Sunday, February 7, 2010

Super Bowl Countdown #1 - Super Bowl XXV - Giants 20, Bills 19

Number one is finally here! We apologize for getting this out so late. Family commitments and obligations came up and had to be prioritized, but one thing we wanted to be sure of is that this would be out by kickoff on Super Bowl Sunday. Enjoy, and any feedback can be made in the comment boxes or via email at joshua.lattanzi@gmail.com or dholt13@gmail.com. Here is the Greatest Super Bowl Of All Time...

A truly great game is one where both teams perform at an exceptional level throughout the contest, matching the other team’s intensity and production. On January 27, 1991, the New York Giants and the Buffalo Bills met in Tampa, Florida for Super Bowl 25 in a game where both teams refused to lose, yet one eventually did. The journey the two teams made ended at the same destination, but the roads traveled were widely divergent.

The New York Football Giants finished the season 13-3, good for the second best record in the NFC (behind defending champion San Francisco). They had actually started the season 10-0, but it looked like the Giants were not going to go very far when starting quarterback Phil Simms was lost to a broken foot, thus ending his season and putting the Giants' fate into the hands of seldom-used quarterback Jeff Hostetler. Even worse, also lost eventually was starting running back Rodney Hampton, forcing rusty veteran Ottis 'OJ' Anderson to fill in as the full-time starter.

Luckily for the Giants, head coach Bill Parcells did not put all of his eggs in the offensive basket; the strong suit of the team was in its defense. The attack on defense was led by pro-bowlers Erik Howard (defensive tackle), Pepper Johnson, and Lawrence Taylor (both linebackers). The defense worked so well that it finished second in yards allowed and first in fewest points.

Parcells' strategy was ingenious in its simplicity - sustain long drives on offense, do not turn the ball over, keep the opponent's defense ON the field and its offense OFF the field. The Giants turned the ball only 14 times in 16 games (an NFL record), which is an incredible rate, considering that some teams have turned the ball over half that many times in one game.

The Giants opened the playoffs at home in the Meadowlands with an easy 31-3 victory over the Chicago Bears, in a game where they rushed for nearly 200 yards and Hostetler did not have to throw the ball more than 17 times. He did throw two touchdown passes, but there wasn't all good news to be had - Rodney Hampton broke his leg and was finished for the rest of the playoffs. Up next was the defending San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Title Game. It was a defensive struggle that would prove victorious for the Giants (unlike the regular season defensive struggle), as Leonard Marshall knocked Joe Montana out of the game and eventually forced a late turnover. Matt Bahr kicked his fifth field goal of the game as the clock went to zeroes to send the Giants to the Super Bowl with a 15-13 victory.

Their opponent in the Super Bowl, the Buffalo Bills, had a punishing defense as well, with defensive player of the year Bruce Smith leading the charge with 19 sacks. Complementing him were pro-bowl linebackers Darryl Talley and Cornelius Bennett. However, the similarities end with the defense. On offense, the Bills furnished a no-huddle, quick-strike, fast-paced attack known as the 'K-Gun', which was triggered by quarterback Jim Kelly. Kelly had a vast array of offensive weapons including running back Thurman Thomas, receivers Andre Reed and James Lofton, and tight end Keith McKeller. Kelly finished the year with over 2,800 yards passing, 24 touchdowns, and only 9 interceptions. He led the AFC with a 101.2 quarterback rating.

The Bills also finished 13-3, good for best record in the AFC, and despite losing Jim Kelly for the last two games (he was injured, ironically, in the same game against the Giants where Phil Simms got hurt), he was given enough time (including the first-round bye week) to recover for their first playoff game against the Miami Dolphins. The Bills raced out to a 20-3 lead, and although Dan Marino led the Dolphins back, cutting the deficit to 30-27, the Bills scored two touchdowns to win by a score of 44-34. The next week, in the AFC Title Game, a lopsided show for the ages occurred as the Bills slaughtered the Oakland Los Angeles Raiders by a score of 51-3. 41 of those points were scored by halftime and the Bills intercepted Raiders' quarterback Jay Schroeder five times.

Thus the stage was set for two teams with divergent styles to meet on football's biggest stage. Much was made of the fact that this was the first time that two teams from the same state were playing each other, but we beg to differ. We know that the Giants are really from, ahem, New Jersey. But we digress...

A patriotic atmosphere greeted the teams as fans poured out their support for the United States military who had just begun war operations in the Persian Gulf region for Operation Desert Storm. It was fitting in many ways that both the Bills and Giants wore red, white, and blue. Super Bowl 25 got off to a great start long before the opening kickoff as Whitney Houston performed a rousing rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, which has gone on to become a best-selling record in its own right.

