While we wait for this Sunday’s showdown between the Steelers and the Packers, we’re feeling nostalgic for the big games of our past.
We’ve been spoiled lately with some pretty exciting Super Bowls. But we remember a time not so long ago when the ultimate championship tended to be something of a downer. Sure, this should be the thrilling matchup of the two best teams in the land, but that hasn’t always turned out to be the case.
In fact, we wondered if it wouldn’t be useful to go through all 44 previous games to sift the wheat from the chaff.
We asked the Voice‘s Jockbeat writer Allen Barra to put them in order, from worst to first, keeping in mind not only the big plays and big upsets, but the relative strengths of the teams facing off.
And now, let’s start with the dregs, the five worst Super Bowls of all time…
44: XXXV (No. 35, Jan 28, 2001) Baltimore 34, NY Giants 7
In losing 34-7, the Giants were so bad in this game that there was practically no glory in even having won the NFC. The only consolidation was that the Ravens might have had the greatest defense in NFL history.
43: VIII (No. 8, Jan. 13, 1974) Miami 24, Minnesota 7
Nothing is more tedious than watching a scrambling quarterback run from side to side and back again only to throw an incomplete pass. Perhaps not the worst football game ever played, but probably the dullest.
42: IV (No. 4, Jan. 11, 1970) Kansas City 23, Minnesota 7
Those who weren’t convinced of the AFL’s parity with the older league by Super Bowl III certainly were by the time this fiasco was over. The Vikings put up no fight at all and were out of the game midway through the second quarter.
41: II (No. 2, Jan. 14, 1968) Green Bay 33, Oakland 14
Actually, it’s easy to understand why everyone regarded the NFL as superior after the first two Super Bowls. Vince Lombardi’s Packers were coldly efficient in this game, having left all their fire in the Ice Bowl with the Cowboys; this was just another day at the office.
40: XXVIII (No. 28, Jan 30, 1994) Dallas 30, Buffalo 13
This was a virtual repeat of the previous year’s game except the Cowboys weren’t quire as fired up. All I can remember about it is a camera shot in the second quarter in which Jim Kelly sat staring at the ground — in the second quarter.
39: XXVII (No. 27, Jan 31, 1993) Dallas 52, Buffalo 17
Buffalo was so outclassed in this game that I walked out before halftime. That’s all I can remember about it.
38: IX (No. 9, Jan. 12, 1975) Pittsburgh 16, Minnesota 6
In an era dominated by defense, a ten-point difference in the Super Bowl was a massacre. Once again, Fran Tarkenton was awful, and the Vikings put up no fight at all. Did I say that somewhere else?
37: XXXVII (No. 37, Jan 26, 2003) Tampa Bay 48, Oakland 21
How can two teams that were absolutely equal during the regular season play in a Super Bowl that ended 48-21? That’s what the Oakland Raiders were asking themselves after getting slaughtered by the Bucs in the only all-Pirate Super Bowl. Oakland’s coach Bill Callahan was the biggest moron in pro football history. He forgot that Tampa Bay coach Jon “Chuckie” Gruden had been an assistant coach for the Raiders and had their playbook.
36: XII (No. 12, Jan. 15, 1978) Dallas 27, Denver 10
It’s almost always a boring game when a defensive player is named MVP. You know this one was boring because Cowboys defensive linemen Harvey Martin and Randy White were co-MVPs. Broncos quarterback Craig Morton set an all-time record for ineptitude, out of 15 throws four went to his teammates and four were picked off by Dallas defenders — the Cowboys were a good defensive team, but they weren’t that good.
35: XI (No. 11, Jan. 9, 1977) Oakland 32, Minnesota 14
At his best, Kenny “The Snake” Stabler was as good as any quarterback in the league. In this game he carved up the Vikings’ Purple People Eaters defense worse than Len Dawson, Bob Griese or Terry Bradshaw had ever done to Minnesota.
