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Top 10 Super Bowls in NFL History
By Matt Horkman

1. Super Bowl XXV: Giants 20 Bills 19

With the Gulf War in its early stages, emotions were running high leading into Super Bowl XXV. The matchup pitted two teams with contrasting styles from the state of New York.

The 13-3 Buffalo Bills featured one of the greatest offenses in NFL history. In their playoff wins over Miami and Oakland, Buffalo scored a combined 95 points. Because of their highly productive offense, the Bills were slight favorites over the defensive-oriented New York Giants.

Throughout the game, the Giants employed a conservative game plan on offense. They relied on power running and ball control. The idea being that Buffalo’s offense cannot score if they don’t see the field. The Giants proved successful at implementing this strategy, as they possessed the ball for over 40 minutes.

It’s their defensive game plan, however, that won them the game. Led by quarterback Jim Kelly, Buffalo’s big-play passing attack scared New York coaches more than their running game did. As a result, defensive coordinator Bill Belichick devised a game plan that focused on preventing the big play through the passing game. The Giants would disrupt Kelly’s timing by getting physical with wide receivers Andre Reed and James Lofton. In Belichick‘s mind, the Giants would win if Buffalo running back Thurman Thomas gained 100 yards. This was something he had to convince his players of leading into the game. As Belichick foresaw, Thomas did indeed rush for over 100 yards. In fact, he had 190 total yards on 20 touches, but the Giants prevented Reed and Lofton from making big plays. Reed caught eight passes for just 62 yards, and Lofton caught just one pass.

Despite New York out-coaching Buffalo, the Bills still had an opportunity to win the game with a 47-yard field goal. In maybe the most infamous ending to a Super Bowl, Buffalo kicker Scott Norwood missed his 47-yard attempt wide right, giving the underdog Giants their second Super Bowl title.

This game marked the first of four consecutive Super Bowl appearances for Buffalo. The Bills would lose each one. Most football historians believe the 1990 squad was Buffalo’s best opportunity for a championship.

Following the victory, Belichick became one of the hottest NFL coaching prospects. The Cleveland Browns hired him in the off-season where he took them to the playoffs once in five seasons, but it’s in New England where he developed a Hall of Fame coaching résumé. Belichick coached the Patriots to five Super Bowl appearances, including three titles. His Super Bowl XXV game plan is in the NFL Hall of Fame.

2. Super Bowl XLIII: Steelers 27 Cardinals 23

There’s a compelling case that the 2008 Arizona Cardinals as the most unlikely Super Bowl participant ever. The Cardinals finished the '08 regular-season 9-7 with a 2-4 record over their final six games. Among those losses was a 47-7 drubbing against the Patriots.

The Cardinals came alive in the postseason, though, thanks to the extraordinary play of wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Simply put, Fitzgerald played out of his mind. He caught 23 passes for 419 yards and five touchdowns in the NFC playoffs. The Cardinals won all three playoff games, including beating the Philadelphia Eagles 32-25 in front of their home fans for the NFC title.

In the Super Bowl, the Cardinals faced an uphill climb against Pittsburgh and their vaunted defense. Arizona was trailing 10-7 late in the second quarter, as they drove all the way down to Pittsburgh’s one-yard line. Looking to take the lead before half, they called a pass play, and Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison intercepted quarterback Kurt Warner’s throw. In one of the most-exciting plays in Super Bowl history, Harrison rumbled down the sideline for 100 yards and scored.

Led by Warner, the Cardinals came roaring back in the second half. With less than three minutes remaining, Warner hit Fitzgerald for a 64-yard touchdown to give the Cardinals a 23-20 lead.

The Steelers would answer with one of the greatest drives in Super Bowl history. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed passes of 14, 13, 11, and 40 yards to put Pittsburgh on Arizona’s six-yard line. On a second-down play, Roethlisberger connected with wide receiver Santonio Holmes for the game-winning touchdown. Holmes caught the pass in the corner of the end zone and somehow managed to keep his toes in bounds as he fell to the ground.

Pittsburgh’s 27-23 victory was their sixth Super Bowl title, which remains the most in NFL history.

