The 25 Best Individual Performances in Super Bowl History
Who will we be talking about for years to come after the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers finish their business in Super Bowl XLVII at the Superdome?
Taking 46 Super Bowl champions and sorting out the best individual performances is nothing if not labor-intensive. Depending on your rooting interest and your own individual memory, it always makes for spirited discussion as well (no name-calling, please).
Here’s our best guess when it comes to the top 25 Super Bowl efforts. Hardly surprising is the fact that one particular Hall of Famer appears in this presentation more than once.
What are the criteria for these rankings? It’s important to recognize all facets of the game, and we did our best to do so. Some of these performances are so obvious that you’re probably splitting hairs when it comes to ranking them in some sort of order.
Here’s hoping we did a super job...
25. Los Angeles Raiders CBs Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes (Super Bowl XVIII)
The defending Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins, who scored a then-record 541 points in 1983 (still the sixth-highest total in a season in NFL history), were no match for the Los Angeles Raiders this day in Tampa.
The Silver and Black cruised to a 38-9 win.
Although running back Marcus Allen captured MVP honors, it was cornerbacks Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes who did a number on Redskins wide receivers Art Monk and Charlie Brown.
Washington quarterback Joe Theismann, the league’s MVP that season, completed just 16 of 35 passes, was sacked six times and was picked off twice, once by Haynes. Monk and Brown combined for just four receptions for 119 yards—60 of those coming on one catch and run by Brown.
24. Buffalo Bills RB Thurman Thomas (Super Bowl XXV)
We all know what happened to the Buffalo Bills in each of their four Super Bowl appearances, but the first one versus the New York Giants may have been the hardest to swallow.
It’s hard to fault Pro Football Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas for his performance against Bill Parcells’ team in Tampa considering the Bills had the ball less than 20 minutes in the game.
Thomas rushed for a game-high 135 yards and a score on just 15 carries. He added 55 yards receiving on five catches.
But it was the Giants who took home the prize courtesy of a 20-19 victory, as Marv Levy’s team got a lesson in physical football and ball control from Parcells and company.
23. Oakland Raiders LT Art Shell (Super Bowl XI)
The Oakland Raiders had waited a while to get back to the Super Bowl and even a little longer to win one, but they put on quite a show in the Rose Bowl at Pasadena, handling the Minnesota Vikings via a 32-14 win.
John Madden’s team rolled up 429 total yards, including 266 yards on the ground, as the Raiders started slow but by halftime owned a 16-0 lead.
Oakland pushed around a pretty formidable Vikings defensive line that featured Hall of Famers Alan Page and Carl Eller, as well as standout end Jim Marshall. But the Raiders had their own stars on the offensive front, led by left tackle Art Shell, who prevented Marshall from making a tackle in the contest.
22. Dallas Cowboys QB Troy Aikman (Super Bowl XXVII)
In a game probably known more for the number nine, it was a No. 8 who stepped to the forefront.
The Dallas Cowboys won their first of three Super Bowls in a four-year period courtesy of a 52-17 demolition of the Buffalo Bills. Marv Levy’s team set a Super Bowl record by turning over the football nine times this day at the Rose Bowl.
Meanwhile, Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman and crew were ready to take advantage of Buffalo’s shaky play. The Dallas signal-caller was on his game, completing 22 of 30 passes for 273 yards and four touchdowns on the way to MVP honors.
And to think, the Bills owned a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
21. Green Bay Packers KR Desmond Howard (Super Bowl XXXI)
Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre threw for 246 yards and a pair of touchdowns, plus ran for a score and completed a pass for a two-point conversion.
Packers defensive end Reggie White totaled three sacks of New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe.
But it was Green Bay kick returner Desmond Howard who struck a pose with game MVP honors in the Packers’ 35-21 win.
The former Heisman Trophy winner rolled up 244 yards on punt and kickoff returns and helped give Mike Holmgren’s team a 14-point edge when he returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown just after the Pats had narrowed Green Bay’s lead to 27-21 in the third quarter.
Pretty sensational stuff.
