At the time, patriotism was a central theme. Just 10 days before the Giants and Bills met to crown a champion at Tampa Stadium in Tampa, Fla., the Gulf War entered its combat phase (codenamed Operation Desert Storm). The United States led a coalition of 35 nations against Iraq in response to the invasion and subsequent annexation of Kuwait in August 1990.
Whitney Houston’s stirring rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner is regarded by many as the best in the history of the game. ABC, who broadcast Super Bowl XXV in the United States, did not televise the halftime show featuring New Kids on the Block. Instead, they aired an ABC News Special Report featuring anchor Peter Jennings reporting on the status of the war. The halftime show later aired on tape delay.
Super Bowl XXV was the first of only two Super Bowls featuring teams representing the same state, although the Giants have played their home games in New Jersey since 1976. (Super Bowl XXIX was the most recent featuring teams from the same state).
The Giants and Bills had identical 13-3 records. The game was a rematch of a Week 15 contest won by Buffalo 17-13 at Giants Stadium. Both quarterbacks (The Giants’ Phil Simms and the Bills’ Jim Kelly) were knocked out of the game. Kelly would eventually return to lead his team but Simms suffered a broken foot and would miss the remainder of the season. Simms was replaced by backup Jeff Hostetler.
The Giants’ road to Super Bowl XXV began with the Chicago Bears in the Divisional round.
Head coach Bill Parcells was a champion of what he called “power football”. Hostetler only threw 17 passes in the Divisional Playoff. However, he had 10 completions for 112 yards and two touchdowns. The Giants running game was in full effect that day, gaining 191 yards and scoring two touchdowns (including 43 yards and a touchdown on six carries from Hostetler).
The Giants controlled the clock with more than 38 minutes of possession. They scored on drives of 75, 80, 49, and 51 yards while the defense held Chicago to just 11 first downs and forced two turnovers in the 31-3 rout.
Their reward for throttling the Bears was an NFC Championship Game matchup against the two-time defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park.
Certainly, there was no love lost between the two teams. The NFC Championship Game was their fifth postseason meeting since the 1981 season. San Francisco, owner of the league’s best record of 14-2 in 1990, defeated the Giants 7-3 in a defensive Week 13 Monday Night Football battle.
The defenses were also on full display in the NFC Championship Game. San Francisco limited the Giants to field goals while the Giants held the NFC’s most prolific offense in check (with the exception of a 61-yard touchdown from Joe Montana to John Taylor). In spite of the play of the defense, the Giants entered the fourth quarter down 13-9.
The Giants’ fortunes changed when defensive end Leonard Marshall knocked Montana out of the game early in the fourth quarter. They then used trickery on a fake punt that turned into a 30-yard run by linebacker Gary Reasons. Reasons’ run helped set up a field goal that cut the score to 13-12.
With Montana out of the game, the 49ers turned to backup Steve Young. San Francisco tried to run out the clock but running back Roger Craig had the ball dislodged by nose tackle Erik Howard. Linebacker Lawrence Taylor recovered the ball in mid-air with 2:36 remaining in regulation. Five plays later, Matt Bahr kicked a 41-yard field goal to seal a 15-13 Giants victory and deny the 49ers a chance at an unprecedented third consecutive Super Bowl victory.
Super Bowl XXV’s participants were examples of contrast. The Giants defense allowed the fewest points in the league (211) while Buffalo and their explosive no-huddle offense led the NFL in points scored (428).
Few gave the Giants a chance to contain Buffalo’s offense, which scored 44 and 51 points in their first two postseason games. The Giants were also bemoaned because they failed to score a touchdown in the NFC Championship Game and Buffalo had already beaten them just 43 days earlier.
The Giants decided on a conservative approach on both sides of the ball for Super Bowl XXV.
Offensively, they featured running back Ottis Anderson. Anderson took over for rookie Rodney Hampton after Hampton broke his leg in the Divisional Playoff. The Giants used play-action fakes, quarterback rollouts, and bootlegs to get Anderson going and keep Buffalo’s offense off the field.
