Giants defensive stalwarts Leonard Marshall (70) and Pepper Johnson (52).
Keep NFC on Top
January 27, 1991
"Super Bowl week annually is a time for football and celebration," said Joe Browne, the National Football League's vice president of communications, in a statement issued to the media before Super Bowl XXV in Tampa, Fla. "In light of the (Persian Gulf) war...we plan to emphasize the game itself."
It was a novel approach, to be sure. In many of the previous 24 Super Bowls, it was the pregame hoopla that seemed to take center stage. Once the lavish parties had ended, the rhetoric had quieted down and the unforgettable media hype had run its course, the NFL's conference champions usually went out and played a wholly forgettable game.
Not so in Super Bowl XXV.
Both the times and the timing were factors in making this Super Bowl one to remember.
With the nation's collective mind focused on America's entry 11 days earlier into hostilities against Iraq, the bigger-than-life scenario usually associated with the Super Bowl was in little evidence. NFL officials and Tampa authorities downplayed -- and even canceled -- many of the festive events leading up to pro football's showcase game.
Furthermore, for only the second time in 21 seasons, the NFL had a one-week gap -- not the usual two weeks -- between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl. There had been the contention that the Super Bowl qualifiers had lost much of their competitive edge over two weeks and that the long wait had contributed to one not-so-super Super Bowl after another.
Amid this unusual backdrop, the New York Giants and the Buffalo Bills went out and played a stem-winder of a football game. The Giants took a second-string quarterback, an offense copied from Woody Hayes' playbook and a defense that all but ignored a pass rush and parlayed this strange mixture into a 20-19 victory over the Bills in what will be remembered as the gem of the first 25 Super Bowls.
It certainly was the most tense of these NFL title games. Threats of terrorist activities associated with the Persian Gulf War generated extraordinary security measures, including the positioning of FBI sharpshooters in the upper reaches of Tampa Stadium. Players from both teams acknowledged being distracted by the off-field events.
The matchup of the NFL's best points-allowed defense (the Giants yielded only 13.2 points per game in the 1990 season) against the league's highest-scoring offense (the Bills averaged 26.8 points) lived up to its potential, generating the kind of game worthy of this worldwide arena. Most Super Bowls have been dull and lopsided -- especially during the National Football Conference's streak of six consecutive victories from 1985 through 1990. The NFC extended that string to seven on the strength of the Giants' upset triumph against Buffalo, a victory that wasn't clinched until the Bills' Scott Norwood misfired on a 47-yard field-goal attempt with eight seconds remaining in the game.
It took almost perfect execution of the Giants' game plan and a less-than-scintillating effort by the Bills' offense to determine the final outcome. Although the wily Giants -- who featured 22 players with Super Bowl experience -- couldn't have played much better or with more intelligence, they still came close to losing a game they deserved to win. In the end, they walked away with the narrowest margin of victory in Super Bowl history.
"It wasn't pretty -- it probably was ugly," Giants center Bart Oates said. "But this is no beauty contest, either. We turned this into the type of game we wanted. That was the key."
The Giants knew, in fact, that there were four keys to beating a Buffalo team that had appeared unbeatable:
They had to control the clock, limiting the number of times Buffalo's hurry-up offense touched the ball. The Giants wound up setting a Super Bowl record for possession time (40 minutes, 33 seconds).
They had to avoid turnovers, forcing Buffalo to earn every scoring opportunity. The Giants wound up without any giveaways, and they committed just one in three postseason games.
They had to disrupt Buffalo's offensive timing and not allow receivers to roam untouched in the secondary. The Giants wound up pounding the Bills, forcing them into uncharacteristic dropped passes and brief, unsuccessful possessions.
They had to extract stellar performances from quarterback Jeff Hostetler, who was an inexperienced second-string player only six weeks earlier, and running back Ottis Anderson, whose career was considered finished four years ago. Hostetler and Anderson put forth brilliant efforts. Hostetler shrugged off a first-half battering and passed for 222 yards. For the third consecutive playoff game, he didn't yield an interception. Anderson pounded for 102 yards on 21 carries, good enough to earn Most Valuable Player honors.
