Super Bowl XXXI (Patriots vs. Packers): An Ultimate Recount of the Game

Today we have Super Bowl XXXI, which was held on January 26, 1997, at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, between the two-time AFC champion New England Patriots and my favorite team, the eleven-time world champion Green Bay Packers. If you’re looking for the full story of this 1996 season, pick up my Nifty Nineties book and you’ll learn more than you ever wanted to know about that year and the rest of the nineties.

As always, we have a pop quiz, and then homework at the end of the episode. The pop quiz question for today is: who was the Packers’ backup quarterback for this game? A clue: he once won a Super Bowl with a different team. The answer will come at the end of the podcast.

Prelude to Super Bowl XXXI

The Green Bay Packers had come up just short of the Super Bowl the previous year, in 1995. The Packers lost the NFC Championship Game by 11 points to Dallas after leading in the fourth quarter. So, for 1996, they were one of the favorites to go all the way. They started out the season 3-0, with three blowout victories.

They then lost in Minnesota, before running off five victories in a row. At 8-1, the Packers seemed unbeatable, but then they ran into three road games in a row. They lost the first two of them, including a horrible 21-6 loss in Dallas where Barry Switzer ran up the score in the final seconds. But they came back from a 9-0 deficit to win the third of those road games, and from there it was smooth sailing with five big wins on their way to a 13-3 record.

The #1-seeded Packers faced a familiar foe in the divisional round. It was San Francisco, the team they knocked out the year before. This year, there was so much mud at Lambeau Field that the players were covered with it by game’s end. Thanks to an early punt return from Desmond Howard, the Packers rolled to a 35-14 victory. In the NFC Championship Game in a frigid Lambeau Field, the Packers got down early to the second-year expansion team Carolina Panthers, but they came back to roll to a 30-13 win and their first George S. Halas Trophy in franchise history.

Quarterback Brett Favre won his second straight MVP award in 1996, throwing for 3,899 yards and an NFC-record 39 TD passes, for a passer rating of 95.8. The Packers had a powerful one-two punch at running back with Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens, who combined for over 1,400 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Levens scored ten times, five on the ground and five through the air. Receiver Antonio Freeman caught 56 passes for 933 yards and nine touchdowns, and tight end Keith Jackson led the team with ten touchdown catches.

As for defense, defensive back LeRoy Butler – the newest addition to the Pro Football Hall of Fame – caught five interceptions and returned one for a touchdown, while also picking up six-and-a-half sacks. Defensive end Reggie White led the team with eight-and-a-half sacks. And Howard averaged over 15 yards per punt return and took three back for touchdowns.

The AFC offered the New England Patriots this year as their annual sacrificial lamb in the Super Bowl. The Patriots were not the AFC’s first choice – that would have been the 13-3 Denver Broncos. But a 9-7 second-year expansion team Jacksonville Jaguars came into Denver and knocked out John Elway and company. Elway would be back, but for now, the coast was clear for New England to sneak into the Super Bowl. After starting the season out 0-2, the Pats rebounded to reach an 11-5 record. They then crushed the Pittsburgh Steelers 28-3 in the fog in the divisional round, before knocking out those upstart Jaguars 20-6 in the AFC Championship Game.

The Patriots were led by quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who threw for over 4,000 yards and 27 touchdowns. He also threw a bunch of interceptions, 15 to be exact. 90 of his passes went to receiver Terry Glenn, who went for over 1,100 yards and scored six touchdowns. Tight end Ben Coates added nine receiving touchdowns, and running back Curtis Martin was a huge part of the offense in rushing for just over 1,150 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Super Bowl XXXI: First Quarter

The Pats won the coin toss and got the ball first. Bledsoe threw over the middle for receiver Shawn Jefferson to pick up one first down. That’s all the Pats would get, and punter Tom Tupa kicked it away. Howard was back to receive, catching the ball at his own 13.

He zigged and zagged until he had 32 yards to the Green Bay 45, the third-longest punt return in Super Bowl history. Two plays into the first drive, Favre went with the long bomb to midseason pick-up Andre Rison. You know the scene. Favre throws the touchdown, Rison high-steps into the end zone, and Favre runs off the field in joy, holding his helmet high in the air. It was a 54-yard touchdown, and it gave Green Bay a 7-0 lead.

On the second play of his next possession, Bledsoe was picked off by defensive back Doug Evans, who made a one-handed juggling interception at the New England 28. The Packers were in an excellent position to put this game away. As a Packers fan, I was thrilled, and so was my dad.

