January 26, 2011

1997: Packers Defeat Patriots with Big Plays in Super Bowl XXXI

The Green Bay Packers had won a record 11 NFL championships and the first two Super Bowls, when it was a contest between the champions of rival leagues and not yet the NFL Championship game. But three decades had gone by since the last title was achieved as the Packers met the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI on January 26, 1997 at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.

Under Head Coach Mike Holmgren, the Packers were in the postseason for the fourth straight year in 1996. They had gone 13-3 to win the NFC Central and blasted past the 49ers and upstart Panthers in the playoffs to win the conference title. QB Brett Favre (pictured above) was the consensus league MVP as he led the NFL in touchdown passes (39) and ranked second in passing (95.8 rating). He had Pro Bowl TE Keith Jackson to throw to, as well as wide receivers Antonio Freeman and Robert Brooks, and when injuries struck them veteran WR Andre Rison was obtained with good results. Running backs Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens combined for 1465 rushing yards and caught 31 passes apiece. The defense featured 35-year old Pro Bowl DE Reggie White, on the downside of his great career but still effective, tackles Gilbert Brown and Santana Dotson, cornerbacks Craig Newsome and Doug Evans, and All-Pro SS LeRoy Butler.

The Patriots were coached by Bill Parcells, who had twice led the New York Giants to championships. They had won the AFC East with an 11-5 record and gave up a total of nine points in postseason wins over Pittsburgh and Jacksonville. The offense had Pro Bowl QB Drew Bledsoe, who in his fourth season led the league in pass attempts (623) and completions (373) while accumulating 4086 yards and 27 TD passes. It also had WR Terry Glenn, who set a then-rookie record with 90 catches, and Pro Bowl TE Ben Coates, with 9 touchdowns among his 62 receptions. Second-year RB Curtis Martin rushed for 1152 yards and 14 TDs. The defensive line, anchored by DE Willie McGinest, solidified over the course of the season, and other key performers on defense included LB Chris Slade, CB Ty Law, and SS Lawyer Milloy.

Before a crowd of 72,301 inside the domed stadium, New England got the ball first and had to punt. WR Desmond Howard, another contributor to the team’s success throughout the year with his kick returns, brought this one back 32 yards to the Green Bay 45. Two plays later, Favre threw to Rison for a 54-yard touchdown and the Packers were ahead, 7-0.

On the second play of the Patriots’ next possession, Bledsoe was intercepted by Evans, giving the Packers the ball at the New England 28 yard line. Green Bay advanced to the 19, from where Chris Jacke kicked a 37-yard field goal.

Now down 10-0, the Patriots responded with a six-play, 79-yard drive that included pass completions by Bledsoe of 32 yards to RB Keith Byars and 20 to Martin, a 26-yard gain on a pass interference call on the Packers, and concluded with a one-yard TD pass to Byars.

Green Bay went three-and-out, with Favre nearly intercepted on a third down pass, and punted. New England moved 57 yards down the field in four plays, one of them a 44-yard pass from Bledsoe to Glenn. Bledsoe threw to Coates for a four-yard touchdown and the Patriots took the lead at 14-10.

Both teams punted on each of their next two possessions, but in the first minute of the second quarter, with Green Bay at its own 19, Favre connected with Freeman, who caught the ball at the 45 and continued on for an 81-yard touchdown. The big play put the Packers back in front at 17-14.

Following another New England punt that Howard returned 34 yards to near midfield, Favre threw to Rison for 23 yards into Patriots territory. Levens ran 12 yards on a draw play and, four plays later, Jacke kicked another field goal, this time from 31 yards.

Bledsoe was intercepted again on the next series and the Packers once more capitalized on the turnover. Favre completed two passes and Levens ran for 31 yards on four carries as Green Bay went 74 yards in 9 plays, with Favre running the ball in from two yards out for a TD. The score was 27-14 at halftime.

The Packers, with the first possession of the second half, drove to the New England 37, but on fourth-and-one, Levens was stopped for a seven-yard loss. The teams traded punts and the Patriots scored another TD with an 18-yard run by Martin on a draw play to pull to six points behind. However, the situation changed quickly as Howard returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown (pictured at left). Favre passed to TE Mark Chmura for a two-point conversion and Green Bay was back ahead by two touchdowns. It proved to be more than enough.

The kickoff return seemed to take all the air out of the Patriots, who went three-and-out upon getting the ball again, with Bledsoe sacked twice consecutively by Reggie White. The teams continued to trade punts as the game moved into the fourth quarter until Bledsoe was intercepted by Craig Newsome. The Packers held onto the ball for 11 plays, and while they came up empty when Jacke was wide on a 47-yard field goal attempt, there were now just under four minutes left to play. The Patriots went quietly, never getting out of their own territory the last two times they had the ball, and Green Bay came away the winner by a final score of 35-21.

Both teams had 14 first downs while the Packers outgained New England by 323 yards to 257. Both quarterbacks were sacked five times. However, while Green Bay suffered no turnovers, the Patriots turned the ball over four times.

Brett Favre completed just 14 of 27 passes, but for 246 yards with two long touchdowns and no interceptions. Dorsey Levens (pictured at right) led the Packers in rushing with 61 yards on 14 carries and also caught three passes for 23 yards. Antonio Freeman gained 105 yards and scored the longer TD on his three receptions. Desmond Howard, the game’s MVP, returned four kickoffs for 154 yards, including the TD that put the game away, plus 6 punts for 90 more yards (a 15.0 avg.).

For the Patriots, Drew Bledsoe went to the air 48 times and had 25 completions for 253 yards and two touchdowns, but was intercepted four times. Ben Coates caught 6 passes for 67 yards and a TD. The club ran the ball just 13 times for 43 yards (and only six times after the first quarter), with Curtis Martin accounting for 42 yards on 11 carries and a TD.

“I thought we might have them rocking a little bit,” said Bill Parcells regarding the third quarter score that briefly pulled New England to just six points behind. “It's 27-21, we
had a lot of momentum. But (Howard) made the big play and I credit him for it.”

“Big plays did kill us,” said Ty Law of the Patriots, speaking more to the two long touchdown passes than the kickoff return. “You never want to go into a game and give up plays like that. If a team beats you, you want to make it hard for them.”

In the victorious Green Bay locker room, Mike Holmgren said, “This trophy, men, it was named after Vince Lombardi. As important as it is to every player in the league, it's more important to us. This is where it belongs.”

Desmond Howard departed the Packers via free agency in the offseason, but Green Bay repeated as NFC Champions, losing the Super Bowl to Denver. In New England, Parcells quit as head coach as a result of ongoing disputes on personnel matters with owner Robert Kraft. The Patriots reached the playoffs in the next two seasons under Pete Carroll, but didn’t get past the Divisional round – they would next reach the Super Bowl in 2001, under Carroll’s successor, Bill Belichick.