The 2020 NFL season involved a few dominant individual performances. Barring a tie for this year’s MVP award, all but one of those will join the league’s collection of near-misses. Here is who this year’s “others receiving votes” contingent will join among the best NFL seasons of the MVP era (1957-present) that did not result in a trophy.

 

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30. Roger Craig, 1985

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Marshall Faulk and Christian McCaffrey have joined Craig in the 1,000-1,000 club, but both did so in increasingly friendlier offensive eras. With Jerry Rice not making an immediate impression as a rookie, the 49ers leaned on their third-year fullback. Bill Walsh made Craig a rarely seen chess piece, and the former Nebraska hurdler delivered. Craig rushed for 1,050 yards but caught an NFL-most 92 passes to gain 1,016 through the air. He added a career-high 15 touchdowns. Marcus Allen earned MVP acclaim in this season, which is better known for the Bears and Ronnie Lott’s pinkie. But Craig’s versatility opus still stands out.

 

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With Peyton Manning throwing him passes, Harrison never had a reasonable MVP path. But his age-30 season came closest. Although Harrison did not receive a vote, he was far and away the NFL’s best wideout that year and moved the position into new statistical terrain. Harrison set the NFL’s single-season receptions record in Week 15, and immediately threw the ball back to officials upon doing so, and shattered Herman Moore’s mark with 143 by year’s end. Hines Ward was a distant second with 112. Harrison’s 1,722 yards led the field by nearly 400 as well. This set the table for Manning’s run of MVPs. 

 

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While a “feat. Randy Moss” credit is necessary, Cunningham proved he could thrive as a pocket passer. The unretired quarterback experienced frequent criticism as a passer in Philadelphia, but at 35, he took advantage of the best weaponry array of his career. Terrell Davis’ 2,000-yard season clinched MVP honors, but Cunningham threw for 3,704 yards in 34 touchdown passes in 14 starts. The Vikings had gone 9-7 in 1997; with Cunningham (and Moss) in ’98: 15-1. Behind Cunningham, Minnesota broke a 15-year-old scoring record with 556 points.

 

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This was not a good year to wage an MVP campaign, with Patrick Mahomes setting the league ablaze. But Donald coasted to Defensive Player of the Year acclaim, soaring to a 20.5-sack season. The Rams defensive tackle flourished under Wade Phillips, helping them to Super Bowl LIII. While their defense was not statistically great, Donald helped compensate — most notably in Los Angeles’ epic Monday-night win over Kansas City, when Donald stripped Mahomes twice. Donald seized the “best defender alive” belt during J.J. Watt’s previous injury hiatus and has not given it back.

 

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From 1990-97, either Smith or Barry Sanders won the rushing title. Behind another dominant offensive line, Smith took his turn in 1995 and led Dallas to its third Super Bowl title in four years. Smith broke John Riggins’ 12-year-old record with 25 rushing touchdowns — 10 more than anyone else in 1995 — and led the league with 1,773 rushing yards. Four of Smith’s five O-linemen made the Pro Bowl, with Hall of Fame guard Larry Allen — not present on the previous two Cowboy Super Bowl teams — debuting as a full-time starter in ’95. Brett Favre’s first MVP season edged out Smith.

 

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25. Rob Gronkowski, 2011

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Gronkowski began his long run as the NFL’s best tight end in his sophomore campaign. Despite being a second-round pick with an injury past, Gronk set the tight end receiving record (1,327 yards). That has been broken, but the ex-Patriot icon’s 17 touchdown catches remain the tight end standard. Gronkowski’s emergence helped the worst of Bill Belichick’s Patriots defenses (31st in yards) to Super Bowl XLVI and opened the door to another set of Tom Brady Super Bowl appearances (four pre-Gronk, six post). Brady finished with a career-high 5,325 yards in 2011. No tight end dominated more than Gronk during his Pats years.

 

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24. Deacon Jones, 1967

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Although sacks were not official until 1982, pass rushers had field days dropping QBs in anonymity. Defenders could mug receivers, and O-linemen were heavily restricted in how they could block until the late 1970s. Jones also had his since-banned head-slap maneuver. That said, Jones was an all-time menace in his heyday. Accounts vary on his masterpiece season, but the Rams defensive end recorded between 21.5 and 26 sacks during a year in which Los Angeles went 11-1-2 to lead the NFL. This was Jones at his peak, at age 29, he teamed with fellow Hall of Famer Merlin Olsen to power a talented Rams team. 

