The Super Bowl is a game where the pressure is so intense that diamonds are created and lumps of coal are thrown back into the pit. Money is raked in, careers are made, and a few moments remain unforgettable, going down in the annals of football history.
This is why people pay thousands to attend, and those not lucky enough to be at the game are glued to the TV set, food close at hand, cell phones turned emphatically off, bets laid, and jerseys on.
We are in the game by proxy. Those are our knights on the field, and we live or die according to their fates.
Here is our list of the best Super Bowl plays in history and why they’re so great.
Adam Vinatieri’s Field Goal – Super Bowl XXXVI
Where: Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana
When: February 3, 2002
Who: New England Patriots vs. St. Louis Rams
Ranked as Best Super Bowl Play For: Power Under Pressure
Many people say they can’t read or type or tie their shoes if someone is looking over their shoulder. Now imagine it’s not just one person looking over your shoulder, but one hundred million.
And you are not typing or reading but instead setting up to kick an often-awkward oblong ball through a couple of posts.
Field goals can make or break a game. The worst kickers can get lucky, and the best can get nervous.
Not so for Adam Vinatieri, who is most at home when aiming that ball through the uprights, and who holds dozens of NFL records, including most points scored.
It’s Super Bowl XXXVI, the Patriots and the Rams are tied 17-17. It’s the end of the game — the final play, in fact — and the Patriots are doing their utmost to win before the game goes into overtime.
They don’t want to give the Rams an inch, much less a yard. Vinatieri is set up for a 48-yard field goal by Brady in the final seconds of the game.
Cool as a cucumber — no, as ice — Vinatieri pops the ball through the posts. This Super Bowl play was as important as it gets in football because it won the game, the ring, and the fame for the Patriots as the clock ran out.
Tom Brady was named MVP of the game, but if the decision had been up to us, it’s Mr. Vinatieri who would have been lugging the Pete Rozelle Trophy off the field.
Check out the following video to relive one of the best plays of the Super Bowl.
Jacoby Jones’ Touchdown – Super Bowl XLVII
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana
When: February 3, 2013
Who: Baltimore Ravens vs. San Francisco 49ers
Ranked as Best Super Bowl Play For: Pure Football Finesse
We’ve seen big blocks of muscle (and fat) power through plays. We’ve seen special teams’ superstars kick and push their way to spectacular field goals and point attempts. We’ve even seen massive 100-yard runs to the end zone.
But rarely do we see the power and grace of the classic football player. If you’ve ever seen the Heisman Trophy, awarded to college football stars, you’ll be able to picture the classic football pose, the player pushing aside the defense with one hand while his body is in powerful motion forward, eyes focused on the endzone.
This pose remembers and represents the players at the dawn of football — the unique player, an old-school athlete, equally comfortable playing both offense and defense. A player focused not on the battle but on the war.
For this reason, Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones’ touchdown in Super Bowl XLVII wins our title of “Best Super Bowl Play for Pure Football Finesse”.
It’s not what you’re thinking; we are not referring to the record-making 109-yard touchdown run by Jacoby that showed why he was a track star in high school.
We are talking about his catch at the 10-yard line, his controlled back fall followed by his dodging, spinning, and feinting his way over, around, and through all the defensive players who are paid to stop him, to throw himself into the endzone with strength and purpose.
Jones’ moves during this Super Bowl play were a short course in football, and this finesse-fueled play was critical to help win what was ultimately a 3-point game, giving the 49ers their first ever Super Bowl defeat.
Nick Collins’ Interception and 37-Yard Touchdown – Super Bowl XLV
Where: Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas
When: February 6, 2011
Who: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Green Bay Packers
Ranked as Best Super Bowl Play For: Exceptional Athleticism in the Clutch
So much airtime is given to strategies, stats, and formations that we often forget that nothing matters if the players don’t have the physical prowess to get the job done. Let’s talk about Nick Collins of the Green Bay Packers.
Nick played defensive back in high school. And running back. Oh, and quarterback. He also lettered in basketball and baseball. However, after seeing his performance in Super Bowl XLV, we suspect that he also took up steeplechase and gymnastics on the side.
It was the first half of the game between the Steelers and the Packers. Nick Collins was in the right place at the right time as he intercepted a pass thrown by Pittsburgh’s Roethlisberger, a man who had claimed the highest completion percentage for a rookie season.
So intercepting Roethlisberger gave the Packers a solid boost. But that’s just the beginning of the story of this great Super Bowl Play.
