After 25 years of mostly mediocre football, the Green Bay Packers were finally on the upswing in the early 1990s. In 1992, they hired Mike Holmgren and found Brett Favre as their quarterback. A 9-7 season that just missed the playoffs followed. In 1993, the Packers added Reggie White to the defense, again went 9-7, but this time made the postseason and won a game when they got there. The 1994 Green Bay Packers did the same—another 9-7 season that had the fan base happy the Pack was back, but wondering when they would get to that proverbial next level.
In his third year as a starter, Favre continued to progress. While he was developing a reputation as “The Gunslinger”, his final numbers still were that of a conservative, game-managing quarterback in the West Coast system of Holmgren. His 62% completion rate was sixth among NFL quarterbacks. While his 14 interceptions and being picked off on 2.4% percent of his throws would be high today, it was seventh in the league in 1994. What the Packer offense didn’t do well was get the ball down the field, with Favre’s 6.7 yards-per-attempt putting him 15th in what was then a 28-team league.
Any shortcomings in the passing game were no fault of Sterling Sharpe, who had a Pro Bowl season with 94 catches at nearly 12 yards a pop. Robert Brooks would eventually become a deep threat, but in ’94 he was still more of a possession receiver, at 11 yards a catch. Edgar Bennett was a reliable target out of the backfield and his 623 rush yards led the team. Reggie Cobb provided a change of pace in the running game with 579 yards.
What the Packers did not have was a potent offensive line. In spite of that, the brilliance of Favre and Sharpe, combined with the strategic shrewdness of Holmgren, led to the offense scoring the fourth-most points in the NFL.
White had a Pro Bowl year and recorded eight sacks. The Packers also added some veteran help, bringing in Steve McMichael from Chicago to hold down the middle. Sean Jones came over from Houston to play on the end opposite White and added 10 ½ sacks. Bryce Paup was developing into a good pass-rushing linebacker on the outside and he rang up 7 ½ sacks.
The back seven of the defense was a little more problematic. There was no notable talent at linebacker and while corner Terrell Buckley intercepted five passes, he would never be known for his hitting or his run support. But the quality of the pass rush led to the defense ranking fifth in the league in points allowed.
The old NFC Central (the four current teams of the NFC North plus Tampa Bay) was very balanced. The Packers, along with the Vikings and Lions had all made the playoffs in ’93 and the Bears were right in the mix. On the flip side, none of those four were seen as a real threat to the hegemony of the Cowboys and 49ers in the NFC as a whole. This was a division that was up for grabs.
Minnesota added future Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon in the offseason and they came to Lambeau Field to start the season. The Packers picked Moon off three times, two of them from safety George Teague and got a tough 16-10 win. But a week later, a good Miami Dolphins team came to old Milwaukee County Stadium, where Green Bay played three home games a year. The Pack had no running game, fell behind 24-0 and though Favre threw for 362 yards, they were empty yards from behind in what ended up a 24-14 loss.
A road trip to Philadelphia, another team that would be on the playoff fringe, saw the running game again shut down. Favre went 24/45 for 280 yards, but the result was still a 13-7 loss. Their back to the wall early, the Packers came home to host lowly Tampa Bay. Favre was locked in, going 30/39 for 306 yards, no mistakes and spreading the ball around in an easy 30-3 win.
The New England Patriots were a rising contender under Bill Parcells and Green Bay went to Foxboro on the first Sunday of October. In a good game, a missed extra point by the Pack was the difference in a 17-16 loss. Green Bay still looked hungover the next week at home against a lousy LA Rams team and trailed 17-3 at the half. They awoke in time, with an 85-yard punt return by Brooks keying the rally and a 24-17 win.
Green Bay took their bye week at 3-3 and then went to Minnesota for a big Thursday night. Early in the game, the Viking defense returned a fumble for a touchdown. In a tough, physical game, similar to the Week 1 battle at Lambeau, that proved to be the difference. The Packers fell in overtime, 13-10.
Another prime-time date on the road against a divisional rival was up next. Monday Night in Chicago was Halloween, it was pouring rain and it had another twist—this week’s games were the first time the NFL experimented using throwback jerseys. The Packers and Bears were dressed like it was the 1920s and the conditions added to the game’s old-timey feel. Favre ran 36 yards for a touchdown, Bennett muscled his way for over 100 yards and Green Bay produced an easy 36-6 victory.
The divisional run continued the next week in Milwaukee against Detroit. Favre threw for 237 yards and three touchdowns, as the Packers led 38-14. The Lions made a noble bid at a comeback in the fourth quarter, but the final was still 38-30. A 17-10 home win over a bad New York Jets team pushed Green Bay’s record to 6-4. They were in good position moving into the homestretch.
But a difficult three-week road trip awaited. Buffalo didn’t make the playoffs this season, but the Bills were still the four-time defending AFC champs and very much alive when Green Bay visited Rich Stadium on November 20. The Packer defense couldn’t get off the field. Buffalo had 38 minutes of possession time, took a 24-0 lead before a late rally made the final cosmetically respectable at 29-20.
