Headline: Green Bay claims its 12th NFL championship with victory in Super Bowl XXXI
Regular Season Record: 13 – 3 (First Place NFC Central Division)
Offseason Highlights: Changes in NFL franchise locations continued during 1996 with the relocation of the Cleveland Browns and Houston Oilers.
The Baltimore Ravens began their new history with start of the 1996 season. In a belated agreement between Cleveland, Baltimore, and the NFL after the surprise November 1995 announcement that the Browns would be leaving Cleveland for Baltimore, the name, colors, and history of the Browns would remain with Cleveland while the Baltimore organization would technically be a new franchise. Cleveland would receive either a new or relocated franchise in the next few years once a new stadium was built. The Baltimore franchise would be nicknamed the “Ravens” as a result of a poll conducted by the Baltimore Sun and assigned to play in the AFC Central Division under new Head Coach, and former Baltimore Colts Head Coach, Ted Marchibroda. For the first time in 13 years, since the Colts moved to Indianapolis, professional football would once again be played in Baltimore.
In the meantime, while the Oilers would remain in Houston for the 1996 season, the organization had already established itself as a lame duck franchise. After 37 years in Houston, the league had approved the team’s relocation to Nashville, TN at the end of the 1995 season, although the move was not originally scheduled to take place until 1998. With the team having given up on Houston, the city responded in kind; fan support, attendance, and local media coverage dropped to negligible levels for the 1996 season. The Oilers and the NFL, unwilling to continue in Houston after such a debacle, quickly moved to Memphis in 1997, becoming the Tennessee Oilers. In 1998, the Oilers would make their final move to Nashville, officially becoming the Tennessee Titans in 1999.
The Green Bay Packers had another solid draft in 1996, with five players ultimately becoming starters or key reserves during the remainder of the 1990s and into the 2000s, including OT John Michels out of USC (27th overall), WR Derrick Mayes out of Notre Dame (56th overall), C Mike Flanagan out of UCLA (90th overall), DB Tyrone Williams out of Nebraska (93rd overall), and OG Marco Rivera out of Penn State (208th overall).
When starter and fellow USC alum Ken Ruettgers went down with a career ending knee injury during the 1996 season, John Michels took over the left tackle duties. He started 9 games and was named the Green Bay’s 1996 Co-Rookie of the Year while also earning NFL All-Rookie honors. In 1997, he returned as the team’s left tackle, starting the first 5 games of the season before injuring his right knee. He was sidelined for the rest of the season and replaced by rookie 1st round pick, Ross Verba. After having his best training camp as a professional in 1998, he again injured his right knee and spent the season on injured reserve. In 1999, he struggled in training camp before being traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for DE Jon Harris, having started a total of just 14 games over 3 seasons with the Packers. Michels lasted only a couple of weeks in Philadelphia before his knee injury ultimately ended his career.
Similarly, Derrick Mayes started only 9 games during his 3 seasons with the Packers, catching 54 passes for 730 yards (13.5 yards per catch) and 5 touchdowns, before being traded to the Seattle Seahawks prior to the 1999 season. Known as an outstanding possession receiver with excellent hands, Mayes lacked the speed to be a game breaker. He was also injury prone, missing 19 games during his time with the Packers, ending his NFL career after only 5 years in 2000. Mike Flanagan sat out the first 2 of his 10 seasons with Green Bay due to an injury sustained during the 1996 preseason, finally making his Packers’ debut late in 1998. In 2001, he won the starting job in training camp from long time starting C Frank Winters, starting 45 out of 48 games through the 2003 season, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl in 2003. Injured for most of the 2004 season, Flanagan was not resigned after 2005 and finished his 12 year career with the Houston Texans, retiring after the 2007 season.
Tyrone Williams played in the nickel and dime packages as a rookie and was also named Green Bay’s 1996 Co-Rookie of the Year, becoming a starter after an injury to second year CB Craig Newsome early in the 1997 season. Williams ultimately played 7 years in Green Bay and becoming a mainstay on defense, starting 94 out of 111 games, intercepting 19 passes, before finishing his 9 year career with the Dallas Cowboys in 2004. Lastly, beginning in 1998, Marco Rivera started 7 consecutive seasons at guard, 111 out of 125 games, the second longest streak for a guard in team history. Consistently paving the way for successful offenses, Rivera was selected to 3 Pro Bowls (2002-04) during his 9 seasons in Green Bay before joining the Dallas Cowboys in 2005 as an unrestricted free agent, retiring after the 2006 season and 11 years in the NFL due to back injuries.
With Green Bay finishing one step short of the Super Bowl in 1995, General Manager Ron Wolf decided to add a few more veteran free agents to the 1996 team in an effort to boost the Packers into the championship game. One of those players was DT Santana Dotson, whom Wolf described as the missing piece that would help propel Green Bay to the next level. After playing his first 4 years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dotson became a reliable, athletic and durable player during his 6 seasons in Green Bay, retiring in 2001 after 10 years in the NFL. As a Packer, Dotson played in 83 out of 88 games, recording 26 sacks, 158 tackles and 107 assists. He also forced 6 fumbles and had 2 fumble recoveries.
Another key free agent signee was WR/KR Desmond Howard. Originally drafted by the Washington Redskins as the 4th overall pick in 1992, Howard’s performance as a receiver during his 3 seasons in Washington and his one season as a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars was secondary to his skills as a punt and kick off returner. As a Packer in 1996, Howard led the NFL in punt returns (58), punt return yards (875), punt return average (15.1), and punt return touchdowns (3). His 875 punt return yards were an NFL record, easily surpassing the old record of 692 yards set in 1985. A free agent again in 1997, Howard played the next 2 seasons with the Oakland Raiders, returned to Green Bay in 1999, was released in mid season, and finished his 11 year career with the Detroit Lions, retiring in 2002. Overall, Howard gained 12,155 all purpose yards during his NFL career.
After playing 6 seasons for the Buffalo Bills (1989-94) and one season for the Carolina Panthers in 1995, Don Beebe joined the Packers for the final 2 years of his career in 1996, retiring after the 1997 season. Beebe provided needed depth at the wide receiver position as well as experience playing at the game’s highest levels, participating in all four of Buffalo’s Super Bowl appearances. Although Beebe made only 9 starts during his time in Green Bay, he participated in 26 games, catching 41 passes for 727 yards (17.7 yards per catch) and 4 touchdowns. Beebe had two 100 yard receiving games in 1996, including an 11 catch, 220 yard performance on a Monday Night overtime win against the San Francisco 49ers. His 220 receiving yards is the third highest, single game total in Packers history.
The final piece of the championship puzzle was put in place when Wolf traded DE Matt Labounty to the Seattle Seahawks for 11 year veteran S Eugene Robinson. Robinson had a successful but largely anonymous career in Seattle, named All-Pro once in 1993 when he led the league in interceptions with 9 and making the Pro Bowl in 1993 and 1994. His 42 lifetime interceptions and experienced leadership attracted Wolf’s attention. In Green Bay, Robinson solidified the secondary, starting 32 out of 32 games, intercepting 7 passes, before leaving the Packers in 1998 for the Atlanta Falcons as an unrestricted free agent. Robinson finished his 16 year NFL career with the Carolina Panthers in 2000.
Overall, two players selected in the 1996 NFL draft would ultimately be elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the 4th overall selection, UCLA OT Jonathan Ogden (Baltimore Ravens) and the 19th overall selection, Syracuse WR Marvin Harrison (Indianapolis Colts).
