The Super Bowl is the biggest annual event in all of professional sports. Nothing, not even a Champions League Final, matches the last contest on a National Football League calendar as it pertains to pageantry and the “big-game feel” that comes with a Super Bowl. Despite a myriad of controversies and ugly situations that put the NFL under spotlights for reasons that have nothing to do with what occurs out on the field, pro football is more popular today than ever. Millions upon millions of people from around the world will tune in to watch the latest edition of the game regardless of the two teams involved.
Football legends and icons are made on Super Bowl Sunday, creating for themselves and for their teams moments that live on well after they have taken their final snaps as a pro. The famous “Helmet Catch” would be remembered had it happened in Week 7 of an NFL season, but that it occurred at a Super Bowl makes it one of the greatest plays in the history of pro football. David Tyree was, outside of that moment, largely a forgettable NFL player, but that he managed to hold onto the football utilizing his helmet as he was being pulled to the ground made him a mainstay of Super Bowl highlights.
At the opposite end of that play was a quarterback who is often criticized when he does not deserve such ridicule, a man who has twice silenced his critics by leading his offense on historic drives that helped earn the New York Giants two Super Bowl championships. Peyton Manning will deservedly go down as the greatest quarterback in NFL regular season history. He has put up incredible numbers over his Hall-of-Fame career. If, however, you were building a roster for a one-and-done title game, you would be wise to select the younger Manning brother to start at quarterback over Peyton.
20. Terrell Owens – Super Bowl XXXIX
T.O. was not supposed to be fully healed from a fractured fibula and sprained ankle when he took the field for the Philadelphia Eagles at Super Bowl XXXIX. That Owens was able to suit up that evening was incredible on its own, and his play in the game made him worthy of earning Most Valuable Player honors had the Eagles defeated the New England Patriots. Owens hardly looked like a guy still recovering from a serious injury, finishing the contest with nine catches and 122 receiving yards. It remains, despite the final score, one of the greatest performances to ever occur at a Super Bowl.
19. Tracy Porter – Super Bowl XLIV
Peyton Manning had led the Indianapolis Colts into New Orleans Saints territory seeking a game-tying score in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIV. Casual viewers, myself included, were thinking that Manning was but a handful of plays away from finding the end zone, but cornerback Tracy Porter had none of it. Porter read a Manning pass preciously and picked the ball off, and he then raced 74 yards down the opposite end of the field for a touchdown that put the Saints up by 14 points. Thanks to Porter, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees had to only kneel on the ball to close out the game and the title run.
18. Phil Simms – Super Bowl XXI
It is, decades after the fact, comical to know that there was a time when fans of the New York Giants booed Phil Simms. Simms was about as perfect as could be in Super Bowl XXI, hitting the Denver Broncos for 268 passing yards, three touchdowns and completing 22 of 25 pass attempts. It is likely that you will never see a better performance from a quarterback at a Big Game. Somebody may one day equal what Simms did to the Broncos on that day. A QB would have to put up video-game numbers to surpass Simms’ play at that Super Bowl.
17. Entire Chicago Bears Team – Super Bowl XX
Some Super Bowl games are merely bad match-ups that put an over-matched team against a superior opponent. It happens, and it was the case at Super Bowl XX when the Chicago Bears faced off with the New England Patriots. Following a start that included the Bears fumbling the ball away on the second play from scrimmage, Chicago simply had New England’s number despite the fact that running back Walter Payton had a poor showing. The Bears defeated the Patriots 46-10, and there are smart football people who would tell you that this Chicago squad is the best team to ever play in a Super Bowl.
16. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Defense – Super Bowl XXXVII
“Defense wins championships,” teaches the old adage, and it was proven true when the league’s top offense in the Oakland Raiders played against the league’s top defense in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Super Bowl XXXVII. Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden schemed perfectly leading up to playing against his former team, and Gruden’s defense intercepted Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon five times, a Super Bowl record that may stand for a long, long time. The so-called “Gruden Bowl” was not a close encounter, as the Bucs rolled to a 20-3 halftime lead and a 48-20 victory over Oakland.
