Monday sees the 2017 NFL season come to a close with Super Bowl LII, as the New England Patriots take on the Philadelphia Eagles. We have been treated to some classic matches over the last half century with plenty of exciting finishes coming down to the final seconds. In the last ten years alone, the NFL has served up a number of memorable clashes and we did our best to narrow it down to the top 10.
Super Bowl VII: Miami Dolphins (14) vs Baltimore Colts (7)
For the first entry in our list we had to go for a unique Super Bowl, as the Dolphins completed a perfect 17-0 season. The 21 total points in the match remains as the lowest in Super Bowl history and the 14 scored by Miami is the lowest winning total.
Thankfully you do not need points for it to be a compelling event as the Dolphins were forced to make a tough call on which quarterback to start between Bob Griese and Earl Morrall, with Griese getting the start. Amazingly, despite their 16-0 record going into the game, Washington were favoured to win.
The first half was all about the Dolphins defensive unit as they shut out the Redskins while the Dolphins jumped to a 14-0 lead. With just over two minutes left, there was one of the more bizarre plays in Super Bowl history. Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian lined up a 42-yard field goal which was blocked. His first reaction was (quite smartly) to grab the ball and try to throw it however in the mayhem the ball slipped up in the air and fell to the hands of Mike Bass, who ran 49 yards the other way to bring the score back to 14-7. Miami’s defence had to make one more stop to secure what was about as comfortable one score win as possible.
WHEN THE LIGHTS GO OUT…
Super Bowl XLVII: Baltimore Ravens (34) vs San Francisco 49ers (31)
A game that might have had a small impact on New Orleans’s hope of hosting another game in the future will be remembered for a bizarre moment that overshadowed an exciting finish. Nicknamed the HarBowl as it was the first time the two head coaches were brothers. Jim completed a successful second season with the 49ers while brother John was in his fifth season with Baltimore. Both coaches fell one game short of the Super Bowl the year before.
The first half was all Baltimore as they built a comfortable 21-6 lead as Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offence looked out of sorts committing crushing penalties and turnovers. Jacoby Jones returned the opening kick of the second half 108 yards and it looked like the second half would be a Ravens procession. Then the lights went out in the middle of the 49ers possession and all hell broke loose.
The outage was blamed on equipment failure and after a 34-minute delay, play resumed. After that a switch was flicked on the 49ers and their offence suddenly looked like a whole new unit. They brought the game back to a 31-29 deficit with just under ten minutes left. A Baltimore field goal gave them a five point advantage before Kaepernick brought the 49ers to the Ravens goal line. A mismanaged goal line series meant the 49ers came away with no points and the Ravens were able to take the time off the clock and end the game as Super Bowl Champions.
THIS ONE’S FOR JOHN!
Super Bowl XXXII: Denver Broncos (31) vs Green Bay Packers (24)
After three unsuccessful trips to the Super Bowl early in his career, it looked like Denver quarterback John Elway was going to be consigned to the Dan Marino and Jim Kelly category of “the best to never win one.” That all changed in the 1997 season, when the 37 year old Elway advanced to face the defending champion Green Bay Packers in San Diego. Lead by three time NFL MVP Brett Favre, the Packers were installed as 11 point favourites.
The game was a back and forth arm wrestle as Terrell Davis ran his way to MVP honours with 157 yards and three touchdowns. Green Bay struck first but Davis responded straight away before the Broncos won the second quarter to lead 17-14 at halftime. Green Bay would tie it up early in the third quarter before a touchdown each way had the game tied up at 24 early in the fourth. In the buildup to the Broncos score, Elway had his famous helicopter play, being spun around mid-air leaping for a first down.
With Denver on the Green Bay goal line with just under two minutes to play, the Packers opted to let Davis run into the end zone and put the ball back in the hands of Favre to send the game to overtime. Favre’s last gasp attempt fell short and the Broncos were crowned champions. After the game, owner Pat Bowlen uttered one of the more famous lines on the dais, claiming “this one’s for John!” A favour that would be returned eighteen years later as Elway held the Lombardi Trophy at Super Bowl 50 as Broncos GM.
TONIGHT, A DYNASTY IS BORN
Super Bowl XXXVI: New England Patriots (20) vs St Louis Rams (17)
Believe it or not, there was a time early on in this millennium, when the New England Patriots were the likeable underdogs in a Super Bowl. Flash back to New Orleans, early February 2002 and the Patriots came out of nowhere to face “The Greatest Show on Turf” St Louis Rams who were heavily favoured and expected to cruise to their second Super Bowl in three seasons as 14-point favourites. Rams receiver Ricky Proehl was picked up on camera saying “tonight, a dynasty is born.” While he might have meant the Rams, he was technically correct.
