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Houston and the Super Bowl

There are plenty of Houston connections to the Super Bowl, just not many with the Houston teams and the game.

Super Bowl XXXVIII: Panthers v Patriots Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Super Bowl week. Arguably the biggest spectacle on the NFL, this is the showcase week that culminates with the biggest game, as well as the single biggest cultural event on the American calendar, the Super Bowl. While the game has undergone some evolutions over the past 56 years, the premise is still the same: Hype the ever-living [Easterby] out of this event, and then settle the quest for the championship on the field.

However, the Super Bowl is a bit of a fanciful dream for the Houston fan base. In the 51 opportunities that a Houston-based NFL franchise could make a run at the title (accounting for the years between 1996 and 2002 when no team called Houston home), the Super Bowl never saw a Houston squad in the game. For on-field considerations, the closest that any Houston-based team came were the the 1967 AFL Championship, when the Raiders annihilated Houston 40-7, sending Oakland to Super Bowl II and its date with a 33-14 smashing by Green Bay, and back-to-back loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in AFC Championships in the 1978 (34-5) and 1979 (27-13) seasons.

Yet, this is not to say that Houston has never played a role in the Super Bowl. In the history of the city, they hosted 3 of the 56 Super Bowls played. Those Super Bowls (VIII, XXXVIII, XLI). Spread out over 2 stadiums, the games brought the eyes of the world to the city of Houston. As for the caliber of games, that varied.

Super Bowl VIII:

Super Bowl VIII - Minnesota Vikings v Miami Dolphins
There was a lot of this during the game.

Played at Rice Stadium, which already looked dated by the time the Miami Dolphins and the Minnesota Vikings came to visit, the game did not offer a lot in the way of aesthetics. On a cold, cloudy day, the Miami Dolphins mauled the Minnesota Vikings 24-7 in a game that was probably not ever that close. Miami held a commanding 24-0 lead at the end of the 3rd quarter, with the Vikings managing a Fran Tarkenton touchdown run in the 4th to avoid the shutout. Miami rushed for 196 yards on 53 carries, led by game MVP Larry Csonka’s 33 rushes for 145 yards and 2 touchdowns. Bob Griese threw all of 7 passes, completing 6 for 73 yards. Minnesota didn’t get much going, with Tarkenton held to 188 yards passing and the ground game for Minnesota managing only 72 yards. The Dolphins forced two turnovers and held the vaunted Purple People Eaters to 1 sack.

This game represented perhaps the pinnacle of Don Shula’s tenure as coach of the Miami Dolphins. It was their 3rd straight Super Bowl, having lost Super Bowl VI and won Super Bowl VII. While more ink is spilled debating the place of the undefeated 1972 Dolphins in NFL history, there is a strong school of thought that the 1973 team, which lost twice in the regular season, was the superior team. Even many members of the Dolphins who were on both the 1972 and 1973 squads point to the 1973 team as the better one. However, it would also be the last Super Bowl Shula and the Dolphins would win. Between rule changes negating the defense/run-heavy game of the last 1970s, the loss of various Miami stars to other leagues and the evolution of the league, the Miami run of dominance ended, and the franchise is coming on 49 years since its last title.

As for Minnesota, this would be the second of their 4 Super Bowl losses over a 7 season span. While those teams possessed incredible talent, especially on the defensive line and at QB, the squad never really came close in their 4 championship losses, being blasted by a collective 24-9 average. They join Buffalo as the only team with an 0-4 Super Bowl record. They have gone 44 years since their last Super Bowl appearance.

Ultimately, history does not have a lot of kind things to say about this game. In most Super Bowl rankings, this game is among the bottom dwellers in quality. You would be hard-pressed to find a memorable play from this game in any highlight reel. Given that the NFL felt that the Astrodome was too small to ever host the title game, and given that Rice Stadium did not yield anything close to a great experience, the NFL would not bring back the Super Bowl to Houston for 30 years.

Super Bowl XXXVIII:

Super Bowl XXXVIII - Carolina Panthers v New England Patriots

It would take a new stadium, mainly due to the presence of a new Houston team, for the NFL to come back to the Bayou City. This time, instead of dilapidated Rice Stadium, the hosting venue was the new and exquisite Reliant (now NRG) Stadium, towering right next to the ruins of the old Astrodome. Much like Super Bowl VIII, another AFC East team came into Houston looking for its second Super Bowl win. While the Dolphins were at the peak of their dynastic run, the New England Patriots were only at the beginning of their long run of championship prominence.

Coming in to the game, the once up-start Patriots, led by an emerging Tom Brady, a powerful defense and guided by the Sith Lord Belichick saw themselves as the strong favorite against the out-of-nowhere Carolina Panthers, led by Jake Delhomme, an opportunistic defense and the tough leadership of John Fox. Yet, while the game might have been in a different era and venue, the first 21 minutes saw neither team score, with fears that maybe Houston is just not the place for a Super Bowl.

