However, there have been some Super Bowl encounters throughout the years that maybe weren't quite "Must See TV" (at least in the build-up to the event), and below I'd like to review some of those battles.
I was able to research these Super Bowls thanks, in large part, to "The Ultimate Super Bowl Book," written by Bob McGinn, and I'll cite it often in this piece--any quotes and stats I use are taken straight from this book, unless otherwise noted or linked.
These are just my opinions, and I'm not saying all of these games were duds--for example, Super Bowl XIV was a great game and the first football game I can recall watching--but in the context of the times, did people have a reason to get really excited for these match-ups before-hand?
That's the criteria I used for this list.
My list isn't in any particular order, except chronological.
I believe Super Bowl I has great historical significance--it's where the great game started--but the inaugural game wasn't even called the Super Bowl; it was called the "The World Championship of Professional Football," and the first such contest pitted the NFL champion Green Bay Packers against the rival AFL champion Kansas City Chiefs. The agreed-upon merger between the two leagues was still a few years away, and the AFL was considered to be vastly inferior to the NFL. Most people assumed the Packers, two-time defending NFL champions, would destroy Kansas City. Indeed, Green Bay was a 14 point favorite for this game, and after a fairly close first half--the Chiefs only trailed, 14-10--Vince Lombardi's charges pulled away in the second half and won, 35-10.
I know it's hard to believe, considering the enormity of the Super Bowl today, but in the late 60's, the NFL Championship was considered THE championship of professional football. The Packers also won Super Bowl II the following year and insisted that their Super Bowl ring have three stones to commemorate winning three straight NFL titles.
Today, picture the owners of the NFL and CFL coming together to create a championship game that matched the winner of the Super Bowl against the winner of the Grey Cup. How seriously do you think NFL players and fans would take such a game? How heavily do you think the Super Bowl winner would be favored over the Grey Cup winner?
That was the kind of attitude that surrounded the first few Super Bowls--the most expensive ticket for Super Bowl I was $12. Don't believe me? Here is a little tidbit from The Ultimate Super Bowl Book:
Afterward, when the writers pressed into Lombardi's small office, they asked the question that everyone wanted answered: How did the great coach assess the Chiefs as compared to other teams in the NFL? "I have nothing to say about it," he replied. After several repetitions of the same questioning, however, Lombardi finally blurted out, "I don't think they're as good as the top teams in the NFL. They're a good team with fine speed, but I'd have to say NFL football is tougher. Dallas is a better team, and so are several others. That's what you wanted me to say---now I've said it."
After a heavyweight battle between the Steelers and Dallas in Super Bowl XIII--in-which Pittsburgh prevailed, 35-31--many predicted a re-match in Super Bowl XIV once the 1979 playoffs commenced. The Steelers were 12-4 and winners of three of the previous five Super Bowls. The Cowboys won Super Bowls VI and XII and were the two-time defending NFC champions.
Pittsburgh held up its end of the bargain, clinching yet another Super Bowl berth after a hard-fought victory over division rival Houston in the AFC Championship Game at Three Rivers Stadium.
However, the Steelers' opponent in the Rose Bowl (site of Super Bowl XIV) wasn't Dallas. Instead, Pittsburgh would face an upstart Rams squad, who at 9-7, had the worst regular season record of any Super Bowl participant up to that point. Los Angeles knocked off the Cowboys in the divisional round and then defeated the Buccaneers, 9-0, in the NFC Championship Game to clinch the franchise's first trip to the Super Bowl.
Despite losing regular season games to the Rams in both '75 and '78, Pittsburgh was installed as a 10 1/2 point favorite for Super Bowl XIV--the biggest point spread since Super bowl IV.
The fact that Los Angeles was 9-7 was a bit of a mirage. The Rams were 5-6 at one point in '79, thanks to injuries--including a broken finger suffered by starting quarterback Pat Haden--but had won six of seven games on their way to the Super Bowl behind back-up quarterback Vince Ferragamo.
Truth is, Los Angeles was one of the most consistent teams in the NFL in the 1970's and won the NFC West seven straight times. The Rams also played in the NFC Championship Game in '74, '75, '76 and '78, but legendary teams such as the Cowboys and Vikings kept them from enjoying Super Bowl success.
