Football has been aptly described as “war.” The game has all the strategy, battles, troop injuries, losses, shocks, and surprises of any conflict between nations.
And like any war, the view taken of it will depend on the historians. Did they root for the winner or the loser? Did they hate or love the coach? Was the bowl game played in a beloved and historic stadium?
As such, any list of the best Super Bowl games of all time is going to be highly subjective. Or so you would think.
Surprisingly, football seems to stick to big business’s 80-20 rule, in which 20% of the games are standout performances and 80% leave us feeling less than impressed. Here are our picks for the best Super Bowls ever played.
Super Bowl XXXIV
Teams: St. Louis Rams vs. Tennessee Titans
Best Super Bowl For: A close score and heart-stopping excitement
Atlanta brags about its mild winters, but on this particular Super Bowl weekend, a rare ice storm engulfed the city.
Both teams were in Atlanta for the week preceding the game. Because of the weather, they couldn’t get out and exercise, couldn’t tour the city. They suffered from cabin fever.
On Super Bowl Sunday, both the Titans and the Rams were coming into the Superdome restless and nervous and aching for a fight.
The beginning of the game had the St. Louis Rams’ quarterback Kurt Warner getting sacked and attacked by the unrelenting Titans defense. He could barely stand, much less find someone to throw to.
Scoring was elusive. That ball popped out of grips after fans had already started their cheer, leading to groans of dismay and disbelief.
Tackles have been compared to small-scale auto accidents in terms of impact and potential injury. Well, so far, this game had been a multi-car freeway pileup. No one came off the field unscathed.
At the end of the first half, the Rams led 9-0. But both teams had taken a mighty beating.
Between the Titans’ defense and the Rams’ offense, it seemed the unstoppable force had met the immovable object to create a near-stalemate.
The Rams scored a touchdown, bringing the game to 16-0.
Well, Tennessee wasn’t having any of that. The Titans stumbled, shoved, and blustered their way into the endzone for a touchdown. And then, a few minutes later, another. Score 16-13, Rams ahead by three. Until the Titans achieved a field goal and tied the game.
The game belonged to anyone at this point. The difference is that the Titans were high on adrenaline, having just caught up to the Rams in what felt like no time at all, whereas the Rams were feeling deflated and worried. Two teams, same score, very different attitudes in this moment, with the end of the game just minutes away.
Then Rams quarterback Warner managed to keep his cool in the face of an onslaught of desperate Titans muscle. He made a strong, clean pass. The game hung in the balance.
Wide receiver Isaac Bruce was there to catch the ball. After a quarter that was part euphoria, part desperation, and all struggle, Bruce made his winning touchdown sprint look a little too easy.
This last quarter of Super Bowl XXXIV is a master class on never giving up.
The Titans came back from a formidable point spread to tie the game. They did not let the momentum of the Rams’ lead carry them behind, like flotsam pulled in the wake of a speedboat.
Instead, Tennessee bucked the current to create its own momentum, and it changed the game. That’s the power of focus.
The Rams were able to tune out the very loud ticking of the countdown clock.
Rams coach Dick Vermeil never wavered in his buoyant belief in his team, his optimism, and his excitement at being at the Super Bowl. He even loved that the score had brought both teams’ options down to the wire.
“A classic script,” he called it. A great game in the making. One of the best Super Bowls ever. And it was. And still is.
Excuse us. We need to go watch it again.
Super Bowl XXII
Teams: Washington Redskins vs. Denver Broncos
Best Super Bowl For: A record-smashing, jaw-dropping, fantasy football-like quarter that still doesn’t seem real
This was one of the greatest Super Bowls ever in our eyes, but Broncos fans will count this as the worst Super Bowl of all time. And why wouldn’t they? Their beloved quarterback John Elway, in an unprecedented move, got into a taxi after the first quarter and went to a tavern. And he flagged down a second taxi—a minivan this time—and took the entire defensive line with him!
Okay, not really, but they may as well have. At least the cab drivers would have made a couple dollars in tips. As it was, no one related to this franchise got anything out of that Sunday. Except schooled.
