The greatest plays in Super Bowl history

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Jason Ence

January 31st, 2022

As we prepare for Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13, let's look back at the greatest plays over the first 55 years of the NFL's championship game.

5. James Harrison’s 100-yard pick six (Super Bowl XLIII)

As the clock wound down on the first half of Super Bowl XLIII, Kurt Warner and the Arizona Cardinals looked poised to either tie the game at 10-10, or take the lead going into the halftime break, as they lined up at the 2-yard line with 18 seconds left on the clock. Instead, they went into the break down 17-7, because James Harrison intercepted Warner’s pass just across the goal line, and was able to somehow rumble and stumble down the sideline for a Super Bowl record 100-yard interception return for a touchdown (although that record has since been broken).

Harrison began to blitz Warner, but then at the last second dropped into coverage. It put him in perfect position to pick off the slant pass to Anquan Boldin, a throw that would have likely otherwise been caught for a touchdown.

The return, though, is what makes the play special. After he nearly collided with a teammate, Harrison directed his teammates to get out in front of him and bulldoze a path. He was able to avoid multiple tackles, and then had to hurdle a fallen teammate at the Arizona 30 yard line as he cut back inside. Harrison avoided more tackles while staying inbounds, then was hit at the 1-yard line by Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston. Harrison fell forward and barely crossed the goal line for the touchdown, which was reviewed and upheld.

If Harrison had been tackled shy of the end zone, it would simply have gone down as a turnover and the final play of the half. Instead, Harrison swung the game by 14 points, which proved crucial in a game the Steelers won 27-23, thanks to another epic play, which we will discuss later.

4. Mike Jones makes "The Tackle" (Super Bowl XXXIV)

Super Bowl XXXIV saw Warner and Dick Vermeil’s fairy-tale ending come to fruition, but Mike Jones was the hero, as he made one of the most famous tackles in NFL history. With six seconds on the clock, the Tennessee Titans trailed 23-16 and needed 10 yards to tie the score and force overtime. Steve McNair hit Kevin Dyson on a slant route near the 5-yard line, and it looked like he would be able to make it into the end zone.

However, Jones, who stayed at home rather than get baited by tight end Frank Wycheck running a route behind him, was able to wrap his right hand around Dyson’s thigh and his left hand around Dyson’s knee and took the receiver down just shy of the goal line.

3. Big Ben to Santonio Holmes (Super Bowl XLIII)

Let's return to Super Bowl XLIII, where the second half saw an ending even more spectacular than the first. This play was the result of two spectacular parts, each as important as the other. On second down and goal from the Arizona 7-yard line, with less than a minute to go, Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to throw. After checking through his options, he unleashed a perfect throw to the back right corner of the end zone and somehow got it over three Cardinals defensive backs.

That led to one of the greatest catches in NFL history, as Santonio Holmes used every bit of his frame to extend and catch the pass. He was able to get his toes on the ground before he fell out of bounds. The referees called it a touchdown, and replay review upheld the call, which gave Pittsburgh a 27-23 lead with 35 seconds left.

2. Malcolm Butler's interception saves the Patriots (Super Bowl XLIX)

The Seattle Seahawks could win a dozen Super Bowl titles and Pete Carroll would still be asked, “Why didn’t you run the ball in Super Bowl XLIX?” With the most dominant running back in the game on the roster, Seattle called a pass play on second and goal from the 1-yard line, rather than a run play with Marshawn Lynch.

Russell Wilson took the snap in the shotgun and fired to his right, as Ricardo Lockette came off a slant behind a pick. It looked like he was going to make the catch and give the Seahawks the lead with 20 seconds left in the Super Bowl. Instead rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler made one of the greatest defensive plays in NFL history. He read the route and flew in to snatch the ball away at the last second. The Patriots were able to run out the final seconds and claim their fourth Lombardi trophy, as Seahawks fans everywhere asked why "Beast Mode" did not get the ball at crunch time.

1. "The Helmet Catch" (Super Bowl XLII)

The greatest play in Super Bowl history was almost blown dead, and Patriots fans to this day wish it had been.

On third down and five, with only 1:15 left on the clock and needing to go another 57 yards to get to the end zone, Eli Manning dropped back to pass. He was swarmed quickly, and looked like he was going to be sacked by defensive end Jarvis Green. Instead, as the referee ran in to likely blow the play dead because Manning was “in the grasp,” the quarterback somehow spun out of the tackle. He launched a deep pass into the middle of the field, where wide receiver David Tyree was waiting. Tyree had to sky to catch the pass between four defenders, the closest being safety Rodney Harrison.

Harrison did his best to jump with Tyree, and was able to partially knock the ball out of the receiver’s hands. However, Tyree, who had been dropping passes all week in practice leading up to the game, pinned the ball against his helmet with his right hand, and was able to maintain control as he came down.

After replay review the 32-yard completion stood, and Manning found Plaxico Burress for a touchdown pass four plays later to put the Giants ahead 17-14 and complete one of the more stunning upsets in Super Bowl history.