As it turned out, Super Bowl XIV was every bit as exciting as Super Bowl XIII. The lead changed hands seven times before a Franco Harris one yard touchdown plunge in the waning moments made the final score, 31-19, and clinched Pittsburgh's fourth title in six seasons.
For the Steelers, it was an end of an era. A quote from Terry Bradshaw:
"There are few great moments [like this] in an athlete's life," he said. "Just this one time, Super Bowl XIV, I decided that this was my moment and I wanted to take it all in. I wanted to pack it away in my mind forever. I felt that for this bunch of Steelers the run was over, we would never be in this situation again. So I did just that. I stood there and absorbed the stadium."
Pittsburgh's dynasty could have ended much differently had a couple of things gone the Rams' way. In the third quarter, shortly after Los Angeles had taken a 19-17 lead on a half-back option pass from Lawrence McCutcheon to wide receiver Ron Smith, Rams' safety Nolan Cromwell may have allowed Super Bowl victory to slip through his fingers when he dropped a potential pick-six thrown by Terry Bradshaw:
Three plays after the Rams reclaimed the lead, Bradshaw misread a coverage and went to [Lynn] Swann in the middle of the field. The pass hit Cromwell squarely in the chest, but he didn't look the ball in and dropped it. "Nolan Cromwell was the best athlete I ever played with in 14 years," Jack Youngblood said. "He had nobody in front of him and that would have given us a 9-point lead. Believe me, Nolan still sees that one in his dreams."
In the fourth quarter, after the Steelers reclaimed the lead thanks to a 73 yard touchdown pass from Bradshaw to John Stallworth, Los Angeles wouldn't go away and was driving for possibly the go-ahead touchdown when Ferragamo was intercepted by linebacker Jack Lambert at the 14 yard line. Ferragamo didn't see a wide open Billy Waddy streaking down the right sideline. Had the inexperienced quarterback been able to connect with the receiver on another miraculous touchdown--the two hooked up for the game-winning score in the playoff win over Dallas--the Rams may have been the most improbable Super Bowl champion in history.
The 49ers may have won the Super Bowl in '81, but according to then head coach Bill Walsh, it wasn't the start of their dominance:
"We didn't have a great team in '81," Walsh said years later. "We lacked depth and our running game didn't meet NFL standards.....Looking back, I'd have to say that it was my most satisfying season, because we had been down so far and suddenly we were on top of the football world."
Indeed, San Francisco was a league doormat for years and posted a 6-10 record in 1980. As for the Bengals, they, too, were coming off of a 6-10 campaign the previous year. Neither team had a single player make the Pro Bowl from 1978-1980.
And to compound the surreal Super bowl match-up, the game was played in Detroit, Michigan, of all-places.Thankfully, it wasn't played outdoors in the city's frigid climate. Instead, it was played under the roof of the Pontiac Silverdome. Again, after years of playing the Super Bowl in warm climates such as Miami and Pasadena, fans and media members had to navigate through slush and cold in the days leading up to the event.
Actually, despite the less than traditional match-up, according to wikipedia, 85 million viewers tuned into see this game.
According to Walsh, the Bengals had "better personnel," but San Francisco jumped out to a 20-0 first half lead and held on for a 26-21 win, thanks in large part, to a historic goal line stand late in the third quarter that prevented Cincinnati from closing the gap to 20-14.
Super Bowl XXIV: San Francisco 49ers vs. Denver Broncos
January 28th, 1990
Super Bowl XXIV was right smack-dab in the middle of the NFC's run of dominance, where team's from the senior conference won 13-straight Super Bowls by an average score of 37-16. If any two teams epitomized their conferences at that time, it was the 49ers of the NFC and the Broncos from the AFC.
San Francisco was the defending champion and going for its four title of the 80's, while Denver was blown out in Super Bowls XXI and XXII by a combined score of 81-30.
If these two teams epitomized their respective conferences, the game itself epitomized the NFC's superiority over the AFC at that time. The 49ers were 12 point favorites and jumped out to a 27-3 halftime lead on the way to a record-setting 55-10 demolition.
San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana, the game's MVP, was 22/29 for 297 yards and five touchdown passes.
John Elway, the legendary Broncos' quarterback known for his late-game heroics, once again came up small on the biggest stage, going 10/26 for 108 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
At this particular point in history, the 49ers were a juggernaut and probably reached their peak in this game:
Shortly before the game, [linebacker Matt] Millen asked Montana, "Joe, how many points are we going to get?" Montana had been red-hot in practice all week. "I'll never forget that he answered, 'a hundred, if they'll let me.'"
