FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Brett Favre(notes) lay motionless on the Gillette Stadium turf, blood spurting from his gray-stubbled chin, his head woozy, the feeling temporarily gone from his flushed face. For the Minnesota Vikings and their befuddled fans, it was a grisly and ghastly Halloween scene.
Was the 41-year-old quarterback down for the count? For that matter, were the struggling Vikings? As 68,756 Favre-unfriendly fans at Gillette and the 44 uniformed teammates awaited those answers Sunday evening, the legendary passer and his coaches – in an appropriate twist for everyone who has followed this team's tumultuous 2010 season – managed to get their signals crossed.
"I started to get up, but they were telling me [via a helmet earpiece] to stay down so [the officials would] blow the whistle," Favre said as he walked to the team bus following Minnesota's 28-18 defeat to the New England Patriots. "Then, when I got up, they said, 'Get back down.' I was like, 'Will you make up your mind?' "
Yo, Chilly – trick or treat?
To clarify, Favre was smiling as he recounted the conversation, rather than expressing genuine exasperation about his coaches' apparent effort to provoke a roughing-the-passer penalty on Patriots nose tackle Myron Pryor(notes), whose fourth-quarter helmet-to-chin shot on the quarterback went unflagged. (New England cornerback Jonathan Wilhite(notes), however, was called for illegal contact on the play, setting up first-and-goal at the 1-yard line.) After all, Favre had bigger problems as he left Gillette Sunday night: 10 stitches to close the laceration on his chin; the weight of a 2-5 record; and plenty of missed opportunities to ponder on the flight home, a recurring theme as he slogs through a 20th and possibly final NFL season that seems to be slipping away.
On a day when Favre confounded skeptics in his own organization by starting a record 292nd consecutive game despite being hobbled by a pair of small but debilitating fractures in his left foot – and was surprisingly mobile and effective against a well-equipped opponent – the legendary passer was unable to finish, thanks to Pryor's perfectly legal hit.
The Vikings' dreams of a fantastic finish, stoked when backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson(notes) came in to complete a touchdown pass and two-point conversion to cut New England's lead to three points with 7:26 remaining, were squashed by Tom Brady(notes) and the Patriots, who drove 80 yards in 13 plays to put away the game and improve their NFL-best record to 6-1.
Afterward the Vikes, who harbored Super Bowl aspirations after Favre nearly led them to the Ultimate Game last season, showed signs of frustration that may devolve into outright toxicity if a dramatic turnaround doesn't happen soon. And with good reason: There were enough missed tackles, blown blocks and questionable coaching calls to inflame any locker room.
"We constantly beat ourselves," tight end Visanthe Shiancoe(notes) said. "We were driving the ball up and down the field. They couldn't stop us. Our running game was there. But that's what happens when you turn over the ball and can't score in the red zone, so hats off to them.
"We have to learn how to finish. It's not brain surgery. It's not anything special. In the red zone, we need 7s, not 3s. We have to be more efficient, man – period. End of discussion. What it boils down to is we have to score more points."
Said defensive end Jared Allen(notes): "Two-and-five is a deep hole. Honestly, I'm at a loss for words. I don't even know what's going on. We're 'Team Almost' right now. We're almost really good, and we're finding a way to mess it up every time. Eighty percent of the time we're killing people, and the other 20 percent of the time we're shooting ourselves in the foot."
Or, in the case of one high-profile Vikings player, they're figuratively stabbing their head coach in the back. It was hard not to draw that conclusion after newly reacquired wideout Randy Moss'(notes) postgame "news conference" in which he announced to reporters that he would interview himself, then proceeded to deliver a monologue that had to make Childress cringe.
He talked about how much he missed his former teammates and Bill Belichick, who he called "the best coach in football history."
