Toronto, Canada – By Simon Evans
MIAMI (Reuters) - Brett Favre was the butt of a thousand jokes before the start of this NFL season, but no one is laughing now.
The 40-year-old is one win away from becoming the oldest starting quarterback in a Super Bowl after a season with the Minnesota Vikings in which he defied all expectations.
Favre's regular season statistics -- 33 touchdowns, 4,202 passing yards and a career-low seven interceptions -- were way beyond what even the most generous observers had expected for the quarterback after the miserable end to the prior campaign.
Graying and bearded, suffering from a shoulder injury, Favre struggled through the final games for the New York Jets as they failed to make the postseason.
As he left the field after the final game defeat to the Miami Dolphins there was the near universal anticipation of a final, definitive retirement for a player who has found it so difficult to leave the game.
Favre announced his farewell to the Jets and NFL but within weeks there were rumours Minnesota had offered him a route back. At first Favre turned them down but after his arm came back to life following an operation, he decided to give it one more go.
For Green Bay Packers fans, who had cheered and adored him through 16 years as their quarterback, the move to divisional rivals Minnesota was too much to stomach.
For the rest of the NFL's extended family of pundits, critics and talk-show hosts, Favre was simply being foolish and refusing to retire gracefully.
But Favre proved them all wrong.
Outclassing the Packers in their two meetings, Favre rediscovered his finest form throughout the regular season and then saved his best for the playoffs -- a masterful four touchdown display as the Vikings sunk the Dallas Cowboys 34-3.
On Sunday Favre returns to the Louisiana Superdome, home to the New Orleans Saints team he supported as a kid and the scene of his only Super Bowl triumph at the end of the 1996 season when his Packers beat New England.
It is also a venue barely an hour down the road from the town of Kiln, Mississippi where he was raised.
Over the years though, Favre says the 'Big Easy', or more specifically its noisy stadium, has not been an easy place for him to return to.
"I've had some bad performances here. Our teams, when I was with the Packers, have had some bad performances here because we didn't handle the noise.
"I've been in environments that are pretty tough and I know Sunday what it will be like," he told reporters on Friday.
Favre's 19 seasons in the league have included several runs late into the postseason.
"I hope the little experience I have in these games -- which is more than most -- will help some.
"But, that's not to say I don't get nervous and stressed and all those things as well. I think, for me, as far as my leadership goes I try to keep not only myself but the other guys calm and relaxed.
"It's OK to be excited, but especially in an environment like we're going to face ... not only are you playing the Saints, but you're playing the fans, and all of those things work against you.
"Every play has to count, you have to focus extra. That's really, in a nutshell, what I'll address with the guys," he said.
"It's an amazing feeling to still be in this tournament. And, you know it's kind of crazy that the Vikings and the Jets are still alive in it.
"They've played outstanding. I'm not surprised by it. You know, if I was there, maybe we wouldn't be in it. I don't know.
"They've gotten to this point for a lot of reasons. I guess you could say is the biggest reason is that I'm not there, but I'm happy for those guys.
"I've got a lot of good friends there. I had a blast, but it would be kind of an interesting matchup," he said.
"I hope we're matched up against someone. I just know that."
(Reporting by Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Peter Rutherford. To query or comment on this story email email@example.com)