Packers, Chargers at opposite ends of emotional spectrum
The Packers and Chargers are each in a state of disbelief, but that's about all they have in common after Sunday's stunner in Green Bay, writes Gene Wojciechowski.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Don't even pretend you thought the Green Bay Packers would be undefeated this deep into September. If Brett Favre didn't -- and he was still shaking his head about this latest win -- then you couldn't have envisioned it, either.
"Did I think we could be 3-0?" said Favre, who thankfully never had his honesty gland removed. "Probably not."
But here they are, unbeaten but no longer unnoticed. Favre isn't quite sure what to make of the streak, but "it sure beats the alternative."
The alternative is the San Diego Chargers, who somehow were beaten by Favre's Packers, 31-24. The Chargers are 1-2. Repeat, 1-2. You could fit into a knapsack the number of people who thought the preseason Super Bowl faves would be groping this hard for a win.
Somewhere in North Carolina, where he now spends his time playing golf, playing with his grandchildren and collecting those settlement checks from the Chargers, former coach Marty Schottenheimer must be giggling. Schottenheimer got canned partly because he couldn't win the big one. But at least he won the little and medium-sized ones.
So if you can explain what happened here, go ahead. I can't. Neither can LaDainian Tomlinson.
"I am actually at a loss for words right now," said the San Diego running back.
The Chargers got on their charter plane late Sunday with two fewer wins than a team with virtually no running game, a graying quarterback who turns 38 next month and a defense that watched San Diego QB Philip Rivers complete his first 15 passes. Problem is, Rivers also completed a pass to Packers linebacker Nick Barnett with just 1:12 left to play. Barnett returned it 38 yards to the San Diego 2. Two plays later, Green Bay had a 31-21 lead.
"I could overanalyze it, but I just missed," Rivers said.
He wasn't alone. The Chargers lost because they couldn't stop Favre, who threw for 369 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. The third TD, a 57-yarder to Greg Jennings that put the Packers ahead with 2:03 remaining, tied Favre with Dan Marino for career touchdowns (420).
Favre was so thrilled about tying Marino that he almost yawned.
"I'm going to be totally honest with you," he said. "I am so glad we won that I could care less about that record."
The Chargers also lost because the world's best running back has exactly zero 100-yard games this season and -- here's a scary stat -- fewer rushing touchdowns than Notre Dame (2 to 1). In perfect conditions on an afternoon when the game plan called for Tomlinson to get the ball early and often, LT finished with just 62 yards on 22 carries. He doesn't have a carry for longer than 11 yards this season.
"I don't know if there is a problem yet," said Tomlinson, who at least caught a touchdown pass Sunday. "I can't put my finger on one particular thing, but obviously there are some things going on. It just isn't happening right now."
Last week in the blowout loss to New England, the Patriots spread the Chargers out and threw until San Diego dropped. The Packers did the same, using an empty-backfield, four-receiver set over and over again.
But trailing by four with just 5:51 left to play, the Packers almost schemed themselves out of a victory. On fourth down, with the ball less than the length of a chin strap from the Chargers' goal line, Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy called one of the all-time, "Aren't-I-A-Genius?" kind of plays.
Instead of running a quarterback sneak with Favre (OK, it's no gimme with Chargers nose tackle Jamal Williams clogging up the middle), or handing it off to, say 232-pound DeShawn Wynn, McCarthy called for the ol' empty-backfield thing again. What, no pooch punt?
I am actually at a loss for words right now
"Frankly, I was trusting my call sheet," McCarthy said.
Memo to McCarthy: Quit doing that.
Asked later whether he could remember the last time he ran that formation that close to the goal line, Favre said simply, "No."
Favre dropped back and tried to needle a pass to tight end Bubba Franks. It fell incomplete. Meanwhile, just below the Lambeau press box, a Packers fan spoke for tens of thousands when he said, "What the f---?"
Favre said afterward that he thought that might have been the Packers' last real chance of winning the game. He didn't second-guess McCarthy, but he did mention everything that can go wrong with that formation (less time for his line to block, less space to work with and near-zero running options).
"I don't think they're too concerned about Brett Favre running," he said. "I'm not."
But the Packers' defense, burned repeatedly by Rivers throughout the game, forced San Diego to punt. When Favre took the field with 2:18 remaining, he looked around in the huddle and told his teammates, "When you get a chance, this is where you make a name for yourself."
Two plays later, Jennings made his.
Jennings ran a simple slant route, Favre placed the ball in the sweet spot, and Green Bay had a 24-21 lead. Then the Chargers got the ball back (Favre couldn't watch, so he buried his head in his hands), but Barnett ended the drive with an interception. Two plays later, Brandon Jackson scored from the 1 (see, the Packers can rush the ball on the goal line).
Sixty-four seconds, two touchdowns. Easy.
"It was one of those gut-it-out performances all the way around," Favre said. "I think people watching us will see that it wasn't a fluke. It's hard to luck into three straight wins like this. I think this team is pretty good, or can be pretty good."
Or you can think like Barnett. "I thought we could be 3-0. I think we could be 16-0."
The Chargers aren't as cocky. They'd settle for something more modest these days. Like .500.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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