20. Dallas Cowboys FS James Washington (Super Bowl XXVIII)
How ‘bout that defense?
Sometimes overlooked in the Dallas Cowboys' two-game sweep of the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII was the play of the Pokes’ defense, which held the Bills to 17 and 13 points, respectively, in those victories.
But there was no missing Cowboys free safety James Washington at the Georgia Dome this day. With his team trailing 13-6 early in the third quarter, the opportunistic defender grabbed a fumble by Bills running back Thurman Thomas and returned it 46 yards for a touchdown.
By game’s end, Washington also forced a fumble and picked off Bills quarterback Jim Kelly on the first play of the fourth quarter. He finished with 11 tackles as Dallas blanked Buffalo in the second half on its way to a 30-13 win.
19. Washington Redskins WR Ricky Sanders (Super Bowl XXII)
Sometimes forgotten amongst the Jerry Rices and Lynn Swanns when it comes to Super Bowl lore is the play of a wideout who had his way with a stunned Denver Broncos defense in San Diego one afternoon.
Washington Redskins receiver Ricky Sanders caught touchdown passes of 80 and 50 yards in his team’s 42-10 win in Super Bowl XXII. By game’s end, he had hauled in nine receptions for a total of 193 yards—the second-most receiving yards in a Super Bowl behind Rice’s 215 yards one year later (XXIII).
Both of Sanders’ touchdowns came in the second quarter, when the Redskins orchestrated possibly the most explosive 15 minutes of football in league history.
So when you’re battling it out in Super Bowl trivia this week, don’t lose on Ricky’s numbers.
18. New England Patriots LB Mike Vrabel (Super Bowl XXXVIII)
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was tremendous in his team’s 32-29 win over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
The game’s MVP completed 32 of 48 passes for 354 yards and three touchdowns with one interception, and he drove his team downfield in the final minute-plus to set up kicker Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning field goal.
But what more could linebacker Mike Vrabel do that day at Reliant Stadium (besides making sure that Janet Jackson’s wardrobe didn’t malfunction at halftime)?
By game’s end, the former Ohio State Buckeye had caught his usual touchdown pass from Brady. But he also came up with six tackles and a pair of sacks, as well as a forced fumble in the team’s three-point win.
Vrabel’s versatility epitomized the current Patriots, and it’s unfortunate he somehow didn’t garner co-MVP honors with his total performance.
17. St. Louis Rams QB Kurt Warner (Super Bowl XXXIV)
It’s one of the great stories in NFL annals.
In 1999, the St. Louis Rams were beginning year three under head coach Dick Vermeil. Veteran Trent Green was the team’s quarterback, but that all ended in the preseason when he was lost with a knee injury.
Boy, did they ever—although newly acquired running back Marshall Faulk had a major role as well in this storybook season.
But Warner led the club to a 13-3 record and all the way to a Super Bowl showdown with the Tennessee Titans at the Georgia Dome.
A 16-0 lead by the Rams turned into a 16-16 tie in the fourth quarter. But Warner would finish with a pair of touchdowns and a Super Bowl-record 414 passing yards, 73 of which came on a scoring pass to wideout Isaac Bruce with 1:54 remaining. Vermeil and company held on for a 23-16 win.
16. Miami Dolphins DT Manny Fernandez (Super Bowl VII)
It remains the lowest-scoring game of the 46 Super Bowls.
But it also featured one of the most legendary teams in NFL history.
Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins capped off a 17-0 season with a 14-7 victory over the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
George Allen’s Redskins were led by the 1972 league MVP, running back Larry Brown (not to be confused with the legendary basketball coach or the Cowboys’ defensive back and Super Bowl XXX MVP). But he had a tough afternoon against the Dolphins’ fabled “No Name Defense” and, in particular, defensive tackle Manny Fernandez.
Brown managed just 72 yards rushing on 22 carries, and his longest gain of the afternoon was only 11 yards.
You can thank Fernandez for that, as the Dolphins defender totaled 10 tackles and a sack in Miami’s historic victory.
