By Carlos Pena-Lobel
Seattle had 2nd and goal on the one yard line. People all across America were questioning if the Patriots were going to try to stop Marshawn Lynch, or play the matador defense like they did against Ahmad Bradshaw, so they could get the ball back with as much time as possible. And then, in one of the most surprising decisions of all time, Pete Carroll called a pass play. Malcolm Butler, a rookie, intercepted Russell Wilson and the rest is history. But the question is: how historic is it?
Using Pro Football Reference’s model, I measured the change in win probability for all 7,717 plays in super bowl history and have ranked the top 25. While some may argue that this gives unfair weight to plays that happen at the end of games (high-leverage situations), there will be more on this discussion later. First for the fun.
25. Super Bowl XIII – Steelers v Cowboys
On 3rd and 5, Terry Bradshaw fires to John Stallworth who breaks 1 tackle and runs it in an additional 65 yards for the second score of the game. This tied the game at 14-14, a game the Steelers would go onto win 35-31.
24. Super Bowl XLII – Giants v Patriots
Coming 4 plays after the Tyree catch, it is first and 10 from the New England 13, with 39 seconds left in the 4th quarter. The Patriots are winning 14-10, so the Giants need a touchdown. Plaxico Burress shakes Ellis Hobbs and Manning finds him open in the corner for the lead and eventually the 17-14 win and to ruin the Patriots hopes for a perfect season.
23. Super Bowl XLV – Packers v Steelers
The first play of the 4th quarter, with the Steelers down 21-17, Mendenhall takes the handoff from Roethlisberger and is hit in the backfield by Clay Matthews coughing up the ball for Desmond Bishop to recover with great field position. The Packers would go on to score that drive increasing their lead to 28-17. The closest the Steelers would get would be 28-25, with the final score being 31-25.
Rashard Mendenhall up the middle for -5 yards (tackle by Clay Matthews). Rashard Mendenhall fumbles (forced by Clay Matthews), recovered by Desmond Bishop at GNB-38 and returned for 7 yards (tackle by Doug Legursky).
22. Super Bowl XXXVI – Patriots v Rams
Kurt Warner had gotten the ball back with 1:51 to go in the 4th down 17-10. After rattling off 2 straight completions, Warner found a wide open Ricky Proehl (who had made himself a hero after an amazing catch to beat the Bucs in the NFC Championship game 2 years prior), who juked a defender and found the endzone. After the PAT, the game was tied 17-17, setting the stage for Brady to lead his team down the field with no timeouts left, in a game the Patriots would win 20-17 after an Adam Vinatieri kick.
Kurt Warner pass complete to Ricky Proehl for 26 yards, touchdown. (can’t find video except for 2 seconds during this video)
21. Super Bowl XLVI – Giants v Patriots
At their own 12 yard line, with 3:46 to go in the 4th, down 17-15 to the Patriots, Eli Manning throws it deep down field to Mario Manningham who makes an amazing catch before being pushed out of bounds. New England challenged the play but it was upheld. Ahmad Bradshaw would cap off the drive with a 6 yard touchdown (the one linked in the 2nd sentence of this article). The Giants would go on to win 21-17 to win their 2nd Super Bowl in 5 years, both times over the Patriots.
20. Super Bowl XXXVI – Patriots v Rams
Shortly after Warner tied the game at 17 (play 23 above). Brady starts driving with no timeouts. On 2nd and 10 with only 41 seconds left, Brady finds J.R. Redmond for an 11-yard gain and the first down.
Tom Brady pass complete to J.R. Redmond for 11 yards (tackle by Tommy Polley and Kim Herring). (Specific footage unavailable, but it is included in number 22.)
19. Super Bowl XXV – Giants v Bills
Down 20-19, Buffalo faced 3 and 1 with 1:48 left in the 4th. Thurman Thomas rushed for 22 yards taking the Bills to near midfield and giving them a chance at the field goal.
