As someone born in the early 1990s, one of my very first memories as a Green Bay Packers fan was the team’s Super Bowl campaign during the 1996 season.
Along the way, the Packers faced the San Francisco 49ers two times at the friendly confines of Lambeau Field. The first was an overtime Packers win in October of that year, characterized by five Chris Jacke field goals including a 53-yard game-winner in extra time. The next was a Divisional playoff victory for Green Bay later in the year, in the middle of a mud fest. I distinctly remember Desmond Howard returning one punt for a touchdown and nearly another. Those were fantastic memories.
But on the road in San Francisco, memories have not been as glorious for fans of my age.
Minus an iconic win in the divisional round of the 1995 playoffs, one that took place too early for this particular fan to remember, trepidation has followed important Packers road trips to the Bay Area. Specifically, two postseason games stand out to younger Green Bay fans as among the most miserable of any Packer losses they have seen. And as the 8-2 Packers face a rejuvenated 9-1 49ers team this week, they do so hoping for a much less depressing conclusion.
The first matchup happened to be one of the first true heartbreaks of my time as a sports fan. In fact, earlier in January this year was the 20th anniversary of the Packers-49ers wildcard game that many have looked back on as the end of the Packers’ title-contending run under head coach Mike Holmgren.
Up 27-23 late in the fourth quarter, the Packers looked primed to move on to the next round of the 1998 playoffs. On just one drive, the narrative and the season flipped against Green Bay. First, an apparent Jerry Rice fumble, which would have been overturned with modern replay, was negated by a call that ruled Rice down by contact. Even then, the Packers were still in control with 14 seconds to play when 49ers quarterback Steve Young dropped back to pass and floated a ball nearly intercepted by Craig Newsome. But the football went off of Newsome’s fingertips, leaving eight seconds on the game clock.
The next play was one of unforgettable nature. Young stumbled on the dropback, which would have almost effectively ended the game. Instead, he regrouped and threw a strike down the middle of the field to one of his favorite targets, a young Terrell Owens. Somehow the ball found Owens despite the receiver being the only 49er in a pack of six players. Owens also remarkably held on while getting hit by two separate Packer defenders with just three seconds to play.
The improbability of how that drive and final play unfolded was one perhaps unmatched in Packers lore until the dramatic NFC Championship Game in Seattle in 2015. And it was an impressionable play on a young millenial Packers fan.
More recently, the Packers traveled to San Francisco once again for a divisional round tilt with the 49ers in January 2013. This game is forever remembered as the one in which Colin Kaepernick ran rampant on the Green Bay defense.
Despite scoring 31 points and taking the initial lead on a pick-six, the Packers were no match for the second-year quarterback who had won a starting role over Alex Smith around midseason. Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards, an NFL quarterback rushing record that included two touchdowns. In fact, Kaepernick became just the second player in NFL history to rush for 150 yards and throw two touchdown passes in a single game, accounting for 444 total yards of offense. But it was his scrambling that took center stage, with a pair of touchdown runs from 20 and 56 yards out and a head-scratching number of third down conversions.
In the end, it was a helpless feeling for the Packers and their fans as they fell 45-31 at Candlestick Park with no defensive answers. The playoff loss ended yet another close-but-not-close-enough season for Green Bay after winning the Super Bowl a few years earlier.
As the Packers travel to San Francisco this week, they do so with a silver lining: they will not be playing at Candlestick Park, the sight of each terrible memory. The 49ers moved to Levi’s Stadium in 2014 and the Packers won their lone matchup there in 2015, albeit against a much less competent Niner squad. It has been a while since the two teams have matched up with higher stakes involved and Green Bay has developed hatred and rivalry for a number of non-division opponents over the past decade.
But as Green Bay takes the field this week against a San Francisco team that does not carry the same amount of disdain, there is still a certain level of angst for milennials reminded that only the unexpected has happened in San Francisco when both teams have met as contenders. And it has not been for good reasons.