While NFL games are played over 60 minutes with dozens of plays taking place, it can often feel as though one play made the difference in the game. If this play hadn’t happened the way it did, the entire game might have gone differently. Super Bowl LVII between the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles will undoubtedly have at least one of those plays. But what is that play for the first 56 Super Bowls?
Before we get into the list, let’s go over some plays that you won’t see. Willie Brown’s 75-yard pick-six in Super Bowl XI, Marcus Allen’s 74-yard touchdown run, Refrigerator Perry’s plow into the end zone in Super Bowl XX, and Phil McConkey’s deflection-filled touchdown reception the following year won’t be included. Those all happened late in blowouts. They’re incredible highlights because of the awesome images they come with. But none were meaningful in determining the Super Bowl’s winner.
Other notable highlights we won’t see are the gaffes from Garo Yepremian and Leon Lett in Super Bowls VII and XXVII, respectively. Yepremian’s Miami Dolphins and Lett’s Dallas Cowboys still won those games. So, while those are always good for a laugh, they’re ultimately not what we’re looking for here.
As far as the plays we are going to detail, we’re not saying that if all of these plays hadn’t happened the way they did that the games would have gone differently. In some cases, it’s highly likely. But the Super Bowl has produced its share of blowouts over the years and it’s hard to look at one play and say that a 20-plus point game would have been changed if it went different. But in most Super Bowls, even the worst blowouts, we can identify a moment where the tone of the game changed.
And those are the moments we’re looking at here.
Super Bowl I: Willie Wood’s 50-yard interception
Leading only 14-10 at halftime, the heavily favored Green Bay Packers were vulnerable to an upset. But on Kansas City’s first drive of the second half, Green Bay’s pass rush forced an errant throw from Chiefs quarterback, Len Dawson. Wood intercepted the pass and returned it 50 yards. On the first play of the ensuing drive, a five-yard Elijah Pitts touchdown run put the Packers up 21-10. Green Bay dominated from there, winning 35-10.
In the 3rd quarter,!Willie Wood has the first interception in Super Bowl history.
He returns it 50 yards. pic.twitter.com/XO5u3zZfIX
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) January 15, 2023
Super Bowl II: Rodger Bird’s muffed punt return
Much like the year before, the Packers were vulnerable for a while, leading the Oakland Raiders only 13-7 late in the second quarter. Green Bay punted the ball away to the Raiders, but Rodger Bird couldn’t field the punt cleanly. That set up a field goal, giving the Packers a 16-7 lead at halftime. Green Bay dominated the second half, opening up a 13-7 lead before a late Oakland touchdown closed the scoring at 33-14.
Super Bowl III: Earl Morrall doesn’t see Jimmy Orr
One of the greatest what-ifs in Super Bowl history came in the first truly memorable Super Bowl. Trailing 7-0 late in the second quarter, the Baltimore Colts called a trick play. Earl Morrall handed the ball off to Matte on an end around. Only, Matte stopped and threw back to Morrall. It worked. Baltimore’s Jimmy Orr was wide open down the field. Only, Morrall didn’t see him. Morrall’s pass to Jerry Hill was intercepted by Jim Hudson, allowing the New York Jets to preserve their 7-0 lead at halftime en route to a 16-7 stunner.
Super Bowl IV: Charlie West’s fumbled kickoff return
Kansas City dominated Super Bowl IV from the start, but the Minnesota Vikings held up well defensively early, surrendering only three field goals. After the third, Kansas City kicked off, only Jan Stenerud’s kick was high and short. Charlie West, Minnesota’s return man, sprinted up to catch the ball but couldn’t corral it. The Chiefs came up with the ball and made good on the turnover, with Mike Garrett scoring on a five-yard run on “65 Toss Power Trap.” The 16-0 lead was more than enough for Kansas City.
Super Bowl V: Rick Volk’s interception sets up the game-tying touchdown
With 11 turnovers and five in the fourth quarter, the Blunder Bowl has plenty of options to choose from. Our choice came with the Cowboys leading 13-6 in the fourth quarter with a chance to ice the game, But quarterback Craig Morton’s pass intended pass was high and Walt Garrison, his intended receiver, managed to only get a hand on it. The ball bounced into the awaiting arms of Baltimore’s Rick Volk, who returned it to the three. Two plays later, Tom Nowatzke scored to tie the game for the Colts.
Super Bowl VI: Bob Griese makes the wrong kind of Super Bowl history
The Cowboys blasted the Dolphins 24-3, and while other lopsided Super Bowls had big plays that either led to a score, prevented a score or both, this one didn’t. At least not while the game was competitive. But the final play of the first quarter perfectly summed up Miami’s day. Facing a 3rd-and-9, Bob Griese dropped back to pass. Facing Dallas’ pass rush, Griese scrambled back, cutting left and right trying to get away. Bob Lilly brought him down for a loss of 29 yards. More than 50 years later, that play still holds the Super Bowl record for most yards lost on a play from scrimmage.
