While not every Super Bowl has been a great game, there have certainly been more than enough “instant classics” that have left their own lasting impressions. With 46 Super Bowl games in the history books, here is Athlon Sports’ list of the five greatest battles for the Lombardi Trophy.
5. Super Bowl XLIII
Result: Pittsburgh defeats Arizona 27-23 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay, Fla., on Feb. 1, 2009
Although the NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals made our list of worst teams to ever play in the Super Bowl, that doesn’t mean they didn’t give their AFC counterparts a good game. Pittsburgh entered Super Bowl XLIII a seven-point favorite and jumped out to a 17-7 halftime lead, thanks to linebacker James Harrison’s Super Bowl-record 100-yard interception return for a touchdown to end the second quarter.
The Steelers extended the lead to 20-7 entering the fourth quarter when the Cardinals’ offense finally came alive. Quarterback Kurt Warner found wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald in the end zone for a touchdown with less than eight minutes to go, giving the Cardinals their first points since 8:43 remaining in the second quarter. After driving into Steelers’ territory on their next possession, the Cardinals were forced to punt, but were able to pin the Steelers on their own one-yard line. Two plays later, an offensive holding penalty called in the end zone resulted in an Arizona safety and cut the lead to just four points.
Following the free kick, Warner connected with Fitzgerald again, this time from 64 yards, giving the Cardinals a three-point lead with less than three minutes to play. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger got the ball on his own 22-yard line with 2:37 and two timeouts, but he was immediately pushed back to the 12 after an offensive holding penalty. Four completions, the biggest being a 40-yard hook up with wide receiver Santonio Holmes, and a quarterback scramble, put the Steelers on the Cardinals’ six-yard line with only 48 seconds remaining.
After an incompletion to Holmes on the left side took six seconds off of the clock, the duo tried again on the other side and this time made Super Bowl history. Roethlisberger’s pinpoint accuracy and Holmes’ impressive footwork combined for one of the prettiest and most significant six-yard touchdown passes in NFL history, while also staking the Steelers to a four-point lead with 35 seconds remaining. Warner tried to answer, but a sack and forced fumble by linebacker LaMarr Woodley with 15 seconds left sealed Pittsburgh’s record sixth Super Bowl title. Holmes, who led all receivers with nine receptions for 137 yards, and that one memorable touchdown, was named the game’s MVP.
4. Super Bowl XIII
Result: Pittsburgh defeats Dallas 35-31 at the Orange Bowl in Miami, Fla., on Jan. 21, 1979
The first-ever Super Bowl rematch also set up as a battle of two of the NFL’s titans at the time, as Pittsburgh and Dallas were both attempting to become the first franchise to win three world championships. The Cowboys were the defending Super Bowl champions, but the Steelers held a 1-0 edge in big game matchups against their NFC counterparts, having claimed a 21-17 victory in Super Bowl X.
Pittsburgh entered this one with a better regular-season record (14-2) and as a 3 ½-point favorite to the defending champion Cowboys (12-4). This game also is historic in and of itself in that it featured a total of 20 future Hall of Famers, 14 players and six coaches/front office members.
As for the game itself, even though it featured two of the league’s top defenses, this one had plenty of scoring as both teams took advantage of the others’ mistakes. Six turnovers were committed as the Steelers and Cowboys both finished with more than 300 yards of offense. The Steelers took a 21-14 halftime lead thanks to three Terry Bradshaw touchdown passes, two of which went to wide receiver John Stallworth.
A Franco Harris rushing touchdown followed by a Dallas turnover and scoring strike to Lynn Swann stretched the Steelers’ lead to 35-17 before Dallas countered. Cowboys’ quarterback Roger Staubach threw a short touchdown pass and then, after recovering the onside kick, he threw another to cut the lead to four with just 22 seconds left. A second onside kick was unsuccessful, however, allowing the Steelers to run the clock out. Bradshaw (318-4-1) claimed the first of what would end up being consecutive Super Bowl MVP trophies, as the Steelers would successfully defend their world championship the following season.
3. Super Bowl XXIII
Result: San Francisco defeats Cincinnati 20-16 at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami, Fla., on Jan. 22, 1989
Cincinnati was looking to finally ascend to the top of the summit in the NFL by avenging a previous Super Bowl loss to San Francisco. The Bengals won the AFC with a 12-4 record, while the 49ers went 10-6 in the regular season. It was quarterback Joe Montana’s third Super Bowl and second against the Bengals, having beaten them 26-21 seven seasons earlier. This time around, the 49ers entered as a seven-point favorite.
