1996–97 NFL playoffs
The NFL playoffs following the 1996 NFL season led up to Super Bowl XXXI. This postseason was remarkable in that the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers each made it to their respective conference championships, only two years after their inception into the league as expansion teams.
|1||Denver Broncos (West winner)||Green Bay Packers (Central winner)|
|2||New England Patriots (East winner)||Carolina Panthers (West winner)|
|3||Pittsburgh Steelers (Central winner)||Dallas Cowboys (East winner)|
|4||Buffalo Bills||San Francisco 49ers|
|5||Jacksonville Jaguars||Philadelphia Eagles|
|6||Indianapolis Colts||Minnesota Vikings|
- 1 Bracket
- 2 Wild Card playoffs
- 3 Divisional playoffs
- 4 Conference championships
- 5 Super Bowl XXXI: Green Bay Packers 35, New England Patriots 21
- 6 References
|Wild Card Playoffs||Divisional Playoffs||Conference Championships||Super Bowl XXXI|
Wild Card playoffs
December 28, 1996
AFC: Jacksonville Jaguars 30, Buffalo Bills 27
The second year Jaguars forced four turnovers, racked up 3 sacks, and outgained Buffalo in total yards 409–308 to earn their first playoff win. After trading points back and forth all day, almost drive for drive, Jaguars safety Chris Hudson would make a decisive hit on Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, knocking him out of the game and forcing a fumble that his team would convert into the game winning score.
Jacksonville was forced to punt on their opening drive, and Russell Copeland returned the ball 16 yards to the Jags 43-yard line, setting up Jim Kelly's 7-yard touchdown pass to running back Thurman Thomas. But later in the quarter, Jacksonville defensive end Clyde Simmons intercepted a shovel pass intended for Thomas and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown to tie the game. Buffalo stormed right back with a 10-play drive that ended with Thomas' 2-yard touchdown run, making the score 14–7. However, Jacksonville running back Natrone Means' 62-yard carry on their next drive moved the ball to the Bills 5-yard line. The drive stalled there, but Mike Hollis kicked a 27-yard field goal to make the score 14–10 at the end of the first quarter.
The Bills had to punt following their next possession but regained the ball when a long pass from Mark Brunell was intercepted by Thomas Smith in the end zone. Buffalo then drove to the Jags 6-yard line, but also came up empty when Kelly was stuffed for no gain while trying to convert a 4th and 1 on a quarterback sneak. Jacksonville then stormed to their first lead of the day with Brunell completing a 47-yard pass to tight end Pete Mitchell before Means' took off for a 30-yard touchdown burst, giving them a 17–14 advantage. Later in the quarter, Buffalo got the ball with good field position after Hollis missed a 58-yard field goal attempt, and mounted a drive to tie the game with Steve Christie's 33-yard field goal at the two minute warning.
Buffalo retook the lead on their opening drive of the second half with Christie's 47-yard field goal, but after a few punts, Jacksonville managed to tie it again with an 11-play, 62-yard drive that included a 27-yard catch by receiver Keenan McCardell and ended with a 24-yard field goal by Hollis.
On the second play of the fourth quarter, Bills defensive back Jeff Burris picked off Brunell's pass and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown to give his team a 27–20 lead. Jacksonville countered right back, moving the ball 65 yards in 10 plays to score on Brunell's 2-yard toss to Jimmy Smith. On Buffalo's next drive, Hudson made a devastating hit on Kelly, knocking him out of the game and forcing a fumble that was recovered by cornerback Aaron Beasley on the Jags 42-yard line. Brunell then completed a pair of passes to Smith and McCardell for gains of 14 and 11 yards to set up Hollis' 45-yard field goal, putting them back in front for good at 30–27. The Bills offense, now led by Todd Collins, were unable to move the ball on any of their remaining drives, and during the game's final seconds, Tony Brackins forced a fumble while sacking Collins that linebacker Eddie Robinson recovered to seal the win.
