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With game on the line, Panthers can't stack up against Packers

GREEN BAY, WIS. — GREEN BAY, Wis. -- One Green Bay Packers fan held up a sign yesterday that read, "Where's Deion?"

Deion Sanders wasn't on the imported tundra from Maryland. Neither were Troy, Emmitt or Michael.

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Those guys might have given the Green Bay Packers a game yesterday. But when the Carolina Panthers' Lamar Lathon knocked Michael Irvin out last Sunday, the Packers were on their way to the Super Bowl.

We'll never know if the Dallas Cowboys, with a healthy Irvin, could have beaten the Packers the way they have for the past seven games between the two teams in Dallas. We'll have to wait until next fall now to see if the Packers can beat the Cowboys at Lambeau Field.

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But the Panthers had no chance to do it, and the result was a one-sided game. Dallas -- with a healthy Irvin -- might have at least made it interesting.

In the watered-down NFL, the Panthers were good enough to get to the NFC title game by beating a crippled Dallas team. But they were no match against a healthy Green Bay team that isn't great, but is still pretty good by today's standards.

The real difference was in the trenches.

The Panthers have a makeshift offensive line that could open holes against a Dallas team missing Leon Lett and Charles Haley. But they couldn't block a Packers line anchored by Reggie White and Sean Jones. They rushed for 13 yards in the first half and 45 for the game. You don't win playoff games that way. By contrast, the Packers rushed for 201 yards.

On top of that, the expansion team had the classic "just happy to be here" attitude. Coach Dom Capers said afterward he told the players that they shouldn't feel bad and that they've established the foundation of the future. Teams with that attitude don't win right now.

A look at the highlights and lowlights of the Packers victory that put them in the Super Bowl for the first time since Vince Lombardi was striding along the sidelines instead of being a name on a trophy: The scene: The scene was better than the game. The sight of the Packers fans waving their yellow towels for the first NFC title game at Lambeau Field in 29 years while they seemed oblivious to 3-degree temperatures at kickoff, as they sat on aluminum bleachers (there's not a chair seat, club seat or permanent seat license in the house) had to be seen to be believed. This is the way things once were and, in Green Bay, still are.

The tundra: They grow good grass in Maryland. The sod imported from Maryland and installed this week was the real star of the game. The footing was so good that even Packers coach Mike Holmgren called it amazing.

Turning point: The Packers got off to a shaky start when Brett Favre turned the ball over twice, but they marched 71 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 48 seconds left in the first half. On the Panthers' next play from scrimmage, Kerry Collins went deep, and Tyrone Williams made a diving, one-handed interception that set up a field goal. By scoring 10 points in 38 seconds, the Packers took control.

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Beating the zone blitz: The Packers had the perfect strategy to stymie the Panthers' zone blitz. They used a lot of draws and screens to keep the Panthers off balance, because Holmgren wanted to make sure Favre didn't take a lot of hits. The result was Favre was sacked only once. The Panthers couldn't get to Favre, as he dumped it off seven times to the two running backs, Dorsey Levens and Edgar Bennett.

Catches of the game: Levens out-leaped Eric Davis in the end zone for a touchdown, and Williams made a one-handed interception.

Reception of the game: Levens went 66 yards with a screen pass that beat the blitz.

Back-to-back plays of the game: Levens ran 35 yards on the last play of the first quarter and made a leaping touchdown catch on the first play of the second quarter.

The Favre file: Favre made two bad mistakes early in the game, throwing an interception to Sam Mills and dropping the ball for a fumble while being chased, to set up the first 10 Carolina points. But then he got rolling, passing for 292 yards. And his shuffle pass to Levens while he was being sacked was a classic Favre play.

Playing it safe: We remember Vince Lombardi, and Mike Holmgren is no Vince Lombardi. Lombardi called a quarterback sneak for the winning touchdown in the Ice Bowl with 16 seconds left and no timeouts, but Holmgren used a cautious approach. With 14 seconds left in the first half, the Packers had a second down at the Panthers' 14. Instead of throwing a pass in the end zone, he took the field goal. On fourth-and-one at the Panthers' 15 in the third quarter, he took another field goal. On fourth-and-four at the Carolina 28 in the first quarter, he called for a 46-yard field goal attempt, even though it was difficult to kick it that far in the cold weather. Chris Jacke missed.

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Zebras: The best officials are supposed to work the playoff games, but they helped the Panthers to their only touchdown. They ruled Anthony Johnson was down when he fumbled in the first quarter at the Green Bay 3, although he appeared to lose the ball before his knee hit the ground.

Losing cause: Mills, who is 1-5 in NFL playoff games with the Saints and Panthers after winning a pair of USFL titles with the Philadelphia-Baltimore Stars, was heroic in the losing effort with five tackles, nine assists and an interception.

Pub Date: 1/13/97



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