A look back: A game that signaled the demise of a dominant team
Everyone remembers the dominant teams of the 1990s, namely the Cowboys and the Brett Favre-led Packers teams.
Year after year, those two teams would be at or near the top of the NFC standings and were always in contention for Super Bowl Berths.
However, few remember exactly when these teams began to slip … when other teams began to creep to the levels they had set … eventually overtaking them.
After the Packers won Super Bowl XXXI, the team came back in 1997 as the team to beat. With a huge target on their back, the inevitable occurred in the second week of the season at Philadelphia when the Eagles slipped by the Pack 10-9. Not much went right in that game and that futility was epitomized early in the game when Antonio Freeman dropped a sure touchown pass as he streaked wide open down the left sideline. The play was reminiscent of the 80-yard bomb Favre threw to Freeman just a few months before in the Super Bowl, except this time Freeman dropped it.
Had Freeman caught that ball, the game’s outcome would have been much different.
Despite that loss, the Packers didn’t lay down. The team went on to win eight straight. Though there were close games through that stretch, including a one point win over the Bears, the Packers always found a way to win.
But the chinks in the Packers’ armor was beginning to show.
It all came to a head in week 12 when the Packers traveled to Indianapolis to take on a hapless Colts team.
By the time the clock ran out on the Packers, they were beaten, bruised and exposed … not to mention embarrassed.
It also proved to be the turning point for the franchise … from dominant to average.
On the short end of a 41-38 game, it was the defense that had stayed back in Green Bay that day as the usually stingy squad had been burned for 18 points in the second quarter and 11 in the fourth quarter.
The offense did its part in this contest, racing out to score two first quarter touchdowns on the strength of running back Dorsey Levens’ pass catching and running abilities. Levens caught a three yard Brett Favre pass to give the Packers a 7-0 lead. Following a Colts field goal from Cary Blanchard, Levens again went to work – this time on the ground. Number 25 ripped off a 52 yard touchdown run to give Green Bay a quick 14-3 lead.
However, that lead was short-lived as the Colts came right back with a score. A young Marvin Harrison caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from Paul Justin.
But the Colts weren’t done.
They came out in the second quarter and began to dominate. Albert Fontenot returned a fumble 33 yards and Justin followed that with a two-point conversion pass to Brian Stablein to put the Colts up 17-14. They followed that score with another touchdown when Jason Belser scored from 50 yards out on a lateral. After the point-after, the Colts led 24-14.
The Colts smelled blood.
But like any championship-caliber team, the Packers came back. On the backs of Dorsey Levens (1 yard TD run) and Antonio Freeman (16-yard TD pass) the Packers regained the lead, 28-24.
But the Colts made it a one-point game at halftime with a field goal and then came out in the second half to score the only points of the third quarter – a Cary Blanchard field goal to give them a 30-28 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
It was at this point that the Packers left the door open for the hungry Colts and the point in the season when the Packers eventual demise in Super Bow XXXII could have been predicted.
The Packers were a team that had been the best in both leagues for so long that they had become complacent, especially on defense.
The Colts saw the opening – as did the Broncos a few weeks later in the Super Bowl – to keep the pedal to the metal.
While the Packers scored 10 fourth quarter points, the Colts weren’t going to go away. Indianapolis scored 11, including a two-point conversion on a pass from Justin to Harrison.
While the Packers scored late in the game on a Favre to Freeman connection, it was the defense that faltered, allowing a game-winning Blanchard field goal at the end.
Looking back, this was the game that broke the Packers back … the game that demonstrated that they were human and could be exposed.
That was the tactic the Broncos would take in that year’s Super Bowl … mixing a potent running attack with the smart passing of John Elway to defeat the Packers.
You can bet the Broncos studied the film from that Indianapolis game intently.
Needless to say, the Packers were never the same … By the end of the next season, the Packers were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round, Mike Holmgren emigrated to Seattle and Reggie White was a shell of his former self.
The days of dominance in the 1990s were long gone and the team spiraled toward mediocrity. Though the team was always competitive with Brett Favre as the quarterback, they were never as dominant as they had once been. The team did make a run at the Super Bowl in 2003, but would once again fall to even greater depths in the mid-2000s before coming back in 2007 with a miraculous season and an appearance in the NFC championship game.
Favre’s interception on his final pass as a Packer also signaled the start of a new era and the team again began a slow ascent to the top.
However, it wasn’t all easy.
In fact there was one game, a loss (that like the Indianapolis game that signaled the demise of the franchise) served as a springboard to the 2010 championship.
You might be surprised at which game I believe jumpstarted this team and eventually led them to the Super Bowl.
That game will be revealed in the next column.