The wideout then suggested his efforts to provide his current coaches and teammates with inside information about the Pats' offense had been largely ignored, saying, "I tried to prepare, tried to talk to the coaches and players about how this game was going to be played – a couple tendencies here and a couple tendencies there. But the bad part about it, you have six days to prepare for a team and on the seventh day … I guess they come over to me and say, 'Dang Moss, you were right about a couple plays and a couple schemes that they were going to run.' It hurts as a player that you put a lot of hard work in all week and … when you get on the field, that is when they acknowledge all the hard work."
For his parting shot, Moss questioned Childress' decision to go for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 1 with 1:07 remaining in the first half in a 7-7 game. Halfback Adrian Peterson (25 carries, 92 yards) was stuffed by several Pats defenders as he tried to run behind the right side of the Minnesota line, losing two yards.
"I wish we could have had that three at the end of the half," Moss said. "Maybe it could have been different, maybe not."
If you're starting to get the feeling that this is a lost season for a franchise clearly governed by a championship-or-bust mentality in 2010 – and yes, some of us saw this coming – that's a distinct possibility. On a positive note, even with the Green Bay Packers' impressive 9-0 shutout of the New York Jets at the New Meadowlands Stadium on Sunday, Minnesota still has a plausible shot at making a run in the NFC North. The Vikes are only two games behind the division-leading Pack (5-3) and the struggling Chicago Bears (4-3) in the loss column, and the schedule softens up beginning with next Sunday's home game against the Arizona Cardinals.
Yet Favre, for all of his Drama Queen tendencies, is more of an unsentimental realist than most people realize, and he's well aware that a swift and significant reversal of fortune will be necessary to salvage the Vikings' prospects for postseason contention. Right now, their margin for error is thinner than what's left of Childress' hair.
Noting that the Vikes nearly pulled off an emotional comeback victory over the Packers at Lambeau Field last Sunday – Favre's apparent go-ahead touchdown pass to Percy Harvin(notes) was overturned by a replay review – the quarterback said, "Yeah, but last year, those things went our way. Greg Lewis(notes) stayed in-bounds when he made that catch [against the 49ers], and off we went. So yeah, we're a play or two from being in a better position, but the bottom line is, we're not. We're what we are, and we need to fight our way out of it."
Right now it appears Favre will remain as the triggerman for the prospective turnaround, though at this point nothing is sacred. That includes The Streak, which appeared to be in real jeopardy of ending in the days leading up to the game. Sources said Childress – with whom Favre has clashed repeatedly during his two seasons in Minnesota, and whose job was rumored to be on the line before a victory over the Cowboys two weeks ago – was fully prepared to start Jackson against the Patriots. The plan changed when Favre, who'd been on crutches earlier in the week, practiced Friday and looked surprisingly spry.
Said Favre: "I'm amazed. Monday and Tuesday, I couldn't even walk. But it got better."
Favre, likely with the aid of injected pain medication, moved around like a much younger, healthier man on Sunday, and moved the ball around with power and accuracy, completing 22 of 32 passes for 259 yards. His lone interception, which came in the third quarter, seemed to be in Percy Harvin's grasp before rookie cornerback Devin McCourty(notes) snatched it out of the second-year wideout's hands. McCourty's 37-yard return set up the first of two touchdown runs by BenJarvus Green-Ellis(notes) (17 carries, 112 yards) and hastened Minnesota's demise.
As he walked slowly to the team bus, a large bandage covering his stitched-up chin, Favre tried to inject some levity into a gloomy Halloween night.
"I feel like I'm hitting my stride," he said, "just as everyone is hitting me."
The hits will keep coming, and unless Favre and his teammates find a way to deliver some potent counter-punches, "stay down" will become a recurring theme.
