We’ve been treated to nearly one-half century’s worth of Super Bowls, and it’s been something of a mixed bag. Plenty of Super Bowls have been blowouts or poorly played games, but we’ve had some true classics to draw from. As luck would have it, many of the classics have come within the last 20 years.
Before we look ahead to the upcoming game between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos, let’s look back at the top 10 Super Bowls in NFL history.
10. Super Bowl X: Pittsburgh Steelers 21, Dallas Cowboys 17
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys have met in three Super Bowls, more than any other two opponents. Their first matchup was the best. Actually, a case could be made that this was the first great Super Bowl. The Baltimore Colts and Cowboys did engage in a nail-biter in Super Bowl V, but that was a mistake-filled contest in which the winning team turned the ball over seven times. Super Bowl X was not only close, but was a great game.
In total, 13 future Hall of Fame players (along with both coaches) suited up in Super Bowl X for the Steelers and the Cowboys, including both starting quarterbacks, Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach. Lynn Swann caught only four passes, but they were spectacular. Those four receptions went for 161 yards and one of them was a touchdown reception that proved to be the difference in the game.
Dallas never trailed until the fourth quarter but surrendered a safety and two Roy Gerella field goals to give Pittsburgh a 15-10 lead. Swann’s touchdown put the Steelers up 21-10, but Staubach connected with Percy Howard (for his only career reception) for a touchdown to cut the Dallas deficit to 21-17. The Cowboys mustered one more chance and nearly connected on a Hail Mary (after winning a playoff game that season with a Hail Mary), but it was not to be.
9. Super Bowl XXXII: Denver Broncos 31, Green Bay Packers 24
This was quite the historic Super Bowl for a few reasons. First off, it was the first Super Bowl win in the career of John Elway, leading to Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen emphatically stating, “This one’s for John” when receiving the Lombardi Trophy.
But this Super Bowl also turned a few tides. All of the previous six Super Bowls were decided by 10 or more points. Including this one, 11 of the most recent 18 have been decided by seven points or fewer. The Broncos’ win also ended a streak of 13-consecutive Super Bowl victories for the NFC, with most of those coming in decisive fashion. It started a run of dominance for the AFC, when they won eight of the next 10.
The Packers scored a touchdown on the game’s opening drive but trailed for most of the game afterwards. The Broncos answered with a touchdown of their own (the first and still only time in Super Bowl history when both teams scored a touchdown on their opening drive).
Green Bay did come back to tie the game in the fourth quarter, but game MVP Terrell Davis scored his third touchdown of the game (tying a record held by Roger Craig, Ricky Watters, and Jerry Rice) to put the Broncos ahead with fewer than two minutes left.
Because Mike Holmgren allowed Denver to score, league MVP Brett Favre did have enough time to muster a drive, getting as far as the Broncos’ 35-yard line. From there, the Broncos defense held strong, as the Packers would not gain another yard. When John Mobley broke up Favre’s fourth down pass, the victory was secure.
8. Super Bowl XXXIV: St. Louis Rams 23, Tennessee Titans 16
None of the first 33 Super Bowls went into overtime. The 34th edition seemed to be heading that way, when Kevin Dyson of the Tennessee Titans caught a pass in perfect stride just in front of the end zone as time was expiring. Mike Jones of the St. Louis Rams had other ideas, tackling Dyson one yard short.
Throughout the game, Tennessee did a decent job containing Kurt Warner, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Marshall Faulk, and the rest of the Rams’ high powered offense but still trailed 16-0 in the third quarter. Two Eddie George rushing touchdowns cut the deficit to 16-13, and an Al Del Greco field goal tied the game.
On the first play of the Rams ensuing drive, their quick strike offense struck quickly when Warner and Bruce connected for a 73-yard touchdown pass.
Led by brilliant play from quarterback Steve McNair, the Titans got in position to score, but Jones and the St. Louis defense stood strong.
One hypothetical burns at this scribe. What would have happened if Dyson scored? St. Louis’ previous offensive possession showed precisely why you wouldn’t want to face that team in sudden death overtime. On top of that, the Rams defense was clearly gassed, and McNair’s combination of size and strength would have made him a perfect quarterback for a two-point conversion. In all likelihood, Titans coach Jeff Fisher would have foregone what would have been the most exciting play in Super Bowl history and opted for the PAT to tie the game.
Alas, we’ll never know.