Thurman Thomas for 22 yards. (Footage unavailable)
18. Super Bowl XXVIII – Cowboys v Bills
Poor Buffalo, having lost the 3 consecutive Super Bowls prior. In this game they jumped out to a 13-7 lead at half, and seemed poised to avenge the loss to the Cowboys the year before. Thurman Thomas went up the middle, but lost the ball and the momentum, as the Cowboys recovered and scored, never looking back en route to a 30-13 win.
17. Super Bowl XLVII – Ravens v 49ers
The Harbaugh Bowl or the Blackout Bowl was a tale of two halves, with the second half occuring after the 34 minute power outage. The 49ers were down 28-6 before then, but scored 17 unanswered. Finally down 34-29 with 2:47 left in the 4th, Frank Gore broke off a huge 33 yard run to put the 49ers in great field position. Unfortunately, (or fortunately) they would come up short as they would go 4 and out on the 5 yard line.
16. Super Bowl XXXIV – Rams v Titans
The Greatest Show on Turf found itself tied 16-16 with the Titans with 2:12 left to go. Kurt Warner threw a bomb down the right sideline to Isaac Bruce who not only made a great play adjusting to the ball in air, but avoiding 2 defenders on his way to score. With only 1 timeout left, Steve McNair led the Titans on a furious drive but ended literally just a yard shy.
15. Super Bowl V – Colts v Cowboys
With 8:31 left to go in the game, the Cowboys were leading 13-6. Cowboys QB Craig Morton is picked off by Colts S Rick Volk who returns it to the 3 yard line. 2 plays later the Colts punch it in to tie the game at 13. Later, and number 6 on our list, the Colts tack on a field goal to win 16-13.
Craig Morton pass incomplete intended for Walt Garrison is intercepted by Rick Volk. (Footage unavailable)
14. Super Bowl XXIII – 49ers v Bengals
As the 3rd quarter was dwindling down, San Francisco drove down to the Cincy 15 before having to settle for a field goal that would tie the game at 6. On the ensuing kickoff, Stanford Jennings returned the ball 93 yards for a touchdown and a 13-6 lead. However, two Joe Montana touchdowns later, the Bengals fell 20-16.
13. Super Bowl XLII – Giants v Patriots
As a Giants fan, I have to be honest I am disappointed this isn’t higher. This isn’t even the highest play from this game or even drive. If I could cheat I would make this number 1. Everyone knows what follows, down 14-10 facing 3rd and 5, Manning somehow eludes being sacked heaves the ball up to Tyree who makes the best catch of all-time. As you saw above, Manning later finds Plaxico for the 17-14 win becoming the first and only QB to beat Brady in the Super Bowl (records he still holds today). Also, while we are on the subject of the Big Blue making some big catches, I think there’s an excuse to watch Odell Beckham Jr make that catch again.
12. Super Bowl XIV – Steelers v Rams
I’m running out of the ability to fake that I actually know what is happening in these super old Super Bowls. Down 17-19 to the Rams, and facing 3rd and 8 with ~12 min left, Bradshaw throws a bomb to Stallworth who appears to catch it over the wrong shoulder before running it in for the touchdown. The PAT was good leading to a 24-19 lead that wouldn’t be relinquished, as the Steelers would win 31-19.
11. Super Bowl XLIII – Steelers v Cardinals
First and goal at the 1, 25 seconds left in the first half, it appeared as if the Cardinals were going to go into halftime up 14-10. Instead, the Steelers blitzed and Palmer was picked off by Harrison who had a phenomenal return falling into the endzone for the pick-six. More from this game later.
Kurt Warner pass incomplete short middle intended for Anquan Boldin is intercepted by James Harrison at PIT-0 and returned for 100 yards, touchdown. Penalty on Elton Brown: Face Mask (15 Yards) (Declined). Replay Assistant challenged the runner broke the plane ruling, and the play was upheld.
10. Super Bowl XVII – Redskins v Dolphins
Down 13-17, facing 4th and 1, with 10:28 left in the game, John Riggins went left, broke a tackle, and went the distance giving the a 20-17 lead they wouldn’t look back from. This was at the time the longest run in Super Bowl history.