15. Steve Young – Super Bowl XXIX
The smart pick heading into Super Bowl XXIX was that the San Francisco 49ers were going to rout the San Diego Chargers. That is exactly what happened. Young, as predicted, ripped through the defense of the Chargers, and the Hall-of-Fame quarterback finished the game with 325 passing yards and six touchdowns, the latter being a record for a Super Bowl. While Young was named the game’s Most Valuable Player, understandably when you evaluate his numbers and the overall importance of the quarterback position, that award could have been given to a different member of the San Francisco offense.
14. Jerry Rice – Super Bowl XXIII & XXIX
Rice, the undisputed greatest wide receiver in the history of the game, was named the Most Valuable Player for Super Bowl XXIII after he torched the defense of the Cincinnati Bengals for 215 receiving yards, a touchdown and 11 total grabs. Just as noteworthy, if not more so, was Rice’s play against the San Diego Chargers at Super Bowl XXIX. The all-time great ended that game with 10 grabs, 149 receiving yards and three touchdowns, failing to show signs of playing with a separated shoulder for the bulk of the contest. Rice, a three-time Super Bowl champion, was in a class of his own.
13. Doug Williams – Super Bowl XXII
The Washington Redskins were trailing the Denver Broncos 10-0 after the first quarter of Super Bowl XXII when Williams and the offense of the Redskins went to work. Williams made history on that evening, becoming the first player in Super Bowl history to pass for four touchdowns in a single quarter (the second) and in a single half. In total, Williams completed 18 of 29 pass attempts, and he added 340 passing yards to his four scores. He was an easy pick for the game’s Most Valuable Player award. Denver never recovered from the second quarter, and the Redskins went on to win the game 42-10.
12. Mario Manningham – Super Bowl XLVI
Tyree’s grab gets more mentions each February, but Manningham’s at Super Bowl XLVI may have been better. The New York Giants were trailing 17-15 with 3:46 left in the game when quarterback Eli Manning looked for Manningham 38 yards down the left sideline. Manningham, while blanketed by two defenders, expertly tip-toed the sideline, completed the catch, got both feet down in play and then held onto the football despite taking a big hit. It was a play that kick-started a championship-winning drive, one that cost the New England Patriots a timeout after head coach Bill Belichick challenged the call on the field.
11. David Tyree – Super Bowl XLVI
You cannot have a list of Super Bowl heroes without listing Tyree. Every football fan can envision Tyree securing the football via the side of his helmet while being mugged by Rodney Harrison of the New England Patriots, but some forget that Tyree had a touchdown grab earlier in the fourth quarter. It is, however, his “Helmet Catch” that gets Tyree mentions during Super Bowl telecasts, and he played a massive part in what has been referred to as the greatest single night in the history of the New York Giants. Without Tyree, the Patriots may very well have gone a perfect 19-0.
10. Baltimore Ravens Defense – Super Bowl XXXV
Well before the Seattle Seahawks dominated the Denver Broncos (more on that Super Bowl later), the defense of the Baltimore Ravens humbled the offense of the New York Giants. Baltimore intercepted New York quarterback Kerry Collins on four occasions, and one of those picks was taken to the house for a touchdown. Running back Tiki Barber was held in check, and wide receivers Ike Hilliard and Amani Toomer were non-factors. While Ray Lewis won the Most Valuable Player, the entire Baltimore defense was worthy of that honor for shutting the Giants down after New York had routed the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game.
9. Desmond Howard – Super Bowl XXXI
Howard conjured up memories of his Heisman Trophy days at the University of Michigan while featuring for the Green Bay Packers at Super Bowl XXXI. The Green Bay special teams player hit the New England Patriots for a 99-yard touchdown return at a point when the Patriots were still very much in the contest. That score and the subsequent two-point conversion put the Packers up 35-21, a lead Green Bay held until the final horn sounded. Howard, in total, had 244 all-purpose yards, and he was awarded Most Valuable Player for his play. He is the only returner in history to win that award.
8. Terry Bradshaw – Super Bowl XIII & XIV
Dallas Cowboys linebacker Thomas Henderson was made to feel foolish for suggesting that Bradshaw “couldn’t spell ‘cat’ if you spotted him the ‘c’ and the ‘a’” when the Pittsburgh quarterback set what was, at the time, a Super Bowl record of 318 passing yards and four touchdowns in a winning effort at Super Bowl XIII. Bradshaw followed that up by winning the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award for the second straight year, this time defeating the Los Angeles Rams. He had a pair of touchdowns and 309 passing yards in the victory over the Rams. Bradshaw is one of four players to ever win multiple Super Bowl MVP awards.
