10 greatest plays in Super Bowl history: From David Tyree to ‘Philly Special’

To become a Super Bowl champion, teams must battle their way through a long season, run a gauntlet through the playoffs, and survive 60 minutes against one of the two best teams in the NFL. It’s a long journey and a grueling one.

And sometimes, it can all come down to just one play.

Sometimes it happens at the end of the game. Sometimes it happens in the middle. And sometimes it doesn’t even lead to a win. But almost every Super Bowl has a memorable play, sometimes made by an unexpected player.

Here’s a look at 10 of the greatest Super Bowl plays ever made:

Related: Eli Manning to Bradshaw to Brady: Ranking 10 best Super Bowls ever

1. David Tyree’s Helmet catch

The best play in Super Bowl history was actually two plays in one. It was The Great Escape, where Giants quarterback Eli Manning was caught in traffic with two Patriots pass rushers pulling at his jersey and with referee Mike Carey about to blow the whistle, when Manning somehow spun away and heaved the ball downfield. And it was The Helmet Catch, where David Tyree — the Giants’ fourth receiver — made a leaping grab of Manning’s throw, pinning the ball against his helmet with his left hand as Patriots safety Rodney Harrison swung at the ball and the two fell backward to the turf.

And it all came on third-and-5 from the Giants’ 44 with 1:15 remaining on what would be the game-winning drive of the Giants’ 17-14 upset of the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. It was a most improbable play by an improbable player in maybe the most improbable Super Bowl championship of all.

2. Santonio Holmes’ touchdown toe-tap

The pass from Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was thrown with incredible precision, but it was the catch by wide receiver Santonio Holmes that really made this play great. Needing a touchdown to take the lead in Super Bowl XLIII, Roethlisberger dropped back from the Arizona Cardinals’ 6-yard line and seemed to lock in on the 5-foot-11 Holmes running towards the back right corner of the end zone. But there were three Cardinals defenders in the same area.

It didn’t matter. Roethlisberger threw it anyway, right over all three including the outstretched hand of leaping Arizona cornerback Ralph Brown. Holmes extended his body and arms as far as he could, leaning out of bounds, and caught the ball with both hands. The toes of his left foot never left the ground about 10 inches inbounds and somehow he managed to tap the toes of his right foot down inbounds too before he tumbled to the sideline.

The replays confirmed it was a catch with 35 seconds left, giving the Steelers enough for a 27-23 win.

3. Mike Jones’ game-saving tackle

The Tennessee Titans had already made the greatest comeback to that point in Super Bowl history, rallying from 16-0 down to tie the game at 16-16 in the fourth quarter. But the St. Louis Rams broke their hearts on the next play with a 73-yard touchdown pass from Kurt Warner to Isaac Bruce to take a 23-16 lead with 1:54 to go.

The Titans weren’t done with Super Bowl XXXIV yet, though. They marched all the way to the Rams’ 10 where they used their final timeout with 6 seconds to play. Their plan was to clear the middle of the field so quarterback Steve McNair could hit wide receiver Kevin Dyson on a quick slant. And it worked. He hit Dyson at the 4 and he was headed right toward the end zone.

But Rams LB Mike Jones got there just in time to lunge at Dyson and grab his legs. As he pulled Dyson down, the receiver reached out as far as he could with the ball in his left hand, but he was about one yard short of the goal line.

4. Malcolm Butler’s interception

Malcolm Butler’s interception at the end of Super Bowl XLIX is one of the greatest defensive plays in Super Bowl history. The play call that led to it was probably the worst play call ever made.

There were 26 seconds left and the defending champion Seattle Seahawks trailed the New England Patriots 28-24, but they were at the 1-yard line, on the verge of taking the lead. It was second down and they had one timeout left. With powerful running back Marshawn Lynch on their side, everyone knew the smart play was to run.

But head coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrel Bevell out-thought themselves and called for quarterback Russell Wilson to throw a quick pass to wide receiver Ricardo Lockette, who would cut in from the right. They even lined up in the shotgun formation, so they didn’t even fake a run. And it all blew up when Butler, the Patriots cornerback, read it perfectly and cut in front of Lockette to pick the pass off at the goal line and seal New England’s win.

5. John Riggins’ run on fourth-and-1

The Washington Redskins were running out of time, trailing 17-13 to the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII. They had driven into Dolphins territory at the 43-yard line, but they were facing a critical fourth-and-1 with just 10:10 left in the game.

Redskins coach Joe Gibbs had no choice. They had to go for it. And he called his best play — “70 Chip.” It was a simple handoff to the left. And it worked to perfection. Riggins got a key block at the line from tight end Clint Didier, another from fullback Otis Wonsley, and plenty of help from Joe Jacoby and Russ Grimm on the left side of the “Hogs” offensive line.

Riggins did the rest. He blasted through Dolphins cornerback Ron McNeal at the line of scrimmage and took off down the sideline for a 43-yard touchdown. That gave the Redskins their first lead of the game, on the way to a 27-17 win and their first Super Bowl championship.

6. Mario Manningham’s sideline grab

What would a game-winning Super Bowl drive by Eli Manning against the New England Patriots be without a spectacular catch?

This one in Super Bowl XLVI might not have been on the same circus level as David Tyree’s helmet catch in Super Bowl XLII, but the importance and difficulty level were both still high. It was the first play of the Giants’ last drive. They were at their own 12, trailing 17-15 with 3:46 remaining. Manning launched a first-down pass 40 yards in the air, headed towards wide reciver Mario Manningham down the left sideline.

