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A brief history of Super Bowl history’s most dominant performances

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 19:00, 11 February 2022

The Super Bowl not only crowns a new NFL champion, it is the league’s flagship event. It has provided plenty of classic battles, but also some rather one-sided performances. A look at the most dominant performances in the history of the ‘big show’.

The NFL hosts a unique playoff structure compared to other U.S. sports – each game is a single event, and not a best-of-seven games series. This ratchets up the drama and adds massive significance to every big play and every misstep.

Sometimes, this results in a contest worthy of the event, in which two evenly-matched teams engage in a battle for the ages. On more than a few occasions, however, the Super Bowl serves more as a coronation for one side.

With Super Bowl LVI just days away, we’re taking a look at a few of the most thoroughly dominant performances from Super Bowl history.


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1974 Steelers (Super Bowl IX, January 12, 1975, vs. Minnesota Vikings)

You’d expect a team that won four Super Bowls in a six-year span to be represented on this type of list.

It can be difficult to separate the performances of the 1970s Steelers. After all, there were so many constants: head coach Chuck Noll, quarterback Terry Bradshaw, running back Franco Harris, wide receivers Lynn Swan and John Stallworth, an offensive line anchored by Hall of Famer Mike Webster… and the defense. That defense. The Steel Curtain.

With all due respect to that star-studded offense, the story of the 1970s Steelers rests almost entirely on the Steel Curtain, and in no game was that unit more menacing than in the franchise’s first Super Bowl triumph. Against Minnesota’s own high-profile defense – the Purple People-Eaters – Bradshaw attempted only 14 passes, completing nine, for just 96 yards and a single touchdown. Meanwhile, Franco Harris put up a gaudy 158 rushing yards, averaged just four and a half yards per carry and fumbled twice, losing one. The Steelers second running back, Rocky Bleier, failed to average four yards apiece on 17 carries, and also lost a fumble. The game was there for the Vikings to take.

HOWEVER…

Perhaps the greatest incarnation of the Steel Curtain, led by Mel Blount, Mean Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Mike Wagner and L.C. Greenwood (whom I’ve argued had perhaps the greatest individual defensive showing in postseason history a year later) positively suffocated Fran Tarkenton and the Vikings offense.

Tarkenton completed just 11 of 26 passes, for 102 yards, with no touchdowns and three interceptions. What’s more, the typically fleet-of-foot Tarkenton was limited to a single rushing attempt, for zero yards, while Vikings running back Chuck Foreman carried 12 times for 18 yards, with a lost fumble.

Fittingly, the Steelers got on the board in the second quarter with a sack of Tarkenton in the end zone for a safety, before subsequently upping their lead to nine with a third quarter touchdown. The Vikings pulled a touchdown back in the fourth quarter –not via the offense, but via a blocked punt recovered in the end zone.

Even at this point, however, by all accounts, there was no sense that the game was theirs for the taking. To hear those that saw it tell it, that Steelers’ three-point lead might as well have been thirty. The final score, 16-6, is a fitting one for the signature performance of football’s most storied defense. Although…

1985 Chicago Bears (Super Bowl IX, January 26, 1986, vs. New England Patriots)

There’s a compelling case to be made for the 1985 Bears as the greatest defensive team in NFL history. Under the guidance of defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, this ultra-aggressive unit was the engine behind the Bears’ 15-1 regular season record, allowing just over 250 yards of total offense and less than 13 points per game, while forcing an astounding three and a half turnovers per contest.

The Bears’ offensive cupboard was hardly, well, bare. Walter Payton, though in the latter stages of his career, turned in another stellar season, rushing for 1,551 yards and nine touchdowns in the regular season, while quarterback Jim McMahon, a wild card in every sense of the word, marshaled the offense.

However, the Bears’ run to the Super Bowl belong to Wilbur Marshall, Richard Dent, William Perry, Mike Singletary, Otis Wilson, Steve McMichael, Dan Hampton & Co.