The 1996 draft is considered one of the best draft classes ever for the position of wide receiver. Keyshawn Johnson, Terry Glenn, Eddie Kennison, Marvin Harrison, Eric Moulds, Bobby Engram, Terrell Owens, Muhsin Muhammad, Amani Toomer, Jermaine Lewis, and Joe Horn have all achieved success in the pros, with all except Kennison, Engram, and Toomer having reached the Pro Bowl at least once, and a total of 26 Pro Bowl appearances for the group. Also, as of 2016, 1996 was the last draft without a quarterback selected in the first round. Previously, the 1988 draft had been the last with no quarterback selected in the first round.
There was one rule change of note in 1996. In order to reduce injuries, hits with the helmet or to the head would be considered personal fouls and subject to fines.
Finally, the Carolina Panthers, in their second year of existence, moved into brand new Ericsson Stadium in Charlotte NC after playing the 1995 season in Clemson’s Memorial Stadium.
Regular Season Highlights: After winning Super Bowl II in 1967, the Green Bay Packers became a losing team for much of the 1970s and 1980s, only making the playoffs in 1972 and the strike shortened 1982 season. In addition to having the reputation of being a poor team, the Packers were unable to attract good players because many did not want to play in Green Bay’s cold winter climate, combined with the fact they were a small market team. All that changed when Ron Wolf became Green Bay’s General Manager and Mike Holmgren the Packers Head Coach in 1992.
During Wolf and Holmgren’s first year, Green Bay improved to a 9-7 regular season record, barely missing the playoffs. One of the most significant players on the 1992 Packers team was second year QB Brett Favre, who spent his rookie season as a third string quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons. On September 20 1992 against the Cincinnati Bengals, Favre replaced injured starter Don Majkowski and proceeded to lead the team to a comeback victory. Afterwards, Favre became the starter for the rest of that season and proceeded to hold the position for the entirety of his 16 year Packers career. Green Bay subsequently made the playoffs in 1993, 1994, and 1995, also winning the NFC Central title in 1995 for the first time since 1982. As Wolf, Holmgren, Favre, and the Packers continued to win, they were able to attract impact free agents like veteran DE Reggie White, who joined the team in 1993.
In 1996, the Packers posted an NFC best 13-3 regular season record, tying the Denver Broncos for the best record in the NFL, while winning the NFC Central title for the second consecutive season. Green Bay finished ahead of the 9-7 Minnesota Vikings, the 7-9 Chicago Bears, the 6-10 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the 5-11 Detroit Lions. The Packers won 8 of their first 9 games to start the season. After losing 2 straight games in November, they finished off the regular season winning their remaining 5 games, including dominating wins over two playoff teams; the Denver Broncos in Week 15, 41-6, and the Minnesota Vikings in Week 17, 38-10.
Favre won the NFL Most Valuable Player Award for the second straight season after completing 325 out of 543 attempts (59.9%), throwing for 3,899 yards and an NFC record 39 touchdown passes with only 13 interceptions, for a QB Rating of 95.8. Favre finished 2nd overall in passer rating, 3rd in passes completed, 4th in passing yards, and 5th in passes attempted. His 39 touchdown passes not only led the league in 1996 but was the third highest total in league history at that time. Favre was also a good runner, ranking third on the team with 136 rushing yards and scoring 2 touchdowns.
In addition to Favre, Green Bay had a number of offensive weapons. WR Antonio Freeman led the team with 56 receptions for 933 yards (16.7 yards per catch) and 9 touchdowns. Multi-talented veteran WR Don Beebe was a constant breakaway threat, catching 39 passes for 606 yards (17.9 yards per catch, ranking 4th overall in yards per reception) and 4 touchdowns while adding another 403 yards and a touchdown returning kickoffs. Green Bay also had two outstanding tight ends; Pro Bowler Keith Jackson recorded 40 catches for 504 yards (12.6 yards per catch) and 10 touchdowns (5th overall in receiving touchdowns), and Mark Chmura had 28 receptions for 370 yards (13.2 yards per catch). Fifth year veteran WR Robert Brooks started the season strong, catching 23 passes for 344 yards (15.0 yards per catch) and 4 touchdowns over 7 games, but severely injured his knee during a Week 7 game against the San Francisco 49ers and was out for the remainder of the year.
Late in the season, as the result of injuries to both Brooks and Freeman, Green Bay made another big addition to their receiving corps by signing 7 year veteran and 4 time Pro Bowl selection Andre Rison, who had been recently cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Rison finished with 47 receptions for 593 yards and 3 touchdowns. Rison started his NFL career in 1989 with the Indianapolis Colts, was traded to the Atlanta Falcons in 1990 as part of a deal for the No. 1 pick in the draft, spent the next 5 seasons playing for the Falcons, played one season for the Cleveland Browns in 1995, joining the Jaguars in 1996 before finally becoming a Packer in Week 13 of the season.
Although Green Bay’s running game did not have any standout backs or Pro Bowlers, RBs Dorsey Levens, Edgar Bennett, and William Henderson were all very good at blocking, running, and receiving. Bennett was the team’s leading rusher with 222 attempts for 899 yards (4.0 yards per carry), while also catching 31 passes for 176 yards and scoring 3 total touchdowns. Levens rushed for 566 yards on 121 attempts (4.7 yards per carry), caught 31 passes for 226 yards, returned 5 kickoffs for 84 yards, and scored 10 total touchdowns. Henderson had 130 rushing yards on 39 attempts (3.3 yards per carry), caught 27 passes for 203 yards, and returned 2 kickoffs for 38 yards. Up front, Pro Bowl C Frank Winters anchored the offensive line along with OG Adam Timmerman.
On defense, White continued to be a weapon, recording 29 tackles, 3 fumble recoveries, and led the team with 8.5 sacks. DT Santana Dotson was also a big asset, recording 5.5 sacks and a fumble recovery. In the secondary, the team was led by S Eugene Robinson, who recorded 55 tackles, 6 interceptions, and 107 return yards. S Leroy Butler was also a major force, recording 65 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries, and 5 interceptions for 149 return yards and a touchdown. The Packers had another valuable asset in game breaking KR Desmond Howard, who ranked No. 1 overall in punt returns, punt return yards, punt return touchdowns, and punt return yards per attempt.
Green Bay’s defense led the league in fewest points (210), total yards (4,156), and passing yards (2,7400) allowed, while ranking 4th overall in rushing yards allowed (1,416). The Packers also scored an NFL best 456 points while finishing 5th in passing yards (3,697) and 11th in rushing yards (1,838). Overall, Green Bay became the first team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to score the most points in the league and allow the fewest. They also set an NFL record with 7 wins by at least 25 points.
With Green Bay as the NFC’s top seed, the 12-4 Carolina Panthers won the NFC West title and the second seed over the 12-4 San Francisco 49ers based on a head to head sweep (2-0). The 10-6 World Champion Dallas Cowboys won the NFC East title and the third seed over the 10-6 Philadelphia Eagles based on a better record against common opponents (8-5 to Eagles’ 7-6). San Francisco (fourth seed), Philadelphia (5th seed), and the 9-7 Minnesota Vikings (sixth seed) were the NFC Wild Card teams. Minnesota was the third NFC Wild Card based on a better conference record than the 9-7 Washington Redskins (8-4 to Redskins’ 6-6).
