It's a game that's only grown in stature over the decades and it's a moment that gets recycled like aluminum beer cans now that the Cowboys and Packers, who meet again tonight, have re-emerged as NFL powers.
But before the Ice Bowl
there was a game that might have been bigger and more important. Before the Ice Bowl, played on New Year's Eve 1967, there was the 1966 NFL championship game, played on New Year's Day 1967, a star-studded drama and cultural milestone that unfolded in the twilight of the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
It was a brilliant game in its own right. The upstart Cowboys in their very first playoff game battled the mighty Packers toe to toe for 60 minutes before a frenzied home crowd and a large national audience. Trailing 34-27 late in the fourth quarter, Don Meredith drove the Cowboys all the way to the Green Bay 2, just six feet from tying the Packers and forcing the second overtime championship game in NFL history.
But on his last snap, Meredith was pressured by Packers linebacker Dave Robinson and lofted a desperation floater into the end zone. It was picked off by defensive back Tom Brown with 28 seconds to play.
The Packers held on for their fourth championship in six seasons by the narrowest of margins, and secured their status as the team of the decade. Championship games are rarely closer or more dramatic.
If not for the historic weather conditions that descended upon Lambeau Field in the 1967 championship game 364 days later, we might remember the 1966 championship game as a defining moment in NFL history and the defining moment in the history of Cowboys-Packers.
But whether you agree or not with the stature of the less heralded 1966 championship game is not important. What does matter is that, by any measure, it was a pivotal game in NFL history, yet one that's more or less lost to history.
The New Year's Day battle launched the Packers-Cowboys rivalry into sporting lore, it set the stage for the iconic icy showdown on New Year's Eve, it marked a cultural milestone in American sporting history, and it featured a stunning performance by one of the greatest players in the history of the league.
Here's why the 1966 Packers-Cowboys NFL title game should be remembered as one of the defining moments in pro football history.
The birth of America's Team
The image of the Cowboys as America's Team is firmly entrenched in contemporary American sporting lore.
That wasn't the case in 1966.
The Cowboys had struggled as an expansion franchise from its birth in 1960 (0-11-1) through 1965. They never had a winning season during that period.
Things began to change with the breakout 1966 season. The Cowboys went 10-3-1 – and they did it in dramatic style, with a star-studded offense (Meredith, Bob Hayes, Don Perkins, Dan Reeves) that exploded for 445 points. In fact, at 31.8 PPG, the 1966 Cowboys stand as perhaps the greatest offense of the Dead Ball Era.
The Cowboys were more than just a glamorous new winner. They boasted a massive fan base that essentially covered the entire South. The closest rival to the west was the L.A. Rams – 1,300 miles away. The closest rival to the east was the 1966 expansion Falcons in Atlanta – 720 miles away. The closest NFL team, period, was the sad-sack Cardinals in St. Louis, more than 600 miles away. The AFL's struggling 3-11 Oilers in Houston posed little challenge to the pre-eminence of the Cowboys.
In other words, if you lived anywhere in the South in 1966 and followed pro football, you followed the Cowboys. And if you followed the Cowboys, you followed their first postseason game and their first step into the national spotlight – the 1966 NFL championship game. Dallas would go on to make the playoffs a remarkable and unmatched 18 of 20 seasons. But it all started here against the Packers at the Cotton Bowl.
Though the Cowboys lost, it's the game that marked their birth as a national icon and as America's Team.
The rise of the South
The greatest sporting events always have cultural overtones. We see it all the time in college football, in the Olympics or in international soccer. The U.S. hockey gold in 1980 is entrenched in sport lore not just because it was a stunning upset, but because plucky apple-pie eating American college kids struck down the best players that could be manufactured behind the Iron Curtain.
The Cowboys, for their part, were an important cultural phenomenon in the rise of the South from a cultural backwater and as a second-class citizen of sports into a power player on the wider American stage.
The Cowboys, most notably, were the first pro sports franchise in the Deep South (along with the AFL's Houston Oilers). The 1966 NFL championship game, meanwhile, was the biggest and most important pro sporting event in the history of the South to that time.
It was played on their home turf, at the Cotton Bowl, making it the first postseason NFL game ever played in the South – and it came against no less a power than the mighty Packers, the most northerly team in the NFL, a team that represented everything that the staid old-boy Midwestern league had stood for since its foundation in 1920.
The 1966 NFL championship game, in other words, was the day that the South finally joined the wider world of American professional sports – a full 101 years after the end of the Civil War.
The birth of a rivalry
Cowboys-Packers these days seems as comfortable as an old shoe, as the two teams meet tonight for the 28th time.
Back in 1966, Cowboys-Packers was as novel as a circus freak.
Their battle tonight will probably draw some of the largest ratings of any sporting event this year. The Packers-Cowboys meeting last year, in a nationally televised Thursday night game, was one of the most watched sporting events of 2007.
Packers-Cowboys have also met six times in the playoffs, making it one of the most often played postseason battles in NFL history. They've met three times for the right to go to the Super Bowl. They met three straight years in the playoffs, from 1993 to 1995.
But they had met in just three regular-season games before the 1966 NFL championship battle. Their dramatic Cotton Bowl showdown, in other words, was the game that launched one of the most glamorous rivalries in sports today.
The wrinkle in time
There are a handful of rare pivotal years in the evolution of pro football history, seasons in which the NFL changed dramatically.
