Some greats built legacies on game's grandest stage

In the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders didn't have a rivalry. They had a feud.

It went beyond ugly at times - that will happen when you meet in the playoffs for five straight years -- and even prompted a lawsuit that left the two teams challenging each other's virtues. But out of this mess came a moment of beauty. Precisely 14 days after Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann was hospitalized with a concussion suffered in the AFC Championship Game against Oakland, he turned in arguably the most clutch performance in Super Bowl history.

On Jan. 18, 1976, in Super Bowl X in South Florida, Swann caught four passes for 161 yards and a touchdown in the Steelers' 21-17 victory over Dallas. On their own, Swann's numbers were spectacular. But what made his performance that much more impressive was the back story.

The Steelers weren't even sure if Swann would be able to play in the Super Bowl. During the team's 16-10 win over the Raiders, the second-year pro was on the receiving end of a rugged hit from Raiders defensive back George Atkinson, was knocked unconscious, and spent two days in the hospital.

"I was certainly grateful that there were two weeks between the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl to give me a chance to recover and heal," Swann told the St. Petersburg Times in a 2009 interview.

"When you get a concussion, there's not a real easy way to find out whether you've recovered from it or not. [And] back then, they didn't have the tests they do today. So I didn't know if I'd have a chance to play or not."

Swann was eventually given clearance to suit up and, spurred on further by a challenge from Cowboys defensive back Cliff Harris, delivered in a big way, making receptions of 64, 53 and 32 yards -- and tossing in a 12-yard catch for good measure.

His tumbling 53-yard grab while locked up with Cowboys defender Mark Washington is among the Super Bowl's vintage moments, while his leaping 64-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter provided insurance the Steelers would later need.

During postgame interviews, he sensed the value of his contributions. "It always makes me feel good when our passing game plays such a big part in a victory," said Swann, who went on to win four Super Bowls with the Steelers. "We're a running team, we're known as a grind-it-out team, and we win with that. But the passing game was really clicking today."

Swann was the guy who made it all work, giving a peak performance that earned him the game's MVP award, the first wide receiver so honored. He's among those revered players who raised their game on the Super Bowl stage, delivering in the clutch and providing the pathway to victory. Here are a few others:

You know John Facenda's voice. Imagine him saying, "Here comes Marcus Allen running with the night."

Those words became a Facenda classic, but mostly because Allen was running everywhere in Tampa that night against the shell-shocked Washington Redskins.

The particular highlight that spawned those words came on a third-quarter play where Raiders QB Jim Plunkett handed off to Allen, who started running left. Seeing nothing but defenders, Allen cut back to the middle. That quick move led to what at the time was a Super Bowl-record 74-yard touchdown run.

"They kind of over-pursued," Allen told Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated. "I kind of cut back, they kind of missed me. It was all reaction. No thinking involved."

But thinking about it, that wasn't all Allen did that night. He carried the ball 20 times for a then-Super Bowl record 191 yards, scored twice, and caught two passes for 18 yards in a game that most experts gave the Raiders little chance to win because the Redskins boasted the league's best run defense.

That was until Allen ran away with the night and his team ran away with a 38-9 romp.

Although famous for his last-second heroics, none of that was necessary for Montana in this game. Instead, this was the San Francisco dynasty at its absolute best.

Bill Walsh had retired as head coach the season before and George Seifert was now at the helm. With Montana and wide receiver Jerry Rice, the transition was seamless. The 49ers went 14-2 in the regular season and cruised through the playoffs. In the Super Bowl, they drew John Elway's Broncos.

In the most lopsided Super Bowl in history -- a 55-10 San Francisco victory -- he earned his third Super Bowl MVP award by throwing for 297 yards and a then-Super Bowl record five touchdowns, allowing the 49ers to become the first team in 10 years to win back-to-back titles. Four of Montana's scoring passes came in the first half when his team built a 27-3 lead. Rice ended up catching three touchdowns.

"If I didn't get so tired, I could have played three games," said Montana of what turned out to be his final Super Bowl appearance. "I only got touched twice -- once when I scrambled out of bounds -- and I didn't get sacked at all."

History tells us the Buccaneers won their first Super Bowl title on Jan. 26, 2003, in San Diego. In truth, that victory began taking shape in the same city some six seasons earlier.

In a hotel room on the outskirts of San Diego, Tampa Bay teammates Brooks and Warren Sapp were watching television before a game against the Chargers.

"When you're playing out West, in the morning there's nothing to do but watch the pregame shows," said Brooks who, like Sapp, was in his second NFL season. "We were flipping through [the stations] and the announcers were calling us the 'Yuccaneers' and the 'Yuks,' and then they started making fun of the whole franchise and about the dismal history and losing attitude of the organization."

At the time, the Buccaneers were 2-8 under first-year coach Tony Dungy and hadn't produced a winning season in more than a decade. Yet what happened next is what anyone associated with the Super Bowl XXXVII team (or even that 1996 team) will tell you was the franchise's turning point.

