1996 proved to be a fascinating NFL season. The 49ers and Cowboys were still considered the class of the NFC, with the Green Bay Packers quickly closing the gap as Brett Favre’s career peaked. The Packers goal was to finish with the conferences best record and get the 49ers and Cowboys at Lambeau in Januaray. Then there was the second-year Carolina Panthers, who did not get the memo that they weren’t supposed to compete with pro football’s upper echelon so fast.
Behind John Elway, Terrell Davis, Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey and Shannon Sharpe, the Denver Broncos had passed the eyeball test and graduated from merely a good team capable of winning the AFC to a squad capable of winning it all. Then there was the second year Jacksonville Jaguars coached by Tom Coughlin, a team that jelled late in the ’96 season and suddenly proved a squad not afraid to play anyone, anywhere.
In the actual season the Packers took advantage of winning the NFC’s number one seed and ultimately won Super Bowl XXXI while the Broncos were derailed by the Jaguars in a divisional playoff. In what ways would a random simulation play different?
- The sim produced not one, but two undefeated teams in the regular season. The Packers appeared to have exorcised their last demons with a Monday night win in Dallas and also defeated the Broncos in December. The Bills also ran the table, which seemed more puzzling. Pro-Football-Reference had an expected win total of 9.7 for the Bills, compared to 13.8 for Green Bay.
- The AFC Central became ultra-competitve, with the Steelers crowned division champs via a three-team tie-breaker with the re-branded Baltimore Ravens at 8-8. Unlike real life, the Jacksonville Jaguars 9-7 season did not earn a playoff spot.
- In their second year in their new venue, the St. Louis Rams crashed the NFC playoff party with an 8-8 record while the Detroit Lions qualified at 10-6 behind 2,074 rushing yards by Barry Sanders.
The top seeds prevailed in the AFC divisional round, the Broncos defeated the Steelers 33-12 behind a 48-yard Terrell Davis touchdown run and 68-yard Ed McCaffrey touchdown catch. The NFC divisional playoffs featured the same teams as real life. The San Francisco 49ers visited Green Bay while the Carolina Panthers played the Cowboys, only in Dallas instead of Charlotte.
Steve Young tried to play hurt in the actual 49ers/Packers clash, taking numerous injections for what had been reported as bruised ribs that were actually broken. Desmond Howard broke two punt returns early in the game and the Packers cruised to a muddy 35-14 victory. In the sim Steve Young is healthy and throws an early TD pass to Brent Jones – field conditions then deteriorate and Brett Favre throws three devastating picks in a 16-6 loss. The Panthers/Cowboys result also flipped from real life, as home field was good enough to give Dallas a 14-6 win.
Not surprisingly, the Bills bid for a 19-0 season went by the boards in the AFC Championship. Steve Atwater scored on a first quarter pick six, Terrell Davis rushed for 138 yards and the Broncos finally earn their first ever simulation Super Bowl berth with an easy 37-3 win. For the second consecutive year the 49ers and Cowboys clashed for the NFC crown to the joy of television executives. Deion Sanders had joined the Cowboys by this juncture of his career while San Francisco had a young receiver named Terrell Owens whose talent and volatility would also make an impact on both franchises over the next decade. The game lived up to all expectations, as Troy Aikman rallied Dallas from a 10-point fourth quarter deficit with a 62-yard TD pass to Kevin Williams and a Chris Boniol FG with 34 seconds left. However that gave Steve Young just enough time to put his team into position for Jeff Wilkins to hit a 58-yard bomb to send the Niners to the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year and fifth overall, and the Cowboys to their 10th consecutive conference championship loss.
Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans would be a reprise of the actual Super Bowl XXIV between Denver and San Francisco. The Broncos defense kept the game close for three quarters, but the 49ers pull way in the fourth quarter to give the 49ers their third Super Bowl crown as Coach George Seifert and Defensive Coordinator Pete Carroll rode off to their next career endeavors while Steve Young got his elusive first title as quarterback.
With Denver finally making an appearance 19 years after their actual Super Bowl XII debut, the Oilers, Buccaneers and Falcons remain the lone teams not to play in the Super Bowl along with the newbie Jaguars, Ravens and Panthers.