Friday, January 27, 2017

Anniversary of Super Bowl XXV

Yes, today is the anniversary of this incredible game! It was played in 1991, and was a bit overshadowed by the outbreak of war in Iraq under President George Bush (that would not be the only year where we could say that  little bit of news). 

Of course, I am a bit biased, being a fan of the New York Giants. That makes my memory of this a bit shinier than what it is for others, surely.

Yet, it was a fine Super Bowl.  Both teams brought their A-game into this one, and the game was remarkable for that reason. It was the first postseason game in NFL history where neither team had a turnover. Since then, this has been achieved a few other times.

But this game was a contrast in styles. The Giants were the defensive minded team, conservative and relatively quiet. They were the heavy underdogs among the relative elites heading into the season, but they pounded away, overcame injuries and, ultimately, perservered to get their shot. The week before this game, they ended the 49ers dynasty in San Francisco, on the very last play of the game. Ironically, they did it with a field goal in the final seconds to win it.

The Bills, by contrast, were the hot, flashy, cocky team. Most people at the start of the season predicted that they would win the AFC East, but not much else. They had been known as the Bickerin Bills, after all. They were not supposed to be as good as some of the other AFC contenders, particularly the Bengals, who were supposed to be the team. But the Bills caught fire with their no huddle offense, and a talented defense. They had people standing up and taking notice by midseason, and they just kept gettingf hotter and hotter. They plowed through Miami and the Raiders in the AFC playoffs, scoring an unbelievable 95 points in those two combined games. 

Buffalo crushed the Raiders, 51-3 in the AFC Championship Game, and headed into the Super Bowl as heavy favorites, and were cocky and acted the part. Some Bills were complaining that the Giants, and not San Francisco, had won the NFC title game, because the 49ers were more famous, and beating them would perhaps look and feel more legitimate. Another Bills player announced that he was getting his finger measured for a ring.

When the two teams finally took the field, they were both ready to go. It was the Bills new, fast, and sophisticated, high-powered offense versus the traditional, physical, smash mouth brand of football of the Giants. The high-flying Bills planned to ram Thurman Thomas down the Giants throats, and then to open up their deadly passing game. The Giants, in the meantime, had a smothering secondary, and on offense, they had a punishing, physical style featuring a solid running game of their own. What they did on that day was similar to what they had done against San Francisco: namely, to hang onto the ball and not put it in the hands of the dangerous offense. In Super Bowl XXV, the Giants would hold onto the ball for a Super Bowl record 40 minutes and 27 seconds (most people say it was 40 minutes and 23 seconds, although they forget the crucial final four seconds after Scott Norwood's field goal, when Jeff Hostetler knelt down to run out the clock).

It was an incredible Super Bowl. The Giants had the momentum early, driving the ball for a field goal and an early 3-0 lead. The Bills answered with a field goal of their own, and that was the first quarter. But in the second, Buffalo came alive with a touchdown drive for a 10-3 lead, and then got a safety for a 12-3 lead. But the Giants managed an impressive drive that culminated in a touchdown in the final minute of the first half, closing to within 12-10. They opened the second half with what was then the longest drive in Super Bowl history, filled with some highlight plays, particularly by wide receiver Mark Ingram and running back Ottis Anderson, and ending with an exclamation point touchdown that gave New York the 17-12 lead. Buffalo struck back all of a sudden with a long touchdown run by Thurman Thomas to make it 19-17 going into the final quarter. The Giants notched a field goal midway through the fourth, making it 20-19, and it came down to Buffalo's final drive. They got to within field goal position, and if it was good, of course, they would win.

We all know what happened then.

Norwood missed by two feet, and the rest is history. Parcells resigned shortly thereafter, and a few years later, he became the head coach of the New England Patriots. Later, he coached the New York Jets and the Dallas Cowboys. The Bills kept getting back to the big game, but never won it. They were dismantled by Washington completely the next year, and then after a fast start in the first half of Super Bowl XXVII, they completely fell apart and made mistake after mistake, committing a shocking nine turnovers and losing, 52-17. They played a little bit better the next time around against Dallas, but lost that fourth and final Super Bowl, too. They were very good, but they never did manage to win one. Yet, in this game, they came so unbelievably close!

What a game both teams played! And what a championship season for the Giants!

Here is my tribute to them, and to a great game, and probably the greatest week in the history of the New York Giants, a week which saw them defeat the 49ers in the NFC title game on one Sunday, and then eke out a victory against the Bills the next. I thought it would be good to add the blog entry that I wrote about it last year at around this time. It was called "Super Bowl XXV Memories" and was published on January 14, 2016:

Super Bowl XXV Memories               

Super Bowl XXV  – New York Giants 20, Buffalo Bills 19. Played on January 27, 1991 at Tampa Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Scott Norwood shank. MVP Ottis Anderson. Favorite Bills by 7. National anthem Whitney Houston. Halftime show New Kids on the Block. Attendance 73,813. Network ABC. Announcers Al Michaels, Frank Gifford, and Dan Dierdorf. Nielsen ratings 41.8. est. 79.51 million viewers. Market share 63. Cost of 30-second commercial US$800,000. Ottis Anderson 102 yards 1 TD.

