One of the most amazing catches in Super Bowl history occurred late in the fourth quarter last year in Houston. Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons bobbled the downfield pass but managed to contort himself while falling and cradled the ball before he, and it, struck the ground.
The play was shown several times on the Fox telecast, and the announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman marveled at Jones’s skill, concentration and body control. That implausible sideline reception, the best of Jones’s decorated career, positioned the Falcons, who were leading by 8 points with a little more than four minutes remaining, for a victory-sealing score that never came.
Instead, the New England Patriots completed their comeback from a 28-3 deficit with a game-tying acrobatic catch from Julian Edelman that matched Jones’s artistry and — reasonable minds can certainly disagree here — that very well may have exceeded it.
The Patriots’ 34-28 overtime victory catapulted Edelman’s reception into the pantheon of clutch plays. But it also consigned Jones’s effort to a peculiar niche in Super Bowl lore, one where spectacular moments are eclipsed and erased by the greatness of others.
Two years before Jones soared above New England cornerback Eric Rowe, Jermaine Kearse nearly willed the Seahawks to a late win over the Patriots with a deep sideline grab that strained credulity.
“If we had won the Super Bowl and you probably had the best catch, that would have been awesome,” Kearse said in October. “Now it’s kind of like a forgotten play.”
Ricky Proehl, Randy Moss and Larry Fitzgerald also made signature plays that were devalued by the game’s outcome. Proehl, improbably, endured the reversal of fortune twice.
At least he had already won a Super Bowl, so had Kearse. Moss never got a ring, and Fitzgerald, like Jones, is still waiting.
“I really thought it was enough to be able to propel us to victory,” Fitzgerald said, recalling his 64-yard, go-ahead touchdown for the Arizona Cardinals against the Pittsburgh Steelers with 2 minutes 37 seconds left in Super Bowl XLIII. “For probably, say, five minutes in actual, real time,” he added, “I thought I was going to be a Super Bowl champion. And then, I wasn’t.”
Super Bowl XLIII
LARRY FITZGERALD, CARDINALS
‘You Broke My Heart, Man’
Fitzgerald caught a short pass from Kurt Warner, shed a tackle by midfield and dashed the final 50 yards untouched for a touchdown, his second in less than five minutes, to put Arizona ahead for the first time in Super Bowl XLIII against Pittsburgh.
What happened after that?
“We can skip this part,” Fitzgerald said as he fiddled with some fried chicken in the Cardinals’ cafeteria, in Tempe, Ariz., late last year. He paused a beat. “I’m just messing with you.”
The memory of losing that Super Bowl, on a touchdown catch by Santonio Holmes, still gnaws at Fitzgerald. Nine years later, and approaching the end of a luminous career devoid of another Super Bowl appearance, he said he took “nothing positive” from the experience beyond the preparation.
“Everything was great,” Fitzgerald said, “until the last two minutes.”
That is not entirely true. For the first 45 minutes of the only Super Bowl appearance in Cardinals history, Fitzgerald was smothered by cornerback Ike Taylor and safety Troy Polamalu, and he caught just one pass for 12 yards. And Arizona trailed by 13 points midway through the fourth quarter.
And, with the Cardinals trailing by 10-7 with the ball on the Pittsburgh 1-yard line and 18 seconds left before halftime, Steelers linebacker James Harrison dipped in front of receiver Anquan Boldin on the goal line to intercept a Warner pass and return it 100 yards for a touchdown.
“That was the play that killed us,” said Fitzgerald, who, despite being shoved out of bounds by Polamalu on that play, caught up to Harrison at the 5, yet couldn’t drag him down in time to prevent the touchdown. “You’re thinking the worst-case scenario is you get 3 points. The worst that could happen to us at that point was we don’t score a touchdown but we get 3 and go into halftime. Never in a million years, under any circumstances, do I think of all people a 270-pound linebacker would lumber 100 yards for a touchdown to go into the half.”
Arizona then scored 16 points in 4:56 during the fourth quarter, on a safety and two touchdowns by Fitzgerald, the second of which he could foresee at the line of scrimmage.
With the Steelers’ safeties split deep, Fitzgerald ran a slant and realized he could exploit the middle of the field, which was left open, if he beat Taylor on the route, which he did. Catching the ball at his own 43, Fitzgerald ran away from a diving Taylor. Fitzgerald glanced at the giant video screen above him to identify the three defenders in pursuit, but he knew they would never get him.
When Warner jogged to the sideline, he heard teammates yelling that they had just won the Super Bowl. For the first time in the game, Arizona led, 23-20.
“Everybody was celebrating, but I knew there was a whole bunch of time left,” Warner, now an analyst for NFL Network, said in a telephone interview. “Yet you look back and that was probably the first time in the history of the sport where anybody said to themselves, ‘The Arizona Cardinals are going to be world champions.’ There’s great pride in that.”