Based on its two earlier playoff conquests, against Miami and the Los Angeles Raiders, Buffalo seemed indomitable. But playing away from home-the Bills were undefeated at Rich Stadium-and forced into a physical contest, Coach Mary Levy's team turned shaky and uncertain against the Giants. Maybe that was a natural reaction, considering the Giants beat them with a brand of football considered by some to be outdated.
In this age of no-huddle offenses, run-and-shoot attacks and substitution by down and distance defenses, there supposedly was no place for run-oriented teams with methodical, macho defenses. So here were the Giants, grinding it out behind Anderson and quick David Meggett and confronting Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly with a couple of basic defensive alignments that relied mostly on execution and helmet-bashing tackling to be effective. Simply put, the Giants wanted to win behind three tight ends; Buffalo wanted to prevail behind three wide receivers.
"It gets frustrating standing on the sideline, wanting to get in there and not being able to do anything about it," said Kelly, who threw for 212 yards. "We knew if we got the ball, we'd score a lot more. Give 'em credit. They did the only thing that could beat us: keep us off the field."
Although the Bills were not crisp in their execution, they nevertheless were on the verge of knocking out the Giants midway through the second quarter. After end Bruce Smith sacked Hostetler for a safety, the Bills led by a 12-3 score, and Hostetler and the Giants were staggering. One more touchdown and Buffalo likely would have been too far ahead for the Giants' methodical offense to rally.
But Kelly misfired on consecutive possessions, allowing the Giants to settle down. They answered with an 87-yard drive that culminated in a 14-yard touchdown reception by Stephen Baker just before the half and then seized a 17-12 lead on Anderson's one-yard touchdown run that capped a 75-yard march to open the third quarter. The latter drive consumed a Super Bowl-record 9:29 on the clock.
"Some of our younger guys were starting to get too excited," New York linebacker Carl Banks said of his team's early problems. "We had to tell them to settle down and not panic. We were making our calls too fast. We had more time; things weren't out of hand."
The Bills regained the lead at the outset of the fourth quarter on a 31-yard run by Thurman Thomas, but the Giants responded to the 19-17 deficit with a 74-yard drive that ended with what proved to be the game-winning field goal, a 21-yard kick by Matt Bahr.
New York took advantage of the quickness of Buffalo defensive stars Smith and Cornelius Bennett by allowing them to over-pursue, then running plays designed to go right at them. To make things work, Hostetler had to execute a game plan full of roll-outs, play-action fakes and bootlegs -- and he did his part marvelously.
Hostetler froze the Buffalo defense just enough to give his runners and receivers an extra half-step. Behind a powerful line, Anderson and Meggett combined for 150 yards on the ground, many of the thrusts coming wide around Bennett, an outside linebacker, and Smith. The Giants were convinced that the Buffalo defensive front wasn't strong enough to hold up under a game-long pounding, and they were right.
The fact New York controlled the ball with such ease wasn't a surprise; it's something the Giants had done all season. But the New Yorkers' ability to slow Buffalo's hurry-up offense was startling. That offense was the main reason the Bills were seven-point favorites. Buffalo was accustomed to striking early, fast and often, using Kelly's play-calling ability and the openness of a shotgun formation to befuddle defenses. But not this time, and not against this defense.
Coach Bill Parcells' Giants mainly used two alignments, going with five defensive backs and three linebackers or six backs and two linebackers. In either set, they employed only two linemen, electing to either send a linebacker at Kelly or drop nine defenders into coverage. They hardly pressured Kelly, giving this talented passer plenty of time to throw. But New York's coverage was so tight and so physical that Buffalo could mount only four significant drives and couldn't convert any third-down plays until its last possession.
