The stage was set.
With more than six minutes left in the third quarter, Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos were marching down the field and ready to punch in the first points to spark a riveting Super Bowl comeback from 29-0 down. On cue, the Broncos’ 5-time MVP quarterback stepped back to the 50-yard line and fired a perfect strike to receiver DeMaryius Thomas, who caught the ball at the 26-yard line and sprinted four yards into a waiting Seattle defender. Extending his right arm, Thomas tried to knock cornerback Byron Maxwell’s head off and eke out a few more yards on the play. But Thomas left the ball exposed in one arm, and Maxwell easily stripped him of it. Seattle recovered; Denver never would.
Following the fumble, all hope for a comeback—and, by extension, for a competitive game—vanished. No Super Bowl team had ever come back to win a game from a deficit of more than 10 points. Manning and the Broncos squandered a golden opportunity to shatter that record. Their comeback would have been the second-greatest in NFL history, only surpassed by Buffalo in the 1993 Playoffs.
Minutes into the fourth quarter, despite a Denver touchdown and two-point conversion, the game of the year was all but over. Some people in my watch party advocated for a change of channel to something called “Puppy Bowl.” Others silently prayed they would not be subjected to any more Bud Light commercials featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger in Bjorn Borg drag. I, meanwhile, found a new rooting interest: the most statistically improbable final score in Super Bowl history.
With 12 minutes left in the game, Seattle scored to go up 43-8. That’s an exceedingly rare, funky score. To pull it off, both teams typically have to score two-pointers, whether by safety or two-point conversion. Sunday night, both teams did this.
How rare is this score? It’s difficult to know for sure, but we can begin to appreciate its unique status by noting that in 14,936 pro football games dating back to the 1920s, no game had ever finished 43-8. A team has scored 8 points in a game only 40 times. And a team has scored 43 points in one game 47 times. Which means heading into this Super Bowl, the probability the final score would be 43-8 was—as a very rough and generous estimate—around one in 62,500.
In the last 12 minutes, there were a few times this veritable four-leaf clover looked in danger of being trampled on. Twice, Seattle drove deep into Denver territory and decided to go for it on fourth down. Twice, the Broncos rose to the occasion to stop them. Moreover, Manning came through in the crunch. He could have really screwed up my score by leading his team to a touchdown. Had he done so, and failed at the two-point, we would have been faced with the dreadfully mundane final of 43-14—something that’s happened seven times before.
Fortunately, the record-setting Bronco offense did its part to set yet another record. They never got close to the Seattle endzone again. When the smoke cleared, a most precious 43-8 tally remained intact. “It's unbelievable. I'm in shock," Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith, the game's MVP, told USA Today. "We expected a great fight from them. We kind of just dominated the game.” That they did, which is surprising given Denver rolled into New Jersey averaging 457.3 yards and 37.9 points a game. But the result itself isn’t that amazing at all. This was the fifth Super Bowl in which a team allowing the fewest points during the season opposed a team scoring the most points. The defensive side has won all five times.
The chances are Seattle will do it again, and soon. Then again, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which Manning returns to the Super Bowl next year and, this time, his defense and special teams units don’t self-destruct.
Last night, Manning and the Broncos failed to do their part in delivering an all-time classic to us viewers. That’s disappointing. But I’m glad they came through when it counted to preserve a final score for the ages.
Editor's note: We recrunched the numbers and got 1 in 62,500, not 125,000.