Editor's Note: The Gameface is taking a one-week hiatus on Friday, Feb. 15. The column will resume on Feb. 22 from the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
Riding through Tempe in the cramped backseat of a bright yellow Mustang coupe last Saturday night, on the eve of what would turn out to be a truly memorable Super Bowl, I started talking about the classic game played a decade earlier a few hundred miles to the west.
"(Brett) Favre and the Packers going for their second straight, (John) Elway going for his first in four tries …"
"Oh," the driver interrupted, "you mean the game you called 'The Greatest Super Bowl Ever'?"
Right. That one.
The driver, my colleague Jason Cole, chortled heartily as the man in the passenger seat, Chicago Sun Times columnist extraordinaire Rick Telander, smiled at his sarcasm. They knew my history.
"Didn't you write that, like, three times in four years?" Cole asked.
"Three in five," I corrected. "And your point is?"
I'll spare you the rest of the conversation, but in the wake of the New York Giants' thrilling 17-14 upset of the previously undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, here's a more pertinent question:
Do I have the guts to make that declaration yet again?
Before I give you my top six Super Bowls, in order, let's be clear about what exactly is being rated.
I'm not merely ranking games on an aesthetic level. I don't care if you were bored in the second quarter or if there were a couple of dropped passes that derailed a scoring drive in the third. If the game unfolded in a compelling way and the outcome remained in doubt well into the final minutes, it gets strong consideration.
That said, this is not just a fantastic-finish contest. If the game lacked any redeeming value until a final, frantic climax, it's tough for me to give it a top-shelf rating.
When it comes to said finishes, I'm into lead changes, touchdowns and unfathomably clutch plays. I'm less moved by field goals, especially those of the tiebreaking variety. And I don't even want to hear about games that got close at the end, only to have the door slammed shut on the trailing team when it failed to recover an onside kick.
What else matters? I care about the significance of the game in the annals of NFL history, and which legendary figures were involved. Upsets get bonus points, as do signature moments.
Oh, and one other thing: Excluding the first six or seven Super Bowls (as I'm the same age as the game), how did the experience make me feel at the time?
It is, after all, my list:
6. Super Bowl XXV, 1991, New York Giants 20, Buffalo 19
A lot of people love this game because it began with Whitney Houston's wartime anthem and ended with Bills kicker Scott Norwood's infamous "wide right" field-goal attempt from 47 yards with eight seconds remaining. It was a marquee clash between the NFL's highest-scoring offense and the stingiest scoring defense. A shrewd game plan by Giants coach Bill Parcells and his brilliant defensive coordinator, Bill Belichick, limited Hall of Famer Jim Kelly and the Bills' no-huddle attack to 19 minutes, 27 seconds of possession. And, in the end, the underdog prevailed. Still, the Giants' winning points came on a 21-yard field goal (ecccch), and the climatic moment was Norwood's miss (double ecchhh). And neither Houston nor the Gulf War concept has aged particularly well.
5. Super Bowl XXXVI, 2002, New England 20, St. Louis 17
This was another contrast in styles in which a creative Belichick game plan derailed a high-flying offense – with a last-second field goal attempt and a huge upset to boot. Pass-happy Rams coach Mike Martz took Belichick's bait, choosing not to run against New England's nickel and dime defenses, and the Pats parlayed three turnovers (including Ty Law's 47-yard interception return for touchdown) into a two-touchdown lead. The Greatest Show on Turf – featuring Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt – sputtered until a furious fourth-quarter rally tied the score with 1:30 remaining. Then a kid named Tom Brady marched the Patriots 53 yards to set up Adam Vinatieri's walk-off 48-yard game-winner. This had a lot of the ingredients of a classic, but the game itself was choppy and weird, with a defensive holding penalty negating Tebucky Jones's apparent 90-plus-yard fumble recovery that would've given the Pats a 24-3 lead with 10 minutes remaining. And though Brady earned MVP honors, can anyone tell me one memorable moment that occurred during a Patriots offensive possession? I didn't think so.
