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COUNTDOWN: 20 greatest Divisional Playoff Weekend games of the NFL’s modern era

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The Patriots' final victory at old Foxboro Stadium (January 2002) was also the launching point for the franchise claiming six Lombardi trophies over the next 17 years.

BATSBY Sports takes a detailed look at the 20 most memorable games from Divisional Playoff weekend (presented in descending order), ranking the ones that occurred after the NFL-AFL merger (1970-present).

HONORABLE MENTION: Let’s give a quick shout-out to the greatest single pass of Vince Ferragamo’s NFL career … which also doubled as the ultimate heartbreak for the 1979 Dallas Cowboys.

1 — 1981 AFC PLAYOFFS: CHARGERS 41, DOLPHINS 38 (OT)

ALSO KNOWN AS: The Epic In Miami
SKINNY: 1)
The Chargers raced to a 24-0 lead in the first quarter, on the strength of touchdowns from playmakers Wes Chandler (punt-return TD), James Brooks and Hall of Famer Chuck Muncie.

Miami rallied in the second quarter for 10 points but was seemingly stuck on that number, holding the ball at midfield with only six seconds left.

Which brings us to this …

On that final play of the half, the Dolphins executed a picture-perfect hook-and-ladder play with no time left. Tony Nathan’s 25-yard touchdown (off the lateral from Duriel Harris) may have prompted the loudest single moment in Miami-Orange Bowl stadium history.

2) Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow, a late addition to the special-teams unit, barely got two fingers on Dolphins kicker Uwe von Schamann’s potential game-winner at the end of regulation. If von Schamann buries the clincher at this stage, this playoff clash likely wouldn’t be so revered by history.

3) The searing heat and high humidity took its toll during overtime, with fatigued players running ragged. (In fact, Winslow often had to get medical treatment for severe cramping, whenever the Chargers offense was on the sidelines.)

4) San Diego’s Rolf Benirschke booted the game-winner from 29 yards.

5) Making History: Don Strock (Dolphins) and Dan Fouts (Chargers) became the first QBs to hit the 400-yard passing mark in the same playoff game.

2 — 2017 NFC PLAYOFFS: VIKINGS 29, SAINTS 24

ALSO KNOWN AS: The Minneapolis Miracle
SKINNY:
Two years later, it’s still difficult to fathom how the Vikings pulled off one of the greatest single moments in NFL history (above video), using a quarterback who had zero chance of tossing the ball 40, 50 or even the required 61 yards on the final play.

And even if the Vikings were merely playing for field-goal range on the Minneapolis Miracle … how did the Saints defenders fail in keeping the offense on the field of play, knowing Minnesota had no more timeouts?

Minnesota seemed in control of his high-profile clash in the early going, establishing a pair of 10-point leads in the first half.

The second half, however, would largely belong to the New Orleans offense, with Michael Thomas (7 catches, 85 yards, 2 TDs) and tailback Alvin Kamara (105 total yards) racking up fourth-quarter touchdowns. And when kicker Wil Lutz connected on a go-ahead field goal with 25 seconds left … the Saints looked like locks to advance to the NFC title game in Philadelphia.

However, the football gods weren’t ready for such a ho-hum ending. Instead, they positioned Vikings QB Case Keenum and wideout Stefon Diggs for playoff immortality, by having the latter catch an intermediate sideline pattern, then benefit from the Saints defense’s over-aggressiveness on the ball — thus paving the way for Diggs to run the final 30 yards to the goal line unfettered.

3 — 2011 NFC PLAYOFFS: 49ERS 36, SAINTS 32

ALSO KNOWN AS: Alex Smith Runs To Daylight
SKINNY:
Both teams carried 13-3 records into Candlestick Park. Plus, when tracking the game’s brightest stars — Drew Brees (462 yards passing, four TDs), Marques Colston, Darren Sproles, Jimmy Graham, Alex Smith (299 yards passing, four TDs), Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree — all eight accounted for at least 100 total yards or one touchdown.

Smith’s final two scores remain the stuff of legend: His 28-yard rushing TD represented the longest single carry of his pro career (at the time).

Smith’s 14-yard TD pass to Davis also evoked memories of Terrell Owens’ game-winning TD during the 1998 playoffs, with both stars joyfully crying after helping the Niners advance through the playoffs.

4 — 1974 AFC PLAYOFFS: RAIDERS 28, DOLPHINS 26

ALSO KNOWN AS: The Sea Of Hands Game
SKINNY:
For the midweek buildup to this epic matchup in 1974, Sports Illustrated famously hailed it as “Super Bowl 8 1/2.”

