INDIANAPOLIS -- Walking the corridors of the JW Marriott in downtown Indianapolis, there is already a palpable feel of football energy. Everything in this city seems to be just a skywalk away, providing a feeling that Super Bowl XLVI is literally right around the corner. Lucas Oil Stadium is a couple of Buffett songs on your iPod away from the hotel, and you never know who you'll run into from Super Bowls past.
I checked in next to Ron Jaworski, although I didn't mention his three interceptions in the Philadelphia Eagles' Super Bowl XV loss. When I came across Cris Collinsworth, I recalled seeing him on the sidelines of Super Bowl XXIII, watching helplessly with 100 million of us as Joe Montana executed another game-winning drive.
But where do those games rank among the pantheon of American sports' biggest spectacle? My editor requested that I decipher just that by ranking the previous 45 Super Bowls. Assigned such a monumental task, I needed to enlist some help. So I asked legendary Cowboys personnel exec Gil Brandt to weigh in with his thoughts. Below, you'll find the all-time rankings, from No. 1 to No. 45. Gil provided his top six and bottom five, and then I decided the pecking order on the rest.
The Super Six
Growing up in Dallas, I can tell you that the older generation of Cowboys fans will always remember this game as "The clock running out on Roger Staubach," just as it did for Bobby Layne before and John Elway after. The great ones never lose, they just run out of time.
This 35-31 contest had so many big plays: a strip sack for a touchdown, a couple of Terry Bradshaw bombs, the Jackie Smith drop, a big pass interference call on the Cowboys' Benny Barnes and a special teams fumble that turned the game around.
I ran into my NFL.com colleague Steve Wyche at Shula's Steak House here in downtown Indy and asked him what was the greatest Super Bowl ever. Without much hesitation Wyche said, "It has to be No. 13."
Gil's take: "Super Bowl XIII, in my mind, was the most memorable of the Super Bowls. Those were two great football teams. We made mistakes. We had Randy White on the return team with a cast on, and then he fumbled the kickoff, which really hurt us. Even though we lost, I would say Super Bowl XIII was the greatest Super Bowl."
Gil's take: "The last time the two teams playing this year met in the Super Bowl -- the Giants and Patriots -- was up there, as far as the top games. So many small plays in a game can change a game. What if they had called in-the-grasp on Eli [Manning]? What if [David] Tyree doesn't trap the ball against his helmet? What if Asante Samuel doesn't worry about getting his feet down and catches the [interception]?"
Gil's take: "Super Bowl III has to be one of the best because of what it meant. It changed the perception about the American Football League and the merger. That game was about the impact it had."
This game, in my mind, officially put NFL Films on the map.
Gil's take: "The Giants winning on [Scott Norwood's] 'Wide Right' field goal. They basically played a 2-5 [defense], so as to try to stop the Buffalo offense. You know, the Giants played them earlier in the season and stifled Buffalo's offense -- now that was a really good game too. Jim Kelly got hurt, and Reich had to come in."
Sitting at the lobby bar of the aforementioned JW Marriott on Monday night, I caught a replay of Super Bowl XXV on TV. I can back up what Gil was saying. Here the Giants were, playing two down linemen with five linebackers moving around. Man, Bill Belichick was ahead of the game as a defensive coordinator.
On Tuesday morning, former Giants tight end Howard Cross plopped down next to me as we sat out the madness of Media Day. I told him I saw him miss a block when I re-watched Super Bowl XXV. "I didn't miss any blocks that day," he said, chuckling. "[Former Alabama teammate] Cornelius Bennett and I were talking a lot of smack to each other that day. At one point I asked him, 'Do you see any flags, cause I don't see any flags out here?' " The Giants' run-blocking was a big key, as New York gained 172 yards on the ground that day.
Krumrie's injury allowed San Francisco to run the ball, but overall defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's unit kept the Niners in check most of the day ... until it really mattered.
Gil's take: "The Super Bowl after we played Steelers in XIII was one of the better games. They played it in Pasadena, and the Rams were able to get a halfback option pass from Lawrence McCutcheon for a touchdown on Pittsburgh. We thought we were in good position that year to play them. We had a good team ... but of course we were beaten on the Billy Waddy catch in the playoff versus the Rams. Aaron Kyle, who I drafted to play corner for us in '76, had him covered, but just didn't have any ball skills. He was right there tracking ... tracking ... but then as Waddy was coming down with football, Kyle was jumping up."
Gil shook his head as he recalled that moment, putting his hand over his eyes. Something tells me that one still hurts ...
The Very Good
Gil's take: "The Patriots-Panthers Super Bowl had a slow first half, and a great second half. Neither team could get going in the first half, but in the second, each team exchanged touchdowns and put up a lot of points. And of course, then the Panthers kicked off and it went out of bounds ... that was a huge play."
I still can see Jake Delhomme rolling to his left and uncorking a long touchdown pass. Pure streetball. Pure awesomeness in a very entertaining game.