Meanwhile, the Denver Broncos finished with the AFC’s best record as well as tied for the NFL’s best record at 13-3, winning the AFC West title and the AFC’s top playoff seed. The 11-5 New England Patriots won the AFC East title and the second seed while the 10-6 Pittsburgh Steelers won the AFC Central title and the third seed. The 10-6 Buffalo Bills (fourth seed), the Jacksonville Jaguars (fifth seed), and the Indianapolis Colts (sixth seed) were the AFC Wild Card teams. Jacksonville, Indianapolis, and the Kansas City Chiefs all finished with a 9-7 record with Jacksonville winning the second AFC Wild Card ahead of Indianapolis and Kansas City based on better conference record (7-5 to Colts’ 6-6 and Chiefs’ 5-7) and Indianapolis winning the third AFC Wild Card based on head to head victory over Kansas City.
One of the most memorable aspects of the 1996 season was that the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars, each in just their second year of existence, both made the playoffs. Carolina finished the season winning 7 straight games and, in the process, winning both their division and a first round bye. Jacksonville, meanwhile, won 6 of their last 7 games to earn a wild card berth on the last week of the season. Denver returned to the playoffs after a two year absence under second year Head Coach Mike Shanahan.
Lastly, as stated earlier, Green Bay QB Brett Favre won his second consecutive NFL Most Valuable Player Award. Denver RB Terrell Davis won Offensive Player of the Year while Buffalo DE Bruce Smith won Defensive Player of the Year. Houston Oilers RB Eddie George won Offensive Rookie of the Year while Arizona Cardinals DE Simeon Rice won Defensive Rookie of the Year. Carolina Head Coach Dom Capers won Coach of the Year.
Post Season Highlights: In the NFC Wild Card Playoffs, the fifth seed Philadelphia Eagles traveled to Candlestick Park to play the fourth seed San Francisco 49ers while the NFC East Champion and third seed Dallas Cowboys hosted the sixth seed Minnesota Vikings in Texas Stadium. In the AFC, the fourth seed Buffalo Bills hosted the fifth seed Jacksonville Jaguars in Rich Stadium while the AFC Central Champion and third seed Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the sixth seed Indianapolis Colts in Three Rivers Stadium. The winners would advance to their respective Divisional Playoffs.
On December 28, the Jacksonville Jaguars forced 4 turnovers, racked up 3 sacks, and outgained the Buffalo Bills in total yards, 409-308, to earn their first playoff win. After trading points back and forth all day, almost drive for drive, Jaguars S Chris Hudson made a decisive hit on Bills QB Jim Kelly, knocking him out of the game and forcing a fumble that Jacksonville would convert into the game winning score.
Jacksonville was forced to punt on their opening drive and Buffalo returned the ball to the Jaguars 43 yard line, setting up Kelly’s 7 yard touchdown pass to RB Thurman Thomas, and a 7-0 lead. But, later in the quarter, Jacksonville DE Clyde Simmons intercepted a shovel pass intended for Thomas and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown, tying the game at 7-7. The Bills stormed right back with a 10 play, 68 yard drive that ended with Thomas’ 2 yard touchdown run, making the score 14-7. However, Jacksonville RB Natrone Means’ 62 yard carry on their next drive moved the ball to the Buffalo 5 yard line. The drive stalled there, but Mike Hollis kicked a 27 yard field goal to make the score 14-10 at the end of the first quarter.
The Bills drove to the Jaguars 2 yard line on their first drive of the second quarter but came up empty when Kelly was stuffed for no gain while trying to convert a 4th and 1 on a quarterback sneak. Jacksonville then stormed to their first lead of the day with QB Mark Brunell completing a 47 yard pass to TE Pete Mitchell before Means’ took off for a 30 yard touchdown burst, giving them a 17-14 advantage. However, Buffalo returned the ensuing kickoff 57 yards to the Jaguars 42 yard line, setting up a 33 yard Steve Christie field goal to tie the game at 17-17. Jacksonville responded with a drive to the Buffalo 36 yard line but, on the last play of the half, Brunell turned the ball over on an interception.
Buffalo returned the second half kickoff to the Bills 38 yard line, where they went on to retake the lead, 20-17, with Christie’s 47 yard field goal. But, after a few punts, Jacksonville managed to tie the game again at 20-20 with an 11 play, 62 yard drive that included a 27 yard catch by WR Keenan McCardell, ending with a 24 yard field goal by Hollis. On the second play of the fourth quarter, Buffalo DB Jeff Burris picked off Brunell’s pass and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown to give the Bills a 27-20 lead. Jacksonville countered right back, moving the ball 65 yards in 10 plays. McCardell caught 2 passes for 39 yards on the drive, while Means kept it going with a 2 yard run on 4th and 1. Brunell finished the drive with a 2 yard toss to WR Jimmy Smith that tied the game at 27-27.
On Buffalo’s next drive, Hudson made his devastating hit on Kelly, knocking him out of the game and forcing a fumble that was recovered by Jacksonville on the Jaguars 42 yard line. Brunell then completed a pair of passes to Smith and McCardell for gains of 14 and 11 yards, setting up Hollis’ 45 yard field goal, putting Jacksonville back in front at 30-27. The Bills offense, now led by backup QB Todd Collins, were unable to move the ball on any of their remaining drives. During the game’s final seconds, the Jaguars forced and recovered a fumble while sacking Collins, sealing a 30-27 win.
For the Buffalo Bills, this would be the final game of QB Jim Kelly’s Hall of Fame career as well as the final playoff game for Buffalo Hall of Fame Head Coach Marv Levy, marking the end of an era in Buffalo Bills’ history. Kelly retired on February 1 1997, finishing his 11 NFL seasons with 2,874 completions in 4,779 attempts (60.1%) for 35,467 yards, 237 touchdowns, and 175 interceptions, an overall QB Rating of 84.4, all of which are Buffalo records excluding the interceptions. He also rushed for 1,049 yards and 7 touchdowns. Levy would coach one more season before retiring on December 31 1997 after a 6-10 season and after apparently failing to agree with Owner Ralph Wilson and General Manager John Butler on changes among his assistant coaches.
Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys outgained the Minnesota Vikings in total yards, 438-268, plays 78-44, and time of possession 42:03-17:57. They also forced 6 turnovers and scored on 5 first half possessions to win the game.
Dallas scored first on a 14 play, 88 yard drive in which QB Troy Aikman completed 4 passes to WR Michael Irvin for 65 yards and finished the drive with a 2 yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead. Perhaps the key point of the game occurred on the next series when Minnesota RB Amp Lee caught a short pass from QB Brad Johnson and appeared to be on his way for a 43 yard touchdown. But Cowboys S George Teague caught up with Lee at the 1 yard line and poked the ball out of his hands, knocking it out of the end zone for a touchback.
Dallas then drove 70 yards, including a 22 yard carry by RB Herschel Walker, to go up 10-0 on K Chris Boniol’s 28 yard field goal early in the second quarter. Five plays after the ensuing kickoff, Teague stripped the ball from Vikings RB Leroy Hoard. DB Deion Sanders recovered the fumble and lateraled it to Shante Carver, who was tackled on the Minnesota 37 yard line. RB Emmitt Smith took off for a 37 yard touchdown run on the next play, increasing the Cowboys lead to 17-0. Then, during Minnesota’s next possession, Teague intercepted a Johnson pass and returned it 29 yards for a touchdown, giving the Cowboys a 24-0 lead with 8:36 left in the second quarter.
