More than most losing teams, the 1960s Dallas Cowboys got a lot of mileage out of their two down-to-the-wire defeats against the Green Bay Packers in back-to-back NFL championship games.
In 1966, they lost, 34-27, when linebacker Dave Robinson collared Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith on a fourth-and-goal rollout from the 2-yard line and forced an interception with 28 seconds remaining. A year later, in what's now remembered as the Ice Bowl, Bart Starr engineered a 12-play, 68-yard drive in a minus-46 wind chill that gave the Packers a 21-17 victory.
But the fact of the matter is the Eastern Conference (in which Dallas played) was vastly inferior to the Western Conference (in which Green Bay played) during Vince Lombardi's nine years as coach of the Packers. What's more, it also was inferior before and after his time in Green Bay.
From 1957 through 1969, a span of 13 seasons, a team from the West won 11 NFL titles. The only exceptions were Philadelphia, which beat Lombardi's Packers in 1960; and Cleveland, which upset Baltimore in 1964.
Until the Cowboys emerged as a contender in 1966, two franchises dominated the East. From 1950-65, the Browns and New York Giants won 15 of 16 Eastern Conference titles. The other teams, the Eagles included, were mostly patsies compared to their opponents in the West. Over the 20 seasons from 1950-'69, the Eagles compiled a winning record only seven times; the Chicago/St. Louis Cardinals, six times; Pittsburgh, four times; and Washington, three times, including Lombardi's 7-5-2 record in 1969.
As for the Packers, in the context of that period, Lombardi's five NFL titles and nine winning records in nine years were an aberration. In the 11 years before he was hired, they never finished above .500. In the 24 seasons after he stepped down as coach, they had five winning seasons.
But in the 1950s and '60s, the rest of the teams in the West were consistent winners for the most part.
The Lions won three NFL titles and, under coaches Buddy Parker and George Wilson, finished with a winning record in 10 of 14 seasons from 1951-64. The Bears won a championship in 1963 and under George Halas – also Paddy Driscoll in 1956-57 –finished with a winning record 12 times in 18 years until he retired for good as coach after the 1967 season. The Baltimore Colts won three championships under Weeb Ewbank and Don Shula. Ewbank inherited a second-year expansion team in 1954, but won back-to-back titles in his fifth and sixth seasons; whereas Shula never had a losing record from 1963-69. Together, Ewbank and Shula enjoyed 11 winning seasons over the 16 years one or the other served as head coach.
Even the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers, the other two teams in the old six-team West, were rarely pushovers. The Rams had an abundance of talent and finished with a winning record seven times in the 1950s, including an NFL title in 1951, and then after a lean stretch in the early '60s rebounded to go 40-13-3 from 1966-69 under George Allen.
The 49ers never appeared in a title game – they lost a conference playoff to Detroit in 1957 – but still had 10 winning seasons over the two decades.
With that as backdrop, here's a "High Five" of the best teams that Lombardi's Packers faced in his nine seasons.
1. 1959 Baltimore Colts (9-3) – In the NFL championship, the Colts erupted for 24 points in the fourth quarter to beat the Giants, the best defensive team in the league in both points and yards allowed, 31-16. During the regular season, the Colts' three losses were by a combined 15 points. They won six of their 12 games by two touchdowns or more, including a 38-21 victory over Lombardi's first Green Bay team. In the second meeting, the Colts hung on for a 28-24 triumph, a vast improvement over the previous year's rematch, when Scooter McLean's Packers were humiliated 56-0. Fourth-year veteran Johnny Unitas, a legend in the making, threw what was a career-high and then NFL record 32 touchdown passes that season. Future Hall of Famer Raymond Berry led the league with 66 receptions and 14 TDs. Hybrid halfback-flanker Lenny Moore, another future Hall of Famer, combined for 1,268 rushing and receiving yards. There was no more dominant blocker in the league than left tackle Jim Parker, yet another future Hall of Famer. And the defensive line included two more Hall of Famers to be, end Gino Marchetti and tackle Art Donovan, along with tackle Big Daddy Lipscomb, a Pro Bowl starter that year.
2. 1962 Detroit Lions (11-3) – The Lions finished two games behind the 13-1 Packers. But in their two meetings, they embarrassed the Packers on Thanksgiving Day, 26-14, tackling Bart Starr behind the line of scrimmage nine times for 93 yards in losses and forcing five turnovers; and almost beat them in Green Bay, only to lose, 9-7, on a last-minute-and-a-half interception by Herb Adderley and field goal by Paul Hornung. The Packers' dominating defense with five future Pro Football Hall of Famers finished second in the NFL in yards allowed; the Lions with six Hall of Famers finished first. Boyd Dowler, who played on all nine of Lombardi's teams, said their 1962 squad was the best of the bunch and the '62 Lions were the best of the teams they beat for championships. "I thought the '62 and '61 Lions were the best second-place teams you could come up with," said Dowler.
