Ranking the 10 Greatest Super Bowl Moments
With the Super Bowl less than two weeks away, football fans, both casual and ardent alike, will be inundated with storylines heading into the big game on Feb. 12. The NFL calendar is a grinding adventure and, in the best of times, the culmination leaves fans with breathtaking, shocking, and iconic moments. How it could not, considering that the two supposed best teams in the league duke it out for NFL supremacy?
In honour of the big day when the final two squads test their metal one final time, Tilt Magazine looks back at some of the greatest moments from past editions. Given that this year is the championship game’s 57th edition, one can imagine that there are enough moments to fill a book (and multiple books about NFL history exist for your reading pleasure). We’ll do our best to pick real standout moments and stories that characterize the excitement of the NFL and Super Bowl at their very best, be they plays or unlikely situational quirks.
10-Steel Curtain Closes Down on the Rams
It’s always fascinating to dive into the details of big games and pinpoint a play that changed the tide in one side’s favour. A moment, a play, a stroke of luck suggesting the sports gods smile upon one team rather than the other. It’s easy to forget that prior to the “Greatest Show on Turf” the Rams organization, back in the original L.A. days, had several good seasons. They even reached Super Bowl XIV against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Moreover, they headed into the final quarter with a 19-17 lead and generally looked like the better team. With 12:59 left, still trailing and facing a third-and-eight situation, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw tossed a deep ball to receiver John Stallworth, who just barely made the catch with his outstretched arms. The Rams defender leapt into the air to tip the pass, missed, and fell. Stallworth strolled into the end zone, giving his side a 24-19 lead, an advantage they would build on, ultimately winning 31-19.
9-Brother vs Brother: Jim and John Harbaugh
In a scenario that will probably never transpire again, Super Bowl XVLIII featured a storyline that went far beyond just two teams going head-to-head. The simple version was that the San Francisco 49ers played the Baltimore Ravens. The juicy part was that each side was coached by a brother.
John Harbaugh had done an admirable job since arriving in Baltimore in 2008, steadily building a contender. Their road to the big game was impressive in of itself, as they took out both Peyton Manning (Denver Broncos) and Tom Brady (New England Patriots). Jim Harbaugh had been in San Fran since 2011. He was the fierier of the siblings, a rambunctious motivator who enjoyed and thrived on an aggressive nature. John, while not exempt from showing frustration when called for, was the more austere of the two.
Fittingly, the game went down to the wire, with a throw in the corner of the end zone from 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick sailing just out of reach. Baltimore won 34-31 in a contest that must have generated unbelievably mixed emotions from everyone in the Harbaugh family.
8-John Elway Wins his first
The first step is always the hardest. In some cases, the final step proves to be the most challenging. John Elway is a legendary quarterback. He spent his entire career with the Denver Broncos and many times was the single-most important reason why Denver was a competitive team. This was especially true in the 1980s. He helped lead the Broncos to no fewer than three title games. Each was an unmitigated disaster.
It wouldn’t be until the 1997 season, which led to Super Bowl XXXII against the Green Bay Packers, that Elway would finally touch greatness. While running back Terrell Davis earned MVP honours, the night belonged to Elway, who was involved in one of the great championship-defining plays. He took the ball himself for a critical, late-game first down while getting sandwiched and flipped in the air like a twig in the process. It was a long time coming, with many devastating defeats along the way, but the future Hall of Fame QB finally lifted the Vince Lombardy trophy when the Broncos won 31-24.
7-You Shall Not Pass
There aren’t as many goal-line (or near-goal-line) situations of iconic status in Super Bowl lore despite it being one of the most thrilling situations in football. Granted, Malcolm Butler’s shocking interception to clinch Super Bowl XLIX for New England is a pretty good candidate, but we’ll go a couple of decades further back in time to a crucial moment that was decided not once, not twice, not thrice, but four times in a goal-to-go situation.
Super Bowl XVI pitted the San Francisco 49ers against the Cincinnati Bengals, both making their big game debuts. While people remember San Francisco easily running away with many of their Super Bowl wins, this one was quite close. It could have had a very different result were it not for an extraordinary defensive stand by the 49ers in the third period. With the Californian side up 20-7, the Bengals marched down to the opponent’s three-yard line. The first two tries were failed running plays. The third resulted in a brilliant tackle on a Cincy receiver on the one-yard line. After calling a timeout and talking it over, the Bengals elected to go for it on fourth down rather than kick a field goal. San Fran made the crucial stop, paving the way to a 26-21 win and the franchise’s first-ever championship.
Not all memorable moments can be positive. Some live on in ignominy, except for the opposing team and its fans of course. For all the talent, excellent play, and consistency the Buffalo Bills of the early 1990s demonstrated, they will forever be known as the squad that failed in each of the four Super Bowls they appeared in (yes, four). The most painful aspect is that, for a good chunk of their first opportunity, SB XXV versus the New York Giants, it looked the franchise was on the verge of greatness.