"Warren and I were just laying on our beds listening to that," Brooks said. "When they finished talking about us, we turned to each other and -- I'm not making this up or exaggerating -- said in unison, 'This has got to stop.'"

That's the message Sapp and Brooks spread through the locker room that day. The Buccaneers promptly fell behind the Chargers, 14-0, but at that moment all the old ways did stop. Tampa Bay rallied for a 25-17 victory and finished the season by winning five of its final seven games. One year later, the Buccaneers reached the playoffs. In 1999, they captured the NFC Central Division and advanced to the conference championship game.

Flash forward to that January night in 2003 when the Buccaneers won it all, 48-21 over the Raiders. Their defense was never better, with coach Jon Gruden tipping off his players to what Oakland was going to run and Sapp, Brooks, and safety John Lynch dominating the league's top-ranked offense.

The signature moment of the game, and for the Tampa Bay franchise, came with 1:18 remaining. With the Buccaneers holding a 13-point lead but with late momentum on the Raiders' side, Brooks stepped in front of a Rich Gannon pass, intercepted it, and raced 44 yards for a TD.

"They came out in a third-and-long formation and I recognized exactly what they were going to do," Brooks says. "I read Rich's eyes, broke on the ball, and he never saw me coming. When I got into the end zone, it really hit me emotionally. I looked up at the scoreboard and realized that touchdown put the nail in the coffin. The thought that ran through my head was, 'We're actually going to win the Super Bowl. Twenty-some years of losing is over.'"

Super Bowl XXXVIII -- Tom Brady, Patriots

You want a tape of the best of Brady? Take the final 6:53 of Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston and you've got it.

Against a Carolina team that wouldn't give in, Brady kept doing whatever it took to put the Patriots back in front. After the Panthers moved ahead, 22-21, and had the world thinking a major upset was in the works, Brady calmly marched his team on a 68-yard drive and retook the lead with a 1-yard TD pass to linebacker-turned-tight-end Mike Vrabel.

The Panthers then knotted things up on a touchdown with 1:08 to play and it appeared the Super Bowl was headed to overtime for the first time in its history. However, the Patriots caught a huge break when John Kasay's kickoff skidded out of bounds and gave them possession at their 40-yard line. Brady immediately took advantage.

He moved the ball across midfield on a 13-yard throw to Troy Brown; three plays later, he completed a crucial 17-yard pass to Deion Branch. Those plays set up Adam Vinatieri's 41-yard field goal with four seconds left that lifted New England to its 32-29 victory.

When it comes to Brady, stats never paint a full picture (on those two drives, he went 10-of-12 for 104 yards). More important is that Brady did what winners always seem to do. He played his best with the pressure at its highest.

Super Bowl XLIV -- Jonathan Vilma, Saints

In the final analysis, last year's Super Bowl might have been the best chess match in history.

Quarterbacks Drew Brees and Peyton Manning were playing the roles of kings while coaches Sean Payton and Jim Caldwell moved pieces all around the board, making surprise use of pawns like Thomas Morstead on a daring onside kick.

But when you really look at the Saints' 31-17 victory over the offensively dynamic Indianapolis Colts and how it transpired, there was only one guy yelling "checkmate."

It was Vilma, New Orleans' middle linebacker. He called out checks all night at Sun Life Stadium while turning in one of the most focused efforts in Super Bowl history.

"It was his ability to out-check the check-master, Peyton Manning," Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said. "What people didn't realize in that ball game, on more than half of our defensive snaps, Vilma checked our defense, and that's special.

"Make no bones about it; he's our Drew Brees. Jon Vilma runs our defense."

Perhaps more than any quarterback in NFL history -- and certainly more than any in the modern era -- Manning enjoys the freedom to make the major offensive decisions at the line of scrimmage. In Indianapolis' offense, he generally looks at the defense and decides what the Colts will do.

In New Orleans' defensive system, Vilma essentially is given the same authority. With Williams' blessing, Vilma has the right to check out of any defensive call that's been made, once he gets a look at how the offense is lining up. In a normal game, Vilma might call checks on about 30 percent of plays. But going against the Colts and Manning in the Super Bowl was anything but normal.

"I probably checked about 60 percent of the time," Vilma says.

How often was he correct? Williams and Vilma don't have an exact number, though they'll confess it wasn't 100 percent.

"Thank God we had two weeks to get ready for them," Vilma said. "That was a lot of hours of film. I wasn't right every time, but fortunately the 10 guys around me played hard and made up for it.

"Once you get a feel for [making checks], you're in the game and you get a rhythm. It's just like a quarterback. Once they get into a rhythm, it's hard to stop them."

Vilma got into his rhythm that night, and because of that, Manning never really did as the Colts were held to seven points over the final three quarters.

And the Saints won. All because Vilma out-checked the check-master.

Pat Yasinskas covers the NFC South for ESPN.com. He previously covered the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the Tampa Tribune* and the Carolina Panthers for the* Charlotte Observer.

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