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Plays, not accomplishments, define Super Bowl memories

Note: The following story can be found in the Super Bowl XLIII official game program.

If you were handed a piece of paper and asked to write down your favorite Super Bowl memory, it probably wouldn't be a record-setting performance like Steve Young's six touchdown passes in Super Bowl XXIX or a team accomplishment like the Redskins' 35-point second-quarter outburst in Super Bowl XXII.

Nope, it would likely be a single play. One exhilarating, heart-stopping moment where someone -- and it could be anyone -- makes the improbable catch, the game-saving tackle or the great escape to clinch the championship.

Maybe it's David Tyree's acrobatic snag of an Eli Manning pass in the closing moments of Super Bowl XLII. Or John Riggins' rumble through Miami's Killer Bee defense in Super Bowl XVII. Or how about Mike Jones' tackle of Kevin Dyson a yard short of the end zone to end Super Bowl XXXIV?

"It has to be the play that Eli Manning made," said Redskins coach Jim Zorn, "when he was under major duress and shook the guy who was grabbing his jersey when, for all intents and purposes, he could have said, 'Hey, I'm done.'

"Then throwing the ball downfield and completing it. That would've been an incredible play just to complete an easy throw. But he reacted. Then to have David Tyree focus in without his eyes and to just feel ... to touch ... and to put the ball on his helmet to complete that play?

"Pretty amazing," summed up Zorn. "Those types of things are unforgettable."

Zorn isn't alone in his push for Tyree's catch, and he's part of a majority of coaches, players and general managers who selected a memorable play over a memorable achievement. Young's cavalcade of touchdown passes? A performance that is unsurpassed and unequaled. Yet it didn't make the cut when we ran our survey.

Neither did Washington's aforementioned second quarter ... nor Pittsburgh's four Super Bowl championships in six years ... nor even Miami's completion of a perfect season.

Instead, The Play's the thing.

"Coach [Bear] Bryant used to say there are four or five plays that decide a game," explained Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, who played for Bryant at the University of Alabama. "Win those four or five plays and you win the game.

"That's why I think people pay attention to plays. Because four or five can determine the outcome of a game."

Ten such plays comprise our list of favorite Super Bowl memories:

10. Rocket screen liftoff

Marcus Allen was the MVP of Super Bowl XVIII, but he didn't produce the game's most important play -- backup linebacker Jack Squirek did. Rewind the videotape and you'll see.

The Redskins had a first down at their own 12. Down 14-3 with 12 seconds left in the first half, they figured to run out the clock and take their chances in the third quarter. Only coach Joe Gibbs defied conventional wisdom and called a screen pass, "Rocket screen left," to running back Joe Washington -- the same play that went for 67 yards in a 37-35 defeat of the Raiders during the regular season.

"We were just looking for a big play," said Redskins assistant Joe Bugel.

They found Squirek instead.

Raiders defensive coordinator Charlie Sumner suspected the Redskins might call on the pass again, so he subbed the faster Squirek into the game for linebacker Matt Millen and told him to cover Washington. When the running back drifted out of the backfield, Squirek followed. And when Joe Theismann turned to his left and lobbed a soft pass over defensive lineman Lyle Alzado's head, Squirek pounced.

Touchdown.

In the second half, the Raiders rolled to a 38-9 win.

"That play took us the whole offseason to get over," Bugel said of Squirek's 5-yard interception return for a score. "We were crushed by it. It was a heckuva play by the linebacker, and it kind of broke our backs right there. [Theismann] would always say, 'Kick me in the rear if I ever bring it up again.' I don't think he'll ever forget it."

9. Adam Vinatieri, part II

As they did in Super Bowl XXXVI, the Patriots leaned on Adam Vinatieri in Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Panthers. However, this time circumstances had changed. Earlier in the game, Vinatieri had missed a field goal and had another blocked.

So there was at least some doubt as he headed onto the field for this last-second 41-yard kick.

"It was one of those things where you try to block out everything that happened before," Vinatieri said.

Those doubts quickly subsided. Just as he had done two years earlier, Vinatieri nailed the kick -- this one climaxing a 37-yard drive that broke a 29-29 deadlock. For the second time, the NFL's most reliable kicker won a Super Bowl on the last snap.

"That game had a different feel to it," Vinatieri said of Super Bowl XXXVIII, "in the sense that in the game against St. Louis, we were huge underdogs; in the Carolina game, we were favored. So it was more a sigh of relief after that one. Where after the first one, it was one of those, 'Oh my gosh, I-can't-believe-we-did-it' kind of things.