After that phenomenal regular season, the Bears turned in an incredible two-game run through the NFC playoffs, holding the New York Giants  and the high-powered Los Angeles Rams to zero points. In the Super Bowl, against the admittedly woefully overmatched Patriots, the Bears turned in as devastating a performance.

Funnily, the Patriots broke the deadlock in the first quarter with a field goal. From that point on, the Bears sacked the Pats’ starting quarterback, Tony Eason, three times, forced him to fumble (which they recovered) and held him without a completion on six attempts, before knocking him out of the game. They then set about tormenting his replacement, Steve Grogan, who was sacked four times, threw two interceptions (one was returned for a touchdown), and genuinely looked terrified to be involved. Along the way, the Bears, forced (and recovered) another two fumbles, and scored 44 unanswered points. 

As difficult as this may be to believe, the final score, 46-10, flatters the Patriots.

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1989 San Francisco 49ers (Super Bowl XXIV, January 28, 1990, vs. Denver Broncos)

Four years after the Bears’ destruction of the Patriots, the San Francisco 49ers turned in the most comprehensively dominant Super Bowl performance of all time. Defending champions and already winners of three Super Bowls in the decade, the Niners took the field in New Orleans against John Elway and the Denver Broncos, hitting the ground running, and never eased off the gas.

They opened the scoring with a 20-yard pass from Joe Montana to Jerry Rice. After a Broncos field goal, Montana found tight end Brent Jones for a seven-yard score. In second quarter, the Niners scored twice more – first on a one-yard run by fullback Tom Rathman, and later on a 38-yard strike from Montana to Rice. After halftime, Montana found Rice again, this time from 28 yards. Shortly after, Montana hit the hero of Super Bowl XXIII, John Taylor, for a 35-yard strike, to make the score 41-3.

A pyrrhic three-yard rushing touchdown by Elway made the score 41-10, after which the Niners got back to work. In the fourth quarter they found the end zone twice more (that’s right, eight touchdowns, two per quarter) with Rathman scoring again, and lead running back Roger Craig getting in on the action to cap the scoring at 55-10.

In just about every way conceivable, this was a perfect performance. Montana, in winning his fourth Super Bowl, completed 22 of 29 passes for 297 yards and five touchdowns. Jerry Rice, who’d won the MVP of the previous Super Bowl, was every bit as dominant, with seven catches, 148 yards and three touchdowns.

Every bit as impressive was the work that the Niners did defensively, where they held Elway to just 108 yards on 10 of 26 passing, eight yards of four rushing attempts, sacked him four times, picked him off twice, and forced him into a pair of fumbles, of which they recovered one.

In all, the Niners held the ball for nearly two-thirds of the game, tallied over 460 yards of total offence (while holding the Broncos to 167), and forced four turnovers, well not turning the ball over themselves.

We may one day see a more perfect performance than this – though it’s tough to conceive of exactly what that would look like.

1992 Dallas Cowboys (Super Bowl XXVII, January 31, 1993, vs. Buffalo Bills)

It’s only appropriate that you know that your author, though somewhat lapsed, has been a Dallas Cowboys fan since youth. What’s more, this team, the first of the Cowboys’ three Super Bowl winners in a four-year stretch, will forever be my most special and meaningful NFL team. As if all of that wasn’t, this most emphatic and joyous triumph took place about 15 minutes from where I grew up. I say all of this only to ask that, if I begin to gush a bit, please forgive me. Now…

Just three years after an utterly disastrous 1-15 season, the Dallas Cowboys led by head coach Jimmie Johnson and an army of aggressive, athletic and hungry young stars, scaled the NFL mountain as impressively as any team ever has. 

The ‘Boys raced through the regular season with a 13-3 record, scoring a second-best-in-the-NFL 25.6 points per game, while allowing just over 15 per contest, which was good for fifth in the league. 