The game itself certainly didn’t disappoint, with the clubs exchanging the lead seven times and Hall of Famers Larry Csonka (114 rushing yards) and Fred Biletnikoff (8 catches, 122 yards, 1 TD) enjoying strong games.

Here’s how that final drive went down: With Oakland down five in the final minute, and approaching the goal line, Hall of Fame quarterback Kenny Stabler (four passing TDs) scrambled out of a jam, rolled to his left and fluttered a weak pass toward Clarence Davis in the end zone — while being engulfed by three Dolphins defenders.

Davis reached up and somehow corralled the pass that ended the Dolphins’ reign as back-to-back Super Bowl champions … and indirectly kick-started the Pittsburgh Steelers’ dynastic run of four titles in six seasons.

NOTE: The following week, the Steelers would upend the Raiders in Oakland, paving the way to their first of four Super Bowl berths in the 1970s (all victories).

5 — 1977 AFC PLAYOFFS: RAIDERS 37, COLTS 31 (OT)

ALSO KNOWN AS: Ghost To The Post
SKINNY:
If this Christmas Eve clash had been a Super Bowl, the legendary John Madden claims it would have been the NFL’s greatest game. Period.

Who could argue with a Hall of Fame coach that captained the Raiders to nine playoff wins in a 10-year span, including one Lombardi Trophy?

Against the Colts, Raiders QB Ken Stabler passed for 345 yards and three TDs — with each score finding tight end Dave “Ghost” Casper.

But the Ghost To The Post moniker has little to do with touchdowns. Rather, it entails the Stabler-to-Casper over-the-shoulder pass/catch (42 yards), which helped clinch the game in overtime.

SAD 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 relocating to Indianapolis.

6 — 1972 AFC PLAYOFFS: STEELERS 13, RAIDERS 7

ALSO KNOWN AS: The Immaculate Reception
SKINNY:
Trailing by one in the final minute and staring at a 4th-and-10 scenario in their own end, Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw dropped back, evaded the Raiders rush for a brief moment and then fired a downfield pass to John “Frenchy” 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, Steelers rookie Franco Harris scooped up the ball —before it hit the ground — and sprinted 60 yards for the game-winning score.

This prompted one of the league’s most hysterical, on-field crowd celebrations. The controversial TD — universally regarded as the greatest play in NFL history — secured the Steelers’ first-ever playoff victory.

7 — 2012 AFC PLAYOFFS: RAVENS 38, BRONCOS 35 (2OT)

ALSO KNOWN AS: The Bomb
SKINNY:
We’re seven years 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 executed this miracle play.

The game was a symmetrical masterpiece, with the Ravens and Broncos 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’s Justin Tucker booted the game-winning field goal early in the second overtime, just minutes after Peyton Manning tossed an ill-advised interception in Denver territory.

The Broncos’ Trindon Holliday could have been the ultimate hero, scoring two return TDs (one kick, one punt).

8 — 1971 AFC PLAYOFFS: DOLPHINS 27, CHIEFS 24 (2OT)

ALSO KNOWN AS: The Longest Game, Part I
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 Miami’s case, it was the first game in NFL history to eclipse a fifth quarter. (The 1962 AFL Championship ran a tad longer.)

On Christmas Night, the Dolphins’ Hall of Fame trio of Bob Griese (272 total yards), Paul Warfield (140 yards) and Larry Csonka accounted for three TDs — including Griese’s overtime-forcing TD pass in the fourth quarter.

For the Chiefs, Ed Podolak enjoyed the game of his life, racking up 195 total yards/two TDs from scrimmage … and 154 kick-return yards. In the sixth quarter, kicker Garo Yepremian clinched Miami’s harrowing victory with a 37-yard field goal.

9 — 2003 NFC PLAYOFFS: PANTHERS 29, RAMS 23 (2OT)

ALSO KNOWN AS: The Longest Game, Part II
SKINNY:
The 1971 Dolphins and 2003 Panthers notched double-overtime road upsets for Divisional Playoff weekend, with both clubs eventually reaching the Super Bowl.

In Carolina’s case, a Steve Smith touchdown 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).

Of course, the Panthers didn’t intend to extend the game so far, squandering an 11-point lead in the final three minutes.

On the bright side, Carolina held Rams QB Marc Bulger (zero TDs) and receiver Torry Holt (two catches, 21 yards) to marginal gains … allowing only Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk (131 total yards) to find the end zone.

10 — 1983 AFC PLAYOFFS: SEAHAWKS 27, DOLPHINS 20

ALSO KNOWN AS: An Upset For All Time
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 their final 11 games.

