By Michael C. Jones
The momentous occasion of Super Bowl 50 has us considering Super Bowls past, thinking of our favorites (or least favorites). Who cares which Super Bowls were just that much better than another to rank at 23, 24 or 25? So here we present the five best and the five worst.
To qualify as best, the game must be close, dramatic and well-played, with the outcome not decided until as close to the end as possible. The worst must be lopsided, sloppy, and with an outcome decided well before the game was over. We’re also not playing favorites when it comes to teams. Even a game won by a team you hate can be considered a great game, even if the final score didn’t make you happy. We also look at circumstances surrounding the games that helped make some memorable.
Super Bowl XXIII – San Francisco 20, Cincinnati 16
The San Francisco 49ers and the Cincinnati Bengals met for the second time in the Super Bowl on January 22, 1989 at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami. (The 49ers won Super Bowl XVI against Cincinnati 26-21). The game was marred early on when Bengals defensive tackle Tim Krumrie had his foot turned the wrong way, snapping two bones in his left leg as Americans winced and turned away. Krumrie was so tough he insisted on staying in the locker room to watch the game on TV, and he watched a good one (at least until EMTs insisted on taking him to the hospital). While it’s true that neither team scored a touchdown until almost the fourth quarter, they quickly made up for the scarcity of scoring, climaxing with a ten-yard touchdown pass from Joe Montana to John Taylor with 39 seconds remaining in the game.
Super Bowl XXV – New York Giants 20, Buffalo 19
Super Bowl XXV set a record that will never be broken: closest margin of victory. It’s also one of the few, if not the only, Super Bowls to have a jaw-dropping highlight before the game even started: Whitney Houston’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The context seemed even more meaningful given that the game occurred January 27, 1991, during the Gulf War. Scott Norwood missed a last-second field goal try, sending the Bills to their first of four straight Super Bowl losses.
Super Bowl XXXIV – St. Louis 23, Tennessee 16
The margin of victory in Super Bowl XXXIV is the biggest on this list of the best games, but the score doesn’t reflect the drama with which this game ended. The final drive of the St. Louis Rams turned out to be just one play, a 73-year touchdown pass from Kurt Warner to Issac Bruce. The Rams had broken the tie and taken a seven-point lead. The Tennessee Titans were then faced with pushing 88 yards with just 1:48 remaining in the game. Steve McNair led the Titans to a first down at the Rams’ 10-yard line, and the Titans called timeout with six seconds left. What happened next has come to be known as simply “The Tackle.” McNair found open receiver Kevin Dyson, who caught the ball at the five yard line. Rams linebacker Mike Jones (no relation) broke off his coverage of tight end Frank Wycheck and wrapped up Dyson’s legs. Dyson lunged for the end zone but Jones held on to keep the football inches short of the line and preserve the Rams’ victory.
Super Bowl XLII – New York Giants 17, New England 14
One play crystalized Super XLII in our memories: the “helmet catch,” with David Tyree catching a pass from Eli Manning and pressing the ball against his helmet as he went to the ground with Rodney Harrison draped all over him. That catch has gotten much more attention than the ensuing play that won the game for the Giants, a 13-yard touchdown catch by Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds left in the game. The win ended the Patriots’ quest for a perfect season. It also virtually marked the end of Tyree’s career. He played in 10 games with the Ravens the following season, but never caught another pass in the NFL.
Super Bowl XXXVIII – New England 32, Carolina 29
How momentous was Super Bowl XXXVIII? It changed the world! Not with the play on the field, which was exceptional, with more than 800 yards of offense and 61 points scored, including a Super Bowl record for pass completions, 32 by Tom Brady. Adam Vinatieri’s 41-year field goal with four seconds left was a dramatic finish to a hard-fought contest. But that climax, as thrilling as it was, remains overshadowed in our collective memory by the halftime show that featured Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson and the infamous “wardrobe malfunction.” Okay, maybe the world didn’t change, but the world of broadcasting certainly did. (Fun fact: A device invented after that incident, a delay unit for video feeds, has come to be known as the “JJ Box,” after Janet Jackson. There’s a “JJ Box” just outside the studio in which this is being typed.)
Super Bowl XXXVII – Tampa Bay 48, Oakland 21
If any Super Bowl game could be said to have been over before it began, Super Bowl XXXVII could fit that bill. Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden had coached the Raiders just two seasons before, and enough of his old team remained to fuel the thinking that Gruden had an advantage, though the Raiders were favored. Another factor that hurt the Raiders’ hopes before kickoff was the bizarre circumstances surrounding center Barrett Robbins, who disappeared the day before the game. When he returned to the team, he was so out of it that he was left off the game roster. (He was later diagnosed as bipolar and told his wife he thought the Raiders had already won the game and was in Tijuana celebrating.) Tampa Bay had a 6-3 lead, but Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon threw two interceptions to safety Dexter Jackson, stymieing Oakland’s hopes. The Bucs added to a 20-3 halftime lead, scoring on their first third-quarter possession and never looking back.
Super Bowl XLVIII – Seattle 43, Denver 8
Apologies to Seahawks fans, who have every right to consider Super Bowl XLVIII the greatest game of all time. But for everyone else, the game was pretty much over from the first play from scrimmage, when the snap sailed past Payton Manning and through the end zone for a safety. MVP Malcolm Smith’s second-quarter interception closed the coffin on the Broncos, and Percy Harvin’s return for a touchdown on the second-half kickoff nailed it shut.
Super Bowl XXII – Washington 42, Denver 10
Super Bowl XXII was 10-0 Denver at the end of the first quarter. Then Washington quarterback Doug Williams went off on the Broncos, throwing an 80-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Ricky Sanders on the first play of the second quarter. Williams threw another touchdown pass on Washington’s next possession, and would have four touchdown passes by halftime. In case you were wondering or don’t recall, the halftime show for Super Bowl XXII at Jack Murphy Stadium on January 31, 1988 was Chubby Checker and the Rockettes. Ah, those were more innocent times
Super Bowl XX – Chicago 46, New England 10
The Bears’ historically good defense carried them through a 15-1 season and destroyed the New England Patriots to make for a snoozer of a Super Bowl. Yes, the Patriots took the early lead with a field goal less than two minutes into the game, but that score was enabled by a Bears fumble, by Walter Payton on the second play of the game. Once the Bears defense took over, the game was over. Super Bowl XX also left a sour taste in the mouth of many a Payton fan. Chicago coach Mike Ditka seemed more interested in having rookie defensive lineman William “The Refrigerator” Perry score than getting Payton into the end zone. Early in the game, Ditka had Perry attempt a touchdown pass from the 3-yard line (Perry was sacked). Later, with the game well in hand, Perry, not Payton, took a handoff on first and goal from the one yard line and scored. Even Ditka isn’t happy with his decision that day. In his book, “The ’85 Bears,” Ditka wrote, “I realized after the game that Walter Payton didn’t score… I regret not giving him that honor.”
Super Bowl XXIV – San Francisco 55, Denver 10
The game that corrected your thinking that a Super Bowl couldn’t get any more lopsided than Super Bowl XX, Super Bowl XXIV is still the game’s biggest margin of victory. To start the game, the Broncos went three-and-out, and the 49ers then scored on a Joe Montana to Jerry Rice 20-yard pass. On their next possession, Denver scored a field goal. After a 49ers three-and-out, Denver fumbled, the 49ers drove for a touchdown and effectively ended the game. When the Broncos scored for the final time, the score was 41-10. At least Aaron Neville sang a nice national anthem.