The first three years of the Mike Holmgren-Brett Favre coach/QB combo had been successful ones in Green Bay. After 25 years of mostly desolation, the Packers had posted 9-7 records from 1992-94. The latter two seasons had seen them reach the playoffs and win a game each time. But they were hungry to get off the fringe of contention. The 1995 Green Bay Packers were a breakthrough team that jumped one level higher.
It will be no surprise to learn that Green Bay’s move from being above-average to pretty good was keyed by Favre’s rise from being pretty good to outstanding. The quarterback dazzled in 1995. His 38 touchdown passes led the NFL. His completion percentage of 63 percent was sixth and the 7.7 yards-per-attempt were second among quarterbacks. The 13 interceptions might seem high by today’s standards, but with an interception rate of just 2.3%, Favre still was in the top 10 for avoiding mistakes. He won the first of his historic three consecutive MVP awards.
Robert Brooks emerged as the favored target and he racked up nearly 1,500 yards receiving and at almost 15 yards a pop, could stretch the field. Tight end Mark Chmura worked underneath, caught 54 balls and made the Pro Bowl. Mark Ingram was a solid veteran receiver that created a viable option and Dorsey Levens caught 48 passes out of the backfield.
The running game had been a sticking point in Green Bay. And while the ’95 Packers would never outmuscle anyone, they did get more balance to the offense. Edgar Bennett cleared the 1,000-yard mark and was another good pass-catcher in Holmgren’s West Coast offense. Up front, even though the Packers didn’t have Pro Bowl players, the drafting of Notre Dame’s Aaron Taylor gave them a little more muscle.
All told, the Packers ranked sixth in the NFL in points scored. And the defense was even better, ranking fourth in points allowed. The Green Bay D had been energized in 1993 when Reggie White, the game’s best defensive lineman and future Hall of Famer, came via free agency. White was 1st-team All-NFL in 1995 and had 12 sacks. Sean Jones, a veteran defensive end, added nine sacks and kept some pressure off of Reggie. Leroy Butler was one of the game’s top strong safeties and even though ’95 wasn’t a Pro Bowl year, he was in the midst of a six-year run where he was consistently one of the league’s best at his position.
So in short, the Packers weren’t deep—at least when measured against the standards of NFC behemoths Dallas and San Francisco, who had combined to win the last three Super Bowls. But Green Bay had some star power in a balanced NFC Central. This division, including the four current teams of the NFC North along with Tampa Bay, had seen everyone but the Bucs make the playoffs in 1994. The Packers had not won the division since 1972.
The season didn’t exactly start off with a bang. A bad Rams team came to Lambeau Field on Week 1, picked off Favre three times and walked out with a 17-14 win. Green Bay’s coming Monday Night visit to Chicago now had some early urgency to it.
Favre came out firing with three early touchdown passes, including a 99-yard strike to Brooks. The Packers jumped out to a 21-0 lead. The Bears came roaring back, closed the lead to 27-21 and drove down to the Green Bay 3-yard line in the fourth quarter. The drive stalled, Chicago took the field goal and the Packers made the 27-24 score stand up.
A home game with the New York Giants was up next. The Giants were on their way to a rough year and the Packer defense had their way, not allowing a touchdown. Favre threw early touchdown passes to Brooks and Ingram, Bennett churned out 87 yards on the ground and the Pack won 14-6.
Green Bay headed for Jacksonville, where the Jaguars (along with the Carolina Panthers) were in their first year of existence. This Sunday Night game marked the Jags’ first prime-time appearance. Favre was the star of the show. He went 20/30 for 202 yards and spread the ball around. Leading 17-7 in the fourth quarter, a 29-yard TD pass to Anthony Morgan sewed up what ended as a 24-14 win.
The Packers went into their bye week at 3-1, but the schedule was about to get tougher. They went to Dallas, the place where their last two seasons had ended in the divisional round with decisive losses. This game didn’t go much better. They dug themselves a 24-3 hole and while Favre rallied the Pack to within 31-24 and Brooks caught 10 balls for 124 yards, Dallas controlled the line of scrimmage, drove for a clinching field goal and won 34-24.
