The Greatest Plays in Super Bowl History

Scott Bischoff@@Bischoff_ScottCorrespondent IIJanuary 30, 2013

The Greatest Plays in Super Bowl History

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    The Super Bowl is the ultimate destination for NFL greatness, and every so often, a play is made that turns into the stuff of legend. 

    These memorable moments originate from not only the star players, but also the unknown heroes. 

    Sometimes it is the coach who decides to make a certain call that might lead a player to do something special, and the decision is what goes down in history.

    The players and coaches involved in these spectacular showings have done something so remarkable it is forever attached to our football soul. It is an impression so tremendous that the mere mention of a name brings an instant recall of the play itself, evoking an emotion that makes you feel the play all over again.

    Here are the 10 greatest plays in Super Bowl history.

10. New Orleans Saints' Onside Kick to Start the Second Half in Super Bowl XLIV

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    The New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts played a tight first half of football in Super Bowl XLIV on February 7, 2010.

    The Colts came out and played well early, scoring the game’s first 10 points. They held the Saints' powerful offense in check, allowing only two Garrett Hartley field goals in the first half. At halftime, the Colts were up by a score of 10-6.

    It was clear the Saints needed something to get them going, and head coach Sean Payton felt the team needed an extra possession coming into the game because of the Colts' high-flying attack.

    No one saw the onside kick coming.

    Payton couldn’t find what he was looking for in a fake punt in the first half and resorted to the onside kick to start the second half. It is clear that Payton was desperate coming out of the tunnel and wanted to do everything in his power to win the ballgame.

    He made the decision and advised his team in the locker room that it was to start the second half with the “ambush” play.

    The officials came out for the second-half kickoff and set up the ball on the tee, but Payton didn’t like how the ball was going to be kicked toward the Colts sideline.

    He didn’t want the scrum on the Colts sideline. He asked the officials to change the side of the field his team would defend starting the third quarter, ensuring that the kick would be recovered near his bench.

    Rookie punter Thomas Morstead made the perfect onside kick. Saints safety Chris Reis initially looked to recover the ball, but there was a gigantic pile of players. It was 63 seconds before the decision came that Reis did indeed recover the ball. 

    The recovery seemed to energize the Saints. Six plays later, they scored their first touchdown of the game on a 16-yard screen pass to running back Pierre Thomas.

    The call for the onside kick is one of the gutsiest and ballsiest decisions in Super Bowl history. If the onside kick had been recovered by the Colts, it would have been an enormous blow to the Saints.

    However, destiny was on the Saints' side, as they recovered the kick, and New Orleans rode the emotional wave to a 31-17 upset victory over the Indianapolis Colts to win Super Bowl XLIV.

9. Desmond Howard's 99-Yard Kickoff Return for a Touchdown in Super Bowl XXXI

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    The New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers met in Super Bowl XXXI on January 26, 1997 in an offensive shootout. It was the first time the Packers had been to the Super Bowl in 29 years, and it marked then-Packers quarterback Brett Favre’s first appearance in the big game.

    The Patriots came into the game riding quarterback Drew Bledsoe’s arm. They also had a strong running game featuring running back Curtis Martin. A high-scoring game was expected, and it certainly lived up to the hype.

    The game featured a slew of momentum shifts, as the Packers came out and scored the first 10 points. The Patriots charged back and scored 14 straight points to take a 14-10 lead after one quarter. Led by huge plays from Favre, the Packers scored 17 straight of their own and were up 27-14 at halftime.

    The game tightened as the Patriots closed to within six points on an 18-yard Martin run late in the third quarter. With three minutes, 27 seconds remaining in the third, Desmond Howard lined up in the end zone, ready to return the kickoff.

    Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri launched the ball high, and Howard received it at his own 1-yard line with 3:24 on the clock. He ran straight up the middle and looked as if he was launched out of a cannon. He was barely touched on the return, leaving all of the Patriots in his dust. The touchdown ended the Patriots' attempt to come back in the game.

    With 3:12 left in the third quarter, Howard entered the Patriots' end zone and put himself into Super Bowl history. It is the moment he cemented the MVP as the game’s most valuable player, finishing with 244 return yards and the touchdown.

