and vowed to get him more involved in an offense suddenly stocked with weapons. Pro Bowl tight end Mark Chmura returned on Sunday after having missed three games with a sprained left arch and caught four passes for 70 yards, while Green Bay's other talented tight end, Keith Jackson, had a touchdown catch. And while halfback Edgar Bennett (nine carries, five yards) went nowhere, backup fullback Dorsey Levens, who plays in one-back sets, ran for 86 yards on 14 carries.