NEW ORLEANS -- From the first day of training camp, there was only one acceptable outcome this season for the Green Bay Packers.
The most complete team in the NFL used all its weapons -- from the quick-strike passing game of Brett Favre to the dynamic return game of Desmond Howard to the big-play defense led by Reggie White -- to extend the NFC's winning streak in the Super Bowl to 13 games.
"Looking at the faces of my players and my coaches and the ownership in the locker room, I'm humbled by that," said Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren. "I think it's a great sense of accomplishment for the football team. I'm so happy for those guys. They worked very, very hard for this."
The title was the 12th in the franchise's proud history, but first since the Packers beat Oakland in Super Bowl II, a drought of 29 years.
In beating the Patriots, the Packers lived up to the legacy of Vince Lombardi and chased forever the shadows of that great era.
"It's the Vince Lombardi Trophy, so it's going back home," said wide receiver Antonio Freeman, the Baltimore native who combined with Favre for an 81-yard touchdown pass, the longest play from scrimmage in Super Bowl history.
On a night filled with big plays by both teams, one of the smallest players on the field delivered the biggest. That was the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Howard, whose record 99-yard kickoff return in the third quarter earned him the game's Most Valuable Player trophy -- the first special teams player so honored.
Moments after New England had closed within 27-21 on an 18-yard touchdown run by Curtis Martin, Howard returned the ensuing kickoff up the middle. He got a key block from Don Beebe, eluded would-be tackler Hason Graham, and won a footrace to the end zone.
"There's an old saying that the cream always rises to the top," Howard said. "I was just another strong link in this very, very strong chain."
When Favre hit tight end Mark Chmura with a two-point conversion pass, the Packers had a 14-point lead and were never seriously threatened again.
"That kick return was the one that made the difference," said Patriots coach Bill Parcells, who lost his first Super Bowl after two victories with the New York Giants. "Up until that point, I thought we still had an opportunity to win."
Favre, New Orleans' favorite son and resident of nearby Kiln, Miss., came home to his greatest triumph, completing 14 of 27 passes for 246 yards. He threw for 240 yards and both TDs in the first half, getting the Packers on the board in the game's first four minutes with a 54-yard strike to flanker Andre Rison.
It came on the Packers' second offensive play of the game, and it came on a New England blitz. Rison blew past cornerback Otis Smith, took the long pass at the Patriots' 25 and did the exaggerated "chicken walk" as he crossed the goal line.
"They brought the safety up tight," Holmgren said of the Patriots. "We had a medium-range throw [called from the sideline]. Brett went to the blitz audible, and Rison got behind behind everybody. I told Brett the audibles have to work, and that worked beautifully."
It was Favre's 81-yard touchdown pass to Freeman early in the second quarter that erased a 14-10 deficit for the Packers, and gave them their final lead. Freeman lined up in the slot and got a mismatch against strong safety Lawyer Milloy.
"I was licking my chops when I saw the safety come up," Freeman said. "I saw the mismatch and took advantage of it."
Green Bay's defensive backs spent most of the night licking theirs, as well. New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe threw four interceptions as his playoff struggles continued.
After his first interception set up a 37-yard Chris Jacke field goal, Bledsoe threw for two touchdowns in the first quarter. He capped a 79-yard drive with a 1-yard scoring pass to Keith Byars, and one series later tossed a 4-yarder to tight end Ben Coates.
Bledsoe threw a Super Bowl-record 15 passes in the first down.
"We were aware that we were going to have to keep them off balance with screen passes, play-action and with some dropbacks," Bledsoe said.
The Packers scored 17 unanswered points in the second quarter, starting with the long pass to Freeman, a former Poly standout.
After a defensive stop, Howard returned a punt 34 yards to New England territory. A 23-yard pass to Rison and a 12-yard run by Dorsey Levens moved the Packers to the 11, where the drive stalled.
Jacke then came on to kick a 31-yard field goal that made it a 20-14 game.
When Bledsoe badly overthrew Shawn Jefferson on a deep ball on the next series, the Packers were back in business. Safety Mike Prior made the interception at the Packers' 8, and he returned it 8 yards to the 16.
Freeman helped move the ball downfield with a pass interference call against Smith and a 22-yard catch to the New England 34.
The Packers ran the ball six straight plays after that, Levens providing most of the yardage. He had runs of 9, 8 and 8 yards to reach the 2.
On first-and-goal, Favre spun to his left and outran defensive end Ferric Collons to the corner of the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown and a 27-14 halftime lead.
Thanks to Howard's kickoff return, the second half was just a time leading up to the celebration.
"They've said a lot of bad things about me in my career," said Rison, dropped by both the Ravens and Jacksonville this season. "They've called me a lot of bad names.
"Now they can call me a world champion."
13 and counting
0 The NFC's 13-game Super Bowl winning streak:
Year .. ..Result
1985 .. ..San Fran. 38, Miami 16
1986 .. ..Chicago 46, N. England 10
1987 .. ..N.Y. Giants 39, Denver 20
1988 .. ..Wash. 42, Denver 10
1989 .. ..San Fran. 20, Cincinnati 16
1990 .. ..San Fran. 55, Denver 10
1991 .. ..N.Y. Giants 20, Buffalo 19
1992 .. ..Wash. 37, Buffalo 24
1993 .. ..Dallas 52, Buffalo 17
1994 .. ..Dallas 30, Buffalo 13
1995 .. ..San Fran. 49, San Diego 26
.. ..Dallas 27, Pittsburgh 17
1997 .. ..Gr. Bay 35, N. England 21
Combined score: 490-219
Average score: 37.7-16.8
Pub Date: 1/27/97