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Green Bay Ices Carolina in NFC Title Game, 30-13

By Richard Justice
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 13, 1997; Page C1

GREEN BAY, Wis., Jan. 12--Surrounded by reminders of their championship heritage, haunted by their recent playoff failures, the Green Bay Packers ended 29 years of frustration by returning to the only game that would please the great Lombardi.

These Packers hear about Vince Lombardi almost every day. They drive streets bearing his name, they are constantly reminded of his accomplishments and they live in a city where his former players are still legends. This afternoon, these Packers moved to the threshold of winning a Lombardi Trophy of their own by defeating the overmatched Carolina Panthers, 30-13, in the NFC championship game.

A roaring sellout crowd of 60,216 filled the parking lots at Lambeau Field three hours before kickoff and stayed late, shrugging off bone-chilling cold just as their beloved Packers shrugged off the second-year Panthers.

Inside the Green Bay locker room, the celebration was decidedly low key as players hurried home to watch the New England Patriots win the AFC championship game, 20-6 over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Again and again, the Packers reminded anyone who would listen that their mission won't be complete unless they win Super Bowl XXXI--and the Lombardi Trophy--on Jan. 26 in New Orleans.

Brett Favre"It's been a fun ride," said Packers quarterback Brett Favre (pictured). "It's not over yet."

It will be if the Packers have another performance like this one. They chopped up the NFL's second-best defense for a team playoff-record 479 yards, including 201 on the ground. They controlled the ball for 38 minutes. They scored on six of seven possessions after a shaky start.

It was all reminiscent of Green Bay's glory years, the 1960s, during which they captured six NFL titles under the coaching direction of Lombardi, plus victories in Super Bowls I and II after the 1966 and 1967 seasons. The Packers, owners of a record 11 league championships, have been to the playoffs only six times 1967, including the past four seasons. The past three years they were eliminated by the Dallas Cowboys.

Dorsey LevensThis afternoon, Green Bay running back Dorsey Levens (pictured) introduced himself to the nation with 205 combined yards. He set up the Packers' first touchdown with a 35-yard run and scored it by catching a beauty of a 29-yard pass from Favre.

Late in the third quarter, Levens turned a screen pass into a 66-yard play to set up the touchdown that gave the Packers a 27-13 lead. For most of his three seasons, he has been Edgar Bennett's anxious backup. Today, he was a star.

"He was special in a special game," Coach Mike Holmgren said. "You need performances like that in a game like this. He had a phenomenal game."

Levens totaled 88 rushing yards and 117 receiving yards. Bennett ran for 99 more. And Favre, the NFL's most valuable player each of the past two seasons, played at a championship level in throwing two touchdown passes and helping the Packers convert 9 of 17 third-down plays.

Everything else belonged to the NFL's best defense. With mammoth nose tackle Gilbert Brown stuffing the middle, Green Bay allowed Carolina 45 rushing yards and one drive longer than 42 yards.

"They played at a different level than we did today," Carolina quarterback Kerry Collins said.

At the beginning, there were two questions: Would newly installed sod hold up? What would be the impact of the weather?

The field was fine. And even though temperatures hovered between 3 and 10 degrees, there was only a bit of wind, and some players on both teams played with bare arms. "The weather was not a factor," Panthers Coach Dom Capers said.

After playoff defeats the past three seasons, the Packers played with the burden of expectations. They were jittery early, and when middle linebacker Sam Mills intercepted a pass by Favre deep in Packers territory, the Panthers turned it into a 7-0 lead.

"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."

Levens tied it on the first play of the second quarter, then Favre made another mistake. As he scrambled away from pressure, he inexplicably dropped the ball. Linebacker Lamar Lathon recovered and the Panthers got a 22-yard field goal by John Kasay and a 10-7 lead.

"I was a little bit cold. I was excited and it was nothing more than that," Favre said. "I've accomplished every individual honor that I possibly could in a short period of time. But if you don't want a Super Bowl, it leaves you with an empty feeling."

Packers vs. PanthersThat was the end of it for the Panthers. Favre directed a brilliant 15-play, 71-yard drive that included three third-down conversions and ended with a six-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Antonio Freeman. Trailing 14-10 with 48 seconds remaining in the half, the Panthers did something they almost never do: They took a chance. Collins threw deep down the left sideline for wide receiver Willie Green, but cornerback Ty Williams made a diving interception at the Green Bay 38.

With 35 seconds left, Favre scrambled away from a blitz and threw 23 yards to wide receiver Andre Rison. Then Freeman turned a short slant pattern into a 25-yard gain to the 14, and Chris Jacke's 31-yard field goal gave the Packers a 17-10 lead.

Green Bay took the second-half kickoff and drive 73 yards in 11 plays for another field goal and a 20-10 lead.

The Panthers did drive for a field goal to get back within seven, but then Levens broke a 66-yard play and Bennett scored on a four-yard run to make it 27-13. Two plays later, Brown slapped the ball from running back Anthony Johnson, and the Packers turned that mistake into another field goal and a 30-13 lead with 10:02 left.

Mark Carrier Mourns The game had begun with a pair of Packers legends--Paul Hornung and Willie Wood--coming to midfield for the coin toss. It was another reminder of another era, one that produced championships instead of near-misses. Now, these Packers are close to a trophy of their own.

"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. "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."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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