4. Super Bowl XLII, 2008, New York Giants 17, New England 14
OK, here's your answer: Last Sunday's game was great, but it was not the greatest Super Bowl ever. Surely, the Giants' stunning upset of the only 18-0 team in NFL history carries major significance, and New York's impressive defensive effort against Brady, Randy Moss and the league's highest-scoring offense of all time is a bonus. This may have been the game that launched another Manning into stardom, and young Eli's great escape on third-and-5 from the Giants' 44 – and the amazing catch by David Tyree 32 yards downfield, one of the most sublime receptions by anyone, ever – is an indelible memory.
Brady's gritty touchdown drive to give New England a 14-10 lead, followed by the Manning-directed 83-yard march that ended with his 13-yard touchdown pass to prediction master Plaxico (23-17) Burress, was as good a one-two combo as we've seen in the closing minutes of a Super Bowl. But – and this is a big but – before the fourth quarter, it looked like we were watching mold form on old cheese. The Pats held a 7-3 lead that appeared as though it might stand up, and the game's only touchdown had come on a one-yard run by Laurence Maroney. The game's MVP after three quarters was … hell, Jordin Sparks? The final 15 minutes more than made up for it, of course, which is why this game rates in the Top 4.
3. Super Bowl XXIII, 1989, San Francisco 20, Cincinnati 16
I know what you're thinking – until its fantastic finish, this game wasn't all that special, either. No argument there, but here's the rebuttal: Joe Montana, the greatest quarterback of all time, threw for a then-Super Bowl record 357 yards. He took over trailing 16-13 from his own 8-yard-line with 3:20 remaining, famously pointing out comedian John Candy in the crowd to nervous offensive lineman Harris Barton, then pulled off the most incredible drive in Super Bowl history to win it on a gorgeous, 10-yard touchdown pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds to go. Oh, and for the first time in three Super Bowls, he wasn't named MVP; that honor went to Jerry Rice, the greatest receiver in history, who caught 11 passes for 215 yards. This was also the game in which Ronnie Lott smacked Ickey Woods so hard on a short-yardage play that the "Ickey Shuffle" was never the same.
The boring first half ended with the teams tied at 3-3, and it was 6-6 late in the third quarter when the Bengals went up 13-6 on Stanford Jennings's kickoff return. The Niners drove right back down to tie it on Montana's 14-yard pass to Rice. The Bengals got the late field goal to go ahead, and drama ensued. One of the 49ers' team photographers, Jeff Bayer, once gave me a blown-up photo taken of Montana just before he threw the pass to Taylor. It was shot from the back of the end zone, and Montana has a huge grin plastered on his face. Perhaps it was a competitive tick, like Michael Jordan's tongue sticking out before dunks, but I prefer to think that Montana knew he was about to cement his legend. By the way, this was Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh's last game on the sidelines.
2. Super Bowl XXXIV, 2000, St. Louis 23, Tennessee 16
I had a book deal with Warner riding on the outcome, so I was pretty thrilled when the Rams jumped out to a 16-0 halftime lead, then seemed to put away the Titans on Warner's 73-yard scoring bomb to Bruce – a split second before the quarterback was hit by star pass rusher Jevon (The Freak) Kearse – with just under two minutes remaining. But watching Steve McNair seemingly will the Titans down the field from his own 10 in the final 1:54, it was hard not to be inspired by Tennessee, which had already become the first team to come back from a 16-point deficit in the Super Bowl.
The play nobody will ever forget – and one that exceeded even Manning's Houdini act in terms of individual obstinacy – was when McNair, on third-and-5 from the Rams' 26, went nearly vertical while being pulled down by a pair of St. Louis defenders, only to somehow rise up and complete a 16-yard pass to Kevin Dyson. If McNair had gone down, only a Hail Mary could have saved Tennessee. Instead, the Titans called timeout with six seconds remaining, and thus unfolded the greatest Super Bowl finish of them all: McNair went back and hit Dyson underneath, and the fleet receiver seemed headed for a game-tying score. But Rams linebacker Mike Jones made a perfect tackle, stopping Dyson a half-yard short of the goal line. Though Warner threw for a Super Bowl-record 414 yards, Tennessee seemingly would have had the momentum if the game went into overtime. But because of Jones' great individual play, St. Louis celebrated, triggering coach Dick Vermeil's short-lived retirement. Thinking about the final two minutes of this game still gets my heart racing.
