With Super Bowl LV looming, it seems like a good time to see what Chiefs and Buccaneers players must do to make a play that can rank among the best in the game’s history. Here are the top 25 plays from the NFL’s ultimate game.
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25. ‘Ambush’ catalyzes Saints’ comeback
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Sean Payton’s “Ambush” onside kick call to start Super Bowl XLIV’s second half turned the tide in a game in which the Saints trailed at the time. The 2009 season saw Bill Belichick go for a fourth-and-2 on his own 28-yard line rather than punt to MVP Peyton Manning. Payton operated similarly; his gamble worked out better. Colts wideout Hank Baskett could not corral Thomas Morstead’s surprise kick, and Saints defensive back Chris Reis fell on it . The Saints’ stolen possession ended with a Drew Brees-to-Pierre Thomas touchdown connection and, unlike the Steelers’ Super Bowl XXX surprise onside, this kick led to a championship.
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24. The Super Bowl’s immaculate reception
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In a game that featured a whopping 11 turnovers, points proved difficult to come by. So perhaps the weirdest touchdown in Super Bowl history — which went from Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas to Hall of Famer John Mackey — deserves entry, as it played a key role in the Colts exiting this game as victors. Unitas’ pass ricocheted off Colts wideout Eddie Hinton and Cowboys Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Renfro, skipping to Mackey. The longtime Colt tight end galloped 75 yards for a second-quarter touchdown. Baltimore won, 16-13, overcoming seven giveaways.
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Not part of the Giants’ 1986 Super Bowl team, Ingram did not squander his lone Super Bowl opportunity a few years later. The 1987 first-round wide receiver caught a third-and-13 pass from Jeff Hostetler on the Giants’ opening second-half drive of Super Bowl XXV and proceeded to make half the Bills defense miss on a 14-yard gain that featured some of the slickest maneuvering in Super Bowl history. The Giants scored to take a 17-12 lead on a near-nine-minute march, keeping the Bills’ elite offense on the sideline. The father in the Mark Ingram father-son tandem played an essential supporting role in New York’s 20-19 win.
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Jones put an exclamation point on a stunning postseason in 2013’s Harbaugh Bowl. Baltimore’s All-Pro kick returner had already secured Joe Flacco’s Mile High Miracle heave to stun Denver two rounds earlier, and in Super Bowl XLVII’s second quarter, Jones caught a 56-yard TD pass. To start the second half, the backup wideout took a kickoff 108 yards back for a touchdown. This gave the Ravens a 28-6 lead. It is the longest play in Super Bowl annals by 8 yards. Considering how close the 49ers came to completing a comeback, Jones’ dash proved massive in cementing the Ravens’ second championship.
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21. Don Beebe denies Cowboys a record
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By far the least consequential play on this list brought Beebe immense praise. The worst of the Bills’ Super Bowl losses was about to include the Cowboys setting a Super Bowl scoring record after a fumble-return TD, but the veteran wide receiver — who was at least 15 yards behind the play — stripped Cowboys defensive tackle Leon Lett at the goal line for a touchback. The Bills lost, 52-17, in Super Bowl XXVII, but Beebe turning the team’s ninth turnover into a positive epitomized the franchise’s resilience. It also kept the 1989 49ers’ 55-10 romp over the Broncos as the Super Bowl scoring standard.
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20. Max McGee scores first Super Bowl touchdown
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Not expecting to see much action in the first Super Bowl, the backup Packers wide receiver took part in a long night out in Los Angeles on the eve of the first AFL-NFL showdown. But after an early injury to Packers starter Boyd Dowler, the 34-year-old McGee sauntered into action and turned in one of the great clutch performances. The most memorable sequence featured the 13th-year Packer snaring a Bart Starr pass with one hand and coasting in for a 37-yard touchdown — the first in Super Bowl history. McGee scored twice in the Packers’ 34-10 win over the Chiefs.
