Endless Super Bowl hype is part of the fun for football fans. Quarterbacks, naturally, earn more than their fair share of attention in any game. So when two of the game's elite passers meet in the Super Bowl, as they do this year, the hype that already surrounds almost every football game reaches a fever pitch.
Personally, we're hoping to see Peyton Manning cry on Oprah and Drew Brees gossip with the girls on The View in between the crowded press conferences, the various TV interviews and the cultural freak show that is media day. But, hey, that's just us. We apparently don't get enough football in our lives.
In the meantime, here's a look at what we consider to have been the five most eagerly anticipated quarterback showdowns in Super Bowl history. Of course, hype and actual results are not the same thing. So, on page 2, we list the quarterback battles that actually were the greatest shootouts in Super Bowl history. Turns out, they're very different lists.
First, the five most eagerly anticipated QB shootouts:
5. Joe Montana vs. John Elway (Super Bowl XXIV -- January 1990)
If Montana was the Beethoven of NFL quarterbacks, orchestrating some of the great offenses in history, then the 1989 season was his Fifth Symphony: the greatest season by the quarterback many consider the best ever.
Montana completed 70.2 percent of his passes, averaged a gaudy 9.1 yards per attempt and set an NFL record with a 112.4 passer rating (a mark since surpassed only by Steve Young, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning).
Opposite him was the big-armed epitome of a gunslinger in Elway. The Denver Hall of Famer did not put up big numbers that year (Elway rarely did) -- 18 TDs, 18 INTs and a humble 73.7 passer rating. But Elway was fresh off a command performance in the AFC title game. He was absolutely dominant in a 37-21 win over -- you guessed it -- the Browns, with 385 yards and three TDs. Denver, in the process, had established itself as the premier AFC power in an otherwise down decade for the junior circuit, while Elway staked a claim as the best quarterback in the AFC and one of the game's great playoff performers.
Of course, those command performances never quite carried over into the Super Bowl for Elway back in his early years: the 49ers humiliated the Broncos 55-10 in the biggest Super Bowl blowout in history.
Elway produced one of the worst performances in Super Bowl history: 10 of 26 for 108 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INT and a 19.4 passer rating. Montana countered with the last and greatest of his four Super Bowl victories, completing 22 of 29 passes for 297 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INT and a 147.6 passer rating.
It was the greatest statistical mismatch we've ever seen in a Super Bowl. But for two weeks anyway, football fans eagerly anticipated a shootout for the ages.
4. Ken Stabler vs. Fran Tarkenton (Super Bowl XI -- January 1977)
The 1976 season marked the depths of the Dead Ball Era, when defenses held an iron-like grip on the game and touchdowns were harder to find than snowy days in Miami.
But out of the defensive darkness slithered the Snake, Oakland quarterback Stabler, with one of the great passing seasons in NFL history. Stabler led the league with a stunning 9.4 yards per attempt and a 103.4 passer rating while guiding the Raiders to a 13-1 record. His 27 TD tosses were the most by an NFL passer in a decade. They were amazing numbers in a year in which the league passer rating was a meager 67.0 (compared with 83.4 in the 2009 season).
Tarkenton, meanwhile, was nearing the end of a career that would see him retire as the all-time leader in almost everything. His 89.3 passer rating was among the best of his career, far above the average of the era and made him worthy of the ninth and last Pro Bowl bid of his Hall of Fame career.
The game promised to be one of the great shootouts of the decade. But it, too, failed to live up to the hype: the Raiders rolled 32-14 as Stabler completed 12 of 19 passes for 180 yards, highlighted by a 1-yard TD toss to Dave Casper and a 48-yard completion to Fred Biletnikoff.
Tarkenton, in typical Vikings Super Bowl fashion, was a dud: his 35 attempts resulted in 17 completions, 205 yards, one TD and two picks.
Biletnikoff, meanwhile, earned game MVP honors -- with four catches for 79 yards. He never reached the end zone. It's safe to say the game, and our expectations of receivers, have changed a bit in the 33 seasons since 1976.
3. Terry Bradshaw vs. Roger Staubach (Super Bowl XIII -- January 1979)
Offenses were released from their defensive shackles with a slate of rule changes before the start of the 1978 season. Naturally, the two dominant quarterbacks of the decade proved the greatest beneficiaries: Staubach led Dallas to its fifth Super Bowl appearance of the decade, while Bradshaw guided Pittsburgh to its third.
Staubach threw a (then) career-high 25 TDs in 1978, while leading the NFL with an 84.9 passer rating; Bradshaw led the NFL with 28 TD passes, the most of his career.
No less than "team of the decade" honors hung in the balance when the two future Hall of Fame big-game gunslingers stepped into the Orange Bowl that January afternoon. And, in a rare moment, both quarterbacks delivered.
Bradshaw fired a then-Super Bowl record four TD passes, including 28 and 75 yards to John Stallworth; Staubach responded with three TD tosses, including a 39-yarder to Tony Hill and a pair of fourth-quarter TD tosses to Billy Joe DuPree and Butch Johnson as he led a furious comeback effort that fell just short. The Steelers hung on for a 35-31 victory in what remains one of the great QB showdowns and highest-scoring games in Super Bowl history.
