American sports fans adore grand pronouncements, so while seconds still remained on the clock at Super Bowl XLIX people from coast to coast were already declaring it the best game ever. And it certainly featured some matchless moments — Seattle’s highly controversial call, Malcolm Butler’s incredibly clutch interception, the new addition to Tom Brady’s legacy that came within a hair of tumbling down around him.
But these ‘most exciting ever’ categorizations beg a few questions. What makes a Super Bowl game exciting? To rank a game in that company, it must keep viewers glued to the set until the very end, the result must be in question and it must include some last-second heroics. Check, check and check. An exciting Super Bowl is not the same as an extraordinary individual Super Bowl performance (see Phil Simms in Super Bowl XXI) or a seismic upset (see Broadway Joe Namath and his Jets shocking the world in Super Bowl III.)
In the past four months, as part of the production of a new book about the 50th anniversary of the Super Bowl, I have had the priceless opportunity to relieve every one of 49 big games played to determine the owner of the Lombardi Trophy. And since ‘excitement level’ is truly a subjective measure at best, I feel as qualified as anyone to offer my perspective on where this game falls in the all-time Top Five of Exciting Super Bowls (spoiler alert — it’s number four).
Presenting the five most intense nailbiters in the history of the big game:
1. Super Bowl XLII. As soon as their eyes reconciled Jermaine Kearse’s physics-defying catch with their brains, viewers almost universally thought of David Tyree. And the fact that Tyree’s helmet catch — and its vital role in the Giants’ game-winning drive against the Patriots — is our first association for an incredulous pass play speaks volumes about the role of Super Bowl XLII in history. This game had it all — an underdog coming from behind to ruin a potential undefeated season, a young quarterback rising to star status before the nation’s eyes and, of course, the most incredible play to ever grace a Super Bowl telecast.
2. Super Bowl XXIII. The San Francisco 49ers had already won two Super Bowls, but after a 10-6 regular season hindered by a sluggish start and a quarterback controversy they weren’t expected to win this one over the Cincinnati Bengals and their powerful offense. But then Joe Montana proved why he is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever under pressure with a 92-yard drive in less than three minutes that culminated in a 10-yard touchdown pass to John Taylor with 39 seconds remaining. When Montana plowed through for a touchdown when a field goal could have sent the game into overtime, San Francisco had a 20-16 victory for its third Lombardi trophy.
3. Super Bowl XXXIV. Mike Jones of the Rams made what was possibly the biggest tackle ever in this game, stopping Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson just a half yard short of the end zone to prevent the first overtime Super Bowl game ever and write the perfect ending to the Kurt Warner fairy tale. The Rams quarterback, who had only completed four NFL passes before that season, threw for an astounding 414 yards to lock up the MVP award and give his team a 23-16 win in an exhilarating game that will forever haunt Titans fans.
4. Super Bowl XLIX. The Patriots’ 28-24 win will hold up in history for Brady’s signature fourth-quarter efforts, Kearse’s unbelievable catch and a tie at halftime that legitimized the bookmakers decision to set the game as a pick-’em. But without unknown defender Malcolm Butler’s savvy read of Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell’s baffling pass play from the 1-yard line, this Super Bowl would be mired somewhere low in the top 20. Brady gave his MVP-prize truck to Butler with good reason, because Brady’s place in history went from murky to legendary with that one well-timed pick.
5. Super Bowl X. This one makes the list because it was the first edge-of-your-seat contest in the Super Bowl era. Six of the first nine Super Bowls were won by more than two touchdowns, and most were defensive battles. But enter the Pittsburgh Steelers and Lynn Swann, the MVP receiver who racked up 161 yards on only four passes from Terry Bradshaw, and cue the highlight reel to his spectacular 64-yard touchdown grab to put the Steelers ahead of the Dallas Cowboys with only 3:02 remaining. Final score: Steelers 21, Cowboys 17.