"This was what we were supposed to do, and it shouldn't have been that hard. But as far as going out on the field, it was the same feeling: 'You've done this once before, let's bang it out and get this thing over.'"

8. Adam Vinatieri, part I

The toughest kick of Vinatieri's career didn't beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI; it helped beat the Raiders two weeks earlier. Vinatieri nailed a 45-yarder into the wind, the snow and the darkness of New England's Foxboro Stadium to send what seemed like a certain Raiders playoff victory into overtime.

"I don't think you can stack any more pressure on a kick out there than there was on that kick," he said.

Nevertheless, the Patriots tried in Super Bowl XXXVI. With the score tied at 17-17 and 1:21 left, they turned to quarterback Tom Brady and asked him to get them close enough to make Vinatieri a hero again. Brady responded by hitting 5 of 7 passes to rapidly drive the New England to the St. Louis 30.

The rest was up to Vinatieri, who had never missed an indoor kick in his career.

"At that point," Vinatieri recalled, "I was just over in the kicking net preparing myself, trying to get loose and concentrating on my job. Obviously, you know what it means, but I was just trying to take some deep breaths and focus on making the kick.

"It's kind of weird because when you walk out on the field everything kind of slows down. It's almost slow motion. You try not to think about the implications of what the kick means and what's on the line. You're just thinking, 'It's 48 yards, you have plenty of distance and the ball is on line. Just kick it and get it straight.'"

Vinatieri did. He split the uprights with a field goal that brought down the house, and the Rams with it.

"When I kicked it, it felt really, really good," he said. "And when it started to go straight ... well, I don't think there's a better feeling out there than the feeling at that moment."

7. Swann's dive

The reason Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is not because he produced a lot of catches ... because he didn't (336). No, the reason he is there is because he produced a lot of significant catches, and look no further than Super Bowl X for the evidence.

It was a contest Swann wasn't expected to play, not after suffering a concussion in the AFC Championship Game -- a 16-10 win over the Raiders -- that put him in a hospital for two days and kept him off the practice field all but once ... on the day before the game. Even if he did suit up, he wasn't expected to be a factor against the Cowboys.

"Getting hit again while he's running a pass route must be in the back of Swann's mind," Dallas safety Cliff Harris warned that week. "I know it would be in the back of my mind."

Swann not only played, he played superbly. He had four receptions for 161 yards and became the first wide receiver to win the game's MVP award. His 64-yard fourth-quarter touchdown catch clinched the victory, but it was his 53-yard grab in the second quarter that symbolized it.

Watch slow-motion video of the catch, and there is Swann running neck and neck with Dallas defender Mark Washington. He trips over the cornerback as he leaps for the pass, then stretches for the deflected ball as he and Washington fall to the turf.

He catches it. Somehow, some way, he catches it.

"Nobody hit me to hurt me," Swann said later. "They just hit me hard enough to get up and make another catch. ... I never had a day in my life when I felt so loose."

He never had a day in his life when he played better.

6. Wide right

When the Bills returned home from their Super Bowl XXV loss, they were honored by the city with a downtown celebration. Coach Marv Levy was one of those who spoke, but as he began to address the crowd, he was interrupted by a chant that rolled in waves.

"Scott-EEE ... Scott-EEE ... Scott-EEE!"

Buffalo fans wanted Scott Norwood, whose last-second miss of a 47-yard field goal pushed the Bills' hopes for a Super Bowl victory wide right. It was the first of four straight Buffalo losses in the big game, but none was more painful than Norwood's close call.

"He had never hit one longer than 49," said then-special teams coach Bruce DeHaven, "and had never hit a field goal of 47 yards on grass. Essentially, we asked him to do something he'd never done."

The wind blew left to right. The ball was on the right hash mark. And Norwood was trying to make the biggest kick of his career. He missed, with the ball sailing 3 to 4 feet wide. Final score: Giants 20, Bills 19.

"He actually kicked the ball very well," DeHaven said. "If it had been a few feet to the left, it would've been good from 60 yards. He crushed it. Over time you would have thought it was a 35 to 37 yarder and he choked it. But nothing could be further from the truth."

Which is why Buffalo fans wanted Norwood. His kick wasn't the reason the Bills lost -- leaving a defense on the field for 40 minutes was. And Buffalo wanted to remind Norwood it understood the difference.

"The response was great," DeHaven said. "I still get emotional talking about it."

