NFL: The 5 Most Thrilling Super Bowls of the Millennium

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Few events capture the attention of an entire nation, if not the world, quite like the Super Bowl. The biggest game involving the United State’s most popular sport turns 50 this year, and judging by the drama that recent games have produced, viewers should be in for another doozy on February 7, 2016. Three weeks remain in the 2015 NFL regular season and a batch of postseason battles will follow. What everyone cares about though — even the non-football and non-sports fans — happens seven weeks from Sunday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California.

NFL media analysts Gil Brandt and Elliot Harrison sifted through every single one of the big games to date and ranked all 49 in order, to come up with the greatest Super Bowl of all-time. We won’t spoil the list for you, but if you’re interested, you can check it out at NFL.com. Using this list as inspiration, we’ve narrowed our focus down to the five most thrilling Super Bowls of the millennium.

5. Super Bowl XXXVI (New England Patriots 20, St. Louis Rams 17)

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Date: February 3, 2002
NFL.com ranking: 11

Super Bowl XXXVI between the New England Patriots and St. Louis Rams comes in at No. 5 on our countdown. The fact that this game is ranked 11 out of 49 contests on Brandt and Harrison’s list speaks to just how amazing the 16 games since the year 2000 have been. Almost five months after the tragic terrorist attacks on September 11, America was recovering. The sports world was also just three months removed from perhaps the greatest World Series of all-time (Arizona Diamondbacks versus New York Yankees), and this football championship counterpart would be legendary as well.

The match-up: The heavily-favored, “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams, led by an offensive arsenal including Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, and Torry Holt, versus the underdog Patriots, headed by some new, unproven quarterback named Tom Brady. After a quiet first quarter at the Louisiana Superdome — where the only scoring was a 50-yard field goal by the Rams — the Patriots defense made a huge play in the middle of the second frame. Star defensive back Ty Law picked off Warner and returned the interception 47 yards for a touchdown, giving New England a shocking lead in the first half.

In the waning seconds of the half, Brady provided the perfect foreshadowing of a historic career in the making, leading his team down the field and hooking up with David Patten for an eight-yard score to make it 14-3 Pats at intermission. The third quarter was all about the Pats’ D stepping up again, and kicker Adam Vinatieri punched a 37-yarder for the only points in the third.

The Rams offense finally came alive in the fourth though, as a short Warner rushing TD and a 26-yard catch and score from Ricky Proehl knotted it up with under 90 seconds left in regulation. That was plenty of time for Brady to bring his team into field goal range and a 48-yard connection from Vinatieri gave the Patriots a stunning upset as time expired. With the win, Brady earned his first Super Bowl MVP.

4. Super Bowl XLIX (New England Patriots 28, Seattle Seahawks 24)

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Date: February 1, 2015
NFL.com ranking: 3

The second of three Patriots appearances in our countdown (they’ve been pretty damn good this millennium), Super Bowl XLIX between New England and the Seattle Seahawks makes the list at No. 4. While we agree that this game was a classic, it is slightly overrated as the third greatest of all in NFL.com’s list, in our opinion. As much as the country may have been behind the Pats back in 2002, it was quite the opposite almost 11 months ago.

Outside of New England, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that nearly all of the country was pulling for Seattle. It’s not that Richard Sherman and Pete Carroll are the most likable bunch, but they can be viewed as saint-like compared with Brady and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. In the still infant stages of “Deflategate,” this was a game for New England to prove to the world that they didn’t need any type of competitive advantage to win a big game.

Scarred by scandal after scandal, TB12 and company pushed aside the drama to take down the vaunted “Legion of Boom” in a monumental game. First-quarter action saw both teams go scoreless before the offenses came alive big time in the next 15 minutes. Brandon LaFell hauled in an 11-yard TD catch from Brady with 9:47 remaining in the quarter, before Marshawn Lynch’s three-yard scamper and the extra point tied it at seven.

