Bears put Favre out of their misery
Chicago claims NFC North title at expense of its longtime tormentor
MINNEAPOLIS -- They didn't want the rookie, Joe Webb. If a division title was going to be claimed here Monday night, they didn't want to take it off a backup or an understudy. They wanted the Gunslinger, Brett Favre, one more time, especially if this was to be his last rodeo.
"Somebody texted me early in the day and said Brett was upgraded to 'questionable'" Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher recounted later. "I knew right then that dude was playing. You want to play the best. I knew he'd be out there slinging it. Half his arm was purple. I don't think it was from the cold."
There was a certain honor among combatants they shared. "You almost feel like if No. 4 isn't out there," Lance Briggs said, "then you're not competing against the best. I was a fan of Brett Favre, then an opponent. I watched him as a kid on my couch. My first career interception was against Brett. I wish him the most respectful farewell."
Yes, that was very likely it, Favre's curtain call. Five completions in seven attempts, one interception, and one sack that sent him woozy to the sideline in the second quarter of Chicago's 40-14 victory in frigid Minnesota. It felt like goodbye, though it surely isn't the first time those of us chronicling his career have made that observation. Oh, he might drag this out in his Shakespearean way right through the spring and into the summer, forcing the satellite news trucks to make another pilgrimage to Mississippi. But the feeling backstage Monday was that this was a wrap. There was no miracle season, no trip to the playoffs for Favre and his Vikes.
The Bears (10-4) were the ones celebrating, the first team to clinch a division title in 2010, back in the playoffs for the first time since losing the Super Bowl following the 2006 season. It felt a little like 2006, too, the way the Bears won with defense, with running the ball (Matt Forte carried 17 times for 92 yards), and most of all with Devin Hester turning the opponent into basket cases with another record-setting performance.
Of course, this is what football in the Midwest was meant to be, not indoors under a tennis bubble but outdoors in the snow and wind and, yes, on a frozen field. And, if possible, the game should include Favre, even if it's for only a little while. If Favre was going to play one more game in his career, it was OK for this to be the last one, against the Bears, on "Monday Night Football," on frozen tundra. He'd already played 35 games against the Bears, more than he'd played against any other opponent, and it just made sense for him to finish with an even three dozen. Cue the music, roll the credits.
It was even fitting that Favre would leave the battle wounded, KO'd in what ought to be his finale. When Chicago's Corey Wootton -- another son of the Midwest, a rookie from Northwestern -- slammed Favre to the ground four minutes into the second quarter for his first career sack, that was it, definitely for the night and probably forever. Favre's head bounced off the turf and the night air was pierced with a shriek.
A big story all week long was the turf, whether it was adequately thawed and suitable for play. The Vikings' own punter fretted openly on Twitter that something catastrophic could happen. Commissioner Roger Goodell, about 90 minutes before the game, might as well have thumbed his nose at Chris Kluwe when he told a pack of reporters, "From what I understand, the field is going to be in great shape tonight."
This wasn't the first time Favre had his head bounced off a wintry field, but it was the first time anybody could remember him walking off for the night -- especially a Monday night -- because of a "head injury," which is certainly a more ominous designation now than at any previous point in his career.
Favre, for those keeping score of such things, finished his career 23-13 against the Bears, counting this loss, but strangely is only 3-9 against Lovie Smith, which presumably speaks more to Favre's relative ineffectiveness as he grew older than to any particular difficulty with Lovie's Cover-2 defense.
Undoubtedly, the postmortem on Favre will last awhile, really until the 2011 season begins and he's at home, not headed to Miami or Washington or someplace where they're desperate for a legend to play quarterback. To those of us who follow the Bears, Packers, Vikings and Lions (no matter how inglorious they were as a group in some years), Favre will always wear green and gold. In fact, few things have been as exciting in 30 years of covering sports as seeing Favre, in his prime, play quarterback at Lambeau. It was like seeing Jordan in the old Chicago Stadium; or Larry Bird in Boston Garden; or, presumably, Joe DiMaggio in Yankee Stadium. Favre's a Cheesehead, not a Jet or a Viking.
That's certainly how the Bears' defenders will remember him, the dragon who tormented them for the better part of two decades. It must represent some sort of closure for the Monsters, to put Favre not out of his misery but theirs. A division title -- it'll always be the NFC Central to some of us -- and a little piece of Favre's hide on their wall make for a pretty good night for the Bears. Whether they'll accomplish anything bigger than winning a division title this season depends largely on Jay Cutler's penchant for making the killer mistake, the momentum-sucking, morale-draining, unnecessary and often unforced error. What we've come to know these past six games is that Cutler absolutely can resist throwing the forced interception. He can restrain himself and throw it to only his guys. As his coach, Smith, said afterward, "Whenever we're plus-1 in turnover ratio, we win."
The defense and special teams are indeed championship-caliber once again. Urlacher, Briggs, Julius Peppers, Tommie Harris and Charles Tillman all know their way to the Super Bowl. Hester is right there with DeSean Jackson as the best game-breaker in football. With his punt return for a touchdown against the Vikings, Hester has now surpassed in 74 games what it took should-be-Hall of Famer Brian Mitchell 223 games over 13 years to do. Hester now owns the NFL record for kick-return touchdowns (14). He could have -- and probably should have -- had three returns for touchdowns in this game alone. His 108-yard return of a missed field goal and the 92-yard kick return that opened Super Bowl XLI don't even count toward the record. And Hester doesn't have to behave like an annoying child in the process. He takes the ball into the end zone at full speed, like a grown, responsible, football-playing man. When someone asked after the game about his linemen, Hester choked up. He couldn't hold back tears. You think DeSean Jackson has any idea that a man can have that level of humility?
More From Wilbon
Michael Wilbon made his debut on ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com last week. Here are more offerings from Wilbon:
• Fitting path to division title for Bears
• Yao Ming's impact must be appreciated
• Chat wrap: Ready for a snowy Monday night
• It's tough not to love these Bulls
• Pardon the Introduction: Wilbon's debut
But if there were others shedding tears in the Chicago locker room Monday, they were tears of relief. When the season began, Smith was on the hot seat. He wouldn't survive a fourth straight season out of the playoffs. When the Bears went winless in the preseason, it seemed like doom would arrive before a division title. Talking about missing the playoffs for three straight seasons, Lovie said, "You assume you'll get back there, and it doesn't work like that."
What they want now is the second seed in the NFC, behind Atlanta. That would assure a bye in the first round and a home game in the second round. But that means winning at least one of two remaining games: against the Jets at home or the Packers in Lambeau. And Lambeau brings the evening full circle, to a final mention of Favre.
Peppers was one of the Bears defenders who found Favre after the game, to shake his hand and wish him well, and more actually. "I was happy Brett suited up," Peppers said. "I figured it might be the last time I got to see him across the field from me on the opposing sideline. Yeah, I talked to him after the game. I told him it was an honor to play against him. He said, 'Likewise. Go beat the Packers in a couple of weeks.'"
Wouldn't the Chicago Bears love to honor that last wish?
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.