The Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers have more than just each other to prepare for in Super Bowl XLVII. They must entertain the largest TV audience in history for four quarters, because a new standard has been set for Super Bowl Sunday.
Boring games without fourth-quarter drama are no longer acceptable in this golden era of the Super Bowl. The last nine games have featured a team trailing by one score with possession of the ball in the fourth quarter. That happened just nine times in the first 28 Super Bowls. Four of the last five Super Bowls have seen a team score the game-winning points in the final six minutes (three times in the final 60 seconds).
After just 10 of the first 31 Super Bowls were within one score in the fourth quarter, 12 of the last 15 have been. The last dud was 10 years ago when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Oakland Raiders, 48-21. Oddly enough, that game has received attention this week for all the wrong reasons, with claims of sabotage with a late change of the game plan by Oakland.
But only our viewing interest was sabotaged that evening. Nothing beats ending a season with a classic game for the championship, but it took many years for the Super Bowl to start living up to the ridiculous hype.
So how did we get from routs that were over at halftime to games that could put you in cardiac arrest? You just have to follow the transformation of the NFL from 1966 through today’s ultra-competitive environment.
Humble pre-merger beginnings (1966-1969)
With the rival AFL still operating, the NFL agreed to play a Super Bowl starting in 1966. The first two games were easily won by Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers as part of their three straight championship wins. Bart Starr was MVP of both games, and you can understand why they call it the “Lombardi Trophy.” Neither Kansas City nor Oakland could get any closer than 18 points of the Packers in the fourth quarter.
But a funny thing happened the next two years when the heavily-favored NFL teams, Baltimore (1968) and Minnesota (1969), fell flat on their faces against the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs, respectively.
Everyone knows about Joe Namath’s guarantee to win Super Bowl III, but few note how poorly league MVP Earl Morrall played for the Colts that day. Even Johnny Unitas was unable to spark a comeback off the bench in a stunning 16-7 loss in a game where the Colts were 18-point favorites.
Super Bowl XLVII
Dynasties and repeat winners rule the day (1970-1983)
The AFL merged with the NFL in 1970, creating better league balance. But with no salary cap to worry about, the 1970s were a decade ruled by the likes of Pittsburgh, Dallas, Miami and Oakland. They appeared in many Super Bowls, but rarely did it produce a great game.
Super Bowl V (1970): This was the first to feature a close finish when Baltimore rallied from a 13-6 deficit to a 16-13 win on Jim O’Brien’s 32-yard field goal with five seconds left. However, this was no classic finish. Craig Morton’s interception was returned late, and two plays later O’Brien made his kick. This is arguably the worst Super Bowl ever played with the two teams combining for 11 turnovers and numerous mistakes. It was so bad it is the only Super Bowl where the MVP award was given to a player on the losing team (Dallas’ Chuck Howley).
Super Bowl VII (1972): Miami nearly blew their perfect season when kicker Garo Yepremian had one of the all-time gaffes when he tried to pass his blocked field goal and it was returned for a touchdown to make it 14-7 late in the game. Washington did get the ball back with a chance to tie, but Miami’s defense came through with a fourth-down sack to end the game.
Super Bowl X (1975): This one did produce a memorable finish that is probably less replayed than the classic rematch between Pittsburgh and Dallas three years later. Here the Steelers intercepted Roger Staubach twice in the fourth quarter to preserve the win, including a last-second Hail Mary with Pittsburgh holding onto a 21-17 lead.
Super Bowl XIII (1978): Despite the 35-31 final, Dallas was not as close this time around. Two quick touchdowns gave Pittsburgh a 35-17 lead, and two late touchdown drives led by Staubach were not enough as the Steelers recovered the onside kick.
Super Bowl XIV (1979): It was the fourth Super Bowl win of the decade for Pittsburgh that was tight, as the Steelers did not lead for good until Terry Bradshaw hit John Stallworth with a 73-yard touchdown pass. The final was 31-19 after an insurance score.