15. Denver Broncos RB Terrell Davis (Super Bowl XXXII)
This is one of the great games in Super Bowl history that sometimes gets lost in the discussion.
The Denver Broncos had four Super Bowl losses on their resume—three of those during the NFC’s 13-game winning streak over the AFC on Super Sunday. But quarterback John Elway and company stunned the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers 31-24 in Super Bowl XXXII at San Diego.
While Elway’s famous “whirlybird” run to get a first down was the contest’s signature moment, Broncos running back Terrell Davis was this Super Bowl’s signature player. The game MVP proved to be a headache for the Packers defense, rushing for 157 yards and three touchdowns in the seven-point win.
As we found out via Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, this one was for John. And it came about thanks to Davis and a great effort from a much-deserving team.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers MLB Jack Lambert (Super Bowl XIV)
The Pittsburgh Steelers won four Super Bowls in a six-year span and remain the only franchise in the league to win back-to-back Super Bowl titles twice.
Their roster in the 1970s proved to be loaded with Hall of Fame performers, such as quarterback Terry Bradshaw, running back Franco Harris, defensive tackle Joe Greene and linebacker Jack Ham, to name a few.
But perhaps no player epitomized that era more than fiery middle linebacker Jack Lambert, who was always ready to play and always came up big.
In this Super Bowl against the 9-7 Los Angeles Rams, Lambert made his presence felt all day in a back-and-forth tilt between the clubs. The Hall of Fame defender totaled 14 tackles, and his fourth-quarter interception of Rams quarterback Vince Ferragamo was the pivotal moment of the contest.
13. San Francisco 49ers QB Joe Montana (Super Bowl XXIII)
Quarterback Joe Montana led the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl championships and captured Most Valuable Player honors in three of those efforts.
This was not one of them, although the Pro Football Hall of Famer turned in another solid performance.
In one of the more lackluster Super Bowls, the 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals struggled to find the end zone this day in Miami.
If you saw the game, it’s almost hard to believe that Montana finished with 357 yards through the air. But the 'Niners quarterback saved his clutch best for last, throwing both of his touchdown passes in the fourth quarter.
While trailing in the final minutes, Montana led his team on an 11-play, 92-yard drive that culminated in a 10-yard touchdown pass to wideout John Taylor with 34 seconds remaining to give the 49ers a stirring 20-16 victory.
12. Oakland Raiders LB Rod Martin (Super Bowl XV)
Although the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs won Super Bowl IV without winning a division title, it was the Oakland Raiders who technically became the first wild-card team to win a Super Bowl title.
The Raiders’ 27-10 win over the Philadelphia Eagles at the Superdome featured a lot of heroes.
Riches to rags to riches quarterback Jim Plunkett capped off an improbable year by winning Super Bowl XV Most Valuable Player honors, with two of his three touchdown passes against the Birds going to speedy Cliff Branch.
But it was unheralded linebacker Rod Martin who really made a name for himself this day. The Oakland defender totaled five tackles and a Super Bowl-record three interceptions, the first coming on Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski’s first pass attempt of the game.
The play set the tone for the day in New Orleans, and the Silver and Black were indeed back.
11. Washington Redskins RB Timmy Smith (Super Bowl XXII)
Talk about your one-hit wonder.
While Dexys Midnight Runners gave us “Come On Eileen,” it was the Washington Redskins who gave us running back Timmy Smith—a surprise in the starting lineup when the team took the field against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII.
But surprise turned to shock as Smith, a rookie from Texas Tech drafted in the fifth round in April, lit up the Broncos defense for a Super Bowl-record 204 yards rushing and a pair of touchdowns in his team’s 42-10 win.
The inability of the Denver defense to stop the young back also made the words “counter trey” a household phrase via then-ABC announcer Dan Dierdorf.
But perhaps even more astounding than his 22 carries in San Diego was the fact that, by 1989, Smith was no longer with the team. His career ended with a one-game stint with the Dallas Cowboys in 1990.
10. New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees (Super Bowl XLIV)
Who would have ever thought it?
