1996 Super Bowl: The Lombardi Trophy Goes Home To Green Bay

The Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots are franchises closely connected with the Super Bowl. The Packers have won four titles and the Vince Lombardi Trophy itself is named after their most famous head coach. The Patriots made the Super Bowl an almost customary part of their schedule in the era of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, going five times from 2001-11 and winning three. But when these two franchises met in 1996, they were at quite different points in their historical development.

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Green Bay had not been to the Super Bowl since Lombardi won the first two in 1966 and 1967. New England made it in 1985, but had never won it. Whichever fan base went home triumphant, it would be a championship a long time in coming.

The Packers entered the season with big expectations. They suffered playoff losses to the Dallas Cowboys each of the previous three years, the 1995 defeat in the NFC Championship Game, one in which they led after three quarters. The logical next step was to win it all.

Green Bay went started fast at 8-1, finished strong with five straight wins and gained the #1 seed in the NFC. Brett Favre won the second of what would be three straight MVP awards and the Packers had the NFL’s top offense and top defense. Then they thumped San Francisco and Carolina in the 1996 NFC playoffs, winning by a combined 65-27.

New England was in its fourth year under the leadership of Bill Parcells. The Pats made the playoffs in 1994, but suffered through a disappointing 1995 and then started 0-2. They chipped back to 3-3 and then won seven straight games behind an offense that had a 4,000-yard passer in Drew Bledsoe, a 1,000-yard rusher in Curtis Martin, a 1,000-yard receiver in rookie Terry Glenn and a Pro Bowl tight end in Ben Coates.

The Patriot offense ranked second behind the Packers in the NFL. The New England defense was more middling, but with linebacker Willie McGinest and defensive backs Ty Law and Lawyer Milloy, they had a core of talent that would be a part of the dynastic run Belichick put together five years later. The 1996 New England Patriots beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 28-3 in the first playoff game. Then the Pats got a break when a top-seeded Denver was stunned by the Jacksonville Jaguars. New England hosted an AFC Championship Game for the first time and won it over the Jags, 20-6.

The 1996 Super Bowl (played in January 1997) was held at the New Orleans Superdome and Green Bay came in a decisive 14-point favorite. The Packers looked ready to affirm that status, as Favre capped off the game’s first drive with a 54-yard touchdown pass to Andre Rison on a deep post, and the image of the then-young QB taking his helmet off and running about like a little kid remains an enduring portrait of this game.

Bledsoe then threw the first of his four interceptions and a Green Bay field goal stretched the lead to 10-0. But just when it seemed safe to say “the rout is on”, the Patriots settled down and put together consecutive touchdown drives. Bledsoe capped off each with short touchdown flips and New England led 14-10 at the end of the first quarter.

Favre quickly struck back, connecting with favorite target Antonio Freeman for an 81-yard touchdown strike. Before halftime, the Green Bay quarterback would run in for another score, the Pack added a field goal and they were back in control, 27-14, when the game went to the locker room.

New England got good field position to open the second half and quickly drove for a touchdown. At 27-21, the upset was in play, but then came the sequence of events that ultimately defined the 1996 Super Bowl.

Desmond Howard, having a good day on returns (Howard returned six punts and averaged 15 yards a pop) made his biggest play. He took the kickoff, went up the right sideline, going right to left across your television screen, and went 99 yards to the house. Green Bay went for two and made it  to take a 35-21 lead.

Reggie White then took matters into his hand. The 35-year-old defensive tackle had signed with Green Bay prior to the 1992 season, believing that Favre was the kind of quarterback who could help White finally win a ring. Though White, arguably the best defensive lineman of all time, was no longer what he used to be, he could smell the moment. He sacked Bledsoe on consecutive plays.

The defense took over from there and the game ended 35-21. Green Bay’s two-point conversion had swung the game from a Patriot cover to a pointspread push, meaning the return of all bets. One other thing was being returned–the Vince Lombardi Trophy to Green Bay. The Packers went home as champions, White had his long-sought ring and Howard was Super Bowl MVP.