Cowboys’ first Super Bowl win: Jan. 16, 1972. Bob Lilly sacks Bob Griese on third-and-9 for a 30-yard loss pic.twitter.com/qJnGLAXjAo
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) March 27, 2020
Super Bowl VII: Nick Buoniconti’s interception
While Miami scored early, Washington stayed close to the Dolphins throughout the first half. But at the two-minute warning, Nick Buoniconti intercepted a pass from Billy Kilmer and returned it 32 yards. That gave the Dolphins a short field, and they took full advantage with Jim Kiick scoring from one yard out, opening up a 14-0 lead. Because of that, Yepremian’s gaffe later in the game cost Miami a Super Bowl shutout. The perfect season, though, remained intact.
Super Bowl VIII: The opening coin toss
This is probably the hardest Super Bowl to find a defining play in. Miami scored on the game’s first possession. The Dolphins just methodically marched down the field and became the first team to score a touchdown on the first drive of the Super Bowl. After forcing a punt, Miami did the same on the second drive. Minnesota never seriously challenged the Dolphins after that and Miami cruised to a 24-7 victory.
Super Bowl IX: Bill Brown fumbles the second-half kickoff
A safety produced the only points of the first half as the Pittsburgh Steelers led the Vikings 2-0 at halftime. Minnesota received the second-half kickoff, and when Pittsburgh’s Roy Gerela slipped kicking off, it seemed like a big break for the Vikings. It wasn’t. Minnesota’s Bill Brown couldn’t handle the squib kick cleanly and the Steelers jumped on the loose ball, giving the Steelers great field position. Franco Harris carried the ball three times and picked up all 30 yards of the ensuing possession. That included a nine-yard touchdown run to give Pittsburgh a 9-0 lead en route to a 16-6 win.
Super Bowl X: Jack Lambert slams Cliff Harris
Trailing 10-7 to the Cowboys, the Steelers had a chance to tie the game with a 33-yard field goal. Only Gerela, who had a terrible day, missed. Dallas’ Cliff Harris “congratulated” Gerela. Jack Lambert was close to the exchange and threw Harris on the ground. While the kick helped the Cowboys, Lambert’s reaction was huge. One, from a momentum standpoint, it was big for the Steelers. Two, Lambert, the future Hall of Famer, had a huge game and was not ejected.
OTD in 1976
Steelers won Super Bowl X
Thanks to Cliff Harris, Jack Lambert was fired up and made 4 tackles in the following 5 plays.
Here are all 5 plays of Lambert’s fury ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/X37YcuKhlG
— Steel City Star (@steelcitystar) January 18, 2023
Super Bowl XI: Brent McClanahan fumbles away a potential early lead
Losers of three of the first nine Super Bowls, the Vikings were back for Round 4 at Super Bowl XI against the Raiders. Early in the game, Minnesota blocked a punt deep in Oakland territory, giving the Vikings a chance at a lead — something they never had in the first three tries. But on the second play of the ensuing possession, running back, Brent McClanahan fumbled. The Raiders recovered, drove down the field, kicked a field goal and routed the Vikings from there, handing Minnesota its fourth Super Bowl blowout in as many tries.
Super Bowl XII: Broncos miss out on a golden opportunity
Dallas ultimately defeated the Denver Broncos 27-10, but along the way, the Cowboys gave Denver every opportunity imaginable to take control. The most notable example came after the first Broncos possession. Dallas return man Tony Hill misplayed the ball and it sat at the one-yard line. Denver’s John Schultz got both hands on the ball, but Hill had recovered in time and did enough to knock it free. Instead of a first down from the one for the Broncos, it was Cowboys ball. Dallas eventually punted but stabilized through the rest of the quarter, opening up a 10-0 lead and controlling things from there.
Super Bowl XIII: Jackie Smith’s dropped touchdown
Trailing 21-14 to the Steelers in the third quarter, the Cowboys seemingly had the game tied when Staubach threw to a wide-open Jackie Smith in the end zone. Only Smith, the future Hall of Famer, dropped the ball. It’s the kind of play that would be mentioned even if Pittsburgh had gone on the Dallas handily — but that didn’t happen. The Steelers won 35-31. And with that, the four-point difference between a touchdown from Smith and the field goal the Cowboys ended up kicking loomed large.
