The 2017 NFL Playoffs have been mostly fun and a huge improvement over last year’s dirge. It’s all culminated in an unlikely underdog run with Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles facing the New England Patriots. Given the recent history of classic Super Bowl matchups, they’ll have a high standard to clear.
The Super Bowl is the biggest game in American professional sports, but it hasn’t always lived up to its reputation. A long string of blowouts in the 80s, combined with the NFC’s domination in the 90s, has led to the derisive nickname of “the Super Bore” and casual viewers claiming they only watch for the commercials. Thankfully, the new century has brought with it significantly improved play and more even matchups, leading to some awe-inspiring games and moments that will live on history.
So as everyone gears up for the party in Minneapolis, let’s take a look back at every game played in the 21st century, ranking them from worst to best.
18. 2001, Super Bowl 35 (Baltimore Ravens 34, New York Giants 7)
This Super Bowl will always have the uncomfortable aura of Ray Lewis winning Super Bowl MVP one year after being involved in a murder investigation. He didn’t even get the traditional “I’m going to Disneyland!” spot reserved for the MVP, which went to Trent Dilfer instead. But it doesn’t help that the game itself was a giant pile of nothing.
I like good defenses, and the 2000 Ravens defense is one of the best of all time, but that doesn’t always make for great TV. The Giants’ only score came on a kickoff return, and they were otherwise completely impotent. Kerry Collins threw four interceptions and completed just 15 of 39 passes. Credit to Baltimore’s defense for shutting down the Giants, but this game is not something you should go out of your way to see.
This Super Bowl also gave Dilfer a ring, and thus a platform to keep vomiting words on ESPN until he was mercifully released in 2017. But now Ray Lewis is heading to the Hall of Fame, so he’s not going away any time soon.
17. 2003, Super Bowl 37 (Tampa Bay Buccaneers 48, Oakland Raiders 21)
This entire thing was an absurd spectacle off the field. Let’s just count the ways:
- Jon Gruden got to face the team that traded him to the Bucs in the offseason.
- New Raiders coach Bill Callahan didn’t change the playbook Gruden used, which meant the Bucs’ defense knew exactly what was coming.
- On the day before the game, Raiders starting center Barret Robbins disappeared and missed the game entirely. He ended up hospitalized and was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder, revealing that he partied in Tijuana having thought the Raiders already won the game. Needless to say, the backup center didn’t do so well against a fierce Bucs defensive line.
- Nearly 10 years after the fact, Tim Brown and Jerry Rice accused Callahan of sabotaging the game by changing the game plan on the fly. We don’t know how much truth there is to this — it’s possible Callahan simply panicked after Robbins’ disappearance threw the offensive line into chaos — but it’s a strange story nonetheless.
All of that is way more interesting than the actual game, with the Bucs’ defense having its way and Rich Gannon throwing five picks. Unless you’re a Bucs fan, there’s not much worth revisiting here.
16. 2006, Super Bowl 40 (Pittsburgh Steelers 21, Seattle Seahawks 10)
I should be upfront with you, since the team makes several appearances on this list: I’m a born-and-bred Seahawks fan, and my personal biases may show here, so fair warning. There are many reasons why this game leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but here’s by far the biggest one — Jerramy Stevens was an absolutely horrible football player, and a terrible human being to boot, and he’s my least favorite player who’s ever donned a Seahawks uniform. He helped lose this game by himself. I hate him and will curse his name until my dying days.
Oh, and I guess there was something about the refs. I dunno.
15. 2016, Super Bowl 50 (Denver Broncos 24, Carolina Panthers 10)
I have a feeling history will be kinder to this game, once more people start to truly appreciate how brilliant the Broncos’ defense was that year. And even with Peyton Manning clearly done, he feels underappreciated here — especially with Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch failing to recapture the magic following Manning’s retirement.
All that is well and good, but just two years later, this still feels underwhelming. Cam Newton had no answers for the defensive onslaught, Manning and his dead arm barely did anything, and the whole outcome felt academic from the start. Pretty telling that the most memorable moment of this game happened after the game was over.
14. 2014, Super Bowl 48 (Seattle Seahawks 43, Denver Broncos 8)
For most of the country, it was a standard blowout snoozer, and Broncos fans would prefer to ignore it entirely. But like I said, I’m a Seahawks fan, and seeing your favorite team win the title for the first time is always an incredible memory, especially in such dominant fashion.
The Legion of Boom came into this game with the swagger of pro wrestling heels, and backed up their trash talk in defiant fashion. For three hours, we watched Peyton Manning and the league’s best offense get smashed in the teeth, and it was glorious ... if you’re a Seahawks fan, that is. I can understand why other people don’t dig this game as much.
