This Sunday we’ll all open the glorious gift of a Super Bowl that features both the league’s top offense and top defense. Yes, that fact has been repeated almost hourly over the last two weeks, but no, that doesn’t mean it should get any less remarkable. Those rankings make it likely that we’ll be adding to the list below very soon.
To close out Super Bowl week with some nostalgia and (mostly) good vibes, I went back through the most memorable plays in Super Bowl history. Please note the slight difference between “memorable” and “best”, as the former applies to any event that immediately comes to mind years later, good or bad. Mostly our memories are pleasant, because as humans we like to recall fun things. But there’s one exception below that’s quite painful (my deepest apologies, Wes Welker).
While putting this together I learned that — to the surprise of absolutely no one — selecting just 10 is impossible, so inevitably I omitted one or three, which may make you angry. Also, there’s been a lot of absurd in Super Bowls over the past decade or so.
Oddly, two of the plays with the most historic heroism come from a quarterback whose offseason is now nearly a month old because he was absolutely atrocious in 2013 while leading the league in interceptions, throwing a career single-season high 27. You continue to both baffle and amaze us, Eli Manning
10. Marcus Allen cares not for your backfield clogging
Super Bowl XVII in 1983 wasn’t at all even a little bit close, with the Raiders beating Washington 35-9. The reason for the blowout? All Marcus Allen, who accounted for 209 of Oakland’s 385 total offensive yards, 74 of which came on this staggering run which should have been a dud play and a loss of yards.
9. Lynn Swann is also a juggler
Maybe I’m showing my still young and chipper age by not making this the most memorable Super Bowl play of all-time, because for another generation it certainly is and will be forever (I’ll break the fourth wall here for a second and share a little web secret: listicle rankings are completely arbitrary).
Let’s review what Swann did while catching this 64-yard heave from Terry Bradshaw in Super Bowl X: he jumped alongside Mark Washington, keep his eyes on a bouncing ball that was drifting towards him, caught said ball while stumbling and falling, held onto it while hitting the ground, rolled over, and then kept running.
8. Tracy Porter gives the Manning haters their ammunition
Peyton Manning has won a Super Bowl. That is an indisputable fact, but it’s the lasting memory of this play and the other playoff face-planting that preceded it which will linger on forever unless Manning gives it a severe beating Sunday. Please do, kind sir.
7. Welker’s whoopsie
The Fox music is a pretty nice touch here, as is the Butterfinger ad at the end. Well done, Internet.
History will far more fondly remember the Manningham catch below on the Giants’ drive that immediately followed this New England sputter, because when we go through the yearly exercise of remembering awesome Super Bowl things, the good usually stands out. But although nothing was assured, there’s a very real chance Manning doesn’t make that throw and Manningham doesn’t make that catch had Wes Welker and Tom Brady executed here. Or at least it wouldn’t have mattered nearly as much, or at all.
I said Welker and Brady there. Yes, it was a difficult catch, though it’s one Welker had made so very many times, and he’d haul in the same ball on many more occasions after this turfing. He deserves and has shouldered most of the blame here, but it was still a throw that was unnecessarily high to a receiver who was wide open.
Had Welker made the catch, the Patriots would have been on the Giants’ 21 yard-line with a fresh set of downs to kill the clock with, and more importantly, a very real chance to score the game-sealing touchdown. But instead Manning made history.
6. I still weep for Kevin Dyson
Look, we all know that the Super Bowl is still just a football game, and football is just a diversion from our normal and awful lives, and that sports are meaningless, and that ultimately we’re still cold and alone in this universe and blah blah. There are far, far worse things happening in the world than losing a football game, even a rather significant one.
Now with that disclaimer out of the way, I can say this: having the memory of reaching, clawing, and stretching out before coming one yard short of winning the Super Bowl hanging over your football career must be a special kind of mental anguish.
5. THE helicopter
Please recall that Elway was 37 years young when he ran those eight yards, diving to secure a key first down that will forever be remembered as the iconic moment in his career. It’s a play that prolonged what would eventually be a 92-yard touchdown drive after a Terrell Davis plunge a few snaps later, giving the Broncos a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
4. James Harrison rumbles and bumbles
Me watching this play five years ago: “WOAH HOLY #$%&#!…He’s not gonna score though…nah no way haha c’mon….whaaaaaaa? Naahhhwhaaaaah? He’s gonna score? He’s gonna score! HE’S GONNA SCORE!/dead”.
3. Mario Manningham + footwork + diving sideline catch = wow
Some context here in case you’re getting lost in the sheer acrobatics of this throw and catch, which is understandable. This was the first play of a drive that started with 3:46 left on the clock in the fourth quarter, and the Giants down by two points. Both the deficit and the clock weren’t threatening then, but the field position was pretty scary. The drive started from the Giants’ 12 yard-line, meaning 65-ish yards had to be gained before they could even begin to consider a game-winning field goal.
Of course, a touchdown was preferred, because handing the ball back to Tom Brady with a chunk of time and only one point to overcome is, um, unwise. So a 38-yard completion down the sideline on a throw that Manning released from his own five went a long way towards improving the steep odds in the Patriots’ favor when the drive started.
2. Santonio Holmes + endzone + footwork + diving sideline catch = wow
Just like Manningham’s sideline dancing, the play itself is unfathomable enough. But also just like Manningham’s catch, it gets even better when we remember the buildup.
The Cardinals had just completed their own bit of insanity with a 64-yard catch and run by Larry Fitzgerald in which he blew past, well, everyone. By the time that play concluded along with the ensuing kickoff, there was 2:30 left on the clock for Ben Roethlisberger to lead a 78-yard drive to win the game, or a slightly shorter one to at least get into position for a game-tying field goal.
On that drive alone he completed four passes to Santonio Holmes for a total of 73 yards, one of which was a 40-yarder, and one was the incredible toe dotting and ball cradling while falling that won Super Bowl XLIII.
1. David Tyree’s crazy glue hands
This play involves two pieces of ridiculous between the improbable escape and throw by Manning and the catch by Tyree, and the latter defied all laws of science. How he kept that ball on his head is just…yeah, I still have no explanation.
The 32-yard catch set up Manning’s game-winning touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress four plays later, with the Giants securing their first of two championships over a five-year stretch.