— Ben Anderson (@BenAnderson58) May 4, 2016
Super Bowl XIV: John Stallworth’s 73-yard touchdown pass
Playing in their first Super Bowl, the 9-7 Los Angeles Rams were a real thorn in the side of the mighty Steelers, who were looking to close the decade out with their fourth Super Bowl victory. Trailing 19-17 early in the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh faced a 3rd-and-8. Terry Bradshaw went deep to John Stallworth. The pass sailed just over the outstretched arms of Los Angeles cornerback, Rod Perry and into Stallworth’s arms. Stallworth sprinted to the end zone from there, giving the Steelers a 24-19 lead that they would not relinquish en route to a 31-19 win.
Super Bowl XV: Kenny King’s 80-yard touchdown
The first quarter went terribly for the Eagles in their Super Bowl debut. But trailing only 7-0 and with the Raiders facing a third down from their own 20, Philadelphia was ready to get the ball back in good field position. The pocket collapsed around Oakland quarterback Jim Plunkett, who improvised. Plunkett rolled to his left and floated a pass to running back Kenny King. Philadelphia defensive Herman Edwards leaped to break the pass up, but missed. King caught the pass and sprinted down the sideline for a then-Super Bowl-record 80-yard touchdown pass. The 14-0 lead was more than enough for the Raiders.
Super Bowl XVI: Short-handed 49ers bend but don’t break
With all due respect to Dan Bunz’s tackle of Charles Alexander on third down and the San Francisco 49ers defense collectively stonewalling Pete Johnson on fourth down, we’re going to go with one that happened earlier. With the Cincinnati Bengals facing a 4th-and-1 from the five, Johnson got the ball. He picked up the first down before being tackled by Dwaine Board. But San Francisco still won the battle. The 49ers were short-handed, with linebacker Keena Turner missing his call to go on the field. San Francisco coming through while short-handed set up the ensuing goal line stand.
Super Bowl XVII: Joe Theismann turns into an all-world defensive back
Leading 17-13 late in the third quarter, the Dolphins had the game-sealing play knocked out of their hands on a great defensive play from of all people, Washington quarterback Joe Theismann. A Theismann pass was deflected by Miami’s Kim Bokamper, who then chased down the floating ball and was poised to go in for a touchdown. Only, Theismann swatted the ball away. With that, Washington stayed within distance and eventually tilted the field. That came in handy on its next offensive possession, which ended with John Riggins’ 43-yard touchdown run on fourth down.
Theismann alertly sticks his hand in to prevent a pick-six for Bokamper, which probably saved their season. pic.twitter.com/rITj2mNybP
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 31, 2023
Super Bowl XVIII: Jack Squirek’s pick-six
When the Los Angeles Raiders lost to Washington earlier in the season, one of the big plays was a 67-yard screen pass to Joe Washington. In October, the Raiders weren’t ready for the Rocket Screen. In January, they were. Trailing 14-3 and deep in their own territory at the end of the half, the then-Redskins dialed up Rocket Screen. But Jack Squirek read the play, jumped in front of Washington, intercepted Theismann’s floating pass and cruised into the end zone. A 14-3 halftime deficit would have been tough for Washington to overtime. But down 21-3, the game was over.
Super Bowl XIX: Freddie Solomon’s fumble ruled incomplete
The 49ers dominated the second and effectively locked up Super Bowl XIX. One play from that quarter sticks out. Freddie Solomon appeared to catch a pass from Joe Montana, then fumble. Miami’s Lyle Blackwood picked up a loose ball and had room to run on his return. But the play was quickly whistled dead. Solomon’s fumble was ruled incomplete. The 49ers took advantage of the good fortune, scored on the drive and took a 28-10 lead. Was the call correct? By modern-day catch rules, yes. At the time, it was more disputed. But this was clearly the biggest play in an otherwise lopsided San Francisco win.
Super Bowl XX: Craig James’ first-quarter fumble
Despite not producing a single positive offensive play until the final play of the opening quarter, the New England Patriots hung with the mighty Chicago Bears through the first quarter. But with the Bears leading 6-3 late in the quarter, New England running back Craig James fumbled. Chicago recovered and cashed in on the short field with an 11-yard touchdown run from Matt Suhey. That gave the Bears a 13-3 lead. The rest of the game was not remotely competitive as Chicago won in a 46-10 demolition.
Super Bowl XXI: Giants roll the dice and come up big
Despite being stood up on a goal-line stand and missing two short field goals, the Broncos led the New York Giants 10-9 at halftime. On the opening drive of that half, it seemed as though Denver forced a punt, with New York facing a 4th-and-1 from short of midfield. But backup quarterback Jeff Rutledge lined up as an up man and when the Broncos didn’t have the right personnel on the field, he went under center. Rutledge ended up running a quarterback sneak, picking up two yards and the first down. The Giants took the lead on that drive and never looked back, winning 39-20.