The Dallas dominance would continue as Sanders returned an interception 22 yards to the Vikings 29 yard line, setting up a 31 yard Boniol field goal and a 27-0 lead. Even Minnesota’s interception of an Aikman pass ended up going against the Vikings as S Orlando Thomas lost the ball while being tackled, giving it back to the Cowboys. This led to Boniol’s 22 yard field goal, extending Dallas’ lead to 30-0 at the end of the first half.
In the second half, Minnesota drove 47 yards and scored on a 30 yard pass from Johnson to WR Chris Carter to cut the Cowboys lead to 30-7. But this was answered by Dallas, who subsequently moved the ball 80 yards in 16 plays to go up 37-7 on Smith’s 1 yard touchdown run. In the fourth quarter, Dallas forced a turnover by sacking Johnson on fourth down, giving the Cowboys the ball on the Vikings 39 yard line, which led to another Boniol field goal, this one from 25 yards out, for a 40-7 lead. On the ensuing drive, Johnson’s 50 yard completion to WR Qadry Ismail set up the final score of the game, Johnson’s 2 yard touchdown run, for a 40-14 Dallas victory.
This was the last time the Dallas Cowboys won a playoff game until January 9 2010, when they beat the Philadelphia Eagles, and the last playoff win ever at Texas Stadium. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings fell to 0-4 in the playoffs under Head Coach Dennis Green.
On December 29, the Pittsburgh Steelers blew a 13 point lead in the first half but scored 29 unanswered points in the second half. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh held the Indianapolis Colts to 146 total yards of offense while gaining 407 yards.
Pittsburgh drove 51 yards in 8 plays, including a 30 yard reception by WR Charles Johnson from QB Mike Tomczak, to score on K Norm Johnson’s 29 yard field goal on their first drive for a 3-0 lead. After the Colts next drive, the Steelers returned their punt 36 yards to the Indianapolis 31 yard line. One play later, Tomczak completed a 20 yard pass to Johnson at the 8 yard line. Backup QB Kordell Stewart, who was routinely used by the team in short yardage situations, eventually finished the drive with a 1 yard touchdown run, giving the Steelers a 10-0 lead with 4:55 left in the first quarter. Following another Colts punt, Pittsburgh increased their lead to 13-0 with Norm Johnson’s 50 yard field goal 10 seconds into the second quarter.
Pittsburgh seemed to be taking control of the game but, with 4:35 left in the half, Tomczak threw a short pass intended for WR Ernie Mills that was too far behind the receiver. DB Eugene Daniel intercepted the ball and returned it 59 yards for a touchdown, cutting the Steelers lead to 13-7. On the Steelers next possession, Tomczak threw another interception, this time on the Colts 40 yard line. On the next play, QB Jim Harbaugh completed a 48 yard pass to WR Marvin Harrison at the Steelers 12 yard line, and he eventually converted a 3rd and 7 situation with a 9 yard touchdown pass to WR Aaron Bailey, giving Indianapolis a 14-13 lead with 31 seconds left before halftime.
However, the Steelers dominated the rest of the game. They started out the second half with a 16 play, 91 yard possession that ate 9:30 off the clock. Tomczak completed 5 out of 5 passes for 37 yards on the drive. RB Jerome Bettis, acquired from the St. Louis Rams on draft day in exchange for a 1996 2nd round pick and a 1997 4th round pick, caught one of Tomczak’s passes as well as rushed for 42 yards on 8 carries, the last a 1 yard touchdown run. Then Stewart completed a 2 point conversion pass to TE John Farquhar, giving the team a 21-14 lead.
Harbaugh was intercepted on the next drive and, after a Steelers punt, RB Marshall Faulk fumbled a pitch which Pittsburgh recovered on the Colts 18 yard line. Five plays later, Bettis scored another 1 yard touchdown run to give the Steelers a 28-14 lead less than a minute into the fourth quarter. Stewart ended up starting for the Steelers for the rest of the game. He finished with just one pass attempt, but his 24 yard run on a quarterback draw set up RB Jon Witman’s 31 yard touchdown play, extending Pittsburgh’s lead to 35-14. Stewart added a 3 yard touchdown run with 3:10 left in the game, making the final score 42-14. It was the second straight year the Steelers had eliminated Indianapolis from the playoffs.
Later in the day, although the Philadelphia Eagles gained more yards than the San Francisco 49ers, the Eagles were shut out in a rain soaked, muddy game with 62 miles per hour winds. San Francisco won in what Head Coach George Seifert called “the swampy tundra of Candlestick.” Despite the poor weather, the 49ers finished the game without losing any turnovers.
K Gary Anderson missed a 40 yard field goal attempt on Philadelphia’s first possession. In the second quarter, San Francisco QB Steve Young completed 6 out of 7 passes for 60 yards on a 74 yard drive, finishing it off with a 9 yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead. The Eagles subsequently reached the San Francisco 8 yard line, but QB Ty Detmer threw an interception. The 49ers were forced to punt on their next drive and Philadelphia advanced to the San Francisco 5 yard line. However, the 49ers again intercepted Detmer with 43 seconds left in the half, and the Eagles would never seriously threaten again.
Detmer was knocked out of the game in the third quarter with a hamstring injury, and his replacement, backup QB Mark Rypien, completed only 5 of 12 passes for 77 yards, including an interception on the last play of the game. Meanwhile, a one handed 36 yard reception by 49ers WR Jerry Rice set up the final score of the game, Rice’s 3 yard touchdown catch from Young, finishing off a 61 yard drive in the third quarter for a 14-0 victory. This was the lowest scoring wildcard playoff game in NFL history.
In the Divisional Playoffs, the NFC Central Champion and top seed Green Bay Packers hosted the fourth seed San Francisco 49ers in Lambeau Field while the fifth seed Jacksonville Jaguars traveled to Mile High Stadium to play the AFC West Champion and top seed Denver Broncos. Meanwhile, the AFC East Champion and second seed New England Patriots hosted AFC Central Champion and third seed Pittsburgh Steelers in Foxboro Stadium while the NFC East Champion and third seed Dallas Cowboys traveled to Ericsson Stadium to play the NFC West Champion and second seed Carolina Panthers. The winners would advance to their respective Conference Championship games.
On January 4, the Green Bay Packers defense forced 5 turnovers en route to victory over the San Francisco 49ers, with KR Desmond Howard’s key punt returns enabling the Packers to jump to a 14-0 lead after only 3 offensive plays. Because the weather dipped in and out of freezing, resulting in both rain and snow, the field got extremely muddy as the game went on, causing the Green Bay Press-Gazette to call the game the “Mud Bowl.” Neither team had much success moving the ball on offense due to the field conditions. The Packers, who averaged over 345 yards per game during the season, gained just 210 yards, while the 49ers managed only 196 yards.
On his first punt return at the end of San Francisco’s first possession of the game, Howard ran 71 yards for a touchdown, giving Green Bay a 7-0 lead. At the end of the 49ers next series, Howard returned San Francisco’s punt 46 yards to the 49ers 7 yard line, setting up QB Brett Favre’s 4 yard touchdown pass to WR Andre Rison, extending the Packers lead to 14-0 just 9 minutes into the first quarter. Early in the second quarter, DB Craig Newsome’s interception set up Green Bay’s third touchdown of the day. Newsome fumbled the ball while being hit during the interception return, but his teammate, DE Sean Jones, recovered the ball on the San Francisco 15 yard line. Three plays later, RB Edgar Bennett’s 2 yard touchdown run increased the Packers lead to 21-0.
