Photo via Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
The 2020-21 NFL postseason is reaching its climax as we sit four days away from Super Bowl 55 in Tampa, Florida. Before I start discussing each team in detail and preview the actual game, I will first rank the top 10 NFL Playoff games of all time, followed by a list ranking the top 10 Super Bowls. For this list, I will rank the top 10 playoff games of all time. It will not include any Super Bowls and every NFL championship game before the Super Bowl, wild card game, divisional playoff round and conference title games are fair game for this list. Also, this is a list of best games, not just the moments that define them. The criteria was looking at a combination of the entertainment value of the game from start to finish, the significance of the game and the moments that define them. Here is the list with each game indicated by the season it took place in, not the year the game took place.
10. The Giants-49ers insanity in the 2002 Wild Card Round
The New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers have engaged in some epic playoff battles throughout NFL history, including the 1990 and 2011 NFC Championship games that saw the Giants edge out the 49ers on a game-winning field goal. However, among their eight all-time playoff meetings, their duel in 2002 stands out the most as it went down as one of the most insane playoff games of all time. Late in the third quarter, quarterback Kerry Collins and three touchdown catches from wide receiver Amani Toomer put the Giants up 38-14 over Jeff Garcia and the 49ers. However, Garcia and the 49ers’ offense came alive, scoring 25 unanswered points to take the lead late in the fourth quarter.
On the Giants’ ensuing possession, Collins set up a game-winning field goal attempt for the Giants at the 49ers’ 23-yard line. Chaos ensued as long snapper Trey Junkin’s low snap forced backup QB Matt Allen to throw a desperation pass to lineman Rich Saubert, which fell incomplete. There should have been a penalty for pass interference that can be seen in the above photo, but the game was ruled over after the referees only called Saubert for being an illegal man downfield. The Giants should have attempted another field goal but instead, the 49ers won 39-38. What makes this a game on the list is the incredible turn of events in the fourth quarter and NFL fans were treated to one of the wildest endings in NFL postseason history. While the 49ers were blanked next week at Tampa Bay 31-6, the insanity of the game made this a battle for the ages.
9. The Bills’ 35-3 comeback over the Houston Oilers in 1992
The Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans (then the Houston Oilers) have met in two games that will forever go down in NFL history with the Bills’ 35-3 comeback against the Oilers in 1992 and “The Music City Miracle” in 1999. The 35-3 comeback gets the edge due to it being the largest comeback in NFL history. In 1992, the Bills met the Houston Oilers in the 1992 wild card round. The Bills were forced to turn to backup QB Frank Reich as QB Jim Kelly had to miss the game due to injury. The Oilers jumped out to a 35-3 lead on the Bills early in the third quarter as the Bills, who won the AFC Championship game the previous two seasons, looked to be heading home early.
The Bills stormed back as Reich and the passing game hit a rhythm as Reich threw four touchdown passes (three to Andre Reed) and running back Kenneth Davis ran in for a score to give the Bills an incredible 38-35 late in the fourth quarter. After the Oilers forced overtime, Oilers’ QB Warren Moon threw an interception in overtime, leading to Bills’ kicker Steve Christie’s 32-yard game-winning field goal. It was the biggest comeback in NFL history, combined with the biggest choke-job in NFL history. Reich, who rallied from a 31-0 deficit in college with Maryland to beat Miami 42-40, cemented himself as the king of comebacks and later helped the Bills to reach Super Bowl 27, where they lost 52-17 to the Dallas Cowboys. This was a game few will forget witnessing and one of the most dramatic comeback in American sports history.
8. “The Minneapolis Miracle” in 2017
This is the most recent addition on this list and a game/moment that will go down in NFL lore as one of the most shocking endings in NFL history. The Minnesota Vikings met the New Orleans Saints in the 2017 divisional playoff round, a highly anticipated matchup between the Case Keenum-led Vikings and the Drew Brees-led Saints. The Vikings jumped out to a 17-0 halftime lead but in the second half, the Saints rallied. Brees threw three second-half touchdowns to give the Saints a late 21-20 lead. The ensuing three possessions made this game one of the most exciting postseason games ever. The Vikings took the lead on a Kai Forbath 53-yard field goal after a spectacular catch by Vikings’ WR Adam Thielen. The next possession, Brees led a masterful drive, setting up Wil Lutz’s go-ahead 43-yard field goal with 25 seconds left. Down 24-23, the Vikings needed to respond to keep their hopes of hosting the Super Bowl alive.
With 10 seconds left, the Vikings had no timeouts and were at their own 39-yard line. Keenum stepped up in the pocket and launched the ball to young wide receiver Stefon Diggs. Diggs made the catch and after Saints’ safety Marcus Williams missed the tackle, Diggs ran into the endzone untouched to give the Vikings the miracle win 29-24. It remains the only walkoff touchdown in NFL postseason history and one of the most unforgettable moments of the modern NFL. This began four-consecutive years of heartbreaking playoff losses for the Saints, bringing the Brees era to a painful end. While the Vikings lost 38-7 at Philadelphia the next week, this gave Vikings’ fans a pleasant memory among many decades of heartbreaking playoff losses.
