A lot of history and a lot of success are hallmarks of both of these franchises, but they actually share very little of either.
Sunday’s game at Lambeau Field will only be the 37th meeting of these franchises, and the most significant of all came in Super Bowl XLV. Outside of that one game, there never has been a trophy presentation at the conclusion of any of the other Steelers-Packers confrontations.
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The Green Bay Packers were founded on Aug. 11, 1919 by Earl “Curly” Lambeau and George Whitney Calhoun. Lambeau worked for Indian Packing, and for a $500 donation he named the team after the company. On Aug. 27, 1921, the Packers were granted an NFL franchise, but the team played only six games before financial woes struck and resulted in the forfeiture of the remaining games on the schedule.
With new financial backers, known as the “Hungry Five,” coming on board the following year, the Packers were able to complete their 10-game schedule in 1922, and now the franchise is recognized for having played in its original city longer than any other team in the NFL.
By the time Art Rooney Sr. was awarded the charter for Pittsburgh’s professional football team, the Packers already had won three NFL Championships, and Lambeau’s group wasn’t exactly welcoming to Rooney’s team once the games began.
The series began in 1933, the Steelers’ inaugural season, and from then through 1946 the teams played 12 times and the Packers won them all. And they won them handily, by a combined 396-117. During that span, the Packers won three more NFL Championships, while the Steelers annually struggled to reach .500.
The Steelers’ first win in the series came in 1947, a season in which Pittsburgh finished tied with Philadelphia atop the Eastern Division at 8-4 only to lose to the Eagles in a playoff for the right to play for the NFL Championship.
Starting in 1947 and continuing to the time when the Packers hired Vince Lombardi in 1959, the Steelers were 6-2 vs. Green Bay. Lombardi’s teams were 3-1 vs. the Steelers, with his only loss coming in 1967, which was Lombardi’s final season in Green Bay and one that ended with a victory in Super Bowl II.
The Steelers hired Chuck Noll in 1969 to set the stage for their dynasty, and during Noll’s career his teams were 4-2 against the Packers. But the one enduring characteristic of this series, the one constant from 1933 when it began through the end of Noll’s tenure, was that whenever the Packers were good the Steelers were not, and vice versa.
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The 1967 regular season finale that matched these teams was not a defining victory for the Steelers even though it came on the road against a defending champion that was on the way to defending its championship successfully. The Packers already had clinched the NFL’s Central Division title, and with a roster packed with thirtysomethings even Lombardi was pragmatic about the importance of a gam against the 3-9-1 Steelers.
Bart Starr would start at quarterback, but he soon was relieved by backup Zeke Bratkowski, and it turned out that No. 3 Don Horn would take most of the snaps. Jim Grabowski, Ben Wilson, and Donny Anderson all rushed for over 400 yards during the 1967 season, but none of them played much against the Steelers. It was that kind of a game.
The Steelers were dominated in th statistics, but five Packers turnovers were the difference, with two of those ending up in the end zone. Defensive end Ben McGee returned an interception 21 yards for a touchdown and defensive tackle Chuck Hinton returned a fumble 27 yards for another score, and those plays served as the difference in the 24-17 final.
As it turned out, these teams actually were headed in the same direction – down. The Steelers would not manage a winning season until 1972 when their dynasty began; the Packers dynasty ended at the end of the 1967 season, and the franchise wouldn’t win another playoff game until the tournament following the strike-shortened 1982 season.
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Bill Cowher and Mike Holmgren both became head coaches in 1992, and before the first month of their respective rookie seasons were over, their teams met in Lambeau Field. The teams’ starts under their respective new coaches were quite different.
The Steelers arrived at Lambeau Field at 3-0 and with a win on the road against the Houston Oilers, at the time the defending champions of the AFC Central Division. The Packers were 1-2, and Holmgren was about to make a decision that defined his career.
Don Majkowski, a veteran, was Holmgren’s starting quarterback when the season opened, but lurking on the depth chart was a guy named Brett Favre, acquired by Green Bay GM Ron Wolf in an offseason trade with the Atlanta Falcons. The Packers opened 0-2, and in the third game – what turned into a win over the Cincinnati Bengals – Majkowski injured an ankle in the first quarter. Favre took it from there and was the obvious choice to start the following weekend when Cowher and the Steelers would visit.
It was Favre’s first NFL start, and his streak of consecutive starts would reach 297 over 21 seasons.
As for the game itself, it was far less significant. The Steelers ended up winning a division championship and heading into the AFC playoffs as the No. 1 seed. The Packers finished 9-7 in the NFC North, out of the playoffs.
And while Favre completed 14-of-19 for 210 yards and a couple of touchdowns, the issue that would have lasting ramifications through that 1992 season was the manner in which the Steelers would move the football and then find ways not to score. That was what plagued them in their AFC Divisional Round Game vs. Buffalo, which the Bills won, 24-3, on the way to Super Bowl XXVII.
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Yancey dropped the ball!
That proved to be a signature moment in Holmgren’s career, in Favre’s career, in the restoration of the Green Bay Packers as one of the NFL’s elite teams.
It was the regular season finale in 1995, and the Steelers arrived in Green Bay with both a divison title and a first-round bye in the upcoming playoffs secured. The Packers had qualified for the postseason as well, but they needed a win to clinch the NFC Central and secure the home playoff game that came with it.
Though meaningless to them, the Steelers played to win, and that’s exactly what looked like was going to happen through the final portion of the fourth quarter. A 2-yard run by Tim Lester followed by a failed two-point coversion brought the Steelers to 24-19, and they began marching right down the field again the next time they got the ball.
On the game’s final play, Neil O’Donnell put the ball right between Yancey Thigpen’s numbers. Thigpen, who had 85 catches for 1,307 yards that season, was wide open.
The Packers played the Falcons in Green Bay in the NFC Wild Card Round and won, 37-20. The Steelers lost to Dallas in Super Bowl XXX, 27-17, despite a touchdown catch from Yancey Thigpen.
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Super Bowl XLV was the first to be played after the NFL put the hammer down on what has come to be known as the player safety initiative. It was in 2010, following the Steelers fifth game of the season, that James Harrison was among those singled out by the league and disciplined harshly for hits often not even penalized by any of the seven on-field officials.
The game is remembered as one where quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the talent whose presence helped the Packers decide to push Favre into retirement, shredded the Steelers defense, and he did finish with 304 yards passing and three touchdowns.
But what ultimately served as the Steelers’ undoing in their quest for a seventh Lombardi Trophy were three turnovers – including a pick-six by Packers safety Nick Collins, and a Rashard Mendenhall fumble at the Green Bay 36-yard line on the first play of the fourth quarter – in what turned into a 31-25 victory for Green Bay.