13. 2007, Super Bowl 41 (Indianapolis Colts 29, Chicago Bears 17)
There are exactly two awesome moments here: Devin Hester’s opening kickoff touchdown, and Prince killing the halftime show in a torrential downpour. Other than that, does anyone actually remember anything about this game? It’s kinda strange that Peyton Manning’s two Super Bowl titles happen to be two of his least-remembered playoff performances.
Also, Rex Grossman started a Super Bowl game. That’s a real thing that happened.
Devin Hester’s opening kickoff touchdown almost didn’t happen
12. 2011, Super Bowl 45 (Green Bay Packers 31, Pittsburgh Steelers 25)
I don’t remember this game being bad, but it’s just — kind of there. The Steelers did make an impressive comeback from a 21-3 deficit, but for the most part Aaron Rodgers had the game well in hand, and the outcome was rarely in doubt. In an alternate timeline this might’ve ranked higher, but we’ve got a long parade of barn burners coming up, so Rodgers’ first (and to date, only) title win gets snubbed from the top 10. Sorry, Aaron.
11. 2005, Super Bowl 39 (New England Patriots 24, Philadelphia Eagles 21)
Yeah, you’re going to see a lot of Patriots games coming up on this list, and we start off with the Super Bowl that’s getting a rematch 13 years later. The big story going into this one was the health of Terrell Owens, who broke his leg in the regular season on a horse-collar tackle that ultimately led to the NFL banning the move.
TO miraculously came back for this game and had a performance for the ages, racking up nine catches for 122 yards. Unfortunately, that mostly got overshadowed in the loss. This featured the typical hallmarks of an Andy Reid game, with questionable clock management, abandoning the run too early, and Reid generally looking confused on the sidelines. There was also some weird drama about whether Donovan McNabb really puked in the huddle on the Eagles’ final drive (which ended in an interception, because the Eagles can’t have nice things).
Good game, but probably the least memorable of the Pats’ Super Bowl wins.
10. 2012, Super Bowl 46 (New York Giants 21, New England Patriots 17)
Playoff Eli Manning makes his first appearance on this list, in his second time slaying the Patriots. The 2011 Giants are one of the weirdest Super Bowl champions ever — they won a bad NFC East division at 9-7, before going on to beat the 15-1 Packers and 13-3 49ers to get to the Super Bowl. Tom Coughlin made the playoffs five times in his 12-year Giants career. Three of those appearances were one-and-done, while the other two ended with Super Bowl parades. I don’t get it.
Anyway, the Giants and Patriots go back and forth here in a game that’s tense and exciting, if lacking the historical value of the Giants’ last Super Bowl victory (more on that later). Mario Manningham was the unlikely hero this time, making an incredible toe-tapping catch that kept the Giants’ final drive alive down two points. Ahmad Bradshaw eventually finished the job, and for once, Brady couldn’t engineer a game-winning score. The sequel didn’t quite live up to the original Pats/Giants game, but this is still really good.
9. 2010, Super Bowl 44 (New Orleans Saints 31, Indianapolis Colts 17)
The final score doesn’t really reflect it, but this was a tensely fought battle for most of the day. The Saints’ offense sputtered in the first half and needed a spark down 10-6 at halftime, so Sean Payton made one of the great cojones decisions by starting the second half with an onside kick. New Orleans recovered and Drew Brees led a touchdown drive, turning the game around. Tracy Porter sealed the deal with a 74-yard pick-six that became a perfectly iconic moment in Saints history.
Well-played football, an outcome that was regularly in doubt, memorable images, and a downtrodden franchise finally climbing the mountain. It was also a therapeutic moment for the city of New Orleans, which just four years prior was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Seeing the citizens rally around their team as they rebuilt the city was truly something to behold.
In other words, 2010 was the best Mardi Gras party of all time.
8. 2004, Super Bowl 38 (New England Patriots 32, Carolina Panthers 29)
Teams making their first Super Bowl appearance can go one of several ways. They could shrivel and die under the spotlight (like the Falcons did in their first trip in 1999). They could straight-up whoop an overmatched team (Ravens in 2001, Bucs in 2003). Or they could do what the Panthers did, which is go toe-to-toe with a better opponent, nearly pull off the win, but ultimately come up just short.
The Panthers entered the fourth quarter down, 21-10, but made a spirited comeback down the stretch. Muhsin Muhammad delivered one of the best moments in franchise history with an 85-yard touchdown pass, giving Carolina a one-point lead. They tied the game at 29-29 later on, but suffered a fatally unlucky bounce when John Kasay shanked the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, setting up Tom Brady at his 40-yard line. Brady had little trouble setting up Adam Vinatieri for the game-winning field goal, but the Panthers had a performance to be proud of.
This is also the Super Bowl where Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake did a thing at the halftime show. You might have heard about that. Funny how Timberlake’s coming back to the halftime show in 2018, while Jackson was basically never heard from again.
