Football breeds debate. Well, “debate” might be too strong a word. Conversations about our new national pastime can often devolve into barely coherent ALL CAPS shouting matches, usually over topics that seem crushingly mundane to our football-ambivalent friends and loved ones. This problem is always most acute during Super Bowl week, where observers both serious and casual converge to scrutinize the year’s topic du jour. 2015’s is “Deflategate,” a “scandal” akin to those that used to break out in the backyard when no one seemed capable of finding the Spalding pump.
But one Super Bowl debate transcends time, space and whatever topic Twitter has decided to run into the ground — The Greatest Super Bowl Ever™. It’s a concept as large and ambiguous as The Great American Novel™. We’re an extra point away from seven touchdowns of Super Bowls. That’s a sampling of games that covers two centuries, six decades, nine presidents and lord knows how many hot takes. It’s an unwieldy mass of contests, one few can contextualize as a whole.
That’s why I’m not going to try. Everything I’ve ever read suggests that Super Bowl III was a doozy. But how am I, born in the latter years of the Reagan Administration, supposed to compare it to Super Bowl XXXVIII, a game played in a stadium built for a 2002 expansion club (the Texans) featuring a team that didn’t exist before 1995 (the Panthers)? I can’t, so I won’t. What I know is the 21st century, so that’s what I’m going to focus on. 14 games. Some, clunkers. Others, amongst the greatest sporting events in American history.
What makes a great Super Bowl? Like the Great American Novel, there’s no one answer. We’ll focus on memorableness. Years later, which games have stuck with us, and why? Great plays, unexpected performances and historical significance are all driving forces behind memorable Super Bowls. Without further ado, here’s my crack at the 21st century’s best big games.
Note: For the sake of this article, we are abiding by 21st century, not the “2000s.” The 21st century began on Jan. 1, 2001. The 2000s began on Jan 1, 2000.
14. Super Bowl XL: Steelers 21, Seahawks 10 (2006)
As America settled in for Super Bowl XL, we were worried about two things: The Seahawks and the Steelers. We were neither concerned about nor interested in the referees. Alas, it was the refs who stole the show, and the refs who left the only lasting impression of a game that mirrored the mid-decade malaise of a country mired in two wars. Not that the Steelers didn’t deserve to win. They did. Pinning an 11-point defeat on the men in striped shirts is as dubious as it is infantile. If you don’t want the game in the refs’ hands, take it out yourself. Do not leave your lot up to fate.
But the refereeing is the first and only legacy of a game many can scarcely remember. Following “highlights” and “stats,” the third suggested Google search for Super Bowl XL is “bad calls.” A game where the only memorable participants were the zebras is not memorable at all. Super Bowl XL will always occupy a special place in the hearts of Steelers fans. For the rest of us, it’s a blank space.
13. Super Bowl XXXVII: Bucs 48, Raiders 21 (2003)
Before Jon Gruden was a T.V. star, they named a game after him. The “Gruden Bowl” is one the Raiders would like to forget. On the one hand, the Raiders persevered following the 2002 trade of their coach to Tampa Bay. They secured the AFC’s No. 1 seed with an 11-5 record, and reached their first Super Bowl since 1984. On the other … they didn’t change any of their plays or audibles. It led to a Super Bowl-record five interceptions for Rich Gannon, and a performance so poor it caused some of the greatest players in league history to literally believe coach Bill Callahan threw the game. In between was All-Pro C Barret Robbins disappearing and going to Mexico. It was a disaster only the Raiders could manage, and a game one of the league’s proudest franchises has yet to recover from. The Raiders are 56-136 (.291) since Super Bowl XXVII, and have reached the playoffs zero times.