Also, the Miami defense, better known as The Killer B’s, ranked No. 1 overall in points allowed.

A Dolphins-Raiders clash in the AFC title game might have been one for all time; but the Curt Warner-led Seahawks crushed that dream scenario, with the 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.

11 — 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 QBs while cocking to make a throw — at least for a short while.

Prior to the 2013 season, however, the league eliminated the controversial ruling altogether, shifting the focus to whether a passer’s arm had been moving forward.

But that’s only a small consolation to those connected with the 2001 Raiders (including owner Al Davis), when cornerback Charles Woodson blitzed from the left side — amid blizzard conditions at venerable Foxboro Stadium — 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 eventually advance to the AFC title game.

From this lucky occurrence, Brady quickly ascended into the NFL’s best quarterback, leading the Patriots to six Lombardi trophies, nine AFC titles and 17 division championships over the next 19 seasons.

12 — 1988 NFC PLAYOFFS: BEARS 20, EAGLES 12

ALSO KNOWN AS: The Fog Bowl
SKINNY:
All the cherished memories from this odd classic stem from the intrepid work of TV reporters hovering near the field of play. 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?

In this social-media age, would the NFL have allowed The Fog Bowl to proceed, if the vast majority of fans were clamoring for the event to be stopped?

And would the result have been the same, under ideal conditions?

After all, that Eagles team boasted in-their-prime stars like Reggie White, Seth Joyner, Clyde Simmons, Eric Allen and Jerome Brown.

Plus, Philly QB Randall Cunningham somehow passed for 407 yards … without the benefit of a single touchdown.

13 — 2014 NFC PLAYOFFS: PACKERS 34, COWBOYS 31

ALSO KNOWN AS: The Greatest Game Without A Controversial Ending
SKINNY:
Without a doubt, you can’t tell the story of the Cowboys-Packers playoff rivalry without regaling The Ice Bowl, Jerry Kramer’s iconic block, Don Meredith’s end-zone interception (1966 NFL title game) or Dez Bryant’s overturned touchdown catch, via Instant Replay.

However, from an aesthetic perspective, the 2016 playoff game (January 2017) easily stands as the clubs’ most entertaining postseason clash, a high-scoring, low-mistake classic that featured more touchdowns (seven) than combined punts (five).

Charting their final three drives, the Cowboys produced two touchdowns and one Dan Bailey field goal of 52 yards, erasing a 28-13 deficit and seemingly forcing overtime.

But Packers QB Aaron Rodgers was undaunted by the challenge of getting in field-goal range in under 35 seconds.

In short order, Rodgers (355 yards passing, 2 TDs) connected with Ty Montgomery for 17 yards, weathered a sack of 10 yards and then found tight end Jared Cook for a 35-yard strike, allowing Mason Crosby to bury the game-winning kick with no time left.

Interestingly, both of Crosby’s field goals exceeded 50 yards; and the two quarterbacks (Rodgers, Dak Prescott) combined for 657 yards passing and five touchdowns.

14 — 1986 AFC PLAYOFFS: BROWNS 23, JETS 20 (OT)

ALSO KNOWN AS: The Epic Before ‘The Drive’
SKINNY:
This classic has been forgotten by history, due to the iconic Broncos-Browns clash the following week (AFC title game).

Bottom line: If New York defensive end Marc Gastineau doesn’t commit a late-hit penalty on QB Bernie Kosar, the Jets undoubtedly maintain their 10-point lead and advance to the matchup with Denver.

Under that scenario, Elway’s Broncos probably roll over the Jets (following week) … but the QB would have been denied the opportunity of cementing his NFL legacy with The Drive — Denver’s 98-yard scoring jaunt to force overtime in the AFC championship.

Also, former ESPN anchor Charley Steiner was New York’s radio guy back then and infamously declared, “The Jets are headed for the AFC championship game!” after tailback Freeman McNeil notched a 25-yard TD run late in the game.

But alas, it wasn’t meant to be for the Jets, who still haven’t reached a Super Sunday since January 1969.

15 — 1975 NFC PLAYOFFS: COWBOYS 17, VIKINGS 14

ALSO KNOWN AS: The Hail Mary Game
SKINNY:
It’s hard to tell where the Vikings had actually committed a pass-interference penalty on Drew Pearson’s 50-yard TD in the final seconds, with the Cowboys trailing by four.

But Pearson caught Roger Staubach’s bomb anyway, making it all a moot point — unless you believe Pearson pushed off to initially get free.

That aside, this may stand as the Vikings’ most disheartening playoff loss in franchise history … which is saying a lot.