By and large, this game is remembered for the final drive, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any memorable things that took place before that. For one, this game featured one of the most gruesome injuries ever seen, as television viewers and those in attendance watched helplessly as Cincinnati defensive lineman Tim Krumrie shattered two bones in his left leg on one of the game's early plays, which resulted in his ankle twisting nearly 180 degrees.
Field goals by each team provided all the first-half scoring and the first halftime tie in Super Bowl history. Both teams had their chances, but just couldn’t punch it into the end zone. Offsetting field goals followed in the third quarter until Cincinnati’s Stanford Jennings produced the second kickoff return for a touchdown in Super Bowl history, his from 93 yards, to give the Bengals a 13-6 lead near the end of the third quarter.
Montana and the 49ers responded with a 14-yard touchdown to wide receiver Jerry Rice evening the score for the third time. A missed 49-yard field goal by the 49ers’ Mike Cofer, his second unsuccessful attempt of the game, presented the Bengals with a chance to retake the lead, which they did on a 40-yard field goal from Jim Breech with 3:20 left.
Down 16-13, Montana and the 49ers took over from their own eight-yard-line. Unfazed, Montana provided the defining moment behind his “Joe Cool” moniker and wrote another chapter in what would be his legendary career in leading his team on an unforgettable 11-play, 92-yard drive. Throwing completions to Rice, running back Roger Craig and tight end John Frank, Montana drove the 49ers to the Bengals’ 10-yard line with 39 seconds left. On the next play, he hit wide receiver John Taylor for a 10-yard touchdown. It was Taylor’s only reception of the day, but one that put the 49ers ahead 20-16. The defense took care of the rest, securing the 49ers’ third Super Bowl title in as many tries.
As good as Montana was (then-Super Bowl-record 357 yards with 2 TDs, no INTs), it was Rice who was named MVP after posting a Super Bowl-record 215 yards receiving on 11 receptions (tied for the record) with a touchdown. The 49ers’ 13 total wins on the season are tied with the 2011 New York Giants as the fewest ever for a league champion (for a full season). San Francisco would successfully defend its world championship the next year in rather convincing fashion, demolishing Denver 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV, which still stands as the biggest rout in the title game’s history.
2. Super Bowl XXV
Result: New York Giants defeat Buffalo 20-19 at Tampa Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Jan. 27, 1991
Buffalo was playing in the first of what would end up being four straight Super Bowls, as the AFC champions used an explosive, no-huddle offense to power their way to a 13-3 regular-season mark. Included among the Bills’ victims prior to the Super Bowl were these New York Giants, whom Buffalo beat 17-13 in Week 15 of the regular season. Besides losing that game, the Giants also lost their starting quarterback, as Phil Simms went down with a broken foot that ended his season.
The Giants had made it to their second Super Bowl after posting an NFL-best 14-2 mark during the regular season. Ball-control offense and the league’s top-ranked defense were the keys to success for Bill Parcells' team, especially after Jeff Hostetler replaced Sims as the starting quarterback. Whether it was the regular-season outcome, the perception of Buffalo’s high-powered offense or Simms’ injury, the Bills entered the game heavily favored.
Buffalo lived up to that billing early, grabbing a 12-3 lead in the second quarter after sacking Hostetler in the end zone. However, the low score was also evidence that the Giants’ game plan, which was to run the ball to chew up time on the clock, limiting Buffalo’s possessions and then focusing their defensive efforts on limiting the Bills’ passing game, was working. A Hostetler touchdown pass with just 25 seconds left in the second quarter brought the Giants to within two points at halftime.
The second half was all about time of possession and the Giants dominated that category. For the game, the Giants’ ball-control offense had possession for a Super Bowl-record 40 minutes and 33 seconds. One drive alone consumed a then-record 9:29 in the third quarter. That 14-play, 75-yard drive resulted in an Otis Anderson one-yard touchdown plunge that gave the Giants their first lead of the game at 17-12.
Because of the Giants’ game plan and ability to run the ball, the Bills had it for less than eight minutes in the entire second half. However, after forcing the Giants to turn it over on downs, the Bills marched down the field and regained the lead on a 31-yard touchdown run by Thurman Thomas on the first play of the fourth quarter.
On the ensuing possession, the Giants put together another long drive, this one eating up 7:32 off of the clock, and even though the Bills held the Giants out of the end zone, a 21-yard field goal by Matt Bahr put the Giants back ahead 20-19. After both teams punted, the Bills took over at their own 10-yard line with 2:16 remaining. Quarterback Jim Kelly and Thomas moved the Bills down to the Giants’ 29-yard line, setting up kicker Scott Norwood for a 47-yard field goal with eight seconds on the clock. Norwood’s kick, however, went (barely) wide right as time expired, providing one of the most memorable plays in Super Bowl history, which also is the most heart-breaking moment in Bills’ franchise history.