Super Bowl XXII: Doug Williams incorrectly ruled down
Trailing 10-0 in the first quarter, Washington quarterback Doug Williams fell to the ground awkwardly and lost the ball. The Broncos were well positioned to return the fumble for a score, but Williams was incorrectly whistled down by contact. Williams left the game temporarily, but he returned and led Washington to a 35-point second quarter and a 42-10 blowout. This is different from the key plays in other blowouts, since those largely turned competitive games into lopsided affairs. This one, though, turned a game that Denver was dominating almost instantly into one that Washington dominated.
In Sb (22) Doug Williams was hurt. (10) came in the game for him.
He refused to let him play long and was back in playing in pain.
In Sb (50) @CameronNewton controversy did not jump on a fumble.
Panthers lost (24)- (10) pic.twitter.com/A9nE6ZxagO
— Martin Brian Ansah (@DaAnsahonSports) April 10, 2021
Super Bowl XXIII: Jerry Rice’s 27-yard catch sets up winning touchdown
From Lewis Billups’ dropped end zone interception to John Taylor’s winning touchdown catch, this game doesn’t lack options. But that final drive was sparked by this play, which came at the right time. The 49ers moved the ball down the field well but were hurt by an illegal man downfield penalty. Suddenly, from just across midfield, San Francisco faced a 2nd-and-20. The 49ers picked that up in one play, when Montana found Jerry Rice over the middle at full speed. Rice was eventually brought down, but not before picking up 27 yards. Two plays later, Montana found Taylor in the end zone.
Super Bowl XXIV: Bobby Humphrey’s first-quarter fumble
After surrendering a touchdown on San Francisco’s opening drive, Denver bounced back well. The Broncos answered with a field goal, then forced a three-and-out and got the ball in great field position. On the first play of the ensuing drive, though, Bobby Humphrey fumbled. The 49ers recovered, marched down the field and scored a touchdown. San Francisco’s Mike Cofer missed the PAT but the 49ers were up 13-3. As was the case with the Patriots against the Bears four years earlier in the same stadium, the Broncos could not recover and ended up on the wrong end of a 55-10 final score.
Super Bowl XXV: Wide right
Mark Ingram breaking five tackles to convert on a third down? Huge. Jeff Hostetler amazingly holding onto the ball when Bruce Smith sacked him for a safety? Massive. One play helped the Giants get four more points, the other prevented the Buffalo Bills from getting five more. Those are massive swings in a Super Bowl that, to date, is the only one ever decided by one point. In the end, though, Scott Norwood’s miss is the play.
The miss meant a Giants victory, no questions asked. While there was time for a potential kickoff return, a make would have meant a Bills victory, barring a massive error by the kickoff team. Unless you count low-percentage plays like Hail Marys, no other play in Super Bowl history had as much riding on it as this one.
January 27, 1991: With :08 left in the game, Scott Norwood’s 47-yard FG attempt sails Wide Right and the Giants beat the Bills 20-19 to win SuperBowl XXV in Tampa. pic.twitter.com/fcnUaBsbz7
— This Day In Sports Clips (@TDISportsClips) January 26, 2023
Super Bowl XXVI: Thurman Thomas loses his helmet
Things started great for the Bills. They forced a three-and-out from Washington on the game’s first drive. Even better, Buffalo’s first offensive play set up brilliantly for a long run, if not even a touchdown. But Thurman Thomas, that season’s MVP, was on the sideline and Kenneth Davis ran for only a yard. What happened? Thomas couldn’t find his helmet. And with that, Buffalo, who had narrowly lost the year before, got going in the wrong direction again. It wouldn’t get any better for them.
Super Bowl XXVII: Charles Haley’s strip-sack puts Dallas ahead for good
In a break from the previous two Super Bowls, the Bills actually scored first against the Cowboys. But Dallas tied the game late in the first quarter. A penalty on the ensuing kickoff led to Buffalo starting its next possession on the 10. On the first play, Charles Haley hit Jim Kelly as he threw. The loose ball was caught by Dallas lineman Jimmie Jones, who fell into the end zone for a touchdown. The two touchdowns came 15 seconds apart. Buffalo stayed competitive until the final two minutes of the first half, but the Cowboys led for the rest of the game and blew the Bills out, 52-17.
Super Bowl XXVIII: James Washington’s fumble recovery touchdown
After losing three straight Super Bowls, the Bills were positioned to finally win it all and get a measure of revenge on the team that had humiliated them the year before. Buffalo led 13-6 at halftime and had gotten to just short of midfield on the first possession of the second half. Then, disaster struck. Thomas fumbled the ball, Dallas’ James Washington recovered the fumble and returned it 46 yards for a tying touchdown. The Bills still could have won this game but after the previous three years, overcoming a huge play like that was not in the cards. Dallas dominated the rest of the game, winning 30-13.
