The Green Bay Packers not only have several former San Francisco 49ers spread across their team, but they are starting to win like the 49ers, too.
From a feeble 2-5 start, they have mounted an unlikely playoff run in the NFC.
"At the beginning of the year, I'd have laughed if you'd have told me we'd be in this situation," said quarterback Brett Favre.
Going into Sunday's game at Houston, the Packers have won four in a row and five of six. At 7-6, they are challenging the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles for one of two remaining wild-card playoff spots in the NFC. With a little luck and a collapse by Minnesota, they could even contend for the NFC Central title when they visit the Vikings on Dec. 27.
It's a big jump from the 4-12 season the Packers endured a year ago under Lindy Infante.
This year, rookie head coach Mike Holmgren, who was offensive coordinator with the 49ers, surrounded himself with links to his San Francisco roots. He hired 49ers assistants Sherman Lewis and Ray Rhodes as his offensive and defensive coordinators. And he brought in a few 49ers rejects, as well. The biggest were split end Ron Lewis, claimed off waivers in November, and fullback Harry Sydney, waived in August.
Lewis has given the Packers another down-field threat to go with flanker Sterling Sharpe. Sydney has become the Tom Rathman of the Green Bay offense, catching 43 passes when he isn't throwing lead blocks for running backs Vince Workman, Darrell Thompson or Edgar Bennett.
At Holmgren's prodding, a once-dormant offense has thawed at Lambeau Field. With 88 catches, Sharpe needs to average six over his last three games to break Art Monk's single-season NFL record of 106. Tight end Jackie Harris is averaging 10.9 yards for 46 catches. The top receiving tandem in the NFL? Sharpe and Harris, with 1,760 yards.
Then there's Favre, the one-time party-guy with the Atlanta Falcons who has strung together 11 straight games of 200 passing yards or more since taking over for Don Majkowski early in the season.
The Packers rank ninth in NFL offense, are second to the Dallas Cowboys in time-of-possession, and second to the 49ers in third-down conversions. But Favre says the turnaround is not all due to Holmgren's 49ers system.
"A lot of it falls on the coach, but somebody has to execute it," he said. "I don't think just any one person could come in here and be successful at it. Mike has helped. His system's great, and it's helped a lot of quarterbacks. But then again, someone has to execute it. I'm not taking anything away from my talent."
If the AFC East is not the worst division in the NFL, it certainly is the least offensive, the Buffalo Bills notwithstanding. The division features three of the four lowest scoring teams in the NFL. Along with the woeful Seattle Seahawks (7.9 points per game) of the AFC West, the New England Patriots (12.5), Indianapolis Colts (13) and New York Jets (15.1) in the East are all under 200 points for the year. The ineptitude:
* The Patriots have gone 10 consecutive quarters without scoring. They gained a meager 94 yards of offense in a 6-0 loss to the Colts on Sunday, and 105 yards in a 34-0 loss to the Atlanta Falcons the week before. That was against the next-to-worst and the worst defenses in the league. This week, quarterback Scott Zolak, who has passed for 261 yards, 102, 58 and 55 in four games, faces Kansas City, which has the NFL's fourth-ranked defense.
* The Colts have been held to 10 points or less in six games -- yet won two of them. They have gone nine games and 345 passes without throwing a touchdown pass to a wide receiver. The last touchdown pass to a wide-out was on Oct. 4 to Jessie Hester.
* The Dolphins have scored two touchdowns in the last 14 quarters, none in the last six. And the frustration is building. Wide-out Mark Clayton had a locker-room outburst at halftime of Sunday's 27-3 loss to the 49ers, in which he threw his helmet and complained that he was being ignored in the offense.
* Even the once-potent Bills are not immune. Since scoring 28 points in the first quarter against Atlanta on Nov. 22, they have scored only 43 points in 11 quarters and dropped two straight games -- to the Colts and Jets. Quarterback Jim Kelly has plunged from the second-rated passer in the league to the 10th.
Showing his stripes
First-round draft pick Tommy Maddox might be John Elway's heir apparent in Denver, but the Broncos like what they've seen of 11th-round pick Shawn Moore of Virginia.
Maddox and Moore alternated snaps in a quarterback shuttle that produced everything except a victory over the Cowboys last Sunday. Maddox started every series and took 35 snaps that produced 210 yards. Moore had 24 snaps for 144 yards, including a 40-yard completion to Vance Johnson on a flea-flicker.
Maddox, a rookie, passed for 104 yards and three touchdowns -- after Moore moved the Broncos into scoring position. Maddox also threw three interceptions and lost a fumble. Moore, who led Virginia to its temporary No. 1 ranking in 1991, also passed for 104 yards. If Elway is forced to miss his fourth straight game Saturday at Buffalo, the Broncos are expected to keep the rotation.