Personal Memories: This is it! When I think of my very favorite Super Bowls, this one tops the list! For that matter, when I think of my favorite teams, and NFL memories that made me happiest growing up, the 1990-91 New York Giants were the team that tops that list. Entering this game, they had completed a 13-3 regular season record, and had entered the playoffs as the second seed in the NFC. And even though they wound up winning the Super Bowl in a very exciting fashion, this game does not even top my own personal favorite list from that season. That would belong to the game the Giants played the week before to get to the Super Bowl, when they knocked off the two-time defending Super Bowl champion 49ers in San Francisco.

Both teams had raced out to a 10-0 undefeated start, the first time that this had happened in a long time in the NFL, if not ever (it has since happened twice, in 2009 with the Saints and the Colts, who would meet in that season's Super Bowl, and then this season, with the Panthers and the Patriots). But at the time, two teams starting off so incredibly well and continuing this so late into the season was unheard of.

Everyone thought that the 49ers were the best team,and with good reason. They had won their fourth Super Bowl of the 1980's the prior season, and had won the title two years in a row. They still had that incredible dynasty lineup, with huge names like Montana, Rice, Craig, Haley, and Lott,among others. Think about it: Steve Young, who would soon take over quarterbacking responsiblities for the 49ers and become one of the most prolific passers of his era, had been a backup behind Montana for years, and he was easily good enough to be the starter for most teams. Yeah, they were that good.

So, they entered the season as the odds on favorites to achieve the historic "three peat", something that no NFL team had ever managed to do during the Super Bowl era. The Packers had won three NFL Championships in a row, and they had won the first two Super Bowls after winning the NFL Championship the year before, but that meant that they had not won three Super Bowls in a row.  San Francisco seemed on the verge of achieving exactly that, and everyone agreed that this would separate them from everyone else in history, and raise their status to greatest team of all time.

And there were the Giants, who had the gall to think that they could contend against such a team. They were set to meet in Week 12, and after both teams had remained undefeated at 10-0, it was a hugely anticipated match between what everyone presumed would be two unbeaten teams. Some were calling it the game of the century. Then, the week before the two teams would meet on Monday Night Football, they both lost to division rivals. The Giants lost at Philadelphia, 31-13, while San Francisco was downed by the Rams, 28-17.

So, it would be a meeting not of perfect teams, but of 10-1 teams. Still, it was one of the most watched Monday Night Football games ever, with everyone expecting it to be an offensive fireworks show.

It wasn't. In fact, the game would be the lowest scoring contest of the entire 1990 season. The Giants went up in the second quarter after getting a field goal, and the 49ers responded quickly with a touchdown, when Montana hit John Taylor. That made it 7-3, and that was it for the scoring. The Giants had some opportunities late in the game, but they opted to try and keep the drive alive, rather than going for a field goal to cut the lead to 7-6, and that cost them. On the final drive, instead of only needing a field goal to win it, they needed a touchdown, and they were not able to get it.

The Giants had lost two games in a row, and desperately needed a win. They got one against Minnesota, a team that themselves were struggling. But the next weekend, the Giants hosted the red-hot Buffalo Bills, who were emerging as the clear favorites in the AFC. This was taken as a major test for Buffalo, being from the AFC, and thus constantly questioned, as the AFC had lost the last six Super Bowls, and were seen as the weaker conference. But the Bills played hardball against the Giants, and defeated New York on a soggy December day, in a physical contest that helped legitimize them among football fans as a serious contender not just to make the Super Bowl, but possibly to win it. The game was costly for both teams, since the two starting quarterbacks both went down - first Phil Simms for the Giants (who was enjoying the finest season of his career and led the league among quarterbacks in overall statistics that season, and Jim Kelly for the Bills. Still, it was a triumph for Buffalo, cause for celebration. Indeed, when these two teams would meet in the Super Bowl, the Bills would officially be favored by one touchdown.

In the meantime, however, the Giants were reeling. They took the next two games on the road against weak teams, but won by a field goal margin against the Cardinals in the desert, and then the Patriots at Foxboro. The Patriots were the worst team in the league that year (a far cry from these days, isn't it?), and the Giants barely hung onto the game to finish at 13-3.