On offense, Troy Aikman, though not a compiler of monsters number was confident, efficient and content to play the role that was asked of him in the pursuit of victory. Meanwhile, running back Emmitt Smith – the man who would go on to break Walter Payton’s record as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher – turned in his greatest campaign to date, durably toting the ball 373 times for a league-best 1,713 yards and 18 touchdowns.

Completing the so-called ‘triplets’ was wide receiver Michael Irvin. The fifth-year man had an incredible year, catching 78 passes for nearly 1,400 yards, and seven touchdowns. We’ve not even mentioned the second receiver (and big-play threat) Alvin Harper, tight end Jay Novacek, and an offensive line that’s among the best league has ever seen.

They were every bit as devastating on defense. Between the preseason, regular season and postseason, they did not play a single game in which they failed to force a turnover. Five times in their 16 regular season games, they forced at least three turnovers, while only allowing 300 yards of total offense on three occasions, while holding an opponent under 100 total yards twice.

In the Super Bowl against the high-powered Buffalo Bills no one could have expected the defensive dominance. Admittedly, starting QB Jim Kelly was only able to attempt seven passes before the Bills were forced to turn to backup Frank Reich.


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This was a team that had appeared in the previous two Super Bowls and would meet the Cowboys again a year later, themselves loaded, with Hall of Famers Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, and James Lofton on offense. Plus, Reich was a quarterback who’d, just weeks earlier, led a record-breaking 32-point comeback against the Houston Oilers. However, it’s tough to imagine anyone being fully prepared for the tragicomedy of errors – in combination with the full force of the Cowboys attack – that rained down on the Bills.

It’s tough to remember now, but it was actually Buffalo that opened the scoring, through a two-yard run from Thurman Thomas. The Cowboys responded with a touchdown pass from Aikman to Novacek, after which the Bills fumbled near their own goal line – the Cowboys returning it for a touchdown. That fumble was the first of an astounding nine turnovers for the Bills on the day. 

From there, it was off to the races. Aikman, in an MVP performance, completed more than 70% of his passes for 273 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Emmitt Smith ran 22 times for 108 yards and a touchdown. Michael Irvin caught six passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns. Novacek and Harper caught a combined eight passes for 117 yards and two TDs. It was a veritable feeding frenzy.

The Cowboys would go on to win two more Super Bowls in the decade, but neither was as freewheeling, euphoric and dominant is this 52-17 hammering.

1994 San Francisco 49ers (Super Bowl XXIX, January 29, 1995, vs. San Diego Chargers)

Five years after their, picture-perfect showing against the Broncos in New Orleans, the 49ers returned to the Super Bowl… and basically did it again!

Most notable by his absence of course, was Joe Montana, who was now in Kansas City. At the helm now was Montana’s longtime backup – and future all-time great in his own right –1994 NFL MVP Steve Young. In fact, a good portion of the Niners’ roster, on both sides of the ball, had turned over in the half-decade since that last Super Bowl win.

However, whether it was Ricky Watters replacing Roger Craig, William Floyd stepping in at fullback for Tom Rathman, Dana Stubblefield and Bryant Jones on the defensive line, former Cowboy Ken Norton Jr. at linebacker, or Deion Sanders and Tim McDonald in the secondary, this team remained a juggernaut.

In January of 1995 in Miami, the 49ers is ran into a San Diego Chargers team that had won its division with a lackluster 11-5 record, barely crept past the Miami Dolphins in the Divisional Round (22-21) and the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game (17-13). Far be it for me to contend that these Chargers – or, really, any team that’s reached a Super Bowl – were bad. However, in the days and hours leading up to the game, it was virtually impossible to find a soul under the illusion that this should be a competitive affair. And it was not.

In the first quarter, Young hit Rice and Watters for touchdowns of 44 and 51 yards. Though San Diego responded with a touchdown of their own, the game was effectively over already. Young then connected with his running backs, Floyd and Watters, on touchdowns in the second quarter. It was more of the same after halftime, with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Rice, which made the score 42-10. A 98-yard kickoff return TD and a 30-yard pass late in the game for the Chargers, sandwiched another TD pass to Rice (Young threw six on the day) made the final score a bit more dignified for the history books.