5. Desmond Howard returns

At some point in Super Bowl XXXI, you figured Packers return specialist Desmond Howard would make a big play. New England figured it, too, punting to the sidelines and lofting kickoffs high and short to prevent the explosive Howard from taking over the game.

But after closing to within 27-21 late in the third quarter, the Patriots inexplicably junked their plan. Rookie kicker Adam Vinatieri launched a kickoff that drove Howard backward.

"I just remember standing at the 6," said Howard, now a college football analyst for ESPN, "and as the ball was kicked off I started backing up and thinking, 'Wow, they're going to give us a chance.'"

Howard caught the ball at the 1, followed teammate Don Beebe to the left of the Packers' wedge, then ran to daylight. Taking two steps to his right, he suddenly changed direction and veered left to avoid an approaching tackler.

"I hopped a little to my left to get away from him," Howard said. "But he grabbed my facemask, and I broke the tackle. Then I remember seeing Vinatieri, and I thought there is no way a kicker is going to catch me."

He was right. Howard completed the longest kickoff return in Super Bowl history (99 yards), set a Super Bowl record for return yardage (244) and wound up the game's MVP and on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

"There's a photo of me looking up at the JumboTron, and that's because I didn't want to look back," he said. "They always tell you if you look back you're going to slow down, but there was nobody behind me."

Maybe that's why Howard slowed to a walk as he neared the goal line, high-stepping into the end zone before being engulfed by teammates.

"Once I got there, I did my Michael Jackson version of 'The Robot,'" said Howard. "I knew I wanted to do something, and that was the one spontaneous thing that came out."

It's also the one play associated with his pro football career.

"I tell you what, I never realized the Patriots had so many fans in so many places," Howard said. "In elevators, malls and airports, people will tell me, 'You don't know how you broke my heart with that return.'

"And I'll say, 'Are you kidding me? Another Patriots fan? You guys are everywhere.'"

4. Be like Mike

Another photo that makes the rounds during Super Bowls is the Titans' Kevin Dyson stretching for the end zone on the last play of Super Bowl XXXIV. Dyson is on his back, with St. Louis linebacker Mike Jones underneath, and the ball is 18 agonizing inches short of the goal line.

The game belonged to the Rams, 23-16, and the most important stop in Super Bowl history belonged to an unheralded former running back. Mike Jones, that's your cue.

"We had three-on-two coverage," explained Jones, "with the linebacker, cornerback and strong safety bracketing Frank Wycheck and Dyson. The cornerback was going to take the vertical outside, and the strong safety the vertical inside. When I saw Kevin plant his foot, I knew he was going inside. I saw him the whole time."

Titans quarterback Steve McNair found Dyson with the pass at the 5, and Jones found the wide receiver an instant afterward with a sure tackle. Stopped short of the goal line, Dyson extended the football as far as he could reach -- only too short as the final whistle sounded.

"I knew I had to get him somewhere between 3 and 4 yards from the 1-yard line, so I split the difference," Jones said.

"At the time I didn't know why he fell so quickly, but then the two of us watched tape of the play together, and you could see what happened: I wrapped him up with one arm and had my left arm around his leg. So he couldn't stand. There was no balance."

Instead, there was the Super Bowl's most memorable tackle.

"For me to make that play," Jones said, "some people learned about me."

3. The Drive

It's first-and-10 at the San Francisco 8 with just over three minutes left in Super Bowl XXIII. The 49ers trail the Bengals by three points when quarterback Joe Montana steps into the huddle and informs his teammates that they're about to make history.

Two and a half minutes later, he fulfills his promise, hitting John Taylor with the winning touchdown pass.

"It certainly wasn't routine," Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh said years later, "but Joe [Montana] was getting time to throw, and we knew what we could do when he had time."

What the 49ers did was patiently and effectively go 92 yards on 11 plays -- with Montana hitting 8 of 9 nine passes, the last a 10-yard dart that Taylor caught in stride near the back of the end zone.

It was his only catch of the afternoon.

Having a man in motion was critical to the play's success. Only this man was no ordinary decoy. It was wide receiver Jerry Rice, who had 11 receptions for a Super Bowl-record 215 yards and was fittingly honored as the game's MVP. He drew double coverage; Taylor did not, and that was the idea.

"We knew Cincinnati would double-team the wide receivers at the 10," Walsh said. "That was their call every take we'd seen. I trusted Joe not to throw an interception and, as usual, he was at his best."

