We’ve been to football games where people leave the stands early to beat the traffic. They figure the game is dead and gone, that the losing team can never make up the difference, not in this amount of time.
And then the losing team scores, and the crowd screams, and you wonder what those fans who left early are thinking as they walk across that acres-wide parking lot.
Never leave early. Especially when it comes to the biggest game in pro football. Some of the greatest moments in Super Bowl history have happened after a game looks like it’s done. These games prove that it’s not over until it’s over.
Here are our picks for the best Super Bowl comebacks.
Super Bowl XLII, Giants vs. Patriots
The New England Patriots were favored to win by a jumbo-sized 12 points. But, as anyone who has bet on the Super Bowl will tell you, the spread doesn’t always mean much in the NFL season finale.
New England couldn’t score in the first quarter, while the New York Giants took a three-point field goal lead.
No problem, thought the Patriots. What’s three points?
Well, we’ll tell you what it is: it’s a shot of confidence and energy to the New York Giants.
Nothing much happened for most of the game. The Giants had got their field goal, and the Patriots scored a touchdown.
No one scored in the third quarter, making this a four-point game at the beginning of the final quarter.
In hindsight, the low scores in the first three quarters feel like opening salvos. Each side had been testing each other’s defenses like medieval soldiers with a catapult, looking for the weakest part of the wall.
The fourth quarter was where the battle really began.
The final quarter opened with a score of Patriots 7, Giants 3. Then the Giants’ Eli Manning threw a touchdown, and suddenly, the Giants were ahead, 10-7.
The Patriots had pulled themselves out of sticky situations before, and it’s likely that they weren’t too worried. Although, for a game that was supposed to be an easy victory for New England, this unexpected Giants lead in the fourth quarter probably felt a bit unsettling.
Then Randy Moss completed a touchdown for the Patriots, and New England breathed a sigh of relief. Things were making sense again. The score at that point was 14-10 in favor of the Patriots.
One minute, fifteen seconds left. The Giants knew that if they wanted a shot at the title, they needed a touchdown. A field goal was not going to cut it, not today.
Manning passed the ball to Giants wide receiver David Tyree, who made one of the best Super Bowl plays ever in his now-famous “Helmet Catch.” By clutching the ball tightly to his helmet despite being pulled awkwardly onto his back and across an opponent’s leg, Tyree gained more than thirty yards for the Giants.
The commitment by Tyree to not let the ball leave his body no matter what was the moment that changed the game for the Giants.
It’s interesting to note that of the 53 players on the New York Giants that year, playing four months of regular season games and winning the conference championship to make it to the Big Game, it was that one moment, that one catch, that brought the Giants to the brink of victory.
With just moments to go in the game, Eli Manning then threw a touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress, who made the catch and leapfrogged the Giants’ score over the Patriots, for a 17-14 win over New England.
Anyone who left early for the parking lot will never forgive themselves for missing one of the greatest Super Bowl comebacks of all time.
Super Bowl LI, Patriots vs. Falcons
This matchup did not start well for the Patriots. Atlanta won the coin toss, and the rest of the first half belonged to them as well.
Between the time that George and Barbara Bush flipped the commemorative coin and when Lady Gaga took the stage at halftime, New England had scored an embarrassing three points to Atlanta’s 21.
The Falcons were on fire. Sacking Brady seemed to be their only goal, and they were successful time and again. The New England quarterback didn’t have a moment to think, much less find an open player to pass to, before he was yanked to the ground.
The Patriots didn’t put that kind of pressure on the Falcons quarterback, who had time to set up and make some long, powerful passes that were completed, marching Atlanta neatly up the field.
Although no one scored in the first quarter, Atlanta made three touchdowns in the second quarter, including an 80-plus-yard interception (ouch!).
The interesting thing about this interception touchdown is that there was not a New England Patriot anywhere near #23 Robert Alford as he sprinted toward the endzone. There weren’t any Falcons nearby, either. As the camera followed Alford for the touchdown, he was the only player you could see, in a giant, empty patch of green.
Were the Patriots so cocky going into this Super Bowl that they didn’t watch tape? Alford is no 100-mile-an-hour Deion Sanders, but he’s an intelligent player and clearly a threat. Another seven points for Atlanta.
So the Falcons had an 18-point lead to take into the third quarter. Their locker room must have exploded in halftime jubilation.
But just like the actual American patriots who, inexplicably, defeated the better-equipped British redcoats, New England did not consider themselves defeated. They had a nearly 20-point deficit, but it was like they didn’t realize they were supposed to lose.
There must have been one heck of a regrouping in the New England locker room at halftime.
The Falcons entered the second half still playing like winners. Despite the long halftime break, which players and coaches alike tend to hate because muscles cool and momentum can falter, the Falcons still had their energy and focus. They made another touchdown.
At that point, they had a 25-point lead. Who’d have thunk?
But then Brady was starting to complete his passes. The Falcons couldn’t seem to get to him like they did in the first half.
Brady had time to think, time to pass, and time to run if he chose, which he did for twenty yards. Another pass, and New England had its first touchdown of the game.