It’s unlikely anyone could have dealt with the 49ers on that day. Unfortunately, the Chargers, on the wrong side of perhaps the greatest talent mismatch the Super Bowl has ever seen, were not even equipped to try.

2000 Baltimore Ravens (Super Bowl XXXV, January 28, 2001, vs. New York Giants)

Perhaps you’ve noticed a trend among the teams that have authored the most dominant Super Bowl performances. By and large, regardless of the team’s offensive prowess, each one had an aggressive, hard-hitting, swarming, often snarling defense. We’ve spoken already about the Steel Curtain, the ‘85 Bears, and the fantastic defenses of the Cowboys and 49ers – which were often overshadowed by their comically talented attacks.

In January of 2001, another defense with a legitimate shout for ‘best-ever’ status carried the Baltimore Ravens – perhaps more so than any single unit has carried a team – to a Super Bowl title.

It must be said that the Giants team they encountered in in Tampa was no attacking force. The 2000 Giants defense, led by Michael Strahan, may have been very good, but it was NOT the Ravens’ D.

During the regular season, the Ravens allowed, on average, 10.3 points per game. In four postseason games, that fell to 5.75. Nine times in 16 regular season games, they forced at least three turnovers, including one game of five, and another two of six. In stomping their way through the AFC playoffs as a Wild Card (these things happen when Trent Dilfer is heading the ‘attack’ that will be your passenger), they held the Broncos and the Oakland Raiders – the NFL’s second- and third-best offensive teams that season – to a combined six points.

The stunning collection of talent led by Ray Lewis that included (but was not limited to) Duane Starks, Rod Woodson, Sam Adams, Tony Siragusa, Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett summarily dismissed any thought the Giants might have had about ‘offense’. Quarterback Kerry Collins attempted 39 passes, of which he completed 15, for 112 yards with four interceptions and no touchdowns, and was sacked four times.

Of the 100 teams that have taken part in the Super Bowl thus far, only 14 have posted fewer yards of total offense than the Ravens did in 2001, while cruising to a 34-7 victory that wasn’t even that close.

2013 Seattle Seahawks (Super Bowl XLVIII, February 2, 2014, vs. Denver Broncos) 

In 2013, Peyton Manning, less than two years removed from neck surgery that cost him the entire 2011 season and threatened his career, turned in one of the greatest individual quarterbacking seasons in NFL history. That season, Manning starting all 16 regular season games for the Broncos, completed over 68% of his passes, for NFL records of 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. He led the Broncos to the league’s best offense, a 13-3 record, and Super Bowl XLVIII in New York, as favourites.

The first snap of the game – which flew over Manning’s head, into the end zone, and resulted in a safety – was a pretty stark indication that this would not be Denver’s day. An ascendant Russell Wilson, powered by the running Marshawn Lynch, and by a versatile, blindingly fast, intelligent and powerful defense led by the famed Legion of Boom took care of the rest.

Though the Seahawks only lead 8-0 after the first quarter, there wasn’t much for Denver to pin its hopes on. At 15-0, following a Lynch touchdown run in the second, the air was just about out of the Broncos’ balloon. Much of whatever hope remained was extinguished by Malcolm Smith’s 69-yard interception return shortly before halftime that made the score 22-0. Percy Harvin then took the kickoff at the start of the third quarter 87 yards for a touchdown.

Manning’s inability to mount any type of passing attack (despite a nominally attractive near-70% completion percentage and 280 yards), combined with the Broncos’ abject inability to run the ball (14 carries for 27 yards), in the path of a Seahawks squad at the peak of its destructive powers meant that there nothing to be done but stay the course until the clock wound down to zero, which it did, with 43-8 on the scoreboard.


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