 

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23. Jim Brown, 1959

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This list could devolve into “Best non-MVP Jim Brown seasons.” The Cleveland phenom was in the heart of an unparalleled prime in his third season. The result: a runaway rushing title. Only two running backs eclipsed 900 rushing yards in 1959. Brown came in at 1,329 — 293 ahead of second-place J.D. Smith of the 49ers — in the 12-game season. Cleveland had two Hall of Famers in its backfield that year, in Brown and Bobby Mitchell. They combined for over 2,000 yards. The 1957 and ’58 MVP, Brown scored 14 touchdowns but lost out to Johnny Unitas for the award.

 

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22. Jamal Lewis, 2003

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No. 3 on the all-time single-season rushing list, Lewis lost out on MVP acclaim when Peyton Manning and Steve McNair shared it. Lewis bizarrely ranked fourth, behind Brady as well, after carrying Baltimore’s offense to a 10-6 record and an AFC North title. The Ravens used a first-round pick on Kyle Boller and used him and journeyman Anthony Wright in Lewis’ fourth year. The Ravens ranked 32nd in passing yards but turned to their hardnosed back, who broke the single-game rushing record in Week 2 (295 yards) and finished with 2,066 to go with 14 TDs. This was Lewis’ only Pro Bowl or All-Pro season.

 

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Voyaging to back-to-back Super Bowl routs, the Cowboys were 3-0 against the 49ers from 1992-93. Each win came by double digits. With Sanders as a one-year hired gun, San Francisco beat Dallas twice en route to a Super Bowl blowout. The era’s premier cover man changed the course of modern NFL history, joining Steve Young and Co. in stopping a Cowboys three-peat. Despite signing in September and missing two games, Sanders intercepted six passes and took three back for TDs. The ex-Falcon and future Cowboy totaled 303 return yards and dueled with No. 1 wideouts, helping the 49ers go from 16th to sixth in scoring defense.

 

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20. Ray Lewis, 2000

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Statistically, Lewis’ 2003 Defensive Player of the Year campaign was better. But the Ravens middle linebacker made a defining team defensive season possible. Wearing bigger shoulder pads and sporting a bulkier physique due to the era, Lewis was still a sideline-to-sideline demon who led Baltimore to a 12-4 record. Lewis’ 137 tackles (14 for loss) and two INTs were not career-highs, but the Ravens held the opposition to 10.3 points per game — the lowest in the 16-game era’s 43 years — and won two games in which its offense failed to score a touchdown. The Super Bowl champs do not hit these heights without their 25-year-old leader.

 

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Johnson did not receive an MVP vote, with Adrian Peterson edging Peyton Manning during a season that featured a 4-12 Lions team, but he left no doubt as to the NFL’s wideout of the moment. Megatron broke Jerry Rice’s 17-year-old record with a 1,964-yard season. Only one receiver, Andre Johnson, came within 400 yards of the 6-foot-5 marvel in 2012. While today’s wideouts have easier paths to production, and the Lions phenom only scored five TDs, Megatron dropped both of his 200-yard games on playoff opposition and broke Rice’s record in an 11-catch, 225-yard Week 16 day against a Falcons team on its way to the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

 

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18. Randall Cunningham, 1990

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Cunningham ran into perhaps the toughest MVP luck of anyone, finishing second in the AP balloting four times. Joe Montana won in 1990, but Cunningham received 18 votes (to the 49ers QB’s 26) and had a clear case. The Eagles QB dropped an ahead-of-its-time 3,466-942 passing-rushing double that featured 30 TD passes and five more rushing scores. Cunningham’s 30 touchdown passes —  highlighted by this one — ranked second to Warren Moon, and in a season in which the Eagles defense ranked only 12th, their quarterback powered the team to a 10-6 record and a playoff berth out of an all-time great division. 

 

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Reed’s “best safety ever” claim began in his third season. The Ravens were still trying Kyle Boller at quarterback and ranked 31st in total offense. They still went 9-7, behind the league’s No. 6-ranked defense. Reed was at the epicenter of this effort, intercepting nine passes and returning them for a then-record 358 yards. Reed thwarted a Browns game-tying touchdown attempt with a 106-yard pick-six; he broke this NFL record four years later. Overall in 2004, the ex-Miami Hurricane totaled 12 forced turnovers for 402 yards and two TDs. It is hard for a modern safety to be more productive.

 

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16. Barry Sanders, 1994

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The Lions went from starting three QBs in 1993 to turning to Scott Mitchell and a 36-year-old Dave Krieg in 1994. Fortunately, they had the era’s best running back. Sanders broke through to power the Lions back to the playoffs, rushing for 1,883 yards on 5.7 per carry. Detroit ranked 24th in passing yards in a 28-team league. Sanders’ masterpiece came in Week 3 when the Lions beat the defending champion Cowboys after their running back’s 40-carry, 194-yard night. This was the second of Sanders’ four rushing titles; he led the league by more than 300 yards.