I ran into Eddie George at Media Day, an old colleague of mine from our time at Fox. (Quick aside: Eddie's been doing acting work in Nashville). A lot of people were asking him his thoughts on Super Bowl XLVI, but it was hard to forget his goal-line run in Super Bowl XXXIV, which helped the Titans come back from a 16-0 deficit in the third quarter to tie the game late in the fourth.
Who could forget John Elway getting hammered in mid-air? This Super Bowl always will be remembered for Elway's heart, and for the Hall of Fame QB finally winning the big one. But there were so many big plays. Watching Steve Atwater lay out the Packers' Robert Brooks, teammate Randy Hilliard and himself on one pass over the middle in the fourth quarter was football in the 1990s. Not anymore.
Gil's take: "Mark Washington had good coverage on the [Lynn] Swann plays. But really, the amazing thing about that game was the fact that only one player on both teams ever played for another team. One guy! It was Preston Pearson, who we picked up before the season. So out of all the players on the field, one had not been with that team his whole career. And here's the thing about that: The team Preston had played for was Pittsburgh, the team we were playing. Can you imagine that happening today?"
Super Bowl X was perhaps the first fiercely contested Super Sunday, with Art Rooney getting his second Lombardi Trophy in two seasons after 40 with nary a championship.
Gil's take: "We had a guy we drafted in the ninth round, Mike Wilson out of Washington State, who made a big catch for San Francisco on the sideline in the second half. Otherwise, their offense couldn't squeeze a drop the whole second half.
"We were disappointed to not be there, of course. The final drive of the championship game, they beat us utilizing their backs, Ricky Patton and [Lenvil] Elliott. Bill Walsh was smart. He saw us playing with five defensive backs and ran the ball. It was the right thing to do. Then you saw the play Eric Wright made on Drew Pearson, pulling him down from behind ... or he was gone. But they won the game, and then the Super Bowl."
Another vastly underrated Super Bowl. Don't let the final score fool you -- this was a close contest that might have swung on Sean Payton's gamble to onside kick to start the second half. Tracy Porter's late pick exemplified true mastery of the cornerback position, jumping the route of Reggie Wayne, and ultimately giving a beleaguered city its first Lombardi Trophy.
Put the seat debacle aside for a moment. Last year's Super Bowl in Dallas turned out to be a competitive game. Aaron Rodgers capped off a tremendous postseason with an incredible performance in the biggest game of his career. That said, it was a defensive play that underlined the Packers' win: Clay Matthews' jarring hit on Rashard Mendenhall -- which caused the Steelers tailback to cough up the football -- led to the decisive touchdown.
Smith: Where are they now?
Neil O'Donnell to Larry Brown. That's all this Super Bowl will be remembered for. Pittsburgh laid some wood in the second half, but was let down by two bad throws, or bad routes, depending on your perspective. Either way, Dallas won its fifth Lombardi Trophy. The franchise has only won two playoff games since.
If there is a Super Bowl that no one remembers, it's Super Bowl XVII. The Dolphins quite possibly had the worst starters at the skill positions in Super Bowl history, with quarterback David Woodley hitting the immortal Jimmy Cefalo for a touchdown early. Still, this game wasn't decided until "The Diesel" (John Riggins) got going in the fourth quarter.
Donovan McNabb's upset stomach became all the rage after Terrell Owens gave the world his interpretation of why Philadelphia failed late: McNabb's conditioning could use the NordicTrack. Watch this game again. The Eagles looked awfully lethargic getting in and out of the huddle, despite trailing 24-14 with five minutes left.
Middle Of The Road
The better team won, on the strength of special teams. Desmond Howard's kick return essentially put the game away; Reggie White and the defense ensured it.
Gil's take: "Tom Landry and I thought Bill Parcells had an excellent defense. We played [the Giants] early in the year, in the opener, and beat them for a touchdown on a screen pass down the sideline. We won that game, and that was one of only two losses the Giants had that year. In the Super Bowl -- even though they were a defensive team -- offensively, Phil Simms really played over his head. That was the difference."
Simms did put on quite a display of efficiency, going 22 of 25 for 268 yards and three touchdowns.
Less Than Super
Miami completes a perfect 17-0 season with a 14-7 win. The game could have finished with a fitting 17-0 score, if not for a wacky play late in the fourth quarter. Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian had a field goal blocked, and then he picked up the ball and attempted to throw a pass, but instead Yepremian volleyballed the football into the air. Washington's Mike Bass snatched the ball and scored the hapless Redskins' only points. Oh well, undefeated is undefeated.
Gil's take: "The Cowboys lost 16-13 to the Colts on Jim O'Brien's field goal. We were a better football team, talent-wise. We had come so close the previous years, losing back-to-back NFL Championship Games to the Packers in 1966 and '67, then losing back-to-back playoff games to the Browns in '68 and '69. Then we lost on a 32-yard field goal by O'Brien after he had missed an extra point earlier in the same game!
