The Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers face off Saturday night in an NFC Divisional Playoff game which will be the sixth time since January 1996 that the two teams have faced each other in the playoffs.
The Packers and 49ers became quite familiar opponents in the 1990s as they played each other in the playoffs each year from 1996-1999 (note I am going by the year the playoff games were played, not the year of the ‘season’). It was a rivalry for the ages as the Packers won the first three games and the 49ers won the fourth in dramatic fashion.
Even though the four games included an NFC Championship which the Packers won en route to Super Bowl XXXII, it’s the first and the fourth of the 1990s contests that have the highest historical importance.
They almost serve as bookends for the Mike Holmgren era. The Packers’ 27-17 victory over San Francisco at Candlestick Park on January 6, 1996 served notice to the entire NFL that Green Bay was now one of the league’s elite teams. The Packers lost to the Dallas Cowboys the following week in the NFC Championship, but the win over the 49ers served as a springboard for the great 1996 season.
On the other side is the 49ers’ epic 30-27 win over the Packers on January 3, 1999. Not only did it bring an end to the Packers’ reign as the kings of the NFC but it was the final game Holmgren would coach for the Packers. Terrell Owens’ touchdown catch to win the game is forever etched in the mind of Packers fans as it marked the end of an era for the Packers that saw the team return to NFL prominence.
The Packers would have strong years afterword, but never again were they true contenders until the arrival of Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy in 2005 and 2006, respectively.
In that first win over San Francisco in 1996, the Packers were flying high after winning the NFC Central title thanks to an incredible Yancy Thigpen drop in Week 17 and after a strong performance in the 37-20 victory at Lambeau Field over the Atlanta Falcons. In fact, Holmgren felt so strongly about his team’s chances that he proclaimed after the win against Atlanta, “we’re going to win it all.” Packer fans were feeling it but not many outside the state of Wisconsin gave Green Bay much of a chance against the defending champion 49ers.
The Packers started fast against San Francisco as Craig Newsome ran back a fumble recovery for 31 yards to put the Packers up 7-0 early. Two Favre touchdown passes later the Packers were up 21-0 and never looked back. The Packers won 27-17 and moved onto Dallas where they lost the chance to go to Super Bowl XXX.
However, the stage was set for the following season. The Packers entered 1996 as favorites to win Super Bowl XXXI and did not disappoint. They beat the 49ers twice that year, one in a 23-20 overtime thriller on Monday Night at Lambeau and in a muddy divisional playoff where Favre didn’t throw the ball much but Desmond Howard was dominant and the Packers won 35-14.
The following season, the Packers beat the 49ers in the NFC Championship to advance to Super Bowl XXXII where they would eventually lose to the Denver Broncos. The loss was a big sting for Green Bay, but many expected them to again be right in the thick of things for a third consecutive NFC title.
The Packers in 1998 finished 11-5 but didn’t win the NFC Central thanks to the 15-1 Vikings. That meant the Packers would have to take the long road to the Super Bowl and faced the San Francisco 49ers in an NFC Wild Card game.
In the days leading up to the game, rumors were rampant that Holmgren was coaching his final games in Green Bay and many had him heading to Seattle to be both coach and general manager for the Seahawks. In a time before the internet really took off, the accuracy of these rumors was remarkable in hindsight.
The game itself was a back and forth battle and has gone down as one of the best playoff games in NFL history.
The Packers led 17-10 at halftime, but the 49ers had the lead 20-17 going into the fourth quarter after scoring 10 unanswered points. After a flurry of field goals, the Packers took the lead 27-23 and just had to keep San Francisco out of the end zone to secure their fourth straight playoff victory over the 49ers.
Everyone knows how it ended. Owens made an incredible 25-yard catch in coverage in the end zone and San Francisco eliminated Green Bay by a score of 30-27.
An era officially had come to an end in Green Bay. It was an era that began, and concluded, against the San Francisco 49ers.
The two games are forever linked. Before the first game, Holmgren made headlines by making his bold prediction about the Packers going to the Super Bowl. As the second game approached, the headlines again involved Holmgren but this time they were about his impending departure from Titletown.
That wild card game would indeed turn out to be Holmgren’s last game as Packers head coach as he left for more roster control with the Seahawks. The Packers would replace him with Ray Rhodes and after a disappointing 8-8 season, Rhodes and his staff (which included offensive coordinator Sherm Lewis among other holdovers from Holmgren’s staff) were fired.
Mike Sherman would come in and have some solid regular seasons with Favre at the helm, but he could never duplicate Holmgren’s success in the playoffs. The time for the Packers being a perennial Super Bowl contender had come to an end.
It was not until 2008, nine years after the loss to the 49ers, that the Packers would play in another NFC Championship Game. The Packers won another Super Bowl in 2010.
Another glorious era in Packers football is underway and once again the Packers face the 49ers in the playoffs. Regardless of outcome, the game Saturday night promises to be another watershed moment in the rivalry behind the two franchises but will it measure up to what the contests in the 1990s meant?
It’s hard to tell at this point. The Packers are set for a long time with a deep roster and both Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson are not going anywhere for quite a while. The 49ers have returned to glory under the leadership of Jim Harbaugh. Both teams are amongst the NFC elite and this game could very well be the first of another four consecutive playoff meetings.
Regardless of what the future may hold, it’s important to look back at the impact the 49ers have had on some recent Packers history. They played the Packers in games that marked both the opening and the closing of Green Bay’s window of opportunity. Both teams will be forever linked in Packers lore.
The Packers and 49ers will write another chapter in NFL history on Sunday. Looking back at the Holmgren era, this game has a lot to live up to.——————
Kris Burke is a sports writer covering the Green Bay Packers for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WTMJ in Milwaukee. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) and his work has been linked to by sites such as National Football Post and CBSSports.com. Follow @KrisLBurke