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Year in Review: 1997

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Re-rank the list of top sports stories of 1997

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Tiger Woods takes
golf world by storm

Pedro Martinez signs
record deal with Sox

Latrell Sprewell
assaults coach, gets ax

Rick Pitino becomes
Celtics coach, president

Bill Parcells quits after Patriots' banner year

Martina Hingis
rules women's tennis

Florida Marlins win World Series

Women's pro hoop
meets with success

A Patriots surprise:
Super Bowl XXXI berth

Wil Cordero charged
with assaulting wife


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Check out the top news stories of 1997

Blue Bayou - Patriots get swamped
by the Packers

By Ron Borges, Globe Staff, 01/27/97

The Packers' Antonio Freeman catches an 81 yard touchdown pass as Lawyer Milloy looks on. (Globe Staff File Photo The Packers' Antonio Freeman catches an 81 yard touchdown pass as Lawyer Milloy looks on in Super Bowl XXXI. (Globe Staff File Photo)

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NEW ORLEANS - The Green Bay Packers' yellow brick road to the Super Bowl turned into a yellow brick wall for the New England Patriots last night.

The Patriots fought tooth and nail to prove they did not deserve to be the 14-point underdogs they had been made in Super Bowl XXXI, and because of that they trailed the Packers by only 6 points with 3:27 left in the third quarter. But Green Bay's sense of destiny helped it weather that storm and Desmond Howard then turned the storm into a yellow-and-green tornado that swept the Patriots away.

Howard, who had returned a kick for a touchdown virtually every other week since Dec. 1, did it again -- at the worst of times for New England. He took a kickoff 99 yards for a score that immediately answered an 18-yard Curtis Martin touchdown run that had cut Green Bay's lead to 27-21 for all of 17 seconds. That return ended more than the scoring. It ended the Patriots' hopes of bringing New England its first Super Bowl win and they knew it.

``That kick return provided tremendous impetus for their team,'' said Patriots coach Bill Parcells after the Packers had prevailed, 35-21. ``I thought we might have had them rocking a little bit at 27-21. We had momentum on our drive and our defense was playing better, but he made the big play.

``After that we couldn't close it back quick enough to make a run at them. The difference was special teams. That was the first time this year we've been outplayed on special teams. In a big game, if you fail to concentrate on one play, that play can make the difference.''

Certainly that was the case last night when Howard bolted up the middle of the field behind a block from Don Beebe and New England's wedgebuster, Larry Whigham, was spun around and unable to do what he had so often this season, which was break that wedge down.

``Those guys did the job in the wedge,'' Howard said. ``They blocked their assignments and the hole was there. I just tried to hit it full-tilt and make the kicker miss. After that we pretty much knew it was a touchdown.

``I had full confidence in my return team that they were going to allow me to pop one sooner or later because they did it all year long. I didn't see why our return team would do anything different today.''

They did not, but New England's did, and because of it Howard became the first kick returner in history to be named Super Bowl MVP. By the time he was finished, Howard had 244 return yards, having taken back four kickoffs back for 154 yards and six punts for another 90.

But that was not the only reason for the Packers' victory. The Patriots were their own worst enemy much of the night, as young Drew Bledsoe continued his postseason slump, throwing four interceptions to bring his playoff total to seven.

``That's the bottom line in this game,'' Bledsoe said. ``You watch, year in and year out, Super Bowls are won on big plays. The Packers made more big plays than we did. They didn't turn the ball over and they basically played mistake-free football. They played a very good game today and unfortunately we weren't able to play at that same level.''

The Packers struck early, and soon this game was looking like an instant replay of the early weeks of the Patriots' season, with opposing receivers open by 10 yards and rival quarterbacks finding them.

On the Packers' second play from scrimmage, Brett Favre lofted a pass to a wide-open Andre Rison for a 54-yard touchdown after Rison turned cornerback Otis Smith around like a top. Just 51 seconds after Green Bay first touched the ball, it was 7-0. And it didn't stay that way long because Bledsoe threw the first of his four interceptions two plays later and had Favre back on the field barely a minute after he'd left.

Although this time the Patriots refused to buckle, sacking Favre on first down and running down a screen pass 1 yard short of a first down, they still gave up a 37-yard Chris Jacke field goal to make it 10-0.

``I said during the week `Who knows, I may start out on fire,' '' Favre said. ``So I did.''

Favre burned the Patriots, but just as things looked shaky Bledsoe came alive, completing a 34-yard screen pass to Keith Byars, tossing a 20-yarder to Martin and then lofting a ball to Shawn Jefferson in the end zone that forced cornerback Craig Newsome to grab Jefferson's face mask.

The ensuing pass-interference call gave New England the ball on the 1, and Bledsoe rifled home a TD pass to Byars on the next play to make it 10-7.

Bledsoe got the ball back with 4:44 to play in the quarter, and on third and 1 he made a perfect play-action fake to Martin and then lofted a 48-yard pass to a diving Terry Glenn at the 4. That set up Bledsoe's second touchdown pass, a 4-yarder to Coates that gave New England its only lead, 14-10.

That stunned the crowd of 72,301, but Favre and the Packers remained undaunted, answering with 14:04 left in the half with the longest touchdown pass in Super Bowl history, an 81-yard bomb to Antonio Freeman, who beat rookie strong safety Lawyer Milloy off the line.

``There was nobody behind him,'' Freeman said. ``I knew all I had to do was beat him at the line.''

That put Green Bay in the lead to stay, but the Packers kept on pushing, scoring the next two times they had the ball in the second quarter to take a 27-14 halftime lead. A 31-yard Jacke field goal was followed by a scrambling, 2-yard touchdown run by Favre.

New England was not quite ready to roll over, however, striking back with Martin's run late in the third quarter to give the illusion that this would be what few Super Bowls are -- a tight game. Howard took care of that illusion, and the Patriots.

``We were in the ballgame and that return really hurt,'' said Glenn. ``He was able to just keep going.''

So were the Packers. They were successful on a 2-point conversion and Reggie White followed it up by blasting Bledsoe on three straight plays on the next series, two for sacks. Those plays let everyone know there was a big train coming and the Packers were the only ones on it.

``We climbed one side of the mountain in the AFC and Green Bay climbed one side in the NFC,'' Patriot tight end Keith Byars philosophized. ``We are both at the top of the mountain but unfortunately somebody has to be pushed off.''


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