The Super Bowl is just 21 days away. Let’s look at the Super Bowl from 21 years ago to honor this not-so-significant occasion!
New Orleans hosted Super Bowl XXXI on January 26, 1997. The game pitted the NFC champion Green Bay Packers against the New England Patriots of the American Football Conference.
Green Bay Packers 21 Years Ago
The Packers would be playing in their first Super Bowl since the Lombardi era. Eve before the season, they were the popular pick to dethrone the Cowboys & 49ers. Brett Favre was the best player in the league in the mid-90’s and ’96 may have been his campaign of his Hall of Fame career.
Coach Mike Holmgren had a staff of future stars as well. They brought with them the offense that was virtually unstoppable under Bill Walsh in San Francisco. Favre did a great job of spreading the ball around. No Packers’ receiver caught more balls for more yards than Antonio Freeman. Yet, his numbers were very modest. Even their running backs, Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens, did not wow statistically, but their offense by committee was good enough for first in points and fifth in yards in the NFL.
However, Green Bay’s defense was #1 in points and yards. They were led by first-team All Pro Leroy Butler and a superb defensive line. Veterans Reggie White, Gilbert Brown, Santana Dotson and Sean Jones anchored a unit that was able to have each of their starters play every game of the season!
Packers Playoff Drive
Their defense was at their best in the slop of Lambeau Field in a 35-14 win over the 49ers. The Pack benefited from knocking Steve Young out of game and 2 electrifying punt returns from Desmond Howard. Howard scored on one of those foreshadowing his Super Bowl effort.
In the NFC championship game, Green Bay faced second-year Carolina in the single-digit Wisconsin temps. The Panthers took the early lead, but were no match for the Packers. Green Bay won 30-13 finishing the season with a 10-0 home record.
New England Patriots 21 Years Ago
Their opponent in Super Bowl XXXI would be the Patriots coached by Bill Parcells. The Pats finished second on the season to Green Bay in points scored. QB Drew Bledsoe and running back Curtis Martin both had excellent seasons for offensive coordinator Ray Perkins. Ben Coates also made the Pro Bowl at tight end. He came out of nowhere to be one of the best players at that position in the ‘90s.
The young Patriots’ defense was a work in progress. Willie McGinest was the lone star on the unit. But, Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, and Tedy Bruschi played a lot off the bench and that experience proved to be invaluable as the Patriots would become a fixture in the AFC postseason during the 2000’s.
Things did not get off to a wonderful start for the 1996 Pats. The Patriots dropped their first two games and Parcells was clearly not impressed with rookie Terry Glenn. But, as the season went on, New England surged to the top of the AFC East. In the season finale, the Patriots, inspired by a praiseworthy performance by an injured Glenn, roared back to beat the Giants 23-22. New England dramatically overcame a 22-point deficit. With the win, the Patriots clinched a first-round bye.
Patriots to the Super Bowl
They used that bye to crush Pittsburgh in the fog 28-3. Martin had a spectacular game rushing for 166 yards and 2 scores. Incredibly, Steelers’ dual threat Kordell Stewart was 0 for 10 passing on the day. In the AFC championship game, New England scored two touchdowns. The first came after a botched Jaguars’ punt attempt two minutes into the game. The second score was probably the most exciting moment in Patriots’ history during the pre-Brady era.
With 3 minutes remaining, Jacksonville trailed 13-6. Mark Brunell handed off to James Stewart. Stewart took the draw play through a big hole, veered to his left, was hit and fumbled right into waiting hands of Otis Smith. Smith darted 47 yards for the AFC Championship-winning touchdown! New England was on their way to the franchise’s second Super Bowl.
Back and Forth On the Bayou
The first 12 minutes of Super Bowl XXXI were wild and wooly. On the Packers’ second play from scrimmage, Favre connected with Andre Rison for a 54-yard TD. Moments later, Bledsoe threw the first of 4 interceptions. This one resulted in a field goal. However, New England did not rollover.
They responded with two consecutive touchdown drives. Each drive lasted less than two minutes and included big plays. The first one ended in a 1-yard TD reception by Keith Byars. The second score came on a rollout strike fired by Bledsoe. Coates made the remarkable catch to give the Patriots the 14-10 lead.
The Lombardi Goes Home
Green Bay dominated the second quarter on both sides of the ball. They outscored New England 17-0. Favre threw an 81-yarder to Freeman early in the frame and made a tremendous run to the pylon for the other score late in the quarter.
In the second half, the Patriots had one very nice scoring drive which culminated with an 18-yard Curtis Martin scamper. Unfortunately for the Pats, Green Bay responded immediately. Desmond Howard took the ensuing kickoff back to the house giving the Pack a 35-21 lead. Howard was named Super Bowl MVP due to his phenomenal 244 total return yards. Reggie White could have also received the award as he finished with three sacks. The fourth quarter was a nightmare for Bledsoe as he continued to be sacked and intercepted throughout. The Packers were just too good in 1996 for anybody to stop them. Thus, they won their first Super Bowl in twenty-nine years.
And, they would be back for Super Bowl XXXII. We’ll talk more about that fantastic game tomorrow!
Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert…@spot_Bills