Means finished the game with 175 rushing yards. Simmons finished with two sacks and an interception returned for a touchdown. Bills receiver Quinn Early caught 9 passes for 122 yards. This was the final game in the hall of fame career of Jim Kelly, and the final playoff game for Bills hall of fame coach Marv Levy as well.
NFC: Dallas Cowboys 40, Minnesota Vikings 15
The Cowboys scored 23 points off of 5 Vikings turnovers. Perhaps the turning point of the game occurred in the first quarter after Dallas took the early 7–0 lead with quarterback Troy Aikman's 2-yard touchdown run. Minnesota running back Amp Lee caught a short pass from quarterback Brad Johnson and appeared to be on his way for a 43-yard touchdown. But Cowboys safety George Teague caught up with Lee at the 1-yard line and poked the ball out of his hands, and the ball bounced out of the end zone for a touchback. Teague later scored on a 27-yard interception return, running back Emmitt Smith ran for two touchdowns from 37 and 1 yards out, receiver Michael Irvin caught 8 passes for 103 yards, and kicker Chris Boniol made 4 field goals. Johnson threw a 30-yard touchdown to wide receiver Cris Carter and ran for another, but it was not enough.
December 29, 1996
AFC: Pittsburgh Steelers 42, Indianapolis Colts 14
The Steelers blew a 13-point lead in the first half but scored 29 unanswered points in the second half. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh defense held the Colts to 146 total yards of offense. Two field goals by Norm Johnson and a 1-yard touchdown run by Kordell Stewart gave the Steelers the 13-point advantage by the second quarter. However, Indianapolis cornerback Eugene Daniel intercepted Mike Tomczak's pass and returned it 59 yards for a touchdown. Another interception led to a 9-yard touchdown from Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh to wide receiver Aaron Bailey. But the Steelers controlled the rest of the game. Running back Jerome Bettis, who finished with 102 rushing yards, scored two 1-yard touchdowns, running back Jon Witman recorded a 31-yard touchdown, and Stewart added a 3-yard touchdown. It was the second straight year the Steelers eliminated the Colts from the playoffs.
NFC: San Francisco 49ers 14, Philadelphia Eagles 0
Although they gained more yards than the 49ers, the Eagles were shut out in a rainy game with 51 miles per hour winds. Kicker Gary Anderson missed a 40-yard field goal attempt on Philadelphia's first possession. In the second quarter, San Francisco quarterback Steve Young ran for a 9-yard touchdown that capped off a 75-yard drive. The Eagles then reached the San Francisco 8-yard line, but quarterback Ty Detmer threw an interception to defensive back Marquez Pope. The 49ers were forced to punt on their next drive, and Philadelphia advanced to the San Francisco 5-yard line. However, 49ers defensive end Roy Barker intercepted Detmer, and the Eagles would never seriously threaten again. Young would later throw a 3-yard touchdown to wide receiver Jerry Rice.
January 4, 1997
NFC: Green Bay Packers 35, San Francisco 49ers 14
The Packers defense forced five turnovers en route to victory, while Desmond Howard's key punt returns enabled the Packers to jump to a 14–0 lead after only 3 offensive plays. On his first punt return, Howard ran 71 yards for a touchdown. He then returned a punt 46 yards to set up quarterback Brett Favre's 4-yard touchdown to wide receiver Andre Rison.
Early in the second quarter, defensive back Craig Newsome's interception set up the Packers third touchdown of the day. Newsome fumbled the ball while being hit during the interception return, but his teammate Sean Jones recovered the ball on the 49ers 15-yard line. Three plays later, Edgar Bennett's touchdown run increased the Packers lead to 21–0.