“It’s going to be a blowout!” my dad exclaimed. But linebacker Todd Collins sacked Favre for a ten-yard loss, and a pass to Levens wasn’t enough to pick up the first down. So, kicker Chris Jacke came out and made a 37-yard field goal to push the lead to ten.

The Patriots then came to life. Bledsoe threw a screen to fullback Keith Byars, and he moved the ball into Green Bay territory for a first down at the 47. Next, Bledsoe dumped it off to Martin, who evaded tacklers on his way to a first down at the 28. Facing third down, Bledsoe went long for Jefferson, and while he couldn’t complete it, he drew a pass interference penalty on Packers defensive back Craig Newsome. On the next play from the 1, Bledsoe went play-action to back of the end zone to Byars, and the Patriots were on the board, down 10-7.

The Packers offense started to struggle, as they went three-and-out. The Pats got the ball back at their 43. Bledsoe went play-action to Martin to reach the midfield stripe, before going deep. On this one, he found Glenn down at the Packers 5. On the next play, he hit Coates for a touchdown, and within a blink of the eye, the Patriots led, 14-10. It was the first time ever that the Packers trailed in a Super Bowl. It also marked the highest-scoring first quarter in Super Bowl history.

Super Bowl XXXI: Second Quarter

Favre and the Packers offense couldn’t do anything on their next two possessions. On one, linebacker Tedy Bruschi sacked Favre to end a drive, and on the other one, Favre had a pass deflected incomplete on third down. Fortunately for the Packers, their defense was playing just as well.

They forced a pair of three-and-outs by New England, including one where Bledsoe threw three straight incompletions. The Packers got the ball back at their 19 after a Tupa punt. It took just one play for Favre to strike – he fired down the right sideline for Freeman, who pulled it in and rolled 81 yards for a touchdown with no resistance or any chance of a Patriot catching him. It was the longest touchdown pass in Super Bowl history, and it put the Packers back in front, 17-14.

Butler sacked Bledsoe to force a punt, and Howard returned it into Patriots territory at the 48. Favre threw to Rison for a first down over the middle, and he got to the 24. Next, Levens ran it down to the 11 for another first down. Favre couldn’t connect with Rison on a third-down pass to the end zone, so the Packers took a 31-yard Jacke field goal to go up by six.

Bledsoe threw an interception to defensive back Mark Prior, and he returned it to the Packers 26. Favre started the new possession with a pass to Jackson for a first down. Next, defensive back Otis Smith got called for pass interference on a pass for Freeman. Favre went right back to Freeman to get another first down.

Levens carried a couple of times to moves the sticks inside the 20. Bennett took a carry, then Levens got two more carries and took it down inside the 2 as the clock approached one minute. On the next play, Favre scrambled to his left, reached out the ball across the pylon, and scored the touchdown. The Packers now led, 27-14.

The Patriots got a chance to match the score, with Coates catching a first down past the 40, and Glenn catching one near midfield. Facing fourth-and-two, Bledsoe almost had a pass picked off. It fell incomplete, and the Pats turned it over on downs. Favre immediately suffered a sack, and Packers head coach Mike Holmgren chose to just let the clock run out. The Packers went to the locker room with a 13-point lead.

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    Super Bowl XXXI: Third Quarter

    The Packers got the ball to start out the second half. Bennett ran for a first down at the 41, then Chmura caught a pass for another first down. Favre went to fullback William Henderson to get within a yard of a first down. Facing fourth down on the Pats 37, Holmgren chose to go for it. Fox announcer John Madden suggested a quarterback sneak by Favre, but instead, the Packers went with a long handoff to Levens. It didn’t work, as linebacker Ted Johnson made the stop to force a turnover on downs.

    The teams exchanged punts, but the Pats flipped field position thanks to a Smith sack. They got the ball back at their own 48 after a punt by Craig Hentrich. Martin ran for five, and Bledsoe found Coates on third down, who juggled it before bringing it in for a first down. Next, he went to Jefferson for about nine yards. Two plays later, from the 18, the Red Sea parted and Martin ran right up the middle for a touchdown. The Patriots had now pulled within six points.

    The play everyone remembers from this Super Bowl is the next one. Desmond Howard caught Adam Vinatieri’s kickoff at his own 1. He followed his blockers in the wedge, then cut to his left. Once reaching midfield, the only one left to catch him was Vinatieri. That wasn’t happening. Howard went 99 yards for a touchdown, doing a robot dance as he crossed the goal line. The Packers now led 33-21.

    The extra point team came on the field, but Favre rushed out and called timeout to set up a two-point conversion. The offense came back out, and Favre found Chmura in the back of the end zone for the two points. The Packers now led 35-21, thanks to the longest kickoff return in Super Bowl history.

