Posted by Scott Kacsmar on February 9, 2011
Eighty-seven yards away from the end zone. 119 seconds on the clock. One timeout remaining. Down by six. The Super Bowl is on the line. This is the stuff football fans dream of watching, and players dream of performing on the biggest stage. This is the stuff legends are made of.
This is what the Steelers had staring them down at the end of Super Bowl XLV against the Packers. If they were successful, there would be only one way of describing it. The Steelers may not have known it when they took the field, but they were looking at the greatest drive in NFL history.
What is currently the greatest drive in NFL history? There are many great moments that stand out in NFL lore, but this is not a question that has had a definitive answer to it. I will go back now and review the candidates.
What should the greatest drive in NFL history be about? Significance and excellence. For starters, I think it obviously has to be about the fourth quarter and overtime, and be a drive that ties or wins the game. It probably has to be from a postseason game so that the drive had a high amount of significance. When you think of the famous drives your team went on to win games, how many of them are from the regular season? How many regular season games get drives or games that have their own nickname? Then I think it should include at least one memorable play that will stand the test of time. I think any fan would also prefer a touchdown over a field goal.
Let's start the timeline of candidates.
1958 NFL Championship: Colts at Giants - "The Greatest Game Ever Played", this is the first NFL game to ever go to sudden-death overtime, and it's NBC broadcast is considered to be a large factor in the NFL's rise to popularity. Trailing 17-14 with just over two minutes left, Johnny Unitas and the Colts took over at their own 14. He drove them 73 yards in what was a true two-minute drill before the phrase was coined, for the tying FG to force the first ever overtime session. Raymond Berry, a championship-game record 12 catches on the day, had some highlight-worthy catches on the drive that you have probably seen before. The Colts won the game in overtime, 23-17, after Alan Ameche's famous one-yard TD plunge capped off the eighty yard drive.
1967 NFL Championship: Cowboys at Packers - "The Ice Bowl". Down 17-14 in brutal conditions, Bart Starr and the Packers take over with 4:50 left at their own 32 yard line. On third and goal with just 16 seconds left, Starr's quarterback sneak into the end zone won the game for Green Bay, 21-17. Had Starr been stopped, the clock would have likely expired before Green Bay could run another play. The Packers went on to win Super Bowl II.
1975 NFC Divisional: Cowboys at Vikings - "The Hail Mary". Down 14-10 with 1:51 left, Roger Staubach and the Cowboys had 85 yards to go. After getting to midfield with twenty-four seconds left, Staubach launches a deep pass to Drew Pearson, and it is caught for the game-winning touchdown. This was the first known use of the term "Hail Mary" to describe a desperate pass thrown deep down the field. The play is also famous for Pearson apparently pushing off the defender to make the catch. Dallas would later lose the Super Bowl to the Steelers.
1981 NFC Championship: Cowboys at 49ers - "The Catch". Dallas fans sure had a lot of excitement back in the day. In a game that featured nine turnovers (six by the 49ers), the 49ers were behind 27-21 with just under five minutes left, and the ball at their own 11. Joe Montana led his first classic winning drive, as he rolled right and seemingly throws the ball out of bounds on 3rd down, only to see Dwight Clark snatch the ball high out of the air for the winning touchdown with fifty-one seconds left as the 49ers would then go on to win their first Super Bowl.
1986 AFC Championship: Broncos at Browns - "The Drive". John Elway and the Broncos trailed 20-13 with 5:32 left in Cleveland, and had 98 yards to go. They used 15 plays to go the distance, with the tying touchdown coming with thirty-seven seconds left. Denver would go on to win the game in overtime, 23-20, but would lose in the Super Bowl to the Giants.
1988 Super Bowl XXIII: 49ers vs. Bengals - Finally a Super Bowl makes the list. Joe Montana, the game's best quarterback, had a 16-13 deficit with 3:20 left and starting at his own 8 yard line. After spotting John Candy in the crowd, Montana went to work on the Bengals' defense, hitting 8/9 passes for 97 yards and the winning touchdown pass to John Taylor with thirty-four seconds remaining. While the Taylor play is shown the most, the play that stands out for me is when game MVP Jerry Rice catches a pass over the middle on 2nd & 20 for 27 yards. At this point, it was almost inevitable Montana was going to finish the Bengals off. The Super Bowl finally had a great last-minute score to win the championship.
