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They are the yin and yang of the Cheesehead Nation, one spewing smoke from his ears, the other playfully kicking up dust. While coach Mike Holmgren does his best to stomp the fun out of the Green Bay Packers' drive for a second consecutive championship, All-Pro quarterback Brett Favre is setting off stink bombs. Forgive the rest of the Packers if they're a bit bewildered by the conflicting demeanors of their two leaders. Holmgren and Favre make Ted Kaczynski and Tara Lipinski seem compatible.
Holmgren may be one of the NFL's biggest control freaks, but he's smart enough to know who rules the football universe. In a driving rainstorm on Sunday, Holmgren put Green Bay's NFC championship hopes in Favre's hands, and Favre flawlessly delivered a 23-10 victory over the San Francisco 49ers at 3Com Park. Watching the three-time MVP shred the Niners' defense—the league's top-ranked unit in 1997—had to be disconcerting for the AFC champion Denver Broncos, who gave up 41 points the last time they faced Favre, late in the '96 season. For when Green Bay and Denver meet in Super Bowl XXXII, John Elway, scarily enough, will be the second-most-dangerous quarterback on the field.
Neither nerves nor blitzes nor the elements have been able to slow Favre's march to San Diego, and unless the Broncos can come up with something quick—handcuffs? itching powder in Favre's jock?—they'll be hard-pressed to avoid another AFC washout in the Super Bowl. After tearing up San Francisco with 222 passing yards in a game the Pack was never in danger of losing, Favre conceded that the prospect of facing a team coached by his close friend and former mentor, Steve Mariucci, had made him uncharacteristically jumpy. "I was real nervous last night," he said while scarfing a spicy postgame hot dog in the nearly deserted Green Bay locker room. "I said more prayers before this game than before any game I ever remember. No formal prayers, but just praying for, well, wisdom, I guess. We were playing a great team with a great defense, and I just prayed that I'd play smart and make good decisions."
On Saturday night Holmgren had made the best decision of all: unveiling a strategy that entrusted Favre with killing the Niners' spirit. Holmgren, who scripts the Pack's first 15 plays, typically calls for no more than eight passes in that stretch. This time he distributed a sheet to his players calling for nine passes—the most pass-happy plan Favre remembers receiving during his six seasons as Green Bay's quarterback.
As it turned out, this was the best script since Sting Blade. When Favre is on his game, as he was on Sunday, it's the defensive backs who should be saying prayers, and Denver corners Darrien Gordon and Ray Crockett undoubtedly will be doing so in the days ahead. Like Detroit Lions halfback Barry Sanders, with whom he shared this year's league MVP award, Favre can humiliate a defender on any play.
Throwing quickly and with amazing accuracy, Favre went right after San Francisco cornerbacks Rod Woodson and Marquez Pope, often connecting on slant routes the two have seen thousands of times in practice and on film. The corners knew what was coming, but they were powerless to stop it. The 49ers were determined to gang up on Pro Bowl halfback Dorsey Levens and stop the run early, leaving Woodson and Pope in single coverage on wideouts Robert Brooks and Antonio Freeman. Favre's precision was such that his receivers needed only to create the slightest opening. Gordon and Crockett have had success playing aggressively of late, but unless the Broncos can find a way to get to Favre as soon as the ball is snapped, they'll be faced with a similar dilemma. "We came out with the attitude that they had to adjust to our scheme, rather than us changing for them," Packers fullback William Henderson said after Sunday's game. "When we have all our weapons in use like we did today, and Brett is rolling, it's going to be hard for anyone to stop us."
Green Bay marched 68 yards on its first six plays. Four of them were passes by Favre, and the count didn't include a play that drew a 24-yard interference penalty against Woodson. The Packers settled for a 19-yard Ryan Longwell field goal, but the tone had been set. "I think their defensive players were rattled by that first drive," said Ross Verba, the Packers' rookie left tackle. "You could see it in their eyes."
Favre went for the kill early in the second quarter, two plays after Green Bay free safety Eugene Robinson had intercepted a pass by Steve Young and returned it 58 yards to the San Francisco 28. The Packers sent three receivers to the right side and split Freeman left. Freeman's quick inside slant spun Pope in a circle, and Freeman crowed afterward, "1 treated him like a freak; I turned him out." Favre delivered a crisp pass at the 20, and the wideout raced past three flailing defenders for a touchdown and a 10-0 Green Bay lead. This was the Pack's 14th offensive play and ninth pass, and the 49ers defenders were shaking their heads and quoting Busta Rhymes, wondering: What the deally yo?
The Niners had adopted a regression-therapy approach to stopping Favre, reasoning that by shutting down Levens early and pressing Favre's receivers they could make him revert to the wild, reckless quarterback who once threw 24 interceptions in a season. But Holmgren seems to have tamed this pony. In the second half Favre showed his maturity by allowing Levens to grind out yards—he had 71 of his 114 after halftime—and drain the clock as the rain came pouring down. Favre, who completed 16 of 27 passes, called an audible on only four or five plays, even though he probably could have feasted on the 49ers secondary. While Young had some tenuous moments throwing into the wind, Favre simply generated his own gusts. "The difference in this game was arm strength," said LeRoy Butler, Green Bay's Pro Bowl strong safety. "Steve threw into the wind; Brett threw through the wind."
Six days before the game Butler had told Favre, "Don't worry if you turn it over. Our defense will win it. The burden is on us." Favre glared back and said, "No, no, no—I'm going to get that s---done." Both were right. The Niners, supremely confident they could run the ball against the Packers, went nowhere. Mariucci benched halfback Garrison Hearst, coming off a broken left collarbone that had sidelined him for four games, after he gained only 12 yards on eight first-half carries; Hearst's replacement, Terry Kirby, ran six times for 21 yards. Green Bay frustrated San Francisco's blockers with inside stunts and new blitzes featuring Butler on the weak side.