As the saying goes, it's darkest just before dawn. Or something like that. Green Bay went into the bye week with a two-game losing streak for the first time since the pre-Holmgren era. An inexplicable home loss to KC in overtime, followed by the team's worst performance of the year in St. Louis were bad enough. Add Brett Favre's broken thumb to the mix, and the prospect of resuming play in Minnesota didn't sound inviting.
Green Bay turned its season – and its Metrodome mentality – around in one evening with a 30-27 win in an ESPN Sunday Night game.
Ahman Green gained 137 of the team's 261 rushing yards behind an impenetrable offensive line. Brett Favre threw three touchdowns, earning a 105.4 QB rating two weeks after breaking his thumb. Randy Moss got his big play – but only one. This time, when the Packers needed a big defensive stop, they got it. Mike McKenzie stopping Moss short on third down to end the Vikes' last gasp.
"It's one game. It's a big one, however," Coach Mike Sherman said afterwards. "This is the second half of the season. I told the guys what's happened has happened. Before this game we're 3-4. Things didn't always go our way. We didn't always let them go our way. We victimized ourselves many times. But I said let's just play the second half and play with the best effort, the best toughness, the best physicality we possibly could play and I thought they did a good job of that. I thought they were very physical today and they needed to be when they came over here."
4. THE DRIVE IN TAMPA BAY, Nov. 16, 2003.
Backs against the wall once again, Green Bay needed a big win in Tampa's Raymond James Stadium to right the ship after a horrible loss to Philly at home the previous week. Tampa was in a similar situation. The defending Super Bowl champs were in real danger of sitting out the playoffs.
Green Bay's defense held firm most of the way, then the offensive provided the dagger in the form of a 17-play, 98-plus yard drive that consumed 9 minutes and 42 seconds spanning the third and fourth quarters. This one may have just sucked the life out of the 2003 Bucs for good.
The fourth quarter march had a quiet beginning. The Packers stopped the desperate Bucs on their 45, and veteran punter Tom Tupa pinned the Pack inside the 5. A holding penalty on Darren Sharper pushed the Packers half the distance to the goal. On the first play from the 1 ½ yard line, Green was stuffed for a 1-yard loss. He regained some breathing room with a six-yard gain on the next play, but another penalty set the Packers up for disaster. Instead of throwing in the towel and giving the Bucs great field position, Favre found Robert Ferguson for a 23-yard gain. Ferguson repeated the feat with another catch on third and long. Another key to the drive success was Najeh Davenport's powerful five-yard plunge on fourth-and-one. (Yes, we know what you're thinking about fourth-and-1. But let's get back to this drive.)
Davenport added a spectacular 27-yard sprint, and Green capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown to put Green Bay up 20-13 with 9 minutes remaining in the game. Said Sherman: "Ninety-eight-and-a-half, actually. Yeah, that's about as long as they get. That was a heck of a drive. Our offensive line took control of the game. Our backs ran the ball very effectively during that drive. We had some key third-down conversions as well, which was huge in that drive, a fourth-down conversion. So there were numerous things in that drive to us getting in the end zone."
3. NATHAN POOLE BEATS MINNESOTA, Dec. 28, 2003.
An Arizona Cardinal ranking third on the Packers' best memories on 2003? Without a doubt, Poole will join the likes of Kitrick Taylor as great trivia answers in Packer history. He'll also go down in history as the only player from a team which had beaten the Packers to be invited by the mayor to watch the game from a luxury box and be given a key to the city.
Green Bay's emotional rollercoaster rode high on the strength of a winning streak, spiraled down to its lowest point with the tragic death of Irvin Favre, then climbed back up thanks to inspirational performances. Sadly, it looked like the ride was over, because although Green Bay ran the table in December and stood minutes away from demolishing Denver in the season finale, Minnesota was likewise on the brink of a division-sealing win over hapless Arizona.