9. Super Bowl XXXVIII – Patriots v Panthers
Down 21-16, 3 plays after Brady is intercepted in the endzone, Jake Delhomme goes deep to Muhsin Muhammad for an 85 yard touchdown which was at the time the longest offensive play in Super Bowl history. The 2 point conversion was missed, and a miscue on a later kickoff allowed Brady to come back and win 32-29, with another game winner by Vinatieri.
Jake Delhomme pass complete to Muhsin Muhammad for 85 yards, touchdown. (0:35 into the video)
8. Super Bowl XLII – Giants v Patriots
Coming 3 plays after the Tyree catch, the Giants were facing 3rd and 11 from the 25, down by 4 needing a touchdown for the lead. Eli rolls out to the left and finds Smith who aptly gets the first down and gets out of bounds. While largely forgotten, this first down was crucial.
7. Super Bowl XLIX – Patriots v Seahawks
After the Patriots take a 28-24 lead, Wilson is driving the Seahawks downfield. He lobs it up and it appears that it is broken up by Malcolm Butler, but somehow Kearse corrals the ball off a few bounces for a catch rivaling that of Tyree and Manningham, confusing even the announcer.
6. Super Bowl V – Colts v Cowboys
This is the only penalty on the list. Facing 2nd and 11 from midfield with 1:20 left in the game, it appeared that the Cowboys would have a chance to drive down for a game winning field goal. Instead, there was an offensive hold which at the time was a 15 yard penalty from the spot of the foul backing them up to 2nd and 35. The next play Craig Morton was picked, allowing the Colts to run out the clock before kicking a 32 yard field goal for the win.
5. Super Bowl XXIII – 49ers v Bengals
After an illegal man downfield penalty, down 16-13, the 49ers faced 2nd and 20 with 1:17 to go in the 4th quarter at around midfield. Montana hit Rice on a crossing route for a 27 yard gain and the first down. Two plays later, Montana would find John Taylor for a 10 yard score to win the game 20-16.
Joe Montana pass complete to Jerry Rice for 27 yards (58 seconds in)
4. Super Bowl XLIII – Steelers v Cardinals
Down 23-20 facing 2nd and 6 from about midfield, Santonio Holmes and Roethlisberger or on the same level. He hits Holmes for a moderate gain, but his defender slips allowing Holmes to get some major yardage. 2 plays later Roethlisberger finds Santonio Holmes again for the 6 yard score winning the game 27-23 and giving Pittsburgh its 6th Super Bowl.
3. Super Bowl XLIII – Steelers v Cardinals
Another one from Super Bowl 42, First and goal at the 1, 25 seconds left in the first half, it appeared as if the Cardinals were going to go into halftime up 14-10. Instead, the Steelers blitzed and Palmer was picked off by Harrison who had a phenomenal return falling into the endzone for the pick-six. More from this game later.
2. Super Bowl XLIX – Patriots v Seahawks
The infamous play that led to this article. With 26 seconds left in the game, the Seahawks were at the 1 yard line and everyone was expecting Lynch to pound the ball in. However after a curious play call, Russell Wilson threw a slant which was picked off by Malcolm Butler, and tackled at the 1 yard line.
1. Super Bowl XXV – Giants v Bills
And now, the most pivotal play in Super Bowl History, Scott Norwood missed a 47 yard field goal down 20-19 with 6 seconds left. It is fitting that the Bills are on the receiving end of the most pivotal play in Super Bowl history. And for those naysayers who think I fudged the numbers because I’m a Giants fan, I wasn’t even alive, I first saw this on Sportscenter. For the youth who need more game context.
A head on angle. (45 seconds in)
Now, as you can see from the results, using a swing in win probability is heavily biased towards plays that occur later in the game. Of the top 25, 21 happened in the 4th quarter, with two occurring in the 2nd and two in the 3rd. The most pivotal play that occurred in the first quarter was 42nd, when Jim Plunkett pass complete to Kenny King for an 80 yards with 28 seconds left in the quarter in SB 15. If we bin our data by each minute, we see that our standard deviation increases at the end of each half, while really spiking at the end of the game. This is further evidence that these might not be the biggest or most exciting plays, but the most pivotal.