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When the Green Bay Packers hosted the Carolina Panthers in the 1996 NFC Championship Game, it was the biggest home game for the Pack in 29 years. The last time Green Bay hosted a game with a Super Bowl berth on the line prior to this was the Ice Bowl against Dallas back in 1967. It was also the biggest game in the Panthers brief history as they surprised everybody by reaching the title game in just their second season in the league.
The temperature was cold at three degrees above zero, not as cold as the Ice Bowl but certainly Packers weather. The atmosphere at Lambeau Field was simply electric.
Things didn’t get off to a great start for the Packers. Quarterback Brett Favre was pumped up and he threw an early interception which linebacker Sam Mills returned to the Green Bay three. One play later, the Panthers took a 7-0 lead when Carolina quarterback Kerry Collins found Howard Griffith wide open in the end zone.
“I was cold, very cold and we definitely got off to a slow start in the game,” Packers wide receiver Antonio Freeman remembered. “But we were playing against a pretty good Panthers defense — that was their strength. Coach Holmgren always scripted the first 15 plays, but they didn’t work very well against Carolina that day.”
“I think it was like a championship fight where each team was sparring with the other,” Holmgren said. “And then things kind of evened off and loosened up.”
The Packers evened the score in the second quarter on a pretty 29-yard touchdown catch by backup running back Dorsey Levens. Favre’s pass was accurate but Levens had to leap over cornerback Eric Davis and he somehow managed to get both feet in bounds for the score.
The Panthers answered and retook the lead, 10-7 on 22-yard field goal by John Kasey which was set up by a Favre fumble. But after that, the Packers took control of the game.
Green Bay engineered a 15-play, 71-yard drive that ended when Favre found wide receiver Freeman for a six-yard touchdown pass to make it 14-10 Packers.
Then a few plays later, CB Tyrone Williams intercepted Collins and Chris Jacke booted a 31-yard field goal with 10 seconds left in the half to give the Packers a 17-10 lead at the intermission.
“That was big, to finish the half like that,” Freeman said. “We were on our way.”
The teams traded field goals in the third quarter before Levens provided the game breaking play on a 66-yard screen pass that put the Packers on the Carolina four. Edgar Bennett cashed in from four yards out to make it 27-13 Packers.
Green Bay never looked back in the fourth quarter. Jacke booted a 28-yard field goal to provide the final margin and the Packers won it 30-13.
The Packers were known as a passing team, but in the cold, they rushed for 201 yards on 45 carries led by Bennett’s 99 yards in 25 carries and Levens’ 88 yards in just 10 tries. Levens also caught five passes for 117 more yards giving him 205 total yards for the game.
Favre finished the contest 19-of-29 for 292 yards and two touchdowns. The Packers intercepted Collins twice on the day and forced three total turnovers.
The boisterous crowd of 60,216 celebrated the Packers first Super Bowl berth in nearly three decades.
“It’s been a fun ride,” Favre told reporters after the game. “It’s not over yet.”
The Packers knew they still had one more big game to win if they were going to erase the burden of living up to the legacy Lombardi’s dynasty teams. “I’ve been saying it all year and especially this week: The only way we can get rid of all that talk is to win,” defensive end Sean Jones said after the game. “The difference between those teams and this one is that they’ve won championships and we haven’t done that yet. Until we’ve done that, we can’t speak in the same vein as those great teams. We’ve got a great opportunity.”
Two weeks later, the Packers defeated the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI 35-21.
Looking back, GM Ron Wolf, the architect of that championship team, felt that the victory in the NFC Championship Game was the most special for him. “It was a very special moment in my NFL career,” Wolf recalled. “It was a marvelous thing, a very euphoric feeling, to be in Lambeau Field that day. We went on to win the Super Bowl, but for me that was the pinnacle.”
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