Super Bowl XXIX: Steve Young finds Jerry Rice on 44-yard touchdown pass
Long, sustained drives on offense and smart defense. If the San Diego Chargers had any chance to beat the 49ers, that was the formula. The Chargers got off to a bad start with a 15-yard facemask penalty away from the ball on the opening kickoff. On the third play from scrimmage, Rice split safeties, Stanley Richard and Rodney Carrington. He was wide open and didn’t have to break stride to catch a perfect pass from Steve Young. That set the tone for what was a long night for the Chargers.
Super Bowl XXX: Larry Brown’s big day gets bigger
Trailing only 13-7 at halftime, the Steelers outgained the Cowboys 201-61 in the second half. So, how did they lose, let alone by 10 points? Neil O’Donnell threw two interceptions to Larry Brown. The second one came with Pittsburgh trailing 20-17 with 4:15 left. On the second play, Brown intercepted O’Donnell. Much like the one in the third quarter, no Steeler was remotely close to Brown. Also, like the first one, Dallas scored a touchdown quickly after the pick. This one sealed a 27-17 victory.
Super Bowl XXXI: Desmond Howard’s 98-yard kickoff return
The Patriots hung with the heavily-favored Packers throughout the game and an 18-yard touchdown run from Curtis Martin late in the third quarter brought the score to 27-21, seemingly opening the door for an exciting finish. But Desmond Howard received the opening kickoff and went 99 yards for the touchdown. That, and the ensuing two-point conversion, gave Green Bay a comfortable 35-21 lead. That stood as the final score and 30 years after winning the first Super Bowl, the Lombardi trophy returned.
Super Bowl XXXII: John Elway’s Helicopter Play
Unlike his previous three trips to the Super Bowl, Elway was in with a chance in the third quarter and had a team that didn’t need to be carried. This play, though, was all Elway. The Broncos were tied with the Packers and driving but faced a third-and-six. Green Bay defended the pass well but Elway had a chance to get it with his legs. He took off, leaping for the final yards. LeRoy Butler and Mike Prior drilled Elway, who spun around but got the first down. Two plays later, the Broncos were in the end zone and went on to a 31-24 win.
John Elway needed a first down. "The Helicopter" happened next. 🚁
— NFL (@NFL) April 13, 2020
Super Bowl XXXIII: Rod Smith’s 80-yard touchdown reception
Trailing 10-3 in the second quarter, the Atlanta Falcons had seemingly cut the deficit to 10-6, only Morten Andersen missed a 26-yard field goal. We can only imagine that Jan Stenerud would have trolled Andersen, if only Twitter existed. One play later, the Broncos went for the jugular — and found it. Denver Elway went deep to Rod Smith. Smith beat Eugene Robinson, who was already having a rough weekend, and went into the end zone to give the Broncos a 17-3 lead. The game was never close from there.
Super Bowl XXXIV: Isaac Bruce’s 74-yard touchdown reception
While Mike Jones’ winning tackle on Kevin Dyson seems obvious, the Tennessee Titans trailed by seven. A touchdown there likely would have meant overtime. We’re going with the play that ended the previous possession. Trailing 16-0 to the St. Louis Rams, things looked bleak for the Titans. They grinded like crazy, though, and got the game tied, scoring touchdowns on two 14-play drives and a field goal on a seven-play drive. After all of that, one pass from Kurt Warner to Isaac Bruce was all the Rams needed only one play to get the lead back. That was the difference between these teams.
With just over two minutes remaining, on the first play after the #Titans tie it up after having trailed 16-0, NFL and Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner raises and arcs a 73-yard touchdown aerial to Isaac Bruce — the winning score of Super Bowl XXXIV.#Rams 23, Titans 16
OTD in 2000 pic.twitter.com/hAtlBN8Sml
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 30, 2023
Super Bowl XXXV: Jessie Armstead’s pick-six called back
The Giants did next to nothing offensively against the record-setting Baltimore Ravens defense. But trailing 7-0, New York got a jolt from its defense, with Jessie Armstead intercepting a Trent Dilfer pass and returning it 43 yards for a touchdown. Only, the play was wiped out due to a defensive holding penalty. Baltimore went up 10-0 later in the second quarter and the Giants never got close. While the pick-six from Duane Starks followed by kickoff return touchdowns from New York’s Ron Dixon and Baltimore’s Jermaine Lewis get remembered, the lost pick-six had more impact on the game.
Super Bowl XXXVI: Adam Vinatieri starts a dynasty
In one of the greatest Super Bowls ever played, the Patriots controlled much of the action against the heavily-favored Rams. But St. Louis stayed in the game and tied it late on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Warner to Ricky Proehl. When New England’s ensuing possession began, Fox’s John Madden suggested that the Patriots run the clock out and play for overtime. They didn’t. New England moved into field goal range, giving Adam Vinatieri a chance to etch his name in Super Bowl history. He didn’t miss, splitting the uprights from 48 yards out and giving the Patriots a 20-17 win.