THE HIGH FIVE …
• It's hard not to be impressed by the job second-year coach Raheem Morris has done with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who improved to 5-2 with a 38-35 road victory over the Cardinals on Sunday. Though none of the Bucs' triumphs has come against a team which currently has a winning record – and they were blown out by the Steelers and Saints at home – Morris' players have been remarkably cool under pressure, which is likely a sign of big things to come. After squandering a 17-point lead against the Cards, the Bucs registered their fourth fourth-quarter comeback of 2010, all heavily influenced by second-year quarterback Josh Freeman(notes). That prompted Morris to crack, "It's almost like he [lost the lead] on purpose. He is throwing games to get another fourth-quarter comeback." Freeman is also becoming the Bucs' best quarterback since Doug Williams, and he'll probably get a whole lot better.
• Lurking a half-game behind the Bucs and Falcons in the NFC South are the defending champion Saints, who followed up last week's stinker against the Browns with their most impressive victory since Super Bowl XLIV. New Orleans' 20-10 triumph over the Pittsburgh Steelers included some sharp passing by Drew Brees(notes) – a nice bounceback from his four-interception game against Cleveland – and a fantastic defensive effort that included a goal-line stand and two forced turnovers.
• Last year the big debate was whether Packers cornerback Charles Woodson(notes) (the ultimate winner) or Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis(notes) (for whom coach Rex Ryan lobbied emphatically) should be voted the NFL's defensive player of the year. On Sunday, the two teams met in a game featuring the current No. 1 defender in the NFL: Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews(notes), who was his usual disruptive self in a shocking, 9-0 shutout of the Jets. While Ryan may want to back off his "best team in the league" talk, at least for a week or so, the Packers have a right to feel as though they've gotten their mojo back. "This was huge for our confidence," Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers(notes) wrote via text.
• To outsiders, the Chiefs' 13-10 victory over the winless Bills might have seemed like an underwhelming achievement, especially since it took an entire overtime period for AFC West-leading Kansas City (5-2) to prevail. Yet to Chiefs coach Todd Haley, the internal significance was enormous. "Big win for my guys!" Haley texted late Sunday night. "This is one of those wins that we will look back on when we are a good team and know this game was a huge step!" Though Haley forged a reputation as a passing-game guru during his time as the Cardinals' offensive coordinator, the Chiefs have a much different personality: They've run for 200 or more yards three games in a row.
• Meanwhile, Kansas City's visit to Oakland for a division showdown next weekend took on added significance as the Raiders (4-4) stormed to a 33-3 victory over the NFC West-leading Seahawks (4-3). That's right, 33-3 – in a game in which Seattle didn't get a first down until less than three minutes remained in the first half and was outgained by a 545-162 margin. After seven-plus years of unprecedented futility the Raiders, beginning with last week's 59-14 drubbing of the Broncos in Denver, seem to have morphed into a potent outfit. "They are [legit]," Seahawks safety Lawyer Milloy(notes) wrote Sunday night via text. "Big and fast on both sides [of the ball]." And if they can defeat the Chiefs, I'll be ready to declare them bona fide contenders to compete for their first playoff berth (and first season with fewer than 11 defeats) since they were AFC champions in 2002.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The jaw-dropping majesty of fall foliage for a Californian driving on a lush New England highway on a gorgeous late-October afternoon. (As to why I was taking backroads to Gillette, it's a long, convoluted tale involving a computer bag inadvertently left in a driveway as I piled into a taxicab after a youth-soccer-saturated Saturday, a long ride to San Francisco airport without many items necessary to make Morning Rush a reality, an "Oh [expletive]" moment upon my arrival at SFO, a pep talk near the gate from fellow redeye traveler Trent Dilfer(notes), a blessed screw-top mini-bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, a power nap at a hotel near Logan Airport, a morning trip to a South Boston Best Buy and a very helpful Patriots PR staff that left me a duplicate parking pass at a Foxborough hotel.)