From perennial doormat to Super Bowl XLIV champions, the 2009 New Orleans Saints capped off an incredible season with a surprise 31-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts in South Florida.
Head coach Sean Payton pulled out all the stops in what proved to be the franchise’s shining moment. But no one glowed more that day than quarterback Drew Brees, who shook off a sluggish quarter and helped lead his team to a surprising win.
Brees completed 82.1 percent of his passes (32-of-39) for 288 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and he also connected on a two-point conversion to wide receiver Lance Moore during the team’s 15-point fourth quarter.
The Saints quarterback’s numbers are even more impressive when you consider that four of his seven incompletions for the game came in the first quarter.
Now dat is some fancy passing.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers WR Lynn Swann (Super Bowl X)
These days in the NFL, four catches by a player in a game doesn’t usually garner a lot of attention.
In the case of Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann in Super Bowl X, though, three of his four receptions against the Dallas Cowboys that afternoon have earned a place in many football fans’ memories.
That’s because the then-second-year pro hauled in four passes for a total of 161 yards, including a 64-yard grab in the fourth quarter that proved to be the deciding touchdown in the team’s exciting 21-17 win.
Between his amazing sideline reception that netted 32 yards (after getting one and then both feet in bounds), the bobbling 53-yard connection that saw him grab the ball before he hit the turf and his perfect post pattern score via quarterback Terry Bradshaw, Swann (the game’s MVP) made it a long day for the Dallas secondary—and most of it came at the expense of cornerback Mark Washington.
8. San Francisco 49ers WR Jerry Rice (Super Bowl XXIII)
While most people remember the thrilling conclusion to Super Bowl XXIII and rank it amongst the best of the 46 Super Bowls, this was far from a classic for three quarters.
The Cincinnati Bengals and San Francisco 49ers played to a 3-3 tie at halftime, and while Sam Wyche’s offensive unit never scored a touchdown this day, Bill Walsh’s team didn’t find the end zone until the fourth quarter.
However, 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice was pretty steady from start to finish. The Hall of Fame wideout had nearly half (11) of quarterback Joe Montana’s 23 completions and finished with 215 of Montana’s 357 yards through the air. The catches are tied for the most in a Super Bowl, and the yardage is a Super Bowl record.
Rice caught a 14-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to give his team the lead. But it was teammate John Taylor’s score in the final minute that’s embedded in our minds.
7. Washington Redskins QB Doug Williams (Super Bowl XXII)
After one quarter in Super Bowl XXII, it looked like football fans were in for another Super rout.
By halftime, this was indeed the case, only with a bit of a twist.
After a three-and-out by the Washington Redskins on the first possession of the game, Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Nattiel on his team’s first play from scrimmage. The next time Denver had the ball, it resulted in a field goal.
Ahead 10-0 less than six minutes into the contest, the blowout was on.
And boy, was it ever...
Redskins quarterback Doug Williams rebounded from a forgettable first quarter with a memorable second quarter, throwing four touchdown passes (80, 27, 50 and eight yards), and his team racked up 35 points and 356 yards alone in that 15-minute span. Denver never scored again in what amounted to a crushing 42-10 loss, and the Washington quarterback was on his way to Super Bowl MVP honors.
Williams (who did throw an interception in the third quarter) finished the game with 340 yards through the air (on 18-of-29 passing), and the Redskins finished with a Super Bowl-record 602 total yards in the process.
6. Los Angeles Raiders RB Marcus Allen (Super Bowl XVIII)
It was perhaps one of the best games ever played by a team against a very formidable opponent.
The 1983 Washington Redskins remain one of the highest-scoring teams in NFL history with 541 points. They also put a combined 75 points on the board in playoff wins over the Los Angeles Rams (51-7) and San Francisco 49ers (24-21).
But everything that could go wrong did for Joe Gibbs’ team this day in Tampa. The ‘Skins gave up offensive (pass), defensive (interception) and special teams (blocked punt) touchdowns in the first half.