7. Seattle Seahawks Defense – Super Bowl XLVIII
The Denver Broncos had a historically-impressive offense at the start of February 2014, and some were predicting that Peyton Manning and the Broncos were going to blow the Seattle Seahawks out at MetLife Stadium. Seattle’s defense was in the heads of the Denver offensive players from the first play from scrimmage, and the Seahawks dominated the Broncos so much that the game was merely background noise for parties in the third quarter. Everybody associated with the Seattle defense on that night deserved Most Valuable Player recognition, as that entire unit made Manning and the Broncos appear less than average rather than elite.
6. Santonio Holmes – Super Bowl XLIII
Holmes has not always been the best teammate during his NFL career, but his name will forever be linked to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a spectacular catch that he made with 35 seconds left on the clock in Super Bowl XLIII. Holmes did well to stretch out and secure a Ben Roethlisberger pass while keeping the toes of both feet in play until he had full possession of the football, earning Super Bowl Most Valuable Player honors and the Steelers the sixth championship in franchise history. Some have said that the Holmes grab is the best to ever occur at a Super Bowl, even better than the David Tyree play made at Super Bowl XLII.
5. Lynn Swann – Super Bowl X
Diehard football fans who watch the NFL Network twelve months out of the year can close their eyes and envision Swann soaring over Ron Washington of the Dallas Cowboys en route to making what became an iconic Super Bowl catch. Swann’s heroics helped the Pittsburgh Steelers win a second straight Super Bowl, and he was awarded with the Most Valuable Player award for his efforts. His catch and his play on that day become even more remarkable when you remember that Swann spent some time in the hospital in the week leading up to the game because of issues stemming from a concussion.
4. Mike Jones – Super Bowl XXXIV
The list continues with the man responsible for the greatest tackle in Super Bowl history. Kevin Dyson of the Tennessee Titans was a yard away from scoring a touchdown on the final play of Super Bowl XXXIV, a score that likely would have taken the game into overtime, when St. Louis Rams linebacker Mike Jones got a hand on Dyson. Jones peeled off the Tennessee tight end at the perfect time to make contact with Dyson, and Jones did well to keep Dyson from stretching the ball to the goal line. Nobody knows what would have happened had that game been taken to an additional period.
3. Adam Vinatieri – Super Bowl XXVI & XXVIII
Name a kicker other than Vinatieri that you would want lining up to take a kick with a Super Bowl title on the line. You can’t do it, and that speaks to how important it is for a team to have a reliable placekicker who also has ice in his veins. Vinatieri did not just bury kicks in the final seconds of two Super Bowl contests. He did so as if he was practicing chip-shot attempts before a preseason game. Here is something to ponder: It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Tom Brady would possess zero Super Bowl rings without Vinatieri being part of those New England Patriots teams?
2. Joe Montana – Super Bowl XVI, XIX & XXIV
The case for Montana being the greatest Super Bowl quarterback ever is easy to make. Montana is a four-time Super Bowl champion and three-time Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, and he famously executed that 92-yard drive that sunk the Cincinnati Bengals at Super Bowl XXIII. What has to be remembered as it pertains to listing Super Bowl heroes is that Montana was part of some of the best NFL rosters of all time. The 49ers were a dynasty at that time, filled with tremendous talent at more than just the QB position. Montana’s greatness cannot and should not be denied, but he also had plenty of help along the way.
1. Eli Manning – Super Bowl XLII & XLVI
Love controversial hot takes? Here is one fresh off of the grill: Eli Manning and not Joe Montana or anybody else is the greatest ever Super Bowl quarterback. Manning is the architect of two championship-winning drives. The David Tyree “Helmet Catch” never happens without Manning’s heroic escape from what seemed to be a sure sack. Manning, unlike Montana, has not had a history of playing with offensive talent that will be enshrined at Canton. He beat Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field. He downed the perfect New England Patriots, and he is 2-0 against Tom Brady on football’s biggest stage. I’ll take Manning for my Super Bowl team every day of the week.
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