Sunday's Super Bowl will be a defining moment for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals.
Just ask the Green Bay Packers.
The Packers, with the league's No. 1-ranked offense and defense, stormed to victory in Super Bowl XXXI. The Packers went 13-3 that season, and if not for a rash of injuries at the wide receiver position, they might have gone 14-2 or 15-1.
It was a truly great team. Brett Favre. Reggie White. LeRoy Butler. Santana Dotson. Doug Evans. Craig Newsome. Mike Holmgren. Ron Wolf. You name it, and the Packers excelled.
That greatness, however, will never be appreciated to its fullest. Because Green Bay was upset by the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII, the 1996-97 Packers aren't mentioned as among the greatest teams in NFL history.
"That was a historic game," NBC's Bob Costas said this week, "because (Broncos quarterback John) Elway broke through, because the Packers were denied consecutive Super Bowl wins which would have taken Favre to yet another level and because the game was so close."
As Wolf put it after Super Bowl XXXII, the Packers were a "one-year wonder, just a fart in the wind."
When 1997 kicked off, the Packers had the look of a dynasty in the making. Favre was at the height of his powers and would go on to win his third consecutive league MVP. Dorsey Levens gave the Packers a more dynamic running game. Robert Brooks, Antonio Freeman and Mark Chmura were unstoppable pass-catchers. Put it together, and the Packers ranked second in the NFL in scoring.
But there were chinks in the armor. Desmond Howard departed in free agency, putting a dent in the return game. The defense fell from first to fifth in points allowed. Sean Jones had retired and stud linebacker Wayne Simmons went from a physical presence to a troubled guy with a bad attitude who wound up being traded. Seth Joyner, 33, replaced Simmons but wasn't the same playmaker he was in Philadelphia. Eugene Robinson, 34, went from five interceptions to one.
Alarm bells rang on Nov. 16, when the Packers were stunned by the winless Indianapolis Colts 41-38.
Nonetheless, the Packers blew into the playoffs with five consecutive wins, including a satisfying throttling of their one-time nemesis, the Dallas Cowboys, and a sweep of a three-game road trip through Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Carolina.
Green Bay had relatively few problems getting through the NFC playoffs. In a 21-7 win over Tampa Bay, the Packers' defense held Trent Dilfer to 11-of-36 passing with two interceptions. In the NFC championship game at San Francisco, Green Bay rolled 23-10. The 49ers' only touchdown came on a fourth-quarter kickoff return.
Then came the Super Bowl. The Packers were 11.5-point favorites against the wild-card Broncos. The AFC had lost 13 consecutive Super Bowls, and the Broncos were crushed by a combined 136-40 in three of them. The game seemed like a formality, but the Packers' defense couldn't stop Terrell Davis (157 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner) and the Packers' offense couldn't protect Favre. The Packers were shocked 31-24.
Wolf, visiting Green Bay for training camp last summer, was still hurt by the loss, and he pinned it on Holmgren.
"Certain calls were to be made that weren't made," Wolf told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel of Holmgren's decision to continually send four and five receivers into routes rather than protect against Broncos coordinator Greg Robinson's blitzes.
"Mike Holmgren refused those calls. There would have been an adjustment on the blocking scheme and it would have been over. One of the great things about playing the game of football is you have to adjust. When you fail to adjust in critical situations you're going to lose, and that's what happened here. To be pigheaded about it, I mean, to have the answer and then not apply it, that's a little different."
Regardless of who's to blame, the outcome of that game 11 years ago continues to have ramifications.
When the great teams in NFL history are listed, it's the multiple winners and repeat champs that jump to the top of the list. The Glory Years Packers. The Steel Curtain Steelers. The Joe Montana 49ers. But not the Favre-led Packers.
"This should serve as a wakeup call for this team," Favre said after the game. "You hate to get it in the Super Bowl, but we're young. Sometimes when you're young, you think you're too good. But this is a great football team, and there's no reason we shouldn't be back to more Super Bowls."
Of course, neither Favre nor the Packers have been back since.
And then there's this: On Saturday, Bruce Smith, Randall McDaniel and Derrick Thomas headlined the new Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees. Wolf, the dynamic general manager who had the guts to trade for Favre and did the unthinkable by signing White, and Butler, who revolutionized the game as a safety, didn't even get to the semifinal ballot.
Had the Packers won two Super Bowls, Wolf and Butler very well could be enshrined in Canton. Maybe even Robinson, with 57 career interceptions, would have a shot. Favre might universally be called the greatest quarterback of all-time if it was he rather than Elway owning two Super Bowl rings.
"It's disappointing as hell," beloved defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur said after the game.
It still is.
Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Lambeau Level forum.
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