The Next Ten: Yancey Thigpen's drop gives the Packers a rare divisional title

JR Radcliffe
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Yancey Thigpen of Pittsburgh drops a pass in the end zone at Lambeau Field that helped the Packers win the NFC Central in 1995

With the sports world on hold, we gave you the 50 greatest moments in Wisconsin sports history over the past 50 years. What about the next 10 that just missed the list? This is No. 56.

The holidays are a time for giving. 

"Merry Christmas to Green Bay," Steelers wide receiver Yancey Thigpen said in the aftermath of a play that made him a household name in Wisconsin. "That's my present."

It was Christmas Eve, 1995, and the Packers had just won their first division title since 1972 with a 24-19 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Green Bay finished 11-5, edged the Lions for the NFC Central crown and earned a date with the Atlanta Falcons at Lambeau Field in the playoffs one week later. 

The lasting image wasn't a celebration, though. It was Thigpen on all fours in the end zone at Lambeau Field, in agony after an inexplicable drop with 11 seconds left in the game.

"Finally, we got a break," veteran Packers kicker Chris Jacke said. "The dropped pass in the end zone, they don't get much bigger than that."

Thigpen was wide open, having easily eluded defender Lenny McGill, and Neil O'Donnell threw a perfect pass on fourth and goal from the 6-yard line that would have given Pittsburgh the lead. But Thigpen lost the handle, and the ball bounced off his knee and out of bounds. It was a momentous triumph for the Packers at a time when a division title was still a wildly meaningful accomplishment.

"I know the people here have been waiting a lot longer than I have, but it seems like an eternity," quarterback Brett Favre said. "I think we earned it. It's a great feeling."

A matter of perspective

It was perhaps Thigpen's best season in the NFL, the first of his two Pro Bowl campaigns. He caught a career-best 85 passes, good for 1,307 yards. The drop was legitimately stunning.

While some Packers personnel obviously appreciated the luck involved in securing the division title, there were varied perspectives.

"It was poetic justice, if nothing else," defensive lineman Sean Jones said. "I'm not ashamed about it."

Jones pointed to a call earlier in the final drive, when O'Donnell was awarded a first down on a fourth-and-1 play at the Packers' 17 with just under a minute left. It appeared Gilbert Brown had stuffed him to effectively end the game.

As the Packers screamed overhead, referee Jerry Markbreit got on his hands and knees to examine the measurement. It took 58 seconds before the ruling was for a Pittsburgh first down.

"The game should have been over a whole lot sooner than it was," linebacker George Koonce said. "They were the lucky ones to get that. That was a bad call."

Pittsburgh converted another fourth and 1 on the drive, one play after a slant in the end zone was thrown low; that brought the Steelers to their final set of downs. 

On second down, Thigpen had beaten McGill on a slant, but O'Donnell sailed a pass over his head. McGill later said he figured he'd be cut immediately if Thigpen had hauled in the fourth-down pass.

"I think God had something to do with the dropped pass," he said. "It was a catchable ball."

Several close calls

Packers defensive back Doug Evans breaks up a pass to Pittsburgh’s Kordell Stewart as LeRoy Butler looks on. The Green Bay Packers played the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 24, 1995. The game was decided when Steelers wide receiver Yancey Thigpen dropped a pass in the end zone that would have given Pittsburgh the lead with :11 left in the 4th quarter.

Kordell Stewart entered in shotgun formation at quarterback for third down, and the Steelers ran him on a draw, but Jones sniffed it out and stopped Stewart in the backfield. After a timeout, Stewart returned to the field as a wideout alongside Thigpen. O'Donnell took the snap, looked right, and had McGill in man-to-man on Thigpen to his left. McGill slipped momentarily when Thigpen cut his pattern back to the corner. It had touchdown written all over it.

"When a play like that happens, you don't try to figure it out," Packers coach Mike Holmgren said. "You just say, `Oh, thank you.' You thank somebody."

"You're never too big to cry," said Packers safety LeRoy Butler. "There's nothing wrong with that. It just means a whole lot. It's almost as if we won the Super Bowl, because people have never given us a chance, and now we've won.

"It's not like this is a fluke. We deserve to win this division. People in Detroit were probably sitting there praying, hitting up a Ouija board, calling up the Dionne Warwick psychic hot line, praying for us to lose. In this league, you can't wait for other people to do it for you. We didn't wait for anybody to do it for us. We went out and won the game."

Favre threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns despite getting battered, including one occasion when he was forced to leave briefly after taking a hit to the chest from Kevin Greene.

Pittsburgh had won eight straight games going into the battle and didn't have much to play for, with the Kansas City Chiefs taking a big lead on Seattle and looking more and more like they would be the ones to secure home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, leaving the Steelers with the No. 2 seed at 11-5. 

"We might play these guys again in the Big Show," O'Donnell said.

"The Packers had a lot at stake," Steelers Bill Cowher said. "You saw a pretty good game out there today. I'm happy for Mike (Holmgren). This is a great city and this field gets to do it again."

Pittsburgh was playing without its top three running backs, but Green Bay still had trouble stopping the Steelers offense, and the Packers finished with fewer takeaways on defense (16) than any team since the 1978 expansion to a 16-game schedule. The loss didn't derail the season for the Steelers; Pittsburgh defeated the Bills and Colts in the AFC playoffs, then lost to Dallas in the Super Bowl. 

It was still another major stepping stone for the Packers, who were eventually defeated by the Cowboys in the NFC championship game. Had Thigpen caught the ball, the Packers would have opened the postseason in Philadelphia instead of at home. Green Bay dispatched Atlanta in that first-round battle, 37-20.

"To have come so close . . ." said Packers general manager Ron Wolf, his voice breaking off. "But we didn't lose. Eleven wins, it's a huge number. A lot of things were said at the beginning of the year about how lousy we'd be. Well, everybody will have a merry Christmas."

How the moment lives on

Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren hugs Sean Jones after the Packers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Green Bay Packers played the Pittburgh Steelers on Dec. 24, 1995.

The Thigpen drop is a memorable visual "moment," but it was a game two weeks later that had greater meaning to the sustained run of Packers success that followed.

After beating Atlanta, the Packers went to San Francisco and downed the powerful 49ers, 27-17, to earn a date with Dallas in the NFC championship game. It was a win that really marked a significant next step for Green Bay, and perhaps injected the confidence that paved the way for the Packers to level up one year later and win the Super Bowl. 

Green Bay lost to the Super Bowl champion Cowboys, 38-27. 

It was the first of three consecutive division titles for the Packers. They've won 10 more in the years since. 

JR Radcliffe can be reached at (262) 361-9141 or Follow him on Twitter at @JRRadcliffe.

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