The emotional storm the Packers weathered a week ago turned into an emotional tornado Sunday. Their own 31-3 win over the undermanned Denver Broncos at Lambeau Field was only part of the whirlwind.
The Packers, Broncos, Vikings and Cardinals all collided in the eye of the storm on the final afternoon of the regular season. When it was over, the Green Bay Packers were the NFC North Division champions with a playoff date with Seattle at Lambeau Field next Sunday.
Green Bay (10-6) needed help – and eventually a miracle – to get there.
"The odds were against us," said quarterback Brett Favre. "Everyone assumed Minnesota would beat the Cardinals. We were asking for help and in some ways we got it. In other ways we earned it."
They earned it with another record-setting day for Ahman Green with 218 rushing yards including a 98-yard touchdown run. They earned it with Favre putting together his second courageous performance in a span of seven days engulfed by the death and burial of his father. They earned it with two touchdowns in a span of 8 seconds.
But the biggest play of the afternoon happened more than 1,000 miles away. When Arizona wide receiver Nathan Poole pulled in the game-winning touchdown pass from Josh McCown on the final play of the Cardinals-Vikings game, the scoreboard-savvy Lambeau fans erupted. The thunderous cheer crowned the Packers champions before any announcement was made.
"With the emotions on the sideline, we didn't know whether to smile, cry, laugh or rejoice," Favre said.
Favre and Sherman both found out about the Packers' good fortune the same way – from the fans.
"Our crowd told us," coach Mike Sherman said. "They were clapping and cheering at inopportune times between plays, which they usually don't do."
Sherman was quick to credit his team, discounting the luck – both bad and unbelievably good – that came into play.
"We were in this position and were able to win this game and this division because we worked hard," Sherman said. "It was hard work and perseverance. Unless you have character in the locker room, men who ‘get it', men who will fight for it, who are willing to fix what's wrong and who won't point fingers, you can't do this."
Green Bay completed an undefeated December and turned in their highest-scoring final month in team history.
Favre completed all six of his pass attempts, each to a different receiver, on the team's first drive. He drove Green Bay 80 yards in 12 plays, capped by a 2-yard pass that skidded off a defender's hand right to tight end Bubba Franks with 8:49 remaining in the first quarter. The touchdown pass was Favre's league-best 32nd of the season.
With the playoff-bound Broncos resting seven starters including quarterback Jake Plummer and running back Clinton Portis, it looked like the rout would be on after the Packers' first score. But the Broncos buckled down and came up with big plays to stay in the game until late in the third quarter.
They pulled to within 10-3 early in the third quarter on a 31-yard Jason Elam field goal. The Packers answered with a 2-yard TD scamper by Green, who set it up with his own 47-yard run. With Green Bay up 17-3, the Broncos came right back with Adrian Madise's 83-yard kickoff return.
During he next few minutes the Packers showed all the heart and hunger for the playoffs that Sherman has touted during this December run.
First, the Packers turned away the Broncos at the goal line, stuffing running back Quentin Griffin on consecutive plays. Danny Kannell's fourth down pass fell incomplete, giving possession to the Packers at the 2-yard-line. Defensive end Grady Jackson, who started at nose tackle in place of the injured Gilbert Brown and just re-upped for two more years with his new team, had a big stop on the drive.
Next came more yards, more numbers, more records for Green - and more points for the Pack. On the first play of the drive, Green took Favre's handoff and broke through the right side of the line, through a hole blasted by Marco Rivera and he was gone.
"When we stopped them I said ‘great,' but now we're backed up," Favre said. "When I got in the huddle, I said ‘let's get out of here.'
"By the time I turned around from my fake, Ahman was crossing the 50," Favre said. "We got out of there."
Green scored on the longest run from scrimmage in team history, crossing the goal line with 13:18 remaining in the game. The TD was also the longest ever surrendered by the Broncos.
The celebration among the Lambeau crowd of 70,299 wasn't even over when the next one began. Madise muffed the ensuing kickoff inside the 10, and couldn't regain the handle before James Whitley stripped the ball and Marcus Wilkins recovered in the end zone for this first career TD and a 31-3 Packer lead.
"I thought that was as good a two plays in football as I've every seen," Sherman said.
The clock read 13:10. The time remaining marked not only the shortest span between touchdowns in recent memory, but also may have marked the time remaining in the Packers' season if the Arizona Cardinals didn't come up with two quick scores of their own.
After Wilkins' touchdown, Doug Pederson entered the game for Green Bay on the Packers' next offensive series. That closed the book on Favre's afternoon at 12-for-21l, 116 yards, a touchdown and an interception. His final regular season numbers stand at 308-of-471 with 32 TDs, 21 interceptions and career-high completion percentage of 65.4 – another team record.
Favre did not exhibit any rust from a short week of practice. He joined the team on Friday after his father Irv Favre's funeral on Wednesday.
Neither coach Sherman nor the quarterback himself was worried about Favre's ability to perform despite being away from the team. But both did talk about what Favre has been through this incredible week.
"People don't realize how much pressure he was under on Monday Night Football," Sherman said, referring to Favre's incredible performance one day after learning of his father's sudden death. "Today I told him to just go out there and have fun. I said ‘enjoy your team and enjoy your teammates." I think he did."
Reporters were considerately requested not to ask Favre questions about his father, and out of respect, no one directly did. However, a question about the up and down emotions of the two games sparked a quietly reflective response from Favre.
"As you can imagine, it's been a very difficult week," Favre said. "As difficult as it's been, it's comforting to be a part of this team. That's helped as much as anything. You don't forget home, but you have to go on.'
"People have talked about angels and someone watching over them. Two weeks ago, I wouldn't have believed it," Favre said. "We better start believing it, because something is going on here."