It had been almost 30 years since the Green Bay Packers had won a Super Bowl. In fact, the Packers had not won the league’s trophy since it was renamed after their legendary head coach, Vince Lombardi, following his death in 1970. In the 1996 NFL season, the Lombardi Trophy came home to Green Bay.
Brett Favre enjoyed his breakout season a year earlier when he won the MVP award. In 1996, Favre did it again, capturing the second of what would end up as three straight MVPs. The Packers, without signature stars at other positions, scored the most points of anyone in the league. The defense’s best player was All-Pro strong safety LeRoy Butler. The heart and soul of the D continued to be veteran lineman Reggie White, nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career, but still a solid player. Green Bay’s defense also ranked as the best in professional football.
It was a year of great expectation right from the outset, and the Packers made early statements on Monday Night Football. In Week 2, they dominated the Philadelphia Eagles, a playoff-bound team with Pro Bowler Rickey Watters in the backfield. In October, Green Bay won an overtime thriller over San Francisco and Steve Young.
There were hiccups along the way. Minnesota provided an early challenge in the old NFC Central, including beating Green Bay head-to-head in September. The Vikings had All-Pro talent in both lines, Randall McDaniel on offense and John Randle on defense. But they had inconsistency at quarterback and the Packers eventually took control of the division.
Another hiccup in mid-November—most notably a decisive loss at the defending champion Dallas Cowboys, made Packer fans nervous and jeopardized Green Bay’s standing as the new team to beat. But they righted the ship, blew out Denver, the top seed in the AFC, rolled to a 13-3 record and got the #1 seed in the NFC.
The Packers might have gone into the playoffs as the frontrunner, but the NFL had still spent the last four years being defined by San Francisco and Dallas. The Cowboys had won three Super Bowls, the 49ers had taken one. They had met in three NFC Championship Games. As long as either one had a heartbeat, they were going to command respect.
But Dallas’ heart was beating very slowly in September. The offense still had the Big Three of Troy Aikman at quarterback, Emmitt Smith at running back and Michael Irvin at wide receiver. The Cowboys still had a fearsome offensive line, with both Larry Allen and Erik Williams making 1st-team All-Pro. But the unit as a whole did not play well, finishing 25th in the league for points scored.
Dallas opened the season with a bad Monday Night loss at mediocre Chicago. Before September was out, the Cowboys had lost to borderline playoff teams from Indianapolis and Buffalo.
What saved the Dallas season was defense. The great Deion Sanders was an All-Pro at corner and the D ranked 3rd in the NFL. The Cowboys started to roll in late October. They beat Philadelphia on a Monday Night. They beat San Francisco. They had the aforementioned win over Green Bay. And on Thanksgiving, Dallas knocked off the then-NFC East leader Washington Redskins. The slow start to the season left the Cowboys as the 3-seed, but they won the division and no one was overlooking them when the playoffs began.
San Francisco’s journey was different. Both the offense and defense ranked in the top four of the NFL. Steve Young was still at quarterback and Jerry Rice had another vintage season at wide receiver. Bryant Young was one of the game’s top defensive tackles, and the presence of Roy Barker and Chris Doleman on the ends gave the 49ers a potent defensive front.
They were an excellent team and there was never a point on the schedule where San Francisco truly had a hiccup. But they also didn’t beat their peers among the league’s elite. There the narrow losses to Green Bay and Dallas. And most surprisingly, they got a challenge in the NFC West from the Carolina Panthers.
Carolina was in their second year of existence and behind the coaching of Dom Capers, produced the #2 defense in the league. The linebacking corps of Kevin Greene, Lamar Lathon and Sam Mills led the way. A solid offense, with Kerry Collins behind center, and Anthony Johnson rushing for over 1,100 yards, further vaulted the Panthers into the NFL’s upper crust. Like San Francisco, Carolina went 12-4. And the Panthers won both head-to-head matchups to take the division title and #2 seed. The 49ers would join the Cowboys in playing on wild-card weekend.
Denver spent the entire regular season as the class of the AFC. The Broncos had five players named 1st-team All-Pro. Just as notable, none of them were the franchise’s veteran Hall of Fame quarterback, John Elway. Now 36-years-old, Elway was supported by running back Terrell Davis and tight end Shannon Sharpe. Gary Zimmerman led the way up front. The stars of the defense were Alfred Williams at end and Steve Atwater playing free safety. Denver cruised to a 13-3 record. A late October blowout of Kansas City was the changing of the guard moment in the AFC West. And a mid-November blowout of the eventual 2-seed New England Patriots was the ultimate difference-maker in the race for homefield advantage.
Bill Parcells was at the helm in Foxboro and while his reputation was for defense and the running game, this Patriots team did it through the air and they did it with a cadre of young talent at the skill positions. Drew Bledsoe, the 24-year-old quarterback was the leader. Curtis Martin, age 23, ran for over 1,100 yards. And 22-year old Terry Glenn racked up over 1,100 yards of his own receiving. Then throw in Pro Bowl tight end Ben Coates and you have the NFL’s second-best offense behind Green Bay.