It was Fitzgerald’s seventh touchdown of the postseason, an N.F.L. record, but like Warner he thought that 2:37 was plenty of time for Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to bring his team back.
The Steelers went 78 yards in eight plays. On the seventh play, from the Arizona 6, Roethlisberger whipped a pass that sailed through the hands of a leaping Holmes. On the next play, Holmes, triple-covered, came down with a toe-tap catch in a back corner of the end zone with 35 seconds left. As the play was being reviewed, NBC cameras showed Fitzgerald saying, “Noooooooooo.”
“I wish he would have caught the first one, because it would have left more time on the clock for us,” Fitzgerald said. “Two more seconds, maybe we’d be able to score.”
Standing on the sideline during the Steelers’ drive, Fitzgerald keenly felt a loss of control.
“The hardest part for me in the Super Bowl — if I would have lost the game with the offense on the field, driving down, and they would have stopped us, I could live with that,” he said. “I had my chance. I was on the field. I had my opportunity to determine the outcome of the game. But I had as much impact on the last part of that game as you had sitting at home watching it.”
The Cardinals did get the ball back with 29 seconds left, and Fitzgerald gained 20 yards on the first play. But after Arizona reached as far as the Steelers’ 44, Warner was strip-sacked, and Pittsburgh recovered.
Over the years, Fitzgerald has attended charity events with Holmes, including joining him on trips to Africa. They are friendly, he said, but that does not mean Fitzgerald has forgiven him.
“Every time I see him,” Fitzgerald said, “I’m always like, ‘You broke my heart, man.’”
Super Bowls XXXVI AND xxxviii
RICKY PROEHL, RAMS AND panthers
‘That Sick Feeling’
Ricky Proehl was semiretired in November 2006, coaching Pop Warner football and doing television and radio for the St. Louis Rams, when the Indianapolis Colts called. They needed a receiver.
That meant catching passes from Peyton Manning for a Super Bowl contender. It also meant sharing a locker room with a man whom Proehl had said he preferred never to see again.
That man, Adam Vinatieri, destroyed his Super Bowl dreams — twice. Before signing with Indianapolis, Vinatieri booted two last-second field goals to win championships for New England. Both times, Proehl had caught game-tying touchdowns in the final 90 seconds — one for St. Louis (from Warner, seven years before he went to the Super Bowl as a Cardinal), the other for Carolina.
“You go from a hero to no one remembers,” Proehl, who did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, told reporters after Carolina’s loss. “You make a couple of big plays at the end like I did two years ago, you’re high as a kite, and a minute later, it doesn’t mean anything.”
Proehl, who did not appear in a playoff game during his first nine N.F.L. seasons, experienced the euphoria of winning a title in his 10th, when, propelled by his winning touchdown in the N.F.C. championship game, the Rams outlasted the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV in the 1999 season. Two seasons later, the Rams thought they were headed toward a second title — as 14-point favorites against New England and a 24-year-old quarterback named Tom Brady.
With their receivers stymied by the Patriots’ physical coverage, the Rams trailed by 14 in the fourth quarter but scored twice in three possessions to tie the score at 17-17. Proehl was left open when Isaac Bruce, who lined up on the outside next to him, darted inside and drew both Patriots defensive backs to him. Proehl caught a pass from Warner at the 15-yard line. He sidestepped Patriots safety Tebucky Jones and dove into the end zone for a 26-yard touchdown with 1:30 remaining.
Proehl said afterward that, in that moment, he thought the Rams were going to win. They did not fear Brady because there was not much yet to fear.
“He hadn’t really done anything in the playoffs to make you think, ‘Oh, he’s going to do this,’” Warner said recently. “At the time, we were even wondering if they were even going to try. We had gained the momentum in the second half, and we were just hoping that they were going to kneel it down and go into overtime because we didn’t feel like they could stop us at that point. It’s part of the reason why they decided to go for it.”
In a drive that launched a dynasty, Brady led New England 53 yards, and Vinatieri split the uprights from 48 yards as time expired.
Proehl spent another season with the Rams before signing with Carolina, which entered the Super Bowl in February 2004, the first in franchise history, as 7-point underdogs. The Panthers trailed the entire second half until quarterback Jake Delhomme guided them 80 yards in 1:43, twice finding Proehl for critical catches. On the second, Proehl slipped free on a post route beyond a New England blitz and grabbed a 12-yard touchdown with 1:08 left.
Proehl knew that 68 seconds were too many to allow Brady and Vinatieri, especially after New England got a short field when John Kasay’s kickoff went out of bounds. With all three timeouts left, New England had the ball at its 40.
“I started getting that sick feeling,” Proehl said. “All they needed was 25 or 30 yards.”
