Super Bowl 2012: The 25 Most Memorable Plays in Super Bowl History
Super Bowl history is filled with plays that have made careers, validated careers, defined careers and ruined careers.
But a handful of plays extend beyond the scope of one individual's time in the NFL.
There are a few that have become indelible in American sports history—plays that are instantly recognizable and as famous as Willie Mays' catch in the 1954 World Series, Michael Jordan's shot over Craig Ehlo and Phil Mickelson's shot off the hospitality tent at the 2006 U.S. Open.
Either because they clinched a championship, set up a championship or were simply brilliant (or quite the opposite) feats of athleticism, these 25 Super Bowl plays stand the test of time.
No. 25: Steve McNair’s Mad Scramble
When: Super Bowl XXXIV
Time: 22 seconds remaining, fourth quarter
Score: Rams 23, Titans 16
Situation: 3rd-and-5 on the Rams' 26-yard line
This play was ultimately supplanted by the one that directly followed it, but that doesn't change the impact or incredible nature of this scramble and throw from the late, great Steve McNair.
Forget for a moment that it set up arguably the most famous tackle in NFL history, and just marvel at the athleticism and persistence of McNair.
And for him to throw a strike to Kevin Dyson after all that is truly the stuff of legend.
No. 24: Jake Delhomme to Muhsin Muhammad
When: Super Bowl XXXVIII
Time: 7:06 remaining, fourth quarter
Score: Patriots 21, Panthers 16
Situation: 3rd-and-10 on the Panthers' 15-yard line
The wildest fourth quarter in Super Bowl history was filled with awesome and memorable plays, most notably Adam Vinatieri's second game-winning field goal as time expired.
But no play was more game-changing and a bigger shift in momentum than this pass from Jake Delhomme to Muhsin Muhammad—still the longest play from scrimmage in Super Bowl history.
Think just how different that game may have turned out if the Panthers were forced to punt from deep in their own territory rather than grabbing the lead midway through the fourth period.
No. 23: Jermaine Lewis' Kick Return
When: Super Bowl XXXV
Time: 3:25 remaining, third quarter
Score: Ravens 17, Giants 7
Without the proper context, this return probably doesn't deserve a spot on this list. The Ravens already had control of the game, and the play itself came in the middle of the third quarter—not the heaviest of nail-biting situations.
But this touchdown came after back-to-back touchdowns—Duane Starks' 49-yard interception followed directly by Ron Dixon's 97-yard kickoff return—and capped off the most incredible 36 seconds in NFL history.
In a game that was otherwise fairly dull, the boost the Ravens and Giants made—ending with Lewis' kick return—was very special.
No. 22: John Elway's Helicopter
When: Super Bowl XXXII
Time: 1:15 remaining, third quarter
Score: Broncos 17, Packers 17
Situation: 3rd-and-6 on the Packers' 12-yard line
Although in someways it was overrated and over-dramatized,—it wasn't a scoring play, didn't come with the game necessarily on the line and was more the result of the two Packers' hits than Elway's brilliance—it's as recognizable as any from that era.
And since it has become the freeze-frame, signature image of a career filled with iconic moments (including his touchdown pass to Mark Jackson that completed "The Drive"), few plays in Super Bowl history carry the type of meaning and subtext of Elway's famous "Helicopter."
No. 21: Leon Lett and Don Beebe's Touchback
When: Super Bowl XXVII
Time: 4:50 remaining, fourth quarter
Score: Cowboys 52, Bills 17
Situation: 4th-and-5 on the Cowboys' 31-yard line
We're not necessarily talking about greatest plays here—we're talking about most memorable.
And who could forget this laughable moment in one of the most laughable Super Bowls of all time?
It's a bit sad that this (and the Thanksgiving gaffe the next season) came to define Lett's career, because otherwise he played a great game in Super Bowl XXVII, forcing two fumbles, deflecting a pass that became an interception and NEARLY scoring a touchdown.
But credit Don Beebe for not giving up on the play at a time when his team had absolutely no chance of winning.
No. 20: Devin Hester's Opening Kickoff
When: Super Bowl XLI
Time: 15:00 remaining, first quarter
Score: No score
Situation: Opening kickoff
It's often said that kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns are the most exciting single plays in an NFL game. If that's true, then for one to occur in the Super Bowl is the pinnacle of excitement.
Toss in the already amped up nerves on both sides for the opening kickoff, and when Devin Hester scored to start Super Bowl XLI, both Dolphin Stadium and the millions watching on CBS went crazy.
Even if you weren't a Colts or Bears fan, you had to be wowed by that moment.