The first half was all about the Patriots defence as they harried and harassed the Rams superstars, forcing the game’s first touchdown when Ty Law returned a Kurt Warner interception for a touchdown in the second half. Another Rams turnover in the final two minutes set up a touchdown pass for the then-unheralded Patriots quarterback to send New England to the break with a 14-3 advantage. Up next was what is considered by some to be the best Super Bowl halftime show as U2 delivered on the big stage. In a largely uneventful third quarter, the Patriots capitalised on a second Warner interception to push their lead to 17-3.
You can’t keep a great team down for a whole game and the Rams, seemingly in the blink of an eye woke up. A handful of plays later and they were on the Patriots’ three-yard line looking to bring it back to a one score game. New England looked to have the game sealed away with another defensive score, but a penalty gave the Rams new life and they took full advantage of it as Warner ran it in. With 1:51 to play, the Rams got the ball back and flew down the field to tie it up at 17 in the blink of an eye.
With legendary commentator John Madden calling for the Patriots to run out the remaining 82 seconds, they instead let their second-year quarterback drive down the field to the Rams 30 yard line. With seven seconds to go, Adam Vinatieri stepped up to the mark and drilled a 41-yard field goal right down the middle to secure what was the second biggest upset in history.
THE BIGGEST UPSET
Super Bowl III: New York Jets (16) vs Baltimore Colts (7)
The biggest upset in Super Bowl history takes the sixth place on our list and it was a marker for the old AFL (American Football League) right before the merger. They faced the Baltimore Colts who were seen as the heavyweights and were favoured by anywhere between 16 and 18 points depending on who you ask. But the Jets had Joe Namath with long, flowing locks and plenty of confidence who proclaimed three days before kick-off, “we’re gonna win the game. I guarantee it.”
It turns out that Namath was on to something and Webb Ewbank was able to formulate the perfect game plan to attack the heavily favoured Colts. The Jets opened the scoring with a touchdown in the second quarter for the only points before halftime. A field goal on their opening possession of the third quarter would extend the lead to double digits. Earl Morrall threw three interceptions on just 17 pass attempts before he was benched for Johnny Unitas. Two more Jets field goals would send extend the lead out to 16-0 with 13 minutes to play. Unitas was able to get the Colts down and they scored their lone touchdown of the day with a run by Jerry Hill with 3:19 to play.
“HEY THAT’S JOHN CANDY IN THE STANDS”
Super Bowl XXIII: San Francisco 49ers (20) vs Cincinnati Bengals (16)
A defensive struggle that was sealed by a moment of magic by one of the best quarterbacks in league history comes in at number five. Cincinnati were looking for their first Super Bowl in franchise history while the 49ers were looking to close out the Bill Walsh era on a high note with their third title. For the first 44 minutes neither team could penetrate the opposition goal line and the score was tied at 6-6.
Stanford Jennings returned a kickoff 93 yards late in the third quarter for the game’s opening touchdown and the action kicked off from there. Joe Montana threw a touchdown pass to Jerry Rice to level the scores barely 90 seconds later. With 3:20 to play, Cincinnati took a 16-13 lead with another field goal before Joe Montana took over on his own 8 yard line.
He could be forgiven for being just a bit nervous in that situation however in the huddle at the start of the drive, Montana looked up to the stands and asked “hey, isn’t that John Candy?” Joe Cool lived up to his reputation, methodically driving the 49ers down the field setting up the game winning touchdown pass to John Taylor.
ONE GIANT UPSET
Super Bowl XLII: New York Giants (17) vs New England Patriots (14)
There is a distinct North-Eastern feel to the top four in our list of best Super Bowls. At number four is the New York Giants stunning upset of the previously undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII (Patriots fans may want to skip to number 3). The teams had met in week 17 as the Patriots completed a perfect regular season in a back and forth encounter in Giants Stadium 38-35. New England were unbackable favourites head to head and were installed as 10-12 point favourites in the fortnight leading up to the game.