8. Marcus Allen's 74-Yard Touchdown Run in Super Bowl XVIII

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    Los Angeles Raiders running back Marcus Allen is one of the best running backs to play in the NFL. He was a dual threat and played when the game was intensely physical.

    Allen and the Los Angeles Raiders met the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII on January 22, 1984 in a matchup of teams that were polar opposites. Al Davis and his high-flying Raiders were a different group of guys, and there wasn’t a lot of love for the Silver and Black in the NFL.

    The play was the last one of the third quarter. Allen took the handoff and went up the middle, but he had to bounce the ball outside to the left because there was nowhere to take the ball. He went left, but yet again had nowhere to go.

    He bounced back to the middle and inside, then truly hit the gas pedal. Allen ran through what looked like the entire Redskins defense and took the ball 74 yards for a touchdown.

    This play wasn't a game-winner and didn’t alter the outcome. However, it was the moment when all of the Raiders realized they were going to win the world championship. It was the point when the celebration began; when the players could finally relax knowing the game was over.

    Allen won the MVP for his performance, and the highlight was the 74-yard touchdown. It is one of the greatest runs in Super Bowl history. Allen finished with 191 rushing yards from 20 carries and 18 yards from two receptions, scoring two touchdowns.

7. James Harrison's 100-Yard Interception Return for a TD in Super Bowl XLIII

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals met in Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009.

    The Cardinals rode an offensive wave with players like quarterback Kurt Warner and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, and the Steelers relied on their defense and a young quarterback named Ben Roethlisberger.

    The 100-yard interception return by Steelers linebacker James Harrison is one of the craziest plays in Super Bowl history. 

    Harrison started out on his journey by dropping into coverage and jumping a slant route by Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin. He picked off the pass and took it to his own 40-yard line, where he ran into a pile of players, including Warner and Cardinals tight end Ben Patrick.

    Somehow, Harrison stayed on his feet.

    He continued down the sideline and had to leap over Tim Hightower at the Cardinals' 30-yard line. It looked like he was out of gas, as offensive lineman Mike Gandy dove at his feet at the Cardinals' 10-yard line, but he again stayed up.

    Harrison sluggishly continued on, and Fitzgerald and fellow receiver Steve Breaston looked like they were going to track him down. They both collided with him at the Cardinals' 1-yard line, all falling into the end zone.

    There needed to be a review to determine whether Harrison broke the plane and actually scored.

    If the review had determined that Harrison did not break the plane, the play would have stood as a 99-yard interception return and nothing more, because there was no time left on the clock. The Steelers would have received no points from the play, and the score would have remained 10-7 in favor of the Steelers.

    When the review came back, the officials held up the call on the field. It was a touchdown for the Steelers, putting them up 17-7 at the half.

    This is one of the most improbable plays in Super Bowl history. It was a brilliant play by Harrison, who did an unbelievable job of staying on his feet.

6. Joe Montana's Game-Winning TD Pass to John Taylor in Super Bowl XXIII

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    San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana had won Super Bowls in 1982 and 1985, so he didn’t come into the 1989 Super Bowl as an unknown. Still, when the Cincinnati Bengals kicked a field goal with three minutes and 20 seconds remaining in the game to take a 16-13 lead, they had to be happy with their situation.

    The 49ers started their final drive with 3:10 on the clock, staring at 92 yards of turf between them and glory. Niners head coach Bill Walsh had decided to take advantage of a tired Bengals defense by throwing short slant passes out of the no-huddle formation.

    Up to this point in Super Bowl history, no quarterback had ever taken his team the length of the field to win the game in the final minute. There was only one other Super Bowl that was decided in the last minute, and that was Super Bowl V, decided by a field goal.

    Montana, poised and composed, marched the 49ers down the field all the way to the Bengals' 10-yard line. He called a timeout with 39 seconds remaining on the clock. Walsh and Montana talked about their options and agreed on a play called “20 Halfback Curl, X Up.”

    Montana lined directly under center with receiver Jerry Rice going in motion from right to left. Running back Roger Craig was lined up to Montana’s right, and a fullback is to Montana’s left. John Taylor lines up as a tight end, directly next to the left tackle.

