Brett Favre and the Packers enjoyed a comeback season in 2001, returning to the playoffs after a two-year absence. The 2002 Green Bay Packers were aiming to build on that with a return to the Super Bowl. And for almost the entirety of the season, the ’02 Packers were poised to do just that. Then two disastrous games undid it all.
Favre had another Pro Bowl season, although his statistical performance was largely pedestrian. The 62 percent completion rate was good and ranked 11th in the league. But Favre only generated 6.6 yards-per-attempt and that ranked 21st among NFL quarterbacks. The TD/INT ratio of 29/16 was fine by the standards of the time, although being intercepted on 2.9 percent of all throws still put you in the middle of the league.
In short, he was decent, but it was far from vintage Brett Favre. So how did the Packer offense rank sixth in the NFL in points scored? Ahman Green rushed for over 1,200 yards. Marco Rivera emerged as a Pro Bowler at guard, one of the rare top-caliber offensive lineman Green Bay had during the Favre era.
Donald Driver stepped up at wide receiver with a Pro Bowl season, catching 70 balls for over 1,000 yards. Tight end Bubba Franks was another Pro Bowler, with 54 catches. All in all, there was a running game, a deep threat, an underneath receiving target and pedestrian numbers or not, this was still Brett Lorenzo Favre pulling the trigger. That’s how the Packers ranked sixth in the NFL in points scored.
Green Bay’s defense had playmakers up front. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (KGB) recorded twelve sacks from his defensive end spot. Vonnie Holliday added six more from the other end and Cletidus Hunt got home 5 ½ times working the interior. They were supported in the secondary by Pro Bowl free safety Darren Sharper and rookie strong safety Marques Anderson, who picked off four passes. All told, the Packer defense ranked 12th in the league in points allowed.
The season opened at home against Atlanta. It was an ironic opener in one sense—the Packers’ bid for the division title and #2 seed the previous year had been seriously damaged by a home loss to what was a mediocre Falcons team. This season opener would seem even more ironic by season’s end.
For now though, it was just one wild football game. Green rushed for 155 yards and caught six passes. Favre went 25/36 for 284 yards. Michael Vick fired right back for Atlanta and the teams traded blows all the way to overtime. Green Bay landed the last one and won 37-34.
A road trip to New Orleans didn’t go as well. The Pack didn’t run the ball, they lost three fumbles, dug themselves a 21-3 lead and fell 35-20. Favre got back on track at lowly Detroit. The Gunslinger went 31/47 for 357 yards and three touchdowns. Green Bay took a 34-17 lead, watched the Lions make it tight with a couple touchdowns and then tacked on another field goal for a 37-31 win.
A mediocre opponent in Carolina visited Lambeau. Green Bay’s offense continued their up-and-down performance. But Hunt’s two sacks led a defensive effort that kept the Packers within 14-10 in the fourth quarter. Favre finished 18/32 for 200 yards and his 22-yard TD strike to Driver with just over four minutes left pulled out the 17-14 win.
Chicago had outlasted Green Bay for the division title a year ago, so the Packers’ October visit to Soldier Field was put on Monday Night Football. But this year’s Bears team would fall hard and never contend. Favre went 85 yards to Driver for a first-quarter touchdown and threw two more TD passes before the first half was done. Holding a 24-14 lead, KGB sealed the deal—he got his hands up, intercepted a pass and took it 72 yards to the house. Green Bay won 34-21.
The New England Patriots had emerged onto the scene a year earlier when a heretofore unknown quarterback named Tom Brady led them to a shocking Super Bowl run. Green Bay went to Foxboro and made a big statement. Favre played a mistake-free game, while the defense picked off three Brady passes. Green ran for 136 yards and the result was a surprisingly easy 28-10 win.
A mediocre Washington Redskins team came to Lambeau. The 30-9 win was largely uneventful, keyed by the defense getting four turnovers and six sacks, including two from KGB.
Except…well, there was one little event. Favre was knocked out of the game. The Iron Man had not missed a start in his entire career, going back to 1992. This one was serious enough that it threatened to end the streak.
Divine Providence smiled on Favre. There was a bye week before a coming Monday Night visit to Miami. It was touch-and-go and Favre’s health was a major national media story for the next couple weeks. But in the end, he got on the field.
And he played pretty well against a decent Dolphins team. Favre went 16/25 for 187 yards. It was enough for the defense to win the game. KGB got three sacks. Sharper had an 89-yard Pick-6. The score was 24-0 in the fourth quarter and ended 24-10.
Now rounded fully back into gear, Favre came home and unloaded on the Lions. He went 26/39 for 351 yards and no mistakes. Driver caught 11 balls for 130 yards. Aided by a Pick-6 from Anderson, the Packers dropped 30 points in the first half and won 40-14.
Minnesota was going through a tough year, but no one who followed Brett Favre would ever rest easy when he went to the Metrodome. This game proved hair-raising. The Packers were pounded in the line of scrimmage, losing rush yardage 218-71 and digging an early 14-0 hole. A sloppy game both ways resulted in 25 combined penalties and six combined turnovers.
But Green Bay kept coming. They pulled even 21-21. In the fourth quarter, Favre and Driver made another big play—an 84-yard touchdown pass. The Packers added a field goal for breathing room and escaped 31-21.