Then at the 3:05 mark, New England broke the scoring drought with a short TD. This would spark a combined 24 point outburst in the final minutes of the half, with New England taking a 14-10 lead into the locker room. The 3rd quarter again saw no scoring, but that only set the stage for one of the wildest 4th quarters in Super Bowl history. New England scored on a short TD run to up their lead to 11 at the 14 minute mark in the 4th. However, Carolina scored two TDs to eventually take a 22-21 lead. The Patriots answered with a Brady-to-Vrabel pass and subsequent 2-point conversion to take the lead 29-22 with just under 3 minutes left. Carolina took the next possession and answered with a Delhomme TD pass at the 1:08 mark, tying the score at 29-29.

Then, perhaps the most critical mistake of the game by Carolina followed, when Panthers’ kicker John Kasay shanked the kickoff out-of-bounds, giving Brady and the Patriots the ball at the NE 40. That enabled the Patriots to move down the field to the Carolina 23, setting up Adam Vinatieri, who had missed two 1st half field goals, the chance to once again kick New England to a championship with a game-winning 41 yarder. He did, and New England secured its second Super Bowl in 3 years.

Needless to say, this game ranks much higher on the scale of quality Super Bowls than the beatdown at Rice Stadium. Tom Brady collected his second Super Bowl MVP award, and the Patriots were setting up to equal the 1992-1995 Cowboys for 3 Super Bowl victories in a 4 year span when they repeated the following year at Super Bowl XXXIX. Carolina would not return to the Super Bowl until Super Bowl 50, which they lost in Peyton Manning’s swan song game.

Oh, and while almost no one can remember the halftime show/entertainment for Super Bowl VIII [It was the University of Texas Marching Band] and, it is not likely anyone would forget the halftime show for Super Bowl XXXVIII. Timberlake, Jackson, and something about the end of the performance? While the NFL would make some adjustments to entertainment aspect of the game, the fact that Houston played a good host to Super Bowl XXXVIII indicated that the city would probably not have to wait 30 years for the next opportunity to host the title game.

Super Bowl LI:

Super Bowl LI - New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

It was only a 13 years wait. Super Bowl LI saw the city once again host an AFC East team, which once again was New England, this time seeking its 5th ring. Once again, New England, with Brady and Belichick at the helm, would have to do battle with a NFC South opponent, the Atlanta Falcons and league MVP Matt Ryan. New England opened the game as the favorite yet again, but only by 3. Most figured a close game that could go either team’s way.

While many people may not remember the exact Roman numeral configuration for this Super Bowl, they are more likely to remember this series of numbers associated with the game: 28-3. At the 8:31 mark in the 3rd quarter, Atlanta scored a 6-yard TD pass from Matt Ryan to take a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl. The Falcons, making their second-ever Super Bowl appearance, seemed certain to clinch their first Lombardi trophy. Up to that point, they dominated New England, which included an 82-yard Pick-Six of Tom Brady. Up to that point, the largest deficit overcome to win a Super Bowl had been 10 points (most recently by New England to beat Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX).

As most may remember, New England went on to score the final 31 points of the game, taking the Super Bowl into its first overtime. Atlanta did have a golden chance in the 4th quarter to ice the game, but on a drive that saw Atlanta get to the New England 22 yard line, when they led 28-20 with 4:40 left in the game, the Falcons then proceeded to lose 23 yards and only take 1 minute of game time off the clock. A field goal puts Atlanta up 11 and if the team had just played for that field goal, they would have bled more time off the clock and forced New England to burn off its remaining timeouts. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan continues to be haunted by that game, as he has overseen games as a head coach where double digit 4th quarter leads did not yield a victory (Super Bowl LIV and the most recent NFC Championship game).

When New England saw James White plow into the end zone in overtime to win the game and put Atlanta out of its misery, New England claimed its 5th Super Bowl crown. Brady would win the 3rd of his record 5 Super Bowl MVPs. It would also be the first of 3 straight New England Super Bowl appearances, with a tough loss in Super Bowl LII to Philadelphia, and the Patriots biggest win by margin of victory over the LA Rams in Super Bowl LIII. Lady Gaga headlined the halftime performance, with not quite the controversy of Super Bowl XXXVIII.

As for Atlanta, the Falcons have not come close since, and the team is forever damned by references to 28-3. The city did get a small measure of redemption when the the Braves (fighting their own curses and post-season shortcomings) clinched the franchise’s second World Series in Game 6 of the 2021 World Series at Minute Maid Park, but we don’t need to dwell too much on that one.

In short, Houston is no stranger to the Super Bowl. The ideal history would involve a tale where a Houston-based team won the game. For the time being, the fanbase will have to be content to accept the glory of 3 Super Bowls hosted. The NFL has not announced the location for the games past 2025, so there is a good chance the city will host Super Sunday again. Will the home team actually make it to the game before that time? To Be Determined.