Green Bay now faced a key NFC Central stretch. Their games against the Lions and Vikings would be jammed into the next four weeks, followed by the rematch with the Bears. The unique schedule sequence began with Detroit and Minnesota each coming into Lambeau Field.
Packers-Lions games in this era were about Favre and the great Detroit running back Barry Sanders. Both were on their game. Sanders rushed for 124 yards, but Lion QB Scott Mitchell did not play well. Favre did, going 23/34 for 342 yards and no mistakes. The Packers won 30-21. Favre stayed locked in against the Vikings. In a game that was tied 14-14 at the half, he threw four touchdowns against zero interceptions and Green Bay pulled away to a 38-21 win.
Having swept their home games, the Packers could get control of the division by simply stealing one on the road. They couldn’t do it. In Detroit, Favre threw for 304 yards, including a 77-yard TD pass to Brooks. But Favre also threw three interceptions, Sanders went for 167 yards and Green Bay lost 24-16.
In Minnesota, Favre was picked off twice and then knocked out of the game with an ankle injury. The Packers also trailed this one 24-16 before backup Ty Detmer led a game-tying drive. But the Vikings got a late field goal and won 27-24.
Green Bay was now sitting on 5-4. Favre’s status was very much in doubt. Chicago was coming in at 6-3. It was must-win.
If there’s one thing everyone in the NFL would come to learn about Brett Favre it’s that he doesn’t miss games. Not one like this. He came out and played on his bad ankle. How did he do? How about 25/33 for 336 yards, five touchdowns and no picks. Trailing 28-21 in the third quarter, he hit Brooks on a 44-yard strike to tie and then found Bennett on a 16-yard scoring pass to get the lead.
On an afternoon when the Packers couldn’t run, stop the run or contain Chicago quarterback Erik Kramer, their own injured quarterback lifted them to a 35-28 win. The win was a seminal moment for the entire season and is a key inflection point of this entire era of Packer success.
Green Bay paid a visit to Cleveland. The Browns, a playoff team a year earlier and coached by Bill Belichick, were unraveling after the stunning midseason announcement that they were moving to Baltimore. By this point, the Browns were spiritless. Favre went 23/28 for 210 yards, three TDs, zero mistakes and led a 31-20 win. It was more of the same the next week at home against Tampa—16/24, 267 yards, three TDs against no mistakes in a 35-13 win.
Cincinnati wasn’t very good, but they came to Lambeau on the first weekend of December and gave the Pack a good game, one that was tied 10-10 at the half. But the Green Bay defense was shutting down the run. Favre ended up 31/43 for 339 yards and threw for another three TDs, as the Packers pulled away 24-10.
They were 9-4 and had momentum. A division title was very much in their grasp and there were even rumblings about the Super Bowl. But a Sunday Night visit to Tampa threw a monkey wrench into those plans. Buccaneer quarterback Trent Dilfer was able to at least match Favre on this night and Bennett couldn’t get anything going on the ground. The Packers lost 13-10 in overtime.
Green Bay still led the NFC Central by a game, with Detroit and Minnesota giving chase at 8-6. Chicago had faded to 7-7, tied with Tampa. But the loss to the Bucs dropped the Packers behind the Lions in terms of divisional record. Detroit held the tiebreaker. Furthermore, any hope of catching San Francisco for the 2-seed and first-round playoff bye went out the window with the loss.
Momentum needed to be re-established in a late Saturday afternoon visit to mediocre New Orleans. The game was tied 7-7 in the second quarter. In short order, Favre threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Brooks, a 40-yard strike to Brooks and a 28-yard scoring pass to Antonio Freeman. It was 28-7 by half and ended as a comfortable 34-23 win.