Luck didn't seem to be on Green Bay's side. But Caridnals' coach Dave McGinnis, the Vikings defense and Poole definitely were. The Cardinals refused to throw in the towel although the win meant nothing to them except worse draft position. On fourth down from the 28 with time for just one play, Cardinal QB Josh McCown scrambled and found Poole on the far right side of the end zone. It would have been difficult for Poole to land in bounds, but an ill-advised shove from Minnesota defenders made that a moot point. A review – a long review – provided the answer to Packer fans' prayers. As the referee signaled touchdown in Phoenix, savvy fans with radios and televisions in the stands went crazy, alerting their team to their new-found fate. The celebration was improbable, impromptu and impossible to forget.
2. AL HARRIS' GAME-WINNING INTERCEPTION, Jan. 4, 2004.
How many times can the book be closed on the season, only to find another chapter of Packer history waiting on the next page? The Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers battled to a 27-27 tie in regulation in a wild-card round playoff game at Lambeau Field. The storyline was already exciting enough, with the events of the previous weeks leading up to the NFC North Champion Packers welcoming back their former coach Mike Holmgren with everything on the line. The plot thickened with practically every play. When former Green Bay backup Matt Hasselbeck announced upon winning the toss "We're going to take the ball and we're going to score," it seemed almost like a too-corny movie.
Unfortunately, for a few moments it looked like the cocky young QB – who had played the game of his life - was going to be right.
Although the Packers stopped Seattle on their first possession, Green Bay couldn't take advantage of the stop. The Pack went three-and-out on its first try. Given new life, Seattle started with great field position after a lousy punt. The Seahawks marched to midfield, but then faced third-and-11. Burned on third-and-long before, and not liking what they saw in Seattle's set, the Packers called a time out.
Did that give Seattle a chance to circle its wagons for the crucial play? A conversion would put them within another first down in field goal range.
Hasselbeck and company emerged from the huddle. Suddenly, the QB began to shout out instructions, apparently audibling out of the play called during the time out. He fired off-target toward Alex Bannister, but Bannister never had a chance. Packer cornerback Al Harris gambled and won. He jumped the route, effortless picked off the pass in stride and took it in 52 yards for one of the most exciting playoff wins in the Packers' long post-season history.
And the No. 1 most memorable moment from the 2003 season:
1. BRETT FAVRE VS. OAKLAND, Dec. 22, 2003.
Like "Pride of the Yankees" or "Brian's Song," even the coolest sports movies can contain moments that are seem created for a Hollywood tearjerker, not an actual sporting event.
Those movies have actors portraying heartwrenching moments in the lives of superstar athletes. In the most memorable event of the 2003 season, Brett Favre played the role himself.
When the news of Irvin Favre's death was announced Sunday evening, Dec. 21st, it seemed likely that Favre's streak of consecutive starts would end, understandably, in the saddest way. The death of his father would do what no broken bone could – keep Brett Favre out of the lineup.
The decision of the quarterback, along with his family, was to honor the memory of this father by honoring his commitment to his team. He would stay in California, where he was in the team hotel when he learned of his dad's death from teammate Doug Pederson, and play in the Packers' Monday Night game vs. Oakland.
Deciding to play was hard enough. Playing the game, in the Monday Night spotlight, was going to be another task altogether.
The stats tell most of the story:
Favre went 22-of-30 for 399 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating of 154.9 is a career best. He accomplished most of that in the first half, and played for a shade more than three quarters, as he came out of the blow-out game early and his wife joined him on the sidelines.
"As well as he did, you couldn't draw up a script better than what was drawn up today," Sherman said. "You hope when you leave the tunnel and you take the field that he's going to play that type of game, but the chances that happen, unless it's Brett Favre, are probably unlikely. This guy put together a career day, particularly in that first half."
Favre has recently taken a lot of heat in the media from declining to talk after the team's playoff loss to Philly. That happened less than a month after his incredible Monday Night performance. Have those critics forgotten that Favre graciously faced the cameras after what was probably the worst 24 hours of his life?
"I knew my dad would want me to play," Favre said on ABC immediately after the Oakland game. "I love him so much and I love this game. It meant a great deal to me, to my dad and to my family. I didn't expect this kind of performance, but I know he was watching tonight."
Next up: Players of the Year