Two Green Bay turnovers enabled San Francisco to mount a comeback attempt. First, a 49ers punt bounced into a Packers’ player and was subsequently recovered by San Francisco at the Green Bay 26 yard line. Six plays later, backup QB Elvis Grbac, replacing injured starter Steve Young after the 49ers second series due to a rib injury, threw a 6 yard touchdown pass to RB Terry Kirby with 24 seconds left in the half to cut the Packers lead to 21-7. Then, Packers WR Don Beebe fumbled the second half kickoff and San Francisco recovered the ball on the Green Bay 4 yard line. On the next play, Grbac’s 4 yard touchdown run cut the score to 21-14.
However, the Packers marched 72 yards for a fourth touchdown, in which a fumble by Bennett was recovered in the end zone by WR Antonio Freeman, increasing Green Bay’s advantage to 28-14. Later on, with 5:31 left in the game, Kirby lost a fumble while being tackled by Packers DB Mike Prior, and Green Bay recovered the ball on the 49ers 32 yard line. Six plays later, Bennett scored his second touchdown of the game on an 11 yard run to close out the scoring, giving the Packers a 35-14 victory.
Later that day, the Jacksonville Jaguars, who had barely made the playoffs, overcame a 12 point deficit by racking up 443 yards, including 202 on the ground, and scoring on 6 consecutive possessions to upset the top seed Denver Broncos, who had been favored to win by 14+ points. Denver’s loss meant that, for the second consecutive year, the AFC’s top seed was eliminated in the divisional round.
Denver dominated the first quarter, scoring 2 touchdowns, while preventing Jacksonville from gaining a single first down. On the Broncos second drive of the game, a 47 yard run by RB Terrell Davis gave Denver a first down on the Jacksonville 2 yard line. The Jaguars kept the Broncos out of the end zone for the next three plays, but RB Vaughn Hebron scored a 1 yard touchdown run on fourth down, giving Denver a 6-0 lead after K Jason Elam’s extra point attempt was blocked. Then, after forcing a punt, the Broncos scored another touchdown when Elway connected with TE Shannon Sharpe for an 18 yard touchdown pass. But Elway’s 2 point conversion pass to Sharpe was incomplete, keeping the score at 12-0.
In the second quarter, Jacksonville stormed back. First, an 18 yard run by RB Natrone Means set up a 46 yard field goal by K Mike Hollis, cutting the Jaguars deficit to 12-3. The next time Jacksonville got the ball, they cut the score to 12-10 with an 11 play, 80 yard scoring drive. After a controversial pass interference penalty wiped out a Denver interception, Means gained 29 yards on a pass from QB Mark Brunell at the Broncos 42 yard line, and later took the ball across the goal line on an 8 yard run. Following a Denver punt, Jacksonville got the ball back with 57 seconds left. Brunell then completed a 43 yard pass to WR Jimmy Smith to set up Hollis’ 42 yard field goal, giving the Jaguars a 13-12 halftime lead.
In the third quarter, Denver was limited to 14 plays for 37 yards. Meanwhile, Brunell connected on a 31 yard touchdown pass to WR Keenan McCardell, increasing Jacksonville’s lead to 20-12. Hollis later kicked a 22 yard field goal at the end of an 88 yard, 12 play drive that included RB James Stewart’s 25 yard reception from Brunell and a 12 men on the field penalty against the Broncos that gave Jacksonville a first down as they were getting ready to punt. This score, the fifth consecutive scoring possession against the 4th ranked defense in the NFL, gave the Jaguars a 23-12 lead with less than 11 minutes left in the game.
On Denver’s next series, a 38 yard kickoff return fired up a 57 yard drive that ended on Davis’ 2 yard touchdown run, and then his successful 2 point conversion run further shrunk the Jacksonville lead to 23-20. But the Jaguars responded with another touchdown drive, featuring a 29 yard run by Brunell to the Denver 21 yard line in which he covered both sidelines, broke one tackle, and eluded three other defenders. Shortly later, Brunell finished the drive with a 16 yard touchdown pass to Smith with 3:39 remaining, making the score 30-20. The Broncos then drove 80 yards in 6 plays, scoring on Elway’s 15 yard touchdown to WR Ed McCaffery, with 1:50 left. However, Denver’s onside kickoff attempt was recovered by the Jaguars, securing a 30-27 win.
On January 5, in their first home playoff game in 18 years, the New England Patriots blew out the Pittsburgh Steelers with 346 yards of total offense while limiting the Steelers to 213 yards.
On the first play from scrimmage, Pittsburgh got a taste of what lay in store as New England QB Drew Bledsoe completed a 53 yard pass to WR Terry Glenn that set up RB Curtis Martin’s 2 yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead. The Steelers were quickly forced to punt, and the Patriots took just 4 plays to score again, the last a 34 yard touchdown on a screen pass from Bledsoe to RB Keith Byars, giving the team a 14-0 lead just over 7 minutes into the first quarter. Then, on the first play of the second quarter, Martin burst through a hole on the right side, dodged a tackle attempt, and raced 78 yards for a touchdown, the second longest scoring run in NFL postseason history, extending New England’s lead to 21-0.
Near the end of the half, the Steelers intercepted a Bledsoe pass to give the team a chance to get back in the game. But Pittsburgh turned the ball over on downs on the Patriots 24 yard line, and the score remained 21-0 going into halftime. The Steelers lone score of the game occurred with 3:50 left in the third quarter, when LB Chad Brown’s interception of a Bledsoe pass led to a 29 yard field goal by K Norm Johnson, cutting the New England lead to 21-3.
Pittsburgh then got the ball back on their own 36 yard line following a Patriots punt, but any hope of a comeback were dashed when New England intercepted a pass from QB Mike Tomczak on the Patriots 39 yard line. Six plays later, Martin’s 23 yard touchdown run increased New England’s lead to 28-3. In the fourth quarter, the Steelers managed a drive to the Patriots 15 yard line, only to lose the ball again on another Tomczak interception, sealing a 28-3 New England victory. This was the Patriots first playoff win since their 1985 Super Bowl season.
Meanwhile, the second year Carolina Panthers held Dallas Cowboys’ QB Troy Aikman to 165 passing yards and forced 3 interceptions en route to their first playoff win in team history.
Dallas scored first when a Cowboys interception and a 22 yard catch by WR Michael Irvin from Aikman sparked a drive to the Carolina 1 yard line. However, Irvin suffered a separated shoulder on his reception and had to miss the rest of the game. Meanwhile, Dallas could not get into the end zone despite two chances from the 1 yard line. Aikman threw an incomplete pass on second down, and, on third down, RB Emmitt Smith was dropped for a 3 yard loss, forcing the Cowboys to settle for K Chris Boniol’s 22 yard field goal and a 3-0 lead. On the Panthers ensuing possession, Dallas CB Kevin Smith kept the drive going with a pass interference penalty on third down, enabling QB Kerry Collins to complete the 68 yard possession with a 1 yard touchdown pass to TE Wesley Walls, giving Carolina a 7-3 lead.
