GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It seemed oddly natural watching Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, arms raised in victory following a 38-26 triumph over the Packers, step off Lambeau Field to cheers from folks who earlier booed him but now admired him for everything he has done, including vanquish their beloved team.
In less than a month.
And that is where things get sideways.
Instead of memories of Favre's greatness in 16 seasons on this field of greats, there will be flashbacks to this franchise, now inferior to Favre's Vikings ever since his departure, letting him go. With the state of these current Packers following this humbling loss, the tenor will change from it being OK for Favre to have been traded to the New York Jets last season because he held the Packers hostage over his playing status to, "Look where this team is now without him."
Since Favre was traded to New York two summers ago, Green Bay is 10-13. It has a 4-3 record now, but, as cornerback Charles Woodson said after Favre threw four touchdown passes against the Packers, this isn't a "big-game" team. It doesn't measure up when it matters, whether that's a result of Favre being gone or not.
"That's who we are right now. We can't win the big games," Woodson said. "When you get into a game where it potentially goes down to the wire and you're not able to put them out, that tells you exactly where you're at."
Where the Packers are at is in a tough spot. Five of their remaining nine games come against teams currently sporting winning records, including road contests against last year's Super Bowl participants, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals.
Green Bay isn't a bad team. It just isn't a good team. The Packers could very well be in the same situation if Favre was still with them. There isn't much speculation about that scenario in Green Bay's locker room. All week, no one bemoaned Favre's absence. The Packers support Aaron Rodgers as their quarterback.
Favre still has friends on the team, and he's widely respected -- players and coaches shook his hand and hugged him on the field as time wound off the clock in Sunday's game. But to some -- Rodgers among them -- the mention of Favre's name is like dragging fingernails down a chalk board.
"I hate losing to whoever's at quarterback for them," said Rodgers, who has been sacked 31 times -- 14 by the Vikings. "They're division rivals, and we don't like those losses at home."
The Packers are missing more than Favre, and what they're missing, the Vikings thoroughly possess. Minnesota plays "big boy" football. Its only loss this season came in a "big boy" game against the "big boy" Steelers in Pittsburgh. Green Bay's four wins have come against the St. Louis Rams, Cleveland Browns, Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions. Its only loss besides to the Vikings has been to the Cincinnati Bengals, another potential playoff team.
The Packers, picked by many to win the NFC North, now trail the Vikings not just by the two games in the loss column but in the head-to-head tiebreaker. Green Bay players now are talking about having to get into the playoffs in a roundabout way, if at all. This was a huge game for them, and for more than just the Favre hysteria. Green Bay is now in a tough spot. Minnesota is not.
Unlike the Packers, the Vikings have poise and the ability to dominate for long stretches because they have a physical defense, a strong offensive line, a solid running game and a charismatic quarterback who is making everyone better.
The Packers can dominate in spurts, like they did in the third quarter Sunday when they pulled within 24-20 after being down by 21, but then they buckle at the wrong time. With momentum fully in their favor, they let Percy Harvin return a kickoff 48 yards to give Minnesota possession at Green Bay's 38. The big return killed the Packers' energy (why did they kick it to Harvin anyway after he had a 77-yard return in the first quarter and he burned them nearly every time he touched the ball?), and it provided a short enough field for the Vikings to score a touchdown seven plays later and go ahead 31-20.
Minnesota also registered six sacks Sunday. Green Bay didn't touch Favre in two games. No sacks and little pressure equal enough time for him to scorch the Packers for seven touchdown passes. Who knows if Favre would be having the kind of season he's having now playing behind Green Bay's offensive line? The failure to upgrade up front to protect the young quarterback who replaced Favre is another concern being raised in these parts.
So is the inability to get to Favre.
"We haven't sacked Favre in two games," Packers defensive end Cullen Jenkins said. "We're the only team, I think, that didn't sack him. We feel like we're playing pretty strong up front in the run, but I don't know. I guess we're doing what we're asked to do."
When asked if he was referring to the switch to a 3-4 scheme and if it was handicapping players, Jenkins was more to the point.
"Definitely. It's no question about it," he said. "You got guys who are good at things, and now they're doing different things. We still got players who can make plays, regardless of the scheme, but there comes a time when you start wondering if you're giving people the best opportunity to do it."
This is where the Packers have gone since Favre's departure. Not that players didn't speak out about coaches or schemes when he was there or that there weren't problems and down times. It's just that since Favre has been gone, things haven't materialized for the Packers the way they believed they would. The Packers can still turn things around, but they must quickly find themselves.
Minnesota's decision to wait out Favre's retirement-unretirement game is paying off. With teams trying to stifle running back Adrian Peterson, Favre has made household names of wide receivers Sidney Rice and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe. Favre also has been blessed with Harvin, the rookie who caught the quarterback's first pass with the Vikings during the preseason and is building a frightening big-play chemistry.
This is why Favre's Sunday exit from Lambeau Field with his arms raised in victory seemed natural. The pieces are coming together instead of falling apart.
Was it emotional for him playing where he is revered yet still a hero? Yes.
"It was worse than I thought it was going to be based on how the week went, but it was better than the last game (against Green Bay, a 30-23 win at Minnesota)," Favre said. "It's always nicer to be here as a home team."
Favre still has feelings for Green Bay and its fans. One day, he'll be one of the names on the facade at Lambeau Field. Hard feelings will be forgotten, and Packers fans will be happy to see him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He'll be where he belongs.
Right now, that's with the Vikings.