2. Mike Singletary's rhetorical choices. First, after Singletary's 49ers defeated the Broncos 24-16 at London's Wembley Stadium to improve to 2-6, the victorious coach compared fill-in quarterback Troy Smith's(notes) improvisational skills to those of a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. "It's kind of like watching Brett Favre," Singletary said of Smith, who was making his first career start. Right, just as going to a Cage The Elephant concert is kind of like watching Led Zeppelin. I'd have let this go had I not been so dumbfounded by another Singletary quote on Friday, when he told reporters in England that, "I talked to the team this morning and one of the things that I told them, and that I will tell you, is this is our finest hour as a team, and as a staff. When things are going well, it's very easy to be a great coach, very easy to be a great player, but when things are not going the way you want them to go, it's tougher …" It was an interesting choice of words, given that 70 years ago British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously invoked the "finest hour" phrasing while preparing his country for battle with Hitler's Army in World War II. I'm guessing the Brits who bothered to notice Singletary's news conference probably didn't view his comments as an homage, just as a English soccer manager who busted out a "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" reference before his team's match on U.S. soil might inspire some double-takes. Anyway, it's not a huge deal, and I have to admit I'm kind of pumped up for the buildup to the Niners' next game, a Nov. 14 meeting with the Rams, when Singletary will likely compare trying to defend St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford(notes) with "curing polio."
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Despite the fact that Houston Texans owner Bob McNair has yet to reach the postseason, I tend to be very kind to him in my annual NFL owner rankings, because I think he generally runs his franchise in admirable fashion. This week, however, USA Today NFL writer extraordinaire Jarrett Bell uncovered behavior by McNair that is downright creepy. McNair told Bell that, in response to two of his players (Brian Cushing(notes) and Duane Brown(notes)) having been suspended for violating the NFL's policy against banned substances, he ordered general manager Rick Smith to conduct a search-and-seizure operation at the team's training facility, ostensibly to confiscate supplements which could trigger a positive test. "We've gone through the locker room and anything that wasn't manufactured by the two or three [companies] that are authorized are thrown out," McNair told Bell. "They can't have it in the locker room at all. Even though it might be something that's pretty innocuous, you just can't run that risk. You just don't know what's in some of these products."
I'd totally understand his reasoning – if I were living in a totalitarian state. Since I'm not, I'm wondering how McNair would feel if, the next time I cover the NFL owner meetings, I were to barge into his hotel room and rummage through his belongings. You know, to make sure my owner rankings aren't tainted in any way by substances the owners in question might abuse, or books they might cook. Chances are he'd regard this as an invasion of privacy and a violation of the law, and I'd be dealt with accordingly. I can't sue or arrest McNair for his behavior, but I can question his sanity. First of all, he employs entertainers – not pilots, nuclear-power-plant operators or CIA agents. Secondly, the franchise's subsequent (and understandable) attempts to downplay the scope of McNair's efforts – Smith told NBC's Peter King that players' lockers weren't searched are a tad unbelievable. If McNair's quote to Bell wasn't referring to the searching of lockers, what the heck was he talking about – rummaging through the players' lounge in search of stray pill bottles? I don't think so. I think McNair wanted lockers searched, and Smith may or may not have followed through on the request. I believe McNair's in-house search set a terrible precedent and that organizations in which players are treated like grown men tend to perform better over the long haul. And I'm positive that I'm going to give the owner a new nickname: Bob McNarc.
TEXT/TWITTER/EMAIL/ HANDWRITTEN NOTE OF THE WEEK
"i understand we are 2-5 but really? #27?"
– Text Wednesday morning from injured Chargers long-snapper and 32 Questions critic Dave Binn.
"We had David Crosby 4 rows behind us and Nolan Ryan 2 rows in front. We didn't know whether to ask for a fastball or a speedball."
– Text Wednesday night from KNBR-AM morning-show host (and Y! Sports contributor) Brian Murphy after watching his beloved Giants win Game 1 of the World Series at AT&T Park.
"Calling Your Bluff! Happy Halloween. SJ."
Note from Patriots vice president of media relations Stacey James, who left me the Moss Halloween costume for which I'd pined – complete with Pats 81 jersey, mask and Afro wig. What can I say? I write when I want to write.