7. “Peyton’s Revenge” in the 2006 AFC Championship Game
The Brady-Manning rivalry is one of the most iconic rivalries in NFL history as they were the two best QBs of their generation, often meeting in the postseason. Their third postseason matchup was the height of their rivalry as the two met in the 2006 AFC Championship game. Previously, Brady beat Manning in the 2003 and 2004 playoffs at Foxborough with Manning putting up some of his worst performances against the New England Patriots’ defense. This time, they met at Indianapolis and Peyton had the opportunity to get payback for his previous humiliations. The game started the same as the Patriots jumped out to a 21-3 second-quarter lead.
However, this was Peyton’s night and he was not going to lose to Brady again. He rallied the Colts back to tie the game at 21. After the teams exchanged scores throughout the second half, Manning led a drive to set up Joseph Addai’s three-yard go-ahead touchdown run to give the Colts a 38-34 lead with about a minute to go. Marlin Jackson intercepted Brady on the next possession and the Colts won to punch their ticket to Super Bowl 41, where they defeated the Chicago Bears 29-17. Manning threw for 349 yards and finally overcame Brady and Belichick to gain his first Super Bowl win. This is easily one of the best revenge games in NFL history and with the game’s dramatics, it is the greatest AFC Championship game of all time.
6. “The Sea of Hands” in 1974
In the one edition from the 1970s on this list, the Dolphins took on the Oakland Raiders in the 1974 divisional playoff round. This was a rematch of the 1973 AFC Championship game where the Dolphins defeated the Raiders 27-10. The Dolphins had won the AFC Championship game three seasons in a row and were looking for a fourth. The Raiders hosted the Dolphins, looking to get to their first Super Bowl since 1967. It was a tightly-contested game with eight different lead changes.
With about 30 seconds left in the game, the Raiders trailed the Dolphins 26-21 and had the ball at the Miami eight-yard line with about 30 seconds left in the game. Raiders’ QB Ken Stabler narrowly avoided a sack attempt from Dolphins’ pass rusher, Van Den Herder, and launched the ball into “a sea of hands.” Raiders’ RB Clarence Davis somehow wrestled the ball away from three defenders to secure the game-winning touchdown, giving the Raiders a thrilling 28-26 victory. While the Raiders lost the next week against the Pittsburgh Steelers, this ended the Dolphins’ run of terror on the AFC, paving the way for the Steelers to become the new kings of the AFC.
5. “The Catch” in 1981
“The Catch” is one of the most iconic plays in NFL history, kickstarting a 49ers’ dynasty that won five Super Bowls with two Hall of Fame QBs in Joe Montana and Steve Young. The NFC Championship game in 1981 was the first of two legendary games on this list. The 49ers, who lost to the Cowboys each season in the playoffs from 1970-72, were looking to reach the franchise’s first Super Bowl in 1981 with a young Montana and third-year head coach Bill Walsh. They faced the Tom Landry-led Cowboys, who were looking to return to the Super Bowl for the sixth time in the past 12 seasons. It was a back-and-forth affair with the Cowboys holding a 27-21 advantage with about five minutes left in the game.
Montana stepped into the spotlight, engineering an incredible 89-yard drive that resulted in the winning-touchdown. On the touchdown, Montana rolled out to the right and looked to throw the ball away after being chased by Cowboys’ lineman Ed “Too Tall” Jones. Suddenly, 49ers’ wide receiver Dwight Clark climbed the imaginary ladder and came down with the touchdown with under a minute to go. The 49ers led 28-27 after a phenomenal touchdown and held on to win as 49ers’ cornerback Eric Wright tackled Cowboys’ WR Drew Pearson at midfield, preventing a Cowboys’ touchdown. Cowboys’ QB Danny White fumbled on the next play, resulting in the 49ers’ win and their first Super Bowl trip, defeating the Cincinnati Bengals 26-21. This resulted in the start of the 49ers’ dynasty and the end of the Cowboys’ reign of terror in the NFC since 1966. There has never been a more clear example of the changing of the guard in the NFL than this game, making it one of the most significant games in history.
4. “The Mile High Miracle” in 2012
In my 18+ years watching sports, I don’t think I have watched a game better than “The Mile High Miracle,” a matchup in the 2012 divisional playoff round between the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos. Heading into the game, the Broncos with Peyton Manning in his first season with the team, led the Broncos to a 13-3 record while winning their last 11 games. They were heavy favorites against the Ravens, who entered the playoffs at 10-6 and were smacked at Baltimore by the same Broncos 34-17 four weeks prior. The game certainly was closer than expected and filled with explosive plays, including a kickoff and punt return touchdown by Broncos’ returner Trindon Holliday, a pick-six by Ravens’ safety Corey Graham and two touchdown passes of 30+ yards from Ravens’ QB Joe Flacco to WR Torrey Smith.