A short week was on deck with a Thanksgiving date in Dallas and the two-time defending Super Bowl champions who had knocked them out of last year’s playoffs. Green Bay would catch a break though. Troy Aikman was hurt and injuries would force Jason Garrett into the lineup.
The future head coach of this franchise, Garrett was already known for his mastery of the system. But he wasn’t supposed to light up the Packer defense for over 300 yards passing. Favre played well, going 27/40, 257 yards and four touchdowns. Sharpe caught nine balls for 122 yards. But being outrushed 138-29, the Favre/Sharpe duo couldn’t keep up in a fast-paced 42-31 loss.
It was more of the same the next week in Detroit. In 1993, the Packers and Lions had played here in the season finale to settle the division title and then the following week in the wild-card game. In the latter, both Favre and Detroit running back Barry Sanders put on an exceptional show. They did again here for the late-afternoon national audience.
Favre went 29/46 for 366 yards. Barry ripped off 188 yards rushing in just 20 carries. But despite leading 14-3 early and 31-24 late, the Packers lost 34-31. They were 6-7. The season was teetering on the brink. But Green Bay, Detroit, Chicago and Minnesota were all still tightly bunched up in the NFC Central.
The Bears came to Lambeau Field and the Packers played like a hungry and desperate team. They crushed Chicago in rush yardage, 257-27, with Bennett going over 100 yards. Favre was 19/31 for 250 yards and three touchdowns. The final score was 40-3. That’s called making a statement.
Statement or no, Green Bay needed to keep winning. They were hosting Atlanta. The Falcons were 6-8, one of several teams on the playoff fringe. If the Packers could win, they would seize control of their playoff destiny. If they lost, they were in serious trouble.
The game was also the final one to be played in Milwaukee, as the franchise was ending its decades-long relationship with the city so they could play all eight home games in Lambeau Field. It was a perfectly logical decision, although living near Milwaukee, this writer recalls the emotion that surrounded this game for a lot of old-timers. In my early twenties, I was fortunate enough to be in the stands for this piece of local history.
Green Bay seemed in control of the game and led 14-3. Bennett was doing good work out of the backfield, catching eight balls for over 100 yards. But the Packers didn’t drive the stake in when they had the chance, the Falcons rallied and late in the game the Pack was down 17-14.
It was time for Brett to step up. He led a drive inside the Atlanta 10-yard line in the closing moments. The Packers were out of timeouts. Favre rolled to his right. The pass wasn’t there. Most quarterbacks would do the safe and logical thing of throwing it away and playing for overtime.
But good, bad or indifferent, Brett Lorenzo Favre never did the safe and logical thing. He tucked the ball away and put it all on the line with a race for the right pylon. He got there, carrying a couple Atlanta tacklers on his back to finish the job. Ballgame, Packers win 21-17.
There was still the matter of getting one more win and Green Bay took care of business with a Christmas Eve day win in Tampa. The Pack dominated on the ground, Bennett again going over the 100-mark and Favre again playing efficiently at 24/36 for 291 yards. They were up 28-6 at halftime and cruised into the postseason with a 34-19 win.
All four contenders of the NFC Central ended up qualifying and would occupy the 3-6 seed lines in the NFC bracket. When Detroit lost on Christmas night, it moved Green Bay up to the 4-spot and guaranteed them a home game. Minnesota secured the division and the 3-seed on Monday Night against a San Francisco team that was locked into the 1-seed and resting key people. Chicago would be in the #6 spot.
So it was a Packers-Lions playoff rematch on New Year’s Eve. Last year’s wild-card game had been memorable for its wild shifts and changes in direction. This one would be remembered for the Green Bay defense. In one of the great defensive efforts put on by any team in the playoffs, the Pack held Barry Sanders to (-1) yard rushing. Yes, negative yards. And no, weather was not a problem. It was unseasonably warm at 40 degrees in Lambeau that day and the sun was out.
Favre threw for 262 yards, two touchdowns and made no mistakes. Green Bay had another game where they didn’t put an opponent away and they had to make a key stop late. But it was all enough for a 16-12 win.
The playoff rerun continued, with a second straight divisional round trip to Dallas. And for the second straight year, the Packers were overmatched. Favre was erratic, at 21/46 for 236 yards. Aikman was sharp, 23/32 for 337 yards and he threw a 94-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter that sent the tone for this early Sunday afternoon in Big D. The final was 35-9.
The loss was tough to swallow for Green Bay. Not because they really expected to win—Dallas and San Francisco were five steps ahead of everyone else in the NFL. But there had been hope the Packers would be competitive and show they weren’t far from getting to the league elite themselves. The loss showed they still had work to do.
But the three consecutive 9-7 seasons that had been completed, with two postseason trips and two playoff victories, had given Green Bay a foundation to build from. The next year they took the next step and reached the NFC Championship Game. And in 1996, they broke through and won it all.