The Packers’ first ever matchup with the Saints showed they had a little of Vince Lombardi’s magic left.
Though the Packers and Saints have been in the NFL together for more than half a century, they have a limited shared history. In fact, it wasn’t until relatively recently that the teams played each other even semi-regularly.
Sunday’s game between the two teams will only be their 17th matchup, but it will be the sixth time they’ve seen the Saints since 2011, when they also opened the season together.
But let’s dig a little deeper into the history books than that, turning all the way back to 1968 and the very first time these two franchises met.
The shell of Lombardi’s Packers
The Packers’ connections to the Saints actually predate their first game. Vince Lombardi’s two workhorse backs — Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor — both ended up with the Saints for the 1967 season. Hornung had been selected in the expansion draft, but a neck injury prevented him from ever playing a down in New Orleans. Taylor, meanwhile, ended up in New Orleans via trade, and rushed for 390 yards and two touchdowns in his final pro season.
The next year, the Packers got their first chance to play the Saints. Coming off their second consecutive Super Bowl win, the Packers were a shell of their former greatness. Though he led the league in passer rating in 1968, Bart Starr was unable to start every game that year as the wear and tear of football in the 1960s began to catch up with him.
It was a familiar sight in Green Bay, as many of the players who had made the Packers great were past their prime. Forrest Gregg, Jerry Kramer, Willie Davis, Henry Jordan, Ray Nitschke, and Willie Wood were all on the wrong side of 30, a virtual death sentence for a professional athlete in those days, and it often showed in their performance. Gregg and Wood scraped together Pro Bowl years, but they were the exception, not the rule.
Hornung and Taylor, meanwhile, were gone entirely, as were fellow legends Max McGee and Fuzzy Thurston. Even Lombardi himself had left the sideline, transitioning to a front-office role for the year before heading to Washington for his final coaching gig.
Age, departures, and general decline showed in the Packers’ record. When they prepared to welcome the Saints to Milwaukee County Stadium in Week 10, they were just 3-5-1 on the season and had gone 1-3-1 in the previous five weeks. The glory of the Lombardi years had not faded completely, but it was on its way out the door.
One last strong effort
But like the aging fighters they were, the Packers rallied against the Saints to teach the newcomers a lesson. Even if they were old, most of the Packers’ great Lombardi-era defense was still around, and they made life difficult for the Saints. They held Saints passers Ronnie Lee South and Ken Sweetman to a combined 8 of 26 on the afternoon, allowing just 75 yards of passing offense and collecting two interceptions.
On the opposing side, Starr was his typical efficient self. He completed 9 of 14 passes for 167 yards and a touchdown, capping his afternoon with a 47-yard strike to Carroll Dale as the Packers cruised to a 29-7 victory. It may not have been one of the great Packers/Bears duels of old, but it showed the difference between a team that was new to the league and one that had been around — and dominated — for quite some time.
The Packers’ win set up a successful final month in 1968. Including their win over the Saints, the Packers came out on top in three of their final five games, finishing 6-7-1 in new head coach Phil Bengston’s inaugural campaign. Though a return to dominance was decades away, for the time being, at least, it looked like the Packers still had a little bit of the glory years magic in them.