1. Super Bowl XXXII, 1998: Denver 31, Green Bay 24
OK, so how do we top these other games? Here's how: Elway laying waste to his unfortunate legacy of Super Bowl failure at the expense of Favre, who missed out on a chance to stamp himself as even more of a big-game dominator. Six ties and lead changes, the last occurring with 1:45 remaining. Terrell Davis, one of the great backs of his era, fighting off a gnarly migraine and returning to score his Super Bowl-record third rushing touchdown after the two-minute warning, cementing an MVP performance that included 157 yards. The AFC breaking what now seems like an unfathomable 13-year Super Bowl losing streak. This was an upset, and even though Elway's numbers weren't exceptional, there was no question who keyed it.
The moment we all remember, the "Helicopter Play," was a sign of his undying commitment: Late in the third quarter, with the score tied at 17-17, the 37-year-old quarterback dropped back to pass on third-and-6 from the Green Bay 12. Finding no receivers open, Elway darted to his right and was met near the first-down marker by Packers All-Pro safety LeRoy Butler, who ducked his helmet and prepared to unload. Elway took to the air, and Butler's hit spun him around in a circle. He came down feet forward while absorbing another hit from safety Mike Prior at the 4, and the Broncos scored two plays later. They got stronger and stronger as the game went on, though Favre, to his credit, rallied the Packers to the Denver 31 with 32 seconds remaining. Linebacker John Mobley lunged to break up Favre's fourth-down pass to tight end Mark Chmura, and Elway had prevailed in this classic battle between two of the game's best quarterbacks of all time.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
Wherever Lorenzo Neal ends up playing in 2008, the halfback for whom he blocks will have a huge year. … If evidence surfaces that the Patriots really did videotape the Rams' walkthrough before Super Bowl XXXVI, Bill Belichick's most pressing problem won't be Roger Goodell or Robert Kraft – it'll be dealing with Marshall Faulk. … Whichever owner gives Jaguars defensive coordinator Gregg Williams a second chance at an NFL head coaching job will be really, really glad he did.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. I can't wait for the Pro Bowl.
2. Mercury Morris and the rest of his '72 Dolphins teammates have stopped smiling since last Sunday.
3. I sure hope Pat Knight is a chip off the old block.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
If you're wondering whether there is hope for the next generation, take a look at this and draw your own conclusions.
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Coach Diane Ninemire and the 2008 Cal women's softball team, which opens its season Thursday through Sunday at the Cathedral City Classic in Palm Springs, Calif. The unranked Bears, attempting to rebound after a rare season staring up at the NCAA's elite, will be led by seniors Julie Meyer, Erika Racklin and Katie Vickers, with freshman Valerie Arioto providing immediate help on the mound and at the plate. TMI alert: My love for the softball Bears is well-documented, so prepare for the worst.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
Kevin Hart made up
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
Now that football season is over, I can turn my full attention to my adopted English footie team, which seems to have hit the wall in its second-ever season in the Premier League. With last Saturday's disappointing 2-0 defeat to Bolton Wanderers at Madejski Stadium, Reading is now 17th in the 20-team league, and only a point outside of the dreaded relegation zone. The Royals, who have lost five consecutive games (and are on a nine-game winless streak), need to turn things around in a hurry, beginning with Saturday's match at fourth-place Everton. Reading has yet to win on the road in 12 tries this season.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
You know who this one's for – from the ghosts of Lombardi, Halas, Brown and Walsh, et al – to the tune of Radiohead's "Karma Police."
