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Erased Super Bowl XXXI: Packers 35 Patriots 21
The Green Bay Packers entered 1996 with the NFL’s best player, reigning NFL MVP Brett Favre, a cast of other Pro Bowlers, and expectations by fans and experts alike to end Titletown’s 29-year championship drought. They did not disappoint. They steamrolled through the regular season and NFC Playoffs with a 15-3 record and showed themselves to be one of the most dominant teams in NFL history. Their opponent on Super Sunday was the New England Patriots. Now, that name makes you think this was a very worthy opponent, but back then, the Patriots were one of the least successful franchises in the NFL. They had made the playoffs in just 7 of their 36 seasons and left only one mark on NFL history - that as the helpless victim of the mighty 1985 Bears’ in their 46-10 Super Bowl XX win. Despite being coached by future Hall of Famer and two time Super Bowl champion Bill Parcells, the 11-5 Patriots were not expected to put up much of a fight against perhaps the greatest team of the 1990s. 

As it turned out, the Patriots put up a scrappy fight. They even led 14-10 at the start of the 2nd quarter. However, Green Bay took back control and led 27-14 at halftime. As soon as New England closed the gap to 27-21, the Packers immediately slammed the door on the Patriots hopes with eventual MVP Desmond Howard’s legendary 99-yard kickoff return touchdown. The final 20 minutes of Super Bowl XXXI see the Packers half-trying, particularly on offense, but dominating none the less. Green Bay took the Patriots’ best shot but still won the game 35-21 despite playing one of their more lackluster games of the season. This is one of the greatest games in Packers history, but probably not too thrilling to a nationwide audience.

The Switch: 1996 Denver Broncos for 1996 New England Patriots
One of the reasons few people respected the Patriots is because of how they reached the Super Bowl. They beat a one dimensional 10-6 Steelers team at home in the divisional round before beating the 9-7 Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship game. In 1996, Jacksonville was in just their second season and were an average team at best, but they reached the title game by notching one of the biggest playoff upsets of all time – beating the 13-3 Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium. 

The 1996 Broncos were a juggernaut. They had the NFL’s number one offense. Quarterback John Elway had one of his finest seasons as a pro. Second-year running back Terrell Davis rushed for 1,538 yards. Their defense was one of the best in the NFL. They completely dominated the AFC in 1996 and clinched homefield advantage with three games left in the season. Their biggest win of the year was a 34-8 destruction of the New England Patriots in Foxboro. Few people expected Denver to have any trouble with New England in a potential AFC title rematch at Mile High. But Denver never made it that far. One of the drawbacks of clinching Homefield advantage so quickly is that Denver didn’t play a competitive game for a month before the playoffs. Once Jacksonville came to town in the divisional round, Denver hadn’t played a meaningful game in five weeks. Meanwhile, the Jaguars had been playing de facto elimination games for six weeks straight. Jacksonville was able to survive Denver’s first punch, took a one-point lead before halftime and never trailed again. They won 30-27 and shockingly ended Denver’s dominant season in their very first playoff outing. 

Had Denver and Jacksonville played ten times, the Broncos probably win nine of those games. I still am not sure how they lost the actual game to Jacksonville. They didn’t commit any turnovers. Their stars, like John Elway and Terrell Davis, played relatively well. They were just a little off. Defensively, they played alright, but they could not stop Mark Brunell on 3rd down. In perhaps the finest game of his career, Brunell was 9-12 for 126 yards and a touchdown on 3rd down. The Jags converted on 8 of their final 11 3rd downs. Had Denver made a stop on two or three of those plays, Denver would’ve given Elway a few more opportunities and a little more time. As it were, Elway almost pulled it out. With a few less Jaguar points or a few more minutes, Denver’s talent superiority would have taken over and the Broncos would have won.

