The 10 Greatest Plays In Super Bowl History
As far as individual games go, the Super Bowl is the biggest spectacle in American sports. When the two best teams meet at the end of a long season, great players often make unbelievable plays and define their legacies in the Super Bowl, but the biggest impact players are often the ones that are the most overlooked. Yet they are at center stage during many of those memorable moments that are replayed for an eternity and not soon forgotten. Some plays create dynasties, while others end them, and in some rare instances, both happen simultaneously. There is no rhyme or reason to the types of plays that made the list, outside of the fact that any casual fan has probably seen the highlights of these plays at least a dozen times thanks to NFL Films and NFL Network’s America’s Game series. They are simply the plays that make the Super Bowl the greatest and most exciting annual event in the sporting world, and in no particular order.
Santonio's Sideline Toe-Tap - In a back and forth thriller that could have had several plays make this list, one stands above the rest as the defining moment of Super Bowl XLIII. The game winning touchdown catch by Santonio Holmes was particularly memorable because it came one play after he dropped a much easier pass attempt by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. But Big Ben never lost faith in his first round receiver and targeted him again with a dangerous pass through two defenders that looked like it might be intercepted initially. Instead Holmes made a textbook sideline catch while keeping both feet inbounds and barely tapping the toe of his second foot with full control of the football for a legendary touchdown. Some critics argue that his second foot never actually touched the ground, but in that situation, the referee cannot erase such a spectacular play.
Roethlisberger led the game winning drive after Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner threw a 64 yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald to give Arizona their first lead of the game at 23-20 with just over two minutes remaining. Warner redeemed himself with a monster second half, after a red zone interception touchdown late in the first half gave the Steelers all the momentum that a 14-point swing in the Super Bowl could. That 100-yard interception return by James Harrison was a spectacular play onto itself that would have surely made this list had it happened later in the game. His determination to get into the end zone at any cost was the stuff of legends. And it was absolutely necessary at the end of the half with no time left for the Pittsburgh offense to capitalize with points after the turnover. Instead of being potentially behind 14-10, the Steelers were up 17-7 at the half instead. Both plays were incredible but neither could match the importance of Santonio's catch.
Montana to Taylor for the Win - To him, it was just another routine drive down the field. To the rest of the world, it was the defining drive of Joe Montana’s career, capping off a third Super Bowl victory with a game-winning touchdown pass to John Taylor in a game that was almost never in doubt. Despite an unimpressive 10-6 regular season, the San Francisco 49ers rolled through the playoffs with ease, disposing of the Vikings and Bears by a combined score of 62-12. The Super Bowl matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals was also a tribute to Jerry Rice, another of the greatest NFL players of all-time. Rice put up 215 yards on 11 receptions and was the game’s MVP.
But the play everyone remembers it the touchdown pass to Taylor, which Joe Cool made look so easy. Before the drive, he was so calm that he was looking in the crowd and pointed out John Candy to his teammates. During the play, he took a simple three-step drop and found his man wide open on a slant pattern. After the touchdown, he simply held his arms high and let the world know that the 49ers were the team of the 90s. The following season, they went 14-2 en route to a record-setting destruction of the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl by a score of 55-10, cementing their dynasty as one of the best ever, and the touchdown pass from Montana to Taylor was the play that best encapsulated the San Francisco glory days.
Beebe Runs Down Lett - Teams that win three Super Bowls are dynasties and deserve mention on such a list. Especially when they define a decade like the Cowboys did in the 1990s. They were full of characters, from the playing field to the coaching staff and front office. While there were not as individual plays that defined their success, there were definitely individual games and seasons that reflected their greatness. Their first two Super Bowl victories over the Buffalo Bills conveyed a dominance that had not been seen in back to back Super Bowls since the first two games won by Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers. The third was less impressive, but a title nonetheless. One play from the third game that almost cracked this list was Larry Brown’s interception return on a horrific Neil O’Donnell pass that set up the touchdown that would seal the game. Finally overcoming the Steelers deserves some recognition, but that was a much different, far less imposing Pittsburgh squad than the Steel Curtain teams of the 70s. And the interception was gift-wrapped by O’Donnell, as there was not a receiver in the vicinity. There is some significance to Brown’s status as a twelfth-round draft pick, one of Jimmy Johnson’s many key selections that would help build this dynasty. But it was another late-round draft pick that made a play that would better define the Cowboys.