34: XXII (No. 22 Jan, 31, 1988) Washington 42, Denver 10
John Elway and the Broncos took a 10-0 lead in this game and then watched helplessly as the Redskins scored 42 unanswered points. Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to play in a Super Bowl, threw four touchdown passes, and rookie running back Timmy Smith rushed for 204 yards. I hesitate to put the kind of greatness Williams displayed so low on this list, but what else can you say when one team outscores the other, in a championship game, 42-0 over the final three quarters?
33: XVIII (No. 18, Jan. 22, 1984) LA Raiders 38, Washington 9
The 1983 Redskins were one of the great offensive teams in league history and had beaten the Raiders during the regular season. In this game they quit and went home after the first quarter. Probably the worst performance by a great team ever in the Super Bowl.
32: XV (No. 15, Jan. 25, 1981) Oakland 27, Philadelphia 10
“It’s the outlaws” — the Raiders — “versus the workaholics” — Dick Vermeil’s Eagles. “You know who I’m rooting for,” said George Carlin, hosting the Tonight Show on the Thursday before the game. The Eagles worked too hard and looked spent before the game, which was essentially over in the first quarter.
31: XXI (No. 21, Jan. 25, 1987) NY Giants 39, Denver 20
A game memorable only for the ruthless efficiency of Phil Simms, who was flawless showing up John Elway.
30: XL (No. 40, Feb. 5, 2006) Pittsburgh 21, Seattle 10
Sluggish, dispirited play on both sides of the ball; Roethlisberger had one of the worst Super Bowl days ever by a winning quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck had one of the worst by a loser.
29: XXVI (No. 26, Jan. 26, 1992) Washington 37, Buffalo 24
Yet another miserable Super Bowl performance. The Buffalo Bills could take solace only in the fact that if they had scored on their final possession, they’d have beaten the spread. Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien is forgotten now, but he had 292 yards passing in this game and was great all season long.
28: XXXIII (No. 33, Jan. 31, 1999) Denver 34, Atlanta 19
Dan Reeves, vying for the unofficial title of Worst Coach in Super Bowl history, fielded another flat, unprepared team. This game was memorable only because John Elway was terrific in his final game and Terrell Davis, a terrific running back before his injury, had over 100 yards for his second straight Super Bowl.
27: XIV (No.14 , Jan. 20, 1980) Pittsburgh 31, LA Rams 19
Only football trivia experts remember that someone named Vince Ferragamo was in a Super Bowl, or that he had the LA Rams leading the Pittsburgh Steelers going into the fourth quarter in that game.
26: XIX (No. 19, Jan, 20, 1985) San Francisco 38, Miami 16
Should have been a great game: two terrific passers, Joe Montana and Dan Marino, and two Hall of Fame coaches, the Forty-Niners’ Bill Walsh and the Dolphins’ Don Shula. But one team brought their D, and the other didn’t.
25: XXIX (No. 29, Jan. 29, 1995) San Francisco 49, San Diego 26
On the first series of downs, the Forty-Niners’ Steve Young dropped back and threw something like a 50-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Rice, who was so wide open he should have been insulted. All afternoon Young and Rice looked like camp counselors playing touch with 13-year olds. Were the Chargers the worst team ever to play in the Super Bowl or did the Forty-Niners have the best offense? Maybe both?
If you watch this game, you’ll remember that with about a minute left San Diego got the ball and was threatening to score when a roar went up from those still in attendance. The embarrassed announcers revealed to the home audience that the fans were cheering because the Chargers had a chance to beat the 20-point spread. Didn’t happen, of course.
24: VII (No. 7, Jan 14, 1973) Miami 14, Washington 7
Played in an era that stressed defense and unimaginative offenses, Super Bowl VII is an example of how a game that’s close on paper can be a total bore to watch. The Dolphins, who had a perfect regular season, established in the first quarter that running backs Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Mercury Morris could get four to five yards all day against the Washington’s defense, and it was obvious that Redskins quarterback Billy Kilmer wasn’t going to get a single score against Miami’s Killer Bees. As it turned out, Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian got the Skins a TD pass on perhaps the most famous play in Super Bowl history when, after a blocked field goal attempt dropped in his hands, he flipped the ball into the air to Washington’s Mike Bass, who ran it 49 yards into the end zone. Watch it and skip the rest of the game.