The 1966 campaign is one of those seasons – a year in which the NFL stood with one foot firmly planted in its past and another boldly stepping into the future.
It was the dawn of the Super Bowl Era, the winner of the Packers-Cowboys game to represent the old league in the first AFL-NFL championship game.
But it was also the end of the old alignment that had defined the league since the first NFL championship game in 1933. There were no NFL playoffs in 1966, and no divisions. Those creations would not come until the following season.
Instead, the league was still divided into two conferences, with the winner of each conference squaring off in the NFL championship game. Only in the rare instances of a tie atop a conference did a playoff game precede the lone championship showdown.
So the 1966 championship game was the very last postseason battle of the old, antiquated pre-playoff NFL. But it was the first game in NFL history that was played with the promise of something bigger: the winner of this culture clash would go on to represent the old NFL against the upstart AFL in the very first Super Bowl.
It was a game, in other words, that launched the NFL into the modern era.
The 1966 Cowboys and Packers were better than the 1967 Cowboys and Packers
Lost amid the drama of the Ice Bowl is the fact that the 1967 Cowboys and Packers were not particularly spectacular teams. Each had won just nine games. To put that into perspective, there has been just one Super Bowl participant in the days since 1967 that won only nine games (1979 Rams). The 1967 Packers remain the only Super Bowl champion that won just nine regular-season games.
The 1967 Cowboys went 9-5 and had scored just 74 points more than they surrendered. The 1967 Packers were 9-4-1, and found their way in the playoffs ahead of the 11-1-2 Colts merely by a quirk of history: the new divisional alignment of 1967 left the Colts on the outside of the playoffs looking in, opening the door for the Packers to win the NFL championship.
Both the Cowboys and Packers were dominant in 1966, though. The Packers went 12-2, arguably the second best team in franchise history, behind the 13-1 club of 1962. Bart Starr was named league MVP in 1966, while the Packers defense was the best in the league, allowing just 11.6 PPG.
The 1966 Cowboys were 10-3-1 and remain one of the best teams in franchise history. Don Meredith won the Bert Bell Award as NFL player of the year, and led the league's top scoring offense, as noted above, with a scorching 31.8 PPG. It might have been the single greatest offense of the Dead Ball Era.
Both teams had won their first four games of 1966, and their clash in the Cotton Bowl was the joining of a battle that appeared inevitable as early as September.
The brilliance of Bart Starr
Those people who believe Starr was nothing but a "game manager" or "role player" on talent-laden Packers teams need only look at his performance in the 1966 championship game.
Those people who believe (and forgive us for laughing in their face) that John Elway or Dan Marino were better quarterbacks than Starr need only look at his performance in the 1966 championship game.
The 1966 Packers, contrary to popular wisdom, were saddled with one of the worst rushing offenses in football, averaging just 3.4 YPA on the ground that year (14th out of 15 teams). The 1966 Cowboys were bolstered by one of the best run defenses in football that year, allowing just 3.3 YPA. The Cowboys were also led by Tom Landry, perhaps the greatest defensive innovator in history.
So Packers coach Vince Lombardi made a pivotal decision in his game plan: He decided to abandon the ground attack and put the 1966 championship game firmly in the hands of the league MVP.
The best quarterback in history
responded the way the best quarterback in history should, with a brilliant performance on the biggest stage of the year. Starr's numbers for the day:
- 19 of 28 (67.9%), 304 yards, 10.9 YPA, 4 TD, 0 INT, 143.5 passer rating
You'd have to search long and hard here in the Live Ball Era to find a quarterback who performed so well in a critical playoff game. Yet back in an era when defenses could do everything but prison shank wide receivers and quarterbacks without drawing a penalty, Starr utterly destroyed Landry's defense. The likes of Elway, Marino, Dan Fouts or Brett Favre, or any of the modern passers often named among the best of all time, never gave a command playoff performance like Starr did in the 1966 NFL championship game.
In fact, considering the quality of the opposition and the defensive nature of football in the 1960s, it might have been the greatest postseason passing performance in the history of the NFL.
"Recognizing the Cowboys' gapping defense was geared to stop cut-back running, Lombardi shelved his lead play, the power-sweep ... He also emphasized Starr's passing game."
In other words, in the biggest game of the year, against a Landry defense, the Packers abandoned the very play that made them famous and put the game in the hands of their quarterback.
And on a day in which the Packers won by the tiniest margin, Lombardi's instinct was proven correct. Starr's brilliance was the difference between victory and defeat.
Starr followed up that game, by the way, with an MVP performance in Super Bowl I, completing 16 of 23 passes (69.6%) for 250 yards, 10.9 YPA, 2 TD, 1 INT and a 116.2 passer rating against the best the AFL could throw his way.
As the Cold, Hard Football Facts have noted many times, there's no coincidence that the quarterback with the best postseason passer rating in NFL history (104.1) is also the only quarterback in history to win five NFL championships.
The 1966 NFL championship game should be remembered for many reasons: it should be remembered for the birth of America's Team and the birth of one of the glamour rivalries in sports. It should be remembered as a cultural watershed and as a clash of titans. And it should be remembered for one of the most brilliant performances by one of the game's most legendary Starrs.
Was the 1966 championship game better than the Ice Bowl? We don't know. But we know two things: One, it was a great and important game in its own right. And two, the hero of each game wore No. 15.