Super Bowl XVII (1982): In the early 1980s the Washington Redskins went to back-to-back Super Bowls under Joe Gibbs. The first, against Miami, featured a comeback win after John Riggins converted a 4th-and-1 for a 43-yard touchdown with 10:01 left. A year later a great game was expected against the Raiders, especially after a 37-35 thriller in the regular season between the two. But the big game was a rout, with the Raiders blowing out the record-setting Redskins, 38-9.
More historic blowouts were to come.
The NFC dominates the AFC, but finally two great games (1984-1996)
The win by the Raiders in 1983 would be the last for the AFC until 1997 as the NFC won the next 13 Super Bowls, and often by large margins. This was the pinnacle for the San Francisco 49ers, destroying Denver 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV.
It was also good times for the 1985 Chicago Bears (beat New England 46-10 in Super Bowl XX), Bill Parcells’ Giants, and Gibbs’ Redskins (scored 35 points in the second quarter against Denver in Super Bowl XXII). The early 1990s were dominated by the Dallas Cowboys, 49ers and Green Bay Packers, often eliminating each other from the playoffs and claiming five straight championships (1992-1996).
But this era did produce the first two great Super Bowls, which are still among the best ever played.
Super Bowl XXIII (1988): With offensive fireworks expected between Joe Montana’s 49ers and league MVP Boomer Esiason’s Bengals, the game was surprisingly tight and low scoring for four quarters. For the first time the Super Bowl had its classic finish when Montana took over with 3:20 left at his own 8, trailing 16-13. Montana engineered a 92-yard drive for the ages, throwing the winning touchdown pass to John Taylor with 0:34 left. You still see this replay often, because there are few moments like it in Super Bowl history.
Super Bowl XXV (1990): Two years later it was another dandy between the Giants and Bills. New York’s best defense against Buffalo’s K-gun offense was its own offense, controlling the clock for 40:33. This was the first Super Bowl to have multiple lead changes in the fourth quarter, and with Buffalo trailing 20-19, Jim Kelly had 2:16 left to drive for the winning field goal. Scott Norwood’s 47-yard attempt was wide right, producing the most exciting last-second finish in a Super Bowl.
Buffalo would go on to lose four straight Super Bowls, never getting closer than this first one. In Super Bowl XXVIII (1993) against Dallas, the Bills were down 20-13, but Kelly threw an interception on the first play of the fourth quarter. Dallas added a touchdown and went on to win 30-13.
Dallas was challenged more in its third Super Bowl win of the 90s, when the Pittsburgh Steelers used an onside kick to pull within three points. But when Bill Cowher’s offense got the ball back, Neil O’Donnell threw an interception to an area with only Dallas’ Larry Brown in sight — the fact that he did this twice made him look like a boxer taking a dive — and Dallas used that to take a 27-17 lead.
But soon the tides would turn, and Super Sunday started to live up to its name.
The golden age of the Super Bowl (1997-present)
With the NFL’s salary cap (1994 start date) and free agency beginning to change the shape of the league, it has led to a more unpredictable postseason. Since 1997, only one of the 16 “regular season champions” actually went on to win the Super Bowl (2003 Patriots). Only four No. 1 seeds in either conference have won a Super Bowl since 1997. Meanwhile the Ravens can become the fourth No. 4 seed to win a Super Bowl in that time.
The change in Super Bowls began with a No. 4 seed when the 1997 Denver Broncos ended the reign by the NFC with a 31-24 win over Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXII. John Elway finally won that elusive championship, leading a game-winning drive and watching his defense stop three-time MVP Brett Favre on his comeback attempt.
It was a high-scoring, entertaining game, and ever since then, 12 of the last 15 Super Bowls have been close in the fourth quarter, often swinging on a critical play or two.
Super Bowl XXXIV (1999): After St. Louis’ Isaac Bruce’s 73-yard touchdown, Tennessee’s Steve McNair leads a drive that comes up one yard short on the game’s final play.
