The Green Bay Packers’ rivalry with the Chicago Bears is often discussed as one of the best in sports.
Minnesota and Dallas are also mentioned among Green Bay’s greatest adversaries.
Over the last quarter century, though, San Francisco and Green Bay have become the fiercest of foes and played some of the league’s most memorable games. These two great franchises have combined for nine Super Bowl championships, 18 NFL titles and several thrilling games.
Green Bay (8-2) travels to San Francisco (9-1) Sunday for the latest chapter of this terrific rivalry. Here are the five most noteworthy games in the series.
1. 1995 NFC Divisional Playoffs
Green Bay 27, San Francisco 17
Every great team has a breakthrough moment they always point back to. That time they went from being an up-and-comer to a legitimate contender.
For the Green Bay Packers of the 1990’s, that time was Jan. 6, 1996.
The Packers went to San Francisco that day for an NFC Divisional playoff game and shocked the 49ers, 27-17. Green Bay was coming off an 11-win regular season, its best since 1966, but was still lightly regarded. The 49ers were the defending Super Bowl champions, the league’s dominant franchise and a 10 1/2–point favorites that day.
“No one gave us a chance,” Packers safety LeRoy Butler said. “Everything we read they said we didn’t have a chance. If no one is going to give you respect than you have nothing to lose.”
On a gorgeous afternoon at 3Com Park, the Packers dominated the 49ers physically. Linebacker Wayne Simmons had his finest moment as a Packer, forcing an early fumble that led to a Craig Newsome touchdown and roughing up 49ers tight end Brent Jones throughout.
League MVP Brett Favre threw for 299 yards and two TDs.
And when the game ended, there had been a changing of the guard in the NFC.
While Green Bay would lose to Dallas in the NFC Championship one week later, the foundation was set for the Packers to win a Super Bowl the following year.
“This is the culmination of a lot of work by an entire team that completely believed in itself,” Packers general manager Ron Wolf said afterwards. “We had to show this, that we are indeed a real football team. By God, I think we’ve done that.”
2. 1998 NFC Wildcard
San Francisco 30, Green Bay 27
“Owens! Owens! Owens! Owens! Owens! He caught it! He caught it! He caught it!”
Those were the words of San Francisco 49ers play-by-play man Joe Starkey. And to this day, that call from Jan. 3, 1999, makes Green Bay Packers fans everywhere cringe.
In one of the greatest wildcard games of all-time, the Packers led the 49ers, 27-23, with just eight seconds left. The 49ers had a third down at Green Bay’s 25-yard line.
San Francisco quarterback Steve Young dropped back and nearly fell to the ground when he tripped over a teammates foot. Young regained his balance, then fired a dart down the seam that wideout Terrell Owens caught for a game-winning touchdown.
Not only did the 30-27 loss end the Packers’ reign as two-time NFC champs. It was also the last game Mike Holmgren ever coached in Green Bay, as he took a job as Seattle’s head coach, general manager and executive vice president of football operations just five days later.
“The way this one ended was startling,’ ” Holmgren said. “When the ball goes down the middle like that, you don’t think the ball’s going to be caught, ever. I think it was a marvelous catch. It was the perfect throw and he (Owens) made the play.”
It was a remarkable ending for Owens, who dropped four passes and had a fumble that day. It was also a surreal conclusion for the Packers, who appeared poised to knock the 49ers out of the postseason for a fourth straight year.
On the fateful play — one called “Three Jet Go” — the Packers rushed just three and played zone with eight. Safety Darren Sharper was the primary culprit for the gaffe after dropping too deep in his portion of the zone. Linebacker Bernardo Harris also didn’t drop deep enough and safety Pat Terrell was late arriving.
“I knew I was going to have to make a big play,” Owens said afterwards. “I started the game with a fumble and a couple of dropped passes. The guys stayed behind me.”
3. 1997 NFC Championship Game
Green Bay 23, San Francisco 10
The Packers traveled to 3Com Park and eliminated the once-dominant 49ers from the postseason for a third straight year. The win lifted Green Bay to its second consecutive Super Bowl, this time to meet Denver.
On a rainy afternoon, Packers quarterback Brett Favre was patient, took what the defense gave him, and threw for 222 yards and a touchdown. Green Bay kicker Ryan Longwell made three field goals, including a difficult 43-yarder into the wind on the final play of the first half.
And Green Bay’s defense was terrific, limiting the 49ers to just 33 rushing yards and holding 49ers quarterback Steve Young to a passer rating of just 69.0.
“The road here was quite different,” said Packers coach Mike Holmgren, whose team was stunned by Denver in Super Bowl XXXII two weeks later. “I’ve always preached to enjoy the journey and I mean that. Winning each Sunday is a huge accomplishment and a player and a coach should be allowed to enjoy that regardless of the score. Because you work too hard.
“When you are repeating, some of that glory is taken away from you and it’s no one’s fault. It’s just the way it is. It’s harder for your team, coaches and me to enjoy each win because the expectation level was so high. I battled them and tried to get them to do that.”
Green Bay did exactly that in the 1997 NFC Championship Game.
4. 2012 NFC Divisional Playoffs
San Francisco 45, Green Bay 31
This game will forever be remembered as the coming-out party for San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick ran for 181 yards — the most by a quarterback in the history of the league — and two touchdowns. Kaepernick also threw for 263 yards, two scores, and accounted for a remarkable 444 yards.
Green Bay allowed the most postseason rushing yards (323) and total yards (579) in franchise history. And the 45 points the Packers hemorrhaged were the second-most in team playoff history.
Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith as the 49ers’ starting quarterback midway through the 2011 season. By the end of this playoff game, the Packers would have given anything to have faced Smith instead.
“We expected them to try to get him out on the perimeter. But we didn’t expect to let him do what he did,” Packers safety Charles Woodson told reporters afterwards. “Give him a lot of credit. He played a great game. He made a lot of great plays out there today. It was hard to swallow.”
5. 1996 NFC Divisional Playoffs
Green Bay 35, San Francisco 14
The Packers’ 1996 postseason run began with a memorable home playoff victory over the 49ers.
In the first quarter alone, return ace Desmond Howard had a 71-yard punt return for a touchdown and a 46-yard return that set up a second score. The rout was on.
Three weeks later, Howard had 244 total return yards — highlighted by a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown — as Green Bay defeated New England in the Super Bowl.
“We were concerned with Desmond Howard, but we thought we could contain him,” 49ers coach George Seifert said. “But he’s a heck of a player, and he popped big plays for them all season. That’s one of the reasons they’re in the position they’re in.”