Today we have Super Bowl XXV, which was held on January 27, 1991, at Tampa Stadium, the Big Sombrero, between the first-time AFC champion Buffalo Bills and the second-time NFC champion New York Giants. If you’re looking for the full story of this 1990 season, pick up my Nifty Nineties book and you’ll learn more than you ever wanted to know about that year and the rest of the nineties.
As always, we have a pop quiz, and then homework at the end of the episode. The pop quiz question for today is this: what did this Super Bowl not have that every Super Bowl before it did have? The answer will come near the end of the podcast.
Prelude to Super Bowl XXV
The 1990 New York Giants got their season started off as perfect as you could ever want: 10-0. The trouble? The San Francisco 49ers were also 10-0. The two teams were slated to meet in Week 13 on Monday Night Football, a game billed as “Super Bowl XXIV½.” But both teams lost their game immediately preceding the big matchup. When it came time for the game, the defenses completely shut down the offenses. In the second-highest-rated Monday Night Football game of all time, the 49ers came out on top, 7-3.
The Giants lost 17-13 to Buffalo two weeks later, but even worse, quarterback Phil Simms broke his foot and was out for the season. In stepped backup QB Jeff Hostetler, who had even less experience than Nick Foles did when he was asked to take over the Eagles’ season a few years ago. After three losses in four weeks, Hoss led the Giants to two straight wins and a 13-3 final record.
This was the first year that the NFL had gone to a six-team-per-conference playoff format. Now only the top two division champions got first-round byes, and the third-best division champion played a wild card game against the lowest-ranked wild card team. The Giants were the #2 seed, so they got a week of rest before facing the Chicago Bears. In a game full of fourth-down conversions, the Giants beat the Bears 31-3 at the Meadowlands to advance to the NFC Championship Game in San Francisco.
The Giants and 49ers’ rematch was everything you’d want from a heavyweight fight. Again the Giants failed to get into the end zone against the two-time defending Super Bowl champions. But after defensive tackle Leonard Marshall knocked 49ers quarterback Joe Montana out of the game, Niners running back Roger Craig fumbled late in the contest. Hoss then drove the Giants into field goal range, and kicker Matt Bahr made his fifth field goal of the game. “There will be no three-peat!” Pat Summerall said as the Giants won, 15-13.
This Giants defense still had linebacker Lawrence Taylor as well as many of the other stalwarts from their 1986 championship team. Taylor had 10.5 sacks in 1990. Simms threw for 2,284 yards and 15 touchdowns, but that didn’t matter anymore. This was Hoss’s team. He threw for 614 yards and three touchdowns in his short time under center. Running back Ottis Anderson, who entered the league in 1979 with the St. Louis Cardinals, ran for 784 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Giants did not have a player with 40 or more catches.
As for the Buffalo Bills, they also finished the regular season 13-3, with a lot less fanfare than the Giants. They ran an uptempo, no-huddle offense that befuddled lots of AFC teams’ defenses. They put up 44 points on the Miami Dolphins in the divisional playoff game, winning 44-34 in the snow in Buffalo. Then the Bills took on Los Angeles in the AFC Championship Game, also in Buffalo. They blew away the Raiders, 51-3, punching their ticket to Super Bowl XXV.
Quarterback Jim Kelly threw for 2,829 yards and 24 touchdowns and a pristine passer rating of 101.2. Running back Thurman Thomas rushed for 1,297 yards and 11 touchdowns while also catching 49 passes for another 532 yards. Receiver Andre Reed led the team in receiving with 71 catches for 945 yards and eight touchdowns.
This Super Bowl took place in the shadow of the Gulf War, which got underway around the time of the conference championship games. This year’s Super Bowl was only one week after the conference title games, so the war was raging as the teams played. Tampa Stadium had the tightest security of any Super Bowl up to that point, as there was great concern about a terrorist attack happening at the Super Bowl.
This wasn’t Black Sunday, though; the Super Bowl would get off without a hitch. To begin the game, Whitney Houston gave a very memorable national anthem. At halftime, television viewers did not get to see the New Kids on the Block halftime show; instead, they got an update on the war in the Persian Gulf.
Super Bowl XXV: First Quarter
The most important thing you need to know about the game itself is the contrasting styles of play. The Bills, under the direction of head coach Marv Levy, ran no-huddle constantly. They’d fly around the field with the ball. The Giants plodded down the field, taking their time with the ball. ABC announcer Dan Dierdorf said it best: “The Giants are running out the clock from the first play of the game.” And that’s exactly what Giants head coach Bill Parcells wanted.
The Bills started the game with the ball. Kelly completed a pair of passes to Reed, but the Bills came up short of the first down and had to punt. The Giants took over at their own 31. Running back Dave Meggett had a nice carry after an offside penalty on Buffalo. Running back Maurice Carthon got the first down from there. Hostetler threw his first pass to tight end Howard Cross for a first down at the 45.
