The coaching of Mike Holmgren, the quarterback play of Brett Favre and the leadership of defensive tackle Reggie White was leading the Packers on a gradual upward tilt. They made the playoffs in 1993 and 1994. In 1995, they went deep into the postseason and reached the NFC Championship Game. All that was left was to take the final step on the climb and win it all. That’s exactly what the 1996 Green Bay Packers did.
Favre had a trying offseason, going through treatment for addiction to Vicodin painkillers. But it didn’t affect his play on the field. His 39 touchdown passes led the NFL in 1996. He was intercepted just 2.4% of the time, fourth in the league. His completion percentage and yards-per-attempt were both in the top ten. And he won the second of his three straight MVP awards.
The Green Bay skill position cast was exceptionally balanced. Nobody hit the 1,000-yard mark in either rushing or receiving, but there was plenty of depth as the ball got spread around. Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens led the running game and were each threats to catch the ball out of the backfield. Antonio Freeman and Don Beebe each stretched the field at wide receiver. Keith Jackson made the Pro Bowl at tight end. Mark Chumra and fullback William Henderson were each steady targets underneath.
A draft focus on the offensive line was also starting to bear fruit. The Packers had reliable and young offensive lineman at most spots and 32-year-old Frank Winter, the old man of the crew, made the Pro Bowl at center. It all added up to an offense that led the league in points scored.
White was 35-years-old and not the force he’d been in his prime, but the future Hall of Famer could still play. He recorded 8 ½ sacks and punched another Pro Bowl ticket. He was joined up front by fellow veteran Sean Jones, along with defensive tackles Santana Dotson and big Gilbert Brown in a line that consistently got pressure on the quarterback.
The front four was the defensive strength of this team during their 1990s heyday, but there was one signature talent in the secondary. LeRoy Butler was one of the NFL’s best strong safeties and made 1st-team All-NFL in 1996. The Packers added a veteran free safety in Eugene Robinson who intercepted six passes.
Green Bay’s defense also ranked #1 in the league. Suffice it to say, the most prolific offense combined with the stingiest defense makes a team pretty tough to beat. And the ’96 Packers came blazing out of the chute.
A road trip to Tampa Bay to play first-year head coach Tony Dungy started the season. Dungy would turn the Bucs around quickly, but not this year. Favre went 20/27 for 247 yards and four touchdowns, three of them to Jackson. Green Bay won 34-3.
Philadelphia had reached the playoffs in 1995 and would do so again this season. They came to Lambeau Field for a Monday Night home opener. The Packers pounded the Eagles on the ground, winning rush yardage 171-59. They led 30-7 by halftime and won 39-13.
The routs continued against an average San Diego Chargers team at home in Week 3. This time the rush differential was 132-33, the halftime score was 21-3 and the final 42-10. Green Bay was riding high. So was division rival Minnesota, also 3-0. And the Packers and Vikings would meet in the Twin Cities in Week 4.
Minneapolis’ old Metrodome was usually a house of horrors for Favre (ironic, given that he ended his career there) and this 1996 trip was no different. A tough Viking defensive front got to him seven times. The Minnesota offensive line facilitated 38 minutes of possession time. Green Bay lost 30-21.
A couple of easy road wins over mediocre teams followed. Favre threw four touchdowns against zero interceptions in a 31-10 win at Seattle. A trip to Chicago saw Favre throw four more scoring passes, Freeman rack up 146 yards receiving and the defense limit the Bears to 53 yards on the ground. The final was 37-6.
It was time for another Monday Night home game and this was a biggie. The San Francisco 49ers were, along with the Dallas Cowboys, the two great powers of the NFC in the early 1990s. Green Bay’s playoff upset at San Francisco in the divisional round the previous year was a seminal moment for the franchise in the Favre era. Now they had to show it wasn’t a fluke.
The Packers didn’t play well early on, digging a 17-6 hole by halftime. They got back in the game when Favre hit Beebe on a 59-yard touchdown strike and converted the two-point play. They still trailed 20-17 late in the game before a field goal from Chris Jacke forced overtime. In OT, Jacke nailed a 53-yard field goal, Lambeau went berserk and Green Bay had a 23-20 win. They went into their mid-October bye week at 6-1.
Tampa Bay came north on the far side of the bye (the Bucs were in the old NFC Central prior to 2002, along with the four current teams of the NFC North). Green Bay was a 17 ½ point favorite, but the Dungy Effect was starting to take hold. The Buccaneer defense limited Favre to 19/31 for 178 yards. Bennett was able to grind out 93 yards on the ground though, and the Pack survived, 13-7.
Detroit was the next divisional foe to come to Lambeau. Favre and Lion running back Barry Sanders had some great battles over the years and this was one of them. Sanders ripped off 152 yards rushing and even though this was not a good Lion team, they were within 14-10 at the half. Favre got rolling in the second half, threw a 65-yard touchdown pass to Beebe and led a 28-18 win.
At 8-1, Green Bay was riding high and the money point of the schedule was here. The Packers were going to Kansas City, where the Chiefs were a consistent contender during the Marty Schottenheimer Era. And then it was on to Dallas for a Monday Night date at the venue where they had been eliminated from the playoffs three straight years.
The trip to KC was a disaster. The potent Chief running game pounded out 182 yards. The Packers trailed 27-6 before a couple Favre TD passes made it cosmetically close at 27-20. But the game the fans of Green Bay really wanted was next.