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After erasing a 16-0 deficit, the Titans allowed the Rams to break a 16-all tie late in the fourth quarter. The Titans facing a third-and-5 at the Rams’ 26-yard line with 22 seconds left, and with Tennessee’s play broken, its quarterback needed to improvise. McNair kept the play alive for several seconds, escaping a certain sack (and near-20-yard loss) from Rams defensive linemen Jay Williams and Kevin Carter — the latter a 1999 All-Pro — and found Kevin Dyson for a 16-yard gain to set up a game-tying touchdown try. The Rams holding off the Titans helped make this one of the NFL’s forgotten great plays.
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18. Circus catch nearly saves Seahawks
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Just prior to Malcolm Butler making Super Bowl XLIX’s signature play, he could not deter Jermaine Kearse from a catch that nearly saved the Seahawks’ bid at a repeat championship. Russell Wilson’s first-down lob to Kearse — a Washington native who caught on with Seattle as an undrafted free agent — preceded two caroms and included the third-year wideout falling down, sitting back up and nearly running in for a go-ahead touchdown. Kearse had a brief window at a go-ahead TD, which would have averted the subsequent Seahawks disaster. But this remains an all-time catch.
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17. Bradshaw finds Stallworth to sink Rams
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Despite going 9-7 in 1979 and using a backup quarterback in Super Bowl XIV, the Rams held a two-point lead going into the fourth quarter. A halfback pass had given Los Angeles the lead over Pittsburgh, a 10.5-point favorite. But on a third-and-8 early in the stanza, Terry Bradshaw hooked up with fellow Hall of Famer John Stallworth on a pinpoint deep strike that soared just past leaping Rams cornerback Rod Perry. An All-Pro in 1979, Stallworth blazed for a go-ahead 73-yard score. The Steelers avoided a major upset, scoring once more to clinch a 31-19 win and their fourth Super Bowl title.
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16. Von Miller begins Bronco defense’s coronation
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In a game predicted to be Cam Newton’s finishing touch on an MVP season, an underdog Broncos team quickly showed how difficult that would be. Miller foiled a third-down Panthers sequence by zooming past Panthers right tackle Mike Remmers and ripping the ball from Newton’s grasp. Newton watched as the ball rolled into the end zone , where Denver D-lineman Malik Jackson covered it to give the Broncos a 10-0 first-quarter lead on a Panthers team that came into Super Bowl 50 at 17-1. The game’s MVP, Miller recorded 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in one of the most important defensive performances in NFL history.
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15. Warner-to-Bruce strike dooms Titans
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Finishing off the first 400-yard passing night in Super Bowl history, Kurt Warner remains the most recent MVP to lift his team to a championship in the same season. The Rams stood tied with the Titans with a little more than two minutes left, but the breakout passer connected with top receiver Isaac Bruce on a deep sideline pass. Bruce not only adjusted for a slight underthrow but outmaneuvered Denard Walker and Anthony Dorsett for a 73-yard touchdown. This completed what turned out to be a one-play game-winning drive that produced the Rams’ only Super Bowl title, after which Warner won Super Bowl MVP honors.
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14. Porter’s pick gives Saints first title
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The Saints endured a brutal stretch of season-ending sequences in the 2010s, but fortunately for the franchise, these came after their 2009 championship. Peyton Manning marched the Colts to the Saints’ 31-yard line on a potential game-tying drive, but cornerback Tracy Porter jumped a Reggie Wayne route and took a third-down pass to paydirt with just over three minutes left. Manning and Porter were later teammates on the 2012 Broncos, and Porter’s pick-six in Manning’s Denver debut sealed that win too. But Porter is most remembered for intercepting Manning and Brett Favre to set up the Saints’ Super Bowl XLIV title.