 

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15. J.J. Watt, 2014

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This Watt version became the only defender to receive more than one MVP vote since James Harrison in 2008. Watt garnered 13 — the most any defensive player has since Lawrence Taylor won the award in 1986. Watt recorded 20.5 sacks, a career-high 51 QB hits and 29 tackles for loss (tied, with 2015 Watt, for second in the TFL era). His MVP push centered on touchdowns. The fourth-year Texan scored five — on a pick-six, a fumble-six and, in a one-year-only role, three as a tight end. Illustrating defenders’ MVP futility, this perfect storm could not top Aaron Rodgers’ third-best season. 

 

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14. Jerry Rice, 1995

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In a year that featured passing numbers balloon leaguewide, the 49ers played five games without Steve Young. At 33, Rice confirmed his prime was not finished. In the middle of an unapproached span of 10 first-team All-Pro nods in 11 years, Rice broke the single-season receiving record with 1,848 yards. In the five-game stretch with second-year backup Elvis Grbac, Rice posted four 100-yard games — including a 161-yard performance in a 49ers upset win in Dallas. The all-time receiving kingpin punctuated his season with a 289-yard showing on a December Monday night against the Vikings.

 

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13. Lester Hayes, 1980

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In the third year of the NFL’s shift toward a pass-focused product, Hayes dropped a throwback season that made a major difference in a Super Bowl push. During eight of his 10 seasons, the Raiders cornerback did not surpass four interceptions. “The Judge” snared 13 INTs in his fourth season and posted 273 return yards. Hayes had four more called back due to penalty and later managed five playoff picks. Yes, the since-banned Stickum was heavily involved. But Hayes did not stack these picks against bad QBs; he intercepted a pass in 12 games. In the 40 seasons since, only one player — the Cowboys’ Everson Walls — has even reached 11 INTs.

 

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Venturing into Sanders territory and doing so in a pass-crazed era, Johnson set the NFL record for scrimmage yards with 2,509 in his second season. “CK2K” spawned because of this season, and although the Titans’ 8-8 record (after an 0-6 start) kept Johnson off the MVP radar, it remains an all-time great slate in rushing annals. After being held under 100 yards in four of his first five games, Johnson finished with 11 straight three-digit outings. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry and accomplished all this against teams geared toward stopping him and not Vince Young.

 

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11. Charley Hennigan, 1961

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So obscure that photos have proven elusive, Hennigan was the 1961 AFL champion Oilers’ top yard-gainer. But the wide receiver’s total resided in another stratosphere compared to peers. In a 14-game season, Hennigan posted 1,746 yards. Even in what became a pass-friendly AFL, that total bested all other receivers by nearly 600. The 6-foot-1 ex-high school biology teacher’s 82 catches did not lead the league, and Bill Groman’s 17 TD grabs paced the Oilers. Hennigan, however, averaged 21.3 yards per catch and had three 200-yard games in teaming with George Blanda. Hennigan’s single-season record stood for 34 years.

 

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10. J.J. Watt, 2012

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Watt is far from the best player on this list, but it is impossible to exclude his second season. The Texans defensive end delivered one of modern sports’ signature breakouts, running up a mind-boggling combination of numbers. Watt’s 20.5 sacks led the league, but his peripheral stats are more impressive. The interior pass rusher recorded 39 tackles for loss. For perspective, no one else since TFLs became charted (in 1999) has surpassed 30. No non-Watt season has ever topped 28. The 23-year-old sensation also forced four fumbles and tallied 16 passes defensed — seven more than any other D-lineman that year — in the Texans’ 12-4 season.

 

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9. Earl Campbell, 1980

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Winding down their “Luv Ya Blue” run, the Oilers traded Dan Pastorini for Ken Stabler in 1980. The future Hall of Famer threw 13 TD passes and 28 INTs. The Oilers still went 11-5 and won the AFC Central for the first time. This happened because Campbell was unstoppable in his third season. Browns QB Brian Sipe won MVP honors, but this was Campbell’s defining season. He amassed career highs in rushing yards (1,934) and yards per carry (5.2) and dominated despite presenting nary a receiving threat (47 yards). Campbell’s career steadily declined after this, but his ’80 season is a time-capsule rushing year.

 

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The heart of Brees’ Saints dominance saw Dan Marino’s 27-year-old single-season yardage record fall and the New Orleans QB lead the NFL in touchdown passes (46) and completion percentage (a then-record 71.2 figure). But Aaron Rodgers garnered 48 of the 50 MVP votes while leading a 15-1 Packers team. Helping Jimmy Graham become an all-time fantasy sleeper, Brees threw for 5,476 yards to lead a 13-3 Saints team. The future career pass yardage kingpin threw at least one touchdown pass in every game, on his way to breaking Johnny Unitas’ record for consecutive games with a TD toss in 2012. That currently stands at 54. 

