When the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers face off for the Super Bowl 50 crown this Sunday, there’s no telling how the game will unfold and where the final result will fall in the annals of pro football lore. The NFL’s championship game has seen forgettable blowouts, major upsets, and nail-biting finishes that came down to the leg of a kicker. The old saying “any given Sunday” holds true throughout the regular season, but when it comes to the Super Bowl, that popular adage becomes something to live by.
While no outcome is out of the question in Santa Clara, Calif. this weekend, we can only hope that the game produces a result that is forever etched in our memories. However, with the possibility that the contest could be utterly embarrassing for either side, we need to take solace in the fact that the Super Bowl has truly provided the world with some unbelievable results over the past five decades.
Ignoring the blowouts and otherwise lousy matchups that the Super Bowl has seen over the years, we instead focused on ranking the best of the best Super Bowls ever. What makes a great Super Bowl though? We believe the perfect combination of drama, momentum swings, and big plays are essential to a great football game, as well as a result that isn’t decided until the final seconds of the fourth quarter. So, with that in mind, here are the five best Super Bowls of all time.
5. Super Bowl X — Steelers vs. Cowboys
The battles between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys was nothing short of spectacular. They met twice on the big stage during the decade before renewing their championship rivalry in the mid-’90s, but of all their matchups, 1976’s Super Bowl X stands out as one that is particularly worth remembering. This game had everything you could ask for in a football game. The game was close, the product was exciting, and the drama was evident.
Down by three entering the fourth quarter, the Steelers used a combination of great defense and explosive plays on offense to knock off Dallas. The most significant play was a 64-yard touchdown from Terry Bradshaw to Lynn Swan late in the fourth quarter to give Pittsburgh an 11-point advantage. Roger Staubach and company gave a valiant effort at a comeback, but the “Steel Curtain” held strong to secure the 21-17 win. Swann earned MVP honors in the game with a 161-yard, one-touchdown performance.
4. Super Bowl XLIII — Steelers vs. Cardinals
With six titles in the history of their great franchise, it’s no surprise that a Pittsburgh Super Bowl victory makes this list. Super Bowl XLIII didn’t provide a typical matchup. The Steelers’ opponent was none other than the Arizona Cardinals, who had previously failed to reach the NFL’s biggest stage in the entire history of their franchise. On a purely historical basis, this game wasn’t supposed to be exciting. Sometimes history doesn’t matter, however, as this game proved.
The Steelers raced to an early 10-point lead before Kurt Warner threw a touchdown midway through the second quarter to bring the Cardinals back within three points. Warner had Arizona in position to take the lead going into the locker room, but James Harrison made one of the best plays in Super Bowl history, intercepting Warner at the goal line before running it all the way back for a 100-yard touchdown (the longest such TD in Super Bowl history).
Arizona fell behind 20-7, but they came back in the fourth, rallying to take a 23-20 lead thanks to a couple of Warner-to-Larry Fitzgerald touchdowns. Pittsburgh had one more chance with about 2:30 left in the game, and Ben Roethlisberger and company delivered. Big Ben found Santonio Holmes in the corner of the end zone with about 49 seconds left. Arizona couldn’t produce a miracle at the end, and that was all she wrote. Holmes captured MVP honors 131 receiving yards and that TD.
3. Super Bowl XXV — Bills vs. Giants
The Buffalo Bills infamously went to four straight Super Bowls in the 1990s; the only team to accomplish that feat in NFL history. Of course, most fans know that the Bills also lost all of those games, but in their first appearance in Super Bowl XXV, they had a great chance to capture the Lombardi Trophy and spark a potential string of championships.
The New York Giants, their opponent in that game, had other ideas. Despite not having the ball for long on offense — under 20 minutes for the entire game — thanks to great ball control by the Giants, the Bills had a chance to steal the game at the very end. The game was tight throughout and the Giants led by a score of 20-19 late in the fourth quarter.
That’s when Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, and the rest of the Bills offense put together a drive to give kicker Scott Norwood a chance to win the game with a 47-yard field goal with only seconds remaining. However, Norwood missed the kick, the clock expired, and the Giants won. Running back Ottis Anderson won MVP honors, but the game will always be remembered for the most painful missed field goal in NFL history, possibly cursing the Bills into losing their other three Super Bowls.
2. Super Bowl XLIX — Patriots vs. Seahawks
Yes, Super Bowl XLIX is the most recent version of the big game. That doesn’t take away from the fact that it was simply one of the best NFL championship games ever. You had Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, looking for a fourth ring, going against Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks, looking for a second straight title. The two squads were the best two teams in the league that season and the play on the field proved it.
After a scoreless first quarter, the two teams each scored 14 points in the second to keep the game even going into the locker room, with Brady throwing for two scores in the frame. The third quarter saw Seattle take a 10-point advantage, thanks to a Bobby Wagner interception of Brady and Wilson’s second touchdown pass of the game. So, down 24-14 entering the fourth, Brady answered with two more TD tosses to give New England a four-point edge with about two minutes remaining.
Seattle had one more chance to earn their second straight title, however. With Wilson making big plays left and right, the Seahawks drove the ball to the Patriots’ one-yard line with about 30 seconds left. Instead of handing the ball off to the powerful Marshawn Lynch for the game-winning score, Seattle opted to pass on the next play and it cost them the game. Wilson was picked off by Malcom Butler, and New England stunningly won the game, 28-24. Brady won his third Super Bowl MVP in the process.
1. Super Bowl XXXVIII — Panthers vs. Patriots
The previous game on this list could have easily ended up in this spot. In fact, Super Bowl XXXVIII and XLIX are nearly even in terms of greatness. However, we think this game between the Carolina Panthers and those Patriots has the slightest edge. Luckily for New England, both games resulted in dramatic victories. Similar to Super Bowl XLIX, this Super Bowl also started off slowly, with the first quarter ending in a scoreless tie. In fact, it wasn’t until late in the second that the scoring began, as a barrage of scores by both teams ended the first half.
Brady threw two touchdowns in the final minutes of the half, which was answered by 10 points by the Panthers to put the game at 14-10 going into the locker room. The third quarter was, again, scoreless, but once the fourth begin, this game developed into the most exciting Super Bowl in history. First, the Patriots extended their lead to 21-10 early in the fourth. Then, Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme returned with back-to-back scores to take their first lead of the game, 22-21.
On New England’s next possession, Brady found linebacker Mike Vrabel for a one-yard score to reclaim the lead. Delhomme and company came back again, however, scoring with about a minute remaining to tie the game at 29. Then, a mistake by Panthers’ kicker Jon Kasay on the kickoff set up the Pats near midfield. Brady got his team in field goal range, and Adam Vinatieri kicked the game-winner as time expired. Brady won the MVP, and New England won its second title in three seasons.