The 5 Most Exciting Super Bowls Ever
Will Super Bowl LVII match up to these classics?
There are plenty of reasons to think Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs will be an instant classic. The teams are evenly matched, led by a couple of great quarterbacks, and there is no shortage of star power on either side. But of course, if the history of the Big Game tells us anything, it’s that we have a hard time predicting which Super Bowls will turn out to be thrillers, and which will be duds. Only in retrospect can we truly quantify the games that left us on the edges of our seats until the bitter end.
And to do that, we’re breaking out what is known as the “excitement index,” using data provided by ESPN that contains every play in Super Bowl history and its associated change in win probability. We summed the net changes in win probability associated with each play to rank the Super Bowls by excitability. A full ranking can be found in the table at the bottom of the story.
The top five games are charted below. Because we’re looking at the sum of all swings, the games you see included here might not feature the most exciting individual plays (apologies to anyone who was hoping to see the Helmet Catch) or even the wildest finishes (it’s safe to read on, Atlanta Falcons fans). For the most part, they’re low-scoring, close-fought games that saw late lead changes. But out of these close-fought brawls came some of the most iconic and heart-stopping moments in Super Bowl history.
Two years before Super Bowl XXXVIII, the Panthers and Patriots were in very different places. The 1-15 Panthers, who had joined the NFL as an expansion team less than a decade prior, had one winning season in franchise history; the Patriots had just won their first Super Bowl with a first-year starter named Tom Brady.
But by February of 2004, both teams had played their way into the big game. Entering the Super Bowl, the Panthers — with a strong ground game and tough defensive front seven — were 7-point underdogs against the Patriots, who had a rangy secondary and an emergent star in Brady. And as you might expect in a battle between two grind-it-out teams, this one didn’t start with a lot of promise. But a torrent of late scoring in both halves would see this matchup turn into the most exciting game in Super Bowl history by our metric.
The two teams were initially locked in a defensive battle, holding one another scoreless through the first quarter. The Patriots broke open scoring after forcing a fumble at Carolina’s 20-yard line and scoring a touchdown with 3:05 remaining in the first half — the longest scoreless period to open a Super Bowl in history. That unleashed a cascade of points: The Panthers answered with a two-minute, 95-yard touchdown drive, then the Patriots needed less than a minute to drive 78 yards for another touchdown, and Carolina ended the half by kicking a field goal. By the time the dust settled, 24 points had been scored in 185 seconds, and New England had a 14-10 lead going into the game’s infamous halftime show.
The second half started off much the same as the first, with neither team finding the end zone in the third quarter. The Patriots added 7 more points in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter, extending their lead to 11, but after two consecutive touchdowns from the Panthers — the second of which was an 85-yard catch-and-run from Jake Delhomme to Muhsin Muhammad that remains the longest passing touchdown in Super Bowl History (and the biggest play of the game by win-probability swing) — Carolina had both the lead and were favored in win probability for the first time. The teams would trade touchdowns in another feverish final three minutes, and after Delhomme found receiver Ricky Proehl in the end zone from 12 yards out, they were tied at 29 apiece with 1:13 remaining in the game. It was after this touchdown that Panthers kicker John Kasay made an error that swung the win probability by 7 percentage points: He sailed the kickoff out of bounds, giving Brady and crew the ball at the 40-yard line. Brady found receiver Troy Brown on three consecutive completions totaling 46 yards, then tacked on another 17-yard completion to Deion Branch. With each completion, the Patriots’ chances rose, and as kicker Adam Vinateri’s field-goal attempt with 9 seconds left in the game sailed through the uprights, finally reached 100 percent — ending the roller-coaster ride of the most exciting Super Bowl.
If you just watched the beginning of Super Bowl XXIII, you probably wouldn’t have guessed that it ended with an edge-of-your-seat fourth quarter to make this game the second-most thrilling Super Bowl in history.
