Grading all 45 Super Bowls
The quality of Super Bowls started low, but has gotten much better over time
The first Giants-Patriots Super Bowl matchup ranked as one of the best ever
Packers-Chiefs in Super Bowl I was historic, but the game itself wasn't very good
Like an underachieving student who needs time to register academic success, the Super Bowl took a few decades before establishing itself as a sporting event that was as much about achievement as it was hype.
Using a grading system of A-plus to F, the bulk of the early Super Bowls landed in Delta House territory: Quite a few Hoover-level 1.6 averages and even some Blutarsky-esque 0.0s. Of the first 30 Super Bowls, only nine are graded at B or better, while 15 failed to reach C status.
But beginning with the Packers-Patriots Super Bowl that culminated the 1996 season, the NFL's championship game has registered 10 grades of B or better and only three below C.
It is safe to call the Super Bowl a late bloomer.
The grading system looks at three categories: 1) how competitive the game was; 2) quality of play; 3) historical significance. (Games listed chronologically within each grading section.)
Super Bowl XXIII (1988 season), San Francisco 20, Cincinnati 16.
The final game of 49ers coach Bill Walsh's NFL career was a beauty. As actor John Candy munched popcorn in the stands, quarterback Joe Montana marched the 49ers 92 yards, culminating with a 10-yard TD pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds left for the win.
Super Bowl XXV (1990), New York Giants 20, Buffalo 19.
A taut game from start to finish. The Giants held the ball (40 minutes of possession) like a walk-it-up basketball team to combat the Bills' fast-paced offense. There were four lead changes, with the Giants going ahead on Matt Bahr's 21-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter. Buffalo drove to the Giants' 30 in the final minutes, but Scott Norwood's 47-yard field goal was wide right. The Giants' defensive coordinator? Bill Belichick. The team's receivers coach? Tom Coughlin.
Super Bowl XXXIV (1999), St. Louis 23, Tennessee 16.
What appeared to be a Rams runaway suddenly turned competitive as 16 unanswered Titans points tied the game. But the Rams needed only one play to regain the lead when QB Kurt Warner hit a streaking Isaac Bruce for a 73-yard TD. QB Steve McNair rallied Tennessee with a series of short passes and spectacular scrambles, ultimately reaching the Rams' 10-yard line with six seconds left. McNair then hit Kevin Dyson on a crossing pattern, but he was tackled one yard short of the end zone by Rams linebacker Mike Jones. Warner, an unknown when the season started, set a Super Bowl record with 414 passing yards.
Super Bowl XXXVI (2001), New England 20, St. Louis 17.
The heavily favored Rams trailed 17-3 entering the fourth quarter, but QB Kurt Warner's 2-yard TD run and 26-yard TD pass to Ricky Prohl tied the game with 1:30 left. With many fans -- including commentator John Madden -- expecting overtime, the legend of Tom Brady was born, as the second-year quarterback drove the Pats 53 yards, setting up Adam Vinatieri's 48-yard game-winning FG at the gun.
Super Bowl XXXVIII (2003), New England 32, Carolina 29.
The most explosive fourth quarter in Super Bowl history featured 37 points as the Patriots and Panthers traded the lead. With the score tied 29-29 and 1:08 to play, Tom Brady guided the Patriots 37 yards to the Carolina 23. Adam Vinatieri's 41-yard FG with four seconds left gave the Pats their second championship. No extra credit for Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at halftime.
Super Bowl XLII (2007), New York Giants 17, New England 14.
The Patriots' hopes for a 19-0 season crashed to earth when Eli Manning tossed a 13-yard TD pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds left. The score was set up by a jaw-dropping 32-yard Manning-to-David Tyree pass. After Manning escaped a fierce rush, Tyree secured the ball by holding it to his helmet with one hand. The Pats had taken a 14-10 lead on Tom Brady's 6-yard TD toss to Randy Moss with 2:42 to play.
Super Bowl XLIII (2008), Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23.
The Cardinals, seeking their first NFL title since they were the Chicago Cardinals in 1947, scored 16 fourth-quarter points, culminating with a dazzling 64-yard Kurt Warner-to-Larry Fitzgerald TD pass to take a 23-20 lead. But QB Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers on a 78-yard drive that ended with Santonio Holmes' spectacular catch of a 6-yard pass in the corner of the end zone with 35 seconds left. It was a record sixth Super Bowl title for Pittsburgh.
Super Bowl XIII (1978), Pittsburgh 35, Dallas 31.
A dynastic clash was on tap, as the Steelers and Cowboys battled to become the first three-time Super Bowl winner and the team of the 1970s. Terry Bradshaw's four TD passes guided Pittsburgh to a 35-17 lead, but the indomitable Roger Staubach threw two TD passes to draw Dallas within four points with 22 seconds left. The Steelers, however, recovered an onside kick attempt to end the game. Dallas fans still mourn Jackie Smith's drop of a Staubach pass that would have tied the game 21-21.
Super Bowl XXXII (1997), Denver 31, Green Bay 24.
