Super Bowl 50 will be a game that features two very different quarterbacks. Peyton Manning relies on his ability to dissect defenses and match-ups, while Cam Newton relies on his ability to extend plays and run through tackles. Manning is a pocket quarterback with supreme touch, Newton is more like a passing running back with a cannon. Manning is reserved and self-deprecating, while Newton is boisterous and smug.
They do share one trait, and that's their aptitude to make big plays in big moments. They will both need to rely on that trait in this game. The Broncos had the number one defense in the league this year, and may very well be an all-time great defense, a la '85 Bears, '00 Ravens, and '13 Seahawks. The Panthers were the number six defense anchored by All-Pros Josh Norman, Luke Kuechly, and Thomas Davis, who said he will play despite breaking his arm in the NFC Championship game.
That means points are not going to come easy, and this may end up being an ugly Super Bowl, but that always provides the potential for carpe momentum, seizing the moment. Those moments end up transcending the game in and of itself, and are forever embedded in the pantheon of NFL greatness. The question is whether Manning will cement his legacy as an all-time great quarterback, or Newton spoils his going away party, and begins writing his own version of history.
There is on average 128 snaps in a football game, but the best Super Bowls are remembered for one or two pivotal plays. We could list the best ones and move on, but some of these plays seem to be only explainable through a divine influence. So let's go through the top 15 Super Bowl plays of all-time, and give them their just praise.
15 Hester Kickoff Return (Super Bowl XLI)
We will kickoff with Devin Hester in 2008, aaand he took it to the house.
Hester had returned two kicks and four punts for touchdowns that year, so the threat was there. The Colts were still surprised, though, when he returned the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI 100 yards for the score. The first and only time to be done.
The Colts and Peyton Manning (after beating the Patriots in the AFC Championship game), would go on to beat the breaks off da Bears (29-10), but Hester will go down in history for his opening salvo.
14 Scoring Barrage (Super Bowl XXXV)
This series of plays didn't affect the outcome of the game, but deserve credit for being so unprecedented. Baltimore already had the championship all but wrapped up when DB Duane Starks picked Kerry Collins and returned it for a touchdown. The proceeding kickoff was returned by Ron Dixon for the Giant's only score of the night. The ensuing kickoff was then returned by Baltimore's Jermaine Lewis.
Three touchdowns on three consecutive plays in 36 seconds. In a Super Bowl that the Ravens forced five turnovers and made the Giants punt every other possession, there was still some excitement in those 36 seconds.
13 Bills Kick Wide Right (Super Bowl XXV)
This is one of two Bills plays on this list that can be accurately categorized as fails. Buffalo’s Kicker, Scott Norwood, lined up for a 47-yard field goal with an opportunity to win the game. He got too much toe on it and missed “wide right,” woe is the life of an NFL kicker.
This would end up being the Bills’ first of four consecutive Super Bowl losses in the 90s, and was really the only one of the bunch they were competitive in. Only adding to the sting of how close they came in their first attempt.
12 Dallas Scoop and Score (Super Bowl XXVII)
This is the second Bills fail. They had a 13-6 lead with possession after half, and looked like they were going to avenge their Super Bowl loss to the Cowboys the year before.
Bills running back Thurmon Thomas took a toss at midfield, got stripped of the ball, and Safety James Washington scooped and scored, which gave the Cowboys all kinds of momentum.
Washington finished the game with 11 tackles, a pick, and a forced fumble to go along with the momentum changing TD play, but Emmitt Smith took MVP honors. The Cowboys scored 24 unanswered points, and embarrassed the Bills, again.
11 Elway Helicopter Run (Super Bowl XXXIII)
John Elway was 37 years old, and had lost three Super Bowls, but clearly was not going to be denied in his fourth attempt at glory.
On third down and six in a 17-17 game Elway dropped back to pass. Coverage was tight inside the red zone, so Elway squeaked through the first layer of defenders. At the second level he confronted Safety LeRon Butler, and decided to launch himself. Butler clipped Elway’s legs and sent him whirling like a helicopter.
Elway had enough for the first down, and the Broncos had the momentum and confidence to seal the win.
10 Harrison 100-Yard Pick Six (Super Bowl XLII)
The Cardinals had first and goal with 47 seconds remaining in the first half, and were poised to score and take a 14-10 lead to the locker room. The Steelers blitzed, Kurt Warner rushed his throw, James Harrison picked it at the goal line, and proceeded to rumble his way through an obstacle course of defenders.
Harrison was gassed and required oxygen on the sideline after he followed a convoy of six teammates the distance of the field, then got tackled into the end zone.
The Steelers stole all the momentum from the Cardinals in one swoop.
9 Saints Onside After Halftime (Super Bowl XLIV)
Trailing 10-6, the Saints truly ambushed the Colts when they lined up like normal, then bounced an onside kick right off an unsuspecting Hank Baskett.