3. 1967 Los Angeles Rams (11-1-2) – The 1967 season was the first where each conference was divided into two divisions. The Packers won the Central with a 9-4-1 record; the Rams won the Coastal on a tiebreaker: a better point differential than the 11-1-2 Colts. The Rams also beat the Packers, 27-24, in their only regular-season meeting and were three-point favorites in the Western Conference championship, despite the game being played in Milwaukee's County Stadium, where Lombardi's teams had won 18 of their previous 20 games. It also was the only time a Lombardi team was a postseason underdog. The Packers had finished the regular season first in team defense and first against the pass; the Rams had their famed "Fearsome Foursome," a defensive line of future Hall of Famers Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen, plus Roger Brown, a Pro Bowl starter that year and previously a member of the '62 Lions, and 6-foot-7, 11-year veteran Lamar Lundy. A month later in the Pro Bowl, nine of the 11 defensive starters for the West were from the Packers or Rams. To win their third straight title under Lombardi, the Packers beat the Rams, 28-7, in their first of three postseason games that year.
4. 1963 Chicago Bears (11-1-2) – When the Bears beat the defending champion Packers, 10-3, in the opener in Green Bay, some thought it was a fluke. When the Bears beat the Packers again in the rematch at Wrigley Field, 26-7, it was a whupping. Both teams were 8-1 at that point and it was maybe the most highly anticipated regular-season game in NFL history up until then. But the Packers fell behind, 13-0, in the first quarter and didn't score their touchdown until just 4:10 remained. Basically, the Bears beat the Packers at their game. They rushed 57 times for 248 yards compared to the Packers' 71 yards on 20 carries. The Bears also forced seven turnovers: five interceptions and two fumble recoveries. The Bears were quarterbacked by Billy Wade and ranked 10th among the then 14 NFL teams in offense, but their defense allowed only 10 points a game and was ranked No. 1. They had five consensus all-pros that year: defensive end Doug Atkins, middle linebacker Bill George, outside linebacker Joe Fortunato, and safeties Rosey Taylor and Richie Petitbon. Granted, Starr missed the second game with an injury, but backup John Roach had led the Packers to three straight victories and an average of 32 points per game, and Lombardi had indicated in the days leading up to the Bears game that he might start Roach even if Starr was healthy because he thought the Packers would need to throw more deep balls than usual to beat the Bears. With Hornung suspended for the season, Minnesota coach Norm Van Brocklin, among others, said the '63 Packers simply weren't as good as the '61 and '62 champs. "The difference between the Packers with Hornung and without him is the difference between first and second place," said Van Brocklin.
5. 1965 Baltimore Colts (10-3-1) – The Colts lost to the Packers three times that year, twice in the regular season and then in a Western Conference playoff. In the first meeting at County Stadium, on the second weekend of the season, the Packers rallied behind backup quarterback Zeke Bratkowski, who had replaced an injured Starr in the third quarter, and eked out a 20-17 victory on a 37-yard touchdown pass to Max McGee with 2:48 remaining. The rematch was played the second-to-last weekend of the season and the Colts held a half-game lead in the West. Had they won, they would have clinched the conference and eliminated the Packers from postseason play. But the previous Sunday, the Colts lost Unitas with a season-ending knee injury in a 13-0 defeat against the Bears. With backup Gary Cuozzo filling in for Unitas, the Packers won 42-27 as Robinson's 87-yard interception return reversed the momentum just before halftime and Hornung, after playing little in the previous three games because of injury, returned to score five TDs and account for 176 total yards. This time, Cuozzo got hurt and underwent season-ending shoulder surgery. When the two teams finished with identical 10-3-1 records, it forced a playoff at Lambeau Field. With halfback Tom Matte playing quarterback, the Colts led 10-7 midway through the fourth quarter thanks to their aroused and talented defense. But with 1:58 remaining, Don Chandler was credited with a 27-yard field goal that he seemed to think was wide right, while the Colts were certain it was. In overtime, Chandler kicked the game-winner from 25 yards out for a 13-10 victory. While the Packers lost Starr to injury on their first offensive play, Bratkowski threw for 248 yards. But the Colts with four future Hall of Famers on offense and a Shula-designed defense came within a controversial call of winning, despite Matte completing only five passes for 40 yards.