3. Super Bowl XLII: Giants 17 Patriots 14

For many fans of the 1960s, Super Bowl III will always be the greatest upset in NFL history. In fact, because of the game’s historical significance, I’m sure many of those fans believe it’s one of the 10 greatest Super Bowls. For many younger fans, though, Super Bowl XLII is the greatest upset in NFL history.

The Patriots were a perfect 16-0 during the regular-season. They were one win away from completing the second perfect season in league history. A victory in Super Bowl XLII would have been Tom Brady’s fourth Super Bowl title. Given the importance of 19-0, Brady’s case as the greatest quarterback in history would arguably be unmatched. A strong case would have begun to develop in favor of Belichick as the greatest coach since Vince Lombardi. Historically, this game changed an era. That’s how significant it was.

As they did through the postseason, the Giants played spoilers. They spoiled Dallas' comeback into the NFL’s elite by upsetting the No. 1 seed Cowboys in the divisional round. The also broke the hearts of the Packers by defeating Green Bay on a frigid night at Lambeau Field.

The Giants' menacing pass rush stifled New England’s offense for much of the game, and the Patriots took just a 7-3 lead into halftime. The Giants, however, took a 10-7 lead early in the fourth quarter when quarterback Eli Manning hit receiver David Tyree for a five-yard touchdown. The Patriots fought back and appeared to have won the game when Brady connected with receiver Randy Moss for a six-yard touchdown.

With 2:39 remaining, the Giants started from their own 17-yard line. Early in the drive, New England cornerback Asante Samuel nearly intercepted a pass from Manning, which would have sealed a Patriots victory. Samuel couldn’t make the play, though, and the stage was set for one of the greatest plays in NFL history.

David TyreeOn third-and-5 with 1:15 remaining in the game, Manning dropped back and faced heavy pressure from New England’s rush. He avoided one rusher, but the rest of New England’s defensive line engulfed him. Yet, he somehow escaped pressure. He righted himself and launched a pass downfield where Tyree and New England safety Rodney Harrison went up to make a play on the ball. Tyree made the catch by pinning the ball to the side of his helmet.

Four plays later, Manning found wide receiver Plaxico Burress for a 13-yard touchdown, giving the Giants a 14-10 victory.

4. Super Bowl XXXII: Broncos 31 Packers 24

Before the Patriots were heavy favorites in Super Bowl XLII, the Packers were heavy favorites 10 years prior. Led by quarterback Brett Favre, who was in the prime of his career, Green Bay was double-digit favorites against John Elway and the Broncos. The game looked to be going by the book early. On the game’s first possession, the Packers drove 76 yards on eight plays for a touchdown. Denver answered, though, and tied the game with their own touchdown. Favre threw an interception on Green Bay’s next possession, setting Denver up with another touchdown.

Near the end of the third quarter, Denver put together the game’s most impressive drive. Led by Elway and running back Terrell Davis, they drove 92 yards on 13 plays to break a 17-17 tie. Elway, who did not have a great game, completed passes of 8, 36, and 9 yards. However, it was a gutsy third-down run that ended up being the lasting image of this game. Knowing he needed six yards to get a first down, Elway launched himself into two Green Bay defenders, who knocked the 37-year-old quarterback into a helicopter style spin. Elway got the first down and two plays later, Davis -- who battled migraines the entire game -- scored on a one-yard touchdown.

The Packers fought back to tie the game at 24 early in the fourth quarter, but Denver drove to Green Bay’s one-yard line with just 1:47 remaining. The Packers opted to let Davis score in an attempt to get the ball back and give Favre a chance to tie the game again. He drove the them inside Denver territory, but his fourth-and-6 pass fell incomplete, and the Broncos became the first AFC team in 13 years to win a Super Bowl.

5. Super Bowl XXXIV: Rams 23 Titans 16

After going 4-12 in 1998, nobody foresaw the St. Louis Rams exploding to 13-3 in 1999. Led by one of the greatest offenses in NFL history, that’s exactly what they did. When they reached the Super Bowl, they were heavy favorites over the Tennessee Titans.

Early in the third quarter, St. Louis took a 16-0 lead, but the Titans came roaring back. They scored on a 12-play drive, forced a three-and-out, scored on a 13-play drive, and forced another three-and-out. The Titans added a field goal, tying the game at 16. Momentum was on their side. However, after the ensuing kickoff, Warner hit wide receiver Isaac Bruce for a 73-yard touchdown.