The Broncos led 35-28 late and the Ravens were at their own 30-yard line with under a minute to go. Facing a third-and-10, Flacco launched a prayer that somehow landed in the arms of WR Jacoby Jones for a dramatic game-tying touchdown. Broncos’ safety Rahim Moore underplayed the ball, allowing Jones to stroll in for an easy touchdown. The play forced overtime after Broncos’ coach John Fox elected to kneel on the next possession. The game went into double overtime where rookie kicker Justin Tucker nailed the game-winning 47-yard field goal to give the Ravens an improbable 38-35 win. The Ravens went on to win Super Bowl 47 and Ravens’ legend Ray Lewis retired a champion. It was the only double overtime game I have watched and with the dramatic twists and explosive plays, it is the greatest sports game I have ever watched.
3. “The Greatest Game” in 1958
While the 1958 NFL Championship game is considered to be “The Greatest Game,” I think the two games above it are just a little more special. During 1958, the NFL was nowhere the mainstream sport in the United States as baseball was in its “Golden Age.” However, that started to change during the 1958 NFL Championship game, a game that featured the Johnny Unitas-led Baltimore Colts and the Frank Gifford-led Giants. It was nationally televised, allowing Americans to witness the first great football game. After an ugly, back-and-forth battle, the Giants led 17-14 late in the fourth quarter.
This is when Unitas, the inventor of the two-minute drill, cemented himself as an NFL legend. Unitas engineered a 13-play drive that set up Steve Myrha’s game-tying field goal with seven seconds left, setting up the first sudden death overtime game in NFL postseason history. After the Giants went three-and-out to start overtime, Unitas got the ball back, Unitas called a 13-play, 80-yard drive to win the game 23-17, capped off by Alan Ameche’s one-yard touchdown run. It was the first spectacular game in NFL history that was witnessed by Americans on television, leading to the league’s popularity surge that resulted in football being America’s new favorite sport.
2. “The Epic in Miami” in 1981
The Chargers have only reached one Super Bowl in their franchise history and did not even make it to the Super Bowl after “The Epic in Miami,” losing 27-7 in “The Freezer Bowl” at Cincinnati the next week in the AFC Championship game. Regardless, their 41-38 win at Miami in the 1981 divisional playoff round is still one of the best games in NFL history. The Chargers traveled to the blistering heat of Miami with their league-best offense led by QB Dan Fouts, tight end Kellen Winslow Sr., WR Wes Chandler and others. Their defense was one of the league’s worst and battled the Dolphins’ fifth-ranked defense and reserve QB Don Strock. The Chargers jumped out to a 24-0 first quarter lead. However, the Dolphins rallied and cut the deficit to 24-17 at halftime on a hook-and-lateral play from Duriel Harris to Tony Nathan at the end of the half.
The second half was a thrilling back-and-forth duel with Fouts and Strock trading blows on a hot and humid night in Miami. Winslow willed his team to stay in the game with his receiving prowess despite the obvious pain and discomfort he was in. With the game tied at 38, Winslow blocked the Dolphins’ 43-yard field attempt at the end of regulation to force overtime. Overtime saw three missed field goals and the game go into double overtime despite dehydration becoming a problem for everyone. Finally in double overtime, Chargers’ kicker Rolf Benirschke’s kicked the game-winning 29-yard field goal to give the Chargers the 41-38 win. It was one of the most surreal games of all time and the Chargers prevailed in a game neither team deserved to lose. Winslow finished with 13 receptions for 166 yards and a touchdown to go along with his blocked field goal. It was one of the gutsiest performances in NFL history and the above image is one of the most iconic images in the league’s history.
1. “The Ice Bowl” in 1967
Imagine having to go outside when the temperature was -15 degrees Fahrenheit. You would prefer to stay in to keep warm right? Well imagine playing a football game in that weather and by the way, the Super Bowl is on the line. That is exactly what the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys had to deal with for the 1967 NFL Championship game. It was brutally cold as the whistle was stuck to the official’s tongue at the start of the game, forcing the play to be stopped on yelling, the heaters malfunctioned, a fan died in the stands due to exposure and the halftime show was canceled. Regardless, the game went on and the two teams engaged in a battle for the ages as the Cowboys looked to avenge a 34-27 loss to the Packers last year in the 1966 NFL Championship game.
The Packers jumped out to a 14-0 lead by the Cowboys capitalized on two Packer fumbles to cut the deficit to 14-10 at halftime. To start the fourth quarter, Dan Reeves threw a 50-yard touchdown to Lance Rentzel on a half-back pass to give the Cowboys a 17-14 lead. After exchanging punts, the Packers attempted their final drive late in the game. The Packers got to the Cowboys’ one-yard line but on back-to-back plays, Packers’ RB Donny Anderson was stopped short, forcing the Packers to take their final timeout with 16 seconds left in the game. Guard Jerry Kramer cleared a path for Starr to sneak his way into the endzone (the game would have ended if he was stopped short) and the Packers took the lead, holding on to win 21-17. Starr’s gutsy call allowed the Packers to win and beat the Oakland Raiders 33-14 in Super Bowl 2 in the warmer confides of Miami. This showed the greatness of the Vince Lombardi-led Packers and “The Ice Bowl” was the perfect representation of the cold and harsh nature of football.
Is there anything you would change about my list or do you have any major disagreements with it? Comment down below.