Anderson, who ran for 102 yards on 21 carries and a touchdown, was named the game’s MVP, while Norwood was labeled the goat. Unfortunately for Norwood and the Bills things would not get better for them in the Super Bowl. After coming up just short in the closest game in Super Bowl history, the Bills would lose the next three, one to Washington and two in a row to Dallas, by a combined 65 points.
1. Super Bowl XLII
Result: New York Giants defeat New England 17-14 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Phoenix, Ariz., on Feb. 3, 2008
All that stood between the 2007 New England Patriots and their place in football lore was one more victory. The Patriots entered Super Bowl XLII a perfect 18-0, trying to join the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the NFL’s only undefeated world champions. The Patriots had already posted the first-ever perfect 16-game regular season, and done so by pounding teams by an average of nearly 20 points per game.
Behind an offense that scored an NFL-record 589 points (36.8 ppg) and a defense that allowed the fourth-fewest, the Patriots were already being labeled as the greatest team in the history of the game. Very few thought the NFC champion Giants, who barely made the playoffs as a 10-6 Wild Card team, would offer much, if any, resistance. After all the Patriots had already beaten the Giants once before, a 38-35 victory in the regular-season finale, and the team that was 18-0 entering this second meeting was a heavy, 12-point favorite. This also was a Patriots team behind head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady that was looking for a fourth Super Bowl title in seven seasons.
The Giants had other ideas, however, as they opened the game with a 16-play, 77-yard drive that lasted 9 minutes and 59 seconds, the longest ever in Super Bowl history. Needing four third-down conversions to keep it alive, the Giants ended up settling for a 32-yard field goal from Lawrence Tynes and an early 3-0 lead.
The Patriots responded with their own scoring drive, one that started with a 43-yard kickoff return. A key pass interference penalty on 3rd-and-10 gave the Patriots a 1st-and-goal from the one. Running back Laurence Maroney scored from there on the first play of the second quarter, putting the Patriots on top 7-3. That would be all of the scoring for the first half, as the two defenses forced punts or key turnovers to short-circuit the others’ drives.
Defense dominated the third quarter too as the Giants’ unit continued to hold Brady and the Patriots’ record-setting offense in check and off of the scoreboard. In the fourth, a 45-yard completion from Eli Manning to tight end David Boss, the longest play from scrimmage in the game, set the Giants up at New England’s 35-yard line. Four plays later, Manning found wide receiver David Tyree for a five-yard touchdown. Although it gave the Giants a 10-7 lead at the time, it would not end up being Tyree’s biggest play of the game.
Brady, who set a single-season record with 50 touchdown passes in the regular season, finally broke through two drives later, connecting with Randy Moss for a six-yard score. The Patriots had regained the lead at 14-10 with 2:45 remaining, history seemingly in their grasp.
Manning and the Giants got the ball on their own 17-yard line with 2:39 on the clock and all three timeouts. From there, Peyton’s younger brother grew up and left his own indelible impression on the history books, as Eli and the Giants marched down the filed, converting on three third downs and one 4th-and-two. Of course, the biggest conversion came on 3rd-and-five from the Giants’ 44-yard line with 1:15 remaining.
Having failed to connect with Tyree on the previous play, and narrowly missing ending the game by way of a New England interception in the process, Maning took another shot on third down. This time, it took Manning's best Houdini impression in the pocket to even get the pass off, as he avoided getting sacked even though two Patriots got a handful of jersey. Escaping from the pocket, Manning was able to throw it down the middle of the filed, where he found Tyree for a critical 32-yard gain. Tyree certainly did is part on the play, first out-leaping Rodney Harrison for the ball to make a one-handed catch (with an assist from his helmet) and then maintaining possession as he tumbled to the ground.
Three plays later, Manning connected with Steve Smith on 3rd-and-12 to get the Giants to the Patriots’ 13-yard line. On the very next play, Manning lofted a pass to a fairly open Plaxico Burress for a touchdown and a 17-14 lead. The Patriots got the ball back on their own 26-yard line with 29 seconds left and three timeouts, but the Giants sacked Brady and forced three incompletions, ending the Patriots shot at football immortality and sealing one of the most improbable wins in Super Bowl history.
Just like Peyton did the previous year when Indianapolis defeated Chicago, Eli took home Super Bowl MVP honors after out-performing Brady, the regular season MVP. Manning was at his best in the fourth quarter, when he completed 9-of-14 passes for 152 yards and two touchdowns. The Giants’ defense held the Patriots to a season-low 14 points and 274 yards of total offense. The fourth quarter alone featured three lead changes, a Super Bowl record.
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