On the Panthers next series, a 15 yard punt return set up a 42 yard drive that ended with Collins’ 10 yard touchdown throw to WR Willie Green, extending Carolina’s lead to 14-3 in the second quarter. The Cowboys countered with a 73 yard drive to score on Aikman’s 2 yard touchdown pass to RB Daryl Johnston, but Dallas failed on the 2 point conversion attempt, and the Panthers’ lead was only cut to 14-9. The Cowboys later got to 14-11 when a bad snap on a Carolina punt attempt went out of the end zone to give Dallas a safety. But then the Panthers intercepted an Aikman pass and returned it 49 yards to set up K John Kasay’s 24 yard field goal with only 3 seconds left in the half, giving Carolina a 17-11 halftime lead.
Early in the second half, the Panthers fumbled a punt return that the Cowboys recovered, setting up a Boniol field goal that cut the deficit to 17-14. But this was as close as Dallas would get during the remainder of the game. On the ensuing drive, RB Anthony Johnson rushed 6 times for 44 yards to set up Kasay’s 40 yard field goal, extending the Carolina lead to 20-14. Then, after a punt, Johnson carried the ball 6 times for 22 yards to set up another score on Kasay’s 40 yard kick and a 23-14 lead a few plays into the fourth quarter.
Dallas responded with a 78 yard drive, including a 25 yard run by Smith and a 16 yard run by Deion Sanders, to score on Boniol’s 21 yard field goal, cutting the Cowboys deficit to 23-17. Then the Cowboys forced a punt, getting the ball back with over 11 minutes still remaining on the clock. But P Rohn Stark’s kick was downed by the Panthers on the Dallas 2 yard line. Upon reaching their 37 yard line, Aikman threw a pass that was again intercepted by Carolina and returned 49 yards to the Cowboys 19 yard line, setting up Kasay’s fourth field goal, this time from 32 yards out, making the score 26-17. The next time Dallas got the ball, Aikman was intercepted for the third time, enabling Carolina to run out the clock and win the game, 26-17.
On January 12, the Green Bay Packers hosted the NFC Championship at Lambeau Field against the Carolina Panthers while the Jacksonville Jaguars traveled to Foxboro Stadium to play the New England Patriots for the AFC Championship and the right to represent their respective conferences in Super Bowl XXXI.
In the NFC, the Green Bay Packers recorded 201 rushing yards and 476 yards of total offense. Green Bay RB Dorsey Levens recorded 117 yards receiving and 88 yards rushing, including a 29 yard touchdown catch, while RB Edgar Bennett accumulated 99 rushing yards. QB Brett Favre managed to overcome two early turnovers that set up 10 Carolina Panthers’ points, completing 19 out of 29 passes for 292 yards and 2 touchdowns. Carolina was held to just 251 total yards and had only one drive longer than 42 yards.
Early in the first quarter, Carolina LB Sam Mills intercepted a Favre pass and returned it 10 yards to the Green Bay 3 yard line, setting up QB Kerry Collins’ 3 yard touchdown pass to RB Howard Griffith for a 7-0 Panthers lead. The Packers struck back with a 35 yard run by Levens before Favre found him in the end zone for a 29 yard touchdown catch, tying the game at 7-7. But, after forcing a punt, Favre inexplicably dropped the ball while scrambling around in the backfield. Carolina recovered the fumble on the Green Bay 45 yard line. A few plays later, K John Kasay’s 22 yard field goal put the Panthers back in the lead, 10-7.
However, the Packers proceeded to dominate the rest of the game. Favre responded by leading Green Bay 71 yards in 15 plays and scoring with a 6 yard touchdown pass to WR Antonio Freeman, giving the Packers a 14-10 lead. Then, on the first play after the ensuing kickoff, S Tyrone Williams intercepted a Collins’ pass on the Packers 38 yard line. Favre’s completions to WR Andre Rison and Freeman for gains of 23 and 25 yards moved the ball into field goal range, and Jacke’s 31 yard field goal finished the drive, giving Green Bay a 17-10 halftime lead.
On the first drive of the second half, Green Bay moved the ball 73 yards in 11 plays and scored with another Jacke field goal, this time from 32 yards out, for a 20-10 advantage. The Panthers managed to respond with an 11 play, 73 yard drive of their own and score with Kasay’s second field goal of the game, a 23 yarder, which cut their deficit to 7 points, 20-13. But Green Bay stormed right back with a 74 yard touchdown drive, featuring a 66 yard reception by Levens. On the next play, Bennett’s 4 yard touchdown run gave the Packers a 27-13 lead with 2 minutes left in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, Packers DT Gilbert Brown slapped the ball out of the hands of RB Anthony Johnson and S LeRoy Butler recovered the fumble, leading to Jacke’s third field goal, a 28 yarder, for a final score of 30-13.
In the AFC, although the New England Patriots gained just 234 yards compared to the Jacksonville Jaguars 289 yards, they made up the difference by forcing 4 turnovers, including 3 consecutive takeaways on the last 3 Jacksonville possessions of the game.
Jacksonville was forced to punt on their first possession, but a high snap enabled New England to tackle P Bryan Barker at the Jaguars 4 yard line. Moments later, Patriots RB Curtis Martin scored a touchdown on a 1 yard run for a 7-0 lead. After a few punts, New England managed a drive into Jacksonville territory, but the Jaguars intercepted QB Drew Bledsoe’s pass at the 8 yard line to keep the score 7-0 at the end of the first quarter. In the second quarter, Jacksonville K Mike Hollis made a 32 yard field goal at the end of a 13 play, 62 yard drive to cut the Patriots lead to 7-3.
Jacksonville’s defense then forced New England to punt, but the Jaguars fumbled the ball and the Patriots recovered on the Jacksonville 19 yard line. Adam Vinatieri kicked a 29 yard field goal as a result of the turnover, making the score 10-3. Later on, with 1:29 left in the half, Bledsoe led New England down the field on a 68 yard drive, completing a 19 yard pass to WR Shawn Jefferson, a 5 yard toss to TE Ben Coates on 4th and 5, and another completion to Jefferson that moved the ball 38 yards to the Jaguars 3 yard line. The Patriots could go no further, however, so Vinatieri kicked his second field goal of the day to increase their lead to 13-3 going into halftime.
The Jaguars took the second half kickoff and drove to the New England 31 yard line, only to lose the ball when QB Mark Brunell was stuffed for no gain on 4th and 1. Three plays later, Bledsoe lost a fumble while being tackled by DT Kevin Hardy. Jacksonville recovered the ball on the New England 37 yard line and Hollis subsequently kicked a 28 yard field goal, cutting the score to 13-6. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Patriots drove to the Jaguars 23 yard line. They were in prime position to build a big lead, but Bledsoe was sacked for a 6 yard loss on third down and Vinatieri drilled his 46 yard field goal attempt wide left.
The Jaguars then took the ball back and drove to the New England 5 yard line but, with just under 4 minutes left in the game, the Patriots intercepted a Brunell pass in the end zone. Following a punt, Jacksonville got another chance to drive for the tying touchdown with 2:36 left. However, this time they lost the ball on their first play as the result of a fumble by RB James Stewart. New England DB Otis Smith recovered the ball and returned it 47 yards for the game clinching touchdown and a 20-6 lead. Jacksonville would get one more possession but it ended with a second Brunell interception, giving the Patriots a 20-6 victory.