Buffalo was up 12-10 at halftime, and the tension continued in the third and fourth quarters. With precious time left and New York leading 20-19, the Bills drove down the field as best they could until it was time to kick a championship-winning field goal from 47 yards out. Scott Norwood was literally inches away from being a Bills legend, but instead sent the ball “wide right”, which has since become an infamous catchphrase. New York celebrated and Buffalo was crestfallen. The Bills would play in three more Super Bowls, lose all of them and none were as close as the first one.
5-The tackle: Titans vs Rams
Super Bowl XXXIV was a far more intricately topsy-turvey game than many remember it to be. The St. Louis Rams (before they moved back to Los Angeles) were so efficient on offence, especially through the air, that their short-lived dominance over the league was colloquially dubbed the “Greatest Show on Turf.” Their opponents, the Tennessee Titans, almost didn’t survive their first playoff game were it not for a sensational kick-off return at the very end, subsequently baptized the “Music City Miracle.”
The Titans mostly held the Rams in check, only going down 16-0 in the second half before mounting an impressive comeback to level terms. St. Louis immediately responded with a TD to go ahead 23-16. And then began one of the most breathtaking, potential game-tying drives in Super Bowl history. Tennessee QB Steve Mcnair (RIP) made one remarkable play after another and drove his side to the St. Louis 10-yard line. In the dying moments, McNair threw to Kevin Dyson who…almost scored, but was tackled at the 1-yard line by Mike Jones in one of the most photogenic conclusions to a Super Bowl.
Fun fact: Super Bowl III was the first one to be officially marketed with the famous moniker of “Super Bowl.” It pitted the favoured Indianapolis Colts against a talented but poo-pooed New York Jets side. The latter was quarterbacked by a person still known and popular to this day: Joe Namath.
Not only was his side expected to get swatted like bugs, but he doubled down on the public’s perception of the Jets by guaranteeing that New York would emerge victorious. It was a tight, defensive affair. In fact, while Johnny Unitas is a quarterback known to most football fans, he in fact was backup to Colts starter Earl Morrall. Morrall tossed three interceptions, allowing the Jets to build a 16-0 lead. Unitas would guide Indy to at least one touchdown drive, but it wouldn’t be enough. New York claimed its championship with a 16-7 victory, solidifying their place in NFL lore as one of the league’s earliest Cinderella teams and birthing the legend of Broadway Joe.
3-The G.O.A.T.’s Super Bowl
Love him or loath him, it’s a bit insane to outright disrespect Tom Brady. He’s accomplished too much for too long for anyone to not, at the barest minimum, acknowledge his career. Of his seven Super Bowl wins (which itself is a ridiculous number), few would question putting LI at the top of the list.
The New England Patriots faced the Atlanta Falcons in the big game. For about two and a half quarters, the Georgian-based unit pounded the Pats, making Brady himself look pedestrian in the process. Yes, this is where “28-3” comes from. In one of, if not the most shocking plot twist in Super Bowl history, New England stormed all the way back from their 25-point deficit, playing shutdown defence and Brady guiding his offence down the field again, and again, and again. In overtime, the Patriots won the coin toss and one got the sense that the game was over. A few minutes later, running back James White fought his way into the end zone against an Atlanta defence that was clearly gassed. Final: Patriots 34-28 Falcons. To the dismay of his haters, TB12 was named MVP.
The flip side of the coin also concerns Brady. For all his extraordinary conquests in the most important game of the year, he also suffered one of the most shocking defeats. The 2007 New England Patriots appeared to be a team of destiny. A squad was finally about to surpass the famous 1972 Miami Dolphins who completed their championship campaign without losing a single contest (although they played two fewer contests in those days).
The Pats steamrolled through the regular season, going 16-0, then took care of business in their first two playoff challenges. The upstart New York Giants awaited them in Super Bowl XLII. In November it looked as though Big Blue would miss the playoffs, yet here they were, three months later, in position to slay Goliath. In a surprisingly low-scoring tilt, New England took a 14-10 lead with only a couple of minutes left in the fourth quarter courtesy of a Brady-to-Randy Moss toss. The Giants would not be deterred. In one of the most iconic Super Bowl moments ever, quarterback Eli Manning, not known for his scrambling abilities, somehow evaded a near-certain sack and launched the ball downfield. It was caught by little-known receiver David Tyree while being tackled, the ball caressed against the top of his helmet with desperate arms. It would conclude with a Manning-to-Plaxico Burress end zone TD and too little time for Brady to lead a comeback. The dream of 19-0 became an 18-1 season, their only loss coming in the most important contest of them all.
1-The Super Bowl Trophy’s Namesake
The shiny piece of silverware the winning side holds, lifts, kisses, and caresses as the confetti rains down has a name. It’s the Vince Lombardi trophy. Lombardi is an iconic coach who guided his Green Bay Packers to victory in the first two championship games (as we’ve discussed, those weren’t even named Super Bowls at the time).
What is now known as Super Bowl II pitted the Packers against the upstart Oakland Raiders. It wasn’t much of a contest, with the Wisconsin outfit claiming a comfortable 33-14 victory. It was however the final game Vince Lombardi would coach for Green Bay. The image of his players carrying him in celebration is a heck of a send-off. A terrific coach who helped a terrific team earn big-time success in the first two finals, winning the trophy that would officially bear his name shortly after his passing in 1970.