The 2001 Green Bay Packers and their future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre came into the season with something to prove. For all their success in the 1990s—three straight MVP awards for Favre and a Super Bowl title in 1996, the Packers had failed to make the postseason the last two years. Not coincidentally, those were the two years since head coach Mike Holmgren departed for Seattle. The Packers and Favre needed to show they could be successful without Holmgren. In 2001, they did just that and started another string of playoff trips.
Favre stepped up with a solid year, completing 62 percent of his passes for 7.7 yards-per-attempt. Both were in the NFL’s top 10. The interceptions, his typical bugaboo, stabilized at 2.9 percent of all throws and were in the middle of the league. The TD/INT ratio was 32-15 and he made the Pro Bowl.
The biggest bright spot of the last couple years had been the emergence of Ahman Green as one of the NFL’s most versatile running backs. In 2001, Green ran for nearly 1,400 yards and his yards-per-carry was a solid 4.6. He also led the team with 62 catches.
Favre’s targets on the outside continued to be reliable Antonio Freeman and Bill Schroeder. Both caught over 50 passes and both could stretch the field. Freeman averaged nearly 16 yards per catch and Schroeder averaged 17.3. Corey Bradford added to the big-play capability, with his 31 catches going for 17 yards a pop.
A well-balanced passing attack included an up-and-coming tight end. Bubba Franks caught 36 balls in a Pro Bowl season. Even though the offensive line was young, there were some up-and-comers in guard Marco Rivera and tackle Chad Clifton. It was all enough for Green Bay to rank 5th in the NFL in points scored.
The defense relied on pressure from the edge. Defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (KGB) led the way with 13 ½ sacks. Vonnie Holliday worked the other end for seven more sacks. All that pressure helped free safety Darren Sharper intercept six passes. Even though the Packers didn’t have any Pro Bowl players on the defensive side of the ball, they were still as good as the offense—fifth in the league in points allowed.
Green Bay opened the season with a home game against Detroit. The Lions were on their way to a hideous season and it began today at Lambeau. Green bolted for a 31-yard touchdown run early on and raced 83 yards to the house later in the game. Favre went 22/28 for 260 yards, two TDs and no mistakes. The Packers got an easy 28-6 win.
Two days later, the tragedy of 9/11 hit, with the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centers. The NFL postponed its schedule by a week. Green Bay would host the first Monday Night Game after play resumed. Lambeau Field was in a patriotic fervor along with the rest of the nation as the Packers met the Washington Redskins.
Favre went 20/31 for 261 yards and threw three touchdowns. Green rushed for 116 yards. The defense got five sacks. Even allowing the Redskins were a mediocre team that wouldn’t find their footing until October, the 37-0 dismantling was an impressive display.
Green Bay’s first road game was at Carolina. The Panthers were on their way to an even worse season than the Lions, but the Packers slept through the first half and trailed 7-6. Favre woke his team up with second-half touchdown passes to Schroeder, Franks and Bradford. The quarterback threw for 308 yards in the 28-7 win.
Riding high at 3-0, Green Bay went to Tampa Bay. The Bucs were a consistent playoff contender and were only a year away from winning the Super Bowl. And Tony Dungy’s defense usually gave Favre fits. Today was no different. Tampa intercepted Favre three times, including one on the goal line that turned a potential Packer touchdown into a Pick-6 the other way. That was the difference as the Pack lost 14-10.
Favre bounced back in a big way the following week at home. The defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens were in town. They were renowned for their defense and on this afternoon, they outrushed Green Bay 158-60. Enter Favre. He went 27/34 for 337 yards, three TDs and no mistakes. Freeman caught nine balls for 138 yards and the Packers had an impressive 31-23 win.
A visit to Minnesota didn’t go quite as well. While the Vikings were a consistent playoff contender and been in the NFC Championship Game as recently as last year, 2001 was not a good year in the Twin Cities. But homefield was often decisive in this rivalry and it would be so today. The Vikings pounded the Packers on the ground, to the tune of a 200-74 rush yard advantage. Favre didn’t make mistakes, but he couldn’t get the ball down the field. The result was a 35-13 loss.
Green Bay went into their bye week at 4-2. On the far side was a key home game with Tampa Bay (prior to 2002 the Bucs were in the NFC Central, along with the four current teams of the NFC North).
For the better part of three quarters, the Buccaneer defense continued to own Favre and the Packers trailed 17-7. Then Green took off on a 63-yard touchdown run to get Green Bay back in the game. Trailing 20-14 with three minutes left, the Pack was poised to get the ball back. Allen Rossum took the punt at his own 45 and went to the house for the winning touchdown.
The Chicago Bears, dormant through the latter part of the 1990s, were awakening in 2001. Green Bay went to Solider Field and the defense came up big. They held the Bears to 47 rushing yards. Meanwhile, Green ran for 93 yards. Schroeder caught four balls for 100 yards and the Packers got a big 20-12 win.
At 6-2, Super Bowl talk was back in the air at Lambeau. Which made a visit from a mediocre Atlanta Falcons team all the more disappointing. Favre threw three interceptions, the defense allowed some big plays in the passing game and the Packers suffered a 23-20 upset loss.
Green Bay had no time to lick their wounds, because there was a fast turnaround—a Thanksgiving Day date with Detroit. Favre delivered an 18/26 for 252 yards an no mistakes performance. Green produced 102 yards on the ground. The Packers were comfortably ahead 29-13 late in the game. Then things got hairy. Detroit scored and converted the two-point play. The Lions got the ball back and scored again.