12. Super Bowl XLVIII: Seahawks 43, Broncos 8 (2014)
The Clash of the Titans. The No. 1 offense in the league vs. the No. 1 defense in the league. One seed vs. one seed. Mismatch. That will be the legacy of Super Bowl XLVIII. Destined to be a classic on paper, SB48 was instead a lemon. When C Manny Ramirez sailed the first snap of the game over Peyton Manning’s head for a safety, he not only gave the Seahawks the fastest lead in Super Bowl history (12 seconds), but one they would not relinquish. The Broncos scored an NFL-record 613 points during the regular season. They managed 1.3 percent of that in the Super Bowl, with their lone eight tallies “narrowing” the Seahawks’ cushion from 36 to 28 entering the game’s final quarter. Russell Wilson nailed down the door three and a half minutes later, finding Doug Baldwin for a 10-yard touchdown. It was a comprehensive dismantling, one not entirely dissimilar to the one the Ravens laid on the Giants in 2001. The Ravens’ 152 yards allowed were 154 fewer than Seattle’s 306, but you might say Manning was higher-caliber competition than Kerry Collins. Seattle cemented its reputation as the best defense of the passing age, while Manning once again failed to burnish a résumé missing only sustained postseason success.
11. Super Bowl XXXV: Ravens 34, Giants 7 (2001)
As a competitive game, Super Bowl XXXV was somewhere between “no” and “syntax error.” As a showcase for one of the greatest units in NFL history, it was Citizen Kane. The 2000 Ravens didn’t defense you so much as throw a python around your neck before running you over with a tank. Coming off a regular season where they surrendered a record-low 165 points, the Ravens did not beat the Giants: They erased them from the face of the earth. Allowing just 152 total yards, the Ravens forced five turnovers. The Giants had 16 possessions. Of the four that didn’t end in picks, 11 ended in punts. The 16th was the merciful expiration of time in the fourth quarter. (The Giants’ fifth turnover was a lost fumble on a kick return.) So no, Super Bowl XXXV was not a game that compelled with competition. It was an exclamation point made more memorable than the 21st century’s other Super Bowl blowouts by the sheer virtuosity of Baltimore’s performance. The team named for Edgar Allen Poe etched its name into the history books with grisly efficiency. The football world won’t soon forget the 2000 Ravens.
10. Super Bowl XLI: Colts 29, Bears 17 (2007)
Super Bowl XLI serves an important function. It is the lone game keeping Peyton Manning from total postseason ignominy. It is a firewall to every absurd argument that Manning does not deserve the lofty perch he’s destined to take in history. But as a game? Let’s just say it featured Rex Grossman attempting 28 passes. Things got off to an historic start. Arguably the greatest returner of all time, Devin Hester staked the Bears to the earliest lead in Super Bowl history with his opening kick-return score (a record that’s since been broken). What followed was sloppy, forgettable football as the teams combined for eight turnovers and only one lead change. The Bears scored three points in the game’s final 45 minutes. Manning, meanwhile, earned his ring not in a blaze of glory, but a haze of short passes. He averaged just 6.5 yards per attempt, which granted, was better than Grossman’s 5.9 mark. Super Bowl XLI will live on as a ManningDebate™ bulwark, but is otherwise lost to the ages.
9. Super Bowl XLV: Packers 31, Steelers 25 (2011)
Not all Super Bowls are classics. Some are just good, clean games. That will be the legacy of Super Bowl XLV, a title tilt marred by ineptitude off the field — falling ice, unfinished seats, etc. — but elevated by the Packers doing their job on it. Aaron Rodgers continued his Sherman-like rampage through the postseason by completing 24-of-39 passes for 304 yards, three touchdowns and zero turnovers. When the dust settled on Rodgers’ march across the playoffs, he found himself the owner of 10 touchdowns to two turnovers. A legacy-cementer if there ever was one, SB XLV ensured Rodgers would take his rightful place amongst the league's — and history’s — best while still in his prime.
As for the Steelers, a Super Bowl loss is practically unthinkable — they’re 6-2 in games with roman numerals — but still displayed “the heart of a champion,” or whatever a random cliché generator might call it. Trailing 21-3 in the second quarter, Ben Roethlisberger’s squad battled back to make it 28-25 with 7:34 left on the clock. Trailing 31-25, the Steelers got the ball back with 127 ticks remaining. The circumstances were eerily similar to Super Bowl XLVII, where the Black and Yellow got the ball down three with 2:37 to go. That day, Roethlisberger led his team on a game-winning, 88-yard drive. This time, he’d “only” have to go 87. This time, he failed, getting Pittsburgh to its 33-yard line before tossing three-straight incompletions. No history was made for Pittsburgh, but legacies were not tarnished, either. Super Bowl XLV was a good game, nothing more, nothing less.