Frank Gifford, the last of the old-style commentators with his classic narrator’s voice and rapid-fire monotone patter, talked with co-commentator Dan Dierdorf about the power players who they expected to make the biggest plays of the game. Neither of them mentioned Redskins quarterback Doug Williams, only noting that Washington’s first-string quarterback Jay Schroeder was on the bench due to injury.
Play began, and the first body-slam of the day occurred when one of the black-and-white-striped officials got tossed into a group of people at the sidelines. Was this a sign that things were about to go ass-over-teakettle?
The first notable play by the Redskins was when quarterback Doug Williams threw a nice, easy pass to a receiver, who dropped it like a nervous eight-year-old playing street ball with his older brother’s friends.
In contrast, the first notable play by Denver was a quick touchdown by a rookie within the first two minutes of the game. Quickest touchdown of any Super Bowl at the time, in fact.
The Redskins came into this Super Bowl having enjoyed a solid, 11-4 season, but they were playing this first quarter like amateurs. The matchup was looking more and more lopsided with every play.
Washington, shockingly, wasn’t even putting pressure on Elway. Every time the ball was snapped to the Broncos’ mighty quarterback, the Redskins just let him wander around, sip iced tea, pick at a hangnail, consider his holiday plans, and look for an open receiver.
Denver scored a field goal.
Washington fans were probably thinking, “How much did we pay for these tickets again? Maybe if we visit the zoo and the Hotel del Coronado, this trip to San Diego won’t be a total loss.”
Washington’s quarterback Doug Williams was hoisting some long, beautiful passes. It was pointless, however, since they were all incomplete. Like, all of them. But it got worse.
The ball was snapped to Doug Williams, who slipped, twisted his leg, and got sacked, all at the same time.
Redskins fans, already nervous because their team was playing with a second-string quarterback, watched him leave the game with injury. Their first-string quarterback, Jay Schroeder, took his place.
But this was not a substitution for the better because there was a reason Jay wasn’t the starting quarterback. He’d sat out the entire second half of the regular season because of his own physical challenges and hadn’t been on the field at all in post-season.
Schroeder wasn’t even limbered up. But he took up his post like a true professional. Schroeder made a great pass to an open receiver, who promptly dropped the ball.
Things were going from bad to worse, from dismal to abysmal. The commentators, who were trying to be neutral and supportive, couldn’t help but note that Redskins memorabilia would likely be on deep discount after this game.
Denver led by a healthy ten points. The stars seemed to be aligning for a rare Super Bowl shut-out. So much drama already, and it was only the end of the first quarter.
The Broncos were the three-point favorites to win. They scored first, they scored second, the other team’s starting quarterback was out with injury, and the stadium was serving pizza at the snack bar. For them, it was going to be a perfect day, the best day that ever was.
The second quarter started, and Doug Williams came back in the game.
First possession of the quarter, and Williams heaved a monumental pass to receiver Ricky Sanders. Sanders sprinted effortlessly into the endzone for an 80-yard touchdown.
How quickly change the fortunes of war. Just moments ago, Denver fans felt assured of a Super Bowl win. Suddenly, with one pass, Williams had turned it into a three-point game.
Fans who had been relaxing against the backs of their seats (Denver fans) or slumped against the backs of their seats (Redskins supporters) were now sitting straight up.
Now Denver was throwing the incomplete passes and dropping the ball. It was an abrupt change from their ball mastery just a few minutes before, during the first quarter.
If this were challenging weather, that could explain it, but this was a perfect, mild day in San Diego at 61 degrees with mild cloud cover.
Suddenly, the Redskins were catching passes and gaining yardage like it was never a big deal. They didn’t have time to change uniforms between the first and second quarters; otherwise, we’d wonder if this was a completely different group of guys. And Denver’s efficacy had changed just as quickly, but in their case, it was not for the better.
This was shaping up to be a real ballgame.
Williams shot a pass to a receiver, who made the catch and leaped into the endzone for a second Redskins touchdown. The game had flip-flopped in less than three minutes, and the Redskins portion of the stadium had shifted in mood from funeral to baby announcement. From dirge to surge. One Washington fan sang loudly and played the banjo. Where was this guy in the first quarter?
It’s worth pointing out that despite the incompletes and the Denver fumbles, John Elway was playing like an absolute champ. He wasn’t protecting himself; he was putting his body on the line with play after play.
