For pure clutchness, it's tough to equal The Drive. Yet that's what Joe Montana did two years later in Super Bowl XXIII against the Bengals. Joe Cool had already won a pair of Lombardi trophies with the Niners, so his calm during a TV timeout preceding San Francisco's final possession wasn't surprising. His equanimity had a soothing effect on his teammates. Trailing the Bengals 16--13 with 3:20 to play, the Niners were 92 yards from Cincy's end zone. Milling in the huddle, second-year right tackle Harris Barton "was coming out of his skin, he was so jittery," recalls Cross. That's when Montana defused some of the tension by pointing out a familiar face in the far end zone: "Isn't that John Candy?"
Those Bengals were cutting-edge on both sides of the ball. Coach Sam Wyche's hurry-up offense was complemented by the newfangled zone-blitz schemes of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. And yet, "we didn't blitz any during that drive," recalls CBS analyst Solomon Wilcots, who was a Cincy free safety. "We rushed three guys, dropped everybody else, and Joe Montana just kind of did whatever he wanted to."
As Montana dissected Cincinnati's defense, Wyche, a former 49ers assistant, must have been thinking, How many times have I seen this? Montana's 10-yard touchdown strike to John Taylor, the 11th play of the drive, put the Bengals out of their misery.
How has the two-minute drill changed? Since 1994 coaches have been able to communicate with quarterbacks via wireless radio, making it even more infrequent for passers to call their own plays. What else? "There's just much more emphasis on [hurry-up offenses]," says Bruce Arians, newly named coach of the Cardinals. "Especially in OTAs and training camp."
Averse by nature to circumstances for which they haven't prepared, offensive coordinators strain to conceive of every possible scenario in which the two-minute offense might be employed. This season, as interim coach of the Colts while Chuck Pagano battled leukemia, Arians issued a directive to an assistant: "Go through the entire league and find two-minute scenarios." One of the dozens the assistant came up with put the offense on its own 22-yard line with 28 seconds to play, two timeouts and needing a field goal to win.
On the Thursday before their mid-September game against Minnesota, the Colts prepared for that very situation with this three-play sequence, as narrated by Arians: "Deep in, timeout. Deep hook, timeout. Now we've got nine seconds to get eight yards. Throw to the flat, fall down, kill the clock. Kick the field goal, win."
Three days later, when the Vikings tied the score at 20 with 31 seconds left, quarterback Andrew Luck sprinted up to Arians. "Before I can say a word," the coach recalls, "Andrew's telling me the play."
"Trips right, 66 Indigo Buck, X-in, Alert Down Timeout," said the rookie, who then shouted to his offense, "We got this, guys. We just did it in practice!"
Starting on his own 20, Luck threw a deep in to Donnie Avery for 20 yards. Timeout. Deep hook to Reggie Wayne for 20 more yards. Timeout. Luck hit Avery in the right flat for seven (negated by an offside penalty on the Vikes), then spiked the ball. Adam Vinatieri's 53-yard field goal with 12 seconds to play won the game.
Luck shows promise at the two-minute, but who's the best in the business right now? In a league of marquee names, that distinction belongs to Eli Manning. His career passer rating of 82.7 is a so-so 14th among active QBs, but he's won two of the last five Super Bowls with beyond-clutch drives in the game's final minutes. More than any of his NFL peers, he is comfortable in the crucible of the two-minute drill. "I definitely don't get nervous," he told SI in December. "That's maybe the difference with other people. They may think, If we don't score here, we lose. I look at it the other way: Hey, we're about to win."