HOUSTON -- Commissioner Roger Goodell called Super Bowl LI “one of the greatest games of all time,” and, for a change, there are no rebuttals.
But it was more than that. It was the greatest Super Bowl of all time.
Normally, I’m reluctant to buy into the latest-is-the-greatest chorus, but there is no denying what we just witnessed. It wasn’t just one of the most memorable events in pro sports history. It was a coronation of the greatest quarterback of the Super-Bowl era and one of the greatest franchises ever.
So now the question: If this is numero uno, which Super Bowls are next?
Ah, that’s why we are here. What follows are the five greatest Super Bowls in NFL history … and one disclaimer: This is about the game itself and how competitive it was. This has nothing to do with historical significance. If it did, the conversation would start with Super Bowl III and Joe Namath.
Got that? Great. So, now, on with the show.
NUMBER ONE: SUPER BOWL LI
Have there been greater comebacks? Yes, as a matter of fact, there have … with Buffalo’s 1992 playoff defeat of Houston at the head of the class. It’s not only that the Bills got off the mat after falling behind 35-3 in the second half; it’s that they did it without Hall-of-Famer Jim Kelly … without Hall-of-Famer Thurman Thomas … and without star linebacker Cornelius Bennett.
Like Super Bowl LI, the game went to overtime. Unlike Super Bowl LI, it wasn’t for a Lombardi Trophy. And that’s what makes the Patriots’ 34-28 OT victory so compelling.
Yeah, I remember when Tom Brady lifted the Patriots from a 24-0 halftime deficit to a 34-31 overtime defeat of Denver and Peyton Manning in 2013 -- a victory that, until Sunday, was the greatest comeback of Brady’s career. But that was a regular-season game. And it was in Foxboro. This was for the gold medal, and it was unprecedented.
Nobody … nobody … had come from more than 10 points down to win a Super Bowl – until, of course, Brady and the Patriots did. Sure, they had plenty of help from an Atlanta coaching staff that inexplicably went brain-dead down the stretch. But that happens. What often does not is the stirring comeback we witnessed Sunday.
As Bill Parcells once told New England coach Bill Belichick, “The mark of a great champion is when you get off the mat and win.” Well, the Patriots got off the mat and, somehow, won – scoring the last 31 points in the most improbable and most memorable games in Super Bowl history.
“We didn’t feel we weren’t competitive in the game,” Belichick said at the Monday news conference. “We just weren’t competitive in the score.”
And that message was conveyed at halftime.
“He cast a wizard spell over us that changed everything,” said defensive end Chris Long. “He said that we have to keep doing what we’re doing, play like we know how to play and not think about what happened. They have to score a lot more point to keep us down. We knew we could score enough points to win.”
And so they did, scoring on five of their last six possessions … with the lone exception a kneel-down to end the fourth quarter. It was the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. It was the first overtime in Super Bowl history. And, yes, Roger Goodell, it was one of the greatest games, period.
“I ain’t got no words, man,” linebacker Donta Hightower said. “Ain’t nobody believed in us. We’re the champions.”
NUMBER TWO: SUPER BOWL XLIII
Not only was this one historic – with the Steelers the first team to win six Super Bowls – but it was dramatic, too, with Arizona and Pittsburgh trading touchdowns in the last two-and-a-half minutes and Santonio Holmes making one of the most memorable catches in Super Bowl history
With 35 seconds to play.
Holmes had run a flag route to the back corner of the end zone and reached high to snag a 6-yard Ben Roethlisberger pass – maybe the most perfect pass in Super Bowl history – before falling out of bounds. And he was so close to the sideline … so outrageously close to being out of bounds … that the play was reviewed over and over before officials confirmed the catch.
“I don’t like to toot my own horn,” Big Ben told the Talk of Fame Network last spring, “but I will say I probably put that ball in the only spot where it could’ve been caught. If it’s one inch higher, he probably doesn’t make the catch. If it’s one inch lower, it’s probably intercepted.
