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The Road to the Catch II





It seems as if the 49ers and the Packers have waged a war of attrition since the dawn of time. But while their histories go back a ways, the two teams have only met in the playoffs since the 1990s. It was an era of dominance for both franchises, one that saw the passing of the torch more than once, ending in one spectacular Catch.


An Upset



A decade into their dynasty, the San Francisco had grown fat in their oppulance. In recent years, they had enjoyed the success of not one but two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks throwing passes to the greatest receiver the league had ever seen. With an offense the envy of the entire league at their disposal, the 49ers knew that time was running short with their beloved offensive coordinator, Mike Holmgren. Sure enough, after barely finishing outside of the playoffs in 1991 with a 10-6 record, the 49ers lost Holmgren to the Green Bay Packers


Seeing the wonders that he had done with Joe Montana and Steve Young, the Packers hoped that he could coax whatever talent that he could from incumbent quarterback Don Majkowski. While he had proven his value up until that point, having enjoyed a Pro Bowl season in 1989, "Majik" never had a great amount of talent to work with and thus suffered through several subpar seasons.


Before the season began, Packers General Manager Ron Wolfe traded for Atlanta's Brett Favre. While it's normally unwise to trade a first round pick for a third string quarterback with a drinking problem, Wolfe saw something in the young gunslinger and felt within the pit of his stomach that Favre could be special under the guidance of the old high school tennis coach. After all, he had seen what he had done with Joe Montana and Steve Young in San Francisco, watching them blossom into Hall of Fame caliber players.



It wasn't easy. In the coming years, Holmgren and Favre would butt heads countless times as Favre continued to throw innumerable interceptions while trying in vain to learn the complicated West Coast Offense. But in the midst of the growing pains, the Packers still managed to go 9-7 each years from 1992 through 1994, going to the playoffs twice and losing to the Cowboys in the Divisional Round in each campaign.


By 1995, Green Bay appeared to have turned a corner. That year, Favre earned league MVP honors after throwing for 4,413 yards and 38 touchdowns while leading the Packers to an improved 11-5 record.

Meanwhile, the 49ers were struggling to defend their most recent Super Bowl title. They were all set to clinch the number one seed in the playoffs in the last week of the regular season when they were stunned in a one-point loss to the playoff-hungry Falcons. As a result, the 49ers became the second seed in the conference, right behind Dallas. After the Packers beat the Falcons 37-20 in the Wild Card, the two teams were set to meet for the first time ever in the postseason.




The Packers started off fast in sunny San Francisco as Craig Newsome returned a recovered fumble 31 yards for the game's first points. When Keith Jackson caught a short touchdown pass to end the first and Mark Chmura caught a 13-yarder to begin the second, the 49ers suddenly found themselves down 21-0.


For the next two and a half quarters, the 49ers staged a comeback attempt, but every time they scored it seemed that the Packers answered right back, whether it was by way of a critical field goal or timely clock management. In the end, it was the Packers that prevailed, not the 49ers, winning 27-17. Although Green Bay lost to Dallas in the NFC Championship the next week, it was clear that they were on the upswing.


Years of Turmoil, Years of Bliss


Not everything was rosy in Green Bay. After years of struggling with a painkiller addiction, Brett Favre entered rehab months before training camp. While he entered a broken man, he left as a man on a mission, ready to take on the ultimate challenge his sport had to offer. He was ready to win the Super Bowl.


He and the Packers were on fire the whole year, winning games by an average of more than 21 points. Some years, there are teams that appear destined to win it all. In 1996, it was the Packers. Ironically, one of their closer wins was against the 49ers in the middle of the season.


At that time, Steve Young had started to show his age and was frequently hurt. In their midseason matchup, Young was absent from the lineup with a concussion, thrusting backup Elvis Grbac into the Monday Night Football spotlight. While the 49ers played valiantly at Lambeau Field, they ultimately fell short, losing 23-20 in overtime.



From there, the rest of the season played out as it had before. Favre earned his second league MVP after throwing for 3,899 yards and 39 touchdowns while leading the Packers to the top seed in the playoffs.


Meanwhile, the 49ers had recently drafted Tennessee-Chattanooga's Terrell Owens in the third round. While Jerry Rice would continue to get the bulk of the receptions, in time, Owens would prove his value in the rivalry. Despite their recent addition, the 49ers failed to win their Division, losing to the second-year Carolina Panthers. However, they still managed to host the Wild Card, beating the Eagles 14-0 at rainy Candlestick Park.