Two Green Bay turnovers enabled San Francisco to mount a comeback attempt. First, a 49ers punt bounced into Packers safety Chris Hayes and was recovered San Francisco's Curtis Bailey at the Green Bay 26-yard line. Six plays later, backup quarterback Elvis Grbac (who had replaced injured starter Steve Young) threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to running back Terry Kirby with 24 seconds left in the half. Then the Packers fumbled the second half kickoff, and San Francisco defensive back Steve Israel ran the fumble recovery to the Green Bay 4-yard line. On the next play, Grbac's 4-yard touchdown run cut the score to 21–14.
However, the Packers marched 72 yards for another touchdown, in which a fumble by Bennett was recovered in the end zone by wide receiver Antonio Freeman. Later on, with 5:31 left in the game, Kirby lost a fumble while being tackled by Green Bay defensive back Mike Prior, and Hayes recovered the ball on the 49ers 32-yard line. 6 plays later, Bennett scored his second touchdown of the game to close out the scoring.
Because the weather dipped in and out of freezing causing both rain and snow, the field got extremely muddy as the game went on causing the Green Bay Press Gazette to call it the "Mud Bowl." Neither team had much success moving the ball on offense due to the field conditions. The Packers, who averaged over 345 yards per game during the season, gained just 210 yards, while the 49ers managed only 196. The longest completion of the day was an 18-yard reception by Antonio Freeman. Bennett was one of the top players of the day with 80 rushing yards and two touchdowns, along with two receptions for 14 yards.
AFC: Jacksonville Jaguars 30, Denver Broncos 27
The Wild Card Jaguars, who had barely made the playoffs with a 9–7 record by winning their last 5 games of the season (including their final one when Atlanta Falcons kicker Morten Andersen missed a last second field goal), overcame a 12-point deficit and scored on six consecutive possessions to upset the Broncos, who had finished the season with an NFL best 13–3 record and were favored to win by over 14 points. Their loss meant that for the second consecutive year the AFC's top seed was eliminated in the divisional round.
Denver dominated the first quarter, scoring two touchdowns while preventing the Jaguars from gaining a single first down. On the Broncos second drive of the game, a 47-yard run by Terrell Davis gave them a first down on the Jacksonville 2-yard line. The Jaguars kept Denver out of the end zone for the next three plays, but Vaughn Hebron scored a 1-yard touchdown run on fourth down, giving Denver a 6–0 lead after defensive lineman Clyde Simmons blocked the extra point. Then after forcing a punt, Denver scored another touchdown when Elway connected with tight end Shannon Sharpe for a 18-yard touchdown pass. But Elway's 2-point conversion pass to Sharpe was incomplete, keeping the score at 12–0.
In the second quarter, Jacksonville stormed back. After a controversial pass interference penalty wiped out a Tory James interception for Denver, Jacksonville scored 13 points in the second quarter to take the lead at the half, 13–12, with two field goals by kicker Mike Hollis and an 8-yard touchdown by running back Natrone Means.
In the third quarter, Denver was limited to 14 plays for 37 yards. Meanwhile, Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell connected on a 31-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Keenan McCardell. Hollis later kicked a 22-yard field goal to give Jacksonville a 23–12 lead with less than 11 minutes left in the game. But on Denver's next drive, Davis scored on a 2-yard touchdown run, a successful two-point conversion shrunk the lead to 23–20. But Jacksonville responded with another touchdown drive, featuring a 29-yard run by Brunell, who later finished the drive with a 16-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jimmy Smith with 3:39 remaining, making the score 30–20. The Broncos then scored on Elway's 15-yard touchdown to wide receiver Ed McCaffrey with 1:50 left, but they had no timeouts left and were unable to recover the onside kick.
Brunell had the best postseason performance of his career, throwing for 245 yards and 2 touchdowns without an interception, and also rushing for 44 yards. Means rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown, while also catching 4 passes for 46. Davis rushed for 91 yards and a touchdown, while also catching 7 passes for 24 yards. It was the only playoff game of his career in which he didn't rush for 100 yards.
The game was featured as one of the NFL's Greatest Games as Ambush at Mile High.