Both defenses faltered a bit to close the first half as Rob Gronkowski’s 22-yard TD reception and Chris Matthews’ 11-yard score happened in the final minute of play, sending the teams to the locker rooms at 14 apiece. A Seahawks field goal and TD from Russell Wilson to Doug Baldwin put the Patriots down by 10 entering the fourth quarter. Danny Amendola continued his postseason mastery midway through the final frame, securing a short TD pass from Brady and making it 24-21 Seattle.

A stout Patriots defense held off the Seahawks to let Brady do his thing again, as he found Julian Edelman for a three-yard TD reception with just over two minutes left. Aided by a miracle 33-yard reception by Jermaine Kearse on the Seahawks’ final drive, Wilson brought the ball all the way down to the one-yard line with 26 seconds left in the game. Then, Malcolm Butler made maybe the most clutch defensive play in Super Bowl history to win it for New England. Brady went 37-for-50 for 328 yards, four touchdowns, and two interceptions — earning yet another MVP.

3. Super Bowl XXXIV (St. Louis Rams 23, Tennessee Titans 16)

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Date: January 30, 2000
NFL.com ranking: 9

This game was literally one yard away from being the first and only overtime contest in Super Bowl history. As the first big one of the 2000s, Super Bowl XXXIV pitted the Rams against the Tennessee Titans and makes our list at No. 3. Here’s another spot where we disagree slightly with Brandt and Harrison, as they put this one at No. 9 overall.

Just two years before their bitter defeat against the Pats, the Rams plowed through their NFC competition in 1999 on the way to a 13-3 regular season record. The Titans were the class of the AFC too, as they finished the regular campaign at 13-3 as well. Thanks to the controversial “Music City Miracle” a few weeks before the Super Bowl, the Titans were fortunate just to make it past the wild-card round. For the Rams, this was more or less the beginning of their aforementioned “Greatest Show on Turf” with Warner and his crew.

As seven-point favorites entering this one, it was actually the St. Louis defense that stepped up big in the first half. Three field goals by Jeff Wilkins for the Rams accounted for all of the scoring in the initial 30 minutes of game time, but the second half would more than make up for any “boring” action. Really, if you looked at the first three quarters, it’s hard to see why this game makes the top five, let alone top 10.

After a Holt TD catch from Warner midway through the third made it 16-0 Rams, the Titans finally came alive. In the closing seconds of the third, stud running back Eddie George punched in a short TD run, but the two-point conversion attempt failed, keeping it 16-6 heading into the final quarter. The Tennessee defense stepped up big in the early portion of the fourth and got the ball back to eventually lead to another George TD rush with 7:21 left in regulation and the PAT made it 16-13.

With just over two minutes to go, Titans kicker Al Del Greco hit a mega-clutch 43-yarder to knot it at 16. For as great as the Tennessee D had been in the second half, they made a huge mistake just seconds later, allowing Warner’s favorite target, Bruce, to break open for a go-ahead 73-yard catch and run score for a 23-16 lead. As deflating as the mishap must have been, Titans quarterback Steve McNair would not give up, guiding his team and running a two-minute drill to near-perfection.

With 22 seconds left, McNair hit Kevin Dyson for a 16-yard catch, moving it to the Rams’ 10-yard line with five seconds to go. The Titans used their final timeout and McNair found Dyson again for a completion, and then Mike Jones saved the day. In the unbelievable win, Warner took home the Super Bowl MVP.

2. Super Bowl XLIII (Pittsburgh Steelers 27, Arizona Cardinals 23)

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Date: February 1, 2009
NFL.com ranking: 10

The placement of Super Bowl XLIII is probably where we differ the most from NFL.com’s countdown. While Brandt and Harrison put the Pittsburgh Steelers/Arizona Cardinals tilt at No. 10 overall, behind both the Patriots/Seahawks and Rams/Titans contests, we think it deserves the No. 2 spot on our rankings.

Preceding this Super Bowl, many fans and media pundits questioned the Cardinals’ legitimacy for even making the playoff field. After an up-and-down 9-7 regular season, Arizona squeaked into the tournament by way of a weak NFC West division. The Steelers meanwhile put together a solid 12-4 record and had the top-ranked defense in the league. Pittsburgh entered the game as 6.5-point favorites, a far cry from what some would have predicted for this mismatch before Arizona went on their magical playoff run.