A lot of people expected the Giants to go one and done once in the playoffs, given the injury to Simms and the seeming end of the strong momentum that they had played with early in the season. Their first opponent happened to be the Chicago Bears, the third seed, and these two teams were a mirror image of one another. Tough, conservative, physical teams that had each won the Super Bowl years before. But the Giants used the versatility of their new starting quarterback, Jeff Hostetler, who used his athleticism and mobility to add a dangerous element to the Giants normally predictable offense. In the meantime, the defense shut down the Bears, and the combination was a surprisingly easy and convincing victory, as the Giants stomped on Chicago, 31-3.

The Giants and 49ers had been the two best teams in the NFC all season, and so it was fitting that they would meet in that year's NFC Championship Game. This game would prove to be intense and physical to an extreme. That is the reason that I count it as my very favorite NFL game right to this day. New York came in as heavy underdogs, as the 49ers were 8-point favorites. Everyone expected them to at least get back to the Super Bowl, and for many, the real question was whether or not they could beat the Bills, who again looked incredible in running through the AFC playoffs, easily dispatching with the Raiders in the AFC title game by a whopping 51-3 margin. They had a 38-point lead by halftime!

The 49ers were, again, the most accomplished team in the NFL at that point. They had won four titles, including the two prior ones. They owned the best record in the league in 1990, finishing at 14-2, and of course, the result as that they had home field advantage in that NFC title game. The names on that 49ers team are immortal, and include Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott, Charles Haley, Matt Millen, John Taylor, Roger Craig, and others. They were more than a formidable opponent. They were probably the biggest obstacle that any team could hurdle. The Giants clearly would have their work cut out for them.

Unlike in their earlier meeting during the regular season, the Giants would try to put points on the board at every opportunity, even if that meant sacrificing the touchdown for the field goal. They had lost by four points in the earlier meeting, and neglecting capitalizing on a field goal opportunity early in the final quarter had come back to haunt them in the final minute of the contest. So this time, the Giants relied on field goals. As it turned out, they scored field goals exclusively in this contest, and were unable to penetrate to get a touchdown. But the defense was tough, and kept the Giants in what proved to be another low scoring contest.

It was a bunch of field goals in the first half, but the 49ers faithful smelled blood when Montana once again hit John Taylor, who sprinted into the end zone, outrunning the pursuing Giant defenders. The score was now 13-6, and it seemed that San Francisco might be able to break the game open. But the New York defense kept strong, while the Giants offense kept plugging away, getting a field goal to bring it to 13-9.

However, the Giants defense (which was the best in the league that year) were not the only solid defense on the field that day. San Francisco had the second rated defense in the NFC, and they showed why on this day. New York kept struggling, but the 49ers held firm, forcing a punt in the final quarter, as they tried to cling to their 13-9 lead. That was when what may have been the turning point of the game occurred. Bill Parcells was known as a gambler, and he took a big chance here, calling a fake punt, and giving instead to Gary Reasons, who easily picked up enough for a first down to keep the drive alive. Not much later, the G-Men got another field goal to close to within a single point of the 49ers.

Still, San Francisco had a chance to clinch the win during the final minutes, as they were driving and trying to hang onto the ball and run the clock out on the Giants. What seemed like a huge first down from Steve Young to Bret Jones. Young was in because Montana had gotten knocked out of the game. In fact, he would never fully recover from the hit that Leonard Marshall delivered. Hostetler also took some hits, particularly one by former Giant defender Jim Burt, who hit his former teammate square on the knee. It looked like a serious injury, but Hostetler would return later in the contest. There were a lot of big hits in this game, but none had more of an impact on the outcome of the game than Erik Howard hitting Roger Craig right where he was holding the ball, popping it loose. Lawrence Taylor recovered, and the Giants were back in business. Up to that point, this game was flirting with becoming the first postseason NFL game in history without a turnover, a sign of how well both teams were playing.

The Giants made that last drive count, marching down to get into field goal position, hoping to win the game on the final play. Indeed, that is what happened, as they lined up for a 40-yard field goal, which placekicker Matt Bahr hit through the uprights, sending the Giants to Tampa and Super Bowl XXV. It was his fifth field goal of the game, but the most memorable and important kick, perhaps of his career. If not, it surely would be the next week, in the final quarter of the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl XXV was a contrast in styles. The Bills had the flashy, high-powered offense, while the Giants had the smashmouth approach that focused on solid defense and a running game that wore out opponents and killed the clock. While the NFC Championship Game between the Giants and 49ers had almost been the first playoff game without a turnover, this one would achieve the feat, which was just one of many indicators of just how well played this game was by both sides.

