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Back on sound footing // Bennett has a hot hand

"Weather," Mike Holmgren said, "will not decide this NFC Championship Game." Green Bay's coach is a marvelous talent. Loaded with honesty. Not much of an ego. But it's obvious that he is trying a deep-freeze finesse job on the Carolina Panthers.

Today's kickoff temperature at Lambeau Field is forecast to be 5 to 10, creating wind-chill-misery factor nudging 20-below. Packers appear better fortified for football in a fridge. Weather will

dominate on the New Frozen Tundra.

Holmgren, a Californian wearing long johns, is counting on his strong, swift, shivering Green Bay behemoths suffering less than Deep South upstart Carolina, which has zero NFL subfreezing history.

"Our team is constructed for bad weather," Packers general manager Ron Wolf said. "We want playoffs in Green Bay and a goal is to have guys who can outlast and outplay an enemy in cold slop. Nobody on our roster more typifies that than Edgar Bennett."

How did they know? Bennett was a tailback at Florida State, a sun-kissed college football program. He grew up in Jacksonville, where tundras don't freeze. "It was the way Edgar runs," Wolf said. "We thought his sure-footed, stable style would fit on cold, treacherous grass or even in mud. It surely has."

Bennett, a career 3.4-yard-per-carry runner who is never mentioned in celeb company with Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith, is beloved in Green Bay for his ball-carrying grit, most notably when the season hits the more critical and colder Sundays.

"Edgar hates it when I say this," Packers quarterback Brett Favre said, "but he's the best bad-weather playerI've ever seen." Favre's own record is sensational on ugly thermometer days. He is 18-0 at Lambeau when the mercury has chilled to 35 degrees or below.

Bennett takes the compliment with a grin but also a turned-up nose. "I think I can be good regardless of the weather," the fifth-year Packer said. "But if it takes digging my cleats into grime and getting really dirty, it's a job I also feel capable of handling."

Holmgren tried to explain why the 217-pound Bennett is effective when speedier, shiftier runners tend to slip and suffer in nasty, wintery conditions.

"Edgar takes shorter strides," he said. "His body stays more over his hips. He even seems a little flat-footed." In automotive terms, Sanders is like a Porsche that corners beautifully, Smith is more of a muscle car with giddy-up like a Trans Am, but Bennett is a four-wheel-drive, off-road sports utility vehicle that just might transport the Packers to Super Bowl XXXI.

Wolf's personnel wizardry helped vault Tampa Bay into 1978-82 playoff prominence, but he had artistic battles with coach John McKay and philosophical differences with owner Hugh Culverhouse. Forcing the departure of Wolf was just one of the goof-ups that led to long-running franchise flops.

Immediately after becoming Green Bay general manager in 1991, Wolf went after the coach (San Francisco offensive coordinator Holmgren) and the quarterback (Atlanta rookie Favre) he wanted.

Nucleus for notoriety.

Wolf began assembling an all-weather powerhouse. He craved a Nitschke-Taylor-Thurston kind of toughness that might rival the old Vince Lombardi-coached championship Packers. Month-by-month home record in Wolf's time has been 8-4 in September, 7-1 in October, 9-0 in November, 12-1 in December and 1-0 in January.

One of the prime criteria for Green Bay scout Red Cochran is the mental toughness that might allow an athlete to be efficient in cold, battering weather. "If I see a senior backing off in raw conditions," he said, "I look the other way." Cochran has been around since the Lombardi days.

"We used to have Paul Hornung, who ran especially well in cold and slop," Cochran said. "Forrest Gregg got tougher at offensive tackle when the weather went sour. All those old Packers could handle it. One guy even had a nickname that told you Lambeau mud would be good for him: (defensive lineman) Dave "Hawg' Hanner from Arkansas."

Lombardi would've liked Edgar Bennett.