In fact, the first half was … kind of boring. The Cincinnati Bengals and San Francisco 49ers — who had met in the Super Bowl seven years earlier (in a game the Niners led wire-to-wire) — traded field goals deep into the third quarter. Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason struggled against a muscular San Francisco defense, taking five sacks and passing for just 144 yards on 11 completions. His counterpart, two-time Super Bowl winner Joe Montana, was a much more efficient 23-for-36 for 357 yards, including six completions that went for at least 20 yards, but didn’t throw a touchdown until the final quarter.
It wasn’t until Bengals running back Stanford Jennings broke off a 93-yard kickoff return that either team found the end zone. But within a minute and a half, Montana drove the Niners 85 yards to tie the game at 13. Cincinnati added another field goal after a five-and-a-half minute drive, at which point it had a 3-point lead and a 72 percent chance to win the game. But as the rest of the NFL learned time and time again, any amount of time was too much time for Joe Cool. With 3:04 remaining, Montana and the Niners got the ball on their own 8-yard line and proceeded to march down the field. The drive saw several plays that produced pretty big swings in win probability — most notably a 4-yard rush from running back Roger Craig on third-and-2 and a 27-yard completion to eventual MVP Jerry Rice on second-and-20 — but it wasn’t until Montana found receiver John Taylor in the end zone from 10 yards out that the Niners actually took the lead. The 34 seconds left on the clock weren’t enough for a response from Esiason and Co. Legendary Niners coach Bill Walsh was able to retire after this game as a champion once again.
That this game ranks in the top five should come as no surprise, as it features the game-changing play that launched an entire offseason of think pieces and commentary. In the final 30 seconds of the game, should the Seattle Seahawks, trailing by 4 points and in possession of the ball at the New England Patriots’ 1-yard line, have handed the ball off to likely Hall of Fame running back Marshawn Lynch?
Well, they didn’t, and Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler made perhaps the most famous end zone interception of all time, denying the Seahawks a second consecutive Super Bowl.
But even before that final thrilling play, Super Bowl XLIX had been pretty exciting. It was a one-possession game throughout most of the first three quarters, with the teams trading the lead. Seattle’s Legion of Boom secondary played a smart game, holding Brady to less than 6.6 yards per attempt. The Seahawks opened up a 10-point lead five minutes left in the third quarter, scoring a touchdown to go up 24-14. But the Patriots scored on consecutive drives in the next quarter, holding the Seahawks to three-and-outs in between, to kick off with a 4-point lead and 2:06 left on the clock. Quarterback Russell Wilson orchestrated a pitch-perfect two-minute drill, completing three of his five attempts (including a would-have-been-iconic 33-yard bobbled catch by Jermaine Kearse) to take the Seahawks from their own 20-yard line to New England’s 5-yard line. After a 4-yard run from Lynch, Seattle was on the 1-yard line with 26 seconds remaining. But instead of handing it off, Wilson tried to find Ricardo Lockette on a slant route that Butler read perfectly, bumping the receiver before stepping in front of the ball at the line of scrimmage. Butler’s pick created an 81-point swing in win probability, making it the single-most-impactful play in Super Bowl history. The Patriots took over, kneeled twice and walked away with the fourth Lombardi Trophy of the Brady-Bill Belichick era.
Raise your hand like Cowboys running back Dan Reeves if you remember this game! The oldest game on the list, Super Bowl V, is as famous for its series of bloopers as it is for being Baltimore Colts legend Johnny Unitas’s only Super Bowl victory.
Dallas and Baltimore both brought solid defenses to the game. The Cowboys’ defense had allowed just one touchdown in the six games leading up to the Super Bowl, while the Colts had picked off opposing quarterbacks 25 times.
But in the Super Bowl, it was Baltimore that struggled to keep control of the ball. Unitas threw two interceptions and lost a fumble before being knocked out of the game in the second quarter with a rib injury, and replacement Earl Morrall would later throw another pick in the end zone. All in all, the Colts turned the ball over seven times in the game while scoring just one touchdown in the first three quarters. (In keeping with the “Blunder Bowl,” as it came to be known, the Cowboys blocked the Colts’ first extra point attempt.) Dallas, meanwhile, put up two field goals and a touchdown in the first half but also committed 10 penalties for 133 yards, which hamstrung quarterback Craig Morton and company. Dallas held a 13-6 lead throughout the third quarter.