2. Drew Brees vs. Peyton Manning (Super Bowl XLIV -- February 2010)
The hype is only beginning to percolate. Brees just guided the Saints to the greatest season in franchise history, with records for wins (13) and points scored (510), thanks largely to his NFL record for accuracy (70.62 percent) and his 109.6 passer rating, a mark exceeded just six times in league history.
Manning won league MVP honors for a record fourth time, passed for 4,500 yards and 33 TDs (each the second most in his first-ballot Hall of Fame career). He also set a personal record by completing 68.8 percent of his passes and led his team to a 14-0 start as he continued what seems like an inevitable march to break every passing record in history.
We obviously don't know what their showdown will actually offer. But if it's only half as thrilling as the impending wave of hype about to wash over the nation, it should be quite a show.
1. Joe Montana vs. Dan Marino (Super Bowl XIX -- January 1985)
Montana-Marino was easily the most highly anticipated quarterback showdown in Super Bowl history. Both were young passers entering the prime of their careers, while heralding a glitzy, new wide-open form of pro football lorded over by its quarterbacks.
Montana was the brainy executor of the new West Coast offense that was revolutionizing the way that teams attacked defenses; he had just led the 49ers to a franchise-record 15-1 mark and 475 points of offense, the most the 49ers had ever scored.
Marino was the quick-triggered second-year phenom fresh off the gaudiest season in the history of the NFL at the time, with Ruthian numbers that dwarfed anything that had come before (and much of what has come since): 48 TD passes and 5,084 passing yards. His 108.9 passer rating, meanwhile, was the second best mark in history at the time. The 513 points scored by the 1984 Dolphins is still the greatest output in franchise history, and by a wide margin (Miami scored 430 points two years later).
No Super Bowl in history held out greater promise of spectacular quarterback-fueled fireworks. Montana was brilliant on Super Bowl Sunday (24 of 35, 331 yards, three TDs, no INTs). But Marino turned up a dud against the superior San Francisco defense (29 of 50, 318 yards, one TD, two INTs).
The 49ers cruised, 38-16.
Montana went on to win two more Super Bowls in spectacular fashion. Marino never got back to the big game. But for one week of hype, fans harbored images of Montana and Marino gunning at each other in one Super Bowl after another for years to come.
And now, the five greatest QB shootouts:
5. Eli Manning vs. Tom Brady (Super Bowl XLII -- February 2008)
Yeah, it's hard to call a 17-14 final a shootout by traditional standards. But in a 43-year history of Super Bowls that's given us surprisingly little drama until recently, and few games in which both quarterbacks cranked out critical scores in big moments, this one makes the cut. That it was also one of the most exciting Super Bowls and one of the greatest upsets elevates this shootout beyond its humble score.
The Patriots entered the fourth quarter with a 7-3 lead, only to watch Manning provide a portent of things to come: a long pass to tight end Kevin Boss quickly moved the Giants from their own 20 to the New England 35 on their first play of the fourth quarter. Five plays later Manning hit David Tyree -- more foreshadowing -- for a 5-yard score and a shocking 10-7 lead over the most dominant team the NFL had produced since World War II.
Brady, no stranger to Super Bowl heroics, engineered an 80-yard drive under constant pressure, culminating in a 6-yard touchdown to Randy Moss with 2:45 to play. It looked like Brady had pulled out his fourth Super Bowl-winning fourth-quarter scoring drive in four opportunities and that he was destined to go down as the architect of the first 19-0 season in history and, perhaps, claim to the title of greatest quarterback ever. But you know how it ended.
Manning drove his Giants 83 yards in just over two and a half minutes, highlighted by arguably the most memorable play in NFL history: Manning somehow escaped what seemed like a certain sack as New England's entire defensive line collapsed around and he heaved up a prayer to Tyree. The little-known receiver caught the ball against his helmet with one hand and somehow managed to hold on as Rodney Harrison tried to rip the ball free. If you listened very carefully, you could hear 10 million New Englanders say "uh-oh!" -- or something a little more colorful -- all at once.
A few plays later Manning hit Plaxico Burress for a 13-yard TD with 35 seconds on the clock. In the space of one dramatic quarter and two long, improbable scoring drives, Manning and the Giants toppled the New England dynasty and gutted Bill Belichick's reputation as a defensive genius.
4. Kurt Warner vs. Steve McNair (Super Bowl XXXIV -- January 2000)
The Rams' 23-16 win over the Titans will always be remembered for the touchdown that wasn't scored: Kevin Dyson's outstretched effort to reach the end zone with the game-tying touchdown at the end of a frantic, last-second drive that fell inches short of the goal line on the final play of the game.
But there were still enough fireworks to put this contest on the all-time shootout list. The Rams raced out to a 16-0 lead, only to let the Titans storm back to tie the game with just over two minutes to play in the fourth quarter. Warner responded with a gorgeous, 73-yard bomb to Isaac Bruce for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.
