What defines a great play?
Degree of difficulty? Gravity of the moment? The greatness of the players involved and their place in NFL history? Entertainment factor? How about all of the above.
Game-winning touchdowns, heroic out-of-body experiences, historic moments and even some hilarious gaffes — looking at you Garo Yepremian — all make the Super Bowl the greatest sporting event of the calendar year. Hall of Fame careers are made and broken in the final football game of the season and trying to narrow down half-a-century of action to the 10 best individual plays is virtually impossible.
1. Super Bowl XXXIV: One Yard Short
The Titans and Rams put on a second-half show for the fans in Atlanta. Kurt Warner hit Isaac Bruce on a 73-yard touchdown pass with just over two minutes to go in a tie game to take the lead. Steve McNair then whirled his way down the field to the St. Louis 10-yard line to set up the final play of the game. Mike Jones then made the play of his career by tackling Kevin Dyson just 12 inches shy of the game-tying touchdown. It would have been the first and only overtime game in Super Bowl history.
2. Super Bowl XXXII: John Elway’s helicopter run
It was the defining moment of what many believe is the best Super Bowl ever played. It was third-and-six from the Packers 12-yard line with the game tied 17-17 in the second half. One of the game’s greatest players drops back to pass, scrambles right and then dives into the air in the face of three Green Bay defenders. Elway gives up all regard for his body and wills himself to a first down. Terrell Davis scored the go-ahead touchdown two plays later and Elway wins his first Super Bowl.
3. Super Bowl XXV: Scott Norwood’s wide right
There have been many game-winning field goals in Super Bowl history — but none on the final snap with one team trailing and the chance to win the game. Adam Vinatieri’s kicks were clutch but those games would have gone into overtime had he missed. No, Scott Norwood became the only true goat of a Super Bowl when his 47-yard field goal sailed just inches wide right. The miss capped an extraordinary drive that capped an extraordinary game stacked with Hall of Fame players and coaches.
4. Super Bowl XXIII: Joe Montana to John Taylor
The 10-yard pass to John Taylor with 39 seconds left wasn’t in and of itself a miraculous play. It wasn’t all that difficult and it wasn’t all that remarkable. But it represents all that Joe Montana was as an NFL Hall of Famer. He got the ball with 3:10 left on the clock down 16-13 on his own eight-yard line and all he can think about is John Candy. It is the latest game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl history.
5. Super Bowl XLII: Eli Manning to David Tyree (and Plaxico Burress)
In terms of degree of difficulty, few plays in any game much less the Super Bowl can match this one. Eli Manning's Houdini act in the pocket to avoid getting sacked is nearly as impressive as David Tyree’s duct tape and chicken wire helmet catch in traffic 32 yards down the field. Four plays later, Manning floated a 13-yard game-winning touchdown to a wide open Plaxico Burress to give the Patriots their one and only loss of the season. After three extremely slow quarters, Super Bowl XLII ended in extraordinary fashion.
6. Super Bowl XLIII: Big Ben to Santonio Holmes
The Cardinals entered the fourth quarter trailing the Steelers 20-7. Kurt Warner then proceeded to score 16 straight points to take a three-point lead over Pittsburgh with just over two minutes to play. Ben Roethlisberger then marched his team to the Arizona six-yard line where, with unbelievable accuracy and some magic toes at his disposal, he somehow connects with Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds left to play.
7. Super Bowl XVIII: Marcus Allen 74-yard run
It is likely the most impressive run in Super Bowl history. After twisting and changing directions in the backfield, Marcus Allen split the heart of the Washington Redskins defense for the longest run in Super Bowl history (later broken by Willie Parker). The play capped the third quarter and put a fork in the ‘Skins hopes. Allen finished with 191 yards rushing and was named the MVP.
8. Super Bowl XVII: The Diesel’s fourth-and-one gallop
The Redskins were trailing 17-13 with 10 minutes to go in the game facing a fourth-and-one on the Miami 43-yard line. Joe Gibbs leaves his offense on the field and calls ’70 chip’ for his star running back John Riggins. The burly runner, nicknamed The Diesel, breaks a tackle, bounces the play off tackle and races 43 yards for the game-winning touchdown. The play epitomized who Riggins was as a ball carrier.
9. Super Bowl X: Lynn Swann’s Magical Reception
When it comes to acrobatic, spectacular catches, Tyree might not even be able top the grace of Lynn Swann. From deep in his own territory, the eventual game MVP reeled in a 53-yard touchdown pass from Terry Bradshaw that changed the game. Mark Washington is in perfect position to make a play on the ball for the Cowboys, but somehow Swann out leaps the defender, bobbles the ball and hauls in the pass as he is falling to the ground. Swann finished with four receptions for 161 yards and the game-winning 64-yard touchdown catch as well. This clash of the titans was won with style and grace.
10. Super Bowl III: Joe Namath’s Called Shot/Finger Wag
It wasn’t technically one play, but Joe Namath’s guarantee and subsequent history finger wag will go down in Super Bowl lore. It was likely the most important Super Bowl ever played. It was the biggest upset in Super Bowl history. And the moment could have only been made possible by a brash personality like Namath.
11. Super Bowl XLIV: Saints onside kick to start second half
Possibly the ballsiest call in Super Bowl history, Sean Payton converts on an onside kick to start the second half and it sets the tone for the Saints' storied Super Bowl championship.
12. Super Bowl XXXVI: Adam Vinatieri Part I
Vinatieri Part I capped Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s coming out party as they upset the heavily favored Rams with a 48-yard game winner.
13. Super Bowl XXXVIII: Adam Vinatieri Part II
An underrated Super Bowl ended with Vinatieri Part II when he broke the 29-29 tie as time expired against the Panthers.
14. Super Bowl XXVII: Leon Lett chased down by Don Beebe
The game wasn’t close and the play didn’t really matter, but no one will ever forget little Don Beebe embarrassing big Leon Lett at the goalline.
15. Super Bowl I: Max McGee one-hander
A hungover, second-string Max McGee makes a spectacular one-handed catch to score the first touchdown in Super Bowl history.
Best of the Rest:
16. Super Bowl XIV: Bradshaw to Stallworth for 73-yard game winner
17. Super Bowl XX: William Perry steals Sweetness’ touchdown
18. Super Bowl XLVI: Manning to Manningham Sideline Fade
19. Super Bowl XIII: Jackie Smith is sickest man in America
20. Super Bowl XXXI: Desmond Howard’s 99-yard kickoff return TD
Check out Athlon Sports' special Super Bowl section for more coverage on the Ravens vs. 49ers and the history of the big game.