There was a time when Super Bowl dramatics were few and far between. But for most of the past two decades, the game has usually managed to live up to its perpetual hype. With Super Bowl 56 fast approaching, here are my all-time Super Sunday game rankings (cardinal number, season noted in parentheses):
1. LI (51, 2016) New England Patriots 34, Atlanta Falcons 28 (OT): This game lacked nothing. Patriots QB Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick cemented their legacies, each becoming the first at his respective post to earn five Super Bowl titles. But securing immortal greatness required an all-time performance. Brady threw for a then-Super Bowl record 466 yards, leading his team to 31 unanswered points and earning MVP honors a record-breaking fourth time as New England forged the greatest comeback ever on Super Sunday – Atlanta led 28-3 in the third quarter – while taking the game into overtime for the first time. WR Julian Edelman made a miraculous Super Bowl catch that benefited New England for a change. RB James White was the unsung hero, catching a record 14 passes while also scoring the game-tying and game-winning TDs on his way to a Super Bowl record 20 points. Oh, and the Falcons, with league MVP Matt Ryan and Co., sure were impressive on both sides of the ball for nearly three quarters before their epic collapse.
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2. XLII (42, 2007) New York Giants 17, Patriots 14: Arguably the biggest upset in Super Bowl history, the Giants derailed New England’s march to the never-achieved 19-0 campaign with an unrelenting pass rush, WR David Tyree’s miraculous helmet catch and QB Eli Manning’s MVP performance.
3. XLIX (49, 2014) Patriots 28, Seattle Seahawks 24: It will forever be remembered for QB Russell Wilson’s goal-line interception with the game hanging in the balance when the Seahawks could have given the ball to bruising RB Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch, who had 133 total yards. The loss likely denied Seattle’s shot at a dynasty while burnishing the “Patriot Way.” Brady won a record-tying third MVP award as he and Belichick collected their fourth title together after a decade-long dry spell.
4. XXIII (23, 1988) San Francisco 49ers 20, Cincinnati Bengals 16: Probably the first legitimate Super Bowl classic. In what was perhaps QB Joe Montana’s defining performance – ironically the only time he didn’t win game MVP honors – he led an 11-play, 92-yard drive that culminated with a game-winning TD pass to WR John Taylor with 34 seconds to go. WR Jerry Rice’s Super Bowl-record 215 receiving yards earned him the MVP award. It was also Hall of Famer Bill Walsh’s final game as an NFL head coach.
5. XLIII (43, 2008) Pittsburgh Steelers 27, Arizona Cardinals 23: It had a little bit of everything – Pittsburgh LB James Harrison’s 100-yard INT return to end the first half, a furious fourth-quarterback comeback led by WR Larry Fitzgerald and decided underdog Arizona, and QB Ben Roethlisberger‘s laser shot to the back corner of the end zone to toe-tapping MVP Santonio Holmes for the win. The Steelers snagged their sixth Lombardi Trophy, a mark since tied by the Patriots.
6. XXXIV (34, 1999) St. Louis Rams 23, Tennessee Titans 16: The “Greatest Show On Turf” scored its third-fewest points of the season, but MVP Kurt Warner’s then-record 414 passing yards and LB Mike Jones’ tackle of Tennessee WR Kevin Dyson just shy of the goal line on the final play proved sufficient.
7. LII (52, 2017) Philadelphia Eagles 41, Patriots 33: Maybe a nearly six-decade wait between championships and a first Super Bowl crown was almost worth it for The City of Brotherly Love? MVP Nick Foles (373 yards and 3 TDs through the air) led the charge, his 1-yard TD grab before halftime on the now-legendary “Philly Special” serving as the indelible sequence. But Eagles DE Brandon Graham basically assured the result by serving up the game’s lone defensive highlight with a strip sack of Brady with 2:09 to go. TB12 fired off a game record 505 yards through the air before succumbing on a day when the clubs combined for an NFL record 1,151 yards of total offense.
8. XXV (25, 1990) Giants 20, Buffalo Bills 19: New York played keepaway from Buffalo’s explosive K-Gun offense, holding the ball for nearly 41 minutes, and got nice efforts from MVP Ottis Anderson (102 yards, TD) and backup QB Jeff Hostetler. But the Giants only survived thanks to K Scott Norwood’s wayward 47-yard field-goal try in the final seconds.
9. XXXVI (36, 2001) Patriots 20, St. Louis Rams 17: Despite one of Super Sunday’s biggest stunners, few realized this game also represented the beginning of a dynasty, coronation of a genius (Belichick) and birth of an icon as Brady won his first MVP. And there’s no forgetting K Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning, upright-splitting 48-yard FG at the gun.