Warner connected on four passes that day of longer than 30 yards, including a 52-yarder to Marshall Faulk. He ended the day with a Super Bowl-record 414 passing yards. McNair was terrific on the final drive. He responded to the Bruce touchdown by driving the Titans all the way from their own 10 in less than two minutes. He ended the game with 214 passing yards ... on a day when he needed 215.
3. Ben Roethlisberger vs. Kurt Warner (Super Bowl XLIII -- February 2009)
The just-retired Warner's greatest career accomplishment might be the fact that he passed for more yards in Super Bowl play than any other quarterback (1,156) and boasts the three most prolific individual games all by himself. His 377 yards against Pittsburgh's top-rated defense a year ago is second only to his 414 yards nine years earlier in that shootout with McNair.
The Steelers appeared to be on their way to a workmanlike victory when they entered the fourth quarter with a 20-7 lead. It quickly turned into one of the most exciting Super Bowls ever thanks to Warner, who suddenly zipped the Cardinals downfield for an 87-yard touchdown drive on just eight plays, capped by a 1-yard throw to Larry Fitzgerald.
Arizona recorded a safety on Pittsburgh's next drive and then, after receiving the free kick, Warner immediately hit a streaking Fitzgerald for a 64-yard touchdown through the heart of the Pittsburgh defense.
Bing, bang, boom! The Cardinals suddenly held a 23-20 lead and the shootout was on.
Roethlisberger, quiet all day, responded with a legend-making drive. He marched the Steelers 88 yards in eight plays in the final two minutes, completing six of eight attempts -- the final one an absolutely brilliant pass hauled in by Santonio Holmes for the final touchdown with 35 seconds to play.
The game wasn't quite over: Warner moved his team from its own 23 to the Pittsburgh 44 in just 15 seconds, only to fumble after being sacked on his last desperate snap.
Nearly 152 million Americans watched the drama unfold, making last year's Super Bowl the most watched program in the nation's history.
2. Terry Bradshaw vs. Roger Staubach (Super Bowl XIII -- January 1979)
Super Bowl XIII was a rare game indeed: a heavily hyped battle of productive gunslingers that lived up to expectations. It was also a game of grand significance in the history and evolution of football: each team had won two Super Bowls in the 1970s, so this was billed as a battle for team-of-the-decade honors, which it was. Super Bowl XIII also symbolized the new brand of high-scoring football the NFL had hoped for when it instituted widespread rule changes before the 1978 season. The intent was to open up offense in a league that had been dominated by defenses for most of the decade.
Bradshaw (four) and Staubach (three) combined for seven TD passes in Pittsburgh's 35-31 victory. The performances were highlighted by Bradshaw's 75-yard touchdown toss to John Stallworth. Staubach threw a 39-yard scoring strike to Tony Hill and also produced two late touchdowns in a frantic fourth-quarter comeback effort.
The game falls just shy of the No. 1 spot on the list of greatest Super Bowl shootouts because the Steelers held such a commanding fourth-quarter lead (35-17) and because the drama really only flickered for a few brief moments. But the public was certainly gripped by the new form of high-flying football as practiced by two of the game's legendary quarterbacks and marquee franchises: the 74 share it generated remains the highest in Super Bowl history, according to A.C. Nielsen figures.
1. Tom Brady vs. Jake Delhomme (Super Bowl XXXVIII -- February 2004)
As far as Super Bowls go, there was little hype before New England's 32-29 win over Carolina. The Patriots were constantly lamented for their boring style of play, while the Panthers were seen as something of a lucky upstart.
Carl Steward of the Oakland Tribune captured the national sentiment in a famously negative critique of the contest: "We know this stinkbug will be forced down our throats, whether we like it or not. It's just the nature of the Super Bowl hype machine ... Honestly now, how can you have a glitzy, gaudy Super Bowl without any stars, let alone superstars?" (This was before Brady became a prolific passer and magazine cover boy.)
What unfolded was anything but boring. In one of the more curious and entertaining contests in Super Bowl history, the Panthers and Patriots went scoreless for the first 25 minutes of the opening half, ripped off four scores in the final two minutes, went scoreless again in the third quarter, then exploded for 37 points in a breathless fourth quarter.
Among the furious final-frame highlights: DeShaun Foster's 33-yard touchdown run, a soaring 85-yard bomb from Delhomme to Muhsin Muhammad (the longest TD connection in Super Bowl history), a touchdown pass from Brady to linebacker Mike Vrabel and a two-point conversion run by New England's Kevin Faulk.
Oh yeah: the teams not only combined for 37 fourth-quarter points, but also produced 18 of those points points in the final three minutes, capped by Adam Vinatieri's 41-yard field goal with four seconds to play. When all was said and done, Delhomme and Brady had combined for a Super Bowl record 677 passing yards and six touchdown passes.
The pigskin public was gripped by the unexpected drama: with 144 million viewers, Super Bowl XXXVIII was the most watched TV program in American history (since surpassed by the last two thrillers in Super Bowls XLII and XLIII).
Not bad for a stinkbug.