Another fantastic finish was unfolding on a splendidly surreal San Francisco Sunday, and Brett Favre was just another nervous spectator cringing in the rain. The Green Bay Packers' clutch quarterback paced the Candlestick Park sideline while Jeff Garcia, his San Francisco 49ers counterpart, tried to pull out this late-season showdown between playoff-bound rivals. The Niners were driving in the final minute, and Green Bay's six-point lead looked more fragile than Whitney Houston. With San Francisco on the Packers' 14-yard line, Favre had a flashback to a similar scene nearly four years earlier—the 1998 playoff game that ended with Steve Young's miraculous 25-yard TD pass to Terrell Owens and stopped the Packers' run of consecutive NFC titles.
That wrenching defeat was the only one Favre had suffered in nine previous starts against the 49ers, and on Sunday he had a knot in his stomach as San Francisco marched down the field. "Man, that was painful," Favre said afterward, rubbing his tummy for effect. "I had confidence in our defense, but their offense is pretty damn good, too. I knew somebody had to step up, and I was hoping it wouldn't be him."
"Him" would be Terrell Owens, or TO, or the "cowardly" one, to use the adjective Favre reserved for Owens last week during a spirited defense of his best friend, Niners coach Steve Mariucci. For a moment on Sunday, as the flamboyant wideout revealed his inner cheerleader following a third-quarter 45-yard touchdown catch, you could even call him her. But the Packers know that Owens is the best receiver in football, and on the Niners' final four plays of the game Green Bay's defenders made sure he had no space to strut. The result was a 20-14 victory that kept the NFC North champion Packers (11-3) in the hunt for home field advantage throughout the playoffs and drove home the message that they're more than just a man with a golden arm.
"Defense wins championships, and we took that last drive as a challenge," said Marques Anderson, Green Bay's rookie strong safety. "They have a hell of a player in TO, but we have a hell of a team."
No Packer felt the sting of Owens's touchdown in 1998 more than free safety Darren Sharper, who was one of four Green Bay defenders in the wideout's vicinity when Young slipped and then recovered to throw his famous over-the-middle spiral. Sharper, then a first-year starter, slammed Owens to the ground, but the receiver held on for the winning score. This Sharper image has yet to fade. "It's one of those plays that sticks in your memory, and you can't shake it," Sharper said last week. "I hit him as hard as I could, and I remember thinking, This can't be happening."
Since then Sharper has evolved into the Packers' defensive leader, while Owens has morphed into a Sharpie-flashing, coach-bashing renegade. One of the star wideout's frequent complaints about Mariucci is that the coach's offensive approach lacks a killer instinct, a charge echoed by Garcia earlier this season. In a conference call with Bay Area writers on Dec. 11, Favre stuck up for Mariucci, who was his quarterbacks coach in Green Bay from 1992 through '95, saying, "It's unfair. If you have a beef with him, go to his office. Be a man and tell him you have a problem. Don't do it in the paper. That's kind of cowardly."
"Brett needs to be worrying about his own s—- instead of tripping on what's happening over here," responded Owens, who ended up having a big day on Sunday—with eight receptions for 75 yards—despite almost constant double coverage.
Trailing 6-3 at halftime, the Packers opened up their offense after intermission, with Favre (25 of 33 for 201 yards in the game) whipping crisp passes into the stiff wind. His signature throw, with 5:35 left in the third quarter, was a five-yard touchdown pass to Donald Driver on a slant pattern.
Down 17-6, San Francisco (9-5) rallied when Garcia caught Green Bay in a coverage lapse and heaved a looping pass to Owens, who caught it in front of cornerback Mike McKenzie at the Packers' 17. Then the fun began. Owens carried McKenzie on his back for a while, finally shed him at the five and cruised to the back of the end zone, where he grabbed the pom-poms from a cheerleader and boogied with the rest of the team's Gold Rush Girls. Said Sharper afterward, "That wasn't too masculine."
Green Bay's macho answer would come later, after Garcia ran for a two-point conversion to cut the Packers' lead to 17-14, and Ryan Longwell followed with a field goal to stretch the margin to six with 4:41 left. "Let's see what this defense is made of," Sharper said to Anderson as they took the field for their biggest stand of the season.