Defensive coordinator Bill Belichick was convinced the Giants would win the day if Bills running back Thurman Thomas ran for more than 100 yards. He believed that Kelly wasn’t as adept at reading defenses as some of the NFL’s other elite quarterbacks. The plan was to be physical with Buffalo’s wide receivers and use extra defensive backs to clamp down on the Bills’ passing game while allowing Thomas to run unimpeded.
The Giants and Bills exchanged field goals to start the game: 28 yards by Bahr, 23 yards by Scott Norwood. Buffalo took a 10-3 lead in the second quarter after a 13-play drive was capped off by a 1-yard touchdown run by Don Smith. They later tacked on two more points after defensive end Bruce Smith sacked Hostetler for a safety.
Before the half, Hostetler led the Giants on a 10-play, 87-yard drive that ended with a 14-yard touchdown reception by Stephen Baker to cut the lead to 12-10. On the first series of the second half, the Giants scored on an Anderson touchdown to conclude a 16-play, 75-yard drive. The Giants took a 17-12 lead, their first of the game.
Buffalo took a 19-17 lead in the fourth quarter after a 31-yard touchdown run from Thomas. The Giants responded with a 21-yard Bahr field goal to go up 20-19 with eight minutes left in regulation. The teams exchanged possessions before Buffalo got the ball with 2:16 left on the clock.
The Bills’ final drive began on their 10-yard line. After eight plays, they wound up at the Giants’ 29. With eight seconds remaining, Norwood lined up to attempt a 47-yard field goal for the Bills’ first championship since winning the AFL title back-to-back in 1964 and 1965. The Giants burned their timeouts and could not ice him.
Norwood’s kick had the distance. Play-by-play announcer Al Michaels, whose call during the U.S. men’s hockey team defeat of the Soviets at the 1980 Winter Olympics became part of the national sports lexicon, captured the moment with two simple words.
Instead a Bills victory, the Giants won their second Super Bowl in four seasons.
Anderson ran for 102 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries and was named Super Bowl MVP. He was the first recipient of the Pete Rozelle Trophy, named for the former NFL commissioner who retired midway through the 1989 season. This wasn’t without some minor controversy. There were some who thought the honor should have gone to Thomas, who ran for 135 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries.
Super Bowl XXV was the first Super Bowl in which neither team committed a turnover (Super Bowl XXXIV is the other). It was only the second Super Bowl to have two 100-yard rushers (Matt Snell ran for 121 yards for the New York Jets in Super Bowl III while Tom Matte had 116 for the Baltimore Colts). The Giants set a record for time of possession with 40 minutes, 33 seconds. Belichick’s defensive game plan is currently on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Two of Parcells’ assistants left the team after Super Bowl XXV for head coaching positions. Ten days after the upset victory Belichick, just two months shy of his 39th birthday, became the NFL’s youngest head coach when he was hired by the Cleveland Browns while wide receivers coach Tom Coughlin was named head coach at Boston College.
Parcells himself retired in May 1991, citing health concerns. It is rumored that general manager George Young wanted Coughlin to succeed Parcells but Coughlin’s departure for Boston College made it a moot point. It is also believed Young had a tumultuous relationship with Belichick and consistently gave him bad reviews when it came to head coaching opportunities.
Parcells was succeeded by running backs coach Ray Handley, who was talked into joining the Giants staff for the 1990 season after deciding to go to law school.
Handley’s two seasons leading the team were marked by the benching of Simms in favor of Hostetler to start the ’91 season, the 1992 hiring of Rod Rust as defensive coordinator (Rust was 1-15 as head coach of the New England Patriots in ‘90), and two last place finishes in the NFC East (8-8 in ’91, 6-10 in ’92). The last place finishes were further exacerbated by division rivals winning the Super Bowl (The Washington Redskins won Super Bowl XXVI and the Dallas Cowboys won Super Bowl XXVII). Handley was fired after the 1992 season.