Who’s the most chaotic fictional football coach? | FiveThirtyEight
As odd as the mistake-filled first three quarters were, the fourth quarter got even odder. Five of the game’s record 11 turnovers occurred in this quarter, as did one of the strangest plays in Super Bowl history. The Colts ran a flea-flicker that was tracking to pick up at least 20 yards until receiver Eddie Hinton fumbled the ball, setting off a scramble in the red zone that saw no less than a half-dozen players fail to recover. The ball rolled out of the end zone, giving Dallas the ball at its own 20-yard line. But Morton threw an interception three plays later that Colts safety Rick Volk brought down to the Dallas 3-yard line. The Colts punched it in two plays later, tying the game at 13 and giving them their best odds of winning thus far, at 59 percent.
After trading possessions, the Cowboys drove into Colts territory with less than two minutes on the clock. However, a holding penalty pushed Dallas out of field goal range and cost them 25 percentage points of win probability. The next play was even worse: Morton threw his second interception of the game, a ball that bounced off the hands of Reeves and landed in the arms of Colts linebacker Mike Curtis, who then returned the ball 13 yards to the Cowboys’ 28-yard line. In the final minute of play, it was easy money. The Colts called two runs and booted a 32-yard field goal with nine seconds remaining, finally sealing the game. It wasn’t a masterpiece by any means, but sometimes a series of back-and-forth blunders can also produce big swings in win probability — and an exciting finish.
Surprised to see the second iteration of Giants-Patriots here, rather than the first? We were, too — until we remembered that the biggest upset in NFL history remained within 4 points throughout the entire game. The rematch, four years later, was a much more back-and-forth affair. Scoring opened with a safety (of all things) after Brady was called for intentional grounding six minutes into the game. The Giants notched one more touchdown before the Patriots put up 17 unanswered points in the second and third quarters. With 11:13 remaining in the game, New England had a 82 percent chance to avenge its loss in Super Bowl XLII.
But there was a lot more game to play. The Giants kicked two field goals in the back half of the third quarter, but the fourth quarter was consumed by two long drives that both ended in punts. Down by 2 points with 3:46 remaining, the Giants started their final drive on their own 12-yard line. On the first play of the drive, quarterback Eli Manning uncorked a 38-yard pass to Mario Manningham, who made a toe-tapping catch along the left sideline to improve the Giants’ chances from 30 percent to 47 percent. Four more short completions and two gains on the ground followed; by the time running back Ahmad Bradshaw fell backwards into the end zone to put the Giants up with 1:04 remaining, Giants fans were wondering if they had left too much time on the clock for Brady.
And the Patriots did give them a scare! With under 40 seconds to go, Brady had back-to-back completions that moved the ball 30 yards. But three incompletions later, the clock hit zero and the Giants — 3-point underdogs coming into the game — were once again Super Bowl champions.
Those were just the top five Super Bowls by excitement index. Below is the full list of games, ranging from that Pats-Panthers shootout at the top to the 49ers’ one-sided rout of the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX at the bottom. Where will Super Bowl LVII rank on the list? The entire football-following public must watch on Sunday to find out.
