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Over the years the NFL has weighted the rules heavily to benefit the passing game, tinkering with interference infractions and more strictly enforcing illegal-contact rules against defensive backs. Still, the 49ers have yet to pass for 200 yards in a game, the Jets have gone five straight without hitting that mark, the Bills four straight and the Redskins three in a row. In back-to-back weeks the Bucs were held to 58 and 100 yards, respectively, by the Giants and the Redskins.
The Vikings have had no such worries with Favre, who has made a mockery of the purported importance of training camp. He didn't join the team until after it had left its summer digs in Mankato, Minn., yet he is on pace to throw for 32 touchdowns (his career best was 35 in 1997), and his two interceptions are the fewest he's thrown over the first six games of a season. His passer rating of 109.5 is nearly 24 points higher than his lifetime mark. "He seems to get younger and younger every day," says defensive tackle Kevin Williams, "and he's playing better and better every week."
There was no better fit for Favre than the Vikings in 2009. He joined a team that won its division the previous year, had all its key players returning, boasted a topflight defense and had a star running back, Adrian Peterson, who could make the quarterback's job easier. Peterson's presence creates more passing lanes for Favre because opponents must commit a safety closer to the line of scrimmage to protect against the run. On Sunday, however, the Ravens couldn't stop Favre or Peterson, who carried 22 times for 143 yards, the best rushing day for a back against Baltimore since December 2005.
There is one lingering question about Favre, of course: Can his body hold up for an entire season, especially after the way it gave out over the second half of last season in New York. His workload in Minnesota has been substantial. Favre ranks 10th in the league in attempts with 178 and has been sacked 14 times, more than all but six passers.
The record of older quarterbacks in the league also sends up a cautionary flag. Only 12 passers in the Super Bowl era have started an NFL game after turning 40, and not one has taken a team to the playoffs as the full-time starter. Hall of Famer Warren Moon, who turned 41 in November 1997, started 14 games and averaged 36 attempts that season for the Seahawks. (Favre is averaging just under 30 a game in '09.) Moon threw six touchdowns in his first six starts and 19 in his final eight, including four in the season finale.
To limit wear and tear as he aged, Moon wouldn't throw on Monday, Tuesday and Saturday; in practice he took only the reps he needed to be sharp. The Vikings are monitoring Favre's pitch count, though not as strictly as Moon watched his. "He does throw on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday—and Sunday," Childress says of Favre. "Does he throw as many as he used to? No. But he likes to get looks in practice. He has certain plays he wants to see with his receivers. He's a grinder."
Moon says he also took better care of his body in his 40s, seeing a chiropractor as well as a massage therapist twice weekly and an acupuncturist occasionally. Favre? "He hates all that massage stuff," says a Jets assistant who worked with him last season. "He's just tough as nails, a physical freak."
As Favre changed in the locker room after Sunday's win, wide receivers coach George Stewart stood nearby talking to Vikings owner and chairman Zygi Wilf. The two marveled at the positive impact the veteran quarterback has had on Minnesota's receivers, particularly Rice.
A 2007 second-round pick out of South Carolina, Rice had 31 receptions as a rookie but only 15 last season, when he was slowed by a knee injury. This year, healthy again, he leads the team in catches (23) and receiving yards (409). A big reason for the turnaround, he says, is the constant support he gets from Favre. "He has confidence in me," Rice says, "which has raised my confidence level and put me back on pace to do the things I know I'm capable of doing."
According to Rice, Favre likes to look for him in one-on-one situations, because at 6'4" and 202 pounds Rice is a physical mismatch for most corners. On the 58-yard play against the Ravens, for instance, Favre's first option was meant to be tight end Visanthe Shiancoe on a crossing route; Rice was supposed to run a short comeback, but when Minnesota lined up, he saw single coverage from the 5'11" Walker. Favre saw it too, and when Rice switched up and went long, the quarterback read the receiver perfectly.