10. XLVI (46, 2011) Giants 21, Patriots 17: For the second time in five seasons, New York broke New England’s heart as Eli Manning completed another improbable throw – this time to WR Mario Manningham – before the Giants scored a late go-ahead TD and weathered the Patriots’ final drive.
11. XXXII (32, 1997) Denver Broncos 31, Green Bay Packers 24: Denver QB John Elway finally got his first ring (on his fourth attempt), though MVP Terrell Davis was the day’s star (157 rushing yards, 3 TDs). The AFC also ended a 14-year losing streak to the NFC.
12. XLV (45, 2010) Packers 31, Steelers 25: QB Aaron Rodgers completed Green Bay’s four-game run as playoff road warriors with a 304-yard, three-TD effort that earned him the MVP award and a place next to Bart Starr and Brett Favre as a Packers legend while denying Pittsburgh’s “Stairway to Seven.”
13. XIII (13, 1978) Steelers 35, Dallas Cowboys 31: In the original Super Bowl shootout, Pittsburgh became the first team to win the game three times by outlasting a Dallas comeback bid in another memorable matchup full of big plays (mostly the Steelers’) and missed opportunities (TE Jackie Smith’s drop) that would ultimately doom “America’s Team.”
14. XXXVIII (38, 2003) Patriots 32, Carolina Panthers 29: One of the stranger games in Super Bowl history – the teams combined for 61 points despite scoreless first and third quarters – may be better remembered more for Janet Jackson’s infamous halftime show than a pivotal late-game drive led by Brady and capped with more heroics from Vinatieri.
15. X (10, 1975) Steelers 21, Cowboys 17: MVP Lynn Swann only made four catches, but they were laden with drama over the course of 161 yards and a decisive touchdown in a game that would help establish Pittsburgh as the team of the 1970s.
16. XLVII (47, 2012) Baltimore Ravens 34, 49ers 31: A second-half Superdome power outage sparked the Niners, who nearly completed a comeback after finding themselves in a 28-6 hole in the third quarter. MVP Joe Flacco finished one of the best postseason runs by a quarterback, Ravens LB Ray Lewis earned a second ring in his final ride and WR/KR Jacoby Jones compiled a single-game record 290 all-purpose yards … just enough to fend off QB Colin Kaepernick and San Francisco.
17. XLIV (44, 2009) New Orleans Saints 31, Indianapolis Colts 17: The Saints ended decades of futility courtesy of MVP Drew Brees’ pinpoint passing, coach Sean Payton’s surprise onside kick to start the second half and CB Tracy Porter’s game-sealing pick six of Indy QB Peyton Manning.
18. XIV (14, 1979) Steelers 31, Los Angeles Rams 19: Despite winning just nine regular-season games, the Rams gave the Steelers all they could handle before Pittsburgh pulled away in the fourth quarter on its way to becoming the only team to win four Super Bowls in six years. QB Terry Bradshaw was named MVP for the second year in a row.
19. III (3, 1968) New York Jets 16, Baltimore Colts 7: It wasn’t a scintillating game, but it was probably the most important one in NFL history. MVP Joe Namath made good on his pre-game guarantee as New York struck a blow for AFL equality a year before the merger took effect by stunning the NFL’s heavily favored Colts. It remains the Jets’ only title.
20. LIV (54, 2019) Kansas City Chiefs 31, 49ers 20: K.C. ended its 50-year championship drought in style. MVP Patrick Mahomes rescued the Chiefs from their third consecutive double-digit deficit of that postseason, starting the fourth-quarterback comeback with his third-and-15 completion to WR Tyreek Hill on a spectacular throw. RB Damien Williams’ pair of TDs late in the final period provided the coup de grâce.
21. XXXI (31, 1996) Packers 35, Patriots 21: Thirty years after winning the first Super Bowl, the Pack returned to win their third as Gulf Coast native Favre passed for two TDs and rushed for another in front of a New Orleans crowd. However return man Desmond Howard was named MVP.
22. XXXIX (39, 2004) Patriots 24, Eagles 21: New England withstood a late Philly charge – or did the Pats benefit from a lack of conditioning on the part of Eagles QB Donovan McNabb? – to become the second team to win three Super Bowls in four years.
23. XVII (17, 1982) Washington 27, Miami Dolphins 17: MVP John Riggins’ 43-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter gave Washington a 20-17 lead it wouldn’t relinquish and coach Joe Gibbs the first of his three titles. Riggins finished with a then-record 166 yards, giving him 610 in four playoff games during that postseason.
24. XXX (30, 1995) Cowboys 27, Steelers 17: Dallas endured, thanks to some gift interceptions from Pittsburgh QB Neil O’Donnell, and became the first team to win three Super Bowls in a four-year span. The Cowboys also joined the 49ers as five-time Super Sunday winners.