It happened during the first Super Bowl victory when the game was already decided. The score was 52-17 and the Bills had already inserted their backups at many positions. As they drove down the field for a possible meaningless garbage time touchdown, backup quarterback Frank Reich was sacked and fumbled the ball. It was recovered by then-reserve defensive tackle Leon Lett, who raced down the field for what appeared to be another easy touchdown. But as he showboated near the end zone and held the ball out, Bills speedy third receiver Don Beebe stripped the ball and knocked it out of bounds, negating a touchdown that would have set a new NFL record for points in a Super Bowl.
Even though the play had zero impact on the game’s outcome, it is a comical representation of the Dallas confidence that reigned supreme in the 1990s, led primarily by superstar wide receiver Michael Irvin. It was also indicative of the 'Never Say Die'spirit of the Bills, which allowed them to reach a record four straight Super Bowls. Lett would go on to have an excellent career despite a few more boneheaded mistakes, and the Cowboys would go on to win two more Super Bowls, but this play is the most memorable from their brilliant run in the 90s.
Marcus Allen Reverses the Field - The crowning jewel in the memory of Raider fans, their last Super Bowl win in 1983 featured a play that still remains the greatest run in Super Bowl history after thirty years. The score was already 28-9 in favor of the Raiders, so the chances of a repeat Super Bowl by the opposing Washington Redskins was all but gone, but running back Marcus Allen paid no attention. He took a handoff from quarterback Jim Plunkett and started left, then completely reversed his field behind the line of scrimmage and proceeded to outrun the entire Washington defense for a 74-yard touchdown.
He also set a Super Bowl record for rushing yards at the time on his way to game MVP honors. His graceful and gliding running style was a strong influence on Eric Dickerson, who would go on to break the single season rushing record the following year being coached by Allen’s college coach John Robinson. Allen was one of the original dual threat backs in NFL history and would go on to make the Hall of Fame after resurrecting his career in Kansas City following a very public falling out with Raiders owner Al Davis.
The Tackle - The teams that met in Super Bowl XXXIV virtually came out of nowhere, so the historical implications at the time were minimal. And the game itself started out in very nondescript fashion. The historically dominant Rams offense, nicknamed the Greatest Show on Turf, only managed three field goals in the first half, but that was enough to give them a 9-0 lead and full control of a game they were favored to win. The Rams finally got it going early in the second half with their first touchdown to make it 16-0, but the Tennessee Titans led by Steve McNair and Eddie George, would not go away quietly. They controlled the clock for the next two quarters and wore down the Rams defense, eventually tying the game with just over two minutes remaining. But the St. Louis Rams had Kurt Warner, the former grocery bagger who came out of nowhere to put together one of the most amazing individual seasons in NFL history. It also didn’t hurt that they somehow acquired Marshall Faulk in the previous offseason for a second round pick. Not only did Warner win the regular season MVP, but he had played outstanding in the Super Bowl to that point after a subpar performance in the NFC championship victory over Tampa Bay.
But the storybook season for Warner was not complete just yet. He needed one more game winning drive to give the story an appropriate ending. Rather than engineering a Montana-like two minute drill and scoring with little to no time left, Warner took a shot early in the drive. And it worked. His top receiver Isaac Bruce had a step on his defender and Warner dropped the 73-yard pass into his hands perfectly, allowing him to shed the defender and score a touchdown with ease. This play put Warner over 400 yards passing on the day, an NFL record, as well as giving the Rams a comfortable lead with under two minutes remaining. It was a stunning turn of events, but it also left time on the clock for McNair and company to answer. While the Bruce touchdown could have easily made this list, two more plays on the subsequent drive by the Titans entered the conversation. The exhausted Rams defense struggled to stop Tennessee from moving the ball down the field, but as they approached the red zone, they had McNair under pressure on a key third down. But the mobile quarterback escaped the pressure in Eli Manning fashion and rolled right to complete a crucial pass inside the ten-yard line of the Rams. The final play was a well-designed slant pattern to Kevin Dyson, of Music City Miracle fame, but Rams linebacker Mike Jones was in good position and made a perfect form tackle at the one-yard line. Dyson tried to reach for the goal line but he was already down and the game was over. The St. Louis Rams won their first Super Bowl and Warner was the MVP, completing arguably the most memorable rags to riches story in NFL history.
