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Titletown Restored

~~ From New England Patriots Football Weekly

NEW ORLEANS  –  The Super Bowl is no exception to the grand American tradition of excess. In fact, the National Football League’s championship game typifies it. 

So it should come as no surprise that the NFL team that scored most excessively all season long, the Green Bay Packers, continued that timeworn tradition of American gluttony with a 35-21 Super Bowl XXXI victory over the AFC Champion New England Patriots in the Louisiana Superdome on Sunday evening. It was Titletown’s first championship since the Packers won the first two Super Bowls, while the Patriots are still batting .000 (0-2) in Super Bowl competition.

With all the flash, Hollywood glitz and Bacchanal pleasures that the NFL and New Orleans could muster under one roof, it was easy to forget that a football game had to be sandwiched between the pregame, halftime and postgame shows. As the locals say, “In N’Awlins, dawlin’, excess is best.”

After a halftime extravaganza that featured James Brown, the Blues Brothers and ZZ Top, the Patriots (13-6) swung momentum and had the Pack singing the blues. With Green Bay (16-3) facing a fourth-and-one situation on its first drive of the second half, New England linebackers Ted Johnson (10 tackles) and Chris Slade (11 tackles) blew through the line and clobbered runner Dorsey Levens for a seven-yard loss. The surging Patriot defense put the clamps on Green Bay on its next series, and the Pats managed to pull to within 27-21 on an 18-yard touchdown jaunt by runner Curtis Martin.

What happened next was nightmarish. After the Patriots had clawed and scratched to within six points, after they handcuffed the potent Packer offense, Green Bay return man Desmond Howard took Adam Vinatieri’s kickoff at the Packers’ one-yard line and charged up the middle for a back-breaking, momentum-swinging touchdown. Howard followed the lead of Don Beebe, who cleared Patriot Scooter McGruder out of the way. New England receiver Hason Graham, the controversial replacement for the scratched Troy Brown, dove and missed Howard.

Green Bay return man Desmond Howard (81) left Patriots in his wake all night.

“We saw things we thought we could exploit coming out in the second half,” added Howard, who is the first special teamer to be named Super Bowl MVP. “In the second half, we really felt we could break a big one.”

Sunday also featured the haunting return of “big play-itis” to the New England secondary. Early in the season, the New England defense had been prone to coughing up the occasional big play. But after a blowout loss to Denver (34-8) on November 17, the defense – and the secondary in particular – tightened the screws and became the team’s strength throughout the playoffs.

The coach was on target. Save for the return-yardage (268-165) and time-of-possession (34:15 to 25:45) departments, where Green Bay dominated, the teams compared favorably in net yards, first downs and touchdowns. The Pats posted a better third-down efficiency percentage (29 to 20 percent) and punter Tom Tupa posted an impressive 45.1-yard average.

Regardless of the game’s statistical competitiveness, the Pack battered the Pats in the big-play category, an unofficial statistic. And Howard’s return was the biggest of those big plays. “We went in the locker room at halftime and said we can break a return, even though they had pretty good coverage,” said Howard, a former Heisman Trophy winner from Michigan who earned Super Bowl XXXI Most Valuable Player (MVP) honors for his tremendous special teams performance. 

Once considered a journeyman after flaming out with Washington and Jacksonville, Howard found his niche as a kick returner with the Pack. On Sunday, he returned four kickoffs for 154 yards, added six punt returns for a Super Bowl-record 90 yards and set a postseason record with the 99-yard kickoff return.

In three trips to the Super Bowl, Super Bowl XXXI was Patriots Coach Bill Parcells' first loss.

Moments after the return, Green Bay tight end Mark Chmura shook free of Patriot free safety Willie Clay in the right corner of the end zone and collected a two-point conversion pass from quarterback Brett Favre for a 35-21 cushion. The 14-point win made the boys in Vegas, who predicted a two-touchdown Packer win, look like geniuses.