7. Super Bowl XLII: New York Giants 17, New England Patriots 14
These two had played in a Week 17 shootout, won by the New York Patriots to complete their perfect regular season. While that game surely gave the New York Giants some confidence, the fact remained that playing at home they allowed 38 points to the Patriots. Surely, New England would handle the Giants at a neutral site. Not quite.
Super Bowl XLII started with two long drives. New York received the opening kick and held the ball for nearly ten minutes before kicking a field goal. The Patriots responded with a five-minute scoring drive of their own to take a 7-3 lead. Neither team would score again until the fourth quarter.
Eli Manning found David Tyree for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter (the two would connect again) to give the Giants the lead. Late in the fourth quarter, it seemed as though the Patriots would prevail when Tom Brady found Randy Moss for a go-ahead touchdown. After that, we were treated to one of the greatest, most bizarre drives in Super Bowl history.
Asante Samuel dropped an easy interception that would have ended the game. Later in the drive, the Giants faced a third-and-five, when the craziest play in Super Bowl history happened.
Eli Manning, never known for his elusiveness, broke three separate tackles to find David Tyree, making the famed “Helmet Catch.” Tyree would never catch another pass in the NFL.
As competitive as this game was, it was a bit slow at times and not always that well played. But, it ended a perfect season and had some of the most bizarre, iconic moments in Super Bowl history.
6. Super Bowl XXXVI: New England Patriots 20, St. Louis Rams 17
After making a 45-yard field goal in a driving snowstorm to force overtime two weeks earlier, the 48-yarder from Adam Vinatieri in a dome to beat the mighty St. Louis Rams and give the New England Patriots their first Super Bowl win was easy, right?
This game not only launched the Patriots dynasty, but pretty much halted a dynasty that never quite was for the St. Louis Rams. From 1999-2001, the Rams had one of the best offenses in NFL history. Playing the Super Bowl in a dome it seemed a mere formality that the Rams would win their second Super Bowl in three years, which is why St. Louis entered the game favored by two touchdowns.
But the Patriots had other ideas. In his career as a defensive coordinator and head coach, Bill Belichick has done wonders against some great offenses, and this masterpiece is at or near the top of his list.
The Rams did rally late when Kurt Warner found Ricky Proehl for a game-tying touchdown. But Tom Brady proceeded to take Pats on a winning drive with very little time left, making it look way too easy.
5. Super Bowl XLIII: Pittsburgh Steelers 27, Arizona Cardinals 23
In February of 2009, you could hardly find two more vastly different franchises than the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals. The Steelers were going for their record setting sixth Super Bowl win, while the Cardinals were making only their fifth playoff appearance (and first Super Bowl) in the Super Bowl era. What we got was a thriller.
One of the greatest “what ifs?” in Super Bowl history came at the end of the first half, when James Harrison intercepted Kurt Warner in the end zone and returned it 100 for the score.
What if Warner threw an incomplete pass? What if he actually completed it to a Cardinal and scored a touchdown? What if Arizona had tackled Harrison? It’s possible that the outcome of this game changes if any one of those things had gone differently. We’ll just never know.
The Cardinals trailed for nearly the whole game, but took a late lead when Larry Fitzgerald caught a pass at his own 45 and left the Pittsburgh defense in his dust for the next 55 yards. It looked as though the 9-7 Cardinals might win the Super Bowl. Ben Roethlisberger, Santonio Holmes, and the rest of the Pittsburgh Steelers had other ideas.
The Steelers marched down the field and scored the winning touchdown when Big Ben found eventual game MVP Santonio Holmes in the corner of the end zone. Holmes then showed extraordinary footwork, landing both of his feet in and making the catch.
It sure was an unlikely Super Bowl entering the season, but it’s hard to imagine that any two teams would have played a better Super Bowl that year.
4. Super Bowl XLIX: New England Patriots 28, Seattle Seahawks 24
Okay, let’s start with a quick refresher. The New England Patriots essentially secured their victory when Malcolm Butler intercepted a Russell Wilson pass on the goal line. The decision to throw was controversial, given that Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch had over 100 yards rushing and a touchdown and would likely have been the game’s MVP had Seattle won, especially if he scored the winning touchdown.
A lot of attention has been given to what a bad call it was from Pete Carroll and Darrell Bevell. Russell Wilson’s pass was not terrible, but he missed it in the exact wrong spot. Also, Malcolm Butler made a fantastic play, which probably deserves more attention.