He even came out of the pocket in the first quarter to actually act as a receiver, effectively eschewing any protection he had as a quarterback. But he did it. And later, he passed a shovel play, faking out his opponents, who thought he still held the ball. He went down hard for that little charade. But it gained them some yardage.
However, Williams was throwing absolutely golden passes. Completions, long yardage, elegant execution. Awesome quarterbacking. In the first quarter, Williams was clearly nervous. Now, he was clearly not.
Timmy Smith of the Washington Redskins ran in a 58-yard touchdown to give Washington an 11-point lead.
Just to orient you, the score was now 21-10, and it was only halfway through the second quarter. (Remember when 10 seemed like a high score? Like, 20 minutes ago?)
The Washington Redskins had gone from first-quarter compassion story to second-quarter success story, tied with two other teams for the highest points scored in a Super Bowl quarter.
Williams threw another touchdown pass to Ricky Sanders, and suddenly, the Redskins held a Super Bowl record: 28 points scored in one quarter.
No one had ever seen a Super Bowl like this before. Before this Big Game, no team trailing by 10 points in the Super Bowl had managed to catch up. Well, this game blew that statistic out of the water. Washington led by 18 points.
And the quarter wasn’t over yet.
One minute left in the half. Denver couldn’t wait for this godforsaken quarter to be over. Such a whipping they had taken; nothing could be worse than this.
Except that Doug Williams threw a “this can’t actually be happening!” fourth touchdown pass in that final minute!
It seemed the Redskins were tired of celebrating. They were becoming blasé about it, less bouncy about this fifth game touchdown—four thrown by Williams and one run to the endzone by Smith—than they were about the first. Maybe because it seemed unreal.
The Washington Redskins were like thieves in a music store, shattering records all over the place, and the Broncos were cutting themselves on the shards.
Washington scored again in the fourth quarter, but it was just icing on the cake by this time. Denver never scored another point.
This was football at its finest. Hell, this was putting it all on the line, pressure-dealing, scene-stealing human effort at its finest.
Did we mention that Doug Williams was the first black quarterback to start a Super Bowl? Because he was under that pressure, too. Kind of slipped our minds with every other milestone ground underfoot on the field that day.
Best Super Bowl For: A perfect Super Bowl Sunday recipe
Hot on the heels of Super Bowl XXII, discussed above, came this superlative football matchup. Two of the best Super Bowl games in consecutive years? Yep.
This was the 1980s, when the San Francisco 49ers stood about 13 feet taller than any mere mortal. They’d already won the Super Bowl in 1982 and again in 1985. Now they were due for another grab at the ring.
The Bengals had only been to one Super Bowl before, also in 1982, when they’d been beaten by the San Francisco 49ers 26-21. Now, in 1989, they were entering the stadium in Miami as 7-point underdogs. That’s a lot of baggage to carry into the Big Game.
Bill Walsh, coach of the 49ers, had been one of the assistant coaches for the Bengals, about a dozen years before. Ironically, Sam Wyche, head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, had been assistant coach for the 49ers. Did their knowledge of both franchises cancel each other out, or would one coach prove superior in wisdom?
Four quarters and a couple of hours would be needed to answer that question.
The Bengals were playing with one future Hall of Famer on their team, 6-foot-6 offensive tackle Anthony Munoz. He proved to be a major component of what happened on the field that day.
Now consider this: the San Francisco 49ers were playing with FIVE future Hall of Famers in Super Bowl XXIII. An unbelievable percentage of the men on the field were superstars, the best of the best.
The 49ers had wide receiver Jerry Rice, considered the best football player in history. And they had Jerry Rice’s BFF, Joe Montana, considered the greatest quarterback to ever live. Now add these Hall of Famers to the San Francisco mix: safety Ronnie Lott, quarterback Steve Young, and linebacker Charles Haley.
With the best quarterback throwing to the best wide receiver in the history of football, you knew something special was going to happen.
The Bengals had their work cut out for them. But they came in all guns blazing.
If they were intimidated by the 49ers, it didn’t show. They were tough and energetic, and just two minutes into the game, there was a 49er injury. Offensive tackle Steve Wallace came off the field in a wheelchair.
