Thursday, January 12, 2012

Most Memorable Divisional Playoff Games post-1980

Wildcard weekend is complete and the Pittsburgh-Denver game probably bumps onto the wildcard list at #6 or #7.  It is on the the Divisional Playoff Round, which for a rare instance involves the 8 Division Champions.  My apologies to the immaculate reception and some of the other great finishes of the 1970's, but here are my most memorable Divisional Playoff Games since 1980.

11. Pittsburgh Steelers 21, Indianapolis Colts 18 (January 15, 2006)
This is the game that seems to have changed the perception of a wildcard team.  The 6th-seeded Steelers upset the top-seeded Colts, becoming the first 6-seed to do so and advance to a Conference Championship Game.  Pittsburgh jumped out to a 14-0 first quarter lead and frustrated Peyton Manning all day with mixed up blitzes and coverages.  Indianapolis still managed to close the gap to three and had a chance to tie, but Mike Vanderjagt missed a 46 yard field goal with 17 seconds left.  The Steelers would go on to become the first team to win the Super Bowl as a 6 seed.

10.  Denver Broncos 26, Houston Oilers 24 (January 4, 1992)
It wasn't as dramatic as "The Drive", but John Elway was up to his old tricks on a January day at Mile High.  The Oilers used three Warren Moon touchdown passes to forge a 21-6 lead over the Broncos, before #7 started his usual comeback antics.  The final act was a drive starting at, you guessed it, the Broncos 2-yard line trailing 24-23 with 2 minutes left.  Elway converted two fourth downs, one with his legs and one with his arm and David Treadwell culminated the drive with a 28 yard FG with 16 seconds left and another chapter in the legend of John Elway.

9.  Jacksonville Jaguars 30, Denver Broncos 27 (January 4, 1997)
The Jaguars were still considered an expansion team, until they came into Mile High and surprised the AFC's top-seeded Broncos.  Denver took a 12-0 lead in this game and appeared to be cruising as everyone expected.  Mark Brunell, Jimmy Smith and company scored the next 23 points to stun the Broncos.  The teams traded scores, but ultimately Denver could not recover their last gasp on-side kick and John Elway could not perform his magic.

8.  Chicago Bears 20, Philadelphia Eagles 12 (December 31, 1988)
Based on the score of this game, you may initially wonder why this one made the list.  This game is more fondly remembered as the "Fog Bowl", a game played in dense fog where by the second half, visibility was only 15 to 20 yards and television viewing was a challenge.  Most of the scoring occurred early in the game when the fog was less intense, and despite over 400 yards passing from Randall Cunningham, the Eagles could only muster four field goals.

7.  Cleveland Browns 34, Buffalo Bills 30 (January 6, 1990)
While not as famous as Jackie Smith's drop, this game is most remembered for Ronnie Harmon dropping the winning touchdown in the end zone.  The Bills would not lose an AFC playoff game the next four years, and some might wonder if it would have been 5 straight Super Bowls had Harmon caught the ball.  Instead, Clay Matthews would intercept Jim Kelly on the next play with 3 seconds remaining to preserve a shootout victory for the Browns.  The Browns would of course run into their nemesis the next week and fall short of the Super Bowl again.

6.  Dallas Cowboys 30, Atlanta Falcons 27 (January 4, 1981)
Who remembers the likes of Steve Bartkowski, William Andrews and Alfred Jenkins?  More people might remember if the Falcons had not blown a two touchdown lead at home against the Cowboys and squandered their chance to host an NFC Title Game.  Dallas rallied for three 4th quarter touchdowns, the final two courtesy of Danny White to Drew Pearson TD passes.  The first came with 3 minutes remaining and the game-winner with 47 seconds left.  Atlanta was unable to respond and this really good Falcon team became just a footnote.

5.  Carolina Panthers 29, St. Louis Rams 23, 2OT (January 10, 2004)
In the span of two days in 2004, the Divisional Playoff Round gave us four games decided by 7 points or less.  The two AFC games were good, but the two NFC games were worthy of the next two spots on this list.  We will start with the game that signaled the demise of the "Greatest Show on Turf".  The high-powered Rams offense was relegated to field goals for most of the game, with their only touchdown cutting the Panthers lead to 23-20 with a little over 2 minutes remaining.  The Rams were able to recover an onside kick and drove deep in Carolina territory, but played for overtime.  The first overtime saw each team miss a game-winning field goal, before the Rams once again were on the move.  This time, it was a Marc Bulger interception that kept the Panthers alive and on the first play of the 2nd overtime, Jake Delhomme found a streaking Steve Smith for a 69-yard game-winning touchdown pass.  Carolina would go on to upset Philadelphia the next week and reach their first Super Bowl.

