Adam Vinatieri has the two most important field goals in Super Bowl history. That’s no surprise, given the circumstances under which they were kicked.
The first is the 48-yarder that beat the Rams as time ran out in Super Bowl XXXVI.
It was an impressive kick given the difficulty and the situation. That season, kickers converted 54 percent of field-goal tries from 47 to 49 yards (in 2015, they made 71 percent).
Two years later, Vinatieri got another chance at a high-pressure kick. This one was a little easier, a 41-yarder with four seconds remaining, to give the Patriots a three-point lead over the Panthers. Kickers that season had an 80 percent success rate on kicks of that type.
You don’t necessarily need advanced stats to ascertain that these are the two biggest Super Bowl field goals, but we can use the numbers to produce a list of the others that would make up the top five (or in this case five plus one).
We used Win Probability Added data to figure this out. Win Probability Added (WPA) measures the change in a team’s chance to win from the start of the play to the end of the play. ESPN’s win probability model is built on the outcomes of NFL games from recent seasons that featured similar circumstances (score, time remaining, field position, down and distance to go).
3. Jim O’Brien: 32-yard field goal with 5 seconds left, Super Bowl V
O’Brien was Vinatieri before Vinatieri. He was the hero of the Baltimore Colts’ Super Bowl win two years after their loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III. We think of 32 yards as almost a chip-shot kick now, but it wasn’t then. NFL kickers converted 65 percent of attempts from 30 to 35 yards.
O’Brien was 2-of-6 on attempts of those lengths during the regular season.
“If I started thinking, I’d start worrying, and I didn’t want to do that," O'Brien told reporters after the game. "I was just concentrating on getting my steps down. ... I was so stirred up after that field goal, I cried.”
4. Garrett Hartley, 47-yard field goal in third quarter, Super Bowl XLIV
The only non-fourth-quarter kick among the top five is this one by Hartley, whose field goal cut the Colts’ lead over the Saints to 17-16 with 2:01 remaining in the third quarter. It improved the Saints' chance of winning the game by almost 11 percentage points.
Hartley was the unsung hero of this game for the Saints, who scored two touchdowns to win in the fourth quarter. He accounted for all of the Saints’ points in the first half with field goals of 46 and 44 yards.
5. Roy Gerela, 36-yard field goal in fourth quarter, Super Bowl X
Gerela put the Steelers ahead of the Cowboys 12-10 on a 36-yard field goal with 9:05 remaining. That swung the win-probability pendulum by 10 percentage points, improving the Steelers' chance of winning from 49 to 59 percent. The game featured three more scores, including another field goal by Gerela, but more notably a 64-yard touchdown throw from Terry Bradshaw to Lynn Swann.
It was part of an adventurous day for Gerela that included a pregame altercation with a fan in the stands, a tackle on the opening kickoff that injured his ribs and two missed kicks. One of the latter served as motivation for the big make.
“I never considered missing the one that put us ahead," Gerela told media members after the game. "I knew I was going to make it. I just thought that I should keep my poise, keep cool and everything would be all right.”
Each of the five kicks mentioned above came in a victory, which makes intuitive sense, as you would figure that late-game kicks in close games would lead to wins. What was the most important made field goal by a team that lost? The answer lies with the next kick on the list.
6. Jim Breech, 40-yard field goal with 3:44 left, Super Bowl XXIII
Joe Montana and John Taylor can thank Breech for elevating their status among San Francisco 49ers fans. Breech could have been the hero for the Cincinnati Bengals, as his kick put them up 16-13 with 3:44 remaining. The Bengals’ win probability went from 63 percent before the kick to 72 percent afterward.
That was not a gimme kick. That season, kickers made 39- to 41-yard field goals 67 percent of the time. But Breech nailed it with the poise of someone who went 9-of-9 on overtime field-goal attempts in his career. It was Breech's third field goal of the game. A poll was taken right after the kick: Breech was the favorite to be the first kicker to win Super Bowl MVP.
"Before we left to go to Miami, one of our coaches, Tiger Johnson, was telling a story how a few years earlier, his former Lions team had a chance to upset the 49ers in the playoffs, but Eddie Murray (one of the best in the game) missed a field goal. He cost me a $25,000 bonus," Breech said.
"I kept thinking that if I missed that kick, Tiger was gonna be [ticked]."
Breech came through. But Montana made it moot, leading the 49ers on a game-winning drive that culminated with his touchdown pass to Taylor with under a minute remaining.
But this isn't a list meant to celebrate Montana and Rice. It's one for Vinatieri, O'Brien, Hartley, Gerela and even Breech. Admittedly though, a championship would have been nice.
"That game gets replayed a lot," said Breech, now an insurance executive in Cincinnati. "This time of year, I get a lot of 'I saw you on TV' texts. It doesn't get any easier. To say we were champs would have been awesome."