Analysis: 15 most memorable Divisional Playoffs in NFL history
JAN 08, 2014 10:30a ET
Fox Sports South takes a detailed look at 15 of the most memorable games from Divisional Playoff weekend, ranking the ones that occurred after the NFL-AFL merger (1970 season).
Our original list covered 32 remarkable NFL games and was subsequently pared down to the 15-plus events below -- which, in two cases, cite dual examples for the genres of "marathons" and "major upsets."
Per usual, we welcome reader comments at the bottom of the document.
Also Known As ... The Mud Bowl
Skinny: This might not be the greatest Vikings-Rams playoff clash from 1969-78 -- when the powerhouse franchises met five times during the postseason -- but it's certainly the most memorable.
Thanks to the Los Angeles area getting pounded by torrential rains, giving the muddy pitch at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum an eerie look that resembled the Devonshire moors from the famous book, The Hound Of The Baskervilles.
Adding to the pregame intrigue, Minnesota was still smarting from a 35-3 blowout loss to Los Angeles back in October, which occurred on the same Coliseum field (albeit considerably dryer). And the Vikings would have to proceed through the playoffs without injured QB Fran Tarkenton.
The footing was wretched from the opening kickoff, but firm enough for Vikings QB Bob Lee (30 career TD passes in 12 NFL seasons) to toss a 5-yard touchdown to tailback Chuck Foreman in the first quarter. The Vikes then added a TD in the fourth quarter ... before withstanding a furious Rams rally in the end.
In hindsight, the 1977 Rams had the composition of a Super Bowl contender, ranking 1st in scoring differential, 2nd in overall scoring and 4th in total defense. And yet, the slippery, slimy, unrelenting mud in the Minnesota loss served as the great equalizer.
14. 1999 NFC Playoffs -- Rams 49, Vikings 37
Also Known As ... Kurt Warner's Playoff Breakthrough
Skinny: From a muddy field in Los Angeles to a lightning-fast surface inside the TWA Dome (St. Louis), the next memory in our countdown serves as the highest-scoring game in Divisional Playoff history (post-NFL-AFL merger).
A few months prior, Kurt Warner (4,353 yards passing, 41 TDs during the regular season) had become an overnight sensation with the Rams, transforming from grocery store stocker to backup quarterback (for Trent Green) to primary cog in the Greatest Show On Turf offense, which also featured Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk (2,429 total yards, 12 TDs) and receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce (77 catches, 1,165 yards, 12 TDs).
On the whole, the Rams made a similarly stellar ascension up the charts, posting a 13-3 record just one season after slumping to 4-12 in 1998 (under head coach Dick Vermeil).
The Rams-Vikings matchup was an offensive showcase for the ages, with quarterbacks Warner (391 yards passing, five TDs) and Minnesota's Jeff George accounting for 800-plus yards passing and nine touchdowns.
That greatness trickled down to the playmakers, with Faulk (101 total yards, two TDs), Bruce (four catches, 133 yards, one TD), Hall of Famer Cris Carter (seven catches, 106 yards, one TD) and Randy Moss (nine catches, 188 yards, two TDs) racking up monster numbers.
Also Known As ... The Epic Before 'The Drive'
Skinny: This classic has been somewhat forgotten by history, due to the iconic Broncos-Browns clash that came the following week.
But look at it this way: If Jets defensive end Marc Gastineau doesn't commit a late-hit penalty (spearing) on Browns QB Bernie Kosar, keeping a once-dormant drive alive, New York undoubtedly maintains its 10-point lead in the fourth quarter and advances to play Denver the following weekend.
Under that scenario, John Elway's Broncos probably roll over the Jets ... but the quarterback would have been denied the opportunity of cementing his NFL legacy with The Drive -- Denver's 98-yard scoring jaunt to force overtime and subsequently capture the AFC championship in Cleveland.
One last thing: Remember former ESPN anchor Charley Steiner? He was once the radio play-by-play man for New York and infamously declared "the Jets are headed for the AFC championship game!" after tailback Freeman McNeil (106 total yards, one TD) notched a 25-yard touchdown run late in the game.
Also Known As ... Vernon Davis's Big Breakout
Skinny: You couldn't have asked for a better buildup to this Divisional Playoff, with both teams carrying 13-3 records into San Francisco -- along with perfect weather to boot.
Also, of the game's brightest stars that day -- Drew Brees, Marques Colston, Darren Sproles, Jimmy Graham (Saints) and Alex Smith, Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree (49ers) -- all eight accounted for at least 100 total yards or one touchdown.
The quarterback play was particularly absurd, in a good way, with Brees (462 yards passing) and Smith (299 yards passing) each tallying four touchdowns.