17 years ago today, Adam Vinatieri delivered a memorable Super Bowl-winning field goal against the Rams in SB36. This was just the start of the Patriots dynasty. pic.twitter.com/iXaDfPhrys
— SportsTalkFeed (@SportsTalkFeed) February 3, 2019
Super Bowl XXXVII: Dexter Jackson’s first interception
While the Tampa Bay Buccaneers scored an astounding three defensive touchdowns against the Raiders, we’re going with one that only led to a field goal. With the game tied 3-3 late in the first quarter, Oakland’s Rich Gannon was intercepted by Dexter Jackson. The Raiders were in Tampa territory, and at the very least, were poised to flip the field position battle. With that pick, everything changed. The Buccaneers took advantage of the short field and kicked the go-ahead field goal. Gannon would throw four more interceptions in arguably the worst Super Bowl performance a quarterback ever had.
Super Bowl XXXVIII: John Kasay’s kickoff goes out of bounds
Déjà vu. Vinatieri booted the game-winning field goal, breaking a tie created by a Prohel touchdown, no less. But while New England’s final drive two years earlier was about the greatness of Vinatieri and Tom Brady, this was aided by a huge mistake from the Carolina Panthers. John Kasay, one of the best kickers of the era, booted the kickoff after the tying touchdown out of bounds. Brady wasn’t the GOAT yet, but giving him that kind of gift was a brutal error. He went to work, quickly setting Vinatieri up for a 41-yard field goal attempt. Vinatieri, who had missed two kicks earlier in the game, came through.
Super Bowl XXXIX: Rodney Harrison intercepts Donovan McNabb
The Eagles had a great chance to take an early lead on the Patriots. Facing a second-and-24, Donovan McNabb threw an interception but Philadelphia got a gift. New England’s Roman Piller was flagged for illegal contact, negating the pick and giving the Eagles a first down. Philadelphia squandered the gift, though, with McNabb throwing another interception on the next play. This one — by Rodney Harrison — counted. While Philadelphia’s lack of fourth-quarter urgency is what gets remembered from this game, coming away with nothing in this drive was the bigger factor in the end result.
Super Bowl XL: Ike Taylor Interception
Trailing 14-10 early in the fourth quarter, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck found Jerramy Stevens for a 19-yard catch that would have set Seattle up with a 1st-and-goal from the one. But in what was a theme of the night, that play was negated by a penalty. Facing a 3rd-and-18, Hasselbeck threw a pass to Darrell Jackson, which was picked off by Ike Taylor. Taylor’s return (and a Hasselbeck penalty on it), set the Steelers up with good field position. They took advantage when Antwaan Randle El hit Hines Ward on a 43-yard touchdown pass. That gave Pittsburgh a 21-10 lead, which stood as the final score.
Super Bowl XLI: Kelvin Hayden’s pick-six
Playing in their first Super Bowl as the Indianapolis Colts, things went poorly early for the AFC Champions. Chicago’s Devin Hester returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, and while the Colts eventually wrestled control of the game away, they led only 22-17 in the fourth quarter. And after picking up a 3rd-and-14 on a 22-yard pass to Mushin Muhammad, Rex Grossman tried his luck again. This time, though, he threw a floater, which Kelvin Hayden came down with and returned 56 yards for the score. That gave the Colts a 29-17 lead, which stood as the final. Peyton Manning finally had his ring.
Super Bowl XLII: David Tyree’s Helmet Catch
Down 14-10 to the Patriots and facing a 3rd-and-5 with just over a minute left, things did not look great for the Giants. They looked even worse when Adalius Thomas nearly sacked Eli Manning. And while Manning avoided that sack, he stepped right into the grasp of Jarvis Green. Amazingly, Manning broke away — and the fun was only just beginning. Manning heaved the ball down the field to David Tyree, who would never catch another pass in the NFL. Tyree was well-defended but leaped, grabbed the ball ahead of Marvin Harrison and pinned it to his helmet. Somehow, the ball never hit the ground.
A few plays later, Manning hit Plaxico Burress in the end zone to put the Giants up 17-14. The Patriots could not answer (though one long bomb from Brady to Randy Moss narrowly missed) and New York ruined New England’s perfect season.
