Every Packers article you read this week has begun the same way: Aaron Rodgers is back. It may be a little late and a little meta, but that’s now how I’d like to start this feature. You know why? Because Pack to the Past has been adamant that he will return the entire season. For some reason, I’m not hearing much from those folks who declared him gone and our season over.  Looking at you, every Vikings fan on Twitter.

That being said, it’s a long road to go down and the odds are not in our favor. Or maybe they are, now that #12 is back. He could very well flop tomorrow–or maybe play excellent but still not good enough to win. There are so many possibilities. That being said, the dude’s a winner and he needs the win. It’s, at the very least, exciting and dramatic football. It’s something to be thankful for.

Rodgers’ career against the Panthers has been an up-and-down affair. He is 2-2 all-time against Carolina, 1-1 at home and on the road. Both of the wins came in years that the offense was humming. In 2011 and 2014, the Packers handled the Panthers with relative ease. The game on the road was the 2011 Panthers home opener–a game in which Cam Newton and the Panthers scored the first 13 points on the defending champs before Rodgers responded with two touchdown passes to end the half. The Packers ended up scoring 23 unanswered and won the game 30-23, thanks to 3 Cam Newton interceptions.

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You’re probably familiar with his most recent loss: the road game in 2015. That game always stands out as a dreary affair. I remember turning off the television in disgust with how poor the Packers were performing. The Panthers led 27-7 at halftime and the offense had the look of death on it.

It was the first game since Von Miller and the Broncos took Rodgers’ mojo midseason that year. I took a short hate-nap at halftime and woke up to the news of Randall Cobb streaking down the sideline on the opening possession to give the Packers life. They were able to claw back into that game, with a chance to tie it at the goal line in the final minute. It didn’t work out.

His other loss is from 2008 and I want to save it for a later look back at early Rodgers.

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But, for the purposes of our look back in time this week, I’ve decided to go just a little bit further and look at the last time the Packers and Panthers played each other in the playoffs: the 1996 NFC Championship Game.

The Carolina Panthers at The Green Bay Packers

1996 NFC Championship Game

January 12th, 1997

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The fact that the Panthers even appeared in this game is admirable. Their franchise had just started playing in the 1995 season and almost had a winning record. They, then, went on to be 12-4 in the following season–setting up a confrontation with the heavy Super Bowl favorite Packers who were playing like a juggernaut. Still, to make it to the title game in your second year is remarkable. The Panthers have always been a model expansion franchise and I always think of them as a “real” NFL team.

That’s why it feels so surprising to say that the Packers have only played 14 games against the Panthers; a matchup they lead 9-5. There have been some great games between the teams and none have been on a bigger stage than the 1996 NFC Championship Game. The Packers rolled in on fire, having destroyed their long rival and obstruction in the playoffs, the San Francisco 49ers, in a rout during the divisional round.

It turned out that wasn’t a fluke.

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This game was set up to be quintessential Packers football, it was -16 degrees at kickoff when you factored in wind chill. That’s why many refer to this game as the “Ice Bowl II” and it seemed like the Panthers understood the gravity of the moment from the very beginning.  The teams played to a stalemate in the early going, but the Panthers forced the first of 2 Favre turnovers when they picked off a pass intended for WR Don Beebe in the first quarter. Kerry Collins threw a touchdown pass and had the Panthers up 7-0 at the end of the first.

Favre responded with a pass to HB Dorsey Levens in the flat that scored from nearly 30 yards out. Levens was a monster in the passing game that year. His agility and pass-catching ability combined with his size and speed made him a nightmare for the slow, hulking linebackers of the era. He split carries with current Packer offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett that year but took over at the end of the season. Bennett ruptured his Achilles the next preseason and stopped playing ball after a short stint as a journeyman. So it goes.

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The Panthers forced the second and final Favre turnover on their next defensive possession and managed to get a field goal out of it, putting them up 10-7. The Panthers never led again. Favre and company drove down the field on a 15-play assault that stalled dangerously on 1st-and-10 at the Carolina 13. WR Antonio Freeman was flagged for a chop block as the Packers neared the goal line and they were faced with a 2nd-and-25 after a long, productive drive.

Favre turned around his first title game and turned the game’s momentum for good when he hit WR Andre Rison for a 22 yard gain on the very next play. With about a minute to go, Holmgren didn’t want to play it safe–and he had the perfect guy to to do it. So, needing a score before halftime, Holmgren targeted the endzone and not the first down on 3rd-and-3. Favre rifled in a frozen ball to Antonio Freeman for the late-in-the-half score and put the Packers up 14-10.

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As luck would have it, the Panthers attempted one more play before halftime that turned into a Kerry Collins interception. Chris Jacke would float a FG through the uprights and the Packers had a full touchdown lead after a shaky start. Once halftime was over, it was all Packers. Favre led a balanced attack (featuring heavy doses of both Bennett and Levens) down the field twice to score another 10 points in the 3rd quarter.

When it was 27-10 in the fourth quarter, the air had been let out of the Panthers. It’s hard enough to play in Lambeau in January, it’s even harder to be on the bad end of an ass-kicking and stay competitive. The Packers bled out the Panthers for the rest of the game and won handily, 30-13.

Now, I’m not saying this game could be similar…actually I am. That’s what I do here. A balanced attack with two fresh, young running backs that keeps Cam Newton off the field could be exactly what the Packers need to win on Sunday. Here’s to having the King back. Cheers.

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