Going into Super Bowl XXXII, the Green Bay Packers were considered heavy favorites. The AFC hadn’t just lost 13 straight Super Bowls, they weren’t even competitive. Conventional wisdom said the Broncos had no chance after they scraped by the Steelers and Chiefs to get into the game, while Green Bay cruised past their opponents.
Even the advanced numbers favored Wisconsin, though FootballOutsiders DVOA statistic hinted at a much closer game than pundits were calling.
Green Bay was number 1 while the Broncos were 2. If you fire up Youtube and re-watch the game it will became painfully clear that Terrell Davis may have been the MVP and John Elway the story, but Steve Atwater and the defense were the difference in the game.
The last time I watched Super Bowl 32, I was a freshman in high school. Even then I could appreciate how the Broncos’ defensive scheme centered around calculated gambles, but it took the years since to fully appreciate how the Atwater & Braxton play on the back end made it feasible.
The First Half: Atwater sets the defensive tone
Greg Robinson’s defense was notorious for corner blitz and pressure packages that could disorient even the most grizzled quarterbacks in football. The Broncos rode that mentality to a top 10 ranking in DVOA in 1997 and looked to capitalize on three-time MVP Brett Favre’s gunslinger mentality. It took a little patience to see the results.
The first drive was textbook for the Packers, with Favre connecting on a long pass to convert a third down. The 26-year-old stood tall in the face of a six-man rush to find Antonio Freeman for a 13-yard gain.
Atwater made him pay for it.
That first drive ended with Favre throwing his first touchdown when Antonio Freeman managed to keep his feet in bounds despite Atwater’s best efforts. Mike Shanahan’s offense quickly responded with a score of its own to tie the game up 7-all.
Then on the first pass of the Packers’ second drive, Robinson put trust in Atwater to hold up over the top as he dialed up a corner blitz. The result was an interception by Tyrone Braxton to set up the drive that ended in Elway’s 1-yard touchdown run.
Favre and the Packers managed to run two more plays before the Broncos’ D struck again.
Words can’t properly describe the onions it takes to send both safeties on a blitz, but the six-man rush overwhelmed the Packers’ pass protection.
With Dorsey Levens opting to block Braxton on the play side, Atwater is completely free to rush Favre’s blind spot and blow him up. The ball squirts out like ketchup to a shirt and Neil Smith makes the easy recovery.
The turnover leads to a long Jason Elam field goal, and Denver’s 10-point lead. After Favre finds Mark Chmura to end the second half, the deficit is cut to three.
The Second Half - Atwater saves the game
The third quarter opens with a Terrell Davis fumble and the Packers ready to take control. Robinson and the Denver D force one field goal try, but an Alfred Williams penalty gives Favre a new set of downs within the 20.
After a Dorsey Levens run for no gain, Green Bay goes to the air on 2nd-and-10, and Atwater makes his presence known once more.
Two baffling false starts later and the Packers are forced to settle for a 27-yard field goal. After trading points and punts for the next six possessions, the Broncos finally pull ahead for good when TD scores his third namesake with less than two minutes remaining.
It takes Favre all of 35 seconds to get Green Bay to the Denver 35. With 42 seconds left on the clock, facing a 3rd-and-6, the Fun-slinger launches a bomb for Robert Brooks that could have brought the Pack to the 11. Instead Brooks can’t haul in the pigskin and Atwater destroys him anyways.
If any of the above plays go against the Broncos, Pat Bowlen never says, “This one’s for John!”
Even beyond the GIFs, Atwater was ever-present throughout the tape - he was a missile cleaning up the second and third level, much like he was the entirety of his career.
It had been so long since I had last watched him play that its easy to forget how much ground he could cover. Without Atwater, the Robinson scheme wouldn’t have held up to Favre and the Packers, and if the D doesn’t carry its weight, TD and the Broncos would have needed 50+ points.
These “what ifs” are easy to dismiss with history growing ever longer, but winning Super Bowl 32 altered multiple legacies forever.
John Elway became a winner rather than the QB who couldn’t win the big one. Shanahan became “The Mastermind,” and his zone running scheme survived to present day. Denver itself underwent a transformation.
”We’re not a city of losers anymore, and we won one for the AFC,” said Braxton. “It’s been a long, hard road for all of us.”
Steve Atwater represents the missing piece in all those legacies changing forever. He was the defensive anchor for the last 9 years of Elway’s career.
Like “The Duke,” “The Smiling Assassin” deserves his own bust in Canton to forever cement his legacy.