January 5, 1997
AFC: New England Patriots 28, Pittsburgh Steelers 3
In their first home playoff game in 18 years, the Patriots blew out the Steelers 28–3 with 346 yards of total offense, while limiting the Steelers to 213. On the first play from scrimmage, the Steelers got a taste of what lay in store as Pats quarterback Drew Bledsoe completed a 53-yard pass to Terry Glenn that set up Curtis Martin's 2-yard touchdown run. Martin fished the day with 166 rushing yards and three touchdowns, scoring from 78 yards and 23 yards later in the game. Bledsoe added a 24-yard touchdown pass to running back Keith Byars, while running back Dave Meggett returned 7 punts for 72 yards and rushed for 18. The Steelers' lone score was Norm Johnson's 29-yard field goal in the third quarter. Pittsburgh quarterback Mike Tomczak was held to 110 passing yards and intercepted twice in the final postseason game of his career. Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, who rushed for 1,431 yards during the season and 102 yards in the previous playoff game, was held to just 43 yards on the ground.
NFC: Carolina Panthers 26, Dallas Cowboys 17
The second-year Panthers held Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman to 165 passing yards and forced three interceptions en route to their first playoff win in team history. On offense, running back Anthony Johnson was their top performer with 104 rushing yards and a 9-yard reception.
Dallas scored first when an interception by defensive back Darren Woodson and a 22-yard catch by Michael Irvin set up Chris Boniol's 22-yard field goal. However, Irvin suffered a separated shoulder on his reception and had to miss the rest of the game. Carolina quarterback Kerry Collins then threw two touchdown passes, a 1-yarder to tight end Wesley Walls and a 10-yarder to wide receiver Willie Green. The Cowboys countered with a 73-yard drive to score on Aikman's 2-yard touchdown pass to running back Daryl Johnston, but they failed on the extra point attempt and the Panthers lead was only cut to 14–9. A bad snap on a Carolina punt attempt went out of the end zone to give the Cowboys a safety. But Panthers safety Chad Cota intercepted a pass and returned it 49 yards to set up kicker John Kasay's 24-yard field goal with three seconds in the half, giving Carolina a 17–11 halftime lead.
Early in the second half, Panthers running back Winslow Oliver fumbled a punt return that Johnston recovered to set up Boniol field goal, cutting the deficit to 3 points at 17–14. But this was as close as they would get, as the Panthers kicked three more field goals, two of which were set up by fourth quarter interceptions by Pat Terrell and Sam Mills.
January 12, 1997
NFC Championship: Green Bay Packers 30, Carolina Panthers 13
The Packers recorded 201 rushing yards and 476 total yards of offense. Green Bay running back Dorsey Levens recorded 117 yards receiving and 88 yards rushing, including a 29-yard touchdown catch. Quarterback Brett Favre managed to overcome two early turnovers that set up 10 Carolina points, completing 19 out of 29 passes for 292 yards and 2 touchdowns. Packers running back Edgar Bennett, who recorded 99 rushing yards, scored a touchdown from 4 yards out, and kicker Chris Jacke added 3 field goals.
Early in the first quarter, Panthers linebacker Sam Mills intercepted a pass from Favre and returned it to the Packers 3-yard line, setting up Kerry Collins' 3-yard touchdown pass to fullback Howard Griffith. Green Bay struck back with Favre's 29-yard touchdown pass to Levens, but after forcing a punt, Carolina lineman Lamar Lathon recovered a fumble from Favre on the Packers 45-yard line. A few plays later, John Kasay's 22-yard field goal put the Panthers back in the lead, 10–7.
But after that the Packers dominated the rest of the game. Favre responded by leading Green Bay 71 yards in 15 plays and scoring with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Freeman. Then on the first play after the ensuing kickoff, safety Tyrone Williams intercepted a pass from Collins on the Packers 38-yard line. Favre's completions to Andre Rison and Freeman for gains of 23 and 25 yards moved the ball into field goal range, and Jacke's 31-yard field goal finished the drive, giving Green Bay a 17–10 halftime lead.