    It was at this point that Reggie White took over the game. He sacked Bledsoe on consecutive plays to force a punt, and that was the end of the third quarter. White used the hump move on the first sack, pushing aside his opponent. The next time, he just came in too fast for his opponent to block, and both times Bledsoe never had a chance to get the ball out. The Packers led by 14 going into the fourth quarter.

    Super Bowl XXXI: Fourth Quarter

    The teams traded punts again, and Bledsoe then threw an interception to Newsome. The Packers had the chance to put it away, but they didn’t. They played rather conservatively, while New England head coach Bill Parcells called his timeouts. They brought out Jacke to try a 47-yard field goal, and he missed wide to the right. The Patriots now had a technical chance to come back.

    But it wasn’t happening. First, defensive tackle Santana Dotson sacked Bledsoe to force another punt. The punt was a curious decision by Parcells, given that his team was down two scores with about four minutes to go. On their final drive, White got his third sack of the game, setting a new Super Bowl record since sacks were made official in 1982. Finally, Newsome made a hit to deflect a pass to linebacker Brian Williams for an interception. The Packers could run out the clock.

    Super Bowl XXXI: Aftermath and Awards

    Taking the final kneel-downs for the Packers was Favre, much to Madden’s chagrin. He wanted backup quarterback Jim McMahon to have that honor. McMahon, of course, won Super Bowl XX with the Chicago Bears, the Packers’ heated rival. He is the answer to today’s pop quiz question.

    Madden voted for Favre to win Super Bowl MVP for his two passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown. The voters disagreed, as did Pat Summerall, who went for Howard. It was hard to argue with the choice. Howard set the all-time record for most return yards in a Super Bowl with 244.

    But if you wanted to give an MVP award to the second-best player, it might be Favre. He passed for 246 yards and ran for another 12. But you’d have to give strong consideration for Reggie White, who set the Super Bowl record with three sacks, a mark that has been tied several times but never broken. I’d go with Favre, though, since White’s sacks came after the Packers had a big lead. And if you wanted a fourth player, you couldn’t go wrong with Freeman, who hauled in three for 105 yards and that record-breaking touchdown.

    The Most Valuable Player on the losing team was Ben Coates. He had six receptions for 67 yards and a touchdown. He was a reliable target for Bledsoe, who had a rough day. In fact, Bledsoe is my pick for Least Valuable Player, thanks to his four interceptions. His passer rating was a mere 46.6. It was just not his day.

    Who was the best player you don’t remember? I’d have to go with Newsome. He had an interception and was a general menace on the defensive side. Newsome ended up with only four career regular-season interceptions, but he had one here in the Super Bowl. Sadly, an injury cut short his 1997 season, and he would never have this success again.

    The biggest play of the game was, of course, Howard’s 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that turned the game on its head. The Packers never looked back or were challenged after that point. The biggest play no one remembers? Surprisingly, it’s the 81-yard touchdown by Freeman. Everyone remembers Howard’s return. Everyone remembers Favre’s throw to Rison. Everyone remembers Rison’s catch, and Favre’s celebration, and Howard’s records. No one remembers that the all-time record for longest pass reception was set by Freeman, although it was later broken by Muhsin Muhammad seven years later.


    Oh, boy, if you want me to give you homework, I’ve got about ten books that I could tell you to read. There are so many books I have that I haven’t even had the chance to read them all. I’ll give you two: Green Bay Replay: The Packers’ Return to Glory by Dick Schaap, and Ron Wolf and the Green Bay Packers: Mike Holmgren, Brett Favre, Reggie White, and the Pack’s Return to Glory in the 1990s by Michael Bauman. Both are excellent, brilliant, well-written books, and you should read them even if you hate the Packers or don’t like them. I can’t say enough about how good these books are.

    Next time, which will be in two weeks instead of three like the last couple of podcasts, we will find out if the Packers can repeat as Super Bowl champions and go down in history as a dynasty. Who’s standing in their way? None other than John Elway, who has lost three previous games we have covered on this podcast. Will the NFC’s run of 13 straight Super Bowl wins extend to 14? Or will the Broncos finally breakthrough for that first ring? Find out next time, or find out by reading my book Nifty Nineties: The Stories of an Amazing Decade in Pro Football History, which you can find by visiting my website, Until next time, so long!

    Lombardi Memories is a show that takes you back in time, into January or February, to the greatest one-day spectacle in all of sports. This is the every-other-Tuesday podcast that looks back at each and every one of the 50-plus Super Bowls and tells the story of who won and why.  Tommy A. Phillips is your host on this Super Journey.  He’s an author of multiple NFL books.  You can purchase below.

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