History’s most exciting Super Bowls
Super Bowls ordered by excitement index* score, 1966-2022
|2003||XXXVIII||New England Patriots||32||Carolina Panthers||29||7.90|
|1988||XXIII||San Francisco 49ers||20||Cincinnati Bengals||16||7.36|
|2014||XLIX||New England Patriots||28||Seattle Seahawks||24||7.01|
|1970||V||Baltimore Colts||16||Dallas Cowboys||13||6.71|
|2011||XLVI||New York Giants||21||New England Patriots||17||6.61|
|1975||X||Pittsburgh Steelers||21||Dallas Cowboys||17||6.59|
|1974||IX||Pittsburgh Steelers||16||Minnesota Vikings||6||5.89|
|1997||XXXII||Denver Broncos||31||Green Bay Packers||24||5.83|
|2017||LII||Philadelphia Eagles||41||New England Patriots||33||5.82|
|1990||XXV||New York Giants||20||Buffalo Bills||19||5.70|
|2007||XLII||New York Giants||17||New England Patriots||14||5.66|
|2015||50||Denver Broncos||24||Carolina Panthers||10||5.65|
|2008||XLIII||Pittsburgh Steelers||27||Arizona Cardinals||23||5.42|
|2009||XLIV||New Orleans Saints||31||Indianapolis Colts||17||5.27|
|2012||XLVII||Baltimore Ravens||34||San Francisco 49ers||31||5.25|
|1979||XIV||Pittsburgh Steelers||31||Los Angeles Rams||19||5.24|
|1978||XIII||Pittsburgh Steelers||35||Dallas Cowboys||31||5.18|
|2004||XXXIX||New England Patriots||24||Philadelphia Eagles||21||4.90|
|2005||XL||Pittsburgh Steelers||21||Seattle Seahawks||10||4.88|
|2021||LVI||Los Angeles Rams||23||Cincinnati Bengals||20||4.87|
|2006||XLI||Indianapolis Colts||29||Chicago Bears||17||4.85|
|2010||XLV||Green Bay Packers||31||Pittsburgh Steelers||25||4.79|
|2001||XXXVI||New England Patriots||20||St. Louis Rams||17||4.68|
|1982||XVII||Washington Redskins||27||Miami Dolphins||17||4.68|
|1999||XXXIV||St. Louis Rams||23||Tennessee Titans||16||4.44|
|2019||LIV||Kansas City Chiefs||31||San Francisco 49ers||20||4.43|
|2018||LIII||New England Patriots||13||Los Angeles Rams||3||4.25|
|1993||XXVIII||Dallas Cowboys||30||Buffalo Bills||13||3.83|
|1981||XVI||San Francisco 49ers||26||Cincinnati Bengals||21||3.52|
|2016||LI||New England Patriots||34||Atlanta Falcons||28||3.40|
|1986||XXI||New York Giants||39||Denver Broncos||20||3.26|
|1968||III||New York Jets||16||Baltimore Colts||7||3.11|
|1983||XVIII||Los Angeles Raiders||38||Washington Redskins||9||3.02|
|2000||XXXV||Baltimore Ravens||34||New York Giants||7||2.96|
|1969||IV||Kansas City Chiefs||23||Minnesota Vikings||7||2.91|
|1992||XXVII||Dallas Cowboys||52||Buffalo Bills||17||2.81|
|2002||XXXVII||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||48||Oakland Raiders||21||2.81|
|1977||XII||Dallas Cowboys||27||Denver Broncos||10||2.68|
|1976||XI||Oakland Raiders||32||Minnesota Vikings||14||2.58|
|1980||XV||Oakland Raiders||27||Philadelphia Eagles||10||2.54|
|1987||XXII||Washington Redskins||42||Denver Broncos||10||2.42|
|1972||VII||Miami Dolphins||14||Washington Redskins||7||2.39|
|1984||XIX||San Francisco 49ers||38||Miami Dolphins||16||2.39|
|1998||XXXIII||Denver Broncos||34||Atlanta Falcons||19||2.37|
|1995||XXX||Dallas Cowboys||27||Pittsburgh Steelers||17||2.24|
|1991||XXVI||Washington Redskins||37||Buffalo Bills||24||2.15|
|2020||LV||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||31||Kansas City Chiefs||9||2.10|
|1971||VI||Dallas Cowboys||24||Miami Dolphins||3||2.09|
|2013||XLVIII||Seattle Seahawks||43||Denver Broncos||8||1.80|
|1966||I||Green Bay Packers||35||Kansas City Chiefs||10||1.56|
|1996||XXXI||Green Bay Packers||35||New England Patriots||21||1.50|
|1967||II||Green Bay Packers||33||Oakland Raiders||14||1.24|
|1985||XX||Chicago Bears||46||New England Patriots||10||1.14|
|1973||VIII||Miami Dolphins||24||Minnesota Vikings||7||0.89|
|1989||XXIV||San Francisco 49ers||55||Denver Broncos||10||0.66|
|1994||XXIX||San Francisco 49ers||49||San Diego Chargers||26||0.18|
Check out our latest NFL predictions.