The Patriots got more than that. They gained 37, setting up Vinatieri for a 41-yarder. Earlier, he had shanked a 31-yarder and had a 36-yarder blocked. On the sideline, Proehl said later, he knew Vinatieri was going to drill this one.
The odds of that precise situation — scoring a late touchdown, succumbing to a winning kick by Vinatieri — happening twice in three seasons, to the same person, are incomprehensible.
When Proehl arrived in Indianapolis, he sought out Vinatieri, and they formed a fast friendship. Proehl played in only two regular-season games, catching three passes, and none in the postseason, when the Colts reached Super Bowl XLI against the Chicago Bears. Win or lose, Proehl said, he would end his career. Heading into the game — a 29-17 Colts victory — he reflected on his peculiar relationship with the man who had denied him two rings.
“I wish he was a jerk so I could hate him, but he’s a super guy, the ultimate professional, and it’s neat now to be his teammate,” Proehl told reporters in 2007. “If you can’t beat him, join him.”
Super Bowl XLIX
JERMAINE KEARSE, SEAHAWKS
‘Like Nothing Happened’
In retrospect, Kearse said, the craziest thing about his shake-the-sleep-out-of-your-eyes catch for Seattle in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIX in 2015 was not the catch itself. It was his reaction afterward.
“I just walked back like nothing happened,” Kearse said. “I do laugh about that.”
What actually happened, as viewed by thousands of incredulous onlookers at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., and millions more around the world watching on television, was a ball that, after leaving quarterback Russell Wilson’s right hand at the New England 45-yard line, did the following:
■ Traveled about 35 yards before striking Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler’s hands as he and Kearse fell backward.
■ Caromed, on its descent, off Kearse’s left groin, then his right, as he lay supine.
■ Clanked twice off Kearse’s right hand as Patriots safety Duron Harmon, nearly kicking the ball, leapt over him.
■ Nestled, finally, in Kearse’s right hand on a third effort.
Cradling the ball, Kearse turned onto his left side and got up, before Butler shoved him out of bounds at the 5 to stop the clock with 1:06 remaining. Kearse said he never heard the crowd erupt. Nor did he notice Harmon, who on Wednesday said that he still regrets not being able to stop Kearse from making the catch.
Kearse maintains he would have scored if he had been facing the end zone and not the sideline. Instead, he just headed back toward his teammates — no celebrations or gesticulations, not even a fist pump.
“How did I catch it? It’s like — honestly, I don’t know,” said Kearse, repeating a question he has been asked hundreds of times in the last three years. “I mean, it’s not like a normal catch. I remember seeing the ball bounce around and I just tried to grab it. I couldn’t even explain to you how I caught some other catches. There’s been balls that I caught where you look at the picture and my eyes are closed.”
NBC cameras focused on two men in different states of disbelief: Seahawks owner Paul Allen, who gaped, and Brady, who shook his head. The Patriots still led by 28-24, but they had been burned in two other Super Bowls by spectacular late receptions — both by Giants, Mario Manningham in Indianapolis in 2012 and David Tyree in Glendale in 2008 — and in that moment, it seemed eminently possible that it could, would, happen again.
But two snaps later, after a 4-yard run by Marshawn Lynch took Seattle to the 1, the Seahawks ran one of the most infamous plays in Super Bowl history. Rather than hand the ball to Lynch again, they called a pass play.
Kearse lined up to Wilson’s right. As the Patriots’ Brandon Browner jammed Kearse, receiver Ricardo Lockette slipped inside. Butler rushed forward from the end zone, swooped in front of Lockette at the goal line and intercepted the pass, securing the Patriots’ victory and condemning the Seahawks’ coaches to endless second-guessing.
And relegating Kearse’s catch to a footnote.
With the Seahawks, he forged a reputation for shining during the postseason. So much so that when Kearse, now a Jet, sat down for an interview on the topic last fall he asked which great catch he’d be talking about.
Kearse had a sense, though, that it was not the contested ball he had snared for the go-ahead touchdown, on fourth and 7 from the San Francisco 35, in the final quarter of the N.F.C. championship game four years ago. Or another 35-yard score, this one in overtime with Tramon Williams of the Green Bay Packers draped over him, in the N.F.C. championship the following year, granting Seattle the chance to defend its Super Bowl title against New England.
No, he was asked to talk about the hardest catch — the one that, in the end, didn’t matter.
“If we would have won, I think it probably would have been the best Super Bowl catch ever,” Kearse said. “But we lost.”
Super Bowl XLII
RANDY MOSS, PATRIOTS
‘I Still Sit There and Wonder’
After catching a late touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLII that pushed the Patriots to the brink of an undefeated 2007 season and a fourth championship in seven seasons, Randy Moss plopped on the New England bench to wait, and hope.