The Helicopter - Looking back at this game in hindsight, the 13-point spread in this Super Bowl matchup was absurdly high. But thinking back to that era of 1990s football, the NFC was so utterly dominant over their counterparts in the AFC that it seemed impossible for the streak of 13 straight NFC wins in the Super Bowl to end. None of the games had even been close since the Bills and Giants faced off in 1990. The 1997 Green Bay Packers looked even better than the team that won the Super Bowl the year before. They had a stronger rushing attack led by Dorsey Levens, and had won 12 of 13 games heading into the Super Bowl. The Broncos had a longer road to the Super Bowl after losing the AFC West to the Chiefs, but were supremely motivated for redemption after an opening game playoff loss to the expansion Jaguars the year before. They got their revenge against Jacksonville in the wild card round, then won road games in Kansas City and Pittsburgh to advance to the Super Bowl in San Diego, the site of one of quarterback John Elway’s previous three Super Bowl losses.
This game was a back and forth affair and most people thought the Packers would pull away in the second half as most teams did against Elway’s Broncos in prior Super Bowls. But all that changed late in the third quarter when Elway engineered a 92-yard drive with plenty of help from running back Terrell Davis, who would go on to win Super Bowl MVP. But it was Elway that made the play that defined this game and perhaps his career. On a key third down from the 12-yard line, Elway scrambled for an 8-yard run and dove for a first down, getting hit so hard that he spun sideways in the air. But the fearless dive got both the Denver sideline and the entire viewing audience so fired up that they could almost sense after that moment that Elway would not be denied that day.
The Broncos scored a touchdown to take a 24-17 lead later that drive and despite a red zone interception and Green Bay answer to tie the game, the Broncos controlled the clock and scored again to seal the victory. Elway would lead the Broncos to a second Super Bowl title the following season and earn game MVP honors, allowing him to ride off into the sunset and retirement on top of the football world.
The Pick-Six- Another game that featured two plays that are worthy of this list also featured two of the greatest quarterbacks of their generation. Peyton Manning and Drew Brees enjoyed two of the finer seasons of their illustrious careers in 2009. Both led their teams to undefeated records well into December, and both were at the top of the league MVP discussion for much of the year. Manning ended up winning, and the Colts memorably rested their starters for the last few games after clinching home field advantage, claiming that an undefeated regular season is not one of their organizational goals. The Saints, on the other hand, went for the perfect record and lost their first game in Week 15. They then proceeded to lose their next two, bringing their unexpectedly dominant regular season run to a grinding halt. But come playoff time, these two quarterbacking legends took advantage of the added rest and rolled through their conferences to set up an intriguing Super Bowl matchup.
In an unusually clean game that had very few penalties and replays, the Colts maintained control with a 10-6 lead at the end of the first half. But the momentum was shifted with one gutsy call by Sean Payton to start the second half. He called for a surprise onside kick and the Colts were caught with their pants down. The ball bounced off Hank Baskett’s hands and arguably the biggest and most influential dogpile in NFL history ensued. Once the bodies were uncovered, the referees signaled Saints ball and they rode that momentum to their first touchdown of the game. The onside call by Sean Payton is undoubtedly one of the biggest in Super Bowl history, but the play itself did not have the same impact as another one later that game.
As the Saints held on to a 24-17 lead, Peyton Manning was leading the Colts down to the field to tie the game and fans were already preparing for overtime and the Manning comeback narrative was being written. But Tracy Porter had different ideas. He jumped a slant route by Reggie Wayne and intercepted Manning’s pass with nothing by green grass and a goal post in front of him. The touchdown sealed the game, and everyone watching leaped out of their seats in shock and awe. The pick six was a combination of bad pass by Manning and poorly run pattern by Wayne, but Manning’s legacy took the bigger hit. He has since lost 43-8 in another Super Bowl and lost his first home playoff game three more times. So despite his regular season brilliance, the pick six against the Saints was the beginning of the end for Manning as a respected playoff performer
The Helmet Catch - The game was over. The New England offense finally broke through and a defense that included a handful of future Hall of Famers just had to keep Eli Manning and company out of the end zone to complete a perfect 19-0 season. Fittingly, the go-ahead touchdown was a pass from Tom Brady to Randy Moss, two superstars coming off record breaking statistical seasons. But the New York Giants had hope, and they kept on believing even when Patriot players were taunting them and telling them they’d be better off just kneeling on the ball. Often forgotten in this sequence is a crucial fourth down conversion that kept the final drive alive, and even the game-winning touchdown catch by Plaxico Burress, which occurred in the same calendar year as when he shot himself in the leg and ended up serving two years in prison for it. Why was the game winner so overlooked?