As for the game, the Bills received the opening kickoff and were forced to punt. The Giants game plan was simple: power football and control the clock - the other team can't score if they do not have the ball. The Giants' first possession demonstrated their intentions by driving 58 yards on ten plays in six minutes and fifteen seconds for a 28-yard Matt Bahr field goal to take a 3-0 lead.

The Bills then deployed their high octane offense by driving 66 yards in 1:23 and getting a game tying field goal by Scott Norwood. The drive was jump started by a 61-yard pass completion to James Lofton from Jim Kelly. Lofton had been their deep threat all year long, averaging just over 20 yards per catch during the 1990 season.

After a Giants punt, the Bills went to their vaunted no-huddle attack and moved the ball 80 yards on ten plays for the first touchdown in Super Bowl 25. Kelly was a perfect six for six on the drive, which included him completing four passes to Andre Reed for a total of 62 yards. Incredibly, the Bills never faced a third down on the drive. Eventually, from the one-yard line, Don Smith punched his way into the end zone for a touchdown and a 10-3 lead.

The Bills of that era were known for their offense but lost in the shuffle over the years of reminiscence was the fact that their defense was also very tough. As stated above, the unit featured prominently such pro-bowlers as Bruce Smith, Darryl Talley, and Cornelius Bennett., and throughout the first half, the Bills pounded Jeff Hostetler each and every time he dropped back to throw the ball.

After the two teams traded punts, the Bills were able to pin the Giants on their own 7-yard line. On the second play of their possession, Hostetler dropped back, stumbled, and was sacked in the end zone by Bruce Smith for a safety. The Bills lead 12-3 but they were able to avoid a major blow through some quick thinking by Hostetler; he saved a defensive touchdown from being scored as he protected the ball when Smith attempted to strip him. Two points are better than six, especially when a team has the defense the Giants possessed.

After receiving the free kick following the safety, the Bills could not muster even a single first down and therefore punted the ball back to the Giants, who started their drive from their 13-yard line with just 3:43 remaining in the first half. Jeff Hostetler began to mix it up a little, using runs from Ottis Anderson and David Meggett and play-action passes to move the ball into scoring position. In what is probably one of the most underrated plays in Super Bowl history, at least with regard to the final outcome, Hostetler drew the Giants to within 2 points, 12-10, with a 14-yard touchdown to Stephen Baker with 25 seconds remaining in the second quarter. Such a play can deflate the opposition, and with the Giants receiving the ball in the second half, they were very much in this game as the final seconds of the first half ticked off.

The opening drive of the second half saw the Giants with the ball at their 25 yard line. What followed was one of the most impressive drives in Super Bowl history as they managed to play keep-away from the high-octane K-Gun offense of the Bills.

At the start. though, the Bills held the Giants on the first two plays of the drive but the Giants responded by converting on four straight third down conversions in a drive that eventually led to a New York touchdown. Third down conversions for a first down may count just as much as first down conversions on first or second down, but the psychological impact should never be underestimated; it is like two-out runs in baseball - the defense is mere moments from getting off the field, but can't seem to close out the deal.

On the first third down attempt, the Giants needed eight yards when Hostetler hit Dave Meggett over the middle for a first down. Three plays later, the Giants faced a third and one and Ottis Anderson burst through the line for a 22-yard run that landed the Giants at the Buffalo 29-yard line. After two more plays, Hostetler was in the shotgun formation on a third and 13 play and completed a pass to Mark Ingram over the middle at the 26-yard line. A three yard pass when they needed 13 should have ended the drive, but Ingram broke not one, but five tackles to gain an extra eight yards to convert and give the Giants a first down. Finally, on third and four from the 12-yard line, Hostetler faked a hand off and hit Howard Cross, who gained nine yards to the Buffalo 3-yard line. Anderson finished the drive with a one-yard touchdown run, giving the Giants the lead, by a score of 17-12.

The 14-play, 75-yard long drive lasted a then-Super Bowl record nine minutes and 32 seconds (which has since been broken by the Giants as well in Super Bowl 42). But even more importantly, it kept the no-huddle K-Gun offense off the field for more than an hour (in real time) and their rustiness would show.

Since the Bills had scored their second quarter touchdown, New York head coach Bill Parcells employed a two-man rush to flood Jim Kelly’s passing lanes. The scheme was not effective in pressuring Kelly but it did pressure the receivers in many instances as they dropped several passes after being hit hard by the Giants' defense.