The division race took clarity the rest of the weekend. The red-hot Lions won their sixth straight and were 9-6. Minnesota lost on Monday Night in San Francisco. The NFC Central was a simple proposition. The Packers would take the crown with a win in the early TV window on Christmas Eve Sunday. If they lost, the Lions could claim it when they kicked off in Tampa in the late afternoon.
And Green Bay’s opponent would not be an easy one. The Pittsburgh Steelers were one of the hottest teams in football and would eventually reach the Super Bowl. What the Packers did have going for them was homefield advantage and the fact the Steelers were already locked into the AFC’s #2 seed.
Favre did his thing. He went 23/32 for 301 yards and nary an interception to be found. Brooks was electric, catching eleven of those passes for 137 yards. Green Bay led 24-13 in the fourth quarter and seemed in control.
But Pittsburgh had their own offense gaining momentum. They marched in for one touchdown. In a big defensive stop, the Packers prevented the two-point conversion and maintained a five-point lead at 24-19. That stop loomed even larger when the Steelers got the ball back, marched inside the 10-yard line and faced a fourth down.
Yancey Thigpen had played a good game at wide receiver for the Steelers, catching six balls for 80 yards. When he got wide open in the end zone, hearts across Lambeau sank. The pass from Neil O’Donnell was right on target…and Thigpen inexplicably dropped it. The old stadium erupted. The Packers had survived 24-19. They were NFC Central champs for the first time in 23 years.
Had Thigpen caught the ball, the Packers would have been going to Philadelphia the following week, given Detroit’s subsequent win at Tampa. Instead, Green Bay was hosting a playoff game and playing a much more manageable Atlanta Falcons team that had snuck into the postseason in the final week.
The Packers spotted the Falcons a touchdown and then took. Favre played conservatively and mistake-free, at 24/35 for 199 yards. The big play of the game came when Green Bay led 14-10 and Freeman returned a punt 76 yards to the house. Bennett ran for 108 yards, the defense played well and the final was a comfortable 37-20.
Green Bay fans were now used to winning on wild-card weekend, this making three years in a row on advancing out of the first round. It was the divisional round that was the stumbling block. They didn’t have to go Dallas this year, but a trip to San Francisco—merely the defending Super Bowl champs with future Hall of Famer Steve Young at quarterback—didn’t seem a whole lot easier.
As it turned out, the Packers matched up much better with the 49ers, something they would repeatedly prove in the playoffs over the next few years. Green Bay got a defensive touchdown to get the ball rolling. Favre threw a pair of touchdown passes. A stunned nation watched on this late Saturday afternoon as the 9 ½ point underdog Packers took a 21-0 lead.
Young put the ball up 65 times in an effort to bring the 49ers back, but it really never got tight. At 21-10 in the second half, the Packers went on two long drives that ended in field goals. The final score was 27-17.
Now it was time for a third straight trip to Dallas, this time for the NFC Championship Game. The Packers were again a nine-point underdog in the betting markets. When they trailed 14-3 in the second quarter, it seemed like more of the same in Big D.
Then Favre hit Brooks on a 77-yard touchdown pass and followed it up with another scoring drive. Green Bay led 17-14 and after three quarters they still held a 27-24 lead. Favre was playing well and would end up 21/39 for 307 yards.
But his counterpart Troy Aikman was razor-sharp, going 21/33 for 255 yards and no mistakes, while Favre threw two picks. The Packers committed eleven penalties. Most important, Dallas controlled the line of scrimmage. The Green Bay pass rush never got to Aikman, while the Cowboy front got home to Favre four times. And the rushing yardage differential was 169-48 in favor of Dallas behind the great Emmitt Smith. Dallas scored twice in the fourth quarter and won 38-27.
It was a disappointing ending, but no one could contain the optimism in Green Bay. They hadn’t reached the Super Bowl yet, but they had knocked off at least one of the league’s elite teams and placed themselves squarely in the conversation. A year later, the Vince Lombardi Trophy finally came back home.