While Tom Brady did win the game’s MVP award, he has not been given nearly enough credit for his performance. Trailing by 10 late in the fourth quarter, Brady led the Pats on two touchdown drives, making an extraordinary defense look very ordinary.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, after Butler’s interception, the Patriots couldn’t quite take a knee, as it would have resulted in a safety. Brady got the Seahawks to jump offsides, giving New England the room they needed. When Brady took his first knee, a brawl broke out between the two teams. As a result, Bruce Irvin became the first player in Super Bowl history to get ejected.
Let’s see. A first in Super Bowl history. A four point classic decided in the final minute. A defending champion fighting hard until the bitter end. One of the game’s all-time greats at his absolute best. Yup, this was one of the best Super Bowls ever played.
3. Super Bowl XXIII: San Francisco 49ers 20, Cincinnati Bengals 16
In 2004, ESPN’s Rick Weinberg recounted the final moments of this game, sharing a wonderful story from former Cincinnati Bengals receiver and current NBC commentator, Cris Collinsworth.
When the Cincinnati Bengals took a 16-13 lead over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII on a 40-yard field goal by Jim Breech with 3:20 remaining in the game, Bengals receiver Cris Collinsworth overheard a couple teammates talking as if the game were over, that the Bengals had won their first Super Bowl, that it was time to start thinking about an all-night party.
Collinsworth quickly turned to his teammates and yelled, “Are you guys nuts? You think this is over? Don’t you see who’s out there?”
Collinsworth, who had already lost a Super Bowl to Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers, knew all too well what could happen. What did happen was a near perfect drive from Montana, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, and the rest of the 49ers. When a penalty from offensive lineman Randy Cross set San Francisco back, Montana found Rice for a long completion to set the 49ers up deep in Cincinnati territory. Two plays later, with only 34 seconds left, Collinsworth’s worries proved prophetic as Montana found John Taylor for the winning touchdown.
Rice caught 11 passes for 215 yards to win the game’s MVP. This was the first of consecutive Super Bowl wins for the 49ers, but would be the last game on the San Francisco sideline for head coach Bill Walsh.
2. Super Bowl XXXVIII: New England Patriots 32, Carolina Panthers 29
Only six Super Bowls have had more combined points, and only two of those could be considered remotely close games. Only two teams have scored more points in a losing effort than the Carolina Panthers did. What makes all of that so unusual is that two quarters, the first and third, featured no scoring. As a matter of fact, no Super Bowl has ever gone scoreless longer than Super Bowl XXXVIII.
When the scoring happened, it was frenetic. The Patriots and Panthers scored a combined 24 points in the final 3:05 of the first half. New England appeared to have some breathing room when Antowain Smith scored to put them up 21-10 early in the fourth, but the Panthers answered with two touchdowns to take the lead. They’d miss a two-point conversion both times, which proved incredibly costly.
The Patriots went back up when Tom Brady found linebacker Mike Vrabel for a touchdown, and their two-point try worked. Jake Delhomme (of all people) matched Brady throw for throw-for-throw. Like he did with the Rams two years earlier, Ricky Proehl scored a touchdown to tie the game. But like the Rams, the Panthers left too much time on the clock. John Kasay made a colossal error in kicking the ball out of bounds, giving Brady the ball at the 40. A few short plays later, Adam Vinatieri lined up to kick the winning field goal.
Never a doubt.
Win or lose, the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era New England Patriots play great Super Bowls. They’ve been in six and none were decided by more than four points. Still, this one was a cut above the rest.
1. Super Bowl XXV: New York Giants 20, Buffalo Bills 19
One point needs to be made. The Buffalo Bills did not lose this game because of Scott Norwood. New York Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick put a brilliant game plan together to slow down Buffalo’s high-powered, K-Gun offense, New York played stellar keep away offense, and the Bills simply did not make enough plays to win.
With that said, Norwood’s kick was the highest leverage play in Super Bowl history. Sure, Adam Vinatieri and Jim O’Brien both made late kicks, but those only broke ties. Even if Kevin Dyson had broken Mike Jones’ tackle, the Titans would likely have only forced overtime against the Rams.
There are other examples of quarterbacks throwing late touchdowns (Joe Montana, Ben Roethlisberger) or failing to (Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson), but the fate of those games did not rest solely on those plays like it did with Norwood.
We’ve listed plenty of great Super Bowls here. We’ve omitted plenty of great Super Bowls here. But no other Super Bowl has had as much drama until the final second. Because of that, no Super Bowl was greater.