Bart Starr is remembered as one of the best clutch performers in NFL history. The Green Bay Packers quarterback started 10 postseason games in his Hall of Fame career and went 9-1 with his only loss coming in his first postseason start, the 1960 NFL Championship Game.
But Starr’s best effort in the postseason came in the 1966 NFL Championship Game when he led the Packers to a thrilling 34-27 win over the Dallas Cowboys. The win earned the Packers a berth in Super Bowl I and gave Vince Lombardi his fourth of five eventual NFL titles.
The Packers were known as a run-first team in the 1960s with Hall of Famers Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung leading the way out of the backfield. But by 1966, the duo was slowing down. Hornung was slowed by a pinched nerve and gained only 200 yards on the ground all season. Taylor was in his last season with the Packers and gained only 705 yards and averaged just 3.5-yards per carry that season, his lowest totals since 1959.
The Packers were also set to face Tom Landry’s “Flex Defense” which was designed to take away the run first and featured future Hall of Famer Bob Lilly at defensive tackle. Lombardi knew it wouldn’t be easy to run on the Cowboys in this game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
“Coach Lombardi, his philosophy was to take what they give you,” explained wide receiver Carroll Dale. “If they came up eight in the box, he would throw on every down if he needed to.”
So, the Packers game plan included a lot more passing than usual. Essentially, Lombardi was putting the game in Starr’s hands. Before the game started, Lombardi told the New York Times, “The quarterbacks probably will decide who wins the game. They usually do. If Don Meredith is hot, Dallas will probably win. If Bart Starr is hot, Green Bay will win.”
Meredith played well. He finished the game with 238 yards passing and helped Dallas put up 27 points. But Starr was outstanding, completing 19-of-28 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns and no interceptions. His quarterback rating was a postseason career high 143.5 in a game that was played before it was illegal to make contact with a receiver more than five yards downfield and offensive linemen were limited as to how they could use their hands to protect the quarterback.
Starr led the Packers to points on their first drive. After Elijah Pitts ran for 32 yards on a misdirection play to get the Pack downfield, Starr finished the drive with a 17-yard pass to Pitts to make it 7-0 Packers.
The Packers extended their lead on the ensuing kickoff when Mel Renfro fumbled the ball and fullback Jim Grabowski scooped it up and returned it for an 18-yard special teams touchdown. The Packers were ahead 14-0.
The early lead didn’t last and the Cowboys showed their resilience and came back. Touchdown runs by Dan Reeves and Don Perkins tied the game at 14-14 at the end of the first quarter.
Then Starr went back to work. He put the Packers back ahead on a precise, 51-yard touchdown toss to Dale that had to be placed perfectly. “Cornell Green was an outstanding defensive back,” Dale said. “He was hard to get behind. On that play, I ran a post pattern, made it look like I was going outside and then went down the middle. Bart had to guess and anticipate where I was going to be. Green recovered sufficiently and went for the ball and it glanced off his arm. It kind of hit me in the crook of my right arm and just stuck. I never broke stride.”
The Cowboys put together two more drives, one late in the second quarter and one early in the third to pull back to within 21-20. Each time the Packers defense stiffened and held Dallas to a field goal.
But Starr again rallied the Packers. He hit Dale on a 40-yard pass that set up a 16-yard touchdown pass to Boyd Dowler that made the score 28-20 Packers after three quarters. On the touchdown pass, Dallas linebacker Chuck Howley had his hands wrapped around Starr’s ankles. Bart released the ball as he was falling but the pass was still accurate and the Packers extended their lead.
In the fourth, Starr tossed his fourth touchdown pass of the game on a drive that highlighted his accuracy and ability to perform under pressure. He converted three 3rd-and-long situations, one for 19 yards, one for 20 and one for 12. Each time he picked up the key first down. The drive ended on a 28-yard touchdown pass to Max McGee. But Lilly blocked Don Chandler’s extra point attempt and the score was just 34-20, keeping it a two-possession game (no two-point conversion in the NFL in 1966).
The Cowboys cut the lead to one score on a 68-yard bomb from Meredith to Frank Clarke on a 3rd-and-20. Suddenly, the score was 34-27.
The Packers had a chance to run out the clock but Dallas’ “Doomsday Defense” came up big and forced the Packers to punt. Chandler’s kick went only 17 yards and the Cowboys had one last chance to tie the score.
The drive started at the Green Bay 47 with 2:12 seconds left. A pass interference penalty against Packers defensive back Tom Brown put the ball at the Green Bay two with less than a minute to go.
That’s when Lombardi’s defense stepped up. On first down, they stopped Reeves at the one. The Cowboys then were called for a false start which moved the ball back to the six. Reeves was scratched in the eye and had trouble seeing on the next play, so he dropped a pass in the flat. On third down, Meredith found tight end Pettis Norman but the Green Bay defense stopped him at the two.
On fourth down, Meredith rolled out and was pressured by Hall of Fame linebacker Dave Robinson. Robinson wasn’t supposed to blitz, but as he saw the play unfold, he went after the quarterback based on what he had seen in game films. Robinson hit “Dandy Don” as he released the ball and Brown intercepted it in the end zone with 28 seconds left to play. The Packers held on for a 34-27 win.
“He really broke his assignment,” backup quarterback Zeke Bratkowski said of Robinson. “You can win with smart people, people who prepare and have confidence.”
The win sent the Packers to Super Bowl I in Los Angeles, where they would represent the NFL against the AFL champions, the Kansas City Chiefs.
After the game, Mark Duncan, the NFL’s supervisor of officials told the Milwaukee Journal, “No one ever played a better game at quarterback than Bart Starr did today. If anyone ever did, you’d have to show me, and I wouldn’t believe it.”
Starr made a career out of postseason excellence, but he may never have been better than he was in the 1966 NFL Championship Game.
Lombardi summed things up for reporters after the game. “This team has something more than respect for each other,” the coach said. “There’s a better word than respect—the word is love. There is love on this ball club.”
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