8. Super Bowl XXXVIII: Patriots 32, Panthers 29 (2004)
Super Bowl XXXVIII was a well-played, down-to-the-wire game. In fact, it came as far down to the wire as you can go without actually hitting 0:00. Adam Vinatieri’s (latest) game-winning kick sailed through the uprights with just 0:04 remaining. But if you’re not a Patriots or Panthers fan, what do you really remember about Feb. 1, 2004? Janet Jackson is not an acceptable answer. The football was good, but not memorable. The outcome was close, but not surprising (New England was favored by seven). Super Bowl XXXVIII was the kind of game that riveted for its 245 minutes, but hasn’t resonated in the 11 years since. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick put another brick in their dynasty wall, and John Fox earned himself a lifetime of “this guy made the Super Bowl, so he deserves a job” status. We’ll be lucky if Super Bowl 49 unfolds similarly to Super Bowl 38, but we wouldn't be talking about it two weeks, let alone two decades.
7. Super Bowl XXXIX: Patriots 24, Eagles 21 (2005)
When it comes to the history books, Super Bowl XXXIX isn’t so much about the game that was played — good one though it was — but the legacies that were cemented. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as the coach and quarterback of their era. Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb as the runners up of their era. Terrell Owens as a freak of nature. Adam Vinatieri as some sort of humanoid incapable of feeling pressure. Not that Super Bowl XXXIX lacked memorable moments, the most indelible being what didn’t happen. Trailing 24-14, the Eagles got the ball back with 5:40 remaining. Not a lot of time, but definitely enough to turn the tables of impending history. Instead, they operated with shockingly little urgency, huddling up and taking 3:52 to score an ultimately futile touchdown. If this game cemented Reid and McNabb as the prime No. 2s of the 2000s, it also cemented the reason — witless game management. (10 years on, Reid still hasn’t learned.) When the dust settled, Owens had nine catches for 122 yards despite breaking his leg just 49 days prior, while Vinatieri provided the difference for the third time in as many Super Bowls. The result was not a surprise. As history has proven, neither was the process.
6. Super Bowl XLIV: Saints 31, Colts 17 (2010)
Signature games need signature moments. Super Bowl XLIV had two, neither of which came from the winning team’s signature player. While Drew Brees was a ruthlessly efficient 32-of-39 for 288 yards and two touchdowns, it was Sean Payton and Tracy Porter who slammed the door on Peyton Manning’s near ascension to the Hall of the Unassailable. Payton, by dialing up an onside kick to begin the second half, a gambit that resulted not only in a recovery, but a 13-10 lead the Saints would relinquish only once. Porter, by studying his film and knowing when to jump a Manning-to-Reggie Wayne comeback route for a game-sealing pick six with 3:12 remaining. The back-breaking interception came on a play announcer Phil Simms called Manning’s “favorite.” It was the beginning of the end of Manning’s illustrious time in Indy — he’d suit up just 17 more times as a Colt — and the dawn of a new era of Saints football.
5. Super Bowl XLVII: Ravens 34, 49ers 31 (2013)
Brother, can you spare a touchdown? There are billions of brothers in the world. 2013 was just the first year to pit two of them against each other as coaches in a Super Bowl. Between the “Harbowl” and impending retirement of Ray Lewis, big game 47 threatened to drown in the ancillary. For 31 minutes, that appeared to be the game’s fate. Leading 21-6 going into halftime, the Ravens began the third quarter with a 108-yard kickoff return touchdown from Jacoby Jones.
That’s when things got weird.