Collins then went on to make a smooth, serpentine run toward the endzone. He was at the 35-yard line, then 30, 20, 10, and right to about the one-yard line, where he was met with a fence of lunging Steelers grabbing at him, falling in his way, piling up.
Nick leaped like a thoroughbred and landed like a football hero, firmly in the endzone and dragging a passel of Pittsburgh’s finest along with him.
It’s fair to say that this interception-turned-37-yard touchdown set fire to the Packers and carried them through a tough game to a 31-25 victory over the Steelers. One of the best Super Bowl plays of all time? We think so, but take a look at this video and decide for yourself.
David Tyree’s Helmet Catch – Super Bowl XLII
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona
When: February 3, 2008
Who: New York Giants vs. New England Patriots
Ranked as Best Super Bowl Play For: Hanging Onto the Ball Against All Odds
The New York Giants were the underdogs when playing against the New England Patriots in the biggest game of the year, Super Bowl XLII. The Patriots were the favorite by a significant margin, having just had a perfect season.
The game was low-scoring until the fourth quarter. In the final quarter, the Patriots were up by 4 points with just two minutes left in the game.
Here comes New York Giant David Tyree. Eli Manning managed to evade the grasping clutches of a gang of Patriots who already had him by the shirt. Even the announcers expressed surprise that Manning was able to make the pass toward Tyree.
Tyree caught the pass and held it held firmly between hands and helmet, never letting go even as Patriot Rodney Harrison wrestled him to the ground. In fact, Harrison had Tyree off balance before he even made the catch, which is what makes the catch exceptional.
The fact that the ball never touched the ground and ended up supporting the play that carried the Giants to a last-minute victory feels miraculous. In addition to this being one of the best ever Super Bowl plays, the NFL has named David Tyree’s catch “the greatest catch of all time.”
This play is now famously known as “the Helmet Catch,” and it gained the Giants 32 yards, leading to a touchdown that allowed these underdogs to claim the game.
Jermaine Kearse’s Bobbling Catch – Super Bowl XLIX
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona
When: February 1, 2015
Who: New England Patriots vs. Seattle Seahawks
Ranked as Best Super Bowl Play For: Hand-Eye Coordination
Another “Did he actually catch that?” moment came in Super Bowl XLIX, the 2015 showdown between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson sent a 33-yard pass to receiver Jermaine Kearse, who was faced with a ball that acted like a Mexican jumping bean, flopping and pinballing from hand to calf to thigh to hand, all while Kearse was rolling on the ground.
When Kearse stood up, ball in hand, even the commentators were stunned. It takes a slow-mo replay to capture the genius of that catch.
Because of the catch, the Seahawks had a split-second chance to win the game, if Kearse had darted toward the endzone that was just a few yards away. But the confusion of the catch slowed the momentum of the play, and the Patriots took home another Super Bowl victory.
New England may have won the game, but that catch goes down in history as one of the best Super Bowl plays in NFL history.
Doug Williams’ Four Touchdown Passes – Super Bowl XXII
Where: Jack Murphy Stadium, San Diego, California
When: January 31, 1988
Who: Washington Redskins vs. Denver Broncos
Ranked as Best Super Bowl Play For: Shock and Awe
Every player in the Super Bowl experiences intense pressure, with reputations and careers on the line under the critical gaze of millions. Now add to that the pressure of being the first black quarterback in the Super Bowl.
Doug Williams took his place on the field as starting quarterback for the Washington Redskins. Across the field, famed Broncos quarterback John Elway was poised to lead his team to victory. This was the second Super Bowl in a row for the Broncos.
Williams came out of the game early after he slipped and was sacked at the same time, resulting in a bad twist to his leg. Redskins fans were distraught.
Were they going to have to watch their second-string quarterback try to outthink and outplay John Elway? Was the game over before it even began?
The Broncos scored first, with an early touchdown and a field goal, bringing the score to 10-0. Meanwhile, Doug Williams was working through his injury on the sidelines, determined to get back in the game.
Williams came back on the field and did the unthinkable, scoring a record-making four touchdown passes in the second quarter alone. The announcers called it “a virtuoso performance.”
The Broncos were defeated in a way no one could have imagined at the beginning of the game. The Redskins continued to score after that epic second quarter, even though they really didn’t need to make the effort.
Final score, 42-10.
Marcus Allen’s 74-Yard Touchdown – Super Bowl XVIII
Where: Tampa Stadium, Tampa, Florida
When: January 22, 1984
Who: Washington Redskins vs. Los Angeles Raiders
Ranked as Best Super Bowl Play For: Time Travel
The Redskins entered this game as the champions of the previous year’s Super Bowl, as well as the three-point favorites to win.