The Giants drew first blood, scoring a field goal early, but Buffalo answered quickly with a field goal of their own. The first quarter ended in that 3-3 tie. But in the second quarter, the Bills would start taking control of the game, pounding it into the end zone for a 10-3 lead after a rare Giants defensive miscue. Not much later, Jeff Hostetler was caught in his own end zone by Bills defender Bruce Smith for a safety, giving Buffalo a commanding 12-3 lead, and all of the momentum. It seemed like a bad omen, although in fact, Hostetler might have saved the game for New York, as he tucked in the ball safely into his chest, preventing a catastrophic fumble that could have been recovered by Buffalo and given them a much bigger lead.

Still, the Giants were in trouble, and needed something quickly, before halftime. They got it in the final drive, going down the field and putting themselves in scoring position. But they really needed a touchdown, rather than settling for a field goal. This the Giants managed to achieve when Hostetler threw a perfect spiral into the hands of receiver Stephen Baker in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown with seconds left in the second quarter, cutting the Buffalo lead to 12-10 just before the two teams returned to the locker rooms for halftime. it was a huge and critical swing in momentum that Bills coach Marv Levy mentioned in the post-game interview as particularly brutal for them.

When play resumed in the second half, the Giants got the ball first, and used their trademark physicality to wear the Bills defenders down. They orchestrated what was then the longest drive in Super Bowl history, taking the better part of ten minutes off of the clock, keeping a tired Buffalo defense on the field, and a dangerous Buffalo offense off the field. The Bills offense had not taken the field in the better part of an hour, between the Giants final drive of the first half and their first drive of the second half, coupled with the halftime break. It was a way to keep them a little cold, given how hot they had been all season. And perhaps the crucial play had come when the Giants faced a 3rd down and 13, when wide receiver Stephen Ingram caught a Hostetler pass and then twisted and turned through several Bills defenders, ultimately hopping on one leg with defenders clinging to him and trying to drag him down, but not before he picked up a crucial first down. It was that play that perhaps best embodied New York's fighting spirit in that contest.

Buffalo was a championship caliber team this year, however, and they were bound to answer. They did so when Thurman Thomas, their star running back, broke free for a long touchdown run, giving the Bills a 19-17 lead in the fourth quarter.

The game went back and forth between struggling offenses after that, but the Giants once again got into scoring position late in the game. Buffalo's defense held firm and prevented a touchdown, but Matt Bahr was able to get the field goal that gave the Giants a 20-19 lead very late in the game.

Ultimately this game came down to the final Bills drive. With roughly two minutes to go and a long way to move the ball, Buffalo managed to orchestrate a solid drive themselves, finally converting on third down (they had uncharacteristically failed to convert a single third down during the entire game to that point). Bills tight end Keith McKeller made what was a brilliant catch, and the Bills were in field goal position as the clock wound down.

Of course, it came down to that famous field goal attempt by Scott Norwood, and almost everyone knows that story now. He hooked it just slightly wide right, but it was enough to secure the victory for the Giants. Buffalo had played extremely well, but had fallen just short.

The New York Giants had captured their second Super Bowl title in five seasons, albeit by the slimmest of margins. They had established a new Super Bowl record for longest time of possession, with 40:37 seconds (including those final four seconds of the game, after the fateful field goal attempt). The team would be different henceforth. Parcells would leave the team. Mark Bavaro would no longer play for the team. Hostetler would be named the starting quarterback. And the Giants would fail to be a winning team in either of the next couple of seasons. But all of that came to fruition only after the Giants had won another glorious championship, made all the better because it was relatively unexpected! They had overcome enormous odds - losing their starting quarterback, losing home field advantage to the dynasty 49ers, then beating those same heavily favored 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, and finally overcoming a very powerful, and also heavily favored Buffalo Bills team that came closer than any other losing Super Bowl team before or since, in order to win that highly memorable championship - a championship that endures and continues to define the New York Football Giants.

Personal Memories: Junior in high school, the NFC Championship Game that got the Giants to the Super Bowl was my favorite NFL game of all time, and I leaped into the air when the Bahr field goal on the last play of the game won it for the Giants, much to the amusement of my parents, who laughed. The Super Bowl was no less intense, and I again jumped and celebrated when they won. My brother and I kicked field goals on the snowy high school football field earlier in the day.

Here are some of the major events that took place in 1991, the year this Super Bowl was played. The world's population was 5.359 billion people. Economic sanctions were lifted on South Africa, as the reforms from the segregation of apartheid continued. The Gulf War was fought, and within weeks, Iraq surrendered and pulled out of Kuwait. The communist government of Albania resigned. The Warsaw Pact was dissolved. Haitian troops captured the President of Haiti, the United States suspended support of Haiti. France agrees to a 1968 agreement banning the spread of atomic weapons. China accepted the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, and Gorbachev met with Bush for arms reductions. Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia declare independence from the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin became the first freely elected President of Russia. The Soviet Union dissolved at the end of the year.

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