25. XVI (16, 1981) 49ers 26, Bengals 21: San Francisco launched its dynasty and Montana won the first of his three Super Bowl MVP awards. The Niners hung on thanks in part to a key goal-line stand to thwart Cincinnati, which scored three second-half touchdowns after trailing 20-0 at halftime.
26. XLI (41, 2006) Indianapolis Colts 29, Chicago Bears 17: MVP Peyton Manning earned his only ring with Indy, while Tony Dungy became the first Black coach to win on Super Sunday amid a rainy night in South Florida.
27. VII (7, 1972) Dolphins 14, Washington 7: Miami’s “No Name Defense” didn’t allow a point – Washington scored on K Garo Yepremian’s unforgettable special teams blunder – as the Dolphins, deemed underdogs by some, completed the only undefeated season (17-0) of the Super Bowl era.
28. XXII (22, 1987) Washington 42, Broncos 10: Washington QB Doug Williams struck a social blow as the first Black quarterback to win the Super Bowl after orchestrating a breathtaking, 35-point second quarter that saw him throw four TD passes on his way to MVP honors. Timmy Smith rushed for 204 yards, a record that still stands, behind “The Hogs,” Washington’s famed offensive line.
29. XXI (21, 1986) Giants 39, Broncos 20: MVP Phil Simms had one of the greatest Super Sundays, completing 22 of 25 passes for 268 yards and three TDs, as the Giants rode 30 second-half points to their first Super Bowl triumph.
30. I (1, 1966) Packers 35, Chiefs 10: Green Bay, with help from hung-over backup WR Max McGee (138 receiving yards, 2 TDs), did the expected in the first AFL-NFL Championship Game – that’s what the Super Bowl was called at the time – which didn’t even sell out the Los Angeles Coliseum. However not everyone remembers that Vince Lombardi’s troops only led by four points at halftime.
31. V (5, 1970) Baltimore Colts 16, Cowboys 13: It was the first Super Bowl with any sense of drama as rookie K Jim O’Brien, who had an extra point blocked earlier in the game, drilled the decisive 32-yard FG with 5 seconds left. But a sloppy game was marred by 11 turnovers and a rib injury to Colts QB John Unitas.
32. LIII (53, 2018) Patriots 13, Los Angeles Rams 3: This one lacked the offensive fireworks that had been a hallmark of the season. But even if there were nearly as many punts (14) as total points in a game where New England matched Pittsburgh with its sixth Lombardi – while putting a dent in LA coach Sean McVay’s genius label – this matchup wasn’t lacking for drama. It was only the second Super Bowl to enter the fourth quarter with the score tied (3-3) though, ultimately, the Rams would match Miami’s 47-year old mark for fewest points scored on Super Sunday.
33. XXVIII (28, 1993) Cowboys 30, Bills 13: Buffalo gave Dallas a better fight, leading 13-6 at the half, in a rematch but ultimately couldn’t contain league MVP (and Super Bowl MVP) Emmitt Smith (132 rushing yards, 2 TDs). It was the Bills’ fourth consecutive Super Bowl loss, a dual accomplishment and curse.
34. XL (40, 2005) Steelers 21, Seahawks 10: Pittsburgh joined the club of five-time Lombardi Trophy winners as RB Jerome Bettis ended his career in style in Detroit (his hometown) and Roethlisberger, 23, became the youngest quarterback to win the game despite forgettable numbers and amid controversial officiating that hurt Seattle.
35. 50 (2015) Broncos 24, Panthers 10: Super Bowl MVP Von Miller (2½ sacks, 2 forced fumbles) terrorized league MVP Cam Newton from the start, triggering a golden defensive effort on Super Sunday’s golden anniversary and allowing Peyton Manning to shift into game-management mode as he captured his long-awaited second crown in what turned out to be his final NFL appearance.
36. XIX (19, 1984) 49ers 38, Dolphins 16: A highly anticipated matchup between Montana and Dan Marino fizzled after the first quarter. MVP Montana (331 yards, 3 TDs) completely outclassed fellow western Pennsylvania native Marino (in his lone Super Bowl), as the Niners became the first team to win 18 games in a season.
37. XI (11, 1976) Oakland Raiders 32, Minnesota Vikings 14: At the sun-splashed Rose Bowl, the Raiders won their first title – and only one under coach John Madden – by physically dominating the Purple People Eaters. The Vikings failed to win the Super Bowl in their fourth and most recent attempt.
38. IX (9, 1974) Steelers 16, Vikings 6: After 42 barren seasons, a young Steel Curtain gave Pittsburgh its first NFL title thanks to suffocating defense and MVP Franco Harris’ 158 rushing yards, a Super Bowl record at the time.