23: VI (No. 6, Jan. 16, 1972) Dallas 24, Miami 3
Don Shula’s Dolphins would win the next two Super Bowls, but they weren’t even in this game as the Cowboys, led by Roger Staubach, easily stuffed them. It could just as easily been 45-3. There was only one thing memorable about the telecast: after the game, CBS’s Tom Brookshire asked Dallas’s Duane Thomas, who had run all over the Dolphins’s D, “Are you really that fast?” Thomas glared at Brookshire for a split second and then replied, “Evidently.”
22: V (No. 5, Jan 17, 1971) Baltimore 16, Dallas 13
This was the first Super Bowl after the two leagues merged, and it was an exciting game if you’re reading a recap. On the field it was yet another example of how a close game can still be a snooze. It was so filled with penalties, bad punts, interceptions and dropped passes that it’s gone down in history as the “Blunder Bowl.” There was one truly astounding play: Johnny Unitas threw a short pass to Eddie Hinton, it went off his hands like a stone skimming over the water, Dallas defensive back Mel Renfro touched it but couldn’t catch it, and it landed in the hands of the astonished tight end, John Mackey, who went for a 74-yard touchdown.
The Colts Jim O’Brien won the game with a short field goal with five second on the clock. Historical note: O’Brien became the last athlete to take a bow on the Ed Sullivan Show.
21: XVII (No. 17, Jan. 30, 1983) Washington 27, Miami 17
Don Shula’s colorless Dolphins made a fight of it and were leading at halftime, but John Riggins rushed for 166 yards to lead a second half comeback for the Redskins.
20: XVI (No. 16, Jan. 24, 1982) San Francisco 26, Cincinnati 21
Not a bad Super Bowl, but it has been overshadowed by the NFC championship game the Forty-Niners played to get there: a victory over Dallas in which Joe Montana and Dwight Clark combined for “The Catch.” Montana and his defensive counterpart, Ronnie Lott, won the first of their four each Super Bowl rings.
19: XXXII (No. 32, Jan. 25, 1998) Denver 31, Green Bay 24
People came to see who was the best quarterback, the Broncos’ John Elway or the Packers’ Brett Favre; they left wondering who was the worst. The game, however, was close and featured a spectacular performance by Denver’s Terrell Davis, who ran for 157 yards and three TDs.
18: XXX (No. 30, Jan. 28, 1996) Dallas 27, Pittsburgh 17
The Steelers were the better team in this game and lost because their inept quarterback, Neil O’Donnell, threw two horrendous passes to wide open Dallas defensive back Larry Brown. If he had just thrown incomplete passes on both plays, the Steelers probably win.
17: XXXI (No. 31, Jan. 26, 1997) Green Bay 35, New England 21
It’s interesting to think that Brett Favre’s entire reputation is practically built on this one game, his only Super Bowl win, and that it was pretty close until former Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard ran a kickoff back 99 yards to put the game out of reach.
16: XLI (No. 41, Feb. 4, 2007) Indianapolis 29, Chicago 17
Will be remembered as the first Super Bowl in which both teams were led by black coaches and also, most likely, as Peyton Manning’s only Super Bowl win. Also, because there was so much fog in Miami’s Dolphin Stadium that you could scarcely see what was going on.
15: XXXIX (No, 39, Feb. 6, 2005) New England 24, Philadelphia 21
Not quite as close as the final score suggested, though the Eagles could have made a better game of it if Coach Andy Reid hadn’t diddled away so much time being indecisive on the sidelines, a blunder for which Donovan McNabb was unjustly criticized. In fact, McNabb was pretty good in this game, passing for 357 yards and 3 TDs against Bill Belichick’s much vaunted defense.
14: I (No. 1, Jan. 15, 1967) Green Bay 35, Kansas City 10
The first Super Bowl (thought not officially called that yet) was a much better game than it’s remembered as. The Packers, with several Hall of Famers — including quarterback Bart Starr, fullback Jim Taylor, tackle Forrest Gregg, defensive end Willie Davis, D-back Herb Adderley, linebacker Ray Nitschke, and safety Willie Wood — were playing an AFL champion with several players who would become recognized as HOFers in the next couple of years (including receiver Otis Taylor and linebacker Willie Lanier).
