It feels as though all too often the Super Bowl is a forgettable affair, a complete blowout following weeks of hype. Fortunately, it's been the opposite the past two years running, with football fans served up game-sealing plays that will be remembered forever.
"There's so much pressure, so much attention on the game," says Jim Nantz, the CBS play-by-play man who will call the game on Feb. 7. "I think we all appreciate someone doing something incredible under that kind of scrutiny."
History does, too.
Some of the biggest names in the sport have helped burnish their legacy with a single spectacular play in the Super Bowl. Joe Montana made a game-winning pass to John Taylor in the 1989 Super Bowl; John Riggins bulled through the line for a 43-yard touchdown in the 1983 game. Other lesser-known players have made a career with just one play: New York Giants receiver David Tyree's(notes) incredible catch in the 2008 Super Bowl will never be forgotten. Neither will the game-winning reception made by Pittsburgh Steelers' Santonio Holmes(notes) in last year's game.
Best of the best
What are the single best plays in Super Bowl history? We chose 10 with a few criteria in mind: importance to the outcome of the game; excitement; and how they've stood the test of time. Then we asked Nantz to chime in on our picks.
First up is David Tyree's miraculous catch in the 2008 Super Bowl. The underdog New York Giants were playing the undefeated New England Patriots, a team many believed to be the best of all time. With 59 seconds left in the game, the Giants were trailing 14-10. On a critical third-down play, Giants quarterback Eli Manning(notes) dropped back to pass and somehow avoided a sack, despite the fact that a Patriots defender had hold of his jersey. Manning heaved the ball 32 yards downfield. Tyree, a seldom-used receiver, leaped up and pinned the ball to his helmet with his right hand, holding it there despite Patriots' safety Rodney Harrison's(notes) best efforts to dislodge it. The game-winning score came on another play 20 seconds later.
An unlikely player made an unlikely play that helped knock off perhaps the greatest team in the history of the game.
"It just doesn't make any sense," says Nantz. "It's one of the greatest catches in NFL history. You never see it in practice, much less in an actual game, much less in a Super Bowl on a game-winning drive."
But Tyree's catch was equaled in last year's Super Bowl. Late in the fourth quarter the Pittsburgh Steelers were down 23-20 after a scintillating touchdown catch by the Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald(notes). Behind Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) and wide receiver Santonio Holmes, the Steelers drove to the Cardinals' six-yard line with just over 40 seconds left on the clock. On the game-winning play, Roethlisberger double-clutched, then threw the ball over three Cardinals defenders to find Holmes, who tiptoed in the back right of the end zone.
"The pass was pure perfection," says Nantz. "So was the catch."
But not all great plays are on the offensive side of the ball. The 2000 Super Bowl ended on a fantastic defensive play. Down by seven points with just six seconds left to play, the Tennessee Titans had the ball at the St. Louis Rams' 10-yard line. On the final play of the game Titans quarterback Steve McNair(notes) hit receiver Kevin Dyson in stride at the five-yard line. Rams linebacker Mike Jones had been covering the Titans' tight end and, at the last possible moment, he shifted and tackled Dyson, who attempted to reach the ball over the goal line. He was just short as time expired.
"A great defensive play. And for just for a minute, it appeared that Dyson was going to get it across," says Nantz.
One of the most memorable plays for Nantz happened in the 1971 Super Bowl game between the Baltimore Colts and the Dallas Cowboys – the first championship played after the merger between the NFL and the AFL. The game wasn't a pretty affair – it's referred to as the "Blunder Bowl" for its numerous mistakes and turnovers.
One play epitomized it: In the first quarter, Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas threw a high, off-target pass to receiver Eddie Hinton. The ball bounced off Hinton's hands and then glanced off Cowboy defender Mel Renfro. It ended up in the hands of Colts tight end John Mackay, who scored a 75-yard touchdown. True to the nature of that game, Colts kicker Jim O'Brien's extra-point attempt was blocked (though he later redeemed himself with the game-winning field goal).
In the first Super Bowl Nantz covered, the 2007 clash between the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears, he witnessed a play that didn't make our list, but it was memorable nonetheless. On the opening play of that game, Bears' return man Devin Hester(notes) took the kickoff 93 yards for a score, the first time that had ever happened in a Super Bowl.
"It was breathtaking," Nantz says. "I was as excited as the viewer at home."
Here's hoping he gets to call another great play this year.
1984 – Marcus Allen's 74-yard touchdown run: Slideshow
1971 – Johnny Unitas' tipped pass for a 75-yard touchdown: Slideshow
1982 – 49ers' goal-line stand: Slideshow
1976 – Lynn Swann's 64-yard touchdown catch, and his juggling catch: Slideshow
2009 – James Harrison's(notes) 100-yard interception return for a touchdown: Slideshow
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