GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It looked like a Super Bowl, smelled like a Super Bowl, and quacked like a Super Bowl.
At least this time there was a disclaimer.
Denver quarterback John Elway, limping with a tender left hamstring, didn't play in the rout. That fact supplied all the intrigue needed for this Week 15 encounter between conference kingpins.
His overwhelmed replacement, sixth-year backup Bill Musgrave,
generated a drive for a field goal in each half.
The question that hung heavy in the Wisconsin air afterward was this: Would Elway have made a difference?
The answers were varied.
"We can't control who they put out there," Green Bay strong safety LeRoy Butler said. "He may have made a difference. It may have been 41-27. He's good for two touchdowns."
Said defensive tackle Santana Dotson: "If we met them in the Super Bowl, and Elway was out there, it'd be a completely different game."
This was a game perhaps only Packers zealots could love. A crowd of 60,712 -- second largest in Lambeau history -- turned out in conditions that included a wind chill of 9 above zero, balmy by Green Bay standards. A mere 78 fans elected not to use their tickets.
What they missed was a second-half domination so complete, so methodical, that the Elway argument seemed pointless.
On defense, the Packers stuffed the run, eliminated the pass and smothered the NFL's No. 1 offense. Terrell Davis, the NFL's leading rusher, was held to 54 yards rushing. Musgrave, making his first NFL start, completed 12 of 21 passes for 101 yards, but was only 2-for-6 for 16 yards in the second half when the Broncos were reduced to running time off the clock.
On offense, quarterback Brett Favre bounced back from a sluggish start to throw for 280 yards and four touchdowns -- three of them to Baltimore's Antonio Freeman.
It was Freeman's 14-yard touchdown catch with 17 seconds left in the half that triggered the Packers' point-a-minute offense -- and the rout. Over the final 30: 17, Green Bay produced 35 points to break open a 6-3 lead.
Freeman finished with nine catches for 175 yards, including second-half touchdowns of 51 and 25 yards. In two games since returning from a broken arm, the former Poly and Virginia Tech star has 19 receptions for 331 yards, despite playing with a cast on his left forearm.
"It's really good to have him back," Favre said of his favorite target. "I think we all can see that it has enhanced our offense again even with a bum arm."
Favre was knocked woozy by Denver's Alfred Williams on the game's first play, a scramble and incompletion.
"He made some decisions [on the field] that were uncharacteristic," Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren said. "I'm going to cover for him and say he was foggy. He might say something different."
Favre, who has thrown for 35 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions this season, didn't disagree.
"Well, it sounds good," he said. "I did take a pretty good hit. Heck, I couldn't buckle my chin strap after that. But I don't want to say it's the reason we struggled in the first quarter."
The Packers can wrap up at least a first-round bye with a victory at Detroit on Sunday. They did not apologize for pounding an Elway-less team.
"We had a certain approach for this game," Holmgren said. "Theirs [Denver's] was different. They've clinched home-field early. We needed the game more than they did. Elway didn't play.
"[But] all those things will not detract from what we did. No one ever goes out on the field not wanting to win. That never happens."
Pub Date: 12/09/96