Terrell Davis' 157 yards rushing and three touchdowns, including the game-winner with 1:45 left, led the Broncos over the heavily favored Packers. Denver took advantage of a short punt to drive 49 yards for the winning score. QB Brett Favre drove the Packers to the Denver 31 but could get no closer. After a series of colossal Super Bowl failures, Denver and QB John Elway finally had earned their first NFL crown.
Super Bowl X (1975), Pittsburgh 21, Dallas 17.
Yes, there were turnovers and missed field goals -- and a muffed extra point. But this game was a doozy as the Steelers, who trailed 9-7 entering the fourth quarter, rallied behind acrobatic wide receiver Lynn Swann. A 64-yard Bradshaw-to-Swann TD pass with 3:02 left put the Steelers up 21-10. But Dallas fought back behind a 34-yard Roger Staubach-to-Percy Howard TD pass, the only catch of Howard's NFL career. A last-gasp Staubach pass was intercepted by Pittsburgh's Glen Edwards in the Steelers' end zone.
Super Bowl XIV (1979), Pittsburgh 31, L.A. Rams 19.
The final score doesn't indicate what developed into one of the wildest Super Bowls, a game with a record seven lead changes. The underdog Rams led 19-17 entering the fourth quarter, but Terry Bradshaw and WR John Stallworth combined on a 73-yard TD pass to put Pittsburgh up 24-19. Another long Bradshaw-to-Stallworth pass (45 yards) set up Franco Harris' game-clinching 1-yard run, as Pittsburgh became the only team to win four Super Bowls in six seasons.
Super Bowl XLIV (2009), New Orleans 31, Indianapolis 17.
This game was headed toward A-plus status, but Tracy Porter's 74-yard TD interception return off Peyton Manning with 3:24 left turned a potential tie game into a 14-point win for the underdog Saints. Quarterback Drew Brees led New Orleans back from a 10-point deficit, tying a Super Bowl record.
Super Bowl XLV (2010), Green Bay 31, Pittsburgh 25.
The Steelers fell behind 21-3 and spent the rest of the game vainly trying to catch up. Pittsburgh drew within 21-17 and had the ball, but Clay Matthews forced a Rashard Mendenhall fumble and Green Bay stayed in front. Pittsburgh suffered three turnovers while the Packers played a clean game. Aaron Rodgers threw for 304 yards and three TDs as Green Bay secured its 13th NFL championship.
Super Bowl III (1968), New York Jets 16, Baltimore Colts 7.
In one game, the 8-year-old American Football League achieved parity with the venerable National Football League as Joe Namath's arm, Matt Snell's legs and coordinator Buddy Ryan's defense led the Jets to one of the biggest upsets in the history of sports. Namath was efficient (17-of-28 for 206 yards) while Colts starter Earl Morrall was awful, completing only 6 of 17 passes with three interceptions. Not even a relief appearance by NFL legend Johnny Unitas could rescue the Colts. Namath, who had guaranteed victory a few days before the game, became an American folk hero. A good game? Not really. A historic game? You bet.
Super Bowl XVII (1982), Washington 27, Miami 17.
A forgettable strike-torn season finished on a high note, as the Redskins rallied with two fourth-quarter touchdowns for their first NFL title in 40 years. John Riggins' 43-yard TD run on 4th-and-1 put Washington ahead, and Joe Theismann's 6-yard TD toss to Charlie Brown clinched the victory. The Redskins defense held Miami to two first downs and no completions in the second half.
Super Bowl XXXIX (2004), New England 24, Philadelphia 21.
For the first time in Super Bowl history, the game was tied entering the fourth quarter (14-14). Corey Dillon's 2-yard TD run and Adam Vinatieri's 22-yard FG put New England ahead 24-14, enough of a cushion to withstand a 30-yard Donovan McNabb-to-Greg Lewis TD pass with 1:55 to play. It was New England's third Super Bowl title in four years.
Super Bowl V (1970), Baltimore Colts 16, Dallas 13.
An exciting conclusion barely made up for the sloppiest Super Bowl ever: A combined 10 turnovers (including seven by the Colts) and a combined 14 penalties. Mike Curtis' interception of a deflected Craig Morton pass set up Jim O'Brien for the winning 32-yard field goal with five seconds left. Both defenses were far superior to the offenses and the results showed. Only 45 percent of attempted passes were completed.
Super Bowl XVI (1981), San Francisco 26, Cincinnati 21.
For the first time in 13 years the game matched a pair of Super Bowl neophytes, and for the first time the game was played in a Northern location, the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich. The Bengals showed early jitters, suffering three first-half turnovers and trailing 20-0. Cincinnati rallied, cutting the score to 20-7 and then 20-14. The margin could have been closer if not for a 49ers goal-line stand in the third quarter. Two Ray Wersching field goals kept San Francisco safely ahead, and the 49ers dynasty began.
Super Bowl XXXI (1996), Green Bay 35, New England 21.
An entertaining game that featured two plays longer than 80 yards and the Packers' return to NFL supremacy after nearly three decades. New England grabbed a 14-10 lead at the end of the first quarter, but Brett Favre responded by throwing a Super Bowl-record 81-yard TD pass to Antonio Freeman. Green Bay pushed the lead to 27-14 at halftime and, when the Patriots drew within 27-21, game MVP Desmond Howard settled matters with a 99-yard kickoff return.