New England’s record setting offence was expected to run up and down the field on the Giants who would only be able to keep pace if Eli Manning played the game of his life. Instead what unfolded was a low-scoring arm wrestle as the Giants, much like the Patriots six years earlier, pressured the MVP quarterback and stymied their productivity.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Giants took a 10-7 lead with a touchdown and their first score since the opening possession. Brady, battered and bruised by an aggressive Giants front, was finally able to mount a drive and put the Patriots back into the lead with a six-yard touchdown pass to Randy Moss. From there it was Manning’s moment, he escaped a swarm of Patriots defenders and heaved a pass downfield to David Tyree, who miraculously pinned the ball against his helmet for a big game down field. A few plays later, Manning beat the blitz throwing the game winning touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress to give the Giants the lead with 35 seconds remaining.
A COMEBACK FOR THE AGES
Super Bowl LI: New England Patriots (34) vs Atlanta Falcons (28) [OVERTIME]
Last year’s Super Bowl (like several others on this list) has a great case to be number one on this list but it will have to settle for third place. While many Patriots fans would have loved to win Super Bowl XLII, this one certainly healed some of the scars from that game. A first quarter stalemate swung Atlanta’s way when LeGarrette Blount fumbled to give the Falcons a chance at their opening touchdown. New England were left stunned by a Falcons onslaught as they built a 28-3 lead midway through the third quarter.
You can never count out Tom Brady however, fifteen seasons after his first Super Bowl appearance, it started off with a five-yard touchdown to James White. At 28-12 in the fourth quarter, Dont’a Hightower forced a fumble to swing momentum firmly New England’s way. Two more touchdowns and two point conversions by the Patriots brought the score back to 28-28 and gave fans the first overtime in Super Bowl history. New England won the toss and won the game on James White’s two yard run causing pandemonium. The 25 point deficit was the largest comeback in Super Bowl history (previously 10 points), Brady and Belichick’s fifth title as a duo in a record setting ninth appearance for the Patriots franchise.
Super Bowl XXV: New York Giants (20) vs Buffalo Bills (19)
How different the 1990’s could have been if not for the final play of the game. Buffalo were making their first of four straight (unsuccessful) Super Bowl appearances. New York on the other hand were closing out the Bill Parcells era as the Hall of Fame coach would enter his first retirement. Set against the backdrop of the first Gulf War, the Bills were heavily favoured to run up and down the field against the Giants (that sounds like a familiar storyline). Instead the Giants stifled the Bills passing game while trying to maximise their time of possession through running back Ottis Anderson. In the end the Giants held the ball for 40:33 out of a possible 60 minutes.
Buffalo had a 12-3 lead midway through the second quarter before the Giants rallied with touchdowns either side of halftime to set up a 17-12 lead. Buffalo took the lead back early in the fourth quarter before Matt Bahr, the hero of the NFC Championship, put New York up 20-19 with 7:20 to play. With just over two minutes remaining, Bills quarterback Jim Kelly mounted what should have been a game winning drive taking the ball to the Giants 29 yard line. Scott Norwood lined up the all or nothing field goal which sailed wide right.
Super Bowl XLIX: New England Patriots (28) vs Seattle Seahawks (24)
A heavyweight bout in the Arizona desert takes out the top spot on the list with multiple momentum swings and the emotional rollercoaster it put fans of both teams through. Last year’s champions, the Seattle Seahawks were looking to cement themselves as an NFL dynasty with back to back wins, while the Patriots, the team on top of the mountain were trying to bookend their run with their first title in ten years.
Like every Brady-Belichick Super Bowl, the Patriots were scoreless for the opening 15 minutes but they broke the deadlock with a second quarter touchdown to Brandon LaFell. Russell Wilson finally got his first completion late in the second quarter and the Seahawks were rolling to their first touchdown. Two more scores in the final two minutes of the first half closed out an engrossing contest where the teams traded blows. The third quarter was all Seattle as they kicked a field goal early before capitalising on a second Brady interception to open up a 24-14 lead going into the final stanza.
Brady stepped up to the plate and mounted back to back touchdown drives to give New England a 28-24 lead with 2:02 to play. It was the third straight Super Bowl where the Patriots defence had an opportunity to seal the win, falling short in the last two games against the New York Giants. Jermaine Kearse gave New England fans scary flashbacks with a remarkable catch to put Seattle in position for a go ahead touchdown. Two plays later, with the ball on the one yard line, undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler jumped a pass for a game sealing interception. Chaos erupted on the field and both sidelines as teams came to grips with the crazy ending however it would be New England’s moment.