Competitively speaking, the Packers and the Carolina Panthers have been acquainted for less than a decade, the Carolinians having entered the National Football League as an expansion team in 1995. Yet their association has been marked by some significant events - one of them singular, to say the least.
Singular, that is, considering the great preponderance of NFL rivalries have begun in scheduled, regular-season play.
Not so with the Packers and Panthers, who will be squaring off in picturesque Charlotte, N.C., Monday night. They were not on each other's agenda during Carolina's first two years in the league (1995-96) and, consequently, their first-ever on-field meeting occurred in a most unlikely circumstance ... the postseason.
In a National Conference Championship Game, no less - just one level removed from the Super Bowl - in Lambeau Field following the '96 season.
In the case of the Green and Gold, the team's presence at that lofty level was not a surprise. It was the Packers' second consecutive appearance in the NFC Championship game, having advanced to that eminence a year earlier by winning the NFC Central Division crown, then dispatching the Atlanta Falcons, 37-30, and the San Francisco 49ers, 27-17, in the Wild Card and Divisional playoffs before falling to the Dallas Cowboys, 38-27, in the Conference title contest.
The Panthers, in contrast, had literally come out of nowhere - in only their second year of NFL operation - to capture the NFC Western Division championship with an improbable 12-4 record, then qualified for the conference showdown in "Lambeau" by eliminating Eastern Division titlist Dallas, 26-17.
Primed to prove they were not the proverbial flash in the pan, the Panthers were sufficiently competitive to satisfy the Packers, particularly in the first half of what was the first title game to be played in Green Bay since the fabled "Ice Bowl" of 1967. The Green and Gold twice had to overcome early deficits in order to take a modest 17-10 lead into the intermission, en route to a 30-13 victory and a berth in their first Super Bowl in 29 years.
The difference-maker on a frosty Sunday afternoon (a 'balmy" one, admittedly, at 3 degrees and minus-17 wind chill, compared to the "Ice Bowl") was running back Dorsey Levens, who personally amassed 205 yards of offense, snaring five passes for 117 yards and rushing for 88 yards on only 10 attempts.
After Carolina had taken an early 7-0 lead on quarterback Kerry Collins' 3-yard toss to Howad Griffith, it was Levens who squared matters on the first play of the second quarter, out-jumping Panthers cornerback Eric Davis at the right corner of the end zone for a 29-yard touchdown reception. Levens had set up the score on the previous play, rushing for 35 yards on third-and-1.
Carolina shortly regained the lead, converting a near-midfield fumble by Brett Favre into a field goal by John Kasay into a 10-7 advantage.
But not for long. The Packers stormed back with 10 points in the final minute of the first half, Favre connecting with Antonio Freeman for a touchdown on a 6-yard fade with 48 seconds remaining, climaxing a 15-play, 71-yard drive.
Then, when the Panthers attempted to move downfield following the kickoff, rookie cornerback Tyrone Williams made a diving interception at the Green Bay 38, which placekicker Chris Jacke turned into a 31-yard field goal 10 seconds before halftime.
Late in the third quarter, running back Edgar Bennett maneuvered through the middle untouched on a 4-yard touchdown, padding the Packers' lead to 27-13. Levens had set up the score on the previous play, racing 66 yards down the right sideline on an impeccably executed screen play.
The Super Bowl-bound Packers, adding a final, 28-yard field goal by Jacke in the fourth quarter, closed out the afternoon with the imposing total of 479 net yards, which remains a team playoff record. They rushed for 201 yards en route, including a team-leading 99 in 25 attempts by Bennett.
Going into the game, the continuing "story" throughout the week was the Lambeau Field turf, devastated in a divisional playoff against the San Francisco 49ers the previous week when game-long rainy conditions transformed it into a quagmire.
Acting with remarkable dispatch, the Packers fields staff installed an all-new surface days prior to the game, a major achievement considering the sod had to be trucked in from Maryland in more than two dozen semis.
From the regular season perspective, the Packers and Panthers will be meeting for only the eighth time to date, yet for the third time on "Monday Night Football," the game's premier showcase...all three of the latter in Carolina's Bank of America Stadium.
The first of these Monday nighters - on Nov. 27, 2000 - was not an overly pleasant evening for the Green and Gold, who found the upstart Panthers surprisingly inhospitable. Fullback Brad Hoover, an undrafted rookie from Western Carolina, amassed 117 yards rushing in 24 attempts while escorting Carolina to a 31-14 victory.
Their most recent Monday night matchup - in their mutual '04 season opener - proved to be a much more felicitous occasion for the Packers. They performed at a high level in all three phases - offense, defense and special teams, prompting Head Coach Mike Sherman to label it a high quality, total team effort - one he has referred to more than once in the interim as a prime example of a superior performance, paced by a 119-yard, three-touchdown rushing effort from Ahman Green against a Carolina defense that gave up only four 100-yard rushing games all season, the Packers controlled the clock throughout, maintaining possession for 38 minutes and 4 seconds to the Panthers' 21 minutes, 56 seconds, on the way to a 24-14 victory.
The Green Bay defense, meanwhile, held Carolina to a mere 38 yards rushing and also capitalized on two turnovers, cashing them for 14 points in the third quarter to essentially settle the issue, Green scoring on a 3-yard run and then on a 3-yard pass from quarterback Brett Favre, swelling the Packers' lead to 24-7.
In the process, Favre moved into third place all-time with his 126th victory, passing former Minnesota Vikings field general Fran Tarkenton (125).