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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The lowest-scoring Super Bowl was short on action but long on history, as Miami recorded the NFL's first perfect season (17-0). The Redskins avoided becoming the first Super Bowl shutout victim by returning a blocked field goal attempt for a TD after kicker Garo Yepremian foolishly tried to throw the ball. Dolphins defensive tackle Manny Fernandez was the best player on the field, with 11 solo tackles and six assists.
Billed as a battle between quarterbacks Dan Marino of the Dolphins and Joe Montana of the 49ers, the game had the makings of a thriller, with three lead changes in the first 20 minutes. But two 49ers TDs late in the second quarter and another at the start of the third put the game away. Game MVP Montana was brilliant, completing 24 of 35 passes for 331 yards and three TDs and rushing for 57 yards and another TD. Marino, who had thrown an NFL-record 48 TD passes in the regular season, was limited to just one.
This was a football game for fans who like defense -- four lost fumbles, three interceptions, a safety and a blocked punt. Pittsburgh's "Steel Curtain" defense dominated play, holding Minnesota to a Super Bowl-record-low 119 yards of total offense. In New Orleans' last outdoor Super Bowl played at Tulane Stadium, and a Super Bowl-low of 39 degrees at kickoff, the Steelers offense featured MVP Franco Harris, who rushed for a record 158 yards and a TD.
This was a close game -- at least for a half when Denver led 10-9, which would have been more if not for two missed field goals and a Giants' goal-line stand. The Giants broke the game open with a 30-point second-half that featured the precision passing of QB Phil Simms. His 22-for-25 (88 percent) performance remains a Super Bowl record for accuracy.
The game wasn't competitive, but there was plenty of action, including more than 800 yards of total offense and a Super Bowl-record 75 points combined. Steve Young's six TD passes set a Super Bowl record, as the 49ers became the first five-time Super Bowl champ.
Most of Dallas' five Super Bowl wins were blowouts, but this game was competitive. Indeed, if not for Steelers QB Neil O'Donnell's three interceptions, the Steelers might have pulled the upset. Pittsburgh outgained Dallas 310-254, but the Cowboys had no turnovers and Emmitt Smith ran for two TDs. It was Dallas' third championship in four years and fifth overall.
In a game best remembered for questionable officiating, Seahawks fans can only wonder what might have been had a few key calls gone their way. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was awful (9-for-21, two interceptions), but Willie Parker's Super Bowl-record 75-yard TD sprint and MVP Hines Ward's five receptions for 123 yards and a TD led the offense.
The Colts rallied from a 14-6 deficit, outscoring the Bears 23-3 the rest of the way. Instead of solely riding the arm of All-Pro quarterback Peyton Manning, the Colts ran right at the Bears, rushing for 191 yards and outgaining Chicago 430-265.
The game wasn't much, and the L.A. Coliseum was only two-thirds filled -- but this was history. After a six-year bidding war for top college players, the NFL and AFL made peace in 1966 and the first AFL-NFL Championship Game was the result. A Bart Starr-to-Max McGee 37-yard pass was the first Super Bowl TD, and the Packers outscored the Chiefs 21-0 in the second half.
John Elway ended his Hall of Fame career in style, throwing for 336 yards and a touchdown as the Broncos overcame an early 3-0 deficit to beat Atlanta in the Falcons' only Super Bowl appearance. The Denver defense forced four Atlanta turnovers.
The Raiders were slightly more competitive than the Chiefs a year earlier, but the Packers dominated, winning an unprecedented third-straight professional football championship of the playoff era (since 1933). It was also the last game for famed coach Vince Lombardi on the Green Bay sideline.
A forgettable game other than the over-the-top observations of Chiefs coach Hank Stram, who wore a mike for NFL Films. "Sixty-five toss power trap," which preceded Mike Garrett's 4-yard TD run, is probably the best-remembered quote from the contest that saw the AFL make it two in a row over the NFL.
The Dolphins powered to a 24-0 lead behind the bull rushes of Larry Csonka, who ran for a Super Bowl-record 145 yards and two TDs. The unbeaten 1972 Miami team won its three playoff games by a total of 17 points. The '73 Dolphins won their three playoff games by an average of 17 points.
A tight Eagles team was no match for the relaxed Raiders, who forced four turnovers, including a Super Bowl-record three interceptions by linebacker Rod Martin. Jim Plunkett, who resurrected his career in 1980, threw for 261 yards and three TDs.
The Raiders' defense short-circuited the high-scoring Redskins, who had scored an NFL-record 541 points during the regular season. Marcus Allen rushed for a Super Bowl record 191 yards, including a brilliant 74-yard TD dash.
The greatest of all Redskins teams sent Buffalo to the second of four straight Super Bowl defeats, forcing five turnovers and outgaining the Bills 417-283.
Dallas actually trailed 13-6 at halftime, but James Washington recovered a Thurman Thomas fumble and returned it 46 yards for the tying TD. Emmitt Smith's two TD runs saddled Buffalo with its fourth straight Super Bowl loss.
Perhaps the most boring Super Bowl. The powerful Cowboys ran the ball at will (252 yards rushing) and the Bob Lilly-led Doomsday Defense held Miami to a Super Bowl-low three points.
Raiders announcer Bill King's calls ("Look at old man Willie") were more fun than the game. Coach John Madden won his only Super Bowl, while the Vikings lost the big game for the fourth time in eight years.
About the only memorable element was that this was the first indoor Super Bowl at New Orleans' Superdome. The Dallas defense hounded Denver QB (and former Cowboy) Craig Morton into a horrid 4-for-15 showing with four interceptions, while forcing eight turnovers overall.
To Bears fans, Jan. 26, 1986, is what St. Crispin's Day was to Shakespeare's England, a day of glory in the battle that the "good man shall teach his son." Super Bowl XX continues to resonate with Bears rooters worldwide, but the game itself was a mismatch. Chicago scored 44 unanswered points and held the Patriots to 123 yards of total offense, second-lowest in Super Bowl history.
The Broncos led 10-0, and then: catastrophe. The Redskins scored a Super Bowl-record 35 points in the second quarter behind four TD passes from Doug Williams and a 58-yard TD dash by Timmy Smith.
Joe Montana threw a Super Bowl-record five TD passes and the Niners scored a Super Bowl-record of 55 points. It was 27-3 at halftime. Anything else?
Ugly. Very ugly. A Super Bowl-record nine Bills turnovers says it all.
The Ravens' defense was awesome. New York was limited to 152 yards, third-lowest in Super Bowl annals. Baltimore scored touchdowns by running, passing, an interception return and a kickoff return.
The Raiders grabbed a 3-0 lead, but a 34-0 Buccaneers burst ended this contest early. The savage Tampa Bay defense forced five turnovers and returned three interceptions for TDs. Bucs coach Jon Gruden, who wore a mike, seemed more manic than Hank Stram.