The 49ers returned to Lambeau Field battered but ready. Or so they thought. Steve Young left the game early with an injury, again giving his backup Elvis Grbac an opportunity. But the Packers scored early and often, beginning with Desmond Howard's exhilarating 71-yard punt return in the first quarter, followed by Andre Rison's four yard scoring reception and Edgar Bennett's two yard scamper to put Green Bay up 21-0 by the middle of the second quarter.


Things began to change for San Francisco late in the second quarter when Grbac found Terry Kirby in the end zone for an eight-yard score, then the 49ers struck gold. Desmond Howard was always known as someone who took his sweet time getting to the field. On this particular day, he took a little too much time. To make matters worse for the Packers, he was set to return the kickoff. Not realizing that he wasn't on the field, hsi backup wasn't in the game and the 49ers pounced on the opportunity, scoring a few plays later on a short Grbac scamper.


Now trailing by seven, the 49ers suddenly had new life in a game that had long since been dead. But alas, it wasn't meant to be as the Packers refound their groove and scored two more touchdowns to pull away convincingly. Despite throwing for just 79 yards, Brett Favre led his team to a resounding 35-14 victory. A week later, the Packers beat the Panthers in the NFC Championship and eventually claimed their first Super Bowl title since 1967.



After the loss, the 49ers parted ways with coach George Seifert, seeking a different direction with Cal's Steve Mariucci. His time in San Francisco could not have started off worse as both Steve Young and Jerry Rice were knocked out of the first game of the season to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. To make matters worse, Rice tore his ACL, effectively ending his season (he would make a brief appearance late in the year).


But the 49ers rallied from that loss, winning the next 11 games and earning t he conference's top seed in the playoffs. Still, Green Bay loomed ahead. For while the 49ers were winning 11 straight, Brett Favre was enjoying his third straight MVP season, throwing for 3,867 yards and 35 touchdowns.


After the Packers beat Tampa Bay and the 49ers beat Minnesota, they were all set to face each other in the NFC Championship Game at rainy Candlestick Park. But once again, the Packers reigned supreme, winning 23-10. What's more, they held the 49ers' powerful offense to no touchdowns, with Chuck Levy's 95-yard kickoff return being San Francisco's only touchdown of the afternoon. the only silver lining in an otherwise dreary day was that Terrell Owens caught six passes for 100 yards. As he slid by the various defenders on the soggy field, Terrell Owens realized that he could play with the best in the business. He just needed a chance.



The Changing of the Guard


Times began to change in Titletown after the Packers lost to the Broncos in the 1997 Super Bowl. They didn't stand much of a chance against the 15-1 Vikings that year and lost out on a Divisional title for the first time since 1994. But aside from the standings, there were fissure within the organization. Towards the end of the year, it became apparent that both Mike Holmgren and defensive great Reggie White would be leaving for greener pastures.


Meanwhile, the 49ers continued their dominant ways, beating both the Jets and Colts early in the year in an exhilarating fashion and bringing joy to the Bay Area that it didn't know it lacked. Even after the Falcons clinched the Division, there was a certain magic that festooned within the 49ers' locker room. It was as if despite the odds, they knew that they could once again be champions. It also didn't hurt that Terrell Owens had 1,097 yards and scored 14 touchdowns, giving his teammates a boost every time they stepped on the field.



Their confidence didn't even sway after losing to the Packers at Lambeau Field. Despite forcing three Brett Favre interceptions, the 49ers lost 36-22 to their nemesis while third year receiver Terrell Owens caught five passes for 20 yards. But at least they still had homefield advantage in the Wild Card.


In the opening quarter of the 1998 Wild Card Round with the 49ers down by three, Greg Clark gave the San Francisco the lead on a one yard reception. This set the tone for the game. Back and forth the teams went as the Packers entered halftime up 17-10. But although they down, the 49ers still had a bit of magic up their sleeves.


Finally, the 49ers lined up for one final drive, down 27-23. All day long, Terrell Owens failed to catch the passes thrown to him, his reliable hands suddenly becoming very unreliable. Still, Steve Young believed in him.


Facing third-and-three from Green Bay's 25-yard line, Young dropped back, stumbled, regained his balance and in one fell swoop zipped the game winner into Owens' awaiting hands, at once slaying their long time nemesis. While Candlestick erupted in extasy and exuberence, Owens cried like a baby. His moment had come and he had delivered.





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