Thus, for the first time in almost 30 years, the Green Bay Packers would be playing for the World Championship of Professional Football in Super Bowl XXXI against the New England Patriots. New England would be making only their second Super Bowl appearance and their first in 10 years.
Super Bowl Highlights: On January 26 1997, at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, LA, the NFC Champion Green Bay Packers, led by fifth year Head Coach Mike Holmgren, played the AFC Champion New England Patriots, led by fourth year Head Coach Bill Parcells, in Super Bowl XXXI. This would be the eighth time the NFL’s Championship Game had been played in New Orleans during the Super Bowl era.
Similar to Green Bay, New England was also considered a losing team for much of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, including a dismal 1-15 regular season record in 1990. Then, in 1993, New England turned to veteran Head Coach Bill Parcells to lead the team, hoping to repeat the success he had with the New York Giants in the mid to late 1980s.
Although the Patriots posted a 5-11 regular season record during Parcells’ first year, 8 of their losses were by 7 points or fewer. The team then posted a 10-6 record in 1994 after starting the regular season at 3-6, making the playoffs for the first time since 1986. To Parcells’ credit, much of the improvement was the result of contributions from recent draft picks; QB Drew Bledsoe and LB Chris Slade in 1993 and LB Willie McGinest in 1994, as well as the dramatic improvement of players such as TE Ben Coates, who was selected to the Pro Bowl in 1994 after three previously uneventful seasons.
With that improvement, the team was subsequently sold to Robert Kraft in January 1994 for a then record price of $200 million; an astonishing price considering the Patriots had generally been considered a laughing stock and second rate team, had the worst stadium in the league, and couldn’t sell out, save for select home games, resulting in most games going without television coverage. Sports in New England centered on the beloved Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox, not the NFL team orphaned in remote Foxboro Massachusetts, thirty miles outside Boston. Beginning in 1994, the Krafts eliminated the practice of TV blackouts, and the improvement in the team’s fortunes resulted in a resurgence of interest in the NFL game across the region.
Nonetheless, New England seemed to return to form in 1995, failing to make the playoffs with a 6-10 record, in a year when many organizations were coming to grips with the new salary cap put in place by the 1993 collective bargaining agreement. In January 1996, Parcells hired his old Giants Defensive Coordinator, Bill Belichick, as assistant head coach and receivers position coach after he was fired as Head Coach of the Cleveland Browns after the 1995 season.
Part of the reason for team’s spotty performance might have been that Parcells and Kraft did not get along during their three years together. Kraft had taken control of the team after Parcells was hired, and the two of them had different ideas on how to run the organization. The relationship completely collapsed during the 1996 NFL draft, when Parcells wanted to draft DE Tony Brackens but Kraft overruled him, giving Head Scout Bobby Grier the choice of a player, and WR Terry Glenn was selected instead. Parcells stormed out of the Patriots draft war room after the choice was made and vowed to Boston Globe reporter Will McDonough that he was done with New England after 1996. During the season, Belichick came to serve as the head coach’s interface with the Kraft family and the non football operations side of the business.
Six days before the Super Bowl, an article by McDonough reported Parcells would leave New England after the Super Bowl to become the Head Coach of the New York Jets. The book Patriot Reign alleges the Patriots have cell phone records showing Parcells was in constant contact with the Jets during Super Bowl week. Belichick is quoted as saying Parcells’ plans to leave for the Jets were a distraction, “Yeah, I’d say it was a little bit of a distraction all the way around. I can tell you first hand, there was a lot of stuff going on prior to the game. I mean, him talking to other teams. He was trying to make up his mind about what he was going to do. Which, honestly, I felt [was] totally inappropriate. How many chances do you get to play for the Super Bowl? Tell them to get back to you in a couple of days. I’m not saying it was disrespectful to me, but it was in terms of the overall commitment to the team.”
Parcells even refused to travel back with the rest of the Patriots after the Super Bowl. He was eventually hired in 1997 by the rival Jets after NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue brokered a deal between the two sides, with New England releasing Parcells from his contract and the Jets giving the Patriots a 3rd and 4th round pick in 1997, a 2nd round pick in 1998, and a 1st round draft choice in 1999. Upon his departure, Parcells famously stated: “They want you to cook the dinner; at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries. Okay?” New England then replaced Parcells with San Francisco 49ers Defensive Coordinator Pete Carroll after Belichick joined Parcells in New York.
After losing their first 2 games in the 1996 regular season with lackluster performances, the Patroits would run through the rest of their schedule, competitive in every game, finishing with an 11-5 record, their best in the Parcells era.
New England’s offense was the 7th best unit in the league in terms of total yards (5,369) and 2nd best in points scored (418) after Green Bay. Their pass offense, led by Bledsoe and Glenn, ranked third in the NFL with 3,901 yards. Bledsoe completed 373 passes out of 623 attempts (59.9%) for 4,086 yards and 27 touchdowns with just 15 interceptions, a QB Rating of 83.7. Glenn set a rookie record with 90 receptions to go along with his 1,132 yards (12.6 yards per catch) and 6 touchdowns. TE Ben Coates was also a big contributor, catching 62 passes for 682 yards (11.0 yards per catch) and 9 touchdowns. WR Shawn Jefferson recorded 50 receptions for 771 yards (15.4 yards per catch) and 4 touchdowns.
RB Curtis Martin would be the focal point of the rushing attack with 316 attempts for 1,152 yards (3.6 yards per carry) and 14 touchdowns (2nd overall in rushing touchdowns), while also catching 46 passes for another 333 yards and 3 touchdowns. Pro Bowl RB Dave Meggett provided the team with a good special teams threat, gaining 1,369 yards and a touchdown returning kickoffs and punts, while also rushing for 122 yards and catching 33 passes for 292 yards.
On defense, the Patriots’ main weapon was Pro Bowler McGinest, who recorded 49 tackles, 2 fumble recoveries, an interception which he returned 46 yards for a touchdown, and a team leading 9.5 sacks. New England also had a solid secondary, led by DBs Willie Clay (72 tackles, a fumble recovery, 4 interceptions, 50 return yards), Ty Law (56 tackles, 3 interceptions, 45 return yards, 1 touchdown), and Lawyer Milloy (54 tackles, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery, 2 interceptions). However, while New England’s defense ranked 6th against the run overall (1,502 yards allowed), they ranked only 28th out of 30 teams against the pass (3,803 yards allowed) and only 14th in points allowed (313).
Green Bay forced New England to punt on the opening possession of the game and started their first drive with great field position after Desmond Howard returned the ball 32 yards to the Packers 46 yard line. Green Bay then opened up the scoring with Brett Favre’s 54 yard touchdown pass to Andre Rison on their second offensive play of the game for a 7-0 lead. Then, on the Patriots’ ensuing drive, Packers DB Doug Evans intercepted a Drew Bledsoe pass at the New England 28 yard line. On the first play after the turnover, the Patriots sacked Favre for a 10 yard loss, but Dorsey Levens rushed for 4 yards and caught a pass for 14 over the next 2 plays, setting up K Chris Jacke’s 37 yard field goal to make the score 10-0.