On the first drive of the second half, Green Bay moved the ball 73 yards in 11 plays and scored with another Jacke field goal. The Panthers managed to respond with an 11-play, 73-yard drive of their own and score with Kasay's second field goal, which cut their deficit to 7 points. But Green Bay stormed right back with a 74-yard touchdown drive, featuring a 66-yard reception by Levens. On the next play, Bennett's 4-yard touchdown run gave the Packers a 27–13 lead with two minutes left in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, Jacke's third field goal put the game out of reach.
This game is also the first time since 1991 that the Dallas Cowboys or San Francisco 49ers did not appear in the NFC Championship Game.
AFC Championship: New England Patriots 20, Jacksonville Jaguars 6
Although New England gained just 234 yards compared to the Jags 289, they made up the difference by forcing four turnovers, including three consecutive takeaways on the last three Jacksonville possessions of the game.
The Jaguars were forced to punt on their first possession, but a high snap enabled defensive back Larry Whigham to tackle punter Bryan Barker at the Jacksonville 4-yard line. Moments later, New England running back Curtis Martin scored a touchdown on a 1-yard run. After a few punts, New England managed a drive into Jaguars territory, but defensive back Aaron Beasley intercepted Drew Bledsoe's pass at the 8-yard line to keep the score 7–0 at the end of the first quarter.
In the second quarter, Jaguars kicker Mike Hollis made a 32-yard field goal at the end of a 13-play, 62-yard drive. Their defense then force the Patriots to punt, but returner Chris Hudson lost the ball from a hit by Marty Moore and Mike Bartum recovered for New England on the Jags 19-yard line. Adam Vinatieri kicked a 29-yard field goal as a result of the turnover, making the score 10–3. Later on, with 1:29 left in the half, Bledsoe led the Patriots down the field on a 68-yard drive, completing a 19-yard pass to Shawn Jefferson, a 5-yard toss to tight end Ben Coates on 4th and 5, and another completion to Jefferson that moved the ball 38 yards to the Jacksonville 3-yard line. New England could go no further, however, so Vinatieri kicked his second field goal of the day to increase their lead to 13–3 going into halftime
Jacksonville took the second half kickoff and drove to the New England 31-yard line, only to lose the ball when quarterback Mark Brunell was stuffed for no gain on 4th and 1. Three plays later, Bledosoe lost a fumble while being tackled by Kevin Hardy, which linebacker Eddie Robinson recovered for Jacksonville on the Pats 37 to set up a 28-yard Hollis field goal that cut the score to 13–6.
Midway through the fourth quarter, the Patriots drove to the Jacksonville 23-yard line. They were in prime position to build a big lead, but Blesoe was sacked for a 6-yard loss on third down and Vinatieri drilled his 46-yard field goal attempt wide left. Jacksonville took the ball back and drove to the New England 5-yard line, but with just under four minutes left in the game, Patriots defensive back Willie Clay intercepted a Mark Brunell pass in the end zone. Following a punt, Jacksonville got another chance to drive for the tying touchdown with 2:36 left. However, this time they lost the ball on their first play with a fumble by James Stewart. New England defensive back Otis Smith recovered the ball and returned it 47 yards for the game clinching touchdown, giving his team a 20–6 lead. Jacksonville would get one more possession, which ended with an interception by linebacker Tedy Bruschi.
The game was also notable for a power outage (due to the unprecedented power use at and around the stadium due to very cold temperatures) just minutes before halftime, which knocked out much of the lighting of the stadium, as well as most of the power in the surrounding community. (The television broadcast, however, was not affected, and stayed on throughout the outage by using generators.)
Super Bowl XXXI: Green Bay Packers 35, New England Patriots 21
- Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League (ISBN 0-06-270174-6)