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13. Throwback Elway scramble ignites Broncos
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Although John Elway was a quarterback prodigy, he was certainly not the same athletically by Super Bowl XXXII. But the 15th-year passer orchestrated a 92-yard drive that ended with a Terrell Davis go-ahead touchdown. The play Elway may be most remembered for extended this march. After realizing Denver’s third-and-6 play call would not work against Green Bay’s coverage, the 37-year-old quarterback took off. The end result: an 8-yard gain that featured Elway helicoptering through LeRoy Butler, Mike Prior and Brian Williams’ tackle attempts. An 11.5-point underdog, Denver prevailed, 31-24, to win its first championship.
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12. Edelman concentration symphony extends Pats drive
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Numerous elements needed to break right for the Patriots to have a chance at their 25-point comeback in Super Bowl LI; one of them was Robert Alford dropping what would have been his second interception that night. Instead of Alford sealing the Falcons’ first title, the cornerback deflected Tom Brady’s first-down pass into the air. Julian Edelman fought off two more Atlanta defensive backs to secure one of the best catches in NFL history. Edelman’s juggling act resulted in a 23-yard gain, moving the Patriots past midfield on their game-tying drive that forced the first Super Bowl overtime period.
Riggins carried the ball a playoff-record 136 times in the 1982 postseason, which was an amended 16-team format because of a lengthy players’ strike. “The Diesel” logged 38 carries in Super Bowl XVII against the Dolphins; his 30th became a career-defining play. Washington’s 70 Chip play came on a fourth-and-1 from the Dolphins’ 43-yard line, with Miami leading 17-13 early in the fourth quarter. The 33-year-old bruiser received space-clearing blocks from tackle Joe Jacoby and tight end Clint Didier and ran through cornerback Don McNeal for a touchdown. Washington won 27-17.
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10. Swann’s catch comes amid iconic performance
Even though Lynn Swann scored a 64-yard touchdown to give the Steelers their second championship, a catch the Hall of Famer made on a drive that did not end with Pittsburgh points is the indelible image from the first Steelers-Cowboys Super Bowl. Terry Bradshaw connected with his top target on a 53-yard bomb, with Swann’s acrobatics overcoming tight coverage from Cowboys cornerback Mark Washington. The second-quarter drive ended with a missed 36-yard field goal, but it highlighted Swann’s four-catch, 161-yard day and is the centerpiece play of his 10-year career.
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9. Taylor game-winner secures 49ers title No. 3
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On his way to MVP honors, Jerry Rice finished Super Bowl XXIII a Super Bowl-record 215 yards on a then-record 11 catches. Longtime sidekick John Taylor ended the game with one reception; it’s one of the most memorable plays in NFL annals. Joe Montana guided a 92-yard drive to erase a three-point Bengals lead, and with the 49ers on the AFC champions’ 10-yard line with 39 seconds left, Taylor was lined up at a tight end position. Montana found the 1986 third-round pick, who was not yet a full-time starting wideout, in stride for a game-winning touchdown to give the 49ers their third title.
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Then the highest-scoring team in NFL history, Washington endured a rough January 1984 night in Miami. Already up 28-9, the Raiders made it worse on one of the NFL’s defining runs. Marcus Allen, a second-year former Heisman winner who immediately became a Raider superstar, took a handoff on the third quarter’s final play. His field-reversing 74-yard sprint made Super Bowl XVIII a full-on blowout and cinched up the Raiders’ third Super Bowl title in eight seasons and only conquest in their Los Angeles years. The game’s MVP, Allen finished with a then-Super Bowl record 191 rushing yards and two TDs.
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Super Bowl XXXIV featured a memorable fourth quarter, but a linebacker doing his job remains the lasting image from that night. A Kansas City, Missouri, native who went undrafted out of Mizzou, Jones gave his home state its first Super Bowl title in 30 years by stopping Tennessee’s Steve McNair-to-Kevin Dyson strike from tying the game. Jones spoiled Dyson’s attempt at a second playoff game-winner, stopping the second-year wideout at the 1-yard line with zeroes on the clock. Jones’ tackle stalled a Titans drive that began at their own 12-yard line and gave the Rams their first championship since 1951.