Meggett then ran it for a first down at the 34. Hostetler converted another first down at the 16, which set up a 28-yard field goal by Bahr to put the Giants up 3-0.
Kelly launched a pass deep downfield which was tipped by Giants defensive back Perry Williams right to receiver James Lofton. He hauled it in for a 61-yard gain down to the 8. But the Bills got stopped after getting as far as the 5. Kicker Scott Norwood made a 23-yard field goal, and the Bills tied the game at three apiece.
The Giants began churning more clock. Hostetler scrambled for a first down, and receiver Stephen Baker caught a pass for another one. However, this time the Giants would have to punt. The Bills took over at their own 20 after a touchback. Kelly threw to Reed for gains of 11 and 20 yards, and a dump-off pass to Thomas got the Bills inside the Giants 30. Reed got another first down on a catch at the 16.
Tight end Keith McKeller hauled in a pass at the 8, and the Giants got called for roughing the passer on the play. Two plays later, running back Don Smith pounded the ball in for a touchdown, and the Bills led, 10-3.
Super Bowl XXV: Second Quarter
The teams traded punts, but the Bills gained some field position after a 14-yard run by Thomas. When they punted, Rick Tuten pinned the Giants down at their own 6. After a holding penalty set the Giants back further, Bills defensive end Bruce Smith sacked Hostetler for a safety. On the play, Hoss tripped over his own running back Anderson’s foot. He landed right in the lap of Smith, and the Bills now had a 12-3 lead.
Buffalo did nothing with the ball following the free-kick; Kelly threw three incompletions. The Giants also went three-and-out, and the Bills got it back at their own 15. Thomas ran for an 18-yard gain and also caught a pass for a first down. But the Bills had to punt after a third-down pass to Reed came up short of the marker. The Giants took the ball back at their own 12.
Hoss led the Giants on a classic championship drive. He threw to tight end Mark Bavaro for six yards, and Anderson ran for a first down from there to the 36. Hostetler then found receiver Mark Ingram for a first down on the sideline.
Meggett burst off a big run down to the Buffalo 25 for another first down. After the two-minute warning, Hoss threw a short pass to Carthon for four yards. Timeout, New York. Hostetler came back out and threw to Cross for the first down. After a pair of incompletions, Hostetler found Baker for a 14-yard touchdown on the left sideline of the end zone. Baker got both feet in, and the Giants cut their deficit to 12-10 at the half.
Super Bowl XXV: Third Quarter
But that drive was nothing compared to the one the Giants put on to start the second half. Hoss got the initial first down of the drive on a short pass to Meggett which picked up 11 yards. Anderson ran a couple of times, and on the second carry he broke off a 24-yard gain.
Carthon ran for four more before Bavaro got called for holding. Hostetler was faced with third-and-13. He threw to Ingram, who was well short of the first down marker. But Ingram fought and fought, breaking tackles, shaking them off, and pushing forward until he had that first down at the Bills 18. Next, another third-down conversion, this one on a play-action dump off to Cross for a first down at the 3.
nderson carried it twice from there, and he scored a one-yard touchdown to cap off the longest drive in Super Bowl history at the time in both plays and time; 14 plays and 9:29.
The Bills got the ball at their own 40 after a good return by receiver Al Edwards. Thomas took a handoff for eight yards, then Kelly scrambled for a first down to the Giants 47. From there, a couple of penalties set Buffalo back, and they were forced to punt. Hoss started the next drive with a pass to Cross for a first down at the Buffalo 48. Several plays later, the Giants faced fourth-and-two. Parcells had gone for it all postseason long; why would he stop now?
But Anderson was swarmed by a bunch of Bills, not the least of which was Bruce Smith. The Giants turned it over on downs.
Kelly started his new drive with a pass to Thomas, who got to the 47. Next, he dumped it off to running back Kenneth Davis, who got the first down at the midfield stripe. Next, Davis caught another pass for 19 yards. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Thomas broke tackles and burst into the open, rushing for a 31-yard touchdown. Norwood’s extra point gave the Bills a 19-17 lead.
Super Bowl XXV: Fourth Quarter
The Giants yet again went on one of their patented long drives. Hostetler threw to Bavaro for a first down at the 43. Anderson ripped off a seven-yard run, then Carthon got the first down. Hoss went over the middle to Bavaro again, getting another first down at the 27. Next, Ingram caught a pass and thought about lateraling it to a teammate, before wisely holding on to the ball for a first down. Meggett ran for the Giants’ next first down, but New York was stopped at the 3-yard line. Bahr came out to try a 21-yard field goal. He made it, and the Giants took a 20-19 lead.
The teams exchanged punts, with the Bills picking up just one first down on a pass to Thomas. The Giants also got just one first down on a run by Anderson. A quarterback draw by Hostetler on third down didn’t fool anybody, and the Giants were forced to punt. The Bills got the ball back at their own 10 with just over two minutes to play and one timeout in their pocket.