No. 19: Antwaan Randle El to Hines Ward
When: Super Bowl XL
Time: 9:04 remaining, fourth quarter
Score: Steelers 14, Seahawks 10
Situation: 1st-and-10 on the Seahawks' 43-yard line
If kickoff and punt returns are the most exciting single plays in the NFL, then a close second has to be the trick/gadget plays: flea-flicker, hook-and-lateral, quarterback-throwback, etc.
So when Steelers wide receiver Antwaan Randle El took this pitch from Willie Parker and chucked up a pass deep downfield, everyone was on the edge of their seats—especially those fans who saw Randle El pull off the same play against Cleveland a few weeks earlier.
Add that excitement to the situation of a close game in the fourth quarter, and it was a classic Super Bowl moment.
No. 18: Jackie Smith’s Drop
When: Super Bowl XIII
Time: 2:46 remaining, third quarter
Score: Steelers 21, Cowboys 14
Situation: 3rd-and-3 on the Steelers' 10-yard line
"Bless his heart, he's got to be the sickest man in America."
Verne Lundquist's call pretty much sums it up.
Part of the reason why this was such a (in)famous play was because of the moment: If Smith grabs that ball, it ties the game, and who knows how that Steelers-Cowboys rematch turns out.
But the other more heart-wrenching, part of the story is that the future Hall of Famer had toiled in the NFL with the Cardinals for 15 years, never came close to reaching a championship moment, and he finally did in his only season with Dallas—and that drop is what he's best-remembered for.
No. 17: Garo Yepremian’s Gaffe
When: Super Bowl VII
Time: 2:15 remaining, fourth quarter
Score: Dolphins 14, Redskins 0
Situation: 4th-and-7 on the Redskins' 34-yard line
The sheer folly of the play makes it one memorable on its own, but the fact that it could have cost the Dolphins their perfect season—had Billy Kilmer been able to do anything on offense for the Redskins—is what earns it a spot on this list.
Well that and the hole it dug kickers—they are still trying to dig themselves out of that shameful display.
It's also worth pointing out that without Garo's Gaffe the Dolphins would remain the only team to record a Super Bowl shutout.
And hearing Curt Gowdy and Al DeRogatis actually laugh at Garo's attempt to throw a pass is priceless!
No. 16: Jim O’Brien’s Field Goal
When: Super Bowl V
Time: Five seconds remaining, fourth quarter
Score: Colts 13, Cowboys 13
Situation: 3rd-and-7 on the Cowboys' 25-yard line
Until Scott Norwood came along there were only two field goal attempts in Super Bowl history that grabbed a spot in the game's history.
The second was Garo's Gaffe.
The first was the complete opposite of a gaffe.
Although he had a tough day kicking on the hard AstroTurf in Miami, rookie straight-ahead kicker Jim O'Brien came through in the last second of the sloppiest Super Bowl ever played.
Since it was the only game-winning, last-second field goal during the first 35 years of the Super Bowl, it was unforgettable.
No. 15: Marcus Allen Makes Todd Christensen Cry
When: Super Bowl XVIII
Time: 12 second remaining, third quarter
Score: Raiders 28, Redskins 9
Situation: 1st-and-10 on the Raiders' 26-yard line
Most of the plays on this list earned a spot because they were decisive, game-changing moments; they either grabbed a lead, cost a team the lead or were significant for some historical purpose.
Allen's really was none of those. The Raiders' victory over Washington was largely in the bag.
But even in a vacuum, Allen's 74-yard touchdown was one of the most beautiful, improbable and thrilling plays in the history of the NFL, regardless of whether it was a preseason game or the last play of the Super Bowl.
No. 14: Max McGee's One-Handed TD
When: Super Bowl I
Time: 3:15 remaining, first quarter
Score: Packers 0, Chiefs 0
Situation: 3rd-and-3 on the Chiefs' 37-yard line
Super Bowl scoring history began with a most auspicious start, as Max McGee set quite a standard with his one-handed touchdown that broke an early 0-0 tie.
The play itself was a brilliant display of concentration,—pressure from the Chiefs' defense forced Bart Starr to misfire on the pass—but the legend of McGee's hangover from partying in Los Angeles the previous night makes the play even more mythical.
No. 13: Desmond Howard's Kickoff Return
When: Super Bowl XXXI
Time: 3:27 remaining, third quarter
Score: Packers 27, Patriots 21
Although the Super Bowl has a rich history of kickoff returns for touchdowns,—in addition to Hester and Lewis' touchdowns, Fulton Walker, Andre Coleman and Ron Dixon have all made their marks—only one was a true game-breaker.
And that came in Super Bowl XXXI.
The underdog Patriots had just nipped the Packers' lead to six late in the third period when Howard broke their backs by returning this kick 99 yards.
