The 1997 Green Bay Packers were coming off a dominant Super Bowl championship season and had all the pieces in place for a repeat. They did indeed make it back to the Super Bowl, but an upset cost them their chance at a dynasty.
Brett Favre was the straw that stirred the drink in Packerland and was coming off consecutive MVP seasons. Favre made it three MVPs in a row in 1997, sharing the honor with Detroit Lions’ running back Barry Sanders.
Favre’s 35 touchdown passes were the most in the NFL. He completed 59 percent of his passes, a figure that ranked seventh in the league. His 7.5 yards-per-attempt were fourth. The one weakness was that he made more mistakes this year than in either of his two previous MVP campaigns. Favre’s 16 interceptions equated out to being picked 3.1% of the time, and that was near the bottom of the league.
Antonio Freeman and Robert Brooks were big-play targets on the outside. Freeman caught 81 passes at better than fifteen yards a pop. Brooks had been the Packers’ top receiver in 1995 before injuries kept him out of much of the ’96 title run. He came back strong in ’97 with 60 catches for over 1,000 yards.
Favre, working in the well-designed West Coast offense of head coach Mike Holmgren had other places to go with the football. Mark Chmura was a Pro Bowl tight end. William Henderson caught 41 balls out of the fullback position. The offensive line didn’t have Pro Bowl talent, but collectively, they were one of the best pass-protection units in the league.
But no one was more versatile than Dorsey Levens. The running back’s 53 catches were third-most on the team. And he rolled up over 1,400 yards on the ground to give Green Bay excellent offensive balance. The Packer offense finished second in the NFL in points scored.
The defense was almost as good, ranking fifth in points allowed. The usual suspects led the way. Reggie White was 36-years-old, but the defensive lineman had another Pro Bowl year on his way to the Hall of Fame. White recorded 11 sacks and led a good defensive front that included Santana Dotson and Gabe Wilkins, who each got 5 ½ sacks. LeRoy Butler was the NFL’s best strong safety in the secondary.
Green Bay opened the season with a Monday Night home game against the Chicago Bears. The Bears were in a steady decline since making the playoffs in 1994. Favre went 15/22 for 226 yards and a couple touchdowns, spreading the ball around to all his targets. Chicago quarterback Erik Kramer was erratic. The Packers took home a 38-24 win.
A late Sunday afternoon road trip to Philadelphia was up next. The Eagles had been a consistent playoff team going to back to the late 1980s. Green Bay missed good opportunities when they drove to the Philly 10-yard line or closer three different times and settled for field goals. The result was a late touchdown beat the Packers 10-9. It was a disappointing in the moment and in light of the fact that this Eagles team wasn’t very good, looks even more so from the eyes of history.
Green Bay was still an eleven-point favorite when they came home to play Dan Marino and the playoff-bound Miami Dolphins. Favre outplayed Marino, going 24/37 for 253 yards, two touchdowns and no mistakes. Levens’ 121 rushing yards keyed a big edge in the ground game. More red-zone inefficiencies kept the game unnecessarily close, but this time the Packers won, 23-18.
Minnesota was Green Bay’s most consistent challenger in the NFC Central (the four current teams of the NFC North, plus Tampa Bay) and the Vikings were coming to Lambeau Field for Week 4. Favre came out firing with four touchdown passes in the first half alone. Freeman caught seven balls for 122 yards, while Brooks’ five catches went for 92 yards. Green Bay led 28-7 and then held off a Minnesota rally to win 38-32.
Another divisional game was up next with a road trip to Detroit. The red-zone bugaboo returned and two good Packer drives early in the game produced only two field goals. Then Favre threw a Pick-6. Sanders got rolling and racked up 139 yards. Green Bay lost 26-15.
The month of September was in the books and the Packers were 3-2. Certainly not bad, but they didn’t look like the same team they had scaled the heights a year earlier. And they had a tough game on deck.
Tony Dungy had turned around the previously woeful Tampa Bay Buccaneers and this year’s Bucs team would contend in the division and make the playoffs. Green Bay had to play better, especially when they were in position to score. On this early afternoon game in Lambeau, the Packers did just that.
Two first-half drives went for touchdowns. Wilkins made a highlight reel play for a defensive tackle, intercepting a pass and going 77 yards for a touchdown. Green Bay outrushed Tampa Bay 217-64 and even though Favre couldn’t get the ball downfield against Dungy’s defense, he stayed away from mistakes. All that was enough to produce a 21-16 win.
The string of four straight NFC Central games concluded in Chicago. The Packers spotted the Bears a 10-0 lead before Favre threw three short touchdown passes to get the game moving back in Green Bay’s direction. The 24-23 escape wasn’t inspiring, but it was a win. The Pack headed into their bye week at 5-2.
Green Bay returned with a Monday Night date in New England, a rematch of the previous year’s Super Bowl. Favre was brilliant, going 23/34 for 239 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Levens ran for 100 yards. The defense picked off Patriot quarterback Drew Bledsoe three times. The result was a comfortable 28-10 win.
Another prime-time appearance came the next Sunday Night when Detroit visited Lambeau Field. The Packer defense was the story. They got four sacks. More important, Green Bay intercepted Lion quarterback Scott Mitchell four times. Twice by Butler and another a 50-yard Pick-6 from Darren Sharper that broke a 7-7 tie in the second quarter and paved the way for a 20-10 win.