Because a few plays earlier, David Tyree made what is widely considered to be the greatest catch in NFL history. Not for the degree of difficulty and certainly not for the quality of the player, but for the context of the catch…and the throw. Eli Manning was under heavy pressure and could have easily been ruled down due to being in the grasp of the defender, but the referees let the play continue, and Manning escaped the pass rush and threw up a prayer of a pass in the middle of the field. Such passes are intercepted the majority of the time, since every defensive player can see and attack the ball, but only one or two offensive players have a chance. In this case, fifth receiver David Tyree, who only made the roster for special team purposes, happened to be the receiver in closest proximity to the pass. Despite being draped by safety Rodney Harrison, Tyree somehow managed to get two hands on the ball and used one to pin it against his helmet as Harrison brought him to the ground while simultaneously trying to dislodge the ball.
The perfect season was over, Randy Moss never won a ring, Tom Brady still trails his idol Joe Montana in Super Bowl titles, and Bill Belichick has yet another cheating scandal on his hands, meanwhile a decade has passed since their last title. The Giants, on the other hand, rode that confidence to a second title in five years over the Patriots after the 2011 season. History was rewritten as a result of one play, from a player that never caught an NFL pass again after the helmet catch that made him famous.
The Drop - The game that would decide the team of the 1970s was a rematch between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys, who had faced each other in the Super Bowl three years earlier. Both teams had two Super Bowl victories, and future Hall of Famers all over their rosters. It was a back and forth affair all game, but the momentum shifted to the Steelers for good in the third quarter. Late in the quarter down 21-14, the Cowboys took advantage of good field position to drive down to the Dallas 10-yard line. A third down passing situation left reserve tight end Jackie Smith wide open in the end zone for a sure touchdown to tie the game, but Smith lost his balance when the ball came in a little low and could not hold onto the catch. The Cowboys settled for a field goal and trimmed the lead to 21-17, but the play was demoralizing.
The Steelers took advantage and moved in for the kill, scoring two straight touchdowns early in the fourth quarter. They were somewhat aided by a pair of controversial penalties that put the Steelers within striking distance, but to their credit, Pittsburgh took full advantage. Dallas roared back but fell just short, losing 35-31. Jackie Smith was 38-years old at the time and will always be remembered for that dropped pass, but he would later go on to make the NFL Hall of Fame. Some would argue that the Steelers parlayed that referee help in their Super Bowl victory over the Seahawks nearly thirty years later. But that victory over the Cowboys is still the difference between which franchises own the most championships, and the Steelers remain atop the list.
Wide RIght - For a kicker to make this list, a lot of factors come into play. Adam Vinatieri is the most obvious candidate. His game-winning kick over the Rams completed a stunning Super Bowl upset, and he would kick another game winner two years later to beat the Panthers. His Hall of Fame credentials are unquestioned, as he has remained a solid kicker in the league for over a decade since. Another memorable kicker highlight in the Super Bowl was Garo Yepremian, a member of the perfect 1972 Miami Dolphins team that was shutting out their opponent until Yepremian tried to turn a bad field goal snap into a pass attempt and pathetically fumbled the ball right into the opponent’s hands for an easy touchdown.
But the kicker who makes this list is more goat than hero. Scott Norwood’s 47-yard wide right in Super Bowl XXV is arguably the most replayed missed kick in NFL history. Fans still wonder how the Buffalo Bills fortunes might have been different had he made that kick, and just how many Super Bowls they might have won. The Giants were a worthy champion, having won a Super Bowl in 1986 as well, but with backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler, few expected them to slow down the heavily favored and seemingly unstoppable K-Gun offense of the Bills, led by future Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas. But the Giants kept them off the field with a strong running attack led by game MVP Ottis Anderson, and pulled out a 20-19 thriller in the final seconds. It was the first of four straight Super Bowl victories by the NFC East, and seven in ten seasons. Such dominance by one division and one conference is unlikely to be seen again in the NFL anytime soon.