Beside him were two other receivers, Jabar Gaffney and Donté Stallworth. There they sat as Eli Manning directed the Giants down the field; as cornerback Asante Samuel failed to intercept a pass that bounced off his hands; as Tyree caught a ball against his helmet; and as Plaxico Burress, capitalizing on single coverage, reached the end zone and deprived Moss of glory. The Giants won, 17-14, in one of the greatest upsets in Super Bowl history.
“We were in disbelief at some of the things that happened that were uncharacteristic of our team,” Stallworth said in a telephone interview. “At the same time, we only scored 14 points that game. There’s no way that offense should have scored 14 points.”
That offense had scored the most points and amassed the most yardage in the regular season, behind the league’s most prolific quarterback-receiver combination. Moss, in his first season with New England, had caught 98 passes from Brady for 1,493 yards and a league-record 23 touchdowns.
Brady’s precision humbled defenses all season — until the Super Bowl, where he and the Patriots were humbled themselves by the Giants’ relentless blitzes. Through the first three quarters, Brady and Moss connected only once, for 18 yards. Midway through the fourth, with New England trailing by 10-7, Brady twice found Moss for first downs, then looked his way again on third and goal from the Giants’ 6-yard line.
Moss shook off cornerback Corey Webster so hard at the line of scrimmage that Webster fell, and after that, Moss gained easy entry into the end zone to put New England ahead, 14-10, with 2:42 left.
“Once Randy scored that touchdown, at least on the offense, we figured one of two things,” Stallworth said. “We figured that the defense would stop them. Or, that if in the unfortunate event that they went down and got some points and scored a touchdown, that we would have to answer. We were ready to do that either way.”
The Patriots’ regular-season dominance belied the challenges they had faced, tests that steeled them for a tense final two minutes. Brady had led four fourth-quarter comebacks, all in the season’s second half, including the finale on the road against the Giants. In that game, five weeks before the Super Bowl, he and Moss connected on a 65-yard touchdown that erased a 5-point deficit.
“Belichick would never let us think that we were better than any teams,” Stallworth said, referring to Patriots Coach Bill Belichick. “I remember when we were playing the Dolphins, we were undefeated, they hadn’t won a game, and he made us feel going into the game like he does every week. Like if we don’t play our A-plus game, we’re definitely going to lose. He scares you into believing that you can lose every game.”
Moss did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him through ESPN, where he works as an analyst. But in an interview last June on “The Dan Patrick Show,” Moss said that he had first sensed danger when Samuel, covering Tyree along the sideline, could not hold onto the pass that struck his hands.
“Only thing Asante had to do was catch the ball, get his two feet in — Super Bowl champions,” Moss said. He added, “When he missed that ball, knowing that was like a routine interception, that’s when I knew we were in trouble.”
On the next snap, Manning barely escaped the Patriots’ rush and targeted Tyree, who made just four catches in the regular season but had scored the Giants’ only touchdown of the day. Tyree jumped in front of safety Rodney Harrison, pinning the ball against his helmet as he fell backward, for a 32-yard reception that gave the Giants a first down at the New England 24 with 59 seconds remaining. Four plays later, Manning lofted a fade to Burress in the end zone.
“I knew we still had time,” Moss said, and the Patriots did: 29 seconds to move about 40 yards and into Stephen Gostkowski’s field-goal range.
After an incompletion and a sack, New England faced third and 20 from its 16. In the huddle, Moss said, Brady kept reminding them that they had time, then told Moss what play they would run. It was the same call, Stallworth said, that resulted in Moss’s go-ahead touchdown against the Giants in December.
“He said we were running an over route — like three deeps and they were going to run me on the over,” Moss said. “So I’m on the backside by myself. Tom tells me, ‘Randy, run the over and as soon as I look back at you, you beeline and take it back high angle to the corner.’ So when Tom looks at me, I take off.”
Brady launched a pass that traveled almost 70 yards in the air. Moss, tracked by Webster and safety Gibril Wilson, slowed down and reached up just as Webster did. The ball caromed off both players’ fingertips.
“I missed the ball,” Moss said. “I was tired, and still till this day I still sit there and wonder what could I have done different to be able to try and catch that ball. My specialty was going deep.”
Moss said that he had run more in that game than in any other during his career, and that it took him a few weeks to overcome the soreness.
Stallworth said of Brady and Moss: “I figured we had two of the best players to ever play the game, and if anyone’s going to do it, it’s going to be those two dudes. But even if Randy does catch that ball, we don’t have any timeouts left. If he gets tackled inbounds, the game’s over.”
He said he needed about three weeks before he could bring himself to watch the highlights. When he finally did, he screamed an expletive in the airport in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., upon seeing Tyree’s catch.
“It’s something that you don’t expect from either Eli or David Tyree,” Stallworth said. “But that’s what the Super Bowl does. One play can make you live in Super Bowl folklore for the rest of your life.”