Cinderellas rose and fell. Expansion teams expanded beyond anyone's wildest dreams and then contracted under the pressure of playing championship-level football. The Denver Broncos surfaced as a genuine threat to the NFC's 12-year lock on the Super Bowl and then submerged. Wise old hands cautioned, "Don't forget Dallas and San Francisco." Now they're forgotten.
The one constant in this strange NFL season has been the Green Bay Packers, preseason favorites to win it all, heavily favored throughout the playoffs, enjoying even more favor now that the end is near. And stepping into the batting cage to take their cuts against Brett Favre's 100-mph fastball, we find the New England Patriots. Step right up, fellas. A hundred bucks if you can turn on his high, hard one. It ain't so tough.
O.K., so the Patriots' championship game victory wasn't as convincing as Green Bay's. New England squeezed out its win against the Jacksonville Jaguars with turnovers and special teams, while the Pack was making true believers out of the Carolina Panthers. Are you saying the Patriots don't have a chance? Stop right there. They have a hell of a chance.
To win the first quarter. After that it will probably get tougher.
For some reason Favre, the NFL's MVP this season and last, is a slow starter. He was one for his first five and two for his first eight against Carolina, and only 9:40 into the game Sam Mills, the Panthers' crafty old linebacker, suckered him into an interception and returned it to the Green Bay two to set up Carolina's only touchdown.
It was a pattern we'd seen before. Favre missed his first two and fumbled an early handoff against the San Francisco 49ers the week before. Against Denver four weeks before that, he was one for his first four and fumbled a snap. His first four passes fell incomplete against the St. Louis Rams. He missed his first two against the Dallas Cowboys. And so on. You get the point.
"That's how he plays the game," Packers coach Mike Holmgren says. "He gets excited. We talk on the sidelines. He settles down. I don't want to take away one of the things that makes him great. His emotion is what makes him great, what makes him Brett Favre."
It's not a new phenomenon. There have been Hall of Fame quarterbacks who entered games so pumped up that it took them a while to find their rhythm. Former Cowboy Roger Staubach, for instance, was notoriously wild-high at the outset. But the great ones settled down. So does Favre. Then he kills you.
Green Bay hasn't dominated the first quarter of games this year. The first has been the Packers' lowest-scoring period (76 points). The offense failed to generate a touchdown in 10 of its 18 first quarters, counting the playoffs. It produced no points in five of them, including Sunday's game against Carolina, in which the Packers ended the first 15 minutes on the short end of a 7-0 score. Then, when Green Bay got into its rhythm, it was lights out for the Panthers, and what was left was an assault on Carolina's two-year-old record book—most yards rushing by an opponent (201), most total yards by an opponent (479) and on the other side of the ball, a club record-tying low for yards rushing (45). The latter should come as no surprise because, in addition to having the NFL's No. 1 scoring offense, Green Bay also led the league in scoring defense and total defense.
How can the Patriots hope to beat this machine? One way. Jump the Packers early. Get on them while they're in their dormant phase. Sow the seeds of confusion, indecision, indigestion.