2007 Super Bowl XLII: Giants vs. Patriots - The Patriots were 2:39 away from the perfect season. Except the Giants pulled off the greatest drive in NFL history. Yes, we have a winner. You want significance? The Patriots were trying to become the only team to ever go 19-0 in a season. You want a tough situation? Try 2:39 left, down 14-10, and 83 yards away from the end zone (the Giants did have all three timeouts). A field goal would not work. It was touchdown or bust. Of all the games I listed, this is the only one where a team absolutely had to score a touchdown in the biggest championship game of them all to win, and that is exactly what New York did.
It was far from the prettiest drive. The Giants faced a 4th & 1, and as Patriot owner Robert Kraft stood up to adjust his belt with hopes of jumping for joy after a stop, Brandon Jacobs was able to power ahead for two yards and a first down. Asante Samuel just missed out on a game-ending interception. Then, the Giants produced the greatest play in Super Bowl history. Eli Manning, getting out of a sack for probably the first time in his life, somehow escapes and fires a pass downfield, that is caught with his helmet by little-known David Tyree. Steve Smith, a rookie at the time, does a great job near the sideline for a first down on 3rd & 11. Then Eli lobs the game-winning touchdown to Plaxico Burress with thirty-five seconds remaining, putting the Giants ahead 17-14. It was 12 plays, 83 yards, and it was frantic, challenging, impressive, and beautiful. It is the greatest drive in NFL history, and it had a chance to be dethroned three years later.
Ben Roethlisberger is no stranger to late game-winning drives in the Super Bowl. Two years ago, down 23-20, he moved the Steelers 78 yards (88 after a penalty to start the drive) in the final minutes of Super Bowl XLIII against Arizona, finishing the drive with a game-winning touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes with thirty-five seconds remaining in the 27-23 victory. The Packers were also well aware of Roethlisberger's fourth quarter magic.
Late in the 2009 season the Steelers and Packers engaged in one of the greatest passing games in NFL history. Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers combined for 886 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. Trailing 36-30, Roethlisberger took over with 2:01 remaining, one timeout and 86 yards away from the end zone. Sound familiar? He threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Mike Wallace on the final play of the game, giving the Steelers a 37-36 victory and 503 yards passing for Roethlisberger. Faced with almost the identical situation a year later in Super Bowl XLV, you had a feeling we could be watching greatness unfold. What was at stake for Pittsburgh? A record seventh Super Bowl title, and a third for this core group of Steelers. It would also complete an 18-point comeback, the largest in Super Bowl history, and tied for the largest in any NFL championship game (2006 AFC Championship, Colts vs. Patriots).
But we all know what happened this time. After moving the ball twenty yards, Roethlisberger's 4th & 5 pass fell incomplete to Mike Wallace, securing Green Bay's fourth Super Bowl victory. In the 2009 game the Steelers faced a 4th & 7 early in the drive, and Roethlisberger was able to stand tall in the pocket and complete a 32 yard pass to Holmes for the first down. This time, he was unable to connect with Wallace on the 4th & 5.
Was the moment too big for Roethlisberger and the Steelers? Hard to say. They are an experienced group, yet Mike Wallace was visibly unaware of his routes for the final plays of the game. What about Roethlisberger? He stayed in the pocket for the drive, unable to display his playmaking ability with his legs to set up throws that demoralize defenses in this situation. Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have lost their latest Super Bowl. Is there some negative effect of being asked about enhancing your legacy and hearing how great you are for two weeks leading up to the big game?
While nothing that happened in Super Bowl XLV can change the great game-winning drives the Steelers had against Arizona and Green Bay in previous seasons, one thing is for sure. Roethlisberger and the Steelers had an opportunity for the undisputed greatest drive in NFL history. The Packers stopped them.