Moments after Jones’ touchdown, the power went out. 34 minutes — and multiple conspiracies — later, play was finally ready to resume, and this time it featured the 49ers. Jim Harbaugh’s squad reeled off 17 unanswered points, cutting the deficit to five entering the game’s final quarter. A Justin Tucker field goal pushed it back to eight, but it was the 49ers who kept marching, bringing the score to 31-29 before Tucker pushed it back to 34-29. With 4:19 remaining, the 49ers needed 80 yards to win their sixth Super Bowl. They got 75. Depending on who you ask — especially Jim — they deserved five more. On 4th-and-goal from the five, Colin Kaepernick lofted the ball to the back right corner of the end zone. Michael Crabtree was in range, but came up a few feet short. The way Jim tells it, CB Jimmy Smith hooked Crabtree, committing holding. The way the tape tells it … it’s inconclusive. It was a call correct enough not to mar Baltimore’s victory, but close enough to leave an honest debate in its wake. It’s the kind of thing that makes a Super Bowl live on in history.
4. Super Bowl XLIII: Steelers 27, Cardinals 23 (2009)
By most objective measures, the 2008 Cardinals are one of the worst teams — if not the worst — to reach the Super Bowl. 9-7 during the regular season, the Birds scored 427 points … and surrendered 426. But they caught fire in the playoffs, dispatching an inexperienced Atlanta squad before forcing one of the worst quarterback performances of all time and beating Mr. Runner Up himself, Andy Reid. The unexpected run to Tampa set up a Super Bowl oozing with storylines. Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt going up against his former employer, a 37-year-old Kurt Warner trying to become the first quarterback to win the Super Bowl with two different teams, Pittsburgh trying to get a dynasty going. Then the game did what all good Super Bowls should do — quash all the storylines with 60 minutes of compelling, historic football.
Of course, 15 of those minutes stood out from the 60. Arizona entered the fourth quarter trailing 20-7. That’s when Warner put the Cardinals on his back, completing 14-of-20 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns. The second put Arizona ahead 23-20 with 2:37 remaining. Thanks to a holding penalty, the Steelers got the ball back at their own 12-yard line. They would need a drive for the ages to either win or send the game into overtime. That’s what they got from Ben Roethlisberger, who punctuated Pittsburgh’s eight-play, 88-yard Super Bowl-sealing series with a dime dropped into the hands of Santonio Holmes. Holmes tapped his toes like Fred Astaire, giving a classic game an indelible moment.
3. Super Bowl XLVI: Giants 21, Patriots 17 (2012)
The Olympics, World Cup and Patriots/Giants Super Bowls — these are the sports world’s premier quadrennial events. The very nature of the Olympics and World Cup guarantee every-fourth-year fireworks, but there was no such assurance with this Super Bowl XLII rematch. Alas, we got them in a game equal to its 2008 predecessor in nearly every way. The Pats may not have been seeking a perfect record, but were still out to prove their dynasty extended to a second decade. The Giants wanted to show their previous Super Bowl triumph was not a fluke, and that quarterback Eli Manning was indeed, yes, elite. Nevermind the fact that the G-Men went 9-7 during the regular campaign, and were the only Super Bowl participant in history to post a negative point differential. Nevermind that, aside from the coaches and quarterbacks, these teams were quite different than the ones who threw down in Arizona four years prior. We got a sequel, and boy was it a good one. Think “Godfather II” instead of “Anchorman II.”
Like XLII, XLVI see-sawed. The Giants raced to a 9-0 before the Pats went up 17-9. Like XLII, the ending was painful for the Pats, and brought about by a super-human catch. Once Mario Manningham made the grab, Manning made the history, marching the G-Men on their second Super Bowl-clinching drive in five seasons. That, of course, is despite the fact that Eli didn’t even want a touchdown. With the Pats winning 17-15, all the Giants needed was a field goal. Playing Madden instead of football — the right decision — Bill Belichick ordered his defense to let New York score, and Ahmad Bradshaw obliged despite his better judgment. New England had 57 seconds to stave off déjà vu, but it wasn’t meant to be. Could things have been different? Gisele Bundchen thought so, envisioning an alternate history, one in which Wes Welker just made the damn catch. But Wes couldn’t, and the Pats didn’t. Five years, four teams, one outcome: An historic game won by the Giants.