Super Bowl XXXVI (2001): Kurt Warner led a 14-point comeback to tie the game, but a young Tom Brady drove the Patriots 53 yards to set up Adam Vinatieri for a 48-yard game-winning field goal with no time left, shocking the Rams.
Super Bowl XXXVIII (2003): New England (18) and Carolina (19) combined for 37 points in the fourth quarter alone. Once again the Patriots had the ball last, and Vinatieri was good on the 41-yard field goal to win this one.
Super Bowl XXXIX (2004): Tied to start the quarter, this one was not decided until Donovan McNabb’s interception with 0:09 left as the Patriots won their third Super Bowl by three points in a four-year span.
Super Bowl XL (2005): Perhaps known more for the officiating, this was a 14-10 game before Matt Hasselbeck threw an interception in Pittsburgh territory. Four plays later Antwaan Randle El put the game away with a 43-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward.
Super Bowl XLI (2006): A sloppy game in rainy conditions, Rex Grossman still had a chance to put the Bears ahead, but the Colts’ Kelvin Hayden returned his interception 56 yards for a touchdown with 11:44 to play.
We can thank the Patriots for playing so many close Super Bowls, but the bar has arguably even been raised in the last five years with so many critical drives taking place in the final minutes.
Super Bowl XLII (2007): In one of the all-time great Super Bowls, the Giants held the record-setting Patriots to just 14 points, and Eli Manning engineered the greatest drive in NFL history, highlighted by David Tyree’s helmet catch and the winning touchdown to Plaxico Burress with 0:35 left.
Super Bowl XLIII (2008): After Warner led the Cardinals back from a 20-7 deficit, Ben Roethlisberger led a 78-yard touchdown drive with a fantastic throw and catch to Santonio Holmes in the back of the end zone with 0:35 left for the Pittsburgh win.
Super Bowl XLIV (2009): Drew Brees put the Saints ahead with a touchdown and two-point conversion pass, and Tracy Porter put the game away with a pick six off Peyton Manning with 3:12 left. Despite the 31-17 final, this was one of the tightest Super Bowls ever played.
Super Bowl XLV (2010): Pittsburgh fell behind 21-3 in the first half, but did quickly mount a comeback. Rashard Mendenhall fumbled on the first play of the fourth quarter, but with one final chance down 31-25, the Steelers were unable to recreate their late-drive magic, stalling at their own 33 this time.
Super Bowl XLVI (2011): Once again the Giants topped the Patriots late with another brilliant throw and catch from Manning to Mario Manningham. Ahmad Bradshaw scored an ugly 6-yard touchdown run, with the Patriots basically giving up the score. It came down to a last-second Hail Mary, but Tom Brady’s pass fell incomplete in the end zone as the Giants celebrated the 21-17 victory.
When Super Bowl runs are more about being a hot team late in the season than being a dominant team, you are less likely to have a blowout. The NFL continues to see the gap between the top and bottom teams in the playoffs shrink.
The competition is closer, and when you have two weeks to prepare for a game in this technological age, there is nothing a team should not be prepared for in the Super Bowl.
A team in 1994 could not quickly collect all of their opponents’ games on DVD and distribute them for instant studying. There is more data collected and analyzed than ever before, and teams in fact seek out such companies for help to prepare for games, including Super Bowls. The 2011 Giants did so with Pro Football Focus.
No longer does anyone expect a blowout in the Super Bowl. Teams put two weeks of unbelievable preparation into this game, and the opponents are often too evenly matched for things to get out of hand. Even if they start to slip away, the other team can come back to make for an exciting finish. San Francisco just completed the biggest road comeback (17 points) in championship game history in Atlanta.
This is the NFL we enjoy today. This is the golden age of the Super Bowl, and expectations are high for the Ravens and 49ers to continue living up to the hype.
Scott Kacsmar (@CaptainComeback) writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, Bleacher Report, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network.
PFT: The Ravens' title after their sloppy finish to the regular season might kill the idea of having to enter the playoffs hot. If anything, the reverse is true.
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