The Bills remained out of sync through most of the third quarter, at least in the passing game, but then they utilized another weapon: Thurman Thomas.

After Bruce Smith tackled Anderson for a two-yard loss at the Buffalo 37, forcing a Giants punt, the Bills stormed back as Thomas ran wild through the Giants' defense in one of the most outstanding and spectacular efforts in Super Bowl history. Thomas would finish the game with 135 yards rushing and 55 yards receiving.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Kelly handed the ball off to Thomas on a draw from the shotgun formation, and Thomas scampered 31 yards for a touchdown. With the extra point, the Bills retook the lead by a score of 19-17.

When the Giants got the ball back, they went back to their power offense, which would frequent feature three tight ends, and they would hold the ball for 7:32. The 14-play 74-yard drive began with yet another third down conversation, this time a reception by Mark Bavaro from Hostetler.

The Giants drove all the way down to the Buffalo 3-yard line and were on the verge of putting the game away with a touchdown when Bills nose tackle Jeff Wright made a tremendous tackle behind the line of scrimmage on third down. Finally, the Bills were able to make a stop on third down as the Giants settled for another Matt Bahr field goal and a 20-19 lead.

The Bills were only able to get as far as their own 41-yard line and punted once again, which enabled the Giants to further kill the clock. Once Buffalo got the ball back after a New York punt, they were staring at 90 yards to the end zone with only two minutes and sixteen seconds remaining.

What followed was one of the most impressive demonstrations of grit (Fast Forward to about 9:30) ever seen. From their own 10-yard line, the Bills used a combination of short passes, Kelly scrambles, and two long Thurman Thomas runs to bring them all the way down to the Giants' 29 yard line with eight seconds remaining. At any point in the drive, it could have been over, but Kelly and Thomas refused to allow the Bills to die, and while the two-minute drill was ideal for their style of offense, the Giants were not just going to allow them to drive down the field in a normal way. Trickery and common sense had to prevail, hence the Thomas runs and the Kelly scrambles. Quick hits and even quicker thinking made a Bills' victory possible. It is possible to argue that had the outcome been different, this may have gone down as the most impressive winning Super Bowl drive of all time, even more so than Super Bowl 23, 36, or 42.

So despite the great defensive game plan (Bill Belichick was the defensive coordinator for the Giants; his game plan is actually on display in Canton at the Hall of Fame), and the overwhelming advantage in time of possession (40:33 for the Giants, including about 22 minutes in the second half alone!), the New York Football Giants were in very real danger of losing the game as Buffalo made their last minute dash across the field to the Giants' 29-yard line. With eight seconds remaining, Jim Kelly spiked the ball and stopped the clock, setting the stage for Scott Norwood to attempt a 47-yard field goal. Players on both sidelines were holding hands and praying for their side to end victoriously. On the right hash mark the ball was placed and the kick had the distance, but Norwood pushed it wide-right and the Giants only needed one kneel-down to become champions, by a score of 20-19. Ottis Anderson was named MVP of the game by virtue of his 102 rushing yards and a touchdown.

There are many reasons why this game was placed at number one on our list. Firstly, it featured a clash of styles that actually worked - no one team dominated; the see-saw nature of the game made it compelling and entertaining. Secondly, it was a clean game - no turnovers by either team in any circumstance. The closest instance was the safety, but Jeff Hostetler may have done more for his team in being sacked in the end zone than anything else. Thirdly, the ending - this is what people will mostly remember this game for, but the most important aspect of the ending is that it was a straight up or down finale - the Bills would win or lose as a consequence of the field goal. Unlike Super Bowl 36 or 38 when the worst that could happen was overtime, Super Bowl 25 was going to break someone's heart on that play, regardless of outcome.

Just as the two teams traveled divergent paths to get to Super Bowl 25, they would also follow divergent paths after this game. Buffalo would be AFC Champions for three more consecutive seasons, but losing in all of their Super Bowl appearances. The Giants would not be serious contenders for the championship again until the beginning of the 2000's, culminating in their upset victory over New England in Super Bowl 42. Ironically, two of New York's assistant coaches and proteges of Bill Parcells would face off against each other that game - Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin. The tentacles of Super Bowl 25 reach long and far into the present day, and between the context, the game play, and the final result, we are proud to name Super Bowl 25 as the greatest Super Bowl ever played.

We would like to thank everyone for taking the time to read our Top 10 series. We thoroughly enjoyed doing this and hope everyone enjoyed reading it.

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