 

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7. Randy Moss, 2007

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The season that lifted Tom Brady onto the elite quarterback tier can be traced to the Patriots swindling the Raiders for Moss . Bill Belichick giving up a fourth-round pick for the 30-year-old superstar transformed the Patriots, and though Brady was the unanimous MVP, Moss kind of deserved co-MVP acclaim. Moss caught 98 passes for 1,493 yards and an NFL-record 23 touchdowns. Just as he catalyzed the 1998 Vikings, Moss lifted the Pats to the NFL’s lone 16-0 season. Brady’s TD number ballooned from 24 in a non-Pro Bowl 2006 season to 50. That record has fallen; no one has approached Moss’ TD standard.

 

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6. Jerry Rice, 1987

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Fantasy players in the discipline’s infancy cleaned up if they drafted Rice in his third season. It is both a dominant display indicative of the wideout deity’s future while simultaneously a tantalizing “what if?” year. Due to a players’ strike, Rice played 12 games. He caught 22 touchdown passes. Only one other player topped eight  that year. Rice also added a rushing score, and his 1,078 yards would have led the league had Cardinals wideout J.T. Smith not crossed the picket line. The 49ers went 13-2, and Rice and Joe Montana split MVP votes in a year when John Elway won. It took Moss all 16 games to break Rice’s record.

 

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5. Marshall Faulk, 1999

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In a three-year stretch when the Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” claimed three MVP awards, Faulk scored 26 touchdowns to win the award in 2000. His Rams debut may have been better. Acquired from the Colts that spring, Faulk became the second player in NFL history to go 1,000-1,000. Kurt Warner won the 1999 MVP, but Faulk was the biggest difference between a bad 1998 Rams team and its Super Bowl champion outfit. The explosive back reached 2,429 scrimmage yards — still second-most all time — and averaged 5.5 per carry in his age-26 season, one that drove St. Louis to a championship. 

 

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4. Reggie White, 1987

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In addition to Rice’s unfathomable TD edge on his peers, 1987 featured a fellow all-time great lap his contemporaries in sacks. Like Rice, White played 12 games because of the strike. He registered a career-high 21 sacks — 8.5 more than anyone else. While the historically gifted power rusher was a star from the jump after two USFL seasons, White’s monster third NFL slate did not come from big games. He notched a sack in 11 games and got to 21 without a four-sack showing. White’s consistency would remain until the late 1990s. The record Michael Strahan owns would be buried had the NFL’s regulars played 16 games in 1987.

 

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3. Eric Dickerson, 1984

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During their lengthy period without a reliable quarterback, the Rams landed an offensive centerpiece in the 1983 first round. A year later, Dickerson set the NFL rushing record. After totaling 390 carries as a rookie, Dickerson logged 379 and turned those into 2,105 yards — a number that has topped info graphics for a generation. He rushed for 14 TDs, averaging 5.6 yards per carry, and was so effective the Rams barely threw to him (139 yards). The Rams made the playoffs with career backup Jeff Kemp as their primary starting quarterback, ranking 27th in passing and winning 10 games. Dan Marino cruised to MVP honors in ’84.

 

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2. O.J. Simpson, 1975

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Simpson’s prime goes understandably overlooked now, but in addition to his 1973 2,000-yard MVP season, the Bills running back was perhaps even better two years later. At 28, Simpson led the NFL in rushing for the third time in four years. He got to 1,817 yards on 5.5 per carry but far exceeded his ’73 work in other areas. After a 12-TD 1973, Simpson scored 23 times in ’75 and eclipsed his scrimmage-yards total as well by reaching 2,243 — easily the best mark in the NFL’s 14-game era. Buffalo went 8-6 and missed the playoffs, further obscuring this transcendent season. 

 

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1. Jim Brown, 1963

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Y.A. Tittle’s 36 touchdown passes earned him MVP honors; the Giants finished 11-3 to the Browns’ 10-4. But there is no satisfactory explanation for the most dominant player in NFL history’s best season receiving seven votes to Tittle’s 33. Brown’s 1,863 rushing yards broke his own NFL record by 336. He averaged 6.4 per carry and a career-best 133 per game and totaled 15 TDs. A better illustration of the gap between Cleveland’s fullback terminator and the other men paid to take handoffs: Jim Taylor — the 1962 MVP — ranked second with 1,018 yards. Respected as he is, Brown is underrated. His three MVPs are not enough.

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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. 

 

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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

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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.

 

Focus on Sport-Getty Images

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.

 

Mike Zarrilli-Getty Images

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?’

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

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

Al Bello-Getty Images

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

Kevin C. Cox-Getty Images

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

Focus on Sport-Getty Images

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

Al Bello-Getty Images

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

The Sporting News-Getty Images

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.

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