2. Super Bowl XLII: Giants 17, Patriots 14 (2008)
In all of sports, there is no ritual more smug than the surviving 1972 Dolphins’ literal popping of champagne every time the NFL’s last undefeated team falls. In 2007, the Patriots were determined to cancel the toast to self-satisfaction. Fueled by rage after Week 1’s “Spygate” betrayal by former company man — or lackey, more like it — Eric Mangini, the Pats rolled up a then-record 589 points as they bulldozed their way to 16-0. Records were shattered, scores were run up and few even came close to competing with Bill Belichick’s well-oiled machine of hate.
Someone who did put up a fight was Tom Coughlin’s Giants. In one of the greatest one-off games in NFL history, both the Pats and G-Men faced a Week 17 conundrum. With playoff seeding already secure for both sides, should the game be treated as mortal competition? For New England, the answer was easy. The tanks had already rolled this far — they were not going to stop five miles outside the city. For the Giants, the choice was much less clear. What did they owe more? An honest effort to history, or a week of rest to themselves? Coughlin made the honorable decision, not only providing fans and the history books with a thrilling contest — the Pats overcame a 12-point, second-half deficit to etch their names alongside Miami’s — but a springboard to the unlikeliest of championships.
The rematch came 36 days later. The Pats’ unsinkable ship had already sprung leaks in narrower-than-expected playoff victories over the Jaguars and Chargers. Coughlin provided the iceberg. Fueled by a ferocious pass rush, the G-Men limited New England to 274 yards of offense, just 81 of which came in the first half. This, after the Pats averaged 411 yards per game during the regular season. Sacked only 21 times all year, Brady was felled five times by Michael Strahan and company, and stunningly out-played by arch-rival Peyton Manning’s kid brother Eli. It was Manning — and luck — who made the history the Pats were certain was theirs, finding David Tyree’s helmet before the open arms of Plaxico Burress on the game’s decisive 13-yard touchdown with 0:35 remaining. Brady was sacked on the evening’s final play, and New England’s shot at 19-0 went the way of the dodo. The Dolphins have popped bottles ever since, while the Pats have still yet to find the fourth title that’s eluded them for 10 years.
1. Super Bowl XXXVI: Patriots 20, Rams 17 (2002)
This was not the new century’s first Super Bowl. It was something grander: Its big bang. 13 years after the fact, it can be hard to remember that New England’s 20-17 triumph over “The Greatest Show on Turf” wasn’t initially viewed as the dawn of a dynasty, but the springing of an historic upset. Mike Martz’s Rams came into New Orleans as 14-point favorites, one of the widest spreads in big-game history. But time has dulled the shock of St. Louis’ loss because of everything New England’s victory birthed.
It’s rare enough that a game features both one of history’s greatest coaches and quarterbacks. It’s rarer still that it features them as unknowns. That’s what Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were on the Super Bowl XXXVI stage. Two of the greatest men to ever ply their craft, only we didn’t know it yet. It’s hard to fathom now, but that’s how the Patriots’ dynasty began — as a sneak attack. Some might say that’s fitting for all the cloak-and-dagger intrigue that’s followed, but it’s not just Brady and Belichick’s unveiling that make this the best game of the past 15 years. Super Bowl XXXVI dripped with drama, culminating with an iconic moment befitting of the game’s first 59 and a half minutes.
Trailing 17-3 entering the fourth quarter, Kurt Warner and Martz’s elite offense mounted a frantic comeback, tying the game with 1:30 remaining. The man who broke the tie? Another unknown legend, Adam Vinatieri. Vinatieri was already a 29-year-old, six-year veteran when his 48-yard kick sailed through the uprights as time expired, but he was not yet the greatest kicker of all time. That is what he will retire as, however. One game, three of the best ever before we even knew it. In Super Bowl XXXVI’s aftermath, the Rams were never the same, the Patriots went on to become just the second team to win three championships in four years and football was provided with enough icons and heels to last all the way to the present day. That’s a Super Bowl.