This might have been the least anticipated Super Bowl in history. For the Bills, it was their fourth straight time representing the inferior AFC. Buffalo lost its three previous Super Bowls, with each defeat being more lopsided than the one before--including Super Bowl XXVII, where the Cowboys won, 52-17.
Dallas was in the middle of a run that would see the team win three titles in four seasons.
The Cowboys were 12 point favorites for this game, but instead of it being a lopsided affair on par with the previous year's Super Bowl match-up between the two teams, Buffalo actually led, 13-6, at the half.
Unfortunately, for the Bills, star running back Thurman Thomas fumbled to open the second half, and James Washington returned it 46 yards for a touchdown as the Cowboys tied the game and never really looked back, winning, 30-13, to claim their second straight championship.
Super Bowl XXIX: San Francisco 49ers vs. San Diego Chargers
January 29th, 1995
The 1994 season had one of the most disappointing endings in Steelers history, as San Diego came to Three Rivers Stadium and shocked the football world with a 17-13 victory in the AFC Championship Game.
Not only was it a dark day for Steeler Nation, it couldn't have been a very good one for the NFL, as the Chargers' upset paved the way for one of the biggest mismatches in Super Bowl history.
The 49ers, this time led by quarterback Steve Young, returned to the Super Bowl for the first time since the '89 season, thanks to a victory over the two-time defending champion Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game and were quickly installed as 18 1/2 point favorites.
Once again, some tidbits from McGinn's awesome book:
When the 49ers prevailed [over the Cowboys], San Francisco cornerback Deion Sanders said, "I feel, honestly, this was the Super Bowl. I don't mean to take anything away from--whoever won that other damn game."
That was the San Diego Chargers, a club widely picked to finish last in the AFC West. Their reward for shocking the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road for the conference title was a rematch with the 49ers, a team that in mid-December had crushed them in San Diego, 38-15. "Coach [Bobby] Ross and his staff did a great job that year, Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard would say years later. "The Steeler game was one of the best games I've ever been around. But I knew going into the Super Bowl that it was where we wanted to get, where the 49ers were. I hate to say it was a mismatch, but it wasn't an even matchup."
Indeed it was a mismatch. San Francisco scored on its third play from scrimmage, a 44 yard touchdown pass from Young to Jerry Rice. The Chargers were never in the game, as the 49ers stormed out to a 28-10 first half lead on the way to a 49-26 rout and a fifth Super Bowl title.
Super Bowl XXXIII: Denver Broncos vs. Atlanta Falcons
January 31st, 1999
The tide had shifted a bit in the NFL, and the Broncos became the first AFC team to win a Super Bowl since the '83 season with their shocking upset of Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXII.
A year later, Denver was considered the top dog in the league and defended its championship crown by posting a 14-2 regular season record in 1998 and marching through its two playoffs games by a combined score of 61-13.
Atlanta, on the other hand, was one of the more improbable Super Bowl entrants in quite some time.
Another nugget from McGinn's Super Bowl book:
The Falcons, a 7 1/2 point underdog, weren't supposed to be anywhere near Pro Player Stadium on Super Sunday. They had been 7-9 the year before, and Pro Football Weekly forecast them to finish 6-10 in 1998. Then, after coach Dan Reeves and his players defied all odds by posting a 14-2 record in the regular season, the Falcons were 10-point underdogs in the NFC Championship Game at the Metrodome against the once-beaten Minnesota Vikings. In an upset for the ages, the Falcons prevailed in overtime, 30-27.
To add a bit of allure to the match-up, Broncos' quarterback John Elway would be playing in his final game on the game's biggest stage, and he would be doing so against his former coach and rival, Reeves, who was fired by Denver following the 1992 season. Mike Shanahan, who took over as the Broncos' head coach starting in '95, was on Reeves' staff in the early 90's before being fired after Reeves accused him of trying to undermine his relationship with Elway.
This was also the Super Bowl where Falcons' safety Eugene Robinson, who received the Bart Starr award for "high moral character" the day before the game, was arrested later that night for soliciting oral sex from an undercover cop. Robinson played in the Super Bowl the next day, but it really didn't matter as the Broncos jumped out to a 31-6 lead before Atlanta scored a couple of late touchdowns to make the score appear closer than it actually was.