7. 2000, Super Bowl 34 (St. Louis Rams 23, Tennessee Titans 16)
“One Yard Short” is one of the most famous plays in football history, so of course this was always going to rank high. It actually had a legitimate claim to being the best Super Bowl ever, until teams decided to have instant classics year after year as the 2000s went on. Still, it’s a great game that deserves to be remembered as such, cementing the Greatest Show on Turf as a staple in NFL lore.
Who would’ve guessed that this would be the peak of both the Rams franchise and Jeff Fisher’s career?
6. 2013, Super Bowl 47 (Baltimore Ravens 34, San Francisco 49ers 31)
For two quarters, this game was a laugher. The Ravens raced out to a 21-6 halftime lead, and when Jacoby Jones took the opening second-half kickoff to the house everybody and their mother was ready to write this off as another Super Bore. Then the Superdome lost power, and all hell broke loose.
After more than 30 minutes of the CBS broadcast running around with its hair on fire, the game finally resumed and the 49ers remembered they had a Super Bowl to play. San Francisco ripped off 17 unanswered points to make this game interesting again. Colin Kaepernick brought his team to within two points with a rushing touchdown, but that’s the closest the 49ers got, as the Ravens made a game-clinching goal-line stand in the final minutes.
Between the power outage, the unexpected comeback, and Beyonce doing Beyonce things at halftime, this was a wildly entertaining spectacle that won’t soon be forgotten. I wonder whatever happened to that Kaepernick kid ...
5. 2002, Super Bowl 36 (New England Patriots 20, St. Louis Rams 17)
The game that launched a dynasty. With the Kurt Warner-led Rams offense still in top form, the Patriots were massive 14-point underdogs. This is the first time, but far from the last, that people counted out Touchdown Tom and ate their words. Bill Belichick dialed up a perfect game plan, playing to his team’s strengths while exploiting his opponent’s weaknesses.
The Pats’ defense bottled up the Rams for most of the game, but Warner wouldn’t be denied for long. He hit Ricky Proehl in the end zone to tie the game up with 1:30 to go, and the excitement reached a fevered pitch. Would this be the first Super Bowl ever to go into overtime? Of course, this is the moment that Brady became a made man in the NFL. He drove the Pats down the field with ease, eventually settling on the Rams’ 30-yard line and setting up Vinatieri for the game-winning field goal. The Pats finished off a huge upset, and the NFL would never be the same again.
4. 2009, Super Bowl 43 (Pittsburgh Steelers 27, Arizona Cardinals 23)
Kurt Warner’s late-career revival with the Cardinals is one of the better feel-good stories of this century, and it all culminated with the franchise’s first-ever trip to a Super Bowl. They came up short in a heartbreaking loss, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
This game has some truly incredible moments that quickly became mainstays in Super Bowl highlight reels. There’s the ageless James Harrison making a 100-yard pick-six. There is Warner rallying the Cardinals from a 20-7 fourth-quarter deficit. There is Larry Fitzgerald giving his team the lead with just 2:37 left, on a 64-yard touchdown. And, of course, there is Ben Roethlisberger driving his team down the field on a perfect two-minute drill, ending with a spectacular touchdown catch by Santonio Holmes where he barely dragged his toes in-bounds.
This had pretty much everything you could want out of a Super Bowl — competitive throughout, constant swing of emotions, and star players making star plays. Even the halftime show was decent — the NFL was still in the post-Nipplegate era of trotting out inoffensive dad bands, but Bruce Springsteen is always a good time. The only reason I can’t rank this higher is because it spawned the awful “SIXBURGH” catchphrase.
3. 2008, Super Bowl 42 (New York Giants 17, New England Patriots 14)
And here’s the game that gave birth to 18-1. With Tom Brady gladly feeding Randy Moss, the Patriots’ offense was an unstoppable juggernaut, the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time. How could the Giants possibly hope to keep up with them?
Well, we got our answer pretty quickly — New York’s defensive line wasn’t going to give Brady any room to breathe. Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, and Justin Tuck joined forces to rain down hellfire upon Brady. The Giants sacked him five times and pressured him countless others, never allowing the Pats’ offense to find its groove. The defense did all it could, but it finally cracked near the end — Brady hit Moss for a touchdown to give the Patriots a 14-10 lead with 2:42 left. The Giants would need a lucky break or two if they wanted to pull the upset.
Oh, what a lucky break they got.
You already know the play. You can picture it in your head even without seeing a GIF — Eli Manning taking the snap, getting wrapped up by Richard Seymour, and somehow not going down. He slips the easy sack and unleashes a prayer of a deep ball. That prayer got answered in the form of David Tyree and his helmet. First down at the Patriots’ 24-yard line.
