American Football: A fanfare for Favre. Super Bowl XXXII: Green Bay look to their inspirational quarterback to pack up Elway's Broncos

Nick Halling in San Diego meets the man aiming to make his hero suffer again
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IT BEARS the hallmark of a corny 1950s western shootout. This afternoon in San Diego the brash young hotshot Brett Favre leads his Green Bay Packers against the Denver Broncos, and their ageing gunslinger, John Elway. The loser will end up in the game's equivalent of Boot Hill while the winner will ride off into the sunset carrying the Super Bowl trophy.

It is a scenario that has been played out three times during Elway's 15-year career, and on each occasion he has ended up face down in the dust. In Super Bowl XXI, Elway's first, his Broncos were overpowered by the New York Giants 39-20. A year later, in the same stadium where he will face the Packers today, Elway led his team to an early 10-point lead only to see the Washington Redskins hit back with 42 unanswered points. Even worse was to follow two years later: their 55-10 humiliation to San Francisco the heaviest defeat in Super Bowl history.

Now, at the advanced age of 37, he has what may be one last chance to exorcise the ghosts of three unimpressive personal performances. "This is probably the best team I've been involved with," he said. "This is the best running game we've ever had coming into a Super Bowl, and that's really going to help us."

Elway boasts a string of record-setting statistics but faces the prospect of a reputation tarnished, however unfairly, by the charge that he is unable to win on the big occasion.

In contrast, his rival, Green Bay's Favre, is widely acknowledged as the most irresistible player in the game. In only his sixth season as a starter, the 28-year-old from the Hicksville town of Kiln, Mississippi, has been named as the league's Most Valuable Player for the last three seasons; a feat no one, not even the legendary Joe Montana, of the San Francisco 49ers, has accomplished.

And in sharp contrast to Elway, Favre was brilliant in his only Super Bowl appearance to date, defeating the New England Patriots last year.

Like all the great ones, Favre is cloaked in an aura of mastery. His powerful and accurate passing, bravery, commitment and unquestioned leadership qualities have matured and developed, and although he occasionally makes ridiculous mistakes through trying to do too much, he is unlikely to change an effective and successful style.

"That's just the way I am," he said. "I never give up, guys are tackling me and I'm always fighting. I'll throw it from anywhere and for the most part it's worked. Every once in a while, I do something that looks awful, but I'm not going to change."

Favre arrived in the chilly Wisconsin outpost of Green Bay in 1992 following a trade with the Atlanta Falcons, who placed their future in the hands of the now retired Chris Miller. His coach, Mike Holmgren, based his offensive thinking on the same lines as his mentor, Bill Walsh, the coach who led the 49ers to three Super Bowls in the 1980s. The so-called West Coast offense, featuring quick decision making, short-passing patterns and a mobile quarterback, was ideally suited to Favre's temperament and ability, and within three months he had risen from the position of backup to a place in the Pro Bowl, the annual end-of-season spectacle reserved for the best players in their respective positions.

"There's real strength of character there. You almost feel he will not let the team lose," said Holmgren, "and that situation always gives the coach a good feeling. He's the best player in football right now."

Few would argue with that assessment, but there is a darker side to this all-American hero. Three years ago, Favre was admitted to hospital after being diagnosed with an addiction to painkillers. The NFL, maintaining their strong stance against substance abuse, hinted at the possibility of a ban, but such talk came to nothing. With typical bluntness and energy Favre faced his problem, and appears to have conquered it.

His tendency to indulge in verbal sparring with opponents is a characteristic which does not appeal to his disciplinarian coach. During Green Bay's successful play-off campaign, Favre first taunted Tampa Bay's irascible defensive lineman Warren Sapp, then engaged in a finger wagging session with San Francisco's Kevin Greene a week later, while Holmgren fumed on the sidelines. "I never like to see that because I don't think it can do a quarterback any good," he said. "I would prefer that he not talk to anybody, but it's tough to tone him down on occasions."

It is difficult to imagine Elway losing his cool under any circumstances. Throughout his career, he has engineered 44 late game-winning drives, more than any other quarterback in the game. But for the veteran to weave his magic today, the Broncos must keep the Packers within their sights, a prospect that is unlikely with a man called Favre on the field. Another disappointment is looming for the old timer, and if it happens no one, not even the Packers, will feel good about the outcome.

"If I weren't playing, I would root for John Elway," said Favre. "I've patterned my style of play after him. He's won more games at quarterback and has more comeback wins than anyone. He has everything but a Super Bowl. I'll do all in my power to see he doesn't win, but if we lose, I'll sure be happy for him."

Case for offense and defense

Denver Broncos

Experience: Fifth trip to the Super Bowl in the franchise's history, but soundly beaten on all four previous occasions.

Coaching: Mike Shanahan owns one Super Bowl ring as assistant with San Francisco. This will be his first as head coach.

Strengths: Strong running game. Inspirational leader in John Elway. Fast and aggressive defense. Impressive play-off victories in Kansas City and Pittsburgh have worked wonders for team morale.

Weaknesses: Defensive front small. Corner-backs smart but old and may lack coverage speed. Over-reliant on running back Terrell Davies.

Key Player: Tight-end Shannon Sharpe. Effective pass catcher who can exploit any holes that may appear in Green Bay's defensive coverage. Must also block to help give Elway time.

Unsung Hero: Safety Steve Atwater. An intimidating hitter on defense and capable leader. One of the best in the game at his position.

Can They Win? Probably not, unless Davies has the game of his life. The Broncos have no glaring weaknesses, but they may simply lack enough tools to halt Favre and the Packers.

Green Bay Packers

Experience: Won their three previous Super Bowls. Yet to taste defeat. Defending the title they claimed last year against New England.

Coaching: Strong. Mike Holmgren owns three Super Bowls rings, one as Packers head coach, two as assistant with San Francisco.

Strengths: Solid running game. Devastating passing attack. Punishing defense. Outstanding pass rusher in Reggie White. Strong team ethic.

Weaknesses: Brett Favre's decision-making occasionally suspect. Tendency to take opponents lightly. Vulnerable to strong running game if defensive tackle Gilbert Brown is hurt.

Key player: Favre. Unrivalled ability to strike hard and often. Abundance of self-confidence; plays the game as if he cannot lose.

Unsung Hero: Full-back William Henderson, a punishing blocker who opens up opportunities for running back Dorsey Levens, also helping to protect Favre.

Can they lose? Unlikely, unless complacency sets in - they treated the Indianapolis Colts with disdain during the regular season and were humbled 41-38. Unlikely to repeat the mistake in a game of such magnitude.