The Packers’ recent playoff history against the San Francisco 49ers is not great. In fact, four of the last five have been pretty awful. The 1998 (Jerry Rice fumbled), 2012, 2013, and 2019 seasons have brought devastating defeats at the hands of the 49ers, but tucked in there between 1998 and 2012 is a pretty nice Packers win.
In 2001, the Packers rattled off 12 wins under second-year head coach Mike Sherman, returning to the playoffs for the first time since…well, since Jerry Rice fumbled. That year’s team was generally well-rounded: Brett Favre threw 35 touchdown passes, Ahman Green rolled for nearly 1,400 yards, and the defense was fifth in points allowed. That combination only earned the Packers second place in the NFC Central, but their dozen wins was enough to earn them a home playoff game in the wildcard round.
Enter the San Francisco 49ers, who had a pretty good year themselves in 2001. Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens powered a strong passing attack, while Comeback Player of the Year Garrison Hearst churned out 1,200 yards on the ground.
The Packers opened the game strong. If you believe in setting the tone early, it’s hard to to better than Gilbert Brown flopping his entire weight on an opposing quarterback en route to a game-opening three-and-out.
If the Gravedigger squishing Jeff Garcia can't get you psyched for this weekend, I don't know what will. pic.twitter.com/owkyh2nQ0L— Jon Meerdink (@JonMeerdink) January 21, 2022
The Packers punted on their first drive, and after another San Francisco punt (and 35-yard return by Allen Rossum), Antonio Freeman opened the scoring on a five-yard pass from Brett Favre, though Ryan Longwell would miss the PAT.
Freeman was one of two Packers enjoying a swan song in 2001. Though he’d return to the Packers for a short stint in 2003, 2001 would prove to be his last year as a regular contributor. Dorsey Levens, too, was playing his last game for the Packers — and he’d never return. Behind an ascending Ahman Green, Levens was a bit player in 2001, left for Philadelphia in 2002. He carried once for a single yard in this game, also catching one pass for 11 yards in his final appearance at Lambeau Field as a member of the Packers.
After the Freeman score, the Packers and 49ers traded punts for most of what remained of the first half. Late in the second quarter, though, San Francisco punched in a score, and thanks to a successful PAT, went to the half with a 7-6 lead.
The Packers managed a field goal on their first drive of the second half, and, after a San Francisco punt, Brett Favre led the Packers on a four-play, 81-yard touchdown drive. A drive-opening completion to William Henderson netted a dozen yards, and, after a loss by Ahman Green, Favre hit Corey Bradford for the longest play of the afternoon.
The Packers' win over the 49ers in the 2001 playoffs was fairly short on big plays, but Brett Favre hit Corey Bradford with a bomb in the third quarter for 51 yards. pic.twitter.com/nPCgMIXPMx— Jon Meerdink (@JonMeerdink) January 21, 2022
A play later, Favre found Bubba Franks up the seam for a 19-yard touchdown.
Bubba Franks, vertical threat. pic.twitter.com/j5r2tUuND3— Jon Meerdink (@JonMeerdink) January 21, 2022
A failed two-point conversion left the Packers with just a 15-7 lead, relevant because two drives later, the 49ers scored a touchdown and nailed the two-pointer to draw even.
But the Packers’ defense did its job from there. Ryan Longwell booted his second field goal of the game on the Packers’ next drive, giving the Packers an 18-15 lead and setting up what turned out to be the key play of the game.
On a first and 10 from the Packers’ 41-yard line, Jeff Garcia looked to Terrell Owens on the right sideline off play action — but slightly underthrew his pass. Mike McKenzie got a hand on it, which was followed by Tyrone Williams getting two hands on it, ending San Francisco’s last scoring threat.
Mike McKenzie and Tyrone Williams team up on the defensive play of the game. pic.twitter.com/w2jsdufRmp— Jon Meerdink (@JonMeerdink) January 21, 2022
Holding a three-point lead with under five minutes to go, the Packers did more than run clock and hope for the best. On a third-down from their own 38-yard line, Brett Favre busted out the condiments and put the game away.
“He put all the mustard on the brat”— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) December 29, 2021
John Madden was one of one…RIP pic.twitter.com/eBwHKwUNXh
Four plays later, Ahman Green muscled in a nine-yard score, putting the game out of reach. Corey Bradford forced and recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, all that remained was for the Packers to run out the clock and advance to the divisional round.
Now, if you’re looking for this game to entirely assuage any potentially anxious feelings about playoff misfortune, I have bad news. The next week, Brett Favre had his worst playoff performance ever, throwing a mind-boggling six interceptions in a 45-17 beatdown at the hands of the St. Louis Rams. There would be no storybook ending for the 2001 Packers. But, for the only time in the 21st century, the Packers proved they could beat the San Francisco 49ers, doing so with a top to bottom team effort. If they can duplicate that performance this weekend, they’ll have a good chance to knock the 49ers out of the playoffs for the second time this millennium.