Two minutes after that, there was a scuffle, and bellicose players had to be yanked apart. The game wasn’t even five minutes old yet, and tensions were sky-high.
Everyone expected Joe Montana to start the game with a mammoth pass to Jerry Rice, who would pluck the ball effortlessly from the air and make like a bullet train to the endzone.
Imagine the crowd’s surprise when the first 49ers play didn’t have quarterback Montana throwing at all, but simply handing the ball to Jerry Rice in a reverse play. Two of the best players football has ever known did not start the Super Bowl with their signature, powerhouse, nearly-no-fail moves.
Indicators were strong that this game was going to have some experimental play and a lot of surprises. Not at all what one would expect from a coach at his final NFL game, especially at a game this big. Maybe that’s why Bill Walsh himself also made it into the Hall of Fame.
People were expecting big numbers from this showdown. Yet at the end of the first quarter, there were only three points on the board, a field goal made by the 49ers. The fact that San Francisco was leading was no surprise, but the fact that Cincinnati had prevented any significant scoring was a bit of a turn-up. But still, plenty of quarters left for the 49ers to make their mark.
The second quarter was played out, and only one more field goal was scored. But it was by the Bengals!
At halftime, the score was tied 3-3.
The Bengals were not only keeping the 49ers from doing what they do best, but they were whipping up their own successful offensive drives.
San Francisco dropped a couple of not-that-difficult passes in the second quarter. That was unlike them. Could it be that they were really rattled by Cincinnati and how difficult it had been to get and maintain any kind of real lead?
The second half began, and the fate of the Super Bowl ring hung in the balance.
The Bengals attempted a 43-yard field goal…and made it! The Bengals were leading in the Super Bowl, at 6-3 in the third quarter! Outrageous.
Well, San Francisco wasn’t having any of that. They quickly scored their own field goal to bring the game to a 6-6 tie. This was an unbelievable contest of wills, strategy, and coaches who knew each other’s thought processes inside and out. No one had the clear advantage, not even now, in the second half.
San Francisco 49ers receiver Jerry Rice, who usually played football as if his hands were magnetic and also covered in glue, was dropping passes right and left in this game.
Cincinnati then scored the first touchdown of the game, bringing these 7-point underdogs to a 13-6 lead. Not just any ol’ touchdown, either, but a 93-yard kick return by Bengals’ running back Stanford Jennings all the way into the endzone. That running back ran it back the entire length of the football field. That’s the kind of play that goes down in history.
No one had expected the game to shape up this way. Football has more compiled stats than the entire U.S. military complex, and yet this game can still be a complete mystery. And don’t we love it that way? We are fans, not mathematicians. Football looks a lot like science, but at the end of the day, it’s art.
The third quarter was over, and the Bengals led by the same seven points that the 49ers were supposed to have tacked onto their own score by now.
Going into the fourth quarter, San Francisco knew it was now or never if they wanted to make their mark in this game. Could the famed Montana-Rice partnership that spectators had come to see kick in now, when it counted? Or would the 49ers offense continue confused and haphazard?
Final quarters, final minutes, final seconds; these are when the superstars dig deeper than anyone else. Here was their chance.
And they did it. Montana threw to Rice, who darted toward the endzone. He was pushed out of bounds right at the endzone cone, but the referee declared this play a touchdown.
You can replay this scene over and over, and it’s so tough to tell that this is a touchdown. But the rules are that only a fraction, a hair’s-breadth of the ball, need hover over the goal line for a split second for a touchdown to occur.
We rarely see such barely-there touchdowns, and for it to happen in this game of wills creates a wild moment of either grief or jubilation, depending on which side you’re on.
So, yes, a successful touchdown play, but it still didn’t put San Francisco in the lead. With just minutes left in the game, this score only brought the 49ers to a 13-13 tie with Cincinnati.
The Bengals showed their tiger spirit by scoring a field goal. They were again in the lead of a Super Bowl game that had the odds stacked firmly against them. This was will, this was indomitable spirit.
But it wasn’t over. The 49ers scored a touchdown in the final seconds of the game to reinforce their champion status and to break the hearts of Bengal fans everywhere.