The one thing you should watch today because it’s both Tyree and Mannings Birthday, and the greatest Super Bowl moment of all time. HELMET CATCH! pic.twitter.com/35OjWVZZp8
— NYGcrush (@NYGcrush) January 3, 2023
Super Bowl XLIII: James Harrison’s pick-six
Down 10-7 in the final seconds of the first half, the Arizona Cardinals were in position to tie or take a halftime lead. But an errant Warner pass was picked off by James Harrison at the goal line and returned 99 yards for a touchdown. Harrison barely reached the end zone, and had he been tackled, time would have expired. The interception didn’t ruin the Cardinals. They fought back and even held a late lead before Santonio Holmes’ fantastic game-winning touchdown. But in a game that was decided by four points, a play that created at least a 10 (and probably 14-point) swing was huge.
#Steelers linebacker James Harrison's coast-to-coast pick-six to end the first half of Super Bowl XLIII
The longest interception return in #SuperBowl history — 100 yards
14 years ago today pic.twitter.com/oya6ENNZF6
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) February 1, 2023
Super Bowl XLIV: Tracy Porter’s pick-six
After Drew Brees found Jeremy Shockey for a go-ahead touchdown pass, the New Orleans Saints still had to stop Peyton Manning. It did not look great, as Manning and the Colts marched down the field with very little resistance. Facing a 3rd-and-5 from the New Orleans 31, Manning sent a pass toward Reggie Wayne. Wayne did not seem ready to catch the ball but Saints cornerback Tracy Porter was. Porter jumped the route, intercepted the pass and went 74 yards for the game-sealing touchdown. New Orleans, a city that knows how to party, had a great reason to do just that after this play.
Super Bowl XLV: Rashard Mendenhall’s fumble on first play of fourth quarter
After trailing 21-3 to the Packers, the Steelers fought back and closed the deficit to 21-17 and had the ball on the Green Bay 33. Rashard Mendenhall took a handoff from Ben Roethlisberger and was quickly hit by Clay Matthews III, forcing a fumble. Following that, the Packers moved down the field and aided by a 38-yard pass from Aaron Rodgers to Jordy Nelson, scored a touchdown to reassume the two-possession lead. The Steelers continued to scrap and got back into the game but ultimately, that deficit was too much to overcome.
Super Bowl XLVI: Mario Manningham’s 38-yard catch
Down 17-15, New York needed only a field goal to take the lead but started on its own 12-yard line. But on the first play of what would end up being their final possession, Eli Manning launched the ball down the sideline to Mario Manningham. The pass was perfect, falling in between defensive backs Patrick Chung and Sterling Moore. Manningham still had to catch it, and given the proximity to the sideline, any bobble would have meant an incomplete pass. He didn’t bobble. Manningham secured the ball and took a shot from Chung. The Giants would ultimately score on the drive, defeating the Patriots again.
Super Bowl XLVII: 49ers get conservative in midst of a furious comeback
Trailing 28-6,the 49ers scrapped back into the game, getting the deficit to 28-20. Facing a 4th-and-7, the 49ers tried a field goal. It missed. San Francisco, though, got a reprieve when Baltimore’s Chykie Brown was flagged for running into the kicker. That gave the 49ers a 4th-and-2. San Francisco, whose offense had been rolling, especially on the ground, elected to send David Akers back out for a field goal. This time he made it but was San Francisco too cautious? A lot sticks out from a truly bizarre Super Bowl. Other plays can be circled. But this one is hard to overlook.
Super Bowl XLVIII: Broncos commit safety on game’s first play
Seattle won its first Super Bowl, routing the Broncos 43-8 in the first true Super Bowl blowout we’d seen in a while. The tone was set on the first play. Denver’s record-setting offense took the field with an opportunity to make a statement against the Legion of Boom. The Broncos made a statement, but it wasn’t a good one. Center Manny Ramirez snapped the ball when Peyton Manning was not in position to catch it. It went into the end zone, where Denver’s Knowshon Moreno fell on it for a safety. It took a little longer for this game to get out of hand, but the tone was set on the first play.
Super Bowl XLIX: Malcolm Butler saves the day
While “Just give the ball to Beast Mode” remains a popular sentiment, it’s not as easy as that. The Patriots expected Marshawn Lynch to get the ball, and while Lynch was an absolute beast with a head of steam, he was sometimes vulnerable at the line of scrimmage. So, calling a play against what the defense was expecting wasn’t a problem in and of itself — until we look deeper at the play that was called. At the goal line, New England’s defense was bunched in the middle, expecting a run from Lynch. At that part of the field, a quick, short pass between the numbers isn’t much of an adjustment for the defense.
It was only second down and the Seahawks had a time-out with plenty of time remaining. While a run to Lynch wasn’t a slam dunk, it wouldn’t have been a bad option. Another possibility would have been a rollout from Russell Wilson, plays that often leave one defender defending both a quarterback and receiver. Calling a pass wasn’t the worst option for Seattle. Calling that particular pass — and with Ricardo Lockette as the intended receiver, no less, was. If the Norwood miss is the biggest “what if” in Super Bowl history, this is a solid No. 2.