Then, second-year running back Marcus Allen went to work for the Silver and Black. He finished the day with 191 yards rushing and two touchdowns in the team’s 38-9 win.
However, it was Allen’s scintillating 74-yard scoring run in the third quarter that has to be seen as one of the signature plays in the history of the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, no writer can do that amazing moment justice.
5. San Francisco 49ers QB Joe Montana (Super Bowl XIX)
The San Francisco 49ers (15-1) and Miami Dolphins (14-2) arrived at Super Bowl XIX with an amazing combined 29-3 record.
Dolphins second-year quarterback Dan Marino showed up in Palo Alto after throwing an NFL-record 48 touchdown passes during the regular season.
But it was 49ers quarterback Joe Montana who left the stadium that day with another Super Bowl title.
In San Francisco’s 38-16 win, the Niners signal-caller connected on 24 of 35 throws for 331 yards and three scores without an interception. Montana also frustrated the Miami defense by running for 59 yards and a touchdown.
It was quite a performance for Bill Walsh’s team, which owned a 28-16 lead at halftime and, by game’s end, rolled up 537 total yards.
4. San Francisco 49ers QB Steve Young (Super Bowl XXIX)
The third time was truly the charm for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young.
After leading his team to the NFC Championship Game in 1992 and 1993 and coming up short both times to the Dallas Cowboys, Young and the Niners finally got the job done. Thanks to a fast start, George Seifert’s club disposed of the two-time defending Super Bowl champion via a 38-28 win in the NFC title game.
Young wasted little time in his team’s 49-26 destruction of the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX in South Florida. The Hall of Fame signal-caller threw touchdown passes on his team’s first two possessions and by game’s end had thrown for a Super Bowl-record six scores, completing 24 of 36 passes for 325 yards.
Goodbye, monkey. Hello, Lombardi Trophy.
3. Washington Redskins RB John Riggins (Super Bowl XVII)
Washington Redskins running back John Riggins got an A vs. the “Killer B's.”
Thirty years ago (1982), the National Football League season was shortened to nine games due to a players strike.
Because of the unusual circumstances, the ’82 postseason was turned into a 16-team Super Bowl tournament, meaning more than half of the league’s 28 teams would have a shot at winning Super Bowl XVII in Pasadena.
But it proved to be quite the four-game run for the 8-1 Redskins and Riggins, who ran for 100-plus yards in each of the team’s first three playoff games and then saved his best for the Miami Dolphins at the Rose Bowl.
“The Diesel” set a Super Bowl record with 38 attempts and rushed for 166 yards and the touchdown that put Joe Gibbs’ team ahead in the fourth quarter en route to a 27-17 win over Don Shula’s Dolphins.
2. San Francisco 49ers QB Joe Montana (Super Bowl XXIV)
While San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana is on this list several times, this is arguably his best overall performance.
In a 55-10 victory over the overwhelmed Denver Broncos at the Superdome, the Hall of Fame signal-caller completed 22 of 29 passes for 297 yards and five touchdowns (covering 20, seven, 38, 28 and 35 yards). Three of those scores went to wide receiver Jerry Rice.
Montana, named game MVP for a record third time, also became the second starting quarterback to win four Super Bowls, joining Pittsburgh Steelers field general Terry Bradshaw.
As for the numbers for “Joe Cool” in those four games, try 11 touchdown passes and zero interceptions.
1. New York Giants QB Phil Simms (Super Bowl XXI)
You’ve heard of “can’t-miss prospects.”
New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms nearly had a can't-miss game on the biggest sports stage of them all.
The oft-criticized signal-caller and his team trailed the Denver Broncos 10-9 at halftime. But it would be a much different story after intermission. Simms completed all of his passes in the second half, and his team rolled to a 39-20 victory at the Rose Bowl.
Simms threw for 268 yards and three scores overall. More significantly, Big Blue’s quarterback was red-hot, completing 22 of 25 throws against Denver’s defense.
When it was all said and done, Simms completed 88 percent of his passes—and the Giants were the champions of the ’86 season.