At first glance, this contest’s main storyline would appear to be the underdog role of the Cards and the unfathomable return to greatness for a veteran QB in Warner. As things unfolded that night at Raymond James Stadium however, it would be the story of a pair of historic individual plays that closed each half. Steelers kicker Jeff Reed got things going with a chip shot field goal in the early part of the first quarter and running back Gary Russell ran in a one-yard score in the opening minute of the second quarter to make it 10-0 Pittsburgh after the extra point.

The Cardinals got a bit of momentum midway through the quarter, as Ben Patrick caught a one-yard pass from Warner, and the Cards cut the deficit to 10-7. With Warner and Arizona threatening at the goal line in the final seconds of the half, Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison completely altered the complexion of the game with an absolutely stunning 100-yard interception return for a touchdown, stretching the Steelers lead to 17-7. A 21-yard field goal by Reed with just over two minutes left in the third quarter made it seem like Pittsburgh would have an easy go of it the rest of the way, up by 13 heading into the fourth.

The final frame was a huge one for Cardinals All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald though. Halfway through the quarter, Arizona got back in it as Warner found Fitzgerald on a one-yard touchdown pass. Still, with about three minutes left in the game and the ball in their possession, Pittsburgh led 20-14. A holding penalty in the end zone equaled a safety for the Cards and made it 20-16 with Arizona about to get the ball.

With 2:37 left in regulation, Fitzgerald broke free down the middle of the field and took a 64-yard catch and run to the house, giving his team a 23-20 advantage. As one of the most clutch QBs of his generation, Ben Roethlisberger orchestrated one final offensive drive, culminating in a Super Bowl-winning pass to Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds left. Holmes’ ability to focus on securing the football while keeping both feet in bounds — while a defender was all over him — makes his reception perhaps the greatest Super Bowl catch ever. It’s no wonder he was named Super Bowl MVP.

1. Super Bowl XLII (New York Giants 17, New England Patriots 14)

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Date: February 3, 2008
NFL.com ranking: 2

Super Bowl XLII was not only the most thrilling Super Bowl of the millennium, but arguably the greatest one of them all. NFL.com puts it at No. 2, only beaten out by the Super Bowl XIII classic between the Steelers and Dallas Cowboys.

We all know the ramifications that were on the table coming into this one. The big, bad Patriots were at 18-0 and looking for the elusive “perfect season.” The New York Giants on the other hand were rather fortunate just to make it to the playoffs after finishing the regular season 10-6. It was a rematch of the Week 17 thriller, and it was the so-called “pretty boy” QB Tom Brady squaring off against the much-maligned Eli Manning. A perfect record on the line in Super Bowl XLII — and it was fittingly New York versus New England. Here’s how it went.

The first half was a defensive masterpiece for both teams, as the G-Men got on the board first with a 32-yard field goal by Lawrence Tynes with 5:01 left in the first quarter. On the opening play of the second quarter, Patriots running back Laurence Maroney found his way into the end zone on a one-yard run, and the point-after made it 7-3 Pats heading into the break. After a scoreless third, the fourth and final quarter of that NFL season was an action-packed one.

Some guy named David Tyree (more from him in a bit) caught a five-yard TD pass from Manning four minutes into the quarter, and the PAT put the Giants on top 10-7. About eight-and-a-half minutes of play later, the electric Randy Moss finally showed his regular season form and caught a six-yard strike from Brady in the end zone, and the extra point gave New England a 14-10 lead with 2:42 remaining.

Facing third and five with 1:15 left in their season, Manning took the snap, scrambled right and amazingly avoided the sack. A desperate heave found the previously mentioned Tyree who somehow jumped high into the air, pinned the football against his helmet, and came down with the 32-yard reception with safety Rodney Harrison draped all over him. After the improbable heave and catch, it was destiny for the Giants to win. You know the rest. Manning to Burress for a 13-yard touchdown; Brady finally becomes mortal; and the Giants pull off the thought-to-be impossible task of beating the Patriots.

Statistics courtesy of NFL.com and Pro-Football-Reference.com.

Follow Victor on Twitter @vbarbosa1127