Favre airs it out, fires back at critics

DENVER -- Brett Favre, the 38-year-old gunslinger, stepped into this Wild West setting he has been in so many times.

Thunder, the Broncos' mascot horse, made his cameo following Jason Elam's game-tying field goal that sent Monday night's game against the Packers to overtime. The Packers won the overtime coin toss, and Packers coach Mike McCarthy loaded a final bullet for Favre to open the extra session: "Zebra Double Go."

Tight end Donald Lee was the zebra down the middle of the field. Greg Jennings and James Jones were ordered to run as far as the old man could throw.

And throw he did. Favre tossed an 82-yard touchdown pass to Jennings that warned the NFL not to retire a gunslinger when he still has bullets left. Favre beat a young gun, Broncos QB Jay Cutler, in a 19-13 Packers win that Favre described as one of the top thrills in his NFL career. The Packers are 6-1, and Favre still has it.

"That one ranks up there near the top,'' Favre said.

Just recently, a writer covering the Packers pointed out that Favre might be firing blanks. Favre underthrew four long passes in Week 6 against the Redskins. In the first six games, Favre had thrown only 20 passes longer than 20 yards. He completed only six. The quarterback known for having the best long-range rifle in the game was struggling in the pistol range.

Favre took the story as a challenge, but he doesn't call the plays. McCarthy does. But the coach and the quarterback are more than just employer and employee. They are friends, a bond formed when McCarthy was Favre's quarterback coach. McCarthy's hire as head coach was incentive enough for Favre to continue playing the past two years.

On the Packers' fourth play of the game, McCarthy called "Zebra Double Go," and Favre hit Jones for a 79-yard touchdown pass to tie the score at 7 in the first quarter. Jones was covered by Champ Bailey, the best cornerback in the game. Jones caught the ball down the right sideline and traversed the field before reaching the end zone.

"Against the Redskins, I underthrew it and took ownership of that," Favre said. "I knew it didn't have anything to do with my arm strength. It was just one of those days."

Monday was one of those nights. Broncos coach Mike Shanahan felt he had secured perhaps the league's best 1-2 cornerback tandem when he traded for Dre' Bly to pair up with Bailey. Unfortunately, Shanahan junked his entire run defense and now the Broncos can't stop any running back, not even Ryan Grant, who had 104 yards rushing on 22 carries. He was the Packers' first 100-yard runner of the season.

With the security of having Bly and Bailey at the corners, Shanahan designed a defense that should have insulated itself against big plays. On plays in which the Broncos had two safeties, they lined up 20 yards from the line of scrimmage. In the Cover 1 formation (one safety lined up), the deep safety was 25 yards deep.

In other words, the Broncos had their bulletproof vest just in case Favre tried to shoot them deep. They were determined not to give up the deep pass play, but they still ended up getting burned twice.

"We really had two big go-routes in this game," McCarthy said. "We knew that their corners are outstanding, and it was big for us to go out there on top with Champ and Dre'.''

Favre's young teammates joke with him about the criticism he's been taking. Because the Packers are worst running team in the league, opposing defenses have the luxury to play their safeties deep instead of near the line of scrimmage. Hitting the 79-yarder with Jones after having only six long completions all season was huge.

"It means a lot," Jennings said of Favre hitting long passes. "He's like, 'I don't know if I have anything left in the tank. I'm running out.' We see it every day in practice. We're like, 'What is he talking about?' He still has the arm. He overthrows us a lot in practice. This guy is like 70 years old, and he's overthrowing us."

In the postgame news conference, someone joked that it was the Mile-high atmosphere. No, this was Favre magic, the magic that will take him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

With the Packers clinging to a 13-10 lead, Cutler drove the Broncos 89 yards and had barely enough time to get Elam on the field for a 21-yard field goal before time expired. Out came Thunder. Now, it was Favre's turn.

The Broncos' defense helped. Defensive coordinator Jim Bates called for a three-deep zone, but Bly came up in press coverage at the line of scrimmage to throw Jennings off his route. Jones had the deep go-route on the right side.

Before going on to the field, Favre tried to settle his young squad to make sure they were on the same page for this gamble.

"I was nervous as heck," Favre said. "I haven't had too many overtime games."

Favre was nervous because he knew if he didn't make that play or move the football, the Broncos had the momentum. The Packers opened at the 18-yard line, and Favre was ready to throw the ball to Lee, his tight end, if the Broncos were in Cover 2. He was also ready to be conservative and call for a run. But he didn't do either. Instead of playing it safe, Favre took a shot.

The ball traveled 54 yards in the air. Jennings made the catch and never looked back.

"When I saw the bump-and-run, I just beat [Bly] off the line and stayed vertical," Jennings said. "Once I got his hands off me, initially, I looked up at the ball and thought, 'I'm not going to get that ball.' I kept running, and the ball just landed in my hands. After that, it was just history."

For those wondering about Favre, the gunslinger is still packing.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.