That offense covered for a middle-of-the-road defense in a hotly contested AFC East race. Buffalo had the Defensive Player of the Year in end Bruce Smith. Their own Big Three on offense—Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, and Andre Reed—was slowing down, but still productive. Indianapolis had come within one play of the Super Bowl a year earlier. Even though the Colts didn’t have great talent, a veteran quarterback named Jim Harbaugh and really good special teams—All-Pros in kicker Cary Blanchard and punter Chris Gardocki—put Indy back in the playoffs. Miami was much-hyped coming into the season with the arrival of Jimmy Johnson as head coach, but the Dolphins fizzled and played .500 ball.
New England beat Buffalo in a crucial Sunday Night game at the end of October. That game would be the difference going into the final week. When the Patriots barely nipped a bad New York Giants team 23-22 on the final Saturday of the season, New England was AFC East champ and got a bye. Buffalo was the 4-seed and Indy was in at #6.
Pittsburgh was the defending AFC champ and Bill Cowher’s Steelers again got into the mix. They did it with one of the NFL’s top defenses. Pittsburgh came at you from the linebacker spot, Chad Brown on the outside and Levon Kirkland inside. They had a ball hawking secondary, with Rod Woodson and Darren Perry. The offense, with veteran game-manager Mike Tomczak at quarterback, was led by All-Pro running back Jerome Bettis.
The Steelers got a surprising challenge in the old AFC Central from another second-year franchise, the Jacksonville Jaguars. Coached by Tom Coughlin and led by quarterback Mark Brunnell, the Jags got big years at wide receiver from Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Allen. They sent an early message with a decisive 24-9 win over Pittsburgh to open the season. While the Steelers recovered and won the division at 10-6, Jacksonville went 9-7 and snagged the 5-seed in the AFC playoffs.
It had been a nice season for Jacksonville, a breakthrough year, and no one expected more. But the Jaguars opened up Wild-Card Weekend on a Saturday afternoon in Buffalo with a fourth-quarter rally to beat the Bills 30-27. The following day, the Steelers punched their ticket to the divisional round by dismantling the overmatched Colts, 42-14.
On the NFC side, the Old Guard was looking to assert themselves now that the postseason was here. And both the Cowboys and 49ers looked good. Dallas completely destroyed Minnesota, 40-15 on late Saturday afternoon. San Francisco, playing on a rainy day at home against Philadelphia, churned out a 14-0 win to end the weekend.
The 49ers would play on another sloppy field a week later in Lambeau. The Divisional Playoffs opened with the anticipated Packers-Niners battle, the second of four straight times these teams would meet in the playoffs. On a muddy track, special teams and mistakes were the difference. Desmond Howard broke a 71-yard punt return to get the scoring started for Green Bay. San Francisco turned it over five times. The Packers won 35-14.
Dallas fared little better than San Francisco in their trip to Carolina. Aikman threw three interceptions and while the game was close going into the fourth quarter, the Panthers eventually won 26-17. Divisional Weekend had opened and closed with the sport’s two great powers of the last four years going down.
In between, there was what remains one of this round’s biggest upsets. Jacksonville was a 12 ½ point underdog in Denver. But behind 140 yards rushing from Natrone Means, the Jags opened up a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter and hung on to win 30-27. The field in the AFC was now wide-open. On a foggy Sunday afternoon in Foxboro, the Patriots easily beat the Steelers 28-3, with Martin going off for 166 yards.
Championship Sunday began in Green Bay. With Favre playing efficiently, the Packer ground game completely dominated the Panthers, to the tune of a 201-45 rush edge. Green Bay validated its season and #1 seed with a decisive 30-13 win.
New England and Jacksonville played a close, defense-oriented game later in the day. The Patriots were holding a 13-6 lead in the fourth quarter. The Jags were nearing midfield. New England defensive back Otis Smith made the play of the game, a 47-yard fumble return for a touchdown to all but seal the 20-6 win.
Green Bay has been a Super Bowl contender throughout the long tenure of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in New England, a run that would begin five years into the future. In that time, the Patriots and Packers have been the teams that circle each other every year, but never actually played in the Super Bowl. In this Parcells-Bledsoe era in Foxboro, Green Bay and New England would meet.
The Packers came out firing, with Favre going up top to Andre Rison for a 54-yard touchdown pass and then adding a field goal. New England came back to take a 14-10 lead. Favre answered by again going up top, this time 81 yards to Antonio Freeman. With Green Bay still leading 27-21 in the third quarter, Desmond Howard came through again—a kickoff return for a touchdown. The Packers 35-21 lead stood up the rest of the way, White sealing the deal with three fourth-quarter sacks. At long last, the Lombardi Trophy was coming home.