There were ten seconds left, the lead was down to 29-27 and Detroit was lining up for a two-point play to force overtime. A collapse like this against one of the league’s worst teams—coming on top of the Atlanta loss—would give back so much of the progress this Packer team had made. They made the stop, preserved the win and extended their record to 7-3.
Another appearance on the national stage against a shaky team, this one a Monday Night date in Jacksonville, also tested the stress levels of Packer fans. Late in the third quarter, Green Bay was down 21-7. Favre got rolling. He threw two TD passes and finished the night 24/42 for 362 yards and no interceptions. And with a minute and a half left, he ran six yards for the decisive score in a 28-21 win.
It was time for the rematch with Chicago. The Bears were 9-2 and led the NFC Central by a game. The Packers had the chance to pull even and control the tiebreaker in this December 9 game at Lambeau Field.
A defensive battle ensued, and a 7-7 tie went late into the third quarter. Green was the difference in this game. His 125 rushing yards gave the Packers a ground game and they pulled away to a 17-7 win.
So we had four weeks to go and Green Bay and Chicago were each 9-3. Tampa Bay would make the playoffs, but they weren’t in the mix for a division title. The Packers and Bears were each in position to get the 2-seed in the NFC bracket, behind the St. Louis Rams who were running away with the top spot.
Adding the intrigue was the San Francisco 49ers also sitting on 9-3. The divisional alignment of the time, that was in its final year, had three divisions per conference and three wild-cards. Which meant the top wild-card got a home game. Hence, the Packers were in a race not only with the Bears for the division, but the 49ers for the 4-seed.
And just like the previous win against Chicago, this one was followed by a letdown. Green Bay went to mediocre Tennessee. They were crushed in the trenches, losing rush yardage 167-31. Favre was kept to short passes and the Packers lost 26-20. The Bears and 49ers both won. Green Bay had gone from the 2-seed to the 5-seed in the blink of an eye.
Cleveland came to Lambeau for a late afternoon game on the day before Christmas Eve. The Browns were mediocre, but Favre was again restricted to shorter throws. His final numbers was 18/28 for 139 yards. What Favre did do was stay patient and efficient. There were no mistakes. It created the space for Green’s 150 rush yards to lead the way to an easy 30-7 win.
But no help came. Chicago and San Francisco both won. Two weeks to go.
Green Bay hosted Minnesota. The problems in the running game resurfaced, losing 129-56 in rush yardage. With ten minutes to play, the Packers trailed 13-10. But Favre was again staying patient. He went 18/29 for 169 yards, and steered clear of mistakes. Green Bay picked up three turnovers. The biggest was a Pick-6 in the fourth quarter and the Pack won 24-13.
Chicago handled their business against Detroit. But Green Bay got surprising help. San Francisco went to Dallas and lost to a bad Cowboys team. The Packers were at least positioned to get a home playoff game.
The Pack, Bears and 49ers were all playing in the early afternoon window in the season finale. Green Bay visited the New York Giants. After a run to the Super Bowl in 2000, the Giants were a sub-.500 team this year. Green Bay won 34-25.
Favre went 15/30 for 215 yards and played efficiently, but the stat everyone remembers for this game is that he was sacked once. That sack, late in the game, gave Giants defensive end Michael Strahan the single-season sack record. Favre, a friend of Strahan’s, was accused of giving himself up voluntarily so Strahan could get the record. You can watch the play here and decide what you think, but there’s no question that this play has served as a black mark on the legacy of both players in the eyes of a lot of fans.
At any rate, Green Bay’s win assured they would host San Francisco in the wild-card round, a matchup that was locked in when Chicago held serve and won the NFC Central.
The Packers and 49ers were familiar foes. They had met in the playoffs in 1995, 1996, 1997 and 1998. They had played memorable regular season games. Both teams were coming into this 2001 game at 12-4. That’s a record that will often get you a 1-seed in the playoffs. Somebody who had a Super Bowl-caliber season would be making an early playoff exit.
Favre and Freeman put Green Bay on the board with a short touchdown pass in the first quarter. But the extra point was missed. As the defenses settled in, that was the difference by halftime with the Packers trailing 7-6.
The Packers got control in the third quarter. A short field goal gave them the lead. Favre hit Franks with a 19-yard touchdown pass. For some bizarre reason, head coach Mike Sherman decided now was the time to get back the missed extra point. He went for two and that missed. The score stayed 15-7, still within one possession. Sherman’s decision looked even worse when the 49ers scored, converted the two-point play and tied up the game 15-15.
In a tense battle on this early Sunday afternoon, on a cloudy afternoon in Green Bay, the Packers got the lead back with a field goal with seven minutes to play. And with just under two minutes to play, they put it away when Green ran nine yards for a touchdown. Favre went 22/29 for 269 yards to lead a big 25-15 win.
Green Bay was on their way to St. Louis for a shot at the Rams, who had been the class of the NFL all season long. They were the “Greatest Show On Turf”, led by Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk. The Packers needed to play a perfect game to win on the road…and this would be anything but that.
In front of the late Sunday afternoon audience, Favre threw an early Pick-6. Green Bay trailed 24-10 at the half. Favre dug in and tried to rally his team. Instead, the hole kept getting deeper. He threw two more Pick-6s. He threw six interceptions for the game. The result was a 45-17 loss.
Losing in this manner is never particularly fun, but no one in Green Bay had too many regrets. They hadn’t expected to win this game and Favre’s performance was seen—accurately—as the Gunslinger simply digging too deep in a game where most quarterbacks might have pulled in the reins.
The bigger takeaway was that the Pack Was Back. This was the first of four straight playoff seasons.