All it takes is one big game to secure football immortality. As we rank the overall careers of the past 25 Super Bowl MVP winners, you may not remember the name of a few players on this list, while many are Hall of Famers.
Malcolm Smith -- Seattle Seahawks, Super Bowl XLVIII
Not even the best or best-known Seattle linebacker (Bobby Wagner or KJ Wright), Smith nevertheless had a great day against the Broncos when the lights shined brightest, taking an interception 69 yards for a touchdown in Seattle’s 43-8 beatdown. He also tallied 10 tackles and a fumble recovery. In 2015, Smith landed a nice deal as a free agent with the Raiders but hasn’t fared nearly as well after separating from the at-its-apex Seahawks defense. But if there’s any group a player should be happy to anchor it’s the list of Super Bowl MVP winners.
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Larry Brown -- Dallas Cowboys, Super Bowl XXX
Brown found a pair of passes from Steelers quarterback Neil O’Donnell in the second half of the Cowboys’ 27-17 victory over Pittsburgh. On the first, O’Donnell just didn’t see Brown and threw “the freebie” right into the cornerback’s bread basket. On the second, Brown found himself in the right place again when Dallas blitzed. From there, Brown’s career fizzled out in Oakland and then he came back to Dallas as a backup in 1998 before retiring.
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Dexter Jackson -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Super Bowl XXXVII
We’ll get to the offensive players, promise. Jackson, Brown and Smith represent three of only 10 defensive players to win the award. Jackson, the safety starting opposite John Lynch for the Bucs’ Super Bowl team, nabbed two first-half interceptions by cutting in front of Oakland pass catchers as the Bucs mounted a 20-3 halftime lead in an eventual 48-21 win.
Jackson left for the Cardinals the following season then came back to Tampa and then became a Bengal to finish a pretty good but not superlative career like many of his MVP peers to come.
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Santonio Holmes -- Pittsburgh Steelers, Super Bowl XLIII
Holmes looked like he was on his way to becoming one of the league’s best receivers when he fully extended in the end zone for a toe-tapping game-winning touchdown (pictured) in a thrilling win over the Kurt Warner-led Arizona Cardinals.
His best statistical season followed in 2009 (78 catches, 1,248 yards, 5 TDs) but he disappointed in his four years with the defensive-minded New York Jets from 2010-2013 when his play dropped precipitously (he had a foot injury in 2012) and his career ended at age 30 with the Bears in 2014.
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Joe Flacco -- Baltimore Ravens, Super Bowl XLVII
Flacco certainly peaked at the right time: as an impending free agent for a Wild Card playoffs team in a run that culminated with a 22-for-33, 287 yard and 3 TD passing game in a 34-31 win over San Francisco in the “blackout” Super Bowl. (We will make no mention of his eliteness or non-eliteness).
Since signing a monster contract in the ensuing offseason (6 years, $120 million) Flacco simply hasn’t been good enough to mask some roster deficiencies that such a large contact causes. The 32-year-old is an average NFL starter at this point.
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Mark Rypien -- Washington Redskins, Super Bowl XXVI
The two-time Pro Bowler reached the apex of his career during Washington’s 14-2 1991 season and a 37-24 Super Bowl win over the Buffalo Bills in which Rypien completed 18 of 33 passes for 292 yards and two scores (plus one INT). The aftermath was a letdown; the next year, he tossed 13 scores against 17 interceptions, was injured the year after that, then began a five-year tour of duty as a backup for five different teams. But his football legacy lived on as his daughter Angela became a quarterback in the LFL in 2011-2012 (the “Legacy and formerly “Lingerie” Football League).
Desmond Howard -- Green Bay Packers, Super Bowl XXXI
The former Heisman trophy winner is the only kick returner (or special teams player of any kind) to win the award. His niche was returning the ball and that he did against the Patriots for a total 10 kick and punt returns for 244 yards, including a game-breaking 99-yard kick return touchdown after the Patriots pulled within 27-21 late in the third quarter. Howard bounced around the league a bit during his 11-year career but made an impact at every stop with great speed and vision in the return game.
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Deion Branch -- New England Patriots, Super Bowl XXXIX
It’s too bad Branch didn’t stick around in New England after his heroic Super Bowl performance against the Eagles (11 catches for 133 yards) because he had a very nice connection with Brady. But money talks and he went to Seattle, where he spent his prime years (ages 27 to 31) before returning to New England.
Branch never topped 1,000 yards receiving (998 in 2005) but he was sure-handed and came up big in XXXIX and also XXXVIII (against Carolina) with 10 catches for 143 yards and a score. He finished his career with a total 518 catches and 6,644 yards and 39 touchdowns.