The run-back clinched all but the Packers' win and Howard's place as the first (and only) special teamer to win the game's MVP, forever keeping him from being considered another Heisman Trophy NFL bust.
No. 12: Jack Squirek's Pick-Six
When: Super Bowl XVIII
Time: 12 seconds remaining, second quarter
Score: Raiders 14, Redskins 3
Situation: 1st-and-10 on the Redskins' 12-yard line
Although names like Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Tom Brady and the rest of the sport's superstars and future Hall of Famers have their enormous places in Super Bowl history, the game does occasionally see no-names become national heroes—even if it's only for that one day.
Larry Brown and Dexter Jackson became Super Bowl MVPs and Timmy Smith set a Super Bowl record with 204 yards rushing, for example.
But in terms of a single play making a player synonymous with Super Bowl history, that honor is reserved for Jack Squirek, the Raiders linebacker who intercepted a Joe Theismann pass right before halftime and returned it for a touchdown.
It's often forgotten in the pantheon of great Super Bowl upsets, but the Raiders completely bashed the Redskins and their historic offense that day, and Squirek's pick-six may have been the nail in the coffin.
No. 11: Tracy Porter's Pick-Six
When: Super Bowl XLIV
Time: 3:20 remaining, fourth quarter
Score: Saints 24, Colts 14
Situation: 3rd-and-5 on the Saints' 31-yard line
Although the Saints held a one-touchdown lead with less than four minutes remaining, considering Peyton Manning had the ball past midfield, there was no sense of security for New Orleans and their play-with-fire defense.
The game seemed destined for overtime when Porter stepped in front of this ill-advised Manning throw and returned it 70 yards for the game-clincher.
Still, as great as the play was, it wasn't the most memorable that day...
No. 10: Sean Payton's Onside Kick
When: Super Bowl XLIV
Time: 15:00 remaining, third quarter
Score: Colts 10, Saints 6
Situation: Second-half kickoff
To be honest, I'd argue that Bill Cowher's onside call in Super Bowl XXX was gustier than the one Sean Payton called 14 years later. That came in the fourth quarter of a game that Pittsburgh trailed by double-digits.
After all, worst-case scenario, if the Saints don't recover the onside kick and Indy scores, they are still only down 11 with virtually an entire half to play—and their offense was pretty good, if you remember.
But because Payton made this call to start the second half—something almost never seen in any situation, let alone a Super Bowl—it one-ups the Cowher call.
Well, that and the fact that the Saints won the game.
No. 9: James Harrison's Pick-Six
When: Super Bowl XLIII
Time: 18 remaining, second quarter
Score: Steelers 10, Cardinals 7
Situation: 1st-and-goal on the Steelers' 1-yard line
Harrison's return—the longest single play in Super Bowl history—was also the biggest momentum-shifting play in history.
Think about that situation: If the Cardinals go in to score from one yard out, they take a 14-10 lead into the half and own all the momentum.
But Harrison not only kept the Steelers from a four-point deficit—his remarkable oxygen-draining return gave Pittsburgh a 10-point edge going into the half.
Ultimately it can't be ranked higher because it came in the first half, it didn't secure Pittsburgh's victory (they would squander that double-digit halftime lead) and it wasn't even the most memorable play of the game.
But it was arguably the biggest game-changer in Super Bowl history.
No. 8: John Riggins and 70 Chip
When: Super Bowl XVII
Time: 10:01 remaining, fourth quarter
Score: Dolphins 17, Redskins 13
Situation: 4th-and-1 on the Dolphins' 43-yard line
As great as Marcus Allen's 74-yard touchdown was, it had almost no impact on the outcome of the game. The signature touchdown run of the previous Super Bowl—and perhaps the signature run in Super Bowl history—certainly did, though.
The Diesel's powerful charge on a 4-and-1 gave the lead back to Washington, clinching the Redskins' first championship in 40 years.
Riggins' run on 70 chip is probably the most memorable and meaningful in the storied history of the Washington Redskins. Not much more explanation should be needed.
No. 7: Lynn Swann's Ballet Catch
When: Super Bowl X
Time: 2:50 remaining, second quarter
Score: Cowboys 10, Steelers 7
Situation: 3rd-and-6 on the Steelers' 10-yard line
Swann made a handful of memorable catches in Super Bowls: the sideline grab in Super Bowl X, the 64-yard touchdown a few quarters later, plus a few in the Steelers' wins in 1979 and 1980.
But the diving effort over Mark Washington remains the most iconic and demonstrative of his unique skills.
It doesn't matter that this came in the first half and didn't directly lead to any points. It remains the play that people point to when they think of Swanny.