With 1:48 remaining, after a couple of St. Louis penalties, Tennessee drove into St. Louis territory. They took a timeout with six seconds remaining from the Rams 10-yard line. On the final play of the game, quarterback Steve McNair hit receiver Kevin Dyson on a slant route. Linebacker Mike Jones recognized the play and came up to make the stop, as Dyson desperately stretched for the goal line. In the end, Dyson came up one-yard short of the end zone. Time expired, and St. Louis won their first ever Lombardi Trophy. 
6. Super Bowl XXIII: 49ers 20 Bengals 16

Not many people were expecting a classic finish after these teams played to a 3-3 first-half tie. Late in the third quarter, Cincinnati’s Stanford Jennings lit a sparkplug into Super Bowl XXIII by returning a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown to give Cincinnati a 13-6 lead.

The 49ers quickly answered, as quarterback Joe Montana found wide receiver Jerry Rice for a 14-yard touchdown. Rice -- the game’s MVP -- was simply brilliant on the day, catching 11 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown.
Joe Montana
The Bengals took the lead late in the fourth quarter when kicker Jim Breech kicked a 40-yard field goal. With 3:04 remaining, Montana trotted onto the field needing to go 94 yards to win the game. As the legend goes, in the huddle, Montana pointed out actor John Candy in the stands to offensive tackle Harris Barton.

The Bengals never stood a chance.

On the drive, the legendary quarterback completed nine passes for 97 yards and a touchdown. On the drive’s final play, most Cincinnati defenders expected Montana to target Rice, but he instead found receiver John Taylor in the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown. The score secured San Francisco’s third Super Bowl title and sent retiring coach Bill Walsh out as a champion. 

7. Super Bowl XIII: Steelers 35 Cowboys 31

Winners of four Super Bowls in the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers were one of the greatest dynasties in pro football history. The best of those teams was the '78 Steelers, who finished the regular-season 14-2. In the playoffs, the Steel Curtain defense surrendered just 15 combined points to Denver and Houston.

Having defeated Denver in Super Bowl XII, Dallas was the defending Super Bowl champion. This was their fifth Super Bowl appearance in the '70s. The winner of the game would be the first franchise to win three Super Bowls. The Super Bowl Era was still young, but that didn’t takeaway from the significance of that milestone.

Throughout the first half, the game was back and forth with each team answering the other’s score. The defenses began to assert their authority in the third quarter, but the Cowboys had an opportunity to seize momentum and tie the game.

Facing a third down from Pittsburgh’s 10-yard line, Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach dropped back to pass and spotted tight end Jackie Smith open in the end zone. Staubach delivered a good ball, but Smith was unable to secure the catch. Dallas settled for a field goal to cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 21-17, knowing they'd had let a massive opportunity slip from their grasp.

In the game’s final period, the ball simply bounced Pittsburgh’s way. After a Pittsburgh touchdown, the Cowboys fumbled the ensuing kickoff and the Steelers recovered. They added another touchdown to take a commanding 35-17 lead. 

The defending champions fought back honorably, cutting the lead to 35-24. They recovered an onside kick with just over two minutes remaining, allowing them to score again to cut the lead to four. However, they were unable to recover a second onside kick.

8. Super Bowl XXXVI: Patriots 20 Rams 17

Before the Patriots became a dynasty, the St. Louis Rams were on the verge of starting their own. After an injury riddled 2000 season, St. Louis was back in the Super Bowl and looking for their second title in three seasons.

The Patriots were unlikely opponents. In the first game following the September 11 attacks, the Jets defeated them 10-3. However, late in the fourth quarter, Drew Bledsoe suffered a chest injury, paving the way for Brady to assume starting duties.

As a starter, Brady led New England to an 11-3 record and the Patriots were the No. 2 seed in the AFC. In the divisional round, they hosted the Oakland Raiders on a snowy field. Late in the fourth quarter, Brady appeared to have fumbled the football after Oakland cornerback Charles Woodson hit him. The Raiders recovered, securing a spot in the AFC championship game. A few minutes later, the officials introduced us to the tuck rule and gave New England the ball back. The rest is history.

