On Jan. 25, 1987, the New York Giants defeated the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. It was the Giants’ first league championship in 30 years, culminating the greatest season in franchise history.
The Giants entered the 1986 season as one of the prohibitive favorites to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
They began with a 31-28 loss to the Dallas Cowboys before winning five consecutive games. After a 17-12 Week 7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, the Giants won their final nine regular season games to finish with a record of 14-2. They were tied with the Chicago Bears for the league’s best mark and set a franchise record for victories that stands to this day.
The Giants won their first division title since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. Linebacker Lawrence Taylor became just the second (and most recent) defensive player to be named NFL Most Valuable Player to go along with his record third NFL Defensive Player of the Year award while head coach Bill Parcells won NFL Coach of the Year honors.
Eight Giants players (linebacker Carl Banks, tight end Mark Bavaro, left tackle Brad Benson, nose tackle Jim Burt, linebacker Harry Carson, punter Sean Landeta, defensive end Leonard Marshall, running back Joe Morris, and Taylor) were named to the NFC Pro Bowl team.
The Giants were the top seed in the NFC Playoffs after tiebreakers, earning a first-round bye. In the Divisional Playoff round, they faced an opponent they were all too familiar with: the San Francisco 49ers. San Francisco beat the Giants 21-10 in the Divisional round two seasons earlier en route to victory in Super Bowl XIX. The following season, the Giants upset the defending Super Bowl champs on Wild Card Weekend.
The Giants were just three-point favorites to beat the 49ers. Their chances for victory increased substantially when 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice fumbled what should have been a routine touchdown early in the contest and quarterback Joe Montana was knocked out of the game. The Giants held the vaunted 49ers offense to a total of 184 yards while gaining 216 yards on the ground in the 49-3 Giants blowout.
Their opponent in the NFC Championship Game was familiar as well: the Washington Redskins. Washington entered the game with much confidence having dispatched of the defending Super Bowl champion Bears in the Divisional Round. However, the Giants won both regular season meetings.
The Giants won the opening coin toss, electing to take the wind. They went up 10-0 in the first quarter with the wind at their back. In the second quarter, they added a touchdown to go up 17-0, which was the game’s final score after a dominant performance by the Giants defense. Just like that, the Giants earned their first league championship game berth since losing the 1963 NFL Championship.
They faced a Broncos team with a savant quarterback in John Elway. Not only was he proficient throwing the ball but he was also the team’s third leading rusher. Denver’s linebacking corps, led by Tom Jackson and Karl Mecklenburg, compared favorably to the Giants’ linebackers.
Denver scored the game’s first points on a 48-yard field goal from Rich Karlis. The Giants answered with a 10-play, 78-yard touchdown drive to take a 7-3 lead with Phil Simms going 6-for-6 for 67 yards. Elway ran in the Broncos’ next touchdown on a 4-yard quarterback draw for a 10-7 lead at the end of the first quarter.
The only points scored in the second quarter came when Giants defensive end George Martin sacked Elway for a safety, cutting the Broncos’ lead to 10-9 at the half.
Simms promptly marched the Giants offense down the field after the intermission, going 5-of-5 for 53 yards including a 13-yard touchdown to Bavaro to take a 16-10 lead. The Giants scored 26 unanswered points after Elway’s touchdown run in the first quarter, firmly establishing control in a 39-20 victory that wasn’t as close as the final score might suggest.
Simms finished 22-of-25 for 268 yards and three touchdowns, earning Super Bowl MVP honors. He completed 88 percent of his passes, setting a record for completion percentage in a Super Bowl that still stands. Morris and Ottis Anderson had a rushing touchdown each.
Super Bowl XXI ended three decades of football futility for the Giants and their fans. It also started a tradition for the game’s winning head coach.
Parcells was the recipient of a Gatorade Shower after each the Giants’ 17 victories in the ’86 season. It was a tradition that began in ‘85 after the gruff Hall of Fame coach called out Burt before a divisional game against the Redskins. After the Giants won the game, Burt dumped a Gatorade cooler over Parcells’ head. The Giants won the following week and Burt dumped Gatorade over The Tuna once again.
Gatorade cooler dumping duty fell to Carson, a future Hall of Famer, in 1986. Carson took over because of his stature on the team and Parcells’ superstitious nature. The dumping after Super Bowl XXI made Carson and Parcells the faces of the Gatorade Shower. It even landed Carson an endorsement deal.
Super Bowl XXI capped off the greatest season in Giants history as well as one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. The Big Blue Wrecking Crew (which, for reasons unknown, is almost never mentioned among the greatest defenses in NFL history) punished opponents while the offense was methodical and made plays when necessary. The Giants would win their second Super Bowl four years later with pretty much the same cast of characters.