In the fourth quarter, the score was 28-9 with the Atlanta Falcons in the lead, and they were thinking how to safely run down the clock. It’s in the bag, right?
This is why people love football.
The Pats made a field goal, and it became a 14-point game. Suddenly, it was the Atlanta QB Matt Ryan getting sacked by the Patriots’ Hightower who, like a high tower, blocked the ball from going anywhere before slamming Ryan to the ground.
Then the Patriots scored a touchdown. It was nothing too spectacular, until you realized the score was now 28-20. Where the heck did that 25-point lead go?
The Falcons were still executing amazingly, fast and lithe. Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones was catching like a champion, toes perched millimeters inside the line, hands plucking the ball from the air for solid yardage gained.
But somehow the Patriots were creeping forward. They seemed invigorated in this second half in a way we didn’t see in the first half when Brady couldn’t seem to complete a pass. Atlanta clearly had their game locked down, though, and were making some superior plays.
There was a crazy pile of players, the ball popped around a bit, and it was deemed a catch by the Patriots’ Edelman. This call, verified good on slow-mo review, was critical because soon the Pats advanced right to the edge of the endzone with a minute left on the clock.
The fourth quarter ended with a score of 28-28, and the Super Bowl went into overtime.
The Patriots made a rush for the endzone, scored a touchdown, and, unbelievably, won the Super Bowl. It was an overwhelming recovery of the game and their spirits after a deep double-digit chase for most of the game.
This is a game worth watching again, for the Falcons’ mastery and the Patriots’ eerie ability to score when it counted. Easily one of the best Super Bowl comebacks ever seen.
Super Bowl X, Steelers vs. Cowboys
Coach Tom Landry plus quarterback Roger Staubach equals Dallas’ strong bid for the Super Bowl ring in 1976 at the Orange Bowl stadium in Miami. Pittsburgh came to the table with a Super Bowl win the previous year at Super Bowl IX, as well as quarterback Terry Bradshaw.
The odds favored the Steelers to win by seven points. On the very first kickoff, the Cowboys surprised Pittsburgh with a reverse play, and a Steelers player sustained a rib injury.
It was a chaotic start, sending any cut-and-dried expectations for the game topsy-turvy.
Pittsburgh’s kicker dropped an easy ball, and the Cowboys fell on that failed kick like turkey vultures.
Dallas was all up in Pittsburgh’s business, and the Cowboys scored the first touchdown. Pittsburgh was shocked. All season, no one had scored a touchdown in the first quarter against them.
The Steelers had to chase, something they had not foreseen. A few minutes later, they scored their own touchdown, bringing the score to 7-7.
In order to avoid a face-to-face showdown with the Steel Curtain, Dallas crossed and re-crossed with the ball, keeping Pittsburgh’s defensive players guessing as to where the ball was at any given moment.
It was a genius approach to dealing with the most intimidating group of men in the sport at the time.
A field goal isn’t much, but the Cowboys made one in the second quarter, giving them the lead, 10-7.
Then one of the Cowboys picked on one of the Steelers. This kerfuffle fired up angry Steeler Jack Lambert, who became even more aggressive than he had been early in the game. As he tossed players left and right, you could feel the tide of the game turning.
But it takes hours to turn an ocean liner, and the next quarter reflected the size and power of both teams.
The Steel Curtain kicked in and didn’t allow Dallas to score in the third quarter. But Dallas didn’t let Pittsburgh score, either.
Entering the fourth quarter, the Steelers, who were supposed to be a touchdown ahead, trailed the Cowboys by three points.
Pittsburgh were determined to win. They had to reassess their chances over the Cowboys. Maybe big plays weren’t going to be their prime opportunity.
The Steelers eked out two points on a safety. Now they were down only by one.
Then Pittsburgh scored on a field goal. At that point, they led by two points, 12-10. Things were starting to tilt the right way for the Steelers, but it was very late in the game to be playing with only a two-point lead.
The mighty Steelers managed another field goal for a score of 15-10, with the Cowboys trailing.
Finally, with little time remaining in the game, Pittsburgh scored its first touchdown. At that point, they led by 11, with a score of 21-10. They likely felt they had solidified their status as the favorites to win and the dominant franchise.
Except Dallas scored a touchdown in the final minutes, closing the gap and bringing the score to 21-17.
Fortunately for Pittsburgh, time ran out before Dallas could pose any further challenges to their authority.
This game pitted the intelligence and wiliness of Dallas against the sheer blunt force of Pittsburgh. No one could call the game ahead of time. It may not have had the drama of the previous games mentioned above, but we still class it as one of the best Super Bowl comebacks.
It was a Steelers victory, but this tough game of back-and-forth surges and possessions gave the Cowboys the confidence to appear at Super Bowls XII and XIII, two and three years hence.
There are no “givens” in football. Teams favored to win can lose in a shutout. Newbies to the Super Bowl can trounce teams with multiple Lombardi trophies.
We love the surprising wins and the dramatic Super Bowl comebacks the best.
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