Manningham was double covered, but he had a step on Patriots defensive back Sterling Moore, and safety Patrick Chung was a split-second late arriving. The ball dropped right down onto Manningham’s outstretched arms as he was leaning just a bit toward the sidelines. He managed to catch it, pull it in, and get both feet down just before Chung arrived and hammered him.

That sparked a drive that ended with the game-winning touchdown in the Giants’ 21-17 win.

7. The ‘Philly Special’

The Philadelphia Eagles’ run to Super Bowl LII was incredible enough behind backup quarterback Nick Foles, and they were even leading the Patriots 15-12 late in the first half.

But they wanted more. So on a fourth-and-goal from the Patriots’ 1 with 38 seconds left before halftime, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson decided to go for it — and with some style. He called what has become the most famous play in Philadelphia sports history: “Philly Special.” It started with Foles in the shotgun with running back Corey Clement to his right. He then motioned for Clement to line up behind him. And as he made the pre-snap calls, Foles then walked up to the line and stood behind his right tackle.

Center Jason Kelce then snapped the ball to Clement, who started running to his left, but then pitched the ball to tight end Trey Burton who was running a reverse back to the right. But Burton instead threw a pass to Foles, who had slipped out to the right as a receiver, unnoticed by the Patriots defense. Foles caught it to give the Eagles a 22-12 lead.

The fact that it was the mirror image of a trick play the Patriots had tried earlier in the quarter, but failed when Tom Brady dropped the pass, made it even more incredible. The Eagles, of course, would go on to win the game 41-33.

8. The John Elway helicopter

It might not have been the biggest play of Super Bowl XXXII, but it has come to be a defining moment in the career of Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway, and a symbol of his long, determined quest to win a Super Bowl championship. He was 37 when he reached his fourth Super Bowl. He had lost each of the first three in blowout fashion. He wanted to win this one, bad.

He showed that in the third quarter, with the game tied 17-17, near the end of a drive that had begun at the Broncos’ 8-yard line. On third-and-6 from the Green Bay Packers’ 12, Elway was flushed from the pocket and tried to run for the first down. But to get it, he had to dive.

And when he did, head-first, about four feet in the air so he could get over linebacker Brian Williams, Elway was hit in the legs by safety LeRoy Butler and in the shoulder by safety Mike Prior and spun around in the air, 180 degrees, before landing on his back, still holding the ball. He got the first down.

Two plays later, Terrell Davis scored on a 1-yard run to give Denver the lead. The Packers would bounce back, but Davis would add another 1-yard touchdown run with 1:45 left in the game to give the Broncos the 31-24 win and get Elway his first ring.

9. Tracy Porter’s Pick 6

Peyton Manning was mostly brilliant in his quest for a second Super Bowl championship, completing 31 of 45 passes for 333 yards for the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. So no one was really worried when the New Orleans Saints took a 24-17 lead with 5:42 remaining. Manning would get the ball back with plenty of time to tie the game.

And he looked like he was on his way, pushing the Colts all the way to the Saints’ 31. But on a third-and-5 play with 3:24 remaining, he tried to hit wide receiver Reggie Wayne on a “stick route” to his left, where Wayne would run five yards and quick cut inside. But Saints cornerback Tracy Porter saw it coming all the way and beat Wayne to where Manning was going to throw the ball.

Porter not only stepped in front of Wayne and made the easy catch, he took off down the sidelines with the interception for a 74-yard touchdown. That shocking play stopped Manning’s comeback in its tracks and gave New Orleans a 31-17 win.

10. Julian Edelman’s crazy catch

The Patriots were already well on their way to erasing what had been a 28-3 Atlanta Falcons lead midway through the third quarter of Super Bowl LI, but they still had a little bit of work to do. They trailed by a touchdown when they got the ball back at their own 9 with 3:30 left in the game.

But that game-tying drive nearly ended early. The Patriots were still only at their own 36 with 2:28 to go when Tom Brady threw a pass that should have been intercepted by Falcons cornerback Robert Alford. Brady was trying to hit wide receiver Julian Edelman inside Falcons territory, but Edelman was double-covered. Alford was in front of him and jumped for the interception, but was only able to tip the ball high into the air.

As he did, somehow Edelman stopped his momentum downfield, planted his feet and dove back towards the ball. Falcons safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal quickly converged and dove at the ball, too. Edelman somehow reached between Alford’s legs to get to the ball first. And then, as he hit the ground, the ball popped loose, out of his hands, yet he managed to grab hold of it again before it hit the turf.

The 23-yard catch got the Patriots’ drive going. Four plays later, they scored to send the game into overtime, where they ended up winning, 34-28 on James White’s 2-yard touchdown run on the first drive.

Honorable mention

  • Seahawks wide reciever Jermaine Kearse’s falling catch that tipped off his own legs on the final drive of Super Bowl XLIX.
  • The Saints’ surprise onside kick and recovery to start the second half in Super Bowl XLIV.
  • Los Angeles Raiders running back Marcus Allen’s 74-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XVIII, where he starts left, turns around, eludes a tackle and cuts back up the middle.
  • Steelers wide reciever Lynn Swann’s acrobatic, leaping, falling, juggling, 53-yard catch over a Cowboys cornerback Mel Renfro in Super Bowl X.

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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