The Bills traded field goals with the Giants in the first quarter, with Buffalo's score being set up by a tipped-pass play -- Kelly to James Lofton -- that covered 61 yards. Buffalo, getting six consecutive completions from Kelly, then drove 80 yards at the beginning of the second quarter and scored a go-ahead touchdown on a one-yard run by Don Smith. But, outside of Thomas' TD sprint that opened the final period, little was heard from the Bills' offense thereafter.
New York's Everson Walls, normally a cornerback, played a deep safety for most of the game and also orchestrated the Giants' containment defense, making two-thirds of the calls without signals from coordinator Bill Belichick. Instead of substituting liberally, Belichick went primarily with his most versatile defenders, concentrating mainly on Thomas, who gained 135 yards rushing and 55 yards on five receptions. On almost every pass route, he was bumped by a lineman, then worked over by a linebacker. The Giants repeatedly pounded on Buffalo's other major receiving threat, Andre Reed, who dropped two passes and was held to one reception in the second half.
To mix things up, New York occasionally blitzed, sending linebackers Banks, Lawrence Taylor or Pepper Johnson. Kelly spent a lot of time just trying to figure out where the linebackers were located and what role they were playing. But credit this defensive masterpiece to the secondary; Kelly had more time than he should have needed on many downs but still had problems finding open receivers.
"I think we made it hard on Kelly to feel comfortable going to (Reed) late in the game," Walls said. "(Reed's) only human, and he got hit and hit hard. Belichick is a miracle worker. He took a bunch of old guys and made us look good."
Kelly praised the Giants' defense, but he blamed the loss on the Bills' unsteady performance.
"We just didn't execute, not the way we have been or should have," he said. "We dropped too many passes and blew too many assignments to win."
Despite the Giants' tactical wizardry and the Bills' lack of execution, things weren't settled until Buffalo's last desperate possession. The Bills took over at their 10-yard line with 2:16 remaining, and Kelly guided the American Football Conference champions on one last hurry-up effort. A 22-yard run by Thomas gave Buffalo a first down at its 41. An eight-yard scramble by Kelly yielded another first down at the New York 46, but the Bills had to use their last timeout with 48 seconds left.
"Jim made some gutty calls; he was in control of the game at that point," Levy said. "But I hoped he'd be able to get us a touchdown. I hoped the outcome wouldn't have to come down to a long field-goal try."
Kelly's six-yard pass to tight end Keith McKeller and an 11-yard run by Thomas moved the Bills to the 29. On the next play, Kelly threw the ball to the ground, stopping the clock with eight seconds left. There was time only for Norwood's long-shot bid for glory.
Adam Lingner snapped the ball and holder Frank Reich placed it cleanly on the grass. Little groups of players and coaches on both teams knelt in open prayer, for and against, as Norwood swung his right leg in an electrifying moment.
"I hit it solid, but I guess I tried to kick it too hard," he said. "I needed more follow-through; I should have brought my hips into it quicker to make the ball draw."
The kick was long enough, but it started to the right of the goal post and never did draw or hook to the left. It remained - forever -- wide right, by at least five yards.
"I'm down right now, way down," Norwood said after the game. "But I'll come back from this. It won't scar me.
"I did my best. But, in my business, you don't get a second opportunity when your best isn't good enough."
It didn't matter that Norwood had never kicked a field goal of that length on natural grass during his six NFL seasons. The only thing that really mattered, in Norwood's words, was: "I let a lot of people down tonight."
Norwood said it had occurred to him that the game "might come down to something like this," adding: "And I had done some visualizations during the week to get ready for just such a kick."
A few yards away, in the Giants' locker room, Bahr admitted to mixed feelings. One week earlier, he had kicked five field goals, including a 42-yarder as time ran out, to lift the Giants to a 15-13 triumph over San Francisco in the NFC championship game.
"I'm sure going to enjoy getting my Super Bowl ring," Bahr said. "But I understand how (Norwood) feels right now. I've been there once or twice myself."