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Ottis Anderson -- New York Giants, Super Bowl XXV
The Giants managed to prevail against the Bills’ powerhouse offense thanks in large part to (1) defensive coordinator Bill Belichick’s masterful defensive game plan and (2) Anderson’s 21 carries for 102 yards that helped the Giants possess the ball for an NFL record 40 minutes and 33 seconds, helping to keep Jim Kelly and Buffalo off the field. The longtime Ram, Anderson, came to New York at the tail end of a career in which he rushed for 10,273 (28th all-time) yards and 81 rushing touchdowns.
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Von Miller -- Denver Broncos, Super Bowl 50
Miller is an absolute beast and the third-fastest player to 50 sacks (took only 58 games) in NFL history. The linebacker punctuated his pass-rushing onslaught against Carolina in the Super Bowl with a strip sack of Cam Newton that teammate Malik Jackson recovered for the game’s first touchdown. Miller is a pretty sure bet to ascend into the top 10 on this list but judging solely from his (very impressive) body of work so far, we couldn’t justify ranking him higher, with a slew of borderline or actual Hall of Famers to come.
Eli Manning -- New York Giants -- Super Bowls XLII and XLVI
He’s been called a lot of things, including lucky, inconsistent (this is fair), unflappale, goofy and so on but above all you have to call him just one of five winners of multiple Super Bowl MVP awards. He made spectacular plays in both upset wins over the Patriots, including his part in the Helmet Catch and the sideline throw to Mario Manningham in the encore.
Part of being a great quarterback is availability and Eli has been incredibly durable with 211 consecutive starts, which currently leads the league and ranks third all-time behind Peyton and Brett Favre. At this rate, Eli Manning is a borderline Hall of Famer with a few more years in his twilight to strengthen his case.
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Terrell Davis -- Denver Broncos, Super Bowl XXXII
The Broncos were big underdogs to Green Bay, but Davis helped John Elway finally earn that ring with 30 carries, 157 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns against the Packers. Knee injuries cut short “TD”’s brilliant career, which peaked when he rushed for 2,008 yards and 21 touchdowns in that 1998 Super Bowl season. Davis combined a brilliant mix of power, speed, quickness and vision, earning First-Team All-Pro honors from 1996-1998 before the aforementioned injuries derailed his career.
Hines Ward -- Pittsburgh Steelers, Super Bowl XL
Ward earned the hardware with 5 receptions, 123 yards and a game-sealing touchdown catch (from wideout Antwaan Randle El!) in the Steelers’ 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. Ward, also a vicious blocker, ranks 14th all time with 1,000 receptions and 23rd with 12,083 yards. In his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility this year he missed the cut for consideration as one of the 15 finalists in a field that includes receivers Isaac Bruce and Terrell Owens.
Kurt Warner -- St. Louis Rams, Super Bowl XXXIV
We’ve arrived at a gauntlet of future-and-elected Hall of Fame quarterbacks, including Warner who’s a Hall of Fame class of 2017 finalist. Warner and the Greatest Show on Turf claimed the Lombardi trophy over the Titans in XXXIV in a thrilling finale that came down to a Mike Jones tackle at the one-yard line. Warner tossed two scores in that game and had 414 passing yards -- the NFL record -- ahead of 377 yards by Kurt Warner and (XLIII) and 365 for Kurt Warner (XXXVI). Yes, Warner holds the top three spots for Super Bowl passing yards.
Drew Brees -- New Orleans Saints, Super Bowl XLIV
Brees is a remarkably accurate and consistent passer who has amassed over 66,000 yards (ranks third all-time) and counting in 16 seasons. He's led the league in passing yards seven times and in five of the last six years. Unfortunately, the Saints defense has barely existed in most of these years. Brees joined the SB MVP club when the Saints toppled the Colts 31-17, with Brees completing 32 of 39 passes for 288 yards and two scores.
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Aaron Rodgers -- Green Bay Packers -- Super Bowl XLV
When Rodgers is locked in, it’s a thing of beauty. He’s got an uncanny ability to extend plays, navigate the pocket, read the field, pass into narrow windows, effortlessly fire long passes and of course, complete Hail Marys.
He once again proved that he’s one of the best with a dominant late-season stretch until the Packers came up short in Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game. Rodgers earned his MVP thanks to a 24-of-39 performance with 304 passing yards and 3 TDs in a win over Pittsburgh. There’s a good chance the 33-year-old climbs a spot or four higher before he’s done.
