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Almost Super: 20 Years Later, '97 Packers Among the Best to Not Win It All

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Almost Super: 20 Years Later, '97 Packers Among the Best to Not Win It All

When it comes to the topic of the best teams in Green Bay Packers history, it’s not hard to find a starting point.

With a record 13 world championships under their belt, the Packers’ history is among the richest in the NFL. The Lambeau-era Packers won six titles in a 16-year span, while Lombardi’s teams won five in seven seasons, including the first two Super Bowls. With championships following the 1996 and 2010 seasons, the Packers rank fifth in league history with four Super Bowl victories.

Because championships are the ultimate barometer of success in the NFL, it’s easy to point to teams who won it all as the best in franchise history. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that the best team always wins, nor that a great team can’t simply be overcome by an even greater opponent.

Friday marked the 21st anniversary of the Packers’ triumph in Super Bowl XXXI, a result that delivered the city of Green Bay its first title in 29 years. The date—January 26th—reemerges each year as a source of conversation of pride among Packer fans.

If not for a future Hall of Fame quarterback helicoptering his way into the history books, the 25th of January could very well have earned a similar distinction. But for the 1997 Packers, being great ultimately just wasn’t enough to put them in the history books.

Fresh off a 13-3 season and a Super Bowl win, Green Bay seemed poised to capture back-to-back championships. The roster was headlined, of course, by Brett Favre, who had won two consecutive MVPs and would go on to share a third with Barry Sanders. Here’s who rounded out the Packers’ starting offense:

  • Dorsey Levens
  • William Henderson
  • Robert Brooks
  • Antonio Freeman
  • Mark Chmura
  • Ross Verba
  • Aaron Taylor
  • Frank Winters
  • Adam Timmerman
  • Earl Dotson

It’s no wonder Green Bay finished second in scoring offense and fourth in total offense in 1997. Freeman and Brooks both broke the 1,000-yard receiving mark, while Levens rushed for 1,435 yards in the absence of Edgar Bennett, who was lost to an Achilles injury during the preseason. Favre, meanwhile, led the league with 35 touchdown passes.

Defensively, personnel included:

  • Reggie White
  • Gilbert Brown
  • Santana Dotson
  • Gabe Wilkins
  • Seth Joyner
  • Bernardo Harris
  • Brian Williams
  • Tyrone Williams
  • Doug Evans
  • LeRoy Butler
  • Eugene Robinson

The unit finished seventh in total defense and fifth in scoring defense, holding 10 opponents to 16 points or less.

Green Bay ran through the regular season, racking up 13 wins for the second straight year and dispatching the Bucs and 49ers with a pair of double-digit victories to earn a return trip to the Super Bowl, where they would face the Denver Broncos on January 25th, 1998.

A year earlier, the Broncos had finished 13-3 and looked to be the best team in the AFC before being upset by Jacksonville in the Divisional round. This time, they made the playoffs as a wild card team at 12-4, boasting an offense headed by quarterback John Elway and ranked first in total yardage and fourth in rushing, led by Terrell Davis’ 1750 yards. Defensively, Denver came in at fifth overall and fifth against the pass, setting the stage for a showdown with Green Bay’s potent passing attack.

Given those numbers, it’s fair to wonder how the Packers entered the contest favored by 11-12 points, depending on the book. Still, it seemed the smart money was on the defending champs.

Green Bay took the early lead, capping off their opening drive with a 22-yard pass from Favre to Freeman, and looked poised to sprint to a second consecutive world title. But Denver evened the score immediately on Terrell Davis plunge, and used two Packer turnovers to build a 17-7 lead until a Favre connected with Chmura to cut the deficit to 17-14 just before halftime.

Green Bay tied the game at 17 early in the third quarter after a Tyrone Williams forced fumble led to a 27-yard field goal by Ryan Longwell. Late in the frame, the Broncos faced a third down at the Packers’ twelve-yard line. Elway, on a play that would become the most lasting image of the game, scrambled and dove for the first down, being spun like a helicopter in the process. Davis finished off the drive with another touchdown run, and the Broncos took at 24-17 lead.

After fumbling the ensuing kickoff, the Packers came up with an interception and promptly drove 85 yards for the tying score on a 13-yard connection from Favre to Freeman.

The score remained knotted until late in the fourth quarter. With just under two minutes to go and the Broncos set up with 2nd and goal on the Packers’ 1-yard line, Holmgren instructed his players to let the Broncos score, even though he had two timeouts to use. Denver took the lead on Davis’ third rushing touchdown of the game with 1:45 left.

Green Bay was only able to get as far as the Denver 31-yard line before Broncos linebacker John Mobley broke up Favre’s fourth down pass, sealing the game and the first title of Elway’s career.

Davis was awarded MVP honors, finishing with 157 yards on 30 carries, including the three touchdowns.

The Packers, class of the league and huge favorites in the game—and with possibly one of the greatest collections of talent in their history—were sent packing, with only the remnants of a 13-3 season to accompany them.

Of course, it’s hard to rate a team as one of the best if they weren’t able to scale the mountain. At the very least, the 1997 Packers are one of the best teams in franchise history to not win it all—if not one of the best overall. 

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (24) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Bearmeat's picture

This game sucked. I still blame Holmgren frankly. And this was the first of many BF playoff chokes. He was... not good... in the 2nd half of that game.

Tundraboy's picture

I blamed Holmgren as well. IMO we often scored so quickly our D was gassed playing in San Diego weather. Ended my dream of back to back Championships like when I was a kid in the 60s.