"Karma police, arrest this man
He won't shake hands
He runs it up on Gibbs
He's like a hoodie hooligan
Karma police, mess with his world
His Baldwin photog-push is
Making us feel ill
And Plex has crashed his party
This is what you get
This is what you get
This is what you get when you mess with us
He's given all the tapes
Or maybe not
Matt Walsh will have his say
Now that he's not on the payroll
This is what you get
This is what you get
This is what you get when you mess with us
And for a couple years, he lost himself, he lost himself
Phew, with a second left, he lost himself, he lost himself"
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"I absolutely loved your Super Bowl column. This is exactly the article I was looking to read (Monday) instead of the lame stuff I got from my daily paper. … "
Thanks. You are starting to understand what millions of others already do – the morning paper is yesterday's news; Y! Sports is where it's at.
"I have followed your column all year. Great stuff, sir. The reference to the Almighty Angus, and tying it up with a reference to 'Back In Black' – I loved it! That is great writing. I imagine you at your computer with a school-boy hat and horns on. 21 cannons going off. 'We salute you!'"
Something like that. But by the time my all-night writing session was over, I felt a lot like Bon Scott.
"Just a comment really. Loved the column on the awesome Giants victory and your views on the future President Obama. Keep up the great work. It is refreshing to read something intelligent on the internet."
Thanks, and wasn't it wild that Super Tuesday was just as competitive as Super Sunday?
"I find it appalling, again, that you insert a political opinion into a sports column. An otherwise fine column is ruined by your decision to make a statement about your views on what someone else believes. While I agree with your sentiment regarding Gov. Huckabee, it really has no place in your column. It's gratuitous and uncalled for. I may not agree with the man, but I agree with his right to believe what he wants and not subject him to public humiliation over that belief. It's his opinion and apparently there are a lot of people who share it. Whether I (or you) do agree or not is personal, not open for public consumption. Just don't vote for the guy if you don't agree, but don't question his belief system. This is a sports column and I've become increasingly offended by the injection of politics."
You're right – Mike Huckabee has the right to profess the belief that the world is only 9,000 years old. I have the right to make fun of him in my sports column. And you have the right to stop reading. God bless America.
"What a great retelling of one of the most defining moments in New York Giants history (Plaxico's singular sigh of relief). I was more excited reading your article than I was watching the play unfold. Thanks so much for publishing inspiring pieces for us to read. Hopefully, next year there will be a (Peyton) Manning on Manning shootout. Go Colts! Go Giants! Go Silver!"
West Lafayette, Ind.
Now that one I wrote in the press box, faster than the daily newspaper guys. I was excited writing it, too. What a game.
"Have to take a moment and thank you. You tried ever so hard to break from the collective wisdom and predict the Giants were going to win on Sunday – you were so close! In the end you went with the Pats, and honestly, how could you not? The game was won by the Giants not because they dominated anything but the Pats' O-line, but because they (and I hate to say it, because it's become trite) truly "wanted it more" and made the big plays when necessary. Hats off to you. You were the only columnist I respect who came even close to calling it for the Giants."
I can almost accept your congratulations. Almost.
"Your heart told you to pick the Giants but what did your gut say 'cause your brain messed you all up."
Yeah. It happens.
"The same Idiot who stated that the Gaints had no chance … HAHA … How sweet it is to see another so called expert wrong … "
I think you're misquoting me, but thanks for capitalizing "Idiot." It makes me feel important.
"If it is found to be true that the Patriots did tape the Rams before Super Bowl XXXVI and used that tape to their advantage, would it be appropriate to stop referring to the Patriots as a dynasty and begin referring to them as a legacy? If so, what, in your opinion, would that legacy be?"
It would be a tarnished one, for starters. But until those allegations are proven, it remains a dynasty – and an incredible one, given that it has occurred in the salary-cap era.