Super Bowl 50: Cam Newton’s business decision
The Broncos and their defense had dominated the Panthers and league MVP, Cam Newton throughout Super Bowl 50. Despite that, Carolina had a chance to win, getting the ball back down only 16-10 with more than four minutes left. But on a third down, eventual Super Bowl MVP Von Miller stripped Newton of the ball. Newton had a chance to recover the loose ball, but opted to stay vertical. Denver’s T.J. Ward did recover the ball. The Broncos took advantage of the short field (and a Carolina penalty), locking the game up on a two-yard C.J. Anderson touchdown run.
Super Bowl LI: Jake Matthews hold keeps Falcons from clinching field goal
Atlanta’s 28-3 lead had become 28-20. But when Julio Jones made one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history, the Falcons had the ball at the New England 22. Needing only a field goal to ice the game, there was no reason to get crazy. On first down, Devonta Freeman lost one yard. On second down, the Falcons got aggressive and paid for it, when Trey Flowers dropped Ryan for a 12-yard loss. Atlanta now faced a 3rd-and-23 from the 35. And while it was no longer an easy field goal, the Falcons were still well within Matt Bryant’s range, especially in a dome. Then, they weren’t.
On third down, Atlanta dialed up another pass. Ryan completed a nine-yard pass to Mohamed Sanu but Jake Matthews was flagged for holding. The Falcons were no longer in field goal range and when Ryan’s third down pass fell incomplete, they had to punt. The Patriots got the ball back down 28-20, tied the game and won it in overtime. Atlanta blew such a massive lead that literally any one of about a dozen plays going differently likely would have sealed the game. But a needlessly aggressive play call coupled with a bad mistake perfectly encapsulated why the Falcons lost this game.
Super Bowl LII: Philly Special
In Super Bowl LI, New England’s opponent got burned for being too aggressive. A year later, a different opponent thrived on it. Leading 15-12 late in the second quarter, the Eagles faced a 4th-and-goal from the one. Eschewing conventional wisdom, Philadelphia not only went for it but called a trick play. Running back Corey Clement took a direct snap and flipped the ball to tight end Trey Burton. Burton then threw to quarterback Nick Foles, who was wide-open in the end zone. It was a huge momentum swing that gave the Eagles a 22-12 lead at halftime. They went on to win their first Super Bowl, 41-33.
— NFL (@NFL) January 27, 2023
Super Bowl LIII: Gronk’s catch sets up game’s only touchdown
New England played in eight Super Bowls in the Brady, Bill Belichick era. The first seven were all exciting and decided in the final minutes. No. 8, though, was far from thrilling. The game was tied 3-3 halfway into the fourth quarter. On the Los Angeles 31, Brady went deep to Rob Gronkowski. While linebacker Corey Littleton had good coverage on Gronk, Brady’s pass was perfect and Gronkowski made a great play on the ball, catching it at the two. One play later, Sony Michel scored the first and only touchdown of the game, giving the Patriots a 10-3 lead.
Super Bowl LIV: 3rd-and-15
For three-and-a-half quarters, the 49ers did as well as could be expected against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs but couldn’t get significant separation on the scoreboard. Still, San Francisco held a 20-10 and facing a 3rd-and-15 from deep in their own territory, Mahomes and company had work to do. Mahomes had just enough time to fling the ball down the field to Tyreek Hill, who had broken free of San Francisco’s secondary. He caught the ball for a 44-yard gain. Kansas City scored on that possession and each of the next two, going on to a 31-20 win.
Super Bowl LV: Offsides foul gives Tom Brady another chance
While things weren’t going great for the Chiefs in Super Bowl LV against Tampa, it could have been worse. Down 7-3, the defense made a big stand and forced the Buccaneers into a field goal attempt. The kick was good, but Mecole Hardman jumped offsides. Tampa took the points off of the board and gave Brady another chance to get the ball into the end zone. One play later, he did, finding Gronkowski on a 17-yard touchdown pass. That put the Buccaneers up 14-3 and they ended up rolling to a 31-9 win, routing the defending champs.
Super Bowl LVI: Logan Wilson flagged for debatable defensive holding
After leaving the flags in their pockets for most of Super Bowl LVI, the officials went the other way on the game’s decisive drive. Cincinnati led 20-16 and while the Rams had moved down the field, the Bengals defense forced a 3rd-and-eight. Matthew Stafford’s pass to Cooper Kupp fell incomplete, but flags quickly came in and Logan Wilson was penalized for holding Kupp. By the letter of the rulebook, it was not a terrible call. But by the standard set throughout the game, it was. And instead of a 4th-and-8, the Rams got a 1st-and-goal. They capitalized, scoring the winning touchdown.