    Montana called for the snap, and Rice ran into the left flat as Craig ran a crossing route underneath. Taylor ran right up the left seam, and Montana threw him a bullet of a pass. Taylor scored what ended up being the game-winning touchdown with 34 seconds remaining in the game.

    Rice had a record-setting day, catching 11 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown, but the catch that mattered was Taylor’s. It was his only catch of the day, but it was one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history.

    At the time, Montana became the only quarterback in history to lead his team to a last-minute game-winning touchdown drive. It cemented Montana’s status as one of the best quarterbacks to play in the NFL.

5. Mike Jones Tackles Kevin Dyson at the 1-Yard Line in Super Bowl XXXIV

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    The St. Louis Rams had a magical season in 1999, but it started horribly with an injury to prized starting quarterback Trent Green. The Rams had to go to backup quarterback Kurt Warner, whose subsequent rise from complete unknown to rock star was meteoric.  

    The Tennessee Titans were in their first season in Tennessee after moving from Houston. They also had a little magic going for them. The Titans got to the Super Bowl via the “Music City Miracle”, a lateral pass from tight end Frank Wycheck to wide receiver Kevin Dyson that some still consider to be an illegal forward pass.

    Super Bowl XXXIV started extremely slowly, as both offenses struggled to get anything going. The Rams kicked three field goals in the first half and led 9-0 at halftime. Both teams scored a touchdown in the third quarter, but the Titans’ two-point conversion failed, and they trailed 16-6 after three quarters.

    It set the stage for one of the most exciting quarters in football history. The Titans grounded out a touchdown on running back Eddie George’s two-yard run that brought the Titans to within three points. With two minutes, 15 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Titans kicker Al Del Greco made a 43-yard field goal to tie the game at 16.

    The Rams had the ability to strike quickly, and they did just that. Warner hit wide receiver Isaac Bruce on the first play after the field goal for a 73-yard touchdown. The touchdown happened too quickly though, and it gave the Rams defense no time to rest.

    Unbelievably, Titans quarterback Steve McNair drove his team to the Rams' 10-yard line and called for a timeout with six seconds on the clock. There was time for one more play, and the Titans had the Rams defense reeling.

    The Titans wanted to pull Rams linebacker Mike Jones away from the middle of the field, using a route by tight end Frank Wycheck and running a slant to Dyson behind Wycheck. The Titans were hopeful that the area would be cleared out and Dyson could run the slant, catch the pass and break an arm tackle by a cornerback to get into the end zone.

    Jones didn’t bite on Wycheck as hard as the Titans wanted, and he stayed in a good position to make the play on Dyson. Jones recognized the slant pattern happening and closed on Dyson with his right hand on Dyson’s hip and his left arm wrapping up Dyson’s feet.

    The tackle saved the game for the Rams and left the Titans a mere one yard short of tying the game and having a shot at winning the Super Bowl in overtime. It will go down as one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history.

4. Broncos QB John Elway Goes Helicopter in Super Bowl XXXII

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    John Elway was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 1983, but he held out because he wanted to play for a different team. After threatening to play baseball with the New York Yankees, the Colts finally sent Elway to the Denver Broncos via a trade.

    The Broncos saw instant success with Elway at the helm. The Broncos reached the Super Bowl in 1987, 1988 and 1990, but lost in all three games.

    Eight seasons went by before Elway got another shot at the Super Bowl. This time, the Broncos were facing the defending champion Green Bay Packers, and it didn’t appear Denver had much of a shot. 

    With three minutes left in the third quarter and the score tied at 17, Elway took a snap on 3rd-and-6 from the Packers' 12-yard line. He dropped back and looked right, left and then up the middle. The coverage was good, and he couldn't find anywhere to go with the ball.

    Elway tucked the ball and ran, needing six yards for a first down. Close to the first-down marker, he chose not to go out of bounds and settle for a field goal. Instead, Elway decided to take on the Packers defense by himself.

    Packers safety LeRoy Butler met him at the marker, and the 37-year-old Elway tried to jump over and through Butler. At the exact point when Elway and Butler came together, two other Packers converged, and the collision sent Elway’s body up in the air and sideways like the blades of a helicopter.

    Elway landed on the 4-yard line for the first down. Shortly after the first-down run, Broncos running back Terrell Davis scored a one-yard touchdown to put the Broncos up 24-17.

