Football fans in the past decade have been lucky enough to witness some of the finest Super Bowls ever played. The most recent decade has seen only two real clunkers. Seahawks-Broncos and Patriots-Rams II come to mind.
Fans in the 1980s and 1990s were not as fortunate. Truly great Super Bowls were few and far between in the days when NFC teams won 13 straight titles. This was never more clear than during Super Bowl XXIV in January 1990, when the gulf between AFC and NFC was as wide as it ever was.
The Niners at their peak
In 1989, the San Francisco 49ers were at the height of their Super Bowl-era dominance. The 49ers had, far and away, the best offense in the NFL, leading the league by averaging 27.6 points per game. Joe Montana had the finest season of his career, finishing with a 112.4 quarterback rating and a stellar 70.4% completion rate.
The 49ers finished with a 14-2 record, those two losses coming by a total of just five points. They did not let off the gas in the playoffs, steamrolling through the Vikings and Rams on their way to the Super Bowl by a total score of 71-16.
In the AFC, there was little doubt who would be the conference’s representative in the Super Bowl. In a statistical anomaly, the Denver Broncos were the only AFC team to finish with a double-digit win total. They staved off a challenge from the upset-minded Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional playoffs to reach the AFC Championship Game, the third in four years for quarterback John Elway and coach Dan Reeves.
As in the other two matchups, the Broncos would meet the Cleveland Browns for the conference title. Unlike the other two matchups, however, this one was never particularly close. There was no heroic game-tying “drive” or gut-wrenching fourth-quarter fumble. The Broncos controlled the game from start to finish. Their 37-21 win set them up for yet another Super Bowl disappointment.
Joe Montana shoots a dagger through Denver’s heart
The Broncos had already lost two Super Bowls in the decade. The second one was embarrassing enough, as they allowed five touchdowns in the second quarter to the then-Washington Redskins. They did not know what embarrassment was yet.
Super Bowl XXIV may as well have been called after the 49ers’ first possession. Less than five minutes into the game, Montana threw a perfect strike to Jerry Rice. In a moment that encapsulated the entire game, Broncos safety Steve Atwater streaked across the middle of the field to knock Rice head-over-heels and missed completely. Rice walked into the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown.
It got no better for the Broncos. They made a field goal on their next possession, but that would be the closest they came to looking like a competent team that day. The 49ers scored five more touchdowns, effectively clinching their fourth Super Bowl title shortly after halftime.
A long second half for the Denver Broncos
The Broncos did eventually reach the end zone on their first possession of the second half. John Elway scored on a three-yard quarterback draw midway through the third quarter.
Unfortunately for Denver, the 49ers weren’t done scoring yet. Elway’s touchdown came after Montana had thrown two more scoring strikes to put the game even further out of reach. Two short rushing touchdowns by Roger Craig and Tom Rathman ran the final score up to 55-10.
To this day, Super Bowl XXIV still holds two dubious records – the largest margin of victory in a Super Bowl, and the most points scored by one team in a Super Bowl.
When the dust settled, five different 49ers reached the end zone. Jerry Rice tied a Super Bowl record with three touchdowns and led all receivers with 148 yards. Incredibly, this was 40 more yards than John Elway threw for in total. The undisputed star of the afternoon, however, was Montana, who won his third Super Bowl MVP trophy after throwing for 297 yards and a then-record five touchdowns.