Green Bay was running away with the NFC North. They were in a tough fight with the Philadelphia Eagles and Tampa Bay Buccaneers for seeding position in the playoffs. That made a late afternoon battle in Tampa on the Sunday before Thanksgiving all the more important.
It was a memorable day for this writer personally. One of my best friends had gotten married the previous day and we were at the gift-opening ceremony on Sunday. As the guys all went to the basement to watch the game, there were jokes about how our buddy had to be dying listening to the shouts from the basement while he pretended to be thrilled about the new linens given as a wedding gift.
Anyway, it was a tough, physical game. Green Bay took a 7-3 lead by the half. But the Bucs’ aggressive defense, led by Hall of Fame tackle Warren Sapp, was making life miserable for Favre. They forced him into four interceptions. One of them stopped a Green Bay drive in the red zone. On another, Sapp leveled Packer tackle Chad Clifton with a block on the return. Clifton was knocked out, tempers got heated and Green Bay coach Mike Sherman was even screaming at Sapp on the field.
The frustration of the 21-7 loss undoubtedly added to Green Bay’s fury. The Bucs were now 9-2 and led the way for the 1-seed. The Packers and Eagles were both 8-3. Worse for Green Bay is that they trailed Philadelphia by three games in NFC record. Hence, the Pack would lose a tiebreaker to Tampa based on head-to-head and a tiebreaker to Philly based on conference record. Not much room for error, if any.
Green Bay hosted Chicago. Favre was erratic and the Packer trailed 14-6 at the half. Green and backup running back Tony Fisher were running well though and combined for 169 yards. The Pack took over in the second half and won 30-20.
They also got a break—Tampa lost at New Orleans. The race at the top of the NFC was now a three-way tie at 9-3.
Green Bay hosted Minnesota on Sunday Night Football and again had a shaky first half. But it could have been worse. A couple defensive stops inside their own 10-yard line kept the Packers within 13-0. Then Fisher, emerging late in the season as a running threat got going. He ran for 96 yards and ran for two TDs in the second half. The last one came with 1:06 left and pulled out a 26-22 win.
A big road trip to San Francisco was next. The 49ers were on their way to the NFC West title, although pretty clearly headed for the 4-seed in the bracket. Favre always played well against San Francisco and this key December battle was no different—25/33 for 201 yards and no mistakes. The Pack won 20-14.
Tampa and Philly were both holding serve, so all three teams were 11-3 and Green Bay would still be stuck as the 3-seed if nothing changed. Finally, in the season’s penultimate week, something did.
Playing in 25mph winds at home against mediocre Buffalo, Green rushed for 116 yards. Holliday had his entire season in one game, getting five sacks. The Packers won 10-0. The following night, Tampa Bay lost to Pittsburgh. There was one week to go. Philadelphia was still 12-3 and had inside track to the 1-seed, but Green Bay’s 12-3 mark was now good for the 2-seed and a first-round bye.
The three teams were not only all battling with each other, but they were also quite clearly the three best teams in all of football. Somebody that had a Super Bowl-caliber season was going to get stuck playing in the wild-card round.
The final week of the season was ideally spaced from a television perspective—the Eagles were playing the Giants in the early window. The Packers would visit the Jets in the marquee late afternoon slot. Tampa Bay was playing in Chicago on Sunday night.
Great news came early in the day. The Giants upset the Eagles. It was all there for Green Bay. Beat the Jets and get homefield advantage. And as of 2002, the Packers had never lost a playoff game in Lambeau Field.
But the Jets had plenty to play for. They were in three-way race of their own, with the Dolphins and Patriots for the AFC East title. By kickoff, New York knew they would take the division with a win. The Jets played like something was at stake. The Packers did not.
Green Bay only trailed 14-10 at the half. But Favre had a poor game, going 16/33 for 172 yards. His counterpart, Chad Pennington—ironically, a man Favre would displace as Jets quarterback six years later—heated up in the second half. The Packers were crushed 42-17. Tampa Bay won that night. The Packers, Eagles and Bucs were all 12-4. That left Green Bay on the wrong side of all tiebreakers and in the wild-card round.
Atlanta was the opponent. The Saturday night kickoff was the first time a game in the wild-card round was played in prime-time. And it would be the first time a road team won at Lambeau Field in the playoffs.
Nor would it be particularly close. Green Bay had a punt blocked. They turned it over five times. They trailed 24-0 at halftime and were booed off the field, an extremely rare display of anger by the normally uber-nice people of Wisconsin. There was no motivation in the second half and the final was 27-7.
The disasters against the Jets and the Falcons put a very bad taste in everyone’s mouth. But that shouldn’t obscure just how good this Packer team was for almost the entire 2002 season. Losing in the first round of the playoffs looks ugly. But that shouldn’t obscure how unbalanced the NFL was in ’02, with the best three teams being in the NFC.
Had the Packers been able to lick their wounds with a bye after the Jets disaster, they might have rebounded in the postseason. Instead, all the circumstances of 2002, tiebreakers and all, distorted the final legacy of this team. Let’s at least remember them as the team that tied for the best record in all of football.