New England stormed back, scoring touchdowns on each of their next two possessions. On the second play of the Patriots’ ensuing drive, Bledsoe completed a 32 yard screen pass to RB Keith Byars and followed it up with a “dump-off” pass to Curtis Martin, who caught the ball near the line of scrimmage and ran 20 yards to the Green Bay 27 yard line before being tackled. Bledsoe then threw 3 straight incompletions, but on the third one, Packers DB Craig Newsome was called for a 26 yard pass interference penalty, giving New England a first down at the 1 yard line. On the next play, Bledsoe completed a 1 yard touchdown pass to Byars to cut his team’s deficit to 10-7.
The Patriots defense then forced Green Bay to punt from their own 17 yard line after a three and out, giving New England the ball back after Craig Hentrich’s 39 yard punt at the Patriots 43 yard line. After a 7 yard reception and a 2 yard run by Martin on their first 2 plays, Bledsoe completed a 44 yard pass to Terry Glenn to advance to the Packers 4 yard line. From there, Ben Coates’ 4 yard touchdown reception from Bledsoe gave New England a 14-10 lead. The Packers and Patriots combined for a total of 24 points, the most ever scored in the first quarter of a Super Bowl. New England also became the first team in Super Bowl history to score 14 points in the first quarter and lose the game.
However, the Patriots lead was short lived. After both teams exchanged punts, Favre threw a Super Bowl record 81 yard touchdown pass to Antonio Freeman, putting Green Bay back in the lead, 17-14. Then, on third down of the ensuing New England drive, S LeRoy Butler powered through Meggett’s block attempt and managed to drag Bledsoe down with one arm for a 9 yard sack, forcing a Tom Tupa punt that Howard returned 34 yards to the Patriots 47 yard line. The Packers then drove to the 14 yard line, featuring a 23 yard reception by Rison from Favre and a 12 yard run by Levens, to score on Jacke’s 31 yard field goal, increasing their lead to 20-14.
Meggett returned the ensuing kickoff 21 yards to the New England 25 yard line. On the first play of the drive, Bledsoe completed a 19 yard pass to Coates to advance to their own 44 yard line. But two plays later, Packers DB Mike Prior intercepted a long pass that was intended for Shawn Jefferson and returned it 8 yards to the Green Bay 26 yard line. After the turnover, Favre completed a 22 yard pass to Freeman, and Levens rushed 4 times for 31 yards, on a 9 play, 74 yard drive that took 5:59 minutes off the clock, ending with Favre’s 2 yard touchdown run, giving the Packers a 27-14 lead with just 1:11 left in the half.
After a 24 yard kickoff return by Meggett, Bledsoe completed an 18 yard pass to Coates, and followed it up with a 10 yard pass to Glenn. Then, after a 1 yard run by Meggett on the next play, Bledsoe completed a 7 yard pass to WR Vincent Brisby to bring up 3rd and 2 from the Green Bay 42 yard line. But the Packers defense forced 2 incompletions from Bledsoe, causing the Patriots to turn the ball over on downs with just 19 seconds left before halftime. Green Bay tried to get into scoring range by calling a pass on the next play, but Willie McGinest sacked Favre, and the score remained 27-14 at halftime.
Howard returned the second half kickoff 23 yards to the Packers 25 yard line. From there, Favre led Green Bay all the way to the New England 37 yard line, but the Patriots made a key defensive stand, stopping Levens for no gain on 3rd and 1, and then tackling him again for a 7 yard loss on fourth down. Then, after driving to the Packers 41 yard line, New England was forced to punt. But the Patriots managed to pin Green Bay deep in their own territory when Howard made a fair catch of Tupa’s 29 yard punt at the 12 yard line. On the ensuing drive, a 7 yard sack by New England helped their defense force the Packers to punt, and the Patriots got the ball back with great field position after Meggett returned Hentrichs’ 48 yard punt 6 yards to the New England 47 yard line.
Taking advantage of their excellent starting field position, the Patriots drove 53 yards in 7 plays and scored on an 18 yard touchdown run by Martin to cut Green Bay’s lead to 27-21. However, on the ensuing kickoff, Howard all but ended New England’s hopes of an upset by returning the ball 99 yards for a touchdown, at that time the longest play in Super Bowl history. Favre then completed a pass to Mark Chmura for a successful 2 point conversion, giving the Packers a 14 point lead, 35-21, with 3:27 left in the third quarter.
That score proved to be the last one of the contest, as the defenses of both teams took over for the rest of the game. New England limited Green Bay to 3 punts and a missed 47 yard field goal attempt by Jacke. The Packers did even better, not allowing the Patriots to advance past their own 32 yard line. Furthermore, Reggie White sacked Bledsoe on back to back plays on New England’s first drive after Howard’s game clinching touchdown return, eliminating any chance of a Patriots comeback. White then recorded a third sack late in the fourth quarter. Bledsoe was also intercepted twice in the final period, sealing Green Bay’s 12th NFL Championship and their third Super Bowl victory, 35-21. The victory also gave the National Football Conference (NFC) its’ 13th consecutive Super Bowl win.
Green Bay Packers KR Desmond Howard became the first special teams player ever to be named Super Bowl MVP. Howard gained a total of 154 kickoff return yards and also recorded a Super Bowl record 90 punt return yards, thus tying the Super Bowl records of total return yards (244) and combined net yards gained (244). Antonio Freeman was the top receiver of the game, finishing with 105 receiving yards and a touchdown on only 3 receptions. Dorsey Levens was the game’s leading rusher with 61 rushing yards and caught 3 passes for 23 yards. Although sacked 5 times, Brett Favre completed 14 out of 27 passes for 246 yards and 2 touchdowns and had 12 rushing yards and another touchdown on 4 carries. Favre became the first Super Bowl winning quarterback to have at least 3 touchdowns and not be named Super Bowl MVP.
After the game, Favre reflected on his long road to becoming a Super Bowl champion, which included the death of his friend Mark Harvy in a car accident during the season. “Through everything I really believed I’d be here today. Right here in this stairwell, talking about being world champions. My best friend’s gone forever. Trouble never seems to be far away, and the future won’t be all rosy, but they can’t take this away from me. Thirty years from now, the kids will be getting ready for Super Bowl LXI, and NFL Films will drag out Steve Sabol — he’ll be around 102 then — and he’ll talk about how Brett Favre fought through such adversity. And there will be other players and coaches. But I know this: We etched our place in history today.”
Another player very glad to become a Super Bowl champ deep into his career, and who deserved to touch the Vince Lombardi trophy, was DE Reggie White, who collected 3 sacks. “Now I can sit back with my son for years and watch highlights of this Super Bowl, and he can see his daddy getting three sacks”, White said. It was also a big moment for Head Coach Mike Holmgren. “I look at the faces of my players and my coaches and ownership in the locker room. I’m humbled by that. I’m overwhelmed by it. I’m so happy for those guys.”, said Holmgren. Packers’ fans were pretty happy too.
When the team flew in to Green Bay, schools closed early and workers were let off the job early. Crowds flocked to the airport and stood on snow banks as the Packers departed from the plane, with White waving the trophy high. The team was whisked to Lambeau Field along a tickertape motorcade route that was lined six deep with fans. “That’s what it’s about right here,” White said, pointing to the trophy. Thanks to the personnel savvy of General Manager Ron Wolf, who built a championship roster in only 5 years through a combination of draft choices and selected veteran free agents, as well as the coaching excellence of Mike Holmgren, who blended all the pieces into an offensive and defensive juggernaut, the Vince Lombardi trophy was finally home!
Attached is the NFL Films Super Bowl XXXI Highlight video. Enjoy!!
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