With the Super Bowl just a day away, football fans around the world are getting psyched up—even if their favorite team isn’t competing. The big game is always eagerly anticipated by many, and it makes sense, since a match-up between what theoretically are the best (or hardest-working, sometimes a bit lucky) teams in the professional football league is expected to be good. It doesn’t always happen that way, as some games have turned out to be blowouts or just plain boring.
But there have also been a number of incredible, unforgettable games. There is a sort of formula to what makes a great game, and the best Super Bowls of all time have all had at least a majority of these elements:
1) Historical significance (football wise)
2) Interesting/storied teams (or players) competing
3) A close score
4) Momentum changing/big plays
5) Records set/broken/tied
6) Underdog vs. heavy favorite
7) Time period importance
To get some perspective, consider the following games, four of the best in Super Bowl history.
Super Bowl XLII: New York Giants vs. New England Patriots
The Patriots had two Super Bowl wins in three years under their belt, and were led by future hall-of-fame quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick. The Giants were an old team with a lot of history, including three franchise Super Bowl victories. Interesting/storied teams- check.
The Patriots were expected to win, as they had entered the competition with a perfect record, while the Giants were 10-6 in the regular season and made it to the playoffs as a Wild Card team. Underdog vs. heavy favorite- check.
The Patriots were also the only team with a perfect record in the Super Bowl since the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Historical significance- check.
To get the 17-14 victory, the Giants’ Eli Manning marched his team 83 yards down the field, capping the drive off with the game winning touchdown. Close score and big plays- check and check.
During the game, the Giants consumed a record time for an opening drive-9 minutes and 59 seconds, and the fourth quarter had a record number of lead changes (3). Records set/broken- check.
Evaluation: This is hailed as one of the greatest upsets in sports history. That, along with the fact that it has six of the seven elements of a perfect Super Bowl, is why it’s one of the best (arguably THE best Bowl ever).
Super Bowl XLIV (2012): Indianapolis Colts vs. New Orleans Saints
The 13-3 Saints were making their first ever Bowl appearance, while the Colts were making their fourth appearance after posting a 14-2 record. It was the first time since 16 years prior that the two number one seeds reached the Super Bowl. Historical significance-check.
The Colts and Peyton Manning were one of the darling teams/players of the NFL. Almost everyone had a certain amount of respect for them. The Saints had recently become the new NFL Sweethearts because the nation was still thinking about the damage wrought in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. People rooted for the Saints for the sake of the recovering city. Interesting teams and time period importance- check and check.
The final score of 31-17 doesn’t imply a close game, but it was a tight back-and forth until the end, when the Saints scored 18 unanswered points. Close game- half-check.
Evaluation: This game had four and a half elements of the perfect Super Bowl, and because of just how huge one of them was (time period- Hurricane Katrina), its legacy will endure.
Super Bowl XIII: Dallas Cowboys vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
This was a game between two Super Bowl/playoff dominant teams. Both were vying to become the first franchise to win three championships, and it was the first Super Bowl rematch, as the Steelers had defeated the Cowboys in Super Bowl X. The Cowboys were also defending champions, and the Steelers were led by legendary quarterback Terry Bradshaw. Historical significance and storied teams/players- check and check.
The Cowboys kept it close throughout the game but couldn’t triumph, with the Steelers winning 35-31. Close score- check.
In the Steelers’ effort, Bradshaw set records for passing yards (318) and touchdown passes (4), and tied Johnny Unitas for the longest pass in a Bowl—a 75-yard touchdown pass. Records broken/tied- check.
Evaluation: With four elements of a perfect game, this is easily classifiable as one of the best Super Bowls of all time.
Super Bowl XLI (2007): Indianapolis Colts vs. Chicago Bears
Both teams entered the Super Bowl after long appearance draughts; The Bears were in it for the first time since Super Bowl XX and the Colts were in it for the first time since they were based in Baltimore and competed in Super Bowl V. The Colts and quarterback Peyton Manning had dominated the NFL for nine years, with six consecutive playoff berths, yet were without a Bowl victory. Storied teams- check
The game featured the earliest lead in Super Bowl history—with an opening kickoff punt return touchdown by the Bears’ Devin Hester, a 56-yard interception return for a touchdown by Kelvin Hayden of the Colts, and five forced turnovers from the Bears. The Colts also overcame a first quarter deficit and outscored the Bears 23-3 in the last three quarters. Record-setting and big plays-check and check.
Aside from bringing Manning’s first Super Bowl win to quiet his critics, the game was also the first Bowl to be played in rainy conditions and the first won by an African American head coach, the Colts’ Tony Dungy. Historical significance- check.
Evaluation: Four elements of the perfect game, some of which there is more than one example = sufficient ingredients to be considered one of the best Bowl games.
So how does Super Bowl 48 compare to these great games of the past?
Well first, it does not have time period importance.
Second, a majority of the elements—some of the most important—won’t be known until the game is over: How close the outcome, big plays, record-making.
Third, there is no underdog or favorite for this game, as experts and amateur experts around the football community are split on who they expect to win. However, this means that there’s a good chance it will be a close game. In fact, most are expecting it to be. Sports writer Peter King predicted a 27-23 outcome. Eight out of 12 analysts on NFL.com predicted outcomes of a one-touchdown game or less, with four predicting the deficit be four points or less.
In an article, NFL media analyst Elliot Harrison wrote that he thinks the Broncos will win by just three points. Harrison also points out several examples of one element of a perfect game that this match-up has: interesting teams competing. He notes that this is the top offense in the league (the Broncos) against the top defense in the league, and that the outcome will either be Petyon Manning cementing his status as the best quarterback ever, or the Seahawks winning their first franchise Bowl.
If the Seahawks win, it will also be a historic moment because it will prove once and for all that it’s a defense that wins Super Bowls.
It’s hard to tell how this Bowl will turn out because anything can happen on any given Sunday, and the Super Bowl adds a whole new level of pressure element to a matchup, not to mention these teams are both too good for there to be an obvious victor. But this has the makings of being one of the best Super Bowls of all time, given the formulaic precedent set by great games of the past. Will Super Bowl XLVIII be a blast or a bust? Luckily, we only have one more day until we find out.