“I don’t know, statistically, how the game turned out, but it was probably pretty close,” said Patriot Coach Bill Parcells, who lost for the first time in three trips to the big game. “Both teams pressured the quarterback fairly well. The difference was special teams. That was the worst we’ve been outplayed all year.”

Desmond Howard celebrates his historic kickoff return.

On Sunday, though, the Patriots secondary was shredded by Chief Cheesehead Favre, who tossed touchdown passes of 54 and 81 yards to Andre Rison and Antonio Freeman, respectively. Favre, the league’s regular season MVP, completed 14 of 27 pass attempts for 246 yards and – most importantly – no interceptions.

Conversely, Patriot quarterback Drew Bledsoe was picked off four times. Two of the four interceptions resulted in 10 Packer points. At times, especially early, Bledsoe was razor sharp, but finished 25 of 48 for 253 yards and two touchdowns.

“You watch year-in and year-out, and Super Bowls are won on big plays,” said Bledsoe. “The Packers made more big plays than we did, they didn’t turn the ball over and they basically played a mistake-free football game. My hat’s off to them.”

Patriot quarterback Drew Bledsoe fires a pass between defenders in Super Bowl XXXI.

The Patriots served up mistakes early and often, like an order of beignets at the Café du Monde, hard by the Mississippi River. The first came on Green Bay’s opening offensive series, when Favre audibled and hit Rison for a 54-yard score and a 7-0 lead with 11 minutes, 28 seconds remaining in the first quarter. Favre caught the blitzing Pats with their pants down, and Rison turned cornerback Otis Smith inside out on a post pattern for an easy six.

“[Favre] saw the safeties come down and he changed the play,” said Rison, who duck-walked into the end zone. “I caught [Smith] in man-to-man coverage. I just ran the route and Brett hit me with a great pass.”

Mistake No. 2 resulted in a 37-yard field goal by Green Bay’s Chris Jacke at the 8:42 mark of the first. On New England’s second play from scrimmage after the touchdown, Bledsoe telegraphed a pass to rookie receiver Terry Glenn near the left sideline. Green Bay corner Doug Evans stepped in front of Glenn and made a juggling catch while tightrope-walking the sideline. With a first down at the New England 28, Green Bay advanced to the 19 before settling for Jacke’s field goal, which produced a 10-0 lead.

When it looked as though an instant replay of the Patriots’ super-blowout loss to Chicago in Super Bowl XX might be on tap, the New Englanders responded with a pair of sharp drives to take a 14-10 lead. On New England’s first scoring drive, Martin and fullback Keith Byars turned a pair of dump-off passes into big gains.

Veteran Keith Byars (left) and second-year runner Curtis Martin kept the Patriots in the game.

Bledsoe found Byars on a screen pass to the right flat, and the big man rumbled ahead for 32 yards behind blocks by guard Todd Rucci and center Dave Wohlabaugh. On first down at the Green Bay 47, Bledsoe hit Martin in the right flat and Martin scooted 20 yards up the right sideline. A few plays later, on third and 10, Patriot receiver Shawn Jefferson almost made a spectacular one-handed touchdown grab over his right shoulder. But corner Craig Newsome was slapped with a 26-yard pass-interference penalty for whacking Jefferson on the head, and the Pats were in business at the Packer one.

So, instead of Martin plunging into the end zone, Byars ran a post pattern from right to left and calmly collected a perfectly thrown ball from Bledsoe. The fourth-year quarterback fired the pass through the narrowest of openings – even forcing a referee to duck – to the sure-handed Byars, who had strong safety LeRoy Butler draped on his back. Vinatieri booted the first of his three extra points at 6:35 of the first, narrowing the Green Bay lead to 10-7.

“I thought it was an excellent call,” said Byars, an 11-year-veteran who appeared in his first Super Bowl. “It was a new play that we had put in over the past two weeks. They hadn’t seen us line up in a formation with me playing ‘X’ receiver like that.”