Smith's final two scores remain the stuff of legend:
His 28-yard rushing touchdown -- boosting San Fran's lead to 29-24 -- stands as the longest single carry of his pro career.
Smith's 14-yard TD pass to Davis evoked memories of Terrell Owens' game-winning touchdown during the 1998 playoffs, with both stars joyfully crying after helping the Niners advance through the playoffs.
For Davis (seven catches, 180 yards, two TDs), it was neither his first multiple-touchdown effort nor 100-yard outing of his career. But it represents the singular day when everything came together for the burgeoning All- Pro.
Also Known As ... Big Ben's Miraculous Tackle
Skinny: Where to begin with this one?
One could make a case the 2005 Colts were the best team of the Peyton Manning era, posting a 14-2 regular-season record and collecting nine victories of 10 points or more -- including a 26-7 home romp of the Steelers in late November (pushing Indy's mark to 11-0).
The balanced Colts were led by the rock-solid quartet of Manning (3,747 yards passing, 28 TDs), tailback Edgerrin James (1,843 total yards, 14 TDs) and receivers Marvin Harrison (82 catches, 1,146 yards passing, 12 TDs) and Reggie Wayne (83 catches, 1,055 yards, five TDs).
The Indy defense also merited elite-level kudos, holding opponents to 13 or fewer points eight times.
But all of that has been obscured by the painful memory of one playoff setback, a defeat that almost didn't happen -- thanks to Jerome Bettis's goal-line fumble in the waning seconds against the Colts.
Here's the scene: With Pittsburgh holding a three-point lead, Bettis plunged into the teeth of the Indy defense, attempting to find the goal line. But a defender's helmet jarred the ball loose and into the waiting hands of the Colts' Nick Harper who sprinted the other way ... with only one defender blocking his path.
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
When viewing the replay, you don't even see Big Ben for the longest time. But rest assured, he made the season-saving tackle on Harper, despite the steady zig-zagging up the right sideline.
Fast forward to a few minutes later: The Colts, needing a field goal to force overtime, called on Mike Vanderjagt to boot the tying score; but his kick went far right and clinched one of the Steelers' most storied upsets in franchise history.
Also Known As ... The Fog Bowl
Skinny: Let's be honest: All the cherished memories from this odd classic stem from the intrepid work of TV reporters hovering near the field of play, demonstrating what little action could be seen from up close.
And who can forget CBS announcers Verne Lundquist and Terry Bradshaw awkwardly laughing through calls ... simply because they couldn't identify plays or players between the 20s?
It's fair to ask: In this social-media age, would the NFL have allowed The Fog Bowl to proceed in the present, if the vast majority of fans -- from both sides -- were clamoring for the event to be stopped?
And would the result (a Bears victory) have been the same, if the game were played under ideal conditions?
After all, that Eagles team boasted in-their-prime stars like Keith Byars, Reggie White, Seth Joyner, Clyde Simmons, Eric Allen and the absurdly talented Jerome Brown. Plus, Philly QB Randall Cunningham somehow passed for 407 yards, without the benefit of a single touchdown (rushing or passing).
Speaking of ideal weather, before the fog made its way past Lake Michigan and directly over Soldier Field, the city of Chicago was enjoying a beautiful weather day for New Year's Eve -- with temperatures in the 40s and sunny skies.
But it wouldn't last long.
9. 1975 NFC Playoffs -- Cowboys 17, Vikings 14
Also Known As ... The Hail Mary Game
Skinny: Thirty-eight years later, it's hard to tell where the Vikings had actually committed a pass-interference penalty on Drew Pearson's 50-yard touchdown in the final seconds, with the Cowboys trailing by four at the time.
But Pearson caught Roger Staubach's bomb anyway, making it all a moot point -- unless you believe Pearson pushed off to get free in the end.
No matter how you slice it, though, this may stand as the Vikings' most disheartening playoff loss in franchise history (and that's saying a lot).
At 12-2, Minnesota had the look of a championship club, or at least one that could challenge the Steelers' repeat bid in Super Bowl X. (Dallas ended up representing the NFC.)
The Staubach-to-Pearson bomb stands as one of the most iconic plays in NFL history. But it would have never happened if the Cowboys QB hadn't completed a fourth-down pass to Pearson a few seconds prior.
Pearson's first catch was an incredible prelude to one of history's most controversial conclusions.
8a. 2003 NFC Playoffs -- Panthers 29, Rams 23 (2OT)
Also Known As ... The NFL's Marathon Games
Skinny: The 1971 Dolphins and 2003 Panthers notched double-overtime road upsets for Divisional Playoff weekend, with both clubs eventually reaching the Super Bowl, as well (in defeat).