“But, then, for him to make the catch … I think it may be a combination of the greatest catch and throw (in Super Bowl history) … For that play to happen in the corner of the end zone … for him to drag the toes to make the catch to basically win the Super Bowl … to me it will go down as one of the greatest plays of all time.”
NUMBER THREE: SUPER BOWL XLII
This was supposed to be a walkover. The Patriots were 18-0, and the Giants were a wildcard that caught fire late in the season before running the table in the playoffs – winning three straight on the road to get this far.
But New England was on the brink of history, with MVP Tom Brady and Co. a 12-point favorite about to join the Miami Dolphins as the only Super Bowl winner to go wire-to-wire … start to finish … without losing.
Except they didn’t. And they didn’t because of one of the greatest plays in NFL history.
I’m talking, of course, of the David Tyree catch, where the Giants’ wide receiver somehow leaped to stab an Eli Manning pass after Manning somehow escaped an almost certain sack – then held on to the football while falling backward and the ball glued to his helmet. It was not supposed to happen, and neither was an upset of the mighty Patriots.
But it did, a stunning upset that saw 21 of the game’s 31 points in the last quarter – with 14 of them in the last 2:42, similar to the Arizona-Pittsburgh Super Bowl a year later. The contest had everything: Great plays, great defense, a frantic finish and the fall of a giant.
“We shocked the world,” Hall-of-Fame defensive end Michael Strahan said. “We shocked ourselves.”
NUMBER FOUR: SUPER BOWL XXXIV
Another in a series of photo-finishes, with the Rams producing the game-winning touchdown with just under two minutes left on a 73-yard Kurt Warner-to-Isaac Bruce bomb … then holding on as linebacker Mike Jones tackled Kevin Dyson one-yard short of the goal line on the game’s last play.
It was the culmination of a great season for the Rams, who went from last in their division to a Super Bowl champion, and for Warner, who went from a journeyman backup to league and Super Bowl MVP. But it was more than that. It was a stirring victory that reminded us what we love most about football.
Drama, with Dyson’s outstretched arm falling one-yard short of the end zone indelibly etched in our memories.
“I was hoping I was close enough for a replay,” Dyson said later. “You kind of go tone deaf. You don’t hear anything. And then the game is unmuted, you don’t hear a sound and (there is) confetti and everything around you. There was a moment of disbelief where I couldn’t believe the game was over. It didn’t seem real. I just sat there, and I thought I can’t believe it ended like that. I couldn’t believe I didn’t score.”
NUMBER FIVE: SUPER BOWL XLIX
Remember how I said that, until Sunday, nobody had come from more than 10 points down to win a Super Bowl? Well, the 2014 New England Patriots overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to upset the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks … and the vaunted Legion of Boom … to win their fourth Lombardi Trophy.
It wasn’t easy. And, like Sunday, it wasn’t accomplished without help from the other side. But let’s face it: It’s never easy with New England. Until Sunday, all of their Super Bowls were decided by four or fewer points.
And this one … this wasn’t decided until New England cornerback Malcolm Butler made one of the most stunning defensive plays in Super Bowl history by stepping in front of Ricardo Lockette to intercept a Russell Wilson pass and preserve a Patriots’ victory.
So what was so stunning? This: Seattle was 36 inches short of the goal line, and there was under a minute left. All the Seahawks had to do was hand the ball to Marshawn Lynch, get out of his way and watch the confetti descend from above. Instead, they went brain-dead (stop if you heard this before) and threw to Lockette – in what was aptly described as the worst play-call in Super Bowl history.
“How did that just happen?” a dazed coach Pete Carrroll asked afterward.
Answer: The Seahawks forgot who they were at the games most critical moment, and that lapse cost them a second Super Bowl victory.
But lost in that brain-lock were the heroics of Brady, who threw four touchdown passes – including two in the last eight minutes to take down one of the most imposing defenses in league history. And let us not forget: The victory was completed with Deflategate as a back story.
Afterward, an elated Robert Kraft, owner of the Patriots, went to the locker room and asked to have his photo taken with Butler. The rookie was overwhelmed,.
“I’m so glad you’re on our team,” Kraft told him.