Pack Is Back, So Is Elway
They fell short of their own preseason predicted perfection, stumbling in three games including a pratfall against the worst team, the Indianapolis Colts. But after rolling up seven consecutive wins and breezing to a second consecutive NFC championship, the best team in the NFL once again appears to be the Green Bay Packers.
“If this was the Super Bowl as some people suggested,” Packer safety Eugene Robinson said, “then why do we have to do this again in two weeks, and where’s my ring now?”
NFL protocol still demands that Super Bowl XXXII be played in San Diego in two weeks, a chance for El Nino to gain national attention and Denver quarterback John Elway to match Jim Kelly’s four-game streak of super futility in Buffalo, but for Green Bay, let the engraving begin.
As for the 49ers, puffed up by all those rousing victories over the Saints, the Rams and the Falcons this season, they’re just all wet.
The Packers, 15-3 as they were a year ago at this time before winning Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans, left the 49ers (14-4) wallowing in their own 3Com Park mud Sunday, 23-10, before 68,987.
“The entire season was pressure-packed: ‘Can we do it again? Are they prima donnas? They are going to fall off, you just wait,’ ” Robinson said. “We had a lot to prove if we were going to repeat, and this was the match everyone was waiting for.”
But it didn’t amount to much--the big letdown coming because the Packers continue to separate themselves from the rest of the league.
They started the season losing Edgar Bennett, their starting running back, and replaced him with Dorsey Levens, who ran his way into the Pro Bowl. They allowed Andre Rison to leave for Kansas City, and then not only got Robert Brooks’ stirring return from reconstructive knee surgery but the emergence of Antonio Freeman as one of the game’s premier wide receivers.
Defensive end Sean Jones and tight end Keith Jackson retired, Super Bowl MVP and kickoff return specialist Desmond Howard chased the money to Oakland, former USC tackle John Michels failed to impress at left tackle, rookie kicker Brett Conway was a bust, starting cornerback Craig Newsome blew out a knee, and linebacker Wayne Simmons fell out of grace and landed in Kansas City.
For most teams, that would be ground works for surrender, but the Packers developed a new cast of stellar supporting performers such as tackle Ross Verba, kicker Ryan Longwell and defensive back Tyrone Williams, and like their predecessors, have now joined NFL lore, running Green Bay’s league-best playoff record to 22-8.
“This didn’t come easy,” said Freeman, who caught a pass from quarterback Brett Favre for a 27-yard touchdown in the second quarter. “Repeating is much tougher because so much is expected of you, and you’re the big cat, and everyone is gunning for you.”
The 49ers, however, like so many other flattened foe, lacked the ammunition to disrupt the Packers’ rush on history and chance to become the seventh team to win back-to-back Super Bowls. They ran for only 33 yards, converted three of 14 third downs and scored their only touchdown on a 95-yard kickoff return by Chuck Levy, the first in NFL history in either an NFC or AFC championship game.
“It was just like a train wreck,” said Steve Young, 49er quarterback.
Garrison Hearst, the 49ers’ great hope after being proclaimed recovered from a broken collarbone, ran eight times for 12 yards and spent much of the second half standing on the sideline in a raincoat. Levens, Hearst’s Green Bay counterpart, ran 27 times for 114 yards and a five-yard touchdown.
“The running game was everything,” said Green Bay Coach Mike Holmgren said.
The Packers, emerging from the toughest division in football, one in which four teams advanced to the playoffs, ran off with a 23-3 lead before Levy busted with 2:52 remaining in the game.
“The field conditions in the first half were manageable and that was the time to strike because they weren’t going to get any better,” said Holmgren, who grew up in San Francisco and has tied legendary Vince Lombardi for most Packer playoff wins with nine.
The Packers had the chance to go up 7-0 the first time they touched the ball, but Favre’s pass to a wide open William Henderson in the end zone was knocked down by 49er linebacker Garry Plummer, forcing Green Bay to settle for a 19-yard Longwell field goal.
Green Bay extended that lead after Freeman took advantage of San Francisco cornerback Marquez Pope’s tight coverage off the line of scrimmage, and broke free for his touchdown.
The 49ers came back with a 28-yard Gary Anderson field goal, but the Packers, who dominated San Francisco for much of the first half, turned the game overwhelmingly in their favor before halftime.
With 58 seconds left, the Packers appeared as if they were going to run out the clock, running Levens for eight yards to their own 35 and declining to call a timeout. On second down, however, Favre, retreated and threw a long pass into the rain toward Freeman, who although mugged by Pope still managed to make the 40-yard catch.
A final timeout left the Packers with three seconds, and Longwell was successful from 43 yards, shifting the momentum to Green Bay and more importantly staking them to a two-score advantage on a field that would become a quagmire.
“It felt like Lambeau Field out there without the cold and felt that played into our hands,” said Favre, who completed 16 of 27 passes for 222 yards.
Favre, who has won 31 of his last 37 games while throwing 82 touchdown passes, took offense and motivation from remarks made by San Francisco Coach Steve Mariucci, his former mentor in Green Bay.
“I always felt like I played good in big games,” said Favre, the NFL’s MVP for the past three seasons. “I saw where Steve Mariucci had said Favre can make a lot of big plays, but also a lot of mistakes. Well, I can agree with him on that, but when it comes down to big games I think he’s been around enough to know I can play in them.”
Mariucci will learn not to anger the greatest player in the game, and the 49ers can spend another off-season--the third in a row beginning with a loss to Green Bay--wondering how Holmgren ever got away.
A disciple of former 49er Coach Bill Walsh, and responsible for grooming Young, Holmgren took the West Coast offense to Green Bay, and is building a dynasty.
“I will concede while I was here in San Francisco I was a good student, but I’ve been in Green Bay for six years,” Holmgren said. “And I hope by now we’ve established our own identity.”
In two weeks the Packers should be known as repeat Super Bowl champions, flexed to earn further recognition as one of the NFL’s all-time great teams.
“We’re not close to being one of those type of teams--even if we win back-to-back Super Bowls,” said Ron Wolf, Packer general manager. “We’re just like a one-year wonder; we still have to keep it going. We have yet to withstand the test of time.”
And, in reality with a salary cap and free agency, that will probably be a lot more formidable opponent than the 49ers were in this year’s NFC championship game.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
SUPER BOWL XXXIII
GREEN BAY PACKERS (15-3) vs. DENVER BRONCOS (15-4)
Sunday, Jan. 25, 3:15 p.m. Channel 4
* NFC Report: C10
* AFC Report: C10
* First Look at Matchup: C11
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