In Miami's case, it was the first game in NFL history to eclipse a fifth quarter. (The 1962 AFL Championship. which doesn't apply here, ran a tad longer.)
In Carolina's case, Steve Smith's TD reception on the opening play of the second overtime effectively ended the Rams' run as an NFL powerhouse (four double-digit-victory campaigns from 1999-2003).
7. 1983 AFC Playoffs -- Seahawks 27, Dolphins 20
8a. 1996 AFC Playoffs --- Jaguars 30, Broncos 27
Also Known As ... Landmark Upsets
Skinny: The 1983 Dolphins, led by hotshot rookie Dan Marino (2,210 yards passing, 20 TDs in just nine starts), were markedly improved on offense from the previous season -- rolling for 30-plus points five times in the final 11 games.
Also, the Miami defense, better known as The Killer B's, ranked No. 1 overall in points allowed.
In retrospect, a Dolphins-Raiders clash in the AFC title game could have been one for all time.
But the Curt Warner-led Seahawks crushed that dream scenario, with the Seattle tailback racking up 151 total yards (113 rushing) and two touchdowns against the Dolphins -- including the game-winner in the fourth quarter.
Interestingly, the '83 season served as Seattle's third 9-7 campaign, but it was the first time the expansion club (circa 1976) reached the postseason.
Speaking of expansion, the second-year Jaguars needed a (chip-shot) missed field goal from kicker Morten Andersen to reach the AFC playoffs in 1996.
After that, Jacksonville pulled off road shockers over Buffalo and Denver -- with the latter curtailing a Broncos season that began at 13-1 but ended in abject misery.
6. 1977 AFC Playoffs -- Raiders 37, Colts 31 (OT)
Also Known As ... Ghost To The Post
Skinny: John Madden has often stated that if this Christmas Eve clash had been a conference championship or Super Bowl, it might have gone down as the NFL's greatest game. Period.
From that rationale, who could argue with a Hall of Fame coach who captained the Raiders to 16 playoff games in a 10-year span (nine wins), including one Lombardi Trophy?
Against the Colts, Raiders QB Ken Stabler passed for 345 yards and three touchdowns -- with all three scores going to tight end Dave "Ghost" Casper (four catches, 70 yards).
But this game's legacy moniker -- Ghost To The Post -- has nothing to do with touchdowns.
Rather, it entails the Stabler-to-Casper over-the-shoulder pass/catch (42 yards) that helped clinch the game in overtime.
One last history note: This would serve as the final NFL playoff game in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, with the Colts collecting only 26 victories over the next six seasons (1978-83) ... before the franchise relocated to Indianapolis before the 1984 campaign.
5. 2001 AFC Playoffs -- Patriots 16, Raiders 13 (OT)
Also Known As ... The Tuck Rule Game
Skinny: The 'Tuck Rule' revolutionized how NFL fans observed potential fumbles involving quarterbacks who originally cocked to make a throw.
At least for a short while.
Prior to the 2013 season, the league eliminated the controversial ruling altogether, shifting the focus to whether a QB's arm had been moving forward.
But that's only a small consolation to those connected with the 2001 Raiders, specifically the Divisional Playoff round, when cornerback Charles Woodson blitzed from the left side and seemingly forced a game-altering fumble on Tom Brady (Oakland recovered the ball).
Instead, the little-known Tuck Rule helped the Patriots retain possession, force overtime and then eventually knock off the Raiders in the extra session.
Two other things contributed to this classic: The New England area endured blizzard conditions that evening ... and it was the final game played at venerable Foxboro Stadium.
4. 1974 AFC Playoffs -- Raiders 28, Dolphins 26
Also Known As ... The Sea Of Hands Game
Skinny: In the midweek buildup to this epic matchup, Sports Illustrated hailed it as "Super Bowl 8 1/2," a quaint reference to the Raiders and Dolphins serving as the NFL's two best teams that season.
(Never mind that Pittsburgh handily defeated Oakland in the next week's AFC championship.)
The game itself certainly didn't disappoint, with the clubs exchanging the lead seven times and Hall of Famers Larry Csonka (114 yards) and Fred Biletnikoff (eight catches, 122 yards, one TD) both enjoying strong games.
Raiders QB Ken Stabler was the star of the show, though, passing for 293 yards and four TDs (tying a career high).
Stabler's last scoring pass inexplicably landed into the hands of running back Clarence Davis. With Oakland down five in the final minute, The Snake scrambled out of a jam, rolled to his left ... and while getting crushed by Miami defenders, he fluttered a weak pass toward Davis in the end zone -- even though he was surrounded by three Dolphins.