If they would have beaten the Jaguars, Denver would have hosted the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game. New England’s defense was playing much better by that point of the season than they were in November when Denver beat them by four touchdowns. However, I still don’t like the Patriots chances. In their Divisional Round win against the Steelers, the Patriots gave up 4.5 yards per carry on the ground in dense fog against a team that whole world knew couldn’t pass in perfect conditions. What would Denver, with Terrell Davis and John Elway, have done to that defense? New England had a good offense, but I don’t think they could have kept up against that tough Broncos defense. Denver would have won comfortably and returned to the Super Bowl for the first time in 7 years. 

Improved Super Bowl XXXI: Broncos vs. Packers - Evaluating the Matchup
The Packers and Broncos actually met in the regular season – the week after Denver had clinched Homefield Advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs. They came to Lambeau Field with no intention of putting up a competitive fight. John Elway didn’t suit up, Terrell Davis only got 14 touches, and Green Bay rolled to a 41-6 victory. Super Bowl XXXI would’ve been a different story. Both teams would have come to New Orleans at full strength. The Broncos with their number one offense and top 10 defense. The Packers with their highest-scoring offense and number one defense. On paper, this would truly have been one of the best Super Bowls ever.

Assuming a close Denver victory over Jacksonville and a routine 10 to 14 point win over the Patriots, the Packers still would’ve entered Super Bowl XXXI as the hotter team. In the playoffs, they thoroughly outclassed the NFC’s next best teams, San Francisco and Carolina, by a combined score of 65-27. Both of those teams were much better than any of the teams in the AFC that Denver could have faced.  The Packers previous 7 games were all victories and were won by an average of 22 points per game. Denver would have come in winning just 3 of their last 5 - all in relatively unimpressive fashion. But they still had more than enough weapons to threaten the Packers.  

It is hard to look at this game as it relates to the 1996 teams and not let the 1997 Super Bowl XXXII matchup influence any prediction. These were different teams, particularly the Packers. Denver’s offense likely would have used a similar game plan here that they used in the actual Super Bowl matchup one year later. However, instead of running Terrell Davis at Darius Holland and an aging Seth Joyner, they would have been running at former Pro Bowler DE Sean Jones, healthy emerging star Gabe Wilkins, mean-run stuffing LB Wayne Simmons, and an in-shape DT Gilbert Brown. The 1997 Packers were 23rd against the run. Their 1996 predecessors were 5th. If forced to pass, John Elway would have been throwing at the NFL’s best passing defense. Denver would have moved the ball and scored some points, but largely would’ve been held in check. 

On the other side of the ball, Denver’s defense and Green Bay’s offense squared off largely at full strength in the December 1996 regular season meeting. In that game, the Broncos had no answer for WR Antonio Freeman. Freeman had 9 catches for 175 yards and 3 touchdowns in that meeting. Denver’s defensive game plan would’ve likely focused on taking him out of the game. If they were able to do that (which no team had in the second half of 1996), the Packers would’ve turned to other playmakers that weren’t available in 1997: TE Keith Jackson (10 TDs in 1996), RB Edgar Bennett (1,075 all-purpose yards) and big-play WR Andre Rison. Add those to 90s Pro Bowlers TE Mark Chmura and RB Dorsey Levens and the Packers would have had too many offensive weapons for Denver to stop. Also, Denver’s special teams were in the bottom half of the league, with opponents averaging 11.3 yards per punt return. That’s not good when you are facing the greatest single-season special teams player to date in 1996 Desmond Howard.

The Packers were just better across the board. The final score wouldn’t have been 41-6, but the Packers still would have won. Maybe this matchup wouldn’t have changed history all that much, but the matchup would have been more interesting and more historic. Although, maybe John Elway would have been so distraught over losing yet another Super Bowl that he retires after 1996! And the Packers win it again in 1997!! And 1998!!! And then Holmgren stays!!!! And THEN…….

Packers 35 Broncos 21
MVP: Brett Favre

Check back tomorrow for number 8 on the list! We will lose a boring game, but will also lose perhaps the most exciting quarter in NFL history…
Eric Drews
Green and Gold Forever
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