Troy Aikman -- Dallas Cowboys, Super Bowl XXVII
The first of the ‘90s Cowboys three Super Bowl MVP trophies went to the QB who led a 52-17 demolition of the Bills, completing 22 of 30 pass attempts for 273 yards and four touchdowns. Concussions abbreviated Aikman’s Hall of Fame career but the former No. 1 overall pick (1989) eclipsed the 30,000 passing yard mark and guided “America’s Team” to three championships.
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Steve Young -- San Francisco 49ers, Super Bowl XXIX
The Hall of Famer grabbed his SB MVP thanks to an NFL record 6 passing touchdowns in a 49-26 beatdown of San Diego. We previously debated Young vs. Aikman while deciding who was the superior representative for the best No. 8 jersey wearer of all time and sided with Young by a hair, in light of his thoroughly dominant and league-leading efforts (in several passing categories) from 1992 to 1998 (plus his rushing/scrambling ability).
John Elway -- Denver Broncos, Super Bowl XXXIII
The architect of the Super Bowl 50-winning Broncos led the team to five Super Bowls during his brilliant career, going out on the tippy top with back-to-back titles, earning the MVP in his final NFL game. Always cool under pressure and in the fourth quarter, Elway ranks sixth all-time with 51,475 passing yards and tallied 300 passing scores and 46 game-winning drives.
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Ray Lewis -- Baltimore Ravens, Super Bowl XXXV
One of the greatest linebackers of all time, alongside the likes of Lawrence Taylor and Jack Lambert, Lewis was an absolute sideline-to-sideline tackling machine, a vocal leader and a terrifying presence for opposing QBs. He recorded four tackles and four blocked passes when the Ravens stymied the Giants in the Super Bowl. The 7-time First-Team All-Pro amassed 2,055 tackles, 41.5 sacks, 81 passes deflected, 31 interceptions and a career 19 forced fumbles in 17 seasons as a Raven and also went out on top like Elway as a Super Bowl champ in his final year.
Peyton Manning -- Indianapolis Colts, Super Bowl XLI
Like the previous two fellas, Manning hung ‘em up as a champion in a year when his defense carried him for a change (in Denver), unlike his time in Indianapolis when Manning led the Colts’ offensive juggernaut. In his MVP-effort, “The Sheriff” (before he was known as such) completed 25 of 38 passes for 247 yards and a touchdown (and one INT) during a rainy night in Miami in a 29-17 win over the Bears. The all-time passing yards (71,940) and touchdowns leader (539) was absolute technician who also earned the “regular” MVP award a record 5 times.
Emmitt Smith -- Dallas Cowboys, Super Bowl XXVIII
Here’s your third and final running back on this rundown, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher who boasts 18,355 career yards and 164 rushing touchdowns. Powerful, leg-pumping, elusive and balanced, Smith just sliced through defenses, leading the league in rushing yards four times during the height of the Cowboys’ reign. For his Super Bowl MVP, Smith carried 30 times for 132 yards and two touchdowns.
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Joe Montana -- San Francisco 49ers, Super Bowl XXIV
Alongside one of just two guys yet to come, Montana won the Super Bowl MVP award three times, the last of them in 1990 when San Fran throttled Denver 55-10 as “Joe Cool” passed for five touchdowns. A consummate leader, Montana saw the field and saw plays develop like he was playing in slow motion. He holds a variety of Super Bowl records such as highest career passer rating in the big game (127.8) and also inspired the next guy on this list, a California kid who idolized him growing up.
Tom Brady -- New England Patriots, Super Bowls XXXVI, XXXVIII, XLIX
Brady is the only other three-time winner and is currently close to even money to win a record fourth on Sunday. Is he the greatest QB of all time? Maybe, probably. Hard to quibble if you pick Montana but we like Brady a bit more. He’s now making a record seventh trip to the Super Bowl alongside Bill Belichick and hasn’t always done it with a great supporting cast on offense. The tremendous competitor has been the constant during a thoroughly dominant (183 regular season wins and just 52 losses), statistically rich 17 seasons and counting.
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Jerry Rice -- San Francisco 49ers, Super Bowl XXIII
It helps that he had Montana but they helped make each other. The brilliant route-runner holds a bevy of NFL records including most receiving yards (22,895), receptions (1,540) and touchdown catches (197). While there’s room to disagree on the greatest quarterback, running back or safety of all time, Rice is the undisputed GOAT wide receiver, perhaps the greatest player of all time and for our purposes here, had the greatest career of all the Super Bowl MVPs.