Davis reached up and somehow corralled the pass that ended the Dolphins' reign as the two-time defending champs ... and indirectly kick-started the Steelers' dynastic run of four championships in six seasons (1974-75, 1978- 79).
3. 2012 AFC Playoffs -- Ravens 38, Broncos 35 (2OT)
Also Known As ... The Bomb
Skinny: We're a full calendar year removed from Joe Flacco's 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones in the final minute, with the Ravens trailing by seven and desperately needing a lucky break.
And yet, it's still hard to explain how Baltimore pulled off that miracle play.
The game was a symmetrical masterpiece, with the Ravens and Broncos each scoring the same amount of points in the first quarter (14), second (seven), third (seven), fourth (seven) and first overtime (zero).
The only discrepancy: Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker booted the game-winning field goal early in the second overtime, just minutes after Peyton Manning had thrown an ill-advised interception in Denver territory.
Regarding Manning, he had a strong effort prior to the above interception, passing for 290 yards and three touchdowns. But if Denver had come up with a victory on that blustery night in Colorado, Trindon Holliday would have been the ultimate hero, scoring two return TDs (one kick, one punt).
2. 1972 AFC Playoffs -- Steelers 13, Raiders 7
Also Known As ... The Immaculate Reception
Skinny: With the Steelers trailing by one in the final minute and staring at a 4th-and-10 scenario in their own end, quarterback Terry Bradshaw dropped back to pass, evaded the Raiders rush and then fired a downfield pass to John "Frenchie" Fuqua.
As the ball simultaneously arrived, Oakland safety Jack Tatum laid out a crushing blow on Fuqua, knocking the ball approximately 12 yards back toward the line of scrimmage.
While trailing the pass, Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris (an NFL rookie in 1972) scooped up the ball before it hit the ground and sprinted 60 yards for the game-winning score.
This prompted one of the NFL's most hysterical, eminently jubilant crowd celebrations on the field ... before the game was actually finished.
The controversial touchdown -- universally regarded as the greatest play in NFL history -- secured the Steelers' first-ever playoff victory ... ending a dry spell of 39 years.
1. 1981 AFC Playoffs -- Chargers 41, Dolphins 38 (OT)
Also Known As ... The Epic In Miami
Skinny: According to Wikipedia, there have been 19 400-yard passing games in NFL postseason history, with Dan Marino, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning reaching that threshold multiple times.
The above trio, however, never shared in the feat of Don Strock (Dolphins) and Dan Fouts (Chargers) becoming the only quarterbacks to hit the 400 mark in the same playoff game.
The Epic In Miami might not have a catchy name like "The Immaculate Reception" or "Sea of Hands Game," but from a thrill-a-minute standpoint, it has no peer in this countdown.
The first quarter was dominated by San Diego, which cruised to a 24-0 lead on the strength of touchdowns from Wes Chandler (punt return), Chuck Muncie (1-yard run) and James Brooks (8-yard pass).
The momentum shifted to Miami in the second quarter, with the Dolphins executing a picture-perfect hook-and- ladder play with no time left on the clock.
In fact, Tony Nathan's 25-yard touchdown (off the lateral execution) may have been the single-loudest moment in the illustrious history of Miami's Orange Bowl stadium.
The heavyweight title fight continued into the second half, with the Dolphins countering every Chargers punt.
They even had a chance to close out the win late in the fourth quarter. But San Diego tight end Kellen Winslow, a late addition to the special-teams unit, managed to get a finger on kicker Uwe von Schamann's 43-yard FG attempt ... which would have been good otherwise.
The heat and humidity of South Florida took its toll during overtime, with fatigued players running ragged around the field. In fact, Winslow had to get medical treatment for severe cramping along the sidelines
Both the Dolphins and Chargers missed field goals in the extra session, but San Diego's Rolf Benirschke made the most of his second chance, booting the game-winning kick from 29 yards.
The stars from both teams should be commended for coming up clutch:
With the Chargers, Fouts (433 yards passing, three TDs), Winslow (13 catches, 166 yards, one TD), Chuck Muncie (125 total yards, one TD), Charlie Joiner (seven catches, 108 yards), Wes Chandler (six catches, 106 yards, one TD) and James Brooks (two touchdowns) each enjoyed stellar games.
For the Dolphins, Strock (403 yards passing, four TDs in relief of David Woodley), Tony Nathan (162 total yards, two TDs), Duriel Harris (six catches, 106 yards) and tight end Joe Rose (two touchdowns) were simply magnificent.