    The Broncos ended up winning the Super Bowl by a score of 31-24. Elway’s run is remembered the most, and the desire he displayed was breathtaking.

3. Steelers WR Santonio Holmes Catches Game-Winning TD in Super Bowl XLIII

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals played one of the wildest football games in Super Bowl XLIII. From big plays by both offenses to a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown to end the half, this game had a little of everything.

    The Cardinals were down 20-7 through three quarters, and then they exploded. They got two Larry Fitzgerald touchdowns and a safety in the fourth quarter to take a 23-20 lead with 2:37 left in the game.

    The Steelers were cruising through three quarters, but found themselves trailing with one possession left. The Steelers drove the ball down to the Cardinals' 6-yard line, where WR Santonio Holmes made the play of his life.

    Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took the snap and dropped back in the pocket. He looked to his left and started to get uncomfortable. He stepped up in the pocket and threw the ball to the back corner of the end zone, where Holmes was barely open.

    Holmes was triple-covered and right on the boundary. The ball landed perfectly in Holmes’ hands, and miraculously, he managed to keep his feet down while securing the ball.

    It is one of the greatest catches in NFL history, considering the coverage and the sideline, not to mention the fact that the Super Bowl was decided by it.

    Holmes caught four passes during the final drive, and he was responsible for 73 yards of the 78 they needed to get into the end zone. He also was named MVP. 

2. Giants WR David Tyree Makes Unbelievable Catch in Super Bowl XLII

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    New York Giants wide receiver David Tyree and quarterback Eli Manning hooked up on one of the most unbelievable plays the NFL has ever produced.

    The Giants were down 14-10 to the New England Patriots with one minute, 15 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, and they faced a 3rd-and-5 from their own 44-yard line.

    Manning took the snap and immediately faced pressure. He had to step up in the pocket to avoid the outside rush. Patriots linebacker Adalius Thomas got a handful of jersey and pulled Manning backward into open space.

    Manning heaved the ball down the field toward Tyree, who was covered by Patriots safety Rodney Harrison. As the ball landed in Tyree’s hands, Harrison swiped to knock the ball out. He pulled Tyree’s right arm away from the ball, and the ball moved onto Tyree’s helmet. Tyree still had a light hold with his right hand and pressed the ball into his helmet as he is fell to the ground.

    The ball seemed glued to Tyree's helmet as he fought to get his hands in a better, more firm position. 

    As Tyree hit the ground, he extended his hands out and hung on tight. It is incomprehensible that Tyree caught this ball, but he did. It gave the Giants a first down at the Patriots' 24-yard line.

    Shortly after the Tyree catch, Manning hit wide receiver Plaxico Burress in the corner of the end zone with 39 seconds left to give the Giants a 17-14 lead. The Giants would go on to win Super Bowl XLII, and Tyree’s catch will continue to linger in the minds of those who witnessed something so unbelievable.

1. Redskins RB John Riggins Scores TD on 4th-and-1 in Super Bowl XVII

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    The Washington Redskins met the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII in a matchup showcasing a horde of greats like Joe Gibbs, Don Shula and Joe Theismann.

    The game was a physical battle with both defenses in control. Early in the fourth quarter, the Redskins found themselves down 17-13 while staring at a 4th-and-1 from Miami's 43-yard line.

    The Redskins couldn’t make a field goal from that far, and a punt wasn’t going to help them either, especially if it went in the end zone for a touchback. There was little else to do but call on running back John Riggins.

    This run is the greatest in Super Bowl history. It was also certainly the most dramatic, as it led to everything that came to the Redskins that night and after.

    The play-call was “70 Chip” and designed to run off the left tackle and isolate the bigger Riggins on a smaller cornerback. To say it worked to perfection is an understatement.

    Riggins took the ball off tackle and got stuffed at the line by defensive back Don McNeal. McNeal hit him too high and held on for dear life, but Riggins was too big and strong to be brought down by such a small player. Riggins simply bounced off of him and rumbled for a 43-yard touchdown.

    This was the perfection of football. Down a score on 4th-and-1, the Redskins went for it and were rewarded with a Super Bowl win by a score of 27-17.

    Riggins’ run down the sideline is the greatest play in Super Bowl history.

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