"Duane Thomas fumbled at their 1-yard line. I still remember [game official] Jack Fette's big fat butt running over and giving the ball to the Colts. Our center Dave Manders got up from the pile and handed him the football. He still pointed the other way, and gave them possession! And then there was the tipped pass off their receiver Eddie Hinton's hands. It bounced right to John Mackey and they got a touchdown!"
(At the end of that recollection, Gil made a face that resembled that spot in the universe where disgust and incredulity meet.)
Gil's take: "We lost in the NFL Championship in Green Bay -- The Ice Bowl -- at the end of the game. Their fullback, Chuck Mercein, made a couple of big plays on the game's last drive ... then Bart Starr scored the winning touchdown on the sneak.
Well, earlier that year we had lost a running back to injury, and so had Green Bay, so we both needed someone. I called Chuck, and he told me that the Packers had already called him, and he felt they had a good shot of making the Super Bowl, so he was going to sign with them. He made the plays down the stretch to beat us."
Gil's take: "They were a good football team because of their defense. However, in the Super Bowl we were able to get Nick Buoniconti blocked. Hell, we ran for 250 yards on them. Then, Larry Csonka fumbles the ball away. He hadn't fumbled in 300 some-odd touches that year before the Super Bowl. And then there was the big sack."
"That was our best Cowboy team. We just had a reunion. You look at our running backs in that Super Bowl: Duane Thomas, Calvin Hill, Walt Garrison, Dan Reeves. Who had four running backs like that? Our whole roster was like that. We had Mel Renfro and Herb Adderley at corner [both are in the Hall of Fame]. We also picked up Forrest Gregg and Lance Alworth [two more Hall of Famers] during that season!"
Gil's take: "There's always a few plays that alter the outcome. If you go back and look at games where a team gets a quick touchdown right before halftime, that team usually wins. Joe Theismann threw that little pass out in the flat, and No. 58 [Jack Squirek] intercepted and scored. That was a big factor in the game."
People forget that the 1983 Redskins were considered almost unbeatable. Their turnover differential that season was an absolutely mind-boggling plus-46. I would say 38-9 constitutes a beating ...
While the media circus centered around quarterback Doug Williams being African-American, perhaps some reporter should've noticed his quick release and 80 yards worth of arm strength. A record 35-point second quarter served notice.
Gil's take: "The Vikings might have been the best team that year, but, you know, they missed the field goal. [Gary] Anderson missed it. But it was more than just that kick. Remember, Atlanta's Chuck Smith came around the end and forced the fumble. That led to a touchdown [right before halftime]. Minnesota didn't need to be throwing in that situation."
The Vikings had a 20-7 lead in that game with just over a minute left in the first half, and the ball at their own 18-yard line. Gil has a point.
That would be Darrien Gordon, who had two picks that night, including one that he returned 58 yards.
Raiders linebacker Rod Martin intercepted the ball three times. It's hard to win when an opposing linebacker has three picks.
Leon Lett's non-touchdown fumble return has been a teaching video for millions of junior high football players. Bills wideout Don Beebe sprinted that hard to ... stop a 52-17 game from being 59-17?
Indeed Beebe did.
Gil's take: "The Packer receivers, Boyd Dowler and Max McGee, were in the old locker rooms there at the L.A. Coliseum before the game. McGee said to Dowler, 'Hey, you can't come out of the game. I can't play today. I was out all night and got in a 7 a.m.' Well, of course Dowler gets knocked out and McGee comes in and catches that slant for a big touchdown."
" ... We lost in the NFL Championship to the Packers that year because a linemen we traded for, Jim Boeke, jumped offsides when we had first-and-goal from the 2. Don Meredith ended up having to try to pass to get the touchdown and threw the interception to Tom Brown.
Rich Gannon played poorly, the Tampa 2 did not.
Dallas' second Super Bowl win was an unexciting game, with the Cowboy defense dominating throughout. Brandt recalled safety Randy Hughes' performance, and lamented that a player with such potential had his career ruined by shoulder injuries.
Perhaps my least favorite Super Bowl, made worse by Steven Tyler doing a halftime show with Britney Spears. This game was saved, from an entertainment standpoint, when three touchdowns were scored on three straight plays: Baltimore touchdown, New York's Ron Dixon bringing the ensuing kickoff all the way back, and then Ravens kick returner Jermaine Lewis following suit.
The Steelers' momentous franchise victory -- their first championship in forty years as an organization -- came at the expense of fans. What a snoozer, unless you live for brick-wall defense. Pittsburgh held Minnesota to 119 yards of total offense, including just 17 rushing yards.
The Bottom Five
Gil really didn't like this game, and neither did I. It was the Vikings' last stand, and it was ugly. They were really never in the game.
Gil's take: "That wasn't a very good game. It was played in old Tulane Stadium. It was not an exciting game and the Chiefs killed them. Everyone remembers that Kansas City's head coach, Hank Stram, was mic'd the whole time."
"Keep matriculating the ball down the field, boys," Stram would say for the NFL Films crew. Now that's football talk.