On that fateful drive, Kelly began with a seven-yard scramble before the two-minute warning. Out of the break, Kelly did the same thing, but he came up short of the first down. On third down, Thomas ripped off a 21-yard run to the 40, but he was tackled in bounds. Kelly threw to Reed for a five-yard gain, before having all day to throw the ball. He couldn’t find anyone open, so he ran for a first down at the New York 46. Timeout, Buffalo, their last, with 46 seconds to play.
Kelly completed a pass to McKeller to get to the Giants 40. The officials stopped play to see if it was a catch; referee Jerry Seeman ruled it a catch, and play continued. Thomas took a handoff on the next play, and he got a first down at the 30. Kelly brought the Bills up to the line and spiked it with eight seconds left.
It was now all up to Norwood. A 47-yard field goal from the right hash, with the Super Bowl on the line. Giants players joined in a prayer circle, not wanting to see what was about to happen. Norwood wasn’t that great of a kicker; he had only made one field goal from 40 or more yards out on grass in his career. But it was all on the line for him, whether the expectations were fair or not. Then came Al Michaels’ call:
“No good. Wide right.”
Super Bowl XXV: Aftermath and Awards
The Giants had their second Super Bowl win, 20-19. Hostetler had a Super Bowl victory after coming off the bench late in the season. Anderson had the MVP award; it was revealed that Thurman Thomas was going to be named MVP should Norwood have made that field goal. The Giants held the ball for over 40 minutes, a Super Bowl record.
Anderson rushed for 102 yards and a touchdown on his way to the MVP award. If I were to give an MVP award to someone else, I’d give it to Hostetler. He completed 20 of 32 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown, with a passer rating of 93.5. Those are very solid numbers in a run-first offense. Hoss managed the game well. Sure, Anderson deserved MVP, but Hoss deserved a lot of credit too.
The Least Valuable Player… I don’t even need to say it. You know who it is. The best player on the losing team? Easy, Thurman Thomas. He rushed just 15 times and still picked up 135 yards, at a nine yards-per-carry clip. He also had that long touchdown run of 31 yards. He was clearly Buffalo’s best player. It’s just a shame that the Bills hadn’t gotten that ball to him more often in the first half when they might have been able to put this one away.
The best player you don’t remember? How about center Bart Oates? He anchored an offensive line that completely dominated the Bills in this game. All those long drives? They started with him and his pals on the O-Line. The Giants’ entire offensive line deserved the MVP. If not for them, Parcells’ game plan would not have worked.
But it did work. It was the best game plan I’ve seen of a winning Super Bowl team up to this point. Now, there’s a team that beats this, but we’ll get to that on another date. Parcells and defensive coordinator Bill Belichick devised the perfect scheme to stop the Bills’ high-flying no-huddle attack. Their solution? Bleed the clock. Pound the rock. Smash Buffalo into submission. And that’s what they did. The Bills didn’t even hold the ball for 20 minutes. It was that much of a dominating effort by the Giants’ offensive line.
Still, the Giants only won by one point, the closest margin in Super Bowl history. They needed to play perfect football just to have the chance at winning, and they did just that. They didn’t turn the ball over once, and neither did Buffalo. In fact, it was the first Super Bowl without a turnover by either team, the first time that ever happened. And that’s the answer to today’s pop quiz question: this Super Bowl did not have a turnover, while everyone before it did.
The biggest play of the game was obvious, and again, I don’t need to say it. How about the best play you don’t remember, though? That goes to Ingram, picking up that first down on third-and-13 on one of New York’s two touchdown drives. If he doesn’t fight for every inch on that play, the Giants are relegated to kicking a field goal, and the game is entirely different. Ingram’s effort made just enough of a difference for the Giants to take advantage.
We must wonder what would have happened had the two-point conversion been in play in this Super Bowl. Would Levy have gone for two when Thomas scored his touchdown to make it 18-17? That would make it 20-17, and then the Giants could have only tied it with their field goal. That’s a question we’ll never get an answer for.
This book is one of my favorite football books ever. It’s that good. It tells the full story of the 1990 season from the Giants and Bills’ perspectives. It’s really, really good, and you should grab the Kindle version.
You can listen to Adam Lazarus talk about this book (and his others) on The Football History Dude podcast. Here’s the interview page.
Next time, we have the Bills back in the Super Bowl, but going up against a strong Washington team that featured a quarterback playing out of his mind. Will the Bills get redemption for their Super Bowl XXV loss? Or will the Redskins run away with Super Bowl XXVI? Find out in two weeks, right here, or in my book Nifty Nineties, which you can find at tommyaphillips.com. Until then, this is Tommy A. Phillips. So long!
Lombardi Memories is a show that takes you back in time, into January or February, to the greatest one-day spectacle in all of sports. This is the every-other-Tuesday podcast that looks back at each and every one of the 50-plus Super Bowls and tells the story of who won and why. Tommy A. Phillips is your host on this Super Journey. He’s an author of multiple NFL books. You can purchase below.
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