Tundraboy's picture

Especially after getting robbed against Dallas in 95. Ok. Now I got it all, off my chest I think.

Portland Mark's picture

I just saw This Is Us. It turns out that this game is responsible for a crock pot starting on fire. If the Packers would have won then the dad on This Is Us would never have died.

John Kirk's picture

Love me some, THIS IS US. I don't understand the Packers winning affecting Jack's life portion.

NEVER accept a crock pot from an elderly couple!

One random thought on the game... Holmgren was a genius. Faced with the dilemma of letting Denver run down the clock to kick a short gimme GW FG, or letting them score to give Favre one last crack, he opted to let them score. That has played out over the years, but that's the first time I remember it happening in a big game. Had I been Denver, I may have just opted not to run it in and kick it. Lament we didn't tie it up and go on to win in OT to make that thought of one of the greatest decisions in football history.

Sam Freeman's picture

Hahaha omg I love this! Was generally thinking the same thing!

The TKstinator's picture

I remember that GB could not stop Davis and that dreaded ZBS.
And years later Wolf made the classic “fart in the wind” remark.

John Kirk's picture

Ron allegedly said that to McGinn after the loss to the Broncos.

That's the right response, BTW. Not, we just had a very successful season.

I miss Ron's mindset a bunch. He knew we failed. We were short of the goal.

John Kirk's picture

I remember when the last furious gasp fell short my buddy and step dad and I just staring straight ahead in stunned silence.

We were heavy favorites and overconfidence was a major issue. Who can forget Eugene Robinson's episode where he's screaming on the sidelines...These guys ain't even the Colts! They're not even good....ironic he'd say that as the winless 0-10 Colts beat us in Indy 41-38 earlier that season.

Always wonder how it plays out if Terrell Davis migraines don't go away and he doesn't return to run all over us.

Also, that was the year Denver was using and heavily promoting Creatine. Not a roid but sure seemed to help them that season.

If memory serves, the Broncos were later found guilty of salary cap manipulation and received some type of penalty.

EDIT: Yes, they did. Tainted titles in '97 and '98...as bad or worse than the Patriots:

http://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2016/02/14/revisiting-denvers-cap-p...

Just a horrible game. Back to back to one and done. The next year was the Rice non fumble. Best 3 year run I've witnessed.

Ferrari Driver's picture

Favre simply never played like a HOF quarterback in both of the Super Bowl games in which he played. A kick returner was the MVP in the first one and Favre was less than spectacular in the 2nd.

Also, it seems that Holmgren had he head in Seattle and had already left Green Bay and headed West.

Perhaps one of the most disappointing Packer games I recall watching.

John Kirk's picture

Holmgren didn't leave until the following season after the T.O. walkoff TD catch.

Bearmeat's picture

You mean the game that Jerry Rice fumbled?

John Kirk's picture

Yes. :(

Charlu19's picture

Absolutely fumbled....

Charlu19's picture

Absolutely fumbled....

4thand10's picture

I watched this game, I was in my 20s. Didn't know much then and I don't know much more now:-). I do remember being overconfident, the media hyped it up pretty good. They couldn't stop Davis, so play action and QB scrambles killed em. Pretty conservative coaching also hurt if I remember correctly.

Lphill's picture

I recall on the final Denver drive a Packer defensive player got a 15 yard personal foul penalty which kept the drive going. Packers had trouble containing Davis , seems like they had the right personnel but wasn't working.

Mojo's picture

Not trying to be a contrarian, but I'm not sure this team ranks among GB's best.

A very good group indeed, but just look at the team members in the HOF for instance. Favre and White. Possibly LeRoy one day. That's it. And even Reggie was nearing the end of his career.

They had a number of good role players, but if you're objective no other real stars who had long distinguished careers.

It's just possible Denver was the more talented team. At least that would take some of the sting out of losing the game.

Tundraboy's picture

Nah Stings Went in too overconfident and lost to Elway.

Charlu19's picture

but this team had a shot to win the next year and got absolutely jobbed against SF in the playoffs. That team could have played in three straight Super Bowls. Hard to say that wasn't an elite squad in '97 when they were en route the following year to repeat as NFC Champs.

CAG123's picture

I don’t think they’re judging this off how many HOFers the team had. I thinks it’s based on the off/def rankings, the dominant wins during the regular season, the playoff run.

PackEyedOptimist's picture

The perspective that people have on the '97 collapse has always bothered me. What everyone forgot, even DURING THE GAME (not to mention 20 years later), is that the Packers had a TON of players with nagging injuries, or who had just returned from missing games due to injuries. In recent years, we've seen how important injuries are, but the '97 club had a huge rash of injuries in the late regular season. For instance, Gilbert Brown had missed a bunch of games, and was nowhere close to being "The Gravedigger" that he was when healthy.

Johnblood27's picture

Denvers "legal" but highly unethical cut blocking enabled Davis to get off.

Gabe Wilkins quit so badly on the team that he had to be released from the team in the off-season.

There was a critical non-call on a pass interference on Freeman in the first half that went for an interception as well.

I am still just sick at the thought of how this particular game played out.

And do NOT EVER mention that GOAT Rice and that blatant fumble that propelled that complete jackass TO into stardom.

I am just sick about these events, just like that Seattle melt down. Just sick.

I definitely care too much.

worztik's picture

Shudda one dat gaim... had da peeses and I doesn’t no wear we felt apart? Dats wye we play da game... to ax qweschuns afterwoods!

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