Never before in Super Bowl history had anybody ever even attempted an onside prior to the fourth quarter, and the Saints had a rookie kick off man, Thomas Morstead. “I wasn’t nervous. I was terrified,” Morstead said of attempting the kick.
The Saints drove down and scored after recovering the onside, and rode the momentum gained to a 31-17 victory. The game was much closer than the score would indicate, more on that next...
8 Porter Pick Six (Super Bowl XLIV)
The Saints were big underdogs coming into this game. Hey, this was Peyton Manning in his prime after all! So even up 24-17, it felt inevitable that Manning and the Colts would at least tie it back up. The Colts had that kind of drive developing.
But on the third and five, Tracy Porter read Reggie Wayne’s route and jumped it. Manning had already released the ball before Wayne was even out of his break, but Porter had seen that route many times before on film.
Porter took the interception to the house, and the Saints took the Lombardi Trophy back to Louisiana.
7 Montana Game-Winning TD (Super Bowl XXIII)
To focus solely on this one play would be an injustice to what led to it. This possession is solidified in NFL consciousness as “The Drive.” It was a masterpiece of a two-minute drill that started on San Francisco’s own eight yard line. Joe Montana found Jerry Rice over the middle and Roger Craig underneath, over and over. It’s not like the Bengals didn’t know what was coming, they just couldn’t stop it.
The drive was capped off by Montana finding John Taylor for the game-winning touchdown. The Super Bowl victory also capped the career of legendary coach Bill Walsh.
6 Vinatieri Kick-Starts A Dynasty (Super Bowl XXXVI)
This game initiated the Patriots dynasty, and was the coming out party for young Tom Brady. It was also the beginning of a long list of Patriots cheating allegations; Rams players and personnel complained that the Pats video taped their walkthrough. Putting that aside, this was an all-time great game.
Kurt Warner hit Ricky Proehl for a touchdown to tie the game at 17-17. He left Brady 1:30 on the clock though, and that was plenty of time to get within field goal range.
Adam Vinatieri doesn’t know what pressure is, and nailed the 48-yard field goal.
5 Butler Goal Line Game Time Pick (Super Bowl XLIX)
This play may be the most questionable call of all-time, it is for sure for Seahawks fans. Everybody knows, just feed the beast!
People often overlook the blame that Russell Wilson deserves for even trying to force a throw in that scenario, but even more overlooked is how great of a play Malcolm Butler made. The Seahawks only tried that pass because they thought it would fool the defense.
Butler played his man, not the situation. This speaks to the discipline Bill Belichick instills in his players, and ingrains the memory of this play into Super Bowl greatness.
4 Manningham Sideline Circus Catch (Super Bowl XLVI)
This catch was insane.
Down 17-14 with just over 3:30 remaining on the clock, Eli Manning and the Giants started their final drive on their own 11-yard line. Manning began with a perfect rainbow-ball over the cornerback that fell right into Mario Manningham’s bread-basket at the exact moment he got both feet down and got popped by the rotating Safety. Bill Belichick challenged the catch, but to no avail.
The Giants were not to be stopped after this play. They plodded their way down field, and scored a touchdown to beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, again.
3 Dyson Not In SpaceJam (Super Bowl XXXIV)
Kurt Warner threw a 74-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Bruce to put the Rams up 23-16 late in the fourth quarter. Steve McNair kept the ensuing drive going with a heroic scramble and completion to get the Titans to the 10-yard line with five seconds left.
The tension was palpable; no Super Bowl had ever been won by a touchdown on the last play. McNair hit Kevin Dyson over the middle and he tried to dive through a tackle. He stretched the ball across the goal line, but had been tackled already. The Titans lost by one yard.
2 Tyree Helmet Catch (Super Bowl XLII)
This play inexplicable, unexplainable, incomprehensible!
Eli Manning was wrapped up and sacked, but then he wasn’t! It’s a wonder how Manning escaped the pocket on this play without it being whistled dead. He did though, and then he launched a prayer, and that prayer was answered in the form of David Tyree’s inexplicably sticky helmet.
This play set up the Manning to Plaxico Burress touchdown pass to give the Giants a 17-14 lead and a Super Bowl victory. Some people will ask how this play isn’t number one on the list, well there is one more that can top it.
1 Holmes On A Whole Other Level (Super Bowl XLIII)
This was arguably the best Superbowl of all-time. The James Harrison 100-yard pick six was already on this list. Kurt Warner threw Larry Fitzgerald a fade-pass that he grabbed for a touchdown in spectacular fashion. Then the two hooked up again over the middle for a catch-and-run touchdown of 64 yards to go up 23-20.
Just as he did in Super Bowl 36, Warner left too much time on the clock, and Ben Roethlesberger targeted Santonio Holmes to lead the Steelers down field. It set up Holmes for the greatest play in Super Bowl history. Just watch and respect.
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