This trip didn’t go a whole lot better. The Packer offense was again shut down, not scoring until midway through the fourth quarter. The defense made red zone stops—a lot of them, as Dallas’ steady offensive drives resulted in seven field goals. The final was 21-6 and it didn’t feel even that close.
Green Bay was 8-3 and still had a two-game lead over Minnesota, who had faded to 6-5. The Packers were still atop the NFC overall, with the tiebreaker on the 49ers, also at 8-3. The up-and-coming Carolina Panthers, along with the Cowboys, were 7-4.
The standings weren’t the problem. The problem was that Green Bay had just looked utterly helpless in its two biggest games of the year. A full-scale fire alarm was going throughout the state of Wisconsin as the Packers prepared to go to St. Louis and play the mediocre Rams on Sunday Night Football.
For one half, the nightmare continued and Green Bay trailed 9-3. They couldn’t run the ball. Favre couldn’t get the ball down the field. But defensive back Doug Evans stepped up with a big Pick-6 in the third quarter that turned the tide. The Packers steadily pulled away to win 24-9.
A 28-17 home win over the Bears wasn’t particularly inspiring, although Freeman had a huge day with 156 yards receiving on ten catches. Desmond Howard also showcased the punt return skills that were about to make him famous with a 75-yard return to the house. The Packers were 10-3 and set to host the 11-1 Denver Broncos.
The game was hyped as a Super Bowl preview, with each team holding pole position for the #1 seed in their respective conferences. As it turned out, that forecast was one year ahead of schedule when the Broncos flamed out in the playoffs. And this early afternoon kick had the steam taken out of it when John Elway didn’t play.
Freeman again went off, catching nine passes for 175 yards and three touchdowns. The Packers led 13-3 at the half and then took off, winning 41-6. The victory clinched the NFC Central and at least the #3 seed in the playoffs.
Now they needed to wrap up a first-round bye and a visit to Detroit was next. Desmond took a punt 92 yards to the house. Favre went 16/25 for 240 yards and spread the ball around. The Packer defense held Sanders to 78 yards and an easy 31-3 win locked up at least the 2-seed.
One more hurdle to secure homefield all the way through and it was a revenge date with the Vikings. The game was tied 10-10 at the half, but Green Bay completely took over the second half. They won the rush yardage battle 233-49, with 109 yards from Bennett. Favre went 15/23 for 202 yards, three touchdowns and no mistakes. All three scoring passes came in the second half. The Packers blew out the playoff-bound Vikes 38-10 and wrapped up the 1-seed in the NFC bracket.
San Francisco had gone 12-4, but was edged out by Carolina in the NFC West. So the 49ers went the wild-card route and that brought them to Lambeau on a wet and muddy day that began Divisional Round Weekend.
It was Desmond time. He took a punt at his own 29-yard line and went the distance for the game’s first points. The Packers took a 21-0 lead. In the conditions and with the league’s best defense behind him, Favre played it close to the vest—a high-percentage 11/15, but only for 79 yards. San Francisco made it interesting at 21-14. But Favre steered clear of mistakes, while 49er counterpart Elvis Grbac threw three picks. Bennett keyed a 139-68 rush yardage edge. Green Bay scored two more TDs and pulled back away, 35-14.
The Packers were hungry for Dallas to come north, but the Green Bay faithful didn’t get their wish. The Panthers had grabbed the 2-seed and beat the Cowboys on Sunday. Playing Carolina, a franchise in their second year of existence, didn’t exactly have the same marquee value as going through Dallas would. But when you haven’t been to a Super Bowl in nearly three decades, there’s only so much room for getting fussy about your path.
The NFC Championship Game kicked off shortly after noon local time the following week. Carolina went up 7-0. Favre answered with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Levens. Even though the Panthers briefly took a 10-7 lead, the Packer offense had found something with Levens. He ran for 88 yards and caught five balls for 117 yards. Bennett rushed for 99 yards and Green Bay outrushed Carolina 201-45.
If the Panthers couldn’t control the line of scrimmage, they weren’t going to win. Favre threw a short TD pass to Freeman. Green Bay was up 14-10 at the half and they took over the second half, pulling away to a 30-13 win.
To a modern generation of New England Patriots fans, the Super Bowl seems like a birthright. That wasn’t the case in 1996. The Patriots were making just their second appearance on the biggest stage in American sports and they had never won a title. Green Bay was a hefty 14-point favorite.
A snowstorm blanketed most of Wisconsin on Super Bowl Sunday. I was living in Milwaukee at the time and the streets were silent during the hours of game time.
Favre came out of the chute with a 54-yard deep post to Andre Rison for a touchdown. The ensuing highlight of the quarterback running downfield with his helmet off, filled with exuberance, would become a staple of his highlight montages in years to come.
But the Patriots, with Drew Bledsoe at quarterback and Curtis Martin in the backfield, had a response. They were ahead 14-10 by the second quarter. Favre went back to the long ball and hit Freeman on an 81-yard touchdown pass. The quarterback later ran in from two yards for another touchdown. Green Bay was up 27-14 at the half.
New England cut the margin to 27-21 in the third quarter. Just when the game was ready to get interesting, Desmond Howard took matters into his own hands. He brought the kickoff all the way back. The two-point conversion made the score 35-21. With the defense intercepting Bledsoe four times and White sealing his legacy with three sacks, that score stood up.
Favre went 14/27 for 246 yards, the two long touchdowns and no mistakes. He should have been named the game’s MVP, although Howard getting the honor for his special teams work wasn’t a bad choice.
The Vince Lombardi Trophy was finally going back home. The Green Bay Packers were back on top.