The Green Bay Packers and their fans had waited a long time for this moment. The franchise hadn’t won a division title in more than two decades but a win against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lambeau Field would end that slump. They got that with a dramatic finish in a 24-19 win thanks to two touchdown passes by Brett Favre and a dropped pass in the end zone by Pittsburgh’s Yancey Thigpen in the closing seconds of the game.
“Finally, we got a break,” Packers kicker Chris Jacke exclaimed. “The dropped pass in the end zone, they don’t get much bigger than that.”
The Dramatic Finish That Clinched the Packers Division Title
The Steelers had the ball 1st-and-goal on the Green Bay five in the closing seconds of the game. “Your back literally is against the wall,” Packers head coach Mike Holmgren said. “You have to make four plays in a row.”
After quarterback Neil O’Donnell threw two incomplete passes, the Steelers tried to run with Kordell “Slash” Stewart,” but Packers defensive lineman Sean Jones and safety LeRoy Butler stopped him for a one-yard loss.
The Steelers called their final timeout before their final try from the six. Pittsburgh sent Thigpen and Stewart wide left and receivers to the right. The Packers rushed four and dropped seven. Sean Jones almost got to O’Donnell but didn’t affect his throw.
O’Donnell looked to the right as Thigpen began to run a slant on the left, leaving him alone with Packers DB Lenny McGill man-to-man. McGill slipped momentarily when the receiver cut his pattern back to the corner. Five yards separated Thigpen from the defender.
But the Pro Bowl receiver had the ball bounce off his hands and fall to the Lambeau Field turf. Favre took a knee in victory formation and the Packers had won.
“Merry Christmas to Green Bay,” Thigpen told reporters after the game. “That’s my present. Christmas came a day early. I just short-armed it. I felt somebody close, just wanted to pull it in, make sure. Pulled it in too quick.”
“I didn’t watch it,” Favre said of the final Steelers play. “I just waited to see if we cheered or if we cried. We cheered and then I just looked at the replay.”
The First Half Buildup to the Packers Dramatic Finish
Favre played a gutsy game. He left the game after being hit by Greg Lloyd and two other Steelers players and was spitting up blood. He missed one play. Backup Jim McMahon completed a six-yard pass to Robert Brooks to set up a 47-yard field goal by Jacke that put the Packers ahead 24-13. He then returned to the game.
“When we have the pressure on [Favre] reads it,” Steelers linebacker Kevin Greene said. “He knows how to handle our pressure defense.” Greene would later be an assistant coach on the Packers 2010 Super Bowl team.
The Packers opened the scoring early in the second quarter on a nine-yard run by Edgar Bennett. Favre hit Brooks for two completions on the drive and Bennett also had a 23-yard run to set up the score.
A Favre fumble set up the Steelers first points of the game, a 33-yard field goal by Norm Johnson.
Late in the second quarter, the teams traded touchdowns. First, Favre found Brooks on a 19-yard scoring strike. Earlier in the drive, he hit Brooks for 14 yards, running back Dorsey Levens for 13 and receiver Mark Ingram for 28. Brooks finished the game with 11 catches for 138 yards and a touchdown.
But O’Donnell rallied Pittsburgh to a score in the final 1:56 on a nine-play, 70-yard drive that ended with an eight-yard touchdown pass to Ernie Mills. The Packers led 14-10 at the half.
The Second Half Buildup
In the third quarter, the Packers extended their lead on a one-yard touchdown pass to tight end Mark Chmura. It was a short drive that started at the Pittsburgh 32. The key plays were a 23-yard pass to Levens and an eight-yard scramble by Favre.
The teams traded field goals before the Steelers scored in the fourth quarter on a two-yard run by Tim Lester. The Steelers attempted a two-point conversion but failed to convert and the Packers led 24-19.
That set up the dramatic finish with Thigpen’s drop.
The Aftermath of the Packers Dramatic Division Clinching Finish
This was a very emotional win for the Packers. “I love this group,” Holmgren said. “Regardless of how far they go, this has been my most enjoyable year coaching. They are really, truly an unselfish group. It’s almost like it should have ended that way. There might have been a little divine intervention on the last play.”
“I know the people here have been waiting a lot longer than I have, but it seems like an eternity,” Favre said. “I think we earned it. It’s a great feeling. “I can’t say how much [winning the division] means to this team. I think it’ll hit us tomorrow or sometime during the week just how important a win today was.”
GM Ron Wolf had trouble speaking after the game. “To have come so close [to losing],” said Wolf, his voice breaking off. “But we didn’t lose. Eleven wins, it’s a huge number. A lot of things were said at the beginning of the year about how lousy we’d be. Well, everybody will have a Merry Christmas.”
The Packers finished the season 11-5. They advanced to the NFC title game for the first time since the Ice Bowl but lost to the Cowboys in Dallas. One year later, they were Super Bowl champs. The Steelers also finished 11-5 and represented the AFC in the Super Bowl. The win was a big one for the Packers in so many ways.
“There must have been some divine intervention on that last play,” Holmgren added. “You know, Reggie White plays for us. When a play like that happens, you just say ‘thank you’ to someone.”
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