The Golden Age of the Super Bowl
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Feb 01, 2009
Congratulations football fans. You live in the Golden Age of the Super Bowl, an era that began soon after the calendar turned to a new millennium.
The fourth-quarter shootout between the Steelers and Cardinals that ended in Pittsburgh's 27-23 victory in Super Bowl XLIII Sunday night is just the latest in a series of year-end heart-stoppers.
It wasn't always like this, kids. Not even close.
The first 31 Super Bowls, those played from January 1967 through January 1997, gave us one yawner after another. In fact, just two of the first 31 Super Bowls were decided by a score in the final two minutes.
Rookie Jim O'Brien booted a 32-yard field goal with five seconds left to lift Baltimore to a 16-13 win over the Cowboys in Super Bowl V. But that kick was kind of anti-climactic: it was set up by a Craig Morton interception at the end of a mistake-filled game widely regarded as the sloppiest two-sided effort in Super Bowl history.
It took 18 long years before we witnessed another last-minute, game-winning score, and before we witnessed the first finish worthy of the name "Super." It was a score for the ages: trailing the Bengals 16-13, Joe Montana drove the 49ers 92 yards before throwing a 10-yard game-winner to John Taylor with 34 seconds to play in Super Bowl XXIII. To understand Montana's greatness in retrospect is to remember that nobody before him had ever done anything like that in Super Bowl play.
Pittsburgh and Dallas probably came closest during the first three decades of the Super Bowl to delivering epics: The Steelers beat the Cowboys 21-17 in Super Bowl X and 35-31 in Super Bowl XIII, but a late score by Dallas in the first meeting, and two late Dallas touchdowns in the second encounter, made the final scores closer than the games seemed for much of each afternoon.
Games during this era were better defined by plays not made than by plays that were made: future Hall of Fame tight end Jackie Smith dropping a Roger Staubach pass in the end zone in Super Bowl XIII; Buffalo kicker Scott Norwood missing a 47-yarder in the final seconds of Super Bowl XXV.
That was about it for excitement from the first 31 years of championship games that failed to live up to the "Super" Bowl hype. In fact, you were far more likely to see one-sided blowouts than you were compelling show-stoppers. In the 18 contests from Super Bowl XIV to Super Bowl XXXI, just three games were decided by a touchdown or less. We also had major blowouts in this period of 29 points, 36 points, 32 points, 45 points and 35 points.
The Super Bowl, in other words, was rarely a super day for the NFL. In most cases, much of the nation tuned out by the fourth quarter.
The tide started to turn with Super Bowl XXXII, an epic clash between the Packers and Broncos, when Denver's Terrell's Davis scored on a 1-yard plunge with 1:45 to play to lift the Broncos to a 31-24 victory.
But the Super Bowl truly exploded into the pulse-pounding era with Super Bowl XXXIV between St. Louis and Tennessee, the first played in the new millennium (Jan. 30, 2000).
The Titans tied the game with a field goal with just over 2 minutes to play. Then Kurt Warner tossed a 73-yard bomb to Isaac Bruce to give the Rams a 23-16 lead with 1:54 on the clock, and then watched helplessly from the sidelines as Tennessee's final game-tying effort fell inches short of the goal line.
Football fans have never looked back.
The first 31 Super Bowls featured just 14 scores in the final three minutes of play – and all but O'Brien's field goal and Montana's TD pass to John Taylor were trash-time points in games in which the outcomes had already been decided.
The last 10 Super Bowls have been defined by a flurry of last second heroics, with 15 scoring plays in the final three minutes – 11 of which led to lead changes.
Think about that:
- There were just two lead-changing scores in the final three minutes of the first 31 Super Bowls.
- There have been 11 lead-changing scores in the final three minutes of the last 10 Super Bowls.
- There have been 12 lead-changing scores in the final three minutes of the last 12 Super Bowls.
It is, by every measure imaginable, the greatest period of heroics in Super Bowl history, and stands in sharp contrast to the one-sided futility that defined the first three decades of Super Bowl play.
Here's an overview of every tying and lead-changing score in the final three minutes of Super Bowl play. You'll notice a sharp uptick in recent years, here in the Super Bowl's Golden Era. Soak it all in, folks. You don't know when will see this kind of entertainment again.
Super Bowl V (Jan. 1971)
Baltimore 16, Dallas 13
Jim O'Brien kicks a field goal with five seconds left to lift the Colts to a 16-13 win over Dallas.
Super Bowl XXIII (Jan. 1989)
San Francisco 20, Cincinnati 16
Joe Montana throws a 10-yard pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds to play to give San Francisco a 20-16 victory over the Bengals.
Super Bowl XXXII (Jan. 1998)
Denver 31, Green Bay 24
Terrell Davis caps a 51-yard drive by scoring from 1 yard out with 1:45 on the clock.
Super Bowl XXXIV (Jan. 2000)
St. Louis 23, Tennessee 16
The first of the great Super Bowl shootouts that would define the new millennium. Tennessee ties the game 16-16 on an Al Del Greco field goal with 2:12 on the clock. Kurt Warner connects with Isaac Bruce for a 73-yard game-winner with 1:54 to play. The game wasn't over yet: Tennessee's final desperation drive falls inches short of the goal line.
Super Bowl XXXVI (Feb. 2002)
New England 20, St. Louis 17
St. Louis ties New England 17-17 with 1:30 to play on a 26-yard pass from Warner to Ricky Proehl. Patriots drive from their own 17 with no timeouts and kicker Adam Vinatieri boots a 48-yard game-winner with no time on the clock.
Super Bowl XXXVIII (Feb. 2004)
New England 32, Carolina 29
The Patriots take a 29-22 lead with 2:51 to play on a 1 yard pass from Tom Brady to Mike Vrabel. Carolina's Jake Delhomme ties the game at 29-29 with a 12-yard pass to Proehl with 1:08 on the clock. Vinatieri boots the 41-yard game-winner with 4 ticks left.
Super Bowl XLII (Feb. 2008)
N.Y. Giants 17, New England 14
N.Y. Giants 17, New England 14
The Patriots take a 14-10 lead with 2:42 to play on a 6-yard pass from Brady to Randy Moss. Giants drive 83 yards and Eli Manning throws the 13-yard game winner to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds left in the game.
Super Bowl XLIII (Feb. 2009)
Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23
Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23
The Cardinals notch a safety with 2:58 to play and then jump out to a 23-20 lead 11 seconds later thanks to a 64-yard TD from Warner to Larry Fitzgerald. The Steelers respond with an 88-yard drive and Ben Roethlisberger throws to Santonio Holmes for a 6-yard TD with 42 seconds on the clock.
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