Thumbs up: Favre OK, so Pack is, too; Pro Football

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Brett Favre's thumb is ailing, the Green Bay Packers get sick.

The Packers struggled to a 4-5 start when Favre was hampered by a sore thumb he first injured in an exhibition game.

The Packers, of course, have other problems. They miss former coach Mike Holmgren, and retired defensive lineman Reggie White, and Antonio Freeman (Poly) hasn't been the same receiver since he signed a $42 million contract.

But Favre's erratic play because of the thumb was the major reason the Packers got off to such a poor start.

That's why it's good news for Green Bay that his injury finally appears to be healing.

"I just felt like my old self, I really did," Favre said after leading the Packers to a 26-17 victory over the Detroit Lions last Sunday. "I've always been able to throw the ball down the field, but the past five or six weeks, I really didn't know where it was going."

He knew where it was going against the Lions.

"I had good zip on the ball, and it was right on the numbers for the most part," he said.

Dorsey Levens said the Packers knew Favre was back in practice last week when he fired a ball that hit defensive back Fred Vinson in the ribs. Levens said it almost broke Vinson's ribs.

The feisty Favre was back, too, when he several times made the now-banned throat slash taunt to Lions safety Robert Bailey.

Favre was penalized for it, but he was just retaliating because Bailey did it to him in the second week of the season when the Lions beat the Packers.

"I was doing what they did to me up in Detroit. What goes around comes around. I'm not that type of player but when you taunt, it comes back to haunt you," he said.

Favre, who completed 26 of 40 passes for 309 yards against the Lions, is fortunate the Packers are in the NFC. At 5-5, they're still in the playoff chase because only two teams are better than 6-4.

Favre has a good chance to lead the Packers to wins over the San Francisco 49ers tomorrow night and the Chicago Bears and Carolina Panthers the next two weeks.

That would give them some momentum at 8-5 going into a Monday night game against the Minnesota Vikings. You can bet ABC-TV executives are hoping Favre does that because this strange season has left them with few attractions the rest of the way.

They would rather not think about the ratings their season finale -- San Francisco at the Atlanta Falcons -- is going to draw.

Favre, though, is always an attraction. You can never count him out -- especially if he doesn't hurt his thumb again.

Gaudy records

In this season of shoddy play, the NFL is touting the fact that if all five teams with records of 8-2 or better win today, it will be only the seventh time in NFL history that five teams have boasted 9-2 records at the 11-game mark.

That doesn't mean there are five excellent teams. It means if a team is in the right division, it can post a gaudy record without beating a winning team.

St. Louis is 8-2 and has played two teams with winning records -- the Tennessee Titans and Detroit -- and lost them both. The Jacksonville Jaguars are 9-1 and have played one team with a winning record -- Tennessee -- and lost.

St. Louis won't play another team with a winning record the rest of the way, and Jacksonville has only one team with a winning record (the rematch with Tennessee) on its schedule, although it also has a rematch with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who could move back into the win column if they beat the Cincinnati Bengals today.

If nothing else, it means the playoffs are completely unpredictable right now. St. Louis and Jacksonville have the edge in the race for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs in the NFC and AFC, respectively.

But it wouldn't be shocking if they lose at home in the playoffs because they haven't been tested much during the regular season.

Replay woes

The league is still having problems getting instant replay right.

At Tennessee last Sunday, the officials confused No. 88 with No. 85 and gave the Titans a safety, ruling Kordell Stewart had thrown to an ineligible receiver from the end zone. When Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher asked for a replay, they told him it wasn't reviewable.

Jerry Seeman, the director of officials who was at the game, called Cowher on Monday to acknowledge that the call was wrong and that the play was reviewable.

In Washington, New York Giants coach Jim Fassel challenged a ruling that Sean Bennett didn't make a catch in the end zone. The referee went to the monitor, ruled that the play stood and then told the Giants the play wasn't reviewable because the official ruled Bennett had juggled the ball. The league agreed he didn't catch the ball but said the official shouldn't have ruled juggling because that's for an out-of-bounds play.

In Cincinnati last week, the Ravens got the Phil Luckett crew of "Coingate" fame last Thanksgiving. They appeared to miss an illegal block on a Cincinnati punt return for a touchdown, and didn't review a disputed incomplete pass to the Bengals' Tony McGee in the end zone with less than two minutes left.

Bengals coach Bruce Coslet argued that McGee had both feet down before Rod Woodson knocked the ball out of his hands.

"It was a touchdown," Coslet said after viewing the videotape.

Cincinnati president Mike Brown, a longtime foe of replay, remains against using it.

"I'm opposed to the system because it doesn't work the way people expect it to work. It's a distraction and doesn't make our game better," he said.

Since it only takes eight negative votes to kill replay at the league meetings in March, it may take some arm-twisting by league officials to bring it back next year.

Complaining again

Receiver Jerry Rice didn't complain early in the year about his diminished role in the 49ers' offense, but it was just a matter of time before he started griping the way he has much of his career.

The time came last Sunday, when he caught three passes for 23 yards and dropped two others.

He said he's out of rhythm because he's not more involved.

"The most important thing is that when I'm not involved, I get out of rhythm," he said.

Coach Steve Mariucci, noting all the problems the team has had since quarterback Steve Young got hurt, said, "We have a lot of things to improve in our passing game."

Holiday gifts

Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Warrick Dunn bought furnishings for three single mothers who bought homes in Baton Rouge, La., with the help of the city office of community development and Habitat for Humanity.

Dunn, who grew up as one of six children of a single mother in Baton Rouge, has been doing this for three years. His mother was a Baton Rouge police officer who was shot to death in 1993 while working an off-duty security job.

Dunn said his mother was never able to afford a house.

Quick facts

The Cleveland Browns, 0-5 at home this year, have won as many games at Three Rivers Stadium this year as the Steelers -- one.

Denver's Mike Shanahan, who's 9-1 against the Raiders as a head coach, was 8-12 as Raiders coach.

The Seattle Seahawks are 8-2 but rank only 19th in offensive yardage gained and 25th in defensive yardage allowed.

Forty of the first 100 games were decided by three points or fewer, but only nine of the past 60 have been decided by that margin.

Quotable

"I guess it depends on what you're looking for. I've gone to some fashion shows that I didn't think were too aesthetically pleasing, but my wife loved them. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

-- Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy on suggestions that his 6-4 team is winning ugly

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