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The Green Bay Packers may have saved their best to second-to-last in their inaugural meeting with the Carolina Panthers.
The Packers dominated all facets of the game in downing the Panthers 30-13 before 60,216 frozen fans at Lambeau Field in the NFC Championship game Jan. 12, 1997.
The emotional triumph catapulted the Packers into Super Bowl XXXI where they would pound the New England Patriots 35-21 in New Orleans two weeks later.
"This is a very special place to be right now," Packer coach Mike Holmgren said after the game. "When I talked to the team I couldn't get the words out. We have a handful of players on this team that are near the end of their careers. It makes it all the more special. The opportunity they have now to get to a Super Bowl – not everyone gets there, obviously. These guys have been such great people and such great players. I'm so happy for them I can't put it into words.''
Holmgren and the Packers had some legitimate worries entering their first home championship game since the legendary Ice Bowl on New Year's Eve 1967.
The biggest worry may have been field conditions.
The Packers toppled the San Francisco 49ers in a divisional playoff game the week before in a mudbath and in the process ripped up Lambeau Field. The Packers and the NFL scurried all week to replace the turf. Todd Edelbeck, Green Bay's head groundskeeper, and Chip Toma, the NFL's turf consultant, headed a crew, which installed $150,000 worth of Maryland sod in a matter of days. With that concern appeased, the Packers turned their attention to the Panthers.
Possessing a sturdy defense and a competent offense, the Western Division champions promised to put up more than a fight than the Niners' did a week earlier.
For a time that was true.
With their zone-blitz defense and opportunistic offense, the Panthers sandwiched a Kerry Collins-to-Howard Griffith TD pass and a Steve Karsay around a Brett Favre scoring pass to take a 10-7 lead in the second quarter.
The Packers then seized the momentum with two plays that would ultimately thrust them into the Super Bowl.
Green Bay experienced some turbulence during a 15-play, 71-yard drive when Antonio Freeman was flagged for a chop block. The penalty pushed the Packers from the Panther nine to the 25. Facing a second-and-25, Favre drilled Andre Rison with a 22-yard pass. On the next play, the Packers took the lead for good on a six-yard TD pass from Favre to Rison with 48 seconds left in the first half.
On the first play after Freeman's score, Tyrone Williams intercepted Collins giving the Packers the ball at the Panther 38 with 35 seconds to go.
The Packers marched to the 14 on just two plays. After one misfire into the end zone, Chris Jacke booted a 31-yard field goal to give the Packers an insurmountable 17-10 lead at the break.
"I think it's a real credit to the players that bad things can happen early and they can battle back, especially in a game of this magnitude," Holmgren said. "I think that shows something, a maturity and a team that's pretty close."
In the second half, the Packer defense limited the Panthers to a field goal while their offensive counterparts were churning toward the finish line. Jacke kicked two more field goals and Edgar Bennett scored on a four-yard run in the second half.
The running game, buoyed by the blocking of fullback William Henderson, totaled 202 yards with Bennett and Levens accounting for 187 of those yards. Levens also caught five passes for 117 yards.
"Dorsey was special in a special game," Holmgren said. "You need performances like that in games like this. I really believe that the cream rises to the top and Dorsey certainly had a phenomenal game running and catching. He's been pretty consistent all season long."