Because of their historic offense, the Rams opened the game favored by two touchdowns. In fact, according to oddsmakers, the '01 Patriots were bigger underdogs than the '07 Giants were.

It was apparent early that St. Louis was in for a game. The Rams managed just a field goal in the first half, the biggest play occurring when New England cornerback Ty Law intercepted a Warner pass and returned it for a touchdown.

The Rams fought back to tie the game at 17 with 1:21 remaining. Everybody -- especially John Madden, who thought running the clock out was in New England’s best interest -- expected the game to go into overtime. Brady had other ideas. He completed 4-of-7 passes for 48 yards, including a 23-yard completion to receiver Troy Brown to give kicker Adam Vinatieri a chance. The New England kicker was true from 48 yards out and the Patriots' dynasty was off and running.

9. Super Bowl XXXVIII: Patriots 32 Panthers 29

Two years later, the Patriots were back in the Super Bowl. They were taking on the Carolina Panthers, who were making their first Super Bowl appearance after joining the league as an expansion team in 1995.

 After a scoreless first quarter, the teams traded touchdowns early in the second. New England added a touchdown with just 23 seconds remaining in the half, but Carolina still managed to kick a field goal before time expired.

The teams played a scoreless third quarter before the scoring picked up early in the fourth. The Patriots added to their lead with a touchdown run by running back Antowain Smith, but Carolina answered when running back DeShaun Foster scored on a 33-yard touchdown run.

With about seven minutes remaining in the game, Carolina took their first lead when quarterback Jake Delhomme found receiver Muhsin Muhammad for an 85-yard touchdown. Brady answered with an 11-play drive that ended with a touchdown pass to linebacker Mike Vrabel, who played tight end on New England’s goal line packages.

As they were all season, Carolina was resilient and scored on a Delhomme pass to receiver Ricky Proehl with 1:13 remaining. Ironically, Proehl also tied Super Bowl XXXVI up at 17 with a touchdown catch. 

Like St. Louis before them, Carolina left too much time on the clock. Moreover, New England had all three timeouts remaining and Carolina kicker John Kasey kicked the ball out of bounds on the kickoff, giving the Patriots the ball at their 40-yard line. Brady drove New England into field goal position, where Vinatieri kicked a 41-yarder to give the Patriots their second Super Bowl title.

10. Super Bowl XLIV: Saints 31 Colts 17

For the first time in 15 years, each conference’s No. 1 seed met to decide the Super Bowl. The New Orleans Saints were 13-3 and coming off an epic clash with Minnesota in the NFC championship. The Indianapolis Colts started the '09 season 14-0, but decided to rest their starters late in the year, costing them the final two games. Still, they made it to the Super Bowl, which was their priority.

Led by quarterback Peyton Manning, who was looking for his second Super Bowl title, the Colts were slight favorites. Drew Brees quarterbacked the Saints. Many expected a high-scoring affair, but the Colts took just a 10-6 lead into halftime. Coming out of the tunnel for the second half, New Orleans coach Sean Payton made perhaps the biggest coaching decision in Super Bowl history. Payton had Thomas Morstead kick an onside kick. The Colts actually didn’t do a terrible job of trying to recover the ball, but New Orleans still ended up with the recovery.

The play jumpstarted New Orleans’ offense, as Brees led the Saints on a six-play drive that resulted in a touchdown. He was so efficient on the drive, completing all five of his passes. In fact, he finished the game completing 32-of-39 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns.

Despite his performance, New Orleans' defense would need to cement victory. The Colts were down by seven with 5:35 remaining. Manning took the ball and started to march Indianapolis downfield in what appeared to be a career-defining drive for the future Hall of Fame quarterback. On a third-and-5 play, New Orleans cornerback Tracy Porter intercepted his pass intended for receiver Reggie Wayne. Porter sprinted 74 yards for the touchdown. The play sent a wave of emotion throughout the city of New Orleans, as Saints fans celebrated a Super Bowl title nearly five years after Hurricane Katrina left the city devastated from destruction.

Note: Article originally published on Jan. 27, 2014 as part of Row12’s Super Bowl XLVIII coverage.

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