But what a game. The 49ers were golden, but the Bengals were mighty. It was an adrenaline-pumping game. Even today, watching this Super Bowl can keep you on the edge of your seat.
Movie night? We highly recommend avoiding the highlights of this game and watching it in full. As one of the best ever Super Bowl games, it deserves that.
San Francisco’s No-Fail Football Casserole
Start with a heaping serving of Jerry Rice setting a Super Bowl record in the game for 215 receiving yards·
Add Bill Walsh’s awareness that this was his final game as head coach of the 49ers, thus bringing everything he knew to the table for his swan song·
Top the mixture with Joe Montana’s 92-yard drive to a winning touchdown in literally the final seconds of the game·
Expect these results: Classic football genius and a Super Bowl victory
It’s inspiring to remember that despite Montana having breathing issues and trying desperately to get coach Bill Walsh to call a time out, he played what is considered by some to be his finest performance.
Interestingly, Montana was not a first-round draft pick, not even a second-round pick. As the 82nd player chosen in that year’s NFL draft, he was chosen at the end of the third round. Yet many consider Joe Montana to be the greatest quarterback ever to step onto a football field.
Side note to Super Bowl XXIII: the announcers of this Super Bowl lack the enthusiasm and intense interest of Super Bowl XXII’s commentators. If you were a player on the field or a fan lucky enough to have a ticket and be in the stands, it didn’t affect you. But to the 80 million television viewers, it made a difference. For such a spectacular game, viewers deserved a spectacular play-by-play.
Super Bowl III
Teams: New York Jets vs. Baltimore Colts
Best Super Bowl For: A ballsy guarantee, delivered
Super Bowl III, when the National Football Conference, the NFC (then called the NFL), played the top team of the American Football Conference, the AFC (then called the AFL). The NFC team, the Baltimore Colts, had most of the support, and many didn’t even think the AFC team was part of a viable, legitimate league.
This wasn’t just a “You don’t matter” issue. This was a “You don’t matter. Your team doesn’t matter. The other teams you play against don’t matter. Go away and leave the real boys alone” issue. And Joe Namath wasn’t having any of it.
The NFC had been around for a while, while competing leagues had come and gone. The AFC just seemed like one more flash in the pan.
And then Joe Namath, of the AFC’s New York Jets, made a public guarantee that the Jets would be the winners of this Super Bowl matchup. The press frenzy began, and not only egos but an entire league were at stake.
Would the AFC be good enough to provide a decent opponent for the NFC team, the Baltimore Colts? Or would they have the look and feel of an outgunned, outmatched, second-string college team, leaving the fans less than enthusiastic about this bowl game?
Football fans got their money’s worth that day, and respect for the AFC was born.
The Colts weren’t just the favorite to win; they were the 18-point favorite. The New York Jets were such odds-against underdogs that it was almost unthinkable that they could give the Colts a real run for their money, much less be able to fulfill Joe Namath’s surprising boast.
Imagine the dawning surprise at the end of the first quarter. The Jets hadn’t scored, to no one’s surprise, but they hadn’t allowed the Colts to pick up even one point, which created a bit of consternation in the Baltimore camp. But no worries, right? It’s just the first quarter. Plenty of time left to show those AFC upstarts who the real league is.
…or not. The Colts pushed and pushed, but their attempts at the end zone were met by constant, almost laughably consistent, interceptions. The Colts’ touchdown hopes were dashed time and again, and by the end of the first half, the unthinkable happened, and the New York Jets scored a touchdown and were ahead 7-0. It was the first time all season the Colts had been shut out after the first two quarters.
New York scored again in the third quarter, six points, leading at the end of the third quarter 13-0. The fact that the Colts hadn’t scored once, not one point, not even a field goal, during the first three quarters, left fans and announcers flabbergasted.
The Colts did manage a touchdown in the fourth quarter, but they had no chance to catch up to the Jets, especially since the Jets scored on a field goal in the fourth quarter, giving them a total of 16 points, so even a second touchdown on the part of the Colts would not have been enough.
The Colts staggered off the field, humbled and defeated, and the AFC (as the AFL) legitimized its stature as a football league competitive with the NFC (as the NFL), and the two leagues merged the following year, in 1970, to form the NFL.