4.  Philadelphia Eagles 20, Green Bay Packers 17, OT (January 11, 2004)
The next day, Philadelphia and Green Bay tried to top the drama of the day before.  The Packers controlled the majority of this game, racing out to a 14-0 lead.  It was a goal-line stand in the second quarter that seemed to turn the game, as the Eagles were able to stop the Packers at the one-yard line on 4 attempts and go into halftime only down 14-7.  Green Bay still led 17-14 when they were forced to punt and the Eagles took over at their own 20 with a little over two minutes left.  A few plays later, Philadelphia faced a 4th down and 26 yards to go to keep their season alive.  Inexplicably, Donovan McNabb found Freddie Mitchell for 28 yards and a first down leading to the game-tying FG from David Akers.  The Packers would have one offensive play in overtime, a Brett Favre pass intercepted by Brian Dawkins that set-up the game clincher from Akers and continued the playoff frustrations that plagued Favre in his later years in Green Bay.

3.  Cleveland Browns 23, New York Jets 20, 2OT (January 3, 1987)
The third longest game in NFL history took place in January 1987.  The Jets and Browns battled at Cleveland Stadium for an extra 17:02 before Cleveland prevailed on a Mark Mosely field goal.  I remember watching this one and thinking it was so cool because it was the first double overtime game I ever saw.  It was a close game through the first three quarters, but Freeman McNeil put the Jets up 20-10 with 4:14 to go in the fourth and the New Yorkers seemed poised for the upset.  Bernie Kosar rallied the Browns with two scoring drives, each aided with key Jets penalties, to tie the score and send the game to overtime.  Browns kicker Mark Mosely would miss a 23 yard field goal in the first overtime period, but would get a chance to redeem himself with the 27-yard game-winner in the second OT.  Bernie Kosar would set the post-season record for completions, attempts and yards, going 33-64 for 483 yards, but just one TD.  Next week, we will re-visit the game played the next week by Cleveland.

2.  New England Patriots 16, Oakland Raiders 13, OT (January 19, 2002)
There are not many games that in it of themselves create a rule change.  This one will be forever known as the game that introduced us to the "Tuck Rule", a rule then NFL lived without for 80 years.  The game itself was not pretty, as the teams plodded through heavy snowfall and provided a busy day for the punters.  Oakland held a 13-3 lead entering the 4th quarter until Tom Brady's 6 yard run cut the Patriot deficit to 13-10.  New England's last chance to tie the game resulted in controversy, as with 1:47 remaining it appeared Brady had fumbled and the Raiders would be able to run out the clock.  Replay officials overturned the fumble, citing the "Tuck Rule", and New England maintained possession.  Adam Vinatieri then cut a 45 yard FG through a tough wind to tie the game and hit a 23 yarder on the first possession of overtime.  Without the "Tuck Rule", the first Super Bowl in New England's impressive run would not have occurred.

1.  San Diego Chargers 41, Miami Dolphins 38, OT (January 2, 1982)
By the score and the year you might think this was Dan Fouts vs Dan Marino, but Marino wasn't drafted until after this game in 1982 and it was actually Don Strock who helped light up the scoreboard on this day.  After the first quarter, this game appeared over, as San Diego raced to a 24-0 lead.  The Dolphins closed to 24-10 with one play left in the first half.  Miami executed a perfect hook-and-lateral play with Duriel Harris and Tony Nathan, with Nathan taking it the final 25 yards on the final play of the half to make it 24-17.  The offensive explosion continued in the second half, with the Dolphins actually taking a 38-31 lead before a Fouts to James Brooks pass with a minute left tied it at 38.  Miami had time to move into field goal range, but Charger All-Pro TE Kellen Winslow blocked Uwe von Schamann's game-winning attempt and forged overtime.  The teams traded missed field goals and punts before Rolf Benirschke kicked the game winner. Kellen Winslow was essentially dragged off the field due to exhaustion, an image played often still today, and the Chargers got to pack their long johns and go to Cincinnati.

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