No. 6: Adam Vinatieri’s Field Goal
When: Super Bowl XXXVI
Time: Seven seconds remaining, fourth quarter
Score: Rams 17, Patriots 17
Situation: 2nd-and-4 on the Rams' 30-yard line
Here's where I'm going to start making a case against plays being considered THE most memorable in Super Bowl history. Everyone of these last six have a claim to the top spot, so I don't need to justify why they are on this list or even in the Top 6.
I wouldn't dare disparage Vinatieri's kick. It was a tremendous achievement, capping off one of the most remarkable seasons, upsets and games in the history of the NFL.
But there are two reasons why I can't put this higher.
For one, it was an indoor kick on turf. Admittedly, that's something of a cheap knock, though.
Here's the main reason:
As much pressure as Vinatieri felt, think about the ramifications of the kick had he missed: They wouldn't have lost the game. It would have simply went to overtime. In truth that kick wasn't for all the marbles—unlike another kick on this list.
No. 5: David Tyree's Helmet Grab
When: Super Bowl XLII
Time: 1:15 remaining, fourth quarter
Score: Patriots 14, Giants 10
Situation: 3rd-and-5 on the Giants' 44-yard line
Again, here's another justification against argument: No one is denying this is a remarkable, historic, epic, legendary play—one that helped pull off one of the greatest upsets in the history of the Super Bowl and end a perfect season.
But because of the fluky nature of the play,—not just Tyree's helmet, but Eli escaping pressure under curious in-the-grab circumstances—I don't think it belongs as high as the rest on the list, all of which either were for game-winning scores or directly prevented game-winning scores.
No. 4: Joe Montana to John Taylor
When: Super Bowl XXIII
Time: 39 seconds remaining, fourth quarter
Score: Bengals 16, 49ers 13
Situation: 2nd-and-goal on the Bengals' 2-yard line
Montana magic at its absolute finest: 92 yards in less than three minutes.
Now, a few semi-valid reasons why it's not higher:
1. The 49ers should have blown the doors off the Bengals.
2. The play was only a 6-yard touchdown.
3. If you didn't think the 49ers would go down and score, you clearly hadn't been paying attention to the NFL the previous eight years.
No. 3: Santonio Holmes' Toe-Tapper
When: Super Bowl XLIII
Time: 35 seconds remaining, fourth quarter
Score: Cardinals 23, Steelers 20
Situation: 2nd-and-goal on the Cardinals' 6-yard line
This play was incredible. It was amazing. Perfect throw and perfect catch with less than a minute remaining to complete a long drive for the go-ahead score.
The only reason I've chosen to shut it out of the running for the gold and silver medal spots on this list is simple: Given Plaxico Burress' game-winner the previous season and Montana-to-Taylor, it wasn't necessarily unique.
I freely admit that's a pretty lame reason, but you don't want to see a three-way tie at the top.
No. 2: Wide Right
When: Super Bowl XXV
Time: Four seconds remaining, fourth quarter
Score: Giants 20, Bills 19
Situation: 2nd-and-10 on the Giants' 30-yard line
I started to downgrade Adam Vinatieri's 2001 game winner—now I'll finish it.
There's only been one play in the history of the Super Bowl that, without any equivocation, determined the outcome.
The Cardinals and 49ers both had 30-some seconds remaining after allowing touchdowns to Santonio Holmes and John Taylor, respectively. Same goes for the Patriots and the Plaxico Burress touchdown.
And had Vinatieri missed that Super Bowl XXXVI field goal or the attempt two years later against Carolina, the game would have gone to overtime—and the Pats wouldn't have lost.
Well, that's not the case with Norwood's kick: If he makes it, the Bills win and the Giants lose. If he misses it, the Giants win, the Bills lose. No overtime and no time remaining on the clock.
That's what made "Wide Right" so memorable.
No. 1: Mike Jones and the Tackle
When: Super Bowl XXXIV
Time: Six seconds remaining, fourth quarter
Score: Rams 23, Titans 16
Situation: 1st-and-10 on the Rams' 10-yard line
The argument I just made for Wide Right has a slight caveat. As impactful and championship-deciding as Norwood's kick was, I refuse to allow a field goal attempt—made or missed—be named THE most memorable play in Super Bowl history.
And because it's tough to choose from the last-minute touchdown catches of Plaxico Burress, Santonio Holmes and John Taylor, I wanted to pick a far more unique situation.
That came in Super Bowl XXXIV.
Defense wins championships? Well, in the case of Mike Jones, it was absolutely true. His tackle of Kevin Dyson one yard shy of the goal line preserved the Rams' improbable Super Bowl title. Without it, the game would have gone to overtime (would Jeff Fisher really have tried a two-point conversion?), and who knows what might have happened.
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