The heavily favored Packers found the early going surprisingly tough — they led just 14-10 at the half despite a spectacular one-handed touchdown grab by Maxey “The Taxi” McGee, the first TD in super Bowl history. But in the third quarter Willie Wood intercepted a Len Dawson pass to set up Green Bay’s third touchdown, and the rout was on.
13: XIII (No. 12, Jan. 21, 1979) Pittsburgh 35, Dallas 31
Pretty much everything I could say about this game I said about Super Bowl X (below) except this one had nothing comparable to Lynn Swann’s catch. The only blotch on my memory is that it’s more remembered as a game the Cowboys lost than as a game the Steelers won — because, of course, Jackie Smith’s drop of Roger Staubach’s pass in the end zone.
But I swear, to this day it still looks to me a bit like the ball was thrown slightly behind him.
12: III (No. 3, Jan. 12, 1969) NY Jets 16, Baltimore 7
This was the game for which Joe Namath guaranteed a victory — and delivered. Probably the most famous (or at least the most written about) football game ever played. If you really want to understand what Namath was about at his peak and what this game meant to pro football — it was the first Super Bowl victory for the old AFL and signaled the coming era of parity — watch this 22-minute video from NFL Films narrated by the “Voice of God,” the late, great John Facenda and you’ll see the birth of the modern NFL.
11: XXIV (No. 24, Jan. 28, 1990) San Francisco 55, Denver 10
Why recommend the worst slaughter in Super Bowl history so high on this list? Because it’s a chance to watch the greatest all-around team in NFL history at its best. Punch this link and see the man voted the greatest pro football ever, Jerry Rice (so designated by sportswriters and fans in a recent poll by NFL Films), the number three player, Joe Montana, and number ten, safety Ronnie Lot,t stuff John Elway and dismantle the league’s number one-scoring defense that season.
Most blowouts are dull, but watching the 1989 Forty-Niners, especially on offense, has a positive electric charge to it.
10: XXXVIII (No. 38, Feb. 1, 2004) New England 32, Carolina 29
Anyone ever notice that for a dynasty Belichick’s Patriots were never dominant in Super Bowls? They won this one by a field goal (just like they did the others — in four Super Bowls they were just plus six points). This was an exciting, sloppy game, won for the second time on an Adam Vinatieri field goal. Tom Brady was the MVP because his team won, but Carolina’s unheralded quarterback Jake Delhomme outpassed him.
9: XLIV (No. 44, Feb. 7, 2010) New Orleans 31, Indianapolis 17
Let’s stop remembering this one as the Super Bowl Peyton Manning lost and recall it instead as the game Drew Brees won — the Saints’ only Super Bowl win in franchise history. Brees passed for 288 yards, Manning for 333 yards — with just a single bad throw, the one New Orleans cornerback Tracy Porter intercepted with 3:12 to go, running it back 74 yards to touch off the celebration that made Mardi Gras look like a backyard barbecue.
8: XX (No. 20. Jan. 26, 1986) Chicago 46, New England 10
There was no suspense in this game, unless you count New England going up
3-0 in the first quarter. The ’85 Bears were one of the three or four greatest teams in NFL history and had perhaps the greatest defense ever. In addition, they had more colorful characters — “Samurai Mike” Singletary, Jim McMahon, the great Walter “Sweetness” Payton, etc. — than any team ever.
Rather present you with game highlights, let’s watch the real highlight of the season, the bears performing the immortal, Grammy-nominated Super Bowl Shuffle, which raised more than $300,000 for needy families in the Chicago area.
7: XLIII (No. 43, Feb 1, 2009) Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23
This was the most watched Super Bowl in history, probably in large part because the halftime show was Bruce Springsteen. But it also featured perhaps the greatest passing duel ever in a Super Bowl, pitting the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger against the Cardinals’ Kurt Warner, and had more great circus catches — mostly by the Cards’ Larry Fitzgerald and the Steelers’ Santonio Homes — than any other Super Bowl.