"I read your column and wanted to point out a paragraph where you flat out don't know what you're talking about (in the midst of a column where you don't know what you're talking about). '2. Belichick's decision to go for it on fourth-and-13 from the Giants' 31 with 6:49 left in the third quarter. The Patriots, leading 7-3, had taken the second-half kickoff and put together a 13-play drive, and having kicker Stephen Gostkowski attempt a 49-yard field goal seemed like a no-brainer. Instead, Belichick called a play that resulted in a low-percentage Tom Brady deep pass for No. 4 wideout Jabar Gaffey into double coverage. I can't say for sure that Gostkowski would've made the kick (though I'm almost positive his predecessor, Adam Viniatieri, could have handled the assignment), but those three points would've come in mighty handy.' In that paragraph I agree that Belichick shouldn't have gone for a low-percentage play on 4th-and-13. However, a 49 yard field goal in the Super Bowl by a second-year kicker in the Super Bowl for the first time is anything but a 'no- brainer.' Gostkowski's career long is a 52-yarder but who is to say he would have hit that? Sure he could have, but if he misses, you're giving the Giants the momentum and the ball at midfield – not a good scenario. Option 2 – which I favor – would have been to bring out (Chris) Hanson and try to pin the Giants deep. The worst that happens is it's a touchback and the Giants start at their own 20 and have 80 yards to go. In my opinion, Belichick should have chosen this option rather than go for it. Also, your second stupid comment in that paragraph is '(though I'm almost positive his predecessor, Adam Viniatieri, could have handled the assignment).' What makes you so sure Vinatieri in 2007 could nail a 49-yarder? In 2007, he was statistically rated one of the bottom kickers in the NFL and it's well known that he's lost leg strength. Even at the height of his career, Belichick rarely trotted him out for 50-plus yard field goals. Vinatieri missed two field goals in Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston. Bottom line: Do your research before you spout off about 'no brainers.' "
Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah …
"I didn't realize you were on the Giants' payroll. The Patriots are the greatest team in the world, it's a fact … 18-0, something another team has never done in NFL history. The Patriots have class, the Giants were classless, You don't disrespect your opponents like that, that's disgusting, disgraceful. The only appropriate measure to take with those trash talkers is to suspend them a few games next season. Ever heard of sportsmen-like conduct? This was one game … I can see why the world is still bitter … try not to advertise who pays your salary."
… Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah …
"I just want to point out, that you are probably the best sports writer around. I am a Patriots fan, and they choked worse than President Bush choking on a pretzel. … There will always be next year, but is Brady a new Manning? Is his Mr. Cool attitude gone and replaced with the Manning's old playoff woes? Are superstar girlfriends bad luck as football games? Can everyone in New England find and lynch the guy who told Belichick to change his hoody, because I think that was the key to the Patriots' loss."
Hey, hey, let's not get carried away. No lynching references, please, and Brady is still one of the best ever to play the game – and he'll be back. As for Belichick's new look, yeah, that was regrettable. The Cal alum in me says better dead than red.
"Oh no! I'm a fan of your column week after week, and I faithfully cheer for your staunch defense of the English language against offenders. But, like the Pats, your perfect season also came crashing to an end in the final game. Here it is on replay, a clip from your Feb. 4 'Morning Rush' note about Jeremy Shockey: 'Just because you're on IR doesn't mean you have to do everything on the DL, and the site of you watching the game from a stadium box, rather than lending your emotional energy on the Giants' sideline, was perplexing.' 'Site' rather than 'sight'? A crushing defeat. Still, 18-1 is a remarkable achievement. Thanks for a great year!"
Ouch, that crushes me. And even though there is one email remaining, I am running off this field and rushing headlong into the offseason. What can I say? It is what it is.
"In the sixth paragraph of your column about the Giants beating the Patriot 'bullies' you used the term '… could've cared less.' I believe you meant to say 'couldn't have cared less.' This is a common mistake for many people, but I would think that someone who makes his living with words would know better. Did you go to goverment schools? Regards … ."
Don't you think you should spell the word "government" correctly when attempting to insult somebody? Just curious.