Green Bay did not play well the following week at home against St. Louis as a (-15) favorite against the lowly Rams. Favre was erratic, only completing 18/37 passes. But he made enough big plays, getting 306 passing yards with Freeman catching seven balls for 160 yards. The Pack won 17-7.
They were a big favorite again the following week in Indianapolis. This Colts’ team was awful and in the midst of a season that would position them to draft Peyton Manning the following spring. Green Bay was a (-13) favorite. Favre went 18/25 for 363 yards. Levens rushed for 103 yards. No problem, right?
Not so fast. The defense played its worst game of the year. A rising star named Marshall Faulk ran for 116 yards. And quarterback Paul Justin had his fifteen minutes of fame. Justin threw for 340 yards and beat Favre and the Packers 41-38.
The Dallas Cowboys had not only been the dynasty of the early 1990s and contender every year of this decade, they had also been the biggest thorn in Green Bay’s side. The Cowboys knocked the Packers from the playoffs in 1993, 1994 and 1995. It stuck in the craw of Green Bay fans that Dallas lost in the playoffs before they could come north in 1996.
Hence, even though this Cowboy team was a bad one that would end their run, all of Lambeau Field was alive for the visit on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving. Levens rolled up 190 yards rushing. Favre threw four touchdown passes. Green Bay won 45-17 and got some measure of satisfaction.
The Packers were 9-3 and atop what was proving to be the deepest division in pro football. The NFC Central would produce four playoff teams, including the Lions, Vikings and Buccaneers. Minnesota and Tampa Bay were both 8-4 and in hot pursuit of first place. They were Green Bay’s next two opponents—both on the road. The season’s biggest moment was at hand.
Favre had yet to win in Minnesota and the good Viking front four often forced him into mistakes in the loud indoor environment. The Packers went there on Monday Night and wrote a new script. Favre was mistake-free. Levens ran for 108 yards. And it was the Green Bay defense that got pressure on the quarterback. They rang up six sacks, including 2 ½ from White. The Packers won big, 27-11.
That momentum rolled with them down to Tampa. The Packers completely shut down the Bucs. Favre went 25/33 for 280 yards and a couple TDs. Another easy win resulted, this one 17-6. Green Bay’s dominant showing clinched the NFC Central with two weeks to go and sent a message that they were rounding into form for the playoffs.
There was still the matter of trying to catch San Francisco for the 1-seed in the NFC playoffs. The 49ers were 12-2 and held the tiebreaker edge, so the Packers needed a lot of help. They did their part when they went to Carolina. The Panthers were on their way to a 7-9 year so this rematch of the NFC Championship Game had lost some juice. Favre threw a 58-yard TD pass to Freeman, a 20-yard scoring strike to Brooks while Levens and backup running back Aaron Hayden helped roll up over 200 rushing yards. Green Bay won 31-10.
San Francisco beat Denver on Monday Night and sewed up the top playoff seed. Green Bay had the 2-seed and first-round bye in hand. They played the season finale on early Saturday afternoon at Buffalo. The Bills, like the Cowboys, were having a rough year after having been outstanding for the entire 1990s. Favre threw a couple early TDs, put the Packers up 21-0 and then took the second half off. Green Bay wrapped up their 13-3 regular season with a 31-21 win.
After a week off, Green Bay hosted Tampa Bay in Round Three. Favre threw an early touchdown pass to Chmura, but the red-zone problems of the early season made their way back. Two good Packer drives bogged down and a game that could have been put to bed early was still in play at 13-0.
The Tampa defense was playing well, especially defensive tackle Warren Sapp who got to Favre three times. The Bucs cut the lead to 13-7 as the game went to the fourth quarter. Finally Levens, who rushed for 112 yards, scored a touchdown and sealed the 21-7 win.
Green Bay might have been the road team for the NFC Championship Game in San Francisco, but the Packers were clearly the more respected team. Oddsmakers installed them as a (-1.5) favorite. It turns out that understated the case quite a bit.
On a rainy afternoon by the Bay, the Packers simply dominated. They outrushed the 49ers 106-33. Favre went 16/27 for 222 yards. Freeman, undeterred by the muddy conditions, made his four catches count for 107 yards. Even though San Francisco quarterback Steve Young battled nobly, going 23/38 for 250 yards, they were empty yards. The 49ers didn’t get in the end zone until a kickoff return with four minutes to play. Green Bay won 23-10 and it felt a lot more convincing than that.
The Pack was riding high as they went to San Diego for the Super Bowl. They were a (-11) favorite over the Broncos and much of the media, both national and local, had already moved into coronation mode.
But Denver, after the first ring for their legendary quarterback John Elway, was in the mood for confrontation rather than coronation. Even though Favre threw a 22-yard TD pass to Freeman to start the scoring, the Broncos countered with 17 unanswered points.
Green Bay rallied back and by the third quarter the game was tied 17-17. But Packer defensive tackle Gilbert Brown, a key part of their rush defense, had to leave the game with an injury. Bronco running back Terrell Davis was a great player and a future Hall of Famer in any case. Now there was a soft target to run at. And did Denver ever pound that advantage.
Davis carried 30 times for 157 yards. He ran for two touchdowns, the last one breaking a 24-24 tie with just under two minutes to go. Green Bay drove to midfield and had a legitimate shot to tie the game, but a fourth down throw from Favre fell incomplete.
It was an incredibly disappointing end to a two-year end that was incredibly successful. Green Bay would go on to many more good seasons with Favre at quarterback, with multiple postseason trips and several more playoff wins. But they never made it back to the Super Bowl with #4 at the helm.