Friday, January 6, 2012

Most Memorable Wildcard Games post-1980

Its Wildcard Weekend!! The weekend that used to give us 2 games, now gives us 4.  The weekend also used to produce teams with no shot of making the Super Bowl, but that trend has inexplicably changed in recent years.  Time to look back at some of the most memorable wildcard games of the past 30+ years.

10.  San Diego Chargers 31, Pittsburgh Steelers 28 (January 9, 1983)
Wow, the 1980's really didn't offer much for wildcard thrills.  Maybe they will make up for it in another round.  I picked this one for the list, with Dan Fouts throwing for 333 yards and 3 TD's, including 2 to Kellen Winslow to erase a 28-17 Steeler lead.

9.  Miami Dolphins 20, Seattle Seahawks 17 (January 9, 2000)
A hard-fought playoff game between the Dolphins and Seahawks is memorable for two reasons.  First it was the final playoff victory and final overall victory engineered by Dan Marino.  While his 196 yards and one TD were not flashy, he led the Dolphins to the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter as he had done many times before.  The game was also the last ever played at the Kingdome, which imploded not too long after.

8.  Pittsburgh Steelers 36, Cleveland Browns 33 (January 5, 2003)
In a game between two bitter long-time rivals, franchise footnotes Kelly Holcomb and Tommy Maddox staged a little wildcard shootout in 2003.  The Browns squandered a 24-7 lead, as Maddox threw 3 TD's to guide the Steelers back and wait for it......Chris Fuamatu Ma'afala powered in the game-winner from 3 yards out with 54 seconds left.

7.  Arizona Cardinals 51, Green Bay Packers 45, OT (January 10, 2010)
The highest-scoring playoff game in NFL history was played between the Cardinals and Packers.  Kurt Warner and Aaron Rodgers traded touchdown passes, with Warner out-doing Rodgers 5 to 4.  There was really no defense played until the first drive in overtime, when Rodgers was sacked by Michael Adams and Karlos Dansby picked up the resulting fumble and raced 17 yards for the winning TD.  Warner would end his career the following week against the Saints, while Rodgers had a better return trip the playoffs a year later.

6.  Minnesota Vikings 23, New York Giants 22 (December 27, 1997)
A stunning finish left Giant fans wondering what just happened.  The home-team Giants led the game 22-13 with a minute and a half to go and appeared headed to the next round when Randall Cunningham found Jake Reed to close the gap to 2.  The Vikings would get the ball back and Eddie Murray would complete the stunning comeback with a 24 yard FG at the gun.

5.  Green Bay Packers 28, Detroit Lions 24 (January 8, 1994)
At this time, I was a long-suffering Packers fan who had witnessed just 2 Packer playoff games in the 1982 strike season.  The return to the playoffs ended on a sweet note, as Brett Favre scrambled and found a streaking Sterling Sharpe for a 40-yard TD with 55 seconds left to win the game.  Favre would provide many more of these moments in the coming years, while Sharpe's career was cut way too short.

4.  San Francisco 49ers 30, Green Bay Packers 27 (January 3, 1999)
An exciting back and forth game brought the end to the Mike Holmgren era in Green Bay.  The Packers took the upper hand on a Brett Favre to Antonio Freeman touchdown pass in the closing minutes.  The 49ers marched right back, aided by a no fumble call on Jerry Rice that would have been overturned by replay under the current rules.  With 8 seconds left at the Packer 25, Steve Young found Terrell Owens over the middle for the game-winning TD as multiple Packers were late to converge on T.O.  There would be no Super Bowl for the 3rd year in a row in Green Bay and Favre would never take them back.

3.  San Francisco 49ers 39, New York Giants 38 (January 5, 2003)
This was another crazy game that added both the comeback element and the thrilling game-ending play.  The Giants built a 38-14 lead late in the 3rd quarter before a Jeff Garcia-led 49ers staged a huge comeback.  The rally culminated in a TD pass from Garcia to Tai Streets with a minute left.  The Giants marched right back down the field and set-up for the game-winning 41 yard field goal.  The field goal would never be attempted as the snap was botched and a strange pass play occurred that the referees potentially erred on.  While the Giants were called for ineligible receiver, the 49ers should have been flagged for pass interference, which would have resulted in offsetting penalties and another try for the FG.

2.  Tennessee Titans 22, Buffalo Bills 16 (January 8, 2000)
As jubilant as a Bills fan was after the game that tops this list, this game ended on the opposite side of the spectrum.  The game itself was fairly mundane, a defensive struggle starring Jevon Kearse and Bruce Smith.  It was the ending that makes this one of the greatest of all-time.  An ending that still evokes controversy.  The Bills took a 16-15 lead with 16 seconds left on Steve Christie's 3rd FG of the afternoon and appeared to be moving on.  The ensuing kickoff went to Lorenzo Neal who gave the ball to Frank Wychek.  Whychek started running sideways to his right, before wheeling and throwing across the field to Kevin Dyson.  Dyson had a convoy of blockers and took it the last 75 yards for the game-winning TD.  Truth-be-told, I still think the ball went a little bit forward.

1.  Buffalo Bills 41, Houston Oilers 38, OT (January 3, 1993)
Full disclosure, I loved the early 90's Bills teams.  I was riveted by this game.  The Bills were without Jim Kelly and lost Thurman Thomas to injury early in the game.  The Oilers returned an interception early in the 3rd quarter to take a 35-3 lead.  Why I kept watching, I have no idea.  Frank Reich proceeded to lead the Bills on the greatest comeback in NFL history.  He engineered 5 scoring drives, with 3 TD passes going to Andre Reed.  The Oilers actually had to tie the game with an Al Del Greco FG at the end of regulation before the Bills proceeded to intercept Warren Moon and set-up Steve Christie's game-winner in overtime.  The wildest of all wildcard games.

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