A day before the game the jesters in Green Bay buried Brett Favre in absentia for the crime of desertion. On Sunday the living and unrepentant Brett Favre arrived at Lambeau Field.
He entered to an avalanche of boos and hostile laundry; but he came without apparent anger — and with friends named Percy Harvin, Jared Allen, Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings offensive line.
He also came with a reputation for embracing the pressures of the Big Moment. It is the hallmark he cherishes most. No one in big-time professional sports does it with more relish. When it was over Sunday Favre had thrown four touchdown passes and, with their 38-26 victory, thrust the Vikings into an all-but impregnable lead in the National Football Conference’s North with a 7-1 record. It means a probable home field advantage in the winter playoffs. And it seemed to make almost inevitable a showdown between the Vikings and the undefeated New Orleans Saints somewhere in the playoffs leading to the Super Bowl.
Nothing in Favre’s post-game debriefing Sunday suggested any vindictiveness toward a Packer management that he blamed for his departure from Green Bay two years ago. Favre understands theater too well for that. Watching Brett Favre walk into Lambeau wearing Viking horns and piling new records into his biography was enough pain for the Packer brain trust — without Favre gloating publicly, which he is careful to avoid.
It was, in fact, hard for the 40-year-old gladiator to avoid choking up afterwards when he talked about his unending fondness for the Packer fans, and how hard it was to hear their boisterous jeering when he took the field. One of Favre’s more endearing qualities is his frank emotionalism, probably the world’s only football player who could cry at garage sales.
“I’m not here to throw daggers,” he said. “They’re Packer fans, not Favre fans. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated their support when I played here. This had nothing to do with trying to prove myself. I hope everybody watching in the stadium said, ‘I sure hate those jokers on the other side, but he [Favre] does play the way he’s always played.'”
Frozen in indecision
There were moments in the first half Sunday when the Packer fans couldn’t find many excuses for supporting the penalty-stricken Packers, either. The Viking pass rush, triggered by Jared Allen, harassed Aaron Rodgers, the young Packer quarterback who succeeded Favre, and did it tirelessly until the dicey late stages. For part of the game Rodgers seemed frozen in indecision. He experienced a variety of miseries, including six sacks, three of them by Allen, and a sustained pressure that forced him into harmless throws.
The Vikings led 17-3 at halftime and the game looked pretty much settled before Rodgers gathered himself, injected new urgency into the Packer offense, and suddenly it was suspenseful football the rest of the way. It wasn’t always very scenic, the usual effects of the scrimmage line hostility that attracts the caveman in these teams when they’re playing for big stakes. There was the Packers’ Johnny Jolly costing his team by delivering a butt to the head of the Vikings’ Chester Taylor in full view of 71,000 people — plus the officials.
Yet suddenly in the late stages Favre found himself locked in a duel with the re-energized young Rodgers. The Packers’ Donald Driver and Greg Jennings matched the Vikings Sidney Rice, Harvin and Bernard Berrian catch for catch until the Packers had carved the Viking lead 24-6 to 24-20 heading into the fourth quarter.
New voltage flowed through the crowd but the problem with scoring against the Vikings is what happens next. You have to kick off to the first round rookie, Percy Harvin. If you do the manly thing and kick it deep, you can’t keep the ball away from him. This is not necessarily suicidal, but in Green Bay Sunday it did qualify as being spectacularly dumb.
Harvin brings back kickoffs like a man fleeing a subpoena. He is a reckless runner and combative receiver and clearly a star in his first year of pro football. Earlier in the game, surrounded by three Packer defenders, he out-jumped them all, left the colliding wreckage behind him and completed a 51-yard touchdown play. His modus operandi running back kickoffs Sunday was his usual: compass set straight for the middle of the field instead of the sanctuary of the sidelines. He will find a gap in the oncoming wall of tacklers if there is one, and his speed and sudden shifts in direction usually will get him through for a breakaway.
With the Vikings lead down to four points, Harvin brought back a kickoff 44 yards, not in the same class as his 77-yard return earlier in the game but enough to open the door to Favre and a first down pass to, of course, Percy Harvin. Favre then threw his third touchdown pass, to Jeff Dugan, to reinstate a 31-20 Viking lead in the fourth quarter. Rodgers matched that with a touchdown pass to Greg Jennings but a two-point conversion to cut the Viking lead to a field goal failed, and Favre ended the suspense with a 16-yard scoring pass to Berrian.
A grave-looking Childress
On the sidelines, the Vikings Brad Childress, looking ceaselessly grave behind his beard fuzz, managed the game with the ultimate satisfaction of seeing the big payoff of his late summer pursuit of Favre. That was a time when everybody involved in the Favre sideshow, Childress, Favre and the competing media stars, were getting horselaughs from the public. Favre rolled with them. Sunday he delivered an unmistakable rebuttal — again.
The strategy of the day in Green Bay? “We talked before the game,” Childress said, “about him [Favre] not trying to do too much.” He didn’t. Four touchdown passes sounded about right.
But for days in advance, it was the fans who were in the show window of the Return to Lambeau story, and at the end they deserved courtesy of being heard.
In the Twin Cities, Jeffrey Basinski, a professional high-tech installer and repairman, anguished for days with conflicting pulls. “I was born five blocks from Lambeau,” he said. “I loved Favre and the Packers, hated the Vikings. Now it was Favre against the Packers. I was still mixed up when the game started. But when I heard the boos, I decided I was a Favre guy first. I wanted him to do well and win. Now I can go back to being a Packer guy.” He’s not sure, though, about submitting his case to the Packer forgiveness jury.
The Packers Forever fan, Dave Crowley of Shakopee, sat in devastation. He has been bitter since August about what he calls Favre’s betrayal. Sunday he allowed him this: “Favre played well in both of the Viking-Packer games. You have to give him credit. But I’m not going to change my mind about him manipulating his way to the Vikings.”
Crowley’s pal, Roger Thompson of Rosemount, a Viking fan, wore his Favre purple to the game. “The Packer fans were nice enough and said nothing to us that was mean-spirited. There was (of course) a drunken Packer rube next to us.”
Naturally. But there was one minor consolation for Packer fans in the aftermath.
The Vikings, who now coast in the bye weekend and play the still- miserable Detroit Lions two weeks from, have defeated the Packers convincingly in Minnesota and again in Green Bay. By any reasonable estimate, they have a better offensive line, defensive line, better receivers, a better pass rush, better linebackers, better runners and a quarterback who belongs to the ages. Yet the Packers did make it a battle.
When you think about it, what were the Packers doing just four points away in the fourth quarter? It may be something for chronically deprived Viking fans to mull for the next two weeks. Then there’s this wry observation from Viking fan Roger Thompson: “Chili [Childress] seems to be improving a little each week.”