Five most anticipated and five best QB battles in history of Super Bowl
Only one of the most anticipated battles made the best list, too
Drew Brees-Peyton Manning one of the most anticipated showdowns
Best QB showdown ended up between two then under-the-radar QBs
Endless Super Bowl hype is part of the fun for football fans. Quarterbacks, naturally, earn more than their fair share of attention in any game. So when two of the game's elite passers meet in the Super Bowl, as they do this year, the hype that already surrounds almost every football game reaches a fever pitch.
Personally, we're hoping to see Peyton Manning cry on Oprah and Drew Brees gossip with the girls on The View in between the crowded press conferences, the various TV interviews and the cultural freak show that is media day. But, hey, that's just us. We apparently don't get enough football in our lives.
In the meantime, here's a look at what we consider to have been the five most eagerly anticipated quarterback showdowns in Super Bowl history. Of course, hype and actual results are not the same thing. So, on page 2, we list the quarterback battles that actually were the greatest shootouts in Super Bowl history. Turns out, they're very different lists.
First, the five most eagerly anticipated QB shootouts:
5. Joe Montana vs. John Elway (Super Bowl XXIV -- January 1990)
If Montana was the Beethoven of NFL quarterbacks, orchestrating some of the great offenses in history, then the 1989 season was his Fifth Symphony: the greatest season by the quarterback many consider the best ever.
Montana completed 70.2 percent of his passes, averaged a gaudy 9.1 yards per attempt and set an NFL record with a 112.4 passer rating (a mark since surpassed only by Steve Young, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning).
Opposite him was the big-armed epitome of a gunslinger in Elway. The Denver Hall of Famer did not put up big numbers that year (Elway rarely did) -- 18 TDs, 18 INTs and a humble 73.7 passer rating. But Elway was fresh off a command performance in the AFC title game. He was absolutely dominant in a 37-21 win over -- you guessed it -- the Browns, with 385 yards and three TDs. Denver, in the process, had established itself as the premier AFC power in an otherwise down decade for the junior circuit, while Elway staked a claim as the best quarterback in the AFC and one of the game's great playoff performers.
Of course, those command performances never quite carried over into the Super Bowl for Elway back in his early years: the 49ers humiliated the Broncos 55-10 in the biggest Super Bowl blowout in history.
Elway produced one of the worst performances in Super Bowl history: 10 of 26 for 108 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INT and a 19.4 passer rating. Montana countered with the last and greatest of his four Super Bowl victories, completing 22 of 29 passes for 297 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INT and a 147.6 passer rating.
It was the greatest statistical mismatch we've ever seen in a Super Bowl. But for two weeks anyway, football fans eagerly anticipated a shootout for the ages.
4. Ken Stabler vs. Fran Tarkenton (Super Bowl XI -- January 1977)
The 1976 season marked the depths of the Dead Ball Era, when defenses held an iron-like grip on the game and touchdowns were harder to find than snowy days in Miami.
But out of the defensive darkness slithered the Snake, Oakland quarterback Stabler, with one of the great passing seasons in NFL history. Stabler led the league with a stunning 9.4 yards per attempt and a 103.4 passer rating while guiding the Raiders to a 13-1 record. His 27 TD tosses were the most by an NFL passer in a decade. They were amazing numbers in a year in which the league passer rating was a meager 67.0 (compared with 83.4 in the 2009 season).
Tarkenton, meanwhile, was nearing the end of a career that would see him retire as the all-time leader in almost everything. His 89.3 passer rating was among the best of his career, far above the average of the era and made him worthy of the ninth and last Pro Bowl bid of his Hall of Fame career.
The game promised to be one of the great shootouts of the decade. But it, too, failed to live up to the hype: the Raiders rolled 32-14 as Stabler completed 12 of 19 passes for 180 yards, highlighted by a 1-yard TD toss to Dave Casper and a 48-yard completion to Fred Biletnikoff.
Tarkenton, in typical Vikings Super Bowl fashion, was a dud: his 35 attempts resulted in 17 completions, 205 yards, one TD and two picks.
Biletnikoff, meanwhile, earned game MVP honors -- with four catches for 79 yards. He never reached the end zone. It's safe to say the game, and our expectations of receivers, have changed a bit in the 33 seasons since 1976.
3. Terry Bradshaw vs. Roger Staubach (Super Bowl XIII -- January 1979)
Offenses were released from their defensive shackles with a slate of rule changes before the start of the 1978 season. Naturally, the two dominant quarterbacks of the decade proved the greatest beneficiaries: Staubach led Dallas to its fifth Super Bowl appearance of the decade, while Bradshaw guided Pittsburgh to its third.
Staubach threw a (then) career-high 25 TDs in 1978, while leading the NFL with an 84.9 passer rating; Bradshaw led the NFL with 28 TD passes, the most of his career.
No less than "team of the decade" honors hung in the balance when the two future Hall of Fame big-game gunslingers stepped into the Orange Bowl that January afternoon. And, in a rare moment, both quarterbacks delivered.
Bradshaw fired a then-Super Bowl record four TD passes, including 28 and 75 yards to John Stallworth; Staubach responded with three TD tosses, including a 39-yarder to Tony Hill and a pair of fourth-quarter TD tosses to Billy Joe DuPree and Butch Johnson as he led a furious comeback effort that fell just short. The Steelers hung on for a 35-31 victory in what remains one of the great QB showdowns and highest-scoring games in Super Bowl history.
2. Drew Brees vs. Peyton Manning (Super Bowl XLIV -- February 2010)
The hype is only beginning to percolate. Brees just guided the Saints to the greatest season in franchise history, with records for wins (13) and points scored (510), thanks largely to his NFL record for accuracy (70.62 percent) and his 109.6 passer rating, a mark exceeded just six times in league history.
Manning won league MVP honors for a record fourth time, passed for 4,500 yards and 33 TDs (each the second most in his first-ballot Hall of Fame career). He also set a personal record by completing 68.8 percent of his passes and led his team to a 14-0 start as he continued what seems like an inevitable march to break every passing record in history.
We obviously don't know what their showdown will actually offer. But if it's only half as thrilling as the impending wave of hype about to wash over the nation, it should be quite a show.
1. Joe Montana vs. Dan Marino (Super Bowl XIX -- January 1985)
Montana-Marino was easily the most highly anticipated quarterback showdown in Super Bowl history. Both were young passers entering the prime of their careers, while heralding a glitzy, new wide-open form of pro football lorded over by its quarterbacks.
Montana was the brainy executor of the new West Coast offense that was revolutionizing the way that teams attacked defenses; he had just led the 49ers to a franchise-record 15-1 mark and 475 points of offense, the most the 49ers had ever scored.
Marino was the quick-triggered second-year phenom fresh off the gaudiest season in the history of the NFL at the time, with Ruthian numbers that dwarfed anything that had come before (and much of what has come since): 48 TD passes and 5,084 passing yards. His 108.9 passer rating, meanwhile, was the second best mark in history at the time. The 513 points scored by the 1984 Dolphins is still the greatest output in franchise history, and by a wide margin (Miami scored 430 points two years later).
No Super Bowl in history held out greater promise of spectacular quarterback-fueled fireworks. Montana was brilliant on Super Bowl Sunday (24 of 35, 331 yards, three TDs, no INTs). But Marino turned up a dud against the superior San Francisco defense (29 of 50, 318 yards, one TD, two INTs).
The 49ers cruised, 38-16.
Montana went on to win two more Super Bowls in spectacular fashion. Marino never got back to the big game. But for one week of hype, fans harbored images of Montana and Marino gunning at each other in one Super Bowl after another for years to come.
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