Montana had one of the best performances of his career, completing 23 of 36 passes for 357 yards and two touchdowns. That was enough for Walsh. One day after Super Bowl XXIII -- his third Super Bowl win in as many attempts -- he retired as San Francisco's coach.

2. Dear John

This is the 26th anniversary of Riggo over Miami. It will be celebrated by another run of that black-and-white photo of Redskins running back John Riggins pulling away from a fallen Don McNeal -- with the Miami cornerback desperately trying to hang on to Riggins' jersey.

"I see that photo every stinkin' year," said McNeal, laughing, "But you know something? That's all right. I look at it from the positive side -- at least I'm going to see my picture in the paper once a year. And every year I see it, I think I'm still going to make the play."

Of course, he doesn't. Riggins not only ran out of McNeal's grasp, he took Super Bowl XVII with him. With the Redskins trailing 17-13 in the fourth quarter, coach Joe Gibbs needed something, anything, to put his team on top.

So he dialed Riggins on fourth-and-1 at the Miami 42.

"We knew he was going to get the ball," McNeal said. "We were in man-to-man across the line. I had a guy going in motion [tight end Clint Didier], and he stopped and went back the other way. When he stopped, I slipped. And when I got up, I found myself in the backfield with John."

Riggins ran over McNeal and didn't stop until he produced a decisive touchdown and one of the most memorable images from Super Bowl history. What you might not know is that the play cost McNeal a fingernail. It was torn off when his right hand got caught in Riggins' jersey.

"I was in so much pain from missing that tackle I don't think I knew it was missing," McNeal said. "I should have made the play. I screwed up. People say he was so big, and one man couldn't bring him down. But I make no excuses. I should have done the job, and I didn't.

"That stayed with me for two or three weeks, and then I moved on ... because you have to move on with your life," said McNeal, now a pastor. "If that would have stuck in my craw then, it would stick in my craw now. But it doesn't. I'm all right with it."

1. The Catch

Sabol's shot

Is David Tyree's catch the greatest play in 42 Super Bowls? Steve Sabol sure thinks so, even among the many great moments in the game's illustrious history. More ...

You've seen it 10, 20, maybe 30 or more times, and with each viewing "The Catch, Part Deux" seems as astonishing as when it first happened -- and not just because of David Tyree's heroics. Look what Eli Manning did to make it possible.

Swallowed up by the Patriots' pass rush, he disappears into a sea of red, white and blue jerseys, only to reappear moments later, rip free of Richard Seymour, scramble to his right and launch the ball 32 yards downfield.

The rest you know. Tyree, a heretofore undistinguished wide receiver, leaps in front of New England's Rodney Harrison to clutch the ball and pin it against his helmet as he crashes to the turf. Somehow, he keeps the ball from hitting the ground.

"There is always a play or two where you look back and say, 'That's what changed the game,'" said Herm Edwards. "Obviously, the Tyree catch changed Super Bowl XLII. There are little plays that go along with it, but it's that play that people spotlight."

In the stands sat former 49ers wide receiver Dwight Clark, who produced The (Original) Catch in the NFC Championship Game 26 years earlier. It wasn't until he watched replays of Tyree's improbable reception that he appreciated its degree of difficulty.

"It has to be the greatest catch ever made," Clark insisted. "The Giants fans will love him forever, and they will never forget that. He'll be asked about it and will be reminded about it for the rest of his life.

"But all the New England fans will hate him and say it was lucky and it was a fluke. I know because that's what Dallas fans tell me, asking if [Montana] wasn't throwing the ball away. But when they do, Tyree can just smile and know what happened. And what happened wasn't a fluke."

Tyree's catch made him a household name. He did late-night TV. He did radio interviews. He was on the cover of national magazines. He seemed to be everywhere, as did the quarterback who became the second Manning in two years to earn a Super Bowl MVP award.

"That one play turned Eli Manning's career around," said Redskins assistant head coach Joe Bugel. "To do what he did ..."

He shakes his head in disbelief.

"When Manning made that play, and [Tyree] made that catch, I said, 'Oh geez, these guys are going to be good for a long time.'"

Clark Judge is a senior writer for CBSSports.com. He has covered the NFL for 26 years, which includes time as a beat reporter following the Chargers and 49ers.

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Carolina Panthers wide receiver D.J. Moore (12) makes a deep catch as Los Angeles Chargers outside linebacker Kyzir White (44) trails on the play during an NFL football game , Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif.

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