A few plays later, Manning found Plaxico Burress in the end zone, giving the Giants the lead back with 29 seconds left. Did they leave too much time for Brady? It didn’t matter — a sack and three incomplete passes later, the Giants denied the Pats history.
And that’s how Eli Manning has more Super Bowl MVPs than his older brother.
3. 2018, Super Bowl 52 (Philadelphia Eagles 41, New England Patriots 33)
Only two quarterbacks in NFL history have been able to get the best of Tom Brady in a Super Bowl. Those quarterbacks are Eli Manning, and Carson Wentz’s backup.
The Eagles jumped out to a comfortable first-half lead — except that no lead is ever safe with the Patriots. Tom Brady led them back in the second half, taking the Patriots’ first lead of the game with over nine minutes left in the fourth quarter. But the Eagles wouldn’t give up. Nick Foles hit Zach Ertz for a score with 2:22 left to play to snatch back a 38-33 lead. Then the Eagles forced a Tom Brady fumble, which they were able to turn into three more points with a Jake Elliott kick.
It was the first win in franchise history for the Eagles. And it was the third Super Bowl loss for the Patriots dynasty.
2. 2015, Super Bowl 49 (New England Patriots 28, Seattle Seahawks 24)
It hurts putting this so high on the list. Most Seahawks fans are loath to ever mention it. But after looking over the list and doing some soul-searching, I don’t think there’s much of a contest.
Let’s go over the teams first. The Pats are once again in the Super Bowl, but the rumors that eventually became known as DeflateGate were already swirling. The Seahawks, fresh off smacking down the Broncos a year ago, were looking to win their second straight Super Bowl and establish themselves as the team of the 2010s. Vegas could barely decide on the winner, with this game being a pick’em. Both teams had big talent and even bigger personalities, leading to a heated atmosphere on the field. The stage was set for a classic long before the opening kickoff.
The game itself was tightly contested throughout. Brady and the Pats would pull away, only for Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch to bring the Seahawks back. New England seemingly had the halftime lead secure when Rob Gronkowski scored with 31 seconds left in the second quarter, but Wilson quickly marched down the field and hit Chris Matthews (CHRIS MATTHEWS!) in the final seconds. The teams went into the locker room tied at 14-14, and you could already tell this had the makings of something special.
Katy Perry did the halftime show. She rode a giant mechanized dinosaur to the stage, and Left Shark became a cultural icon. That alone could’ve put this at No. 1, but the fireworks were just getting started.
A field goal and Doug Baldwin touchdown gave Seattle a 10-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, but deep down, we all knew that Brady could not be counted out. Sure enough, he hit Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman for touchdowns on consecutive drives to give the Pats the lead again.
With just two minutes left, the Seahawks had to pull something out of the hat once again. They seemingly had that thrilling, franchise-defining moment when Jermaine Kearse made a ridiculous juggling catch down near the end zone. One play later, the Seahawks were just two yards away from repeating as champions and reaching NFL immortality.
Then the play happened. That play. The play that made Malcolm Butler a household name, that made both fans and pundits curse Seattle for not running the ball, that made Richard Sherman really sad. When the dust settled, Brady got his fourth ring and third Super Bowl MVP, while the Seahawks never quite seemed to recover from that heartbreak.
Everything that perfectly encapsulates the Super Bowl can be found in this one game. Brilliant football from both teams, unexpected players stepping up in huge moments, elation and anguish in equal measure, a halftime show that was both absurd and entertaining. It’s the platonic ideal of America’s biggest game, even if I never want to watch it again.
1. 2017, Super Bowl 51 (New England Patriots 34, Atlanta Falcons 28)
When I first wrote this article last year, I said that Super Bowl 49 was the best game I never want to watch again, and “we probably won’t see another like it for a long time.”
Cue up the Ron Howard narration: We did see another like it.
What else can we even say about the game at this point? 28-3 got burned into the national consciousness so thoroughly that it’s easy to forget just how improbable everything about it was. The biggest comeback in Super Bowl history. The first-ever Super Bowl game to go to overtime. Tom Brady cementing his GOAT status. Julio Jones making the catch of his life, only to be immediately upstaged by Julian Edelman making the catch of his life. The Falcons’ baffling playcalls in the fourth quarter that gave New England chance after chance. Lady Gaga doing her thing at the halftime show.
The Falcons, led by MVP Matt Ryan, were well on their way to a decisive victory and a cathartic moment for a snakebitten franchise. Instead, they’re stuck with one of the most devastating choke jobs in all of professional sports. Meanwhile, the Patriots’ comeback once again established the inevitability of Brady and Bill Belichick — they never go away, they’re always smarter than you, and they always win because the other team can’t get out of its own way.
It seems like Doug Pederson and the Eagles learned something from the Falcons’ loss. Never count out Touchdown Tom. Down that road lies madness.