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6. ‘You want Philly Philly?’
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An Eagles rout of the Vikings in the NFC championship game prevented the first home Super Bowl occurrence. It also allowed Philadelphia to save its long-rehearsed trick play for Minneapolis and Super Bowl LII. Nick Foles’ suggestion to Doug Pederson they fire up the Philly Special reverse pass resulted in the most memorable trick play in Super Bowl history. The Corey Clement-to-Trey Burton-to-Foles sequence bedeviled the favored Patriots and gave the Eagles a 22-12 halftime lead. And a statue. Amazingly, Pederson was fired less than three years after this play led to the Eagles’ first Super Bowl title.
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5. Eli Manning’s defining throw
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The other play Manning is best-known for required more skill on his receiver’s part, but perhaps no throw in the Super Bowl (and few throws ever) topped this one. The first play of a Giants game-winning drive came from their own 12-yard line. Manning threaded a near-impossible needle on a 38-yard toss to Mario Manningham. In his final game as a Giant, the fourth-year wide receiver working the sideline to this degree deserves praise. But Manning’s ball placement into double coverage was otherworldly, and it keyed another Super Bowl upset over the Patriots. If Eli’s Hall of Fame case were to be condensed into one play, this is it.
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4. All-Santonio drive ends with storied grab
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Hines Ward and Antonio Brown are this century’s most memorable Steeler receivers, but the top play from a Pittsburgh wideout belongs to Santonio Holmes. The ex-Ohio State standout played only four Steelers seasons and ended a nine-year career with one 1,000-yard slate. But 73 of the Steelers’ 88 yards on their final Super Bowl XLIII drive came from Holmes, and his 6-yard game-winner gave the franchise its record sixth Super Bowl championship. Ben Roethlisberger somehow guided the pass past three Cardinal DBs to find Holmes, the third Steeler wideout to win Super Bowl MVP honors. Debate endures about the placement of Holmes’ right foot.
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3. Butler’s pick alters NFL timeline
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After Jermaine Kearse’s bizarre catch accelerated the Seahawks’ potential game-winning drive, Dont’a Hightower’s shoestring tackle stopped Marshawn Lynch at the Patriots’ 1-yard line. Using a goal-line set with three cornerbacks, the Pats denied the Seahawks a repeat title when rookie UDFA Malcolm Butler interrupted Ricardo Lockette’s route. Russell Wilson’s INT came on second-and-goal with 23 seconds left, and the Seahawks’ decision not to use Lynch — as they did on a short-yardage TD earlier in Super Bowl XLIX — still brings scrutiny. Butler’s theft reignited New England’s dynasty and ended Seattle’s hopes at starting one.
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2. James Harrison’s all-or-nothing journey
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The Super Bowl’s action-hero scene. Harrison’s 100-yard return required numerous supporting casters and included obstacles throughout. The play began with 18 seconds left and the Cardinals on the cusp of taking a 14-10 lead or tying the game at halftime. Harrison changed his assignment, faking a blitz and intercepting Kurt Warner. The 2008 Defensive Player of the Year sprinted from end zone to end zone on a half-ending play that would have meant nothing had the Cards tackled him. Harrison surviving Larry Fitzgerald’s strip attempt near the goal line finished off Super Bowl XLIII’s game-swinging sequence.
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1. Still the king
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The top play of the NFL’s first 21 seasons of the 21st century, David Tyree’s catch denied the Patriots their slot as the greatest team ever. After catching a fourth-quarter TD pass, the 2007 Giants’ 12th-leading pass catcher tilted this century’s defining game. Eli Manning’s third-and-5 heave to the career special-teamer soared into dangerous territory over the middle. The 32-yard catch required not only Tyree pinning the ball against his helmet but also somehow completing this act while falling to the ground with Rodney Harrison blanketing him. It made Plaxico Burress’ game-winner an impossibly overqualified footnote in the titanic upset.
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.