The missed kick set off a celebration among the Giants, whose chances of even getting to the Super Bowl were ridiculed when quarterback Phil Simms suffered a foot injury in mid-December and gave way to Hostetler.
In the span of eight days, Hostetler had taken on the NFL's best quarterback, the 49ers' Montana, and its hottest, the Bills' Kelly. Each time, he recorded a victory and outplayed his counterpart. Not bad for a future financial planner who wanted out of New York so badly he pleaded with the Giants this past season to trade him.
Quarterbacks with Hostetler's limited experience aren't supposed to win games of this magnitude. In fact, no reserve quarterback had previously been asked to step in so late in the season and start for his team in the Super Bowl. Usually, this is a playground of the rich and experienced; it's certainly no place for a quarterback who didn't throw a pass during his first four seasons in the league.
Yet Hostetler was superb against Buffalo. Although he was sacked for the safety, suffered a couple of other damaging hits and was harassed by Bills defenders, he gave New York the edge it needed to win. Inexperienced quarterbacks aren't supposed to possess this kind of poise, either.
"Jeff is just one very tough, mentally strong person," Oates said. "He stepped into a very tough position and he never faltered. The better he played, the more confidence we had. It just built on itself."
No one questioned Hostetler's intelligence -- he recorded a 3.85 grade-point average at West Virginia -- or his fortitude. He twisted a knee in the NFC final against the 49ers but came back to guide the Giants to the game-winning field goal. He was shaken up a lot in the first half of the Super Bowl but rebounded in the second half to direct his team to two long scoring drives, including the game-deciding field goal.
He was especially effective on third down. While Kelly and the Bills converted on only one of eight third-down plays, Hostetler and the Giants succeeded nine times in 16 opportunities. On those two crucial drives, Hostetler completed four third-down passes for first downs.
"But it doesn't matter what I do or how I play," Hostetler said. "I've been cast as a scrambler for so long that even if I throw the ball well, I'll never break out of the mode. I'm typecast."
Credit the Giants' offensive coaching staff for not typecasting him. Instead, the coaches utilized all of Hostetler's assets to their fullest. After Simms went down, the Giants began adjusting their offense, adding roll-outs and bootlegs to take advantage of his quickness and speed.
"If anything surprised me, it was the way he could do it all so quickly," Parcells said. "But he had to come through. He was the only chance we had."
Although the Giants relied heavily on their rushing attack to beat San Francisco and Buffalo, Hostetler's passing talents were crucial in both triumphs. He didn't throw an interception in either game and was particularly effective running naked bootlegs, where he could either throw or sprint upfield.
"We knew he would try to get on the perimeter, but he was more effective than we figured he would be," Buffalo safety Mark Kelso said. "It put a lot of pressure on our outside people. In the secondary, you had to watch him just enough to lose a step or so, and that can make the difference between an interception and a completion."
Hostetler, a third-round draft choice in 1984, has always remained confident in his abilities but could never break Simms' grip on the job. Finally, he requested a trade -- "I wasn't ready to concede I would always be a backup" -- and when the Giants refused, he became more frustrated. Now, he will be remembered as the starting quarterback on a winning Super Bowl team.
"When you control the ball for 40 minutes, I would think the quarterback plays some kind of role in that," he said. "I would hope I'd be given some credit. But at least the Giants now know what I can do. That's all I've ever wanted, a chance to show them."
Despite having the ball for only 19:27 of Super Bowl XXV, the Bills, if not for three plays, undoubtedly would reign as NFL champions. However, the Bills don't have the luxury of instant replay.
The first key play occurred with Buffalo on offense midway through the second quarter, when the Bills looked as if they would be able to force New York into playing catch-up, which is not the Giants' forte.
Major failures No. 2 and No. 3 occurred in the first half of the third quarter, with the Bills on defense. In each case, Buffalo came within a fingernail of thwarting a Giants scoring march. And, in each case, the fingernail was just a millimeter short.