The New England defense posted another stellar series after the touchdown, and momentum quickly swung the Patriots’ way. Bledsoe, on first down, rolled right and hit Martin across the grain on the left side of the field for a seven-yard gain to midfield. Martin charged up the middle for a two-yard gain, forcing a third and one. With a convincing play-action handoff to Martin, Bledsoe dropped into the pocket and looked downfield. Given all the time in the world, Bledsoe found Glenn for a 44-yard pickup. Glenn had a step on safety Eugene Robinson, and made a spectacular diving catch over his right shoulder at the Packer four.

Patriots receiver Terry Glenn made a spectacular catch at the Green Bay four.

From there, Bledsoe rolled right and found tight end Ben Coates on an out pattern for a four-yard score in the right corner of the end zone. Vinatieri’s extra point gave the Pats a 14-10 edge, capping the highest-scoring first quarter in Super Bowl history.

It didn’t take long for the Pack to bite back, though, Green Bay rattled off 17 unanswered points in the second quarter to take a commanding 27-14 lead by the halftime whistle. 

The biggest of the quarter’s big plays was an 81-yard, first-down strike from Favre to Freeman down the right sideline, the longest play from scrimmage in Super Bowl history. Lined up in the right slot, Freeman was matched up with rookie strong safety Lawyer Milloy. With bump-and-run coverage called by the New England sideline, Freeman got Milloy to bite on an inside fake an ran under a Favre bomb that almost landed in Belle Chasse across the river.

“That was a call in the huddle,” said Freeman. “I was licking my chops when I saw that safety come up. Eighty-one yards later we’re in the record books.  . . .  I gave him a hard move to the inside and he took it. Brett threw a great ball, and the rest was just running. I ran like I’ve never run before.”

Packer wide receiver Antonio Freeman hauls in a Brett Favre pass for a touchdown. | Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

That restored the Green Bay lead, now 17-14. Jacke added a 31-yard field goal on the Pack’s next possession for a 20-14 cushion, and Green Bay scored on its third consecutive possession when Favre reached over the goal line with the ball as he was shoved out of bounds by New England linebacker Todd Collins. 

At this juncture, Favre was reading the Patriot secondary like a first-grade instructional book. Given ample time in the pocket, he completed two of three pass attempts for 32 yards. Runner Edgar Bennett carried only twice for three yards, but Levens churned out 31 yards on four carries. On the final play of the 74-yard drive, Favre rolled left, saw no one open, and scrambled for a two-yard score in the left-front corner of the end zone for a 27-14 edge.

Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre celebrates an early Packer touchdown.

At that point, the outcome seemed to be academic. But New England’s defense continued its strong second-half playoff showing. Except for the Howard return, the Patriots kept the Packer offense under wraps, somewhat, in the second half. 

Starting at their 47, the Patriots embarked on their final scoring drive midway through the third. Bledsoe completed a pair of passes to Coates (13 yards) and Jefferson (9 yards). Martin had his best series of the day, rushing three times for 30 yards, including a gutsy 18-yard touchdown run through the heart of the Packer defense. Once Martin saw daylight up the middle behind Wohlabaugh, Byars and left guard William Roberts, he burst through the arms of Packers nose tackle Gilbert Brown, Robinson and Butler before barging into the end zone to briefly narrow the Green Bay lead to 27-21.

But thanks to Howard’s historic kickoff return, the Packers turned the Big Easy into the Big Cheesy for a night as they captured the Vince Lombardi Trophy, named for their legendary coach. As for the Patriots, who now have to deal with an oh-fer-two Super Bowl record in the Crescent City, there’s always next year. With such a surprising ascent to the peak of their profession this fall, things look bright for the Chowdaheads from New England.

“It’s hard to get here and we worked very hard to reach this point,” said New England’s Clay. “We’re going to have to work twice as hard to get back, and we can do that. We’re a young team, and a lot of guys learned what it takes to get here this year. We’re all geared up for next year.”