The home stretch of the 2003 season has taken Brett Favre's breath away. First there was the emotional toll, after his 58-year-old father died suddenly four days before Christmas. Then there was the divine intervention, when the Arizona Cardinals' 25-yard touchdown pass on their final play of the season knocked the Minnesota Vikings out of the playoffs and put Favre's Green Bay Packers in. Finally, there was the physical pounding. On Sunday, an hour after the Packers' heart-stopping, 33-27 overtime win against the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC wild-card game at Lam-beau Field, Favre was moving gingerly through the players' lounge.
"I don't know how much more of this I can take," he said. "It's killing me."
"The emotion of it all?" he was asked.
"That," Favre said, grimacing as he sat, "and I can hardly breathe. Got nailed in the ribs really bad today. [ Seattle defensive end] Chike Okeafor leveled me."
"Say anything to him?" Favre was asked.
"Yeah," he said with a wry smile. "I went up to him and said, 'You O.K.?' He knew he hit me so hard, and he was like, 'Hey, are you O.K.?' I said, 'Yeah, no problem.' I never show anyone I'm hurt. Never."
That's the kind of kid that Irvin Favre raised. Little more than 24 hours after his dad's death, Favre had one of the greatest games of a career that will surely be followed by a first-ballot election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Playing with a broken right thumb that has plagued him since mid-October, he threw for 399 yards and four scores in a 41-7 rout of the Raiders on Dec. 22. He had another efficient day against the Seahawks, completing 26 of 38 attempts for 319 yards and a touchdown, and helping set up Ahman Green for a pair of one-yard, fourth-quarter scoring runs. Then, 4:25 into overtime, cornerback Al Harris capitalized on the only turnover of the game, intercepting a Matt Hasselbeck pass and returning it 52 yards for the winning score.
Lambeau Field has been the site of countless exciting games during the Packers' storied history, but not many could match the drama on Sunday. The game was tied at 3,13,20 and 27. Seattle rallied from a 13-6 halftime deficit on a pair of one-yard touchdown runs by Shaun Alexander. Green answered with his two scores. Then, with 51 seconds left, Alexander's third touchdown run of the half, also from a yard out, sent the game into overtime.
For the Seahawks, the loss will sting for months, especially for coach Mike Holmgren, Green Bay's former coach, and Hasselbeck, who gamely matched his mentor, Favre, throw for throw. A 1998 sixth-round draft pick of the Packers who was traded to Seattle in 2001, Hasselbeck completed 25 passes in 45 attempts for 305 yards, showing in his first playoff start that he can play on the big stage. He also seemed to be enjoying it. After being chased out-of-bounds, Hasselbeck patted the butt of a chain-gang member as he made his way back to the huddle. He woofed affectionately at his former teammates. And after Seattle won the overtime coin toss, Hasselbeck said over referee Bernie Kukar's field mike for all the world to hear: "We want the ball, and we're gonna score!"
The shame is, Hasselbeck will be remembered mostly for an interception that apparently wasn't his fault. Facing third-and-11 at the Seattle 45-yard line, Hasselbeck sensed a blitz and audibled to a shorter set of routes for his receivers. The Packers sent their Population Blitz—three extra rushers, all coming from the same side—and Hasselbeck threw quickly to wideout Alex Bannister flanked to the left. But Bannister didn't cut his route short.