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Favre one step closer to desert

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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Standing in the middle of powdery Lambeau Field on Saturday evening, snow falling steadily on his sweat-covered jersey, Seattle Seahawks defensive end Patrick Kerney got a heartfelt hug he'll always remember.

Kerney, one of the league's top performers in 2007, had been powerless to prevent the latest and most picturesque episode of the Brett Favre Masterpiece Theatre, and now he was locked in an embrace with the man who had just ended his season in a memorable divisional playoff clash.

"Amazing," Kerney said a few seconds later as Favre trotted off toward the end zone tunnel and the delirious fans above it. "Just amazing. Who he is. And what he does."

What Favre did Saturday – leading the Green Bay Packers back from a lightning-quick 14-point deficit, playing with brilliance and effervescence in a 42-20 victory that vaulted the Pack to its first NFC championship game appearance in a decade – ranked right up there with the greatest accomplishments of his glorious 17-year career. In completing 18 of 23 passes for 173 yards and three touchdowns, Favre treated 72,168 fans and millions of toastier, TV-watching admirers a thrill that sent chills down even the most hardened of spines.

It was a scene right out of "It's a Wonderful Life," and one the 38-year-old quarterback always had anticipated but never had attained. "All these years I played here, and I've never had one of those snow games where it's really coming down and the field is covered," Favre said afterward. "I've been hoping for that for 17 years."

After arriving at the stadium four hours before kickoff, Favre put on his uniform pants and an undershirt and sat in a meeting room watching film of the Seahawks – and, every few minutes, checking The Weather Channel and some local Green Bay stations for updated forecasts. Every talking head stuck to the same story – if it was going to snow, it would be brief and light.

Those predictions turned out to be as inaccurate as the ones virtually everyone made about the Packers before the '07 season – the league's youngest team was expected, at best, to have a chance to sneak into the playoffs.

Oops. After Saturday they are 14-3, with only the winner of Sunday's game between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants standing between Favre and a third Super Bowl appearance. If he leads the Packers to victory next Sunday, Favre will be the sentimental favorite in Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Ariz., on Feb. 3.

As for this week, Favre thought to himself, Just give us one of those snow games as he watched the forecasts prior to kickoff. His motivation wasn't merely aesthetic. "There is no doubt in my mind the conditions were favorable to us," he said later, noting that the Packers have a more balanced attack than the run-challenged Seahawks.

Then the game began, and the script took an unexpected and seemingly perilous turn.

On Green Bay's first play from scrimmage, Favre threw a swing pass to halfback Ryan Grant, who was hit by Seattle linebacker Leroy Hill behind the line of scrimmage and fumbled. Pro Bowl middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu recovered for the Seahawks and ran the ball to the 1-yard line, and Shaun Alexander ran it in on the next play for a 7-0 lead.

On the Packers' next possession, Grant, who had one fumble in 218 regular-season touches, coughed it up a second time after a hit from Seattle safety Brian Russell. Cornerback Jordan Babineaux recovered at the Green Bay 49-yard line, and Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (Favre's former backup) engineered a six-play touchdown drive, finding Bobby Engram in the back of the end zone with just 4:01 gone from the first quarter.

It was so quiet, you could hear a snowflake fall.

As Grant sat on the sideline, worrying whether he irrevocably had blown his chance to shine in his first playoff game, Packers coach Mike McCarthy and his assistants discussed whether they should pull the young runner for a couple of series to let him collect himself, according to a Packers player.

Favre, who later would join Joe Montana as the only players to exceed 5,000 career postseason passing yards, sidled up to the shellshocked halfback and told him to shake it off. "It's not like I gave him some win-one-for-the-Gipper speech," Favre said.

What, exactly, did the great quarterback say to Grant: "Who gives a (expletive)? We're gonna keep handing it to you, so forget about it and keep running hard."

To say Grant listened would be a huge understatement. The first-year starter carried 27 times for 201 yards – the most ever by a Packers back in the team's long postseason history – and three touchdowns. It was one of the great bounce-backs in recent NFL memory.

"He didn't have any choice," Packers cornerback Charles Woodson said. "We were gonna kick his ass if he didn't."

With Favre throwing pinpoint passes and moving better in the pocket than any 38-year-old man should have a right to, the Pack got back into the game quickly. The first of Favre's two touchdown passes to wideout Greg Jennings, a crisp 15-yard sideline throw, closed the gap to 14-7 midway through the first quarter, and a 1-yard touchdown run by Grant tied it up six minutes later.

Another gorgeous Favre to Jennings TD gave the Packers the lead early in the second quarter, and the Seahawks responded by closing the gap to 21-17 on Josh Brown's 29-yard field goal. Favre drove the Packers down into scoring position again and, with a little more than a minute remaining in the half, provided one of those "Oh No He Didn't" moments.

On third-and-8 from the Seattle 14, Favre hurried to get his team properly aligned against the Seahawks' menacing front, moving tight end Donald Lee into the backfield as an extra blocker and shifting his protection scheme to the left. But when Favre took the snap and dropped back to his left, his receivers were covered, and he was wrapped up by defensive tackle Brandon Mebane.

Somehow, Favre broke free and took off to his right, but he lost his balance and struggled to keep from falling, managing a few steps forward as he stumbled.

"I was running left, the way I was supposed to go, and I saw him falling and took off to the right," Lee said. "The next thing I knew, the ball was coming."

Favre, just before hitting the turf, threw an underhand scoop pass that hit Lee in stride, and the tight end gained 11 yards for the first down. Grant ran it in from the 3 on the next play for a 28-17 lead, and Green Bay put it out of reach by scoring touchdowns on its first two possessions of the second half – a stretch of six consecutive TD drives after Grant's early miscues.

"I learned a lot from this game," Grant said. "I'm just glad Mike (McCarthy) stuck with me."

More than an hour after the game, Favre stood in a nearly deserted locker room and marveled at the young runner's resilience – and that of this team that no one, not even the quarterback himself, viewed as a viable Super Bowl contender going into '07.

"The way he bounced back, running for 200 yards, that's hard to do," Favre said. "Whooo-hooo. Obviously, he's tough mentally and physically. This game will be important for him down the road."

As Favre nears the end of the road, he hopes Saturday's stirring scene in the snow won't be his last winning snapshot.

One more big game, and a week in sunny Arizona awaits.