Buffalo led, 10-3, when it took over at its own 27 with 10:52 remaining in the first half. After Thomas reeled off a 14-yard run, the Bills' gifted back darted for four yards before Kelly threw an incompletion. At that point, the Bills faced a third-and-six situation at their 45.
Giants nose tackle Erik Howard started before the next snap, and the ensuing five-yard penalty put the ball at midfield. But the infraction was something of a blessing for New York because it stopped the clock, enabling the Giants to make some substitutions against Buffalo's no-huddle, quick-strike offense.
Inexplicably, the Giants sent in a sixth defensive back, even though Buffalo faced third and one, an obvious running situation.
And, inexplicably, Kelly disdained the run, even though only three Giants -- Howard, defensive end Leonard Marshall and linebacker Taylor -- were on the line of scrimmage, and he tried to pass against the six-pack secondary. One week earlier, in their 51-3 trouncing of the Raiders in the AFC championship game, the Bills had run 90 percent of the time against a defensive alignment featuring six backs.
None of the Giants' six defensive backs was within hailing distance of wide receiver Reed, who was five yards beyond the scrimmage line, when Kelly's pass arrived. But Reed, who would catch eight passes for 62 yards in this game, dropped this one and Buffalo had to punt.
"I thought we were in control at that point," Kelly said. "We were moving the ball well and if we scored on that drive, we had a chance to blow the game wide open.
"But I made a bad read of the defense on that third-down play. And, then, there were some dropped passes."
Reed conceded that he was among the culprits.
"Yeah, I dropped three balls tonight, and I should have caught at least two of them," he said. "The (third-and-one) pass came in a little faster than I thought it would. I wasn't ready for it. I didn't have a chance to focus on the ball.
"But, yeah, I guess I should have caught it."
Added Kelly: "We should have had the game wrapped up before the half, but we didn't. So, I guess that our problem in this game, our first Super Bowl, was a matter of experience, or our lack of experience."
The Giants used up 3:24 of the final 3:49 in the half to march 87 yards for a touchdown -- Hostetler's pass to Baker -- that trimmed New York's deficit to 12-10 at halftime.
The Giants then embarked on the record-shattering touchdown march of 9:29 to open the second half. Buffalo had two opportunities to stop the 14-play drive (capped by Anderson's one-yard TD burst), but the Bills failed both times.
Early in the series, the Giants had third and eight at their 27. Hostetler flipped a swing pass to halfback Meggett, who found himself directly in the sights of Buffalo linebacker Darryl Talley near the line of scrimmage.
However, Meggett danced out of Talley's embrace, bounced out of the grasp of defensive back Cliff Hicks and squirmed to the 38 before Nate Odomes could flatten him.
How was Meggett able to turn a nothing play into an 11-yard gain?
"I can't explain something like that because it's just sort of instinctive with me," Meggett said. "I knew I had to get a first down on the play, so I tried to spin or slip or do anything I could to get that first down."
The Giants kept moving and picked up a first down at the Buffalo 29, courtesy of Anderson's 24-yard journey around left end. Three plays later, after a holding penalty against tight end Mark Bavaro, New York was in a third-and-13 situation at the Buffalo 32.
Again, the Bills were in a position to squelch the Giants. But it was not to be.
Hostetler dropped the ball over the middle to Mark Ingram, and the wide receiver broke Kirby Jackson's tackle at the 30, churned free of Talley's attempted take-down at the 25, spun away from two other defenders and made it to the 18, for a first down, before James Williams shoved him out of bounds.
"We had been on the field for a long time and we were starting to get tired," the Bills' Bennett said. "And when you get tired, you get away from your techniques and start reaching and grabbing instead of making clean tackles.
"We almost got him. We almost stopped their drive right then. But almost isn't good enough."
The Buffalo Bills may have come up short but, for once, the Super Bowl game itself did not.