Super Bowl XIV
Teams: Los Angeles Rams vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Best Super Bowl For: The underdogs showing up like superstars and surprising even themselves
The people who won’t put this game on their list of best Super Bowls ever will point to the fact that the Rams were a losing team, no one expected them to win, and sure enough, they lost. No surprises there. What’s a great game without a few surprises?
But they forget that, like a puzzle, a football game is more than the sum of its parts. It’s an adventure; it’s a quest. Winner takes all. Perfect is irrelevant. Last man standing is the only metric worth measuring, especially at the Super Bowl.
In the 1970s, a decade that many believe to be the greatest in football history, the Pittsburgh Steelers were a football-dominating kingdom unto themselves.
Now, some people will point out that the heavily-favored-to-win Steelers did end up winning this game, and by a decent margin. So…how does that make this a great game?
We’re glad you asked!
Only the fourth quarter went according to pre-game expectations. The Steelers scored 14 points in the final quarter to the Rams’ zero. But the first three quarters were a different game entirely.
Pittsburgh was playing with Terry Bradshaw, a quarterback known for his power passes. Not surprisingly, Bradshaw was a high school javelin champion.
The Rams were not so fortunate. Their starting quarterback had become injured halfway through the season. Thus, the Los Angeles team was obligated to use a replacement quarterback, Vince Ferragamo.
But Ferragamo stepped up in a big way, winning game after game in the season and bringing the Rams into the playoffs. (In the season following this Super Bowl, this same “substitute” quarterback would make 30 touchdown passes, almost beating the NFL record at the time.)
The Rams had been booed off the field by their own fans earlier in the season when they lost to the Saints. Now they were facing the Pittsburgh Steelers, who brought legions of loyal, lifelong, diehard fans with them across the country to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
The Rose Bowl was just a few miles from the Rams’ home stadium, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. But the LA Rams didn’t benefit from what should have felt like home-field advantage. In fact, it was Steelers fans who were making most of the noise in the stadium.
The game began, and the Steelers scored first with a field goal. No surprises there. But then the Rams, somehow able to get past Pittsburgh’s famous Steel Curtain defense, scored the first touchdown of the game.
Pittsburgh was visibly shocked. The Rams were up 7-3 at the end of the first quarter.
The Steelers started the second quarter with a touchdown, bringing the score to 10-7. Pittsburgh fans were starting to relax. “What a zany first quarter!” they think. “Now things can get back to normal.”
Except the Rams made a field goal next, tying the game. Tying! The Steelers!
And then the Rams made another field goal, pulling ahead. Now the score was 13-10, and what the hell! LA fans were just as agog as all the folks who flew in from freezing, football-mad western Pennsylvania.
Halftime arrived, and the Steelers trailed the Rams by three points. It would be interesting to know what Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll was saying to the players in the locker room.
We imagine it went something like this: “These guys? Really? These guys?”
So the third quarter began, and Pittsburgh scored with a touchdown. Current score 17-13.
But Los Angeles, just to irritate everyone in the stands, including the LA fans who had booed them weeks before, also made a touchdown. The Rams were ahead again, bringing the score to 19-17. This was how the third quarter ended.
This may have been the most electrifying game in LA since Super Bowl III. Maybe even more so, since Joe Namath’s New York Jets had never been booed by their own fans.
In the final quarter, the Steelers proved why they were triumphant in so many of their games: they played strong and stayed focused. LA fell apart. The Rams allowed two Pittsburgh touchdowns to power through.
But what a game by the Rams. They showed up and threw down. No one booed that day.
The Final Word
These are the best Super Bowl games in our opinion, not only for the star plays and last-minute miracles of the victors but also for (and perhaps more so) the grit of the losers.
When we watch Super Bowl XXIII again, it will be because we are compelled to watch the Bengals go toe-to-toe against all those Hall of Famers on that field.
When we re-watch XIV, it will be to enjoy the glee of the Los Angeles players.
We’ve said it before, but you can never guarantee a game. It’s fun to try, and it gives you something to talk about beforehand and feel foolish about afterwards. It’s also what makes Super Bowl betting so difficult.
But in the end, only the game can speak for itself, and ultimately, no one knows what can happen.
For more memorable Super games and other highlights, check out the following pages.