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Is XLII best-ever Super Bowl?

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...and I vividly remember the agony I felt that day. :(

Is XLII best-ever Super Bowl?

By Michael Silver, Yahoo! Sports

February 8, 2008

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.

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