The New York Giants and Buffalo Bills played in Super Bowl XXV 30 years ago — a game that would begin and end with legendary moments. It opened with Whitney Houston’s awe-inspiring rendition of the national anthem and finished with Scott Norwood’s 47-yard field goal attempt that drifted wide right as time expired.
Sandwiched between was 60 minutes of football that served as diversionary entertainment from the ongoing Gulf War.
In a venue filled with red, white and blue, representing the patriotism of the moment and the colors of teams involved, those in attendance at Tampa Stadium on Jan. 27, 1991, were treated to one of the NFL’s most memorable championship games.
“I remember the wonderful flyover, the unbelievable presentation before the game with the Star Spangled Banner with Whitney Houston,” former Bills coach Marv Levy said last week. “The best I ever heard.”
It was the second of four times Tampa, Florida, has hosted the event, and the Giants won 20-19 in a game best known as “Wide Right,” because of Norwood’s miss.
It was the first of four straight Super Bowl losses by the Bills, and in retrospect, their best chance to win a title. To this day, that hurts for many Bills fans and former players. The Bills haven’t been back to the big game since that run in the 1990s, a streak that continued Sunday after their loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC title game.
But it’s just part of the story.
As the Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers prepare for Super Bowl LV on Feb. 7 in Tampa (6:30 p.m. ET, CBS), fans can only hope they replicate the type of drama the Bills and Giants provided 30 years ago.
There was speculation the game could be postponed or canceled as the United States and its allies were in a war with Iraq that began Aug. 2, 1990. It ended a month after the Super Bowl on Feb. 28, so security for the game was strict, though there were no known credible threats of an attack.
Howard Cross, Giants tight end (1989-01): “I remember seeing my first machine gun with troops walking around the streets with guns. I’m thinking to myself, ‘What in the world is going on? Are we going to play this game?’ That really stood out to me. … We were happy. We were excited. But it was a little jarring to see that.”
Cornelius Bennett, Bills linebacker (1987-95): “It wasn’t what we thought the Super Bowl was about, especially after going back three more times. We really got a chance to experience the Super Bowl week [in subsequent trips]. The first one wasn’t all it was cut out to be because of [the heightened security].”
Cross: “When you walked into the stadium that day for the game, they took your camera. Remember the film camera? They took the film out. … They had to see if your camera was a bomb.”
Jim Ritcher, Bills offensive lineman (1980-93): “The security going in was much more than I’d ever seen. Never walked through a magnetometer before to get into a game. All the players had to do it like everybody else. And the helicopters.”
Jeff Hostetler, Giants quarterback (1985-92), after being shaken up during the game: “I can remember seeing [the medical personnel’s] eyes and thinking, ‘Uh-oh.’ And they all kind of left and there was this short period of time when nobody was around. I kind of looked up and there was two big Apache helicopters with the guns out and just hovering inside the stadium. In the midst of all that, unbeknownst to most of us. I just happened to glance up and there they were. And I’m thinking, ‘Look at this!’ And I think [Giants coach Bill] Parcells was yelling, and we were back at it.”
Whitney Houston and the crowd
Her prerecorded version of “The Star Spangled Banner” is perhaps the most famous and well received in Super Bowl history.
Levy: “That Whitney Houston presentation, I’d never heard anything like it. I looked around and 50% of our players were crying. Tears running down their face[s].”
Hostetler: “Probably my fondest memory of the entire thing was waiting in the tunnel to be introduced. Just standing there, I was next and looking out and seeing that stadium just rocking with all these red, white and blue flags and just knowing here it is. Six weeks earlier I had already made up my mind I was retiring, and being on that stage knowing the whole world was watching and then to run out and have Whitney Houston sing and have that flyover, it was such a great thing to be part of.”
Ritcher: “We came out for warm-ups, and they were playing Lee Greenwood’s ‘God Bless the U.S.A.’ There was a sweet, sweet spirit.”
Bennett: “[The situation] was handled beautifully, and I wouldn’t change anything because it made for one of the greatest memories in Super Bowl history with Whitney Houston singing.”
Cross: “By being two New York teams and being all red, white and blue, it was kind of a cool moment.”
The Belichick game plan
Then a 38-year-old defensive coordinator for the Giants, Bill Belichick devised a unique game plan that sits in the Pro Football Hall of Fame inside a big blue binder. His plan to shut down the Bills’ K-Gun offense led by QB Jim Kelly was to employ two defensive linemen, four linebackers and five defensive backs, and make Buffalo’s wide receivers pay every time they touched the ball while allowing Buffalo running back Thurman Thomas to rush for 100 yards.
Carl Banks, Giants linebacker (1984-92): “We thought Bill was crazy, because [the] first thing he said was we want Thurman Thomas to get 100 yards. … We just weren’t allowing running backs to get 100 yards.”
Parcells: “We had played them twice before in a year. So we had learned a lot from that experience, particularly the game we lost to them in New York.”