The Cardinals were probably one of the weakest teams to make it to the Big One, but Warner was a great gamer — the most underrated quarterback of the decade — and nearly pulled off the upset. Big Ben got the MVP, but it should have gone to Warner, who had a better game against a far tougher defense. Watch the highlights, particularly Holmes’ game-winning catch in the corner of the end zone — a familiar sight to Jets’ fans this season.
6: XXXVI (No. 36, Feb. 3, 2002) New England 20, St, Louis 17
The Patriots’ dynasty began with Adam Vinatieri’s 48-yard field goal as time expired to break a 17-17 tie. Few recall now that the game was a big upset, with the Rams favored by about ten points. For most of the game, the Pats looked liked underdogs, outgained by 160 yards. A great quarterback duel between Kurt Warner and Tom Brady.
5: XXXIV (No. 34, Jan. 30, 2000) St. Louis 23, Tennessee 16
A terrific game, one much closer than the seven points would indicate — in fact, just one yard short of being a tie. It might be the most famous missed yard in NFL history with the Titan’s Kevin Dyson stretching his arm out as far as he could and missing the goal line by inches.
Kurt Warner, the third best big game quarterback in NFL history after Bart Starr and Joe Montana, was outstanding in three Super Bowls — this is the only one of the three that he won, passing for 414 yards. The late great Steve McNair put on a terrific show, passing and scrambling. Neither he or the Titans would ever come this close again.
4: X (No. 10, Jan, 18, 1976) Pittsburgh 21, Dallas 17
Great match-up, great rivals, a roster-full of Hall of Fame players, two great coaches in Chuck Noll and Tom Landry, two great quarterbacks, Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach, fine balance between offense and defense, and one of the truly astonishing catches in pro football history — surely the greatest ever made by a black Republican.
Once, at NFL Films in Mt. Laurel, NJ, I told Steve Sabol that I would love to see that play again. He immediately summoned up the film and ran it for me three times. “Lynn Swann,” he said with a shake of his head, “could catch a snowflake in a wind tunnel.”
3: XXIII (No. 23, Jan. 22, 1989) San Francisco 20, Cincinnati 16
The only thing that keeps me from ranking this one even higher is that, truth to tell, the Forty-Niners were much superior to the Bengals and should have put the game away some time in the third quarter. But you’ll never see Joe Montana lead a better drive than he did on the winning touchdown march in the game, never see Jerry Rice make greater clutch catches, nor see the vastly underrated John Taylor (the guy who lined up on the other end of the formation from Rice) make a bigger grab. With 39 seconds left and down 16-13, Montana, from the ten-yard line, takes three quick steps and fires. It was Taylor’s only catch of the day. (BTW, during the off-season, Taylor’s day job was selling used cars for Reggie Jackson.)
2: XXV (No. 25, Jan, 27, 1991) NY Giants 20, Buffalo 19
Top to bottom, for its tightness, balance between offense and defense, and non-stop suspense until, literally, the last play, this might be the greatest game ever played. I rank it behind Super Bowl XLII only because of the momentous importance of that upset.
The only bad thing about this game was the “choke’ label hung on Buffalo kicker Scott Norwood for missing a 48-yard field goal try with eight seconds on the clock. I bet during his whole career Norwood missed six field goals at that distance for every four he made — and it was snapped to him with the laces out, as you can see.
1: XLII (No. 42, Feb. 3, 2008) NY Giants 17, New England 14
More than the Colts-Giants sudden death game in 1958, more than the Packers-Cowboys Ice Bowl in 1967, this has credentials as the greatest football game ever played. It was a bigger upset than the Joe Namath Jets victory over the Colts in 1969 — we really didn’t know back then whether the Colts were really better than the Jets, we were just guessing. But we knew for sure that, on the evidence of the regular season, the 2007 Patriots were better than the Giants.
No underdog ever made more big plays on both sides of the football, and from Eli Manning’s amazing refusal to go down — and during the regular season wouldn’t a referee been likely to call him in the grasp? — to David Tyree’s grab, that play was the greatest I’ve ever seen. I’m not even a Giants fan, but I treasure my “18-1” T-shirt.