This game ended up being known as “Black Sunday” because the Redskins were so badly beaten by the black-clad Raiders.
There were many stellar plays by the Raiders that took the team to their 38-9 victory, but one in particular stands out in history as one of the best plays in a Super Bowl.
Marcus Allen made a 74-yard run to touchdown, which, yes, is a significant run, especially past what was the top-rated defense of the season. But it’s how Allen made the run that makes this touchdown historic.
Allen was handed the ball, and he moved to run up the left side of the field toward the end zone. When he saw that his way was blocked by Redskin safety Ken Coffey, he backtracked, literally going right back to where he started, and began a new play.
For a few moments, it looked like Allen was playing schoolyard tag as he moved in loops and circles to avoid a tackle. He ended up snaking his way through and past nine of Washington’s finest for a very surprising 74-yard trip to the endzone.
Because Allen reversed his initial play and went back to square one, the Washington players had several seconds’ benefit to get in place and halt any forward motion on the part of the Raiders.
So Allen, coming back and starting a second charge, was in a tough spot — an almost impossible spot — but he managed to outwit a team that was already on the move.
Allen ran right through the middle of the pack, and more than a half dozen players came within a hair’s breadth of a grab, but they just fell away as Allen ran through what seemed to be a path that just cleared before him.
Allen says that play felt like time travel and that the defenders appeared to stop moving while he swept through them at “warp speed.”
The Raiders spanked the Redskins throughout that game, preventing Washington from scoring over and over, until the game finished with a final score of 38-9. Allen’s run wasn’t the final touchdown in a close game, and it wasn’t a late first touchdown that got the team fired up, but it was the most memorable touchdown of the game.
The team spilled onto the field in the wake of the otherworldly ease of Allen’s touchdown, and players recall, years later, that the moment felt timeless and magical.
NFL announcer John Facenda famously commented on this awesome Super Bowl play, “On came Marcus Allen, running with the night.”
The Worst Super Bowl Play of All Time
This is going to be subjective, of course, but a few moments in the Greatest Game on Earth stand out as total lemons.
There was the time when running back Thurman Thomas, one of the pillars of the Buffalo Bills’ offense, couldn’t find his helmet in time to start Super Bowl XXVI against the Washington Redskins, so the Bills had to quickly substitute another player.
The Bills lost that Super Bowl, and Thurman Thomas received a serious amount of flack because he didn’t start the game. However, that isn’t really a play — more like the Worst Super Bowl Couldn’t Play.
The Worst Super Bowl Play, in our opinion, happened early in the game’s history, back in 1969. This was only the third Super Bowl to be played, and the previous two had been called the World Championship Game. Therefore, this was the first game to have the title “Super Bowl.”
This game pitted Joe Namath’s New York Jets against the Baltimore Colts. The teams were 0-0 at the end of the first quarter, and New York led the second quarter 7-0.
How differently things would have turned out if the Colts could have made a touchdown before the teams were whistled off the field at halftime.
Actually, this is precisely what should have happened. In a game where stealth and secret plays and never showing your hand are bywords for victory, and where easy wins and shutouts are few and far between, the Colts gave up a perfect touchdown right at the close of the second half.
The Colts’ Earl Morrell had the ball, and he needed to move it far up field. Did he throw it to Jimmy Orr, who was wide open and waiting, with a clear cakewalk to the end zone?
He did not.
Morrell sent the ball toward Jerry Hill, where it was easily intercepted by Jets safety Jim Hudson, carting those “gimme” points well and away from the Colts’ scoreboard.
What’s worse is that Orr, rather than trying to stay subtle and stealthy, was actually waving his arms at Morrell and standing in a large patch of free-and-clear turf. His availability could not have been more obvious if he’d used fireworks.
Well, that’s how it goes, and this game goes down as a memorable Indianapolis heartbreak.
Summing up These Top Super Bowl Plays
We collected some of the best Super Bowl plays ever for you to enjoy here. Super Bowls are full of memory-making moments, some good, some bad, some miraculous, and some so embarrassing you don’t know how a player can show his face afterward.
If the favored team always won, if the game were predictable, 100 million people wouldn’t tune in on Super Bowl Sunday.
It’s these surprises, the shocks and the upsets, the misery and the triumph that keep us coming back for more emotional wring-outs, year after year. It’s also what makes betting on the Super Bowl so much fun (and so challenging!)
Stay tuned for even more great Super Bowl plays in the coming years, and check out the following pages for more quality Super Bowl content.