39. XX (20, 1985) Bears 46, Patriots 10: The upstart Patriots actually led 3-0 before the vaunted ’85 Bears defense shuffled its way to a blowout that did not include the touchdown Hall of Famer Walter Payton had long desired.
40. XXXIII (33, 1998) Broncos 34, Falcons 19: Elway’s final game minted him as an all-time great, Denver repeating thanks to an MVP effort (336 passing yards, TD pass, TD run) from its 38-year-old gunslinger.
41. XXVII (27, 1992) Cowboys 52, Bills 17: Dallas’ Triplets – MVP QB Troy Aikman (4 TD passes), RB Smith (108 rush yards, TD) and WR Michael Irvin (114 receiving yards, 2 TDs) – were too much for the Bills (9 turnovers) in the final Super Bowl played at the iconic Rose Bowl. However Buffalo WR Don Beebe’s goal-line strip of DT Leon Lett, who was returning a recovered fumble, prevented Dallas from setting a new scoring record for the game.
42. XV (15, 1980) Oakland Raiders 27, Eagles 10: With the New Orleans Superdome wrapped in a yellow ribbon welcoming home American hostages from Iran, the Raiders were less than hospitable to Philly as they became the first wild-card team to go all the way.
43. IV (4, 1969) Chiefs 23, Vikings 7: In a dominant performance, the Chiefs ensured the AFL-NFL rivalry would forever be knotted 2-2 just months before the leagues officially merged. QB Len Dawson won MVP honors after being erroneously linked to a gambling scandal before the game.
44. II (2, 1967) Packers 33, Oakland Raiders 14: The aging Pack won their fifth and final championship of the 1960s in Lombardi’s last game coaching the franchise.
45. XVIII (18, 1983) Los Angeles Raiders 38, Washington 9: Washington entered the game viewed as one of the most formidable teams of all time. The Raiders put that notion to rest with MVP Marcus Allen (then-record 191 rushing yards) providing the exclamation point with his epic 74-yard TD run.
46. XXIX (29, 1994) 49ers 49, San Diego Chargers 26: No one gave the Bolts a chance, and the Niners proved that outlook correct. MVP Steve Young emerged from Montana’s shadow to pass for a game-record six TDs as San Francisco became the first team to win five Super Bowls.
47. LV (55, 2020) Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31, Chiefs 9: The ballyhooed battle between Brady and Mahomes – “The GOAT vs. The Kid” – never materialized, the showdown every bit as dissatisfying as Montana vs. Marino years before. TB12 was stellar (3 TD passes) on the way to bolstering his legacy with a seventh ring and fifth Super Bowl MVP trophy. Fleeing on a bad foot behind a tattered O-line, Mahomes had the worst game of his four-year career.
48. XXXVII (37, 2002) Buccaneers 48, Oakland Raiders 21: It’s remembered as the Jon Gruden Bowl after the coach was traded from the Raiders to Tampa Bay before the season. But an elite defense that returned three Rich Gannon INTs for TDs highlighted the first title in Bucs history.
49. XXIV (24, 1989) 49ers 55, Broncos 10: Montana saved his best Super Sunday for last, winning his third MVP with 297 passing yards and five touchdowns as the Niners repeated while setting Super Bowl records for points scored and margin of victory.
50. XXVI (26, 1991) Washington 37, Bills 24: The game wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicates. Washington won its third and final championship under Gibbs, who had a different quarterback each time, including MVP Mark Rypien on this day.
51. XII (12, 1977) Cowboys 27, Broncos 10: In the first Super Bowl staged indoors (the Superdome opened in 1975), Dallas crushed its former quarterback, Craig Morton, and error-prone Denver (eight turnovers). It’s the only Super Bowl with co-MVPs (D-linemen Harvey Martin and Randy White).
52. VIII (8, 1973) Dolphins 24, Vikings 7: MVP Larry Csonka rushed for a then-Super Bowl record 145 yards (QB Bob Griese only threw seven passes) as Miami repeated with a team many considered stronger than the 1972 17-0 group.
53. XXXV (35, 2000) Ravens 34, Giants 7: One of the most dominant defenses in history pitched a shutout (the Giants’ points came via a kickoff return). Controversy swirled around Lewis all week, but he finished it with MVP honors.
54. VI (6, 1971) Cowboys 24, Dolphins 3: Coach Tom Landry’s team finally shed a reputation for choking in big games by holding Miami to a FG (tied for fewest points with the 2018 Rams) on a 39-degree day at New Orleans’ Tulane Stadium.
55. XLVIII (48, 2013) Seahawks 43, Broncos 8: The chasm between pre-game expectations and outcome may have been the widest in the game’s history. Seattle’s Legion of Boom defense stifled a Peyton Manning-led offense that had scored a league-record 606 points.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Super Bowl 2022: Ranking NFL’s Super title games best to worst