Banks: “As soon as [Bills wide receiver] Andre Reed got the ball, he needed a helmet in his ribs. He has to know he’s not coming across the middle like he did against Oakland.”
Will Wolford, Bills offensive lineman (1986-92): “They had three down linemen, but one of them was [linebacker] Lawrence Taylor. … It was a tough game looking back on it because we probably waited too long to make the move to jump to the run game and truly run them out of that defense and make them go back to their regular defense.”
The Bills were in control early, building a 12-3 lead in the second quarter, and had chances to blow it open. But several plays leading up to the final minutes made it come down to Norwood’s kick.
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Parcells: “[We had] a big score at the end of the first half [a TD pass by Hostetler that made the score 12-10] because that got us back in the game. And then of course to get another one in the beginning of the third quarter [on a TD run by game MVP Ottis Anderson] with a very similar drive. That is what got us the lead, and when we had the lead we got to play the rest of the game the way we wanted. We weren’t forced into any catch-up situations or desperation situations.”
Bennett: “The one play where [Giants receiver] Mark Ingram broke four or five tackles [on third-and-13 in the third quarter], that kind of defined the game in a sense. … We had a chance to get off the field and we didn’t. They went on to score.”
Banks: “[Reed] took a few big shots [before a key drop]. And that is why he started to pull up on routes a little bit. They were moving at such a pace offensively, that these guys never got touched. The way we set it up, we just put a bunch of speed bumps out there. And if he made it across one checkpoint, he was going to get hit at the next checkpoint.”
Wolford: “For me personally, if I just don’t jump offsides [on a third-and-short in the first half] that game is probably different. I think every player on the team can point to a play like that and say, ‘If I would have done this differently, it would have changed the outcome of the game.'”
Buffalo played on AstroTurf at Rich Stadium at the time, and Norwood, who was in his sixth season, entered the Super Bowl 1-of-5 in his career on field goal attempts of 40-plus yards on natural grass.
Parcells: “I was thinking it would be a shame if we lost this game, because we had outplayed them. … My kicker Matt Bahr had told me before the kick, ‘Coach, he hasn’t made one from 47 yards on grass this year. He’s going to overkick the ball.’ That’s exactly what happened.”
Wolford: “I was next to [Bills center] Kent Hull, who was a really good friend of mine. … Kent looks at me and goes, ‘What do you think?’ I just kind of said, ‘I don’t think so.’ He goes, ‘I don’t either.’ We felt like … we brought our C-game. All the way around, coaching, playing everything.”
Bennett: “Thurman Thomas and I were spent. Thurman just came off the field, and I made my way to him. The two of us were sitting on the bench. I don’t think either one of us actually saw the kick. I think it took me to see the actual play, it took me a long time to see it. I’m talking about a year or two. I just knew I didn’t want to see it.”
Hostetler: “I wanted to watch the reactions of everybody and just take it in. I can still hear the thump of the ball going off his foot and then just watching the official underneath waving no good. I just knelt there and watched everybody. Guys running all over the place. For me, it was, ‘Wow, Lord, six weeks ago nobody said we could do it and here I am, just won a Super Bowl.’ Pretty special.”
Levy: “Many of the Buffalo people know this, but there were maybe four games during the year where Scott kicked the winning field goal on the way to get there. I remember after the game where Scott was sitting there very quietly and brooding. One player after another came up to him, Darryl Talley and Nate Odomes. ‘If we would have made that tackle on third-and-13 they would have never gotten the go-ahead touchdown. Andre Reed: ‘If I would have caught that pass.’ And on and on they went.”
Bennett: “Thirty years later, I can truly say I’ve never heard, and we wouldn’t allow a former teammate to blame it on Scott Norwood. There would be repercussions behind that.”
Levy: “The next day when we arrived back in Buffalo on our flight, we got on our bus and instead of going to the stadium where we usually went after we wrapped things up, unbeknownst to us they took us downtown. Downtown Buffalo there was about 35,000 people [at Niagara Square]. They took us into a government building out on a balcony and the crowd started to chant for Scott and they applauded him and wished him well. Scott Norwood, a very quiet [guy], said to them, ‘You are the reason we will be going back to the Super Bowl.’ That touched us very much.”
Wolford: “That is one if we played the Giants 10 times, I think they would have won once. … So, yeah, on paper for sure. Looking back on it, it was easily the best matchup we had [of Buffalo’s four straight Super Bowl losses].”
Parcells: “That was a good opportunity for them. They had good players, but, you know, the NFC East in those days was a pretty good division. You come out of the NFC in those days, you were pretty much battle hardened.”
Cross: “All those [Bills] guys were so special. And then this [Buffalo] defense that nobody talks about that much, they were lawless. They were great. They weren’t just beating you, they were getting after you. When we lost to them in the regular season, they broke [Giants QB Phil] Simms’ ankle.”
Banks: “I have no problem saying it. They may have been the greatest team to never win a Super Bowl. They were, to be honest with you, on par with the San Francisco 49ers with the way they won.”