The Super Bowl is where National Football League players become heroes and legends. David Tyree. Santonio Holmes. Eli Manning. John Elway. Joe Montana. Tom Brady. Russell Wilson. All have performed well on the final Sunday of an NFL regular season, and all will live on so long as professional football exists. There is no event in sports like the Super Bowl, and thus Most Valuable Players and other men who perform admirably, step up when moments to do so arise and help their teams win a championship on football’s biggest stage become larger-than-life characters who are beloved – and also hated – by football fans.
Some of the true icons in the history of the Super Bowl era were never supposed to be heroes. Take the previously mentioned Tyree as an example. Tyree was a third down wide receiver known only to diehard fans of the New York Giants until he left his feet and used the side of his helmet to make what is arguably the most famous catch in the history of pro football. It would be a highlight that gets replayed again and again every fall regardless of when it occurred, but that Tyree’s heroics helped the Giants win a Super Bowl and prevent the New England Patriots from finishing a season with a perfect 19-0 record makes it that much more significant.
A plethora of players and teams were left for dead heading into a Super Bowl Sunday only to then prove their critics wrong and go on to win the Big Game. Included in that list is a team that is, as of the posting of this piece, preparing to play a February football game for the second straight year. The list also features a side that shocked the country when it pulled off the first big upset of the Super Bowl era, one with a quarterback who famously called his shot and guaranteed a victory. That man is in the Hall of Fame.
10. Los Angeles Raiders: Super Bowl XVIII
The Washington Redskins were the defending Super Bowl champions when they finished the 1983 NFL regular season with a league-best record of 14-2. Little could they have imagined what was to happen at Super Bowl XVIII. Los Angeles running back Marcus Allen set what was at the time a Super Bowl record by posting 191 rushing yards. He scored two touchdowns, one of which was a 74-yard run. Allen was deservedly named Most Valuable Player. That game remains to date the only Super Bowl won by a team that called Los Angeles home at the time that it won the game.
9. New Orleans Saints: Super Bowl XLIV
A popular opinion at the time was that Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning was going to add to an already impressive Hall-of-Fame resume with a second Super Bowl victory. He appeared to have the Colts on the verge of tying the game in the fourth quarter when Tracy Porter intercepted Manning before racing down the opposite end of the field. Porter would not be caught, completing a 74-yard journey that ended with the touchdown that put the Colts away for good. That was the first of two rough Super Bowl outings for Manning, but he couldn’t have imagined just how bad his second trip to the Big Game would be.
8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Super Bowl XXXVII
Those making the odds who chose to make the Oakland Raiders favorites over Tampa Bay obviously were not realizing just how much head coach Jon Gruden would mean to the Bucs when facing his former squad. Gruden had his defense practice against Oakland offensive plays that he knew would be run, and his tactics worked out even better than he could have hoped. The Buccaneers jumped out to a 20-3 halftime lead, and they put up 28 points in the second half to vanquish the Raiders. Gruden had his revenge, and all indications are that will be the only Super Bowl ring that he wins as a head coach.
7. New York Giants: Super Bowl XXV
Despite the old adage that teaches us “defense wins championships,” not many gave the Giants much of a chance to stop the high-powered offense of the Buffalo Bills. While the Big Blue Wrecking Crew did struggle against the offense of the Bills, the New York offense held possession of the ball for 41 minutes. Buffalo put up 19 points in 19 minutes of play, but the Bills could not score on their final drive thanks to that Scott Norwood field goal that was famously pushed wide right. It was the first Super Bowl upset in Giants history, one that would be topped a decade and a half later.
6. Kansas City Chiefs: Super Bowl IV
The Chiefs were getting little respect as they prepped to face off with the Minnesota Vikings at Super Bowl IV. Many refused to see the AFL as serious competition for the believed-to-be better NFL, even though the New York Jets of the AFL had just won the Super Bowl the previous season (more on that team later). Kansas City left no doubt when all was said and done, taking a 16-point lead into halftime before putting the game away for good with a touchdown in the third quarter. The Chiefs cruised to a title, while the Vikings still remain a franchise that has never won a Super Bowl.
5. Denver Broncos: Super Bowl XXXII
Green Bay was an 11-point favorite to beat the Denver Broncos and repeat as Super Bowl champions back in January 1998. Denver running back Terrell Davis was not impressed with such predictions. Davis rushed for 157 yards and three touchdowns, the last of which put the Broncos up 31-24 with 1:45 left on the clock. The Denver defense responded by shutting quarterback Brett Favre and the Green Bay offense down, allowing the Denver offense to run the clock out for the win. There was a Super Bowl repeat to be achieved, but it was Denver that accomplished that goal the following January.
4. Seattle Seahawks: Super Bowl XLVIII
The Seahawks beating the Denver Broncos on the first Sunday of February 2014 was not, on its own, an upset. Seattle did not just defeat Denver at MetLife Stadium. That game was over essentially from the first play from scrimmage, and the Seahawks stole the lunch of the Broncos and played Peyton Manning and company right out of the stadium. The 43-8 scoreline is not a full representation for just how badly the Broncos were beaten that night. Seattle had an all-time great performance, and the Seahawks could be in for a repeat. They’ll have to beat Tom Brady, another quarterback bound for the Hall of Fame, to finish the job this time around.
3. New England Patriots: Super Bowl XXXVI
The St. Louis Rams were responsible for “The Greatest Show on Turf” during the 2001 NFL regular season, and they were 14-point favorites over the New England Patriots leading up to the game. New England’s defense kept the high-powered offense of the Rams out of the end zone for three quarters, but St. Louis eventually fought back and tied the contest with under two minutes left on the clock. Tom Brady provided glimpses of how great he was to become when he drove the Patriots down the field, and Adam Vinatieri buried a 48-yard field goal as time expired.
2. New York Giants: Super Bowl XLII
Big Blue was but one final hurdle standing in the way of the New England Patriots finishing the season at 19-0. Eli Manning, David Tyree and the defense of the Giants had other plans. What had been a historically good New England offense was largely held in check, and Manning took the Giants down the field for a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter, a drive that included Tyree making his grab for the ages. Picked by many before the game to be blown out by what was, on paper, a superior New England opponent, the Giants celebrated what is, to date, the best night in franchise history.
1. New York Jets: Super Bowl III
The New York Jets were 17-point underdogs going into the championship game versus the Baltimore Colts when New York quarterback Joe Namath guaranteed that the Jets would pull off the upset victory. Namath and his teammates would then back those words up, defeating the Colts 16-7 to win the first and only Super Bowl championship in the history of the Jets. Namath completed 17 of 28 pass attempts for 206 yards, but he did not have a single touchdown in the winning effort. The lack of a score did not prevent Namath from being named the Most Valuable Player that day.