At 12-2, Minnesota bore the look of a league champion, or one that could challenge the Steelers’ repeat bid in Super Bowl X.

The Staubach-to-Pearson bomb stands as one of the most iconic plays in NFL history. Of course, it would have never happened in the first place … if the Cowboys QB hadn’t completed a gravity-defying fourth-down pass to Pearson a few seconds prior.

16 — 1980 NFC PLAYOFFS: RAIDERS 14, BROWNS 12

ALSO KNOWN AS: Red Right 88
SKINNY:
Say hello to this countdown’s coldest game on record, with an opening-kick temperature of 2 degrees and a wind chill of nearly minus-30 throughout this blustery afternoon.

If this playoff game had taken place in Oakland, the high-octane Browns and Raiders might have combined for 65-plus points. Instead, the two offenses were paralyzed for long stretches inside Cleveland’s old Municipal Stadium, the dual result of brutally cold temperatures and a stifling crosswind.

How bad were the winds? Browns kicker Don Cockroft missed three doable kicks (two field goals, one extra point) early in the game … which might have played a role in head coach Sam Rutigliano’s choice to attempt an end-zone pass on the final drive — even though Cleveland was already in position for the game-winning field goal.

On that final drive, Browns QB Brian Sipe (1980 NFL MVP) stealthily led his team downfield, through a series of sideline and over-the-middle pass patterns; and when Cleveland tailback Mike Pruitt executed a draw play to the Oakland 13 (with 50 seconds left), it seemed like the Browns were headed to their first AFC title game of the Super Bowl era.

But ay the rub: The ‘Red Right 88’ call, earmarked for eventual Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome, had trouble cutting through the stadium crosswind, thus diminishing its velocity.

This enabled Raiders safety Mike Davis to swoop in front of Newsome and corral the game-clinching interception.

Factoring in all the Browns heartbreak of the 1980s, this sequence might have been the most devastating for Cleveland fans. On the flip side, this upset victory helped the Raiders soon become the first wild-card team in NFL history to win a Super Bowl.

17 — 2005 AFC PLAYOFFS: STEELERS 21, COLTS 18

ALSO KNOWN AS: Big Ben’s Miracle Tackle
SKINNY:
The 2005 Colts, led by Peyton Manning, posted a 14-2 record and collected nine victories of 10-plus points.

However, the seasonal accomplishment was obscured by this setback, a defeat that almost didn’t happen — thanks to Jerome Bettis’s goal-line fumble in the waning seconds.

With Pittsburgh leading by three, Bettis plunged into the Indy defense near the goal line. But a defender’s helmet jarred the ball loose and into the hands of Nick Harper who sprinted the other way … with only one defender blocking his path.

Ben Roethlisberger.

Big Ben brought Harper down, despite the zig-zagging up the right sideline. The Colts, needing a field goal to force OT, then called on Mike Vanderjagt; but his kick went far right and clinched one of the most storied upsets in Steelers history.

18 — 1999 NFC PLAYOFFS: RAMS 49, VIKINGS 37

ALSO KNOWN AS: Kurt Warner’s Playoff Breakthrough
SKINNY:
In 1999, Warner had become an overnight sensation with the Rams, transforming from grocery-store stocker to backup QB 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.

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 TDs.

That greatness trickled down to the playmakers, with Faulk (101 total yards, two TDs), Bruce (133 yards, one TD), Hall of Famer Cris Carter (106 yards, one TD) and Hall of Famer Randy Moss (nine catches, 188 yards, two TDs) racking up monster numbers.

19 — 1996 AFC PLAYOFFS: JAGUARS 30, BRONCOS 27

ALSO KNOWN AS: The Mile High Shocker
SKINNY:
The still-in-expansion-mode Jaguars (Year 2) 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 for John Elway and Co.

Adding to the fun, QB Mark Brunell (289 total yards, two TDs) helped transform a 12-0 deficit into a 30-20 lead late in the game, allowing Jacksonville to preserve one of the NFL’s greatest upsets of the last 30 years.

20 — 1977 NFC PLAYOFFS: VIKINGS 14, RAMS 7

ALSO KNOWN AS: The Mud Bowl
SKINNY:
The slimy pitch at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum eerily resembled the Devonshire moors from the famous book, The Hound Of The Baskervilles.

At the time, Minnesota was also smarting from a 35-3 blowout loss to Los Angeles back in October, which occurred on the same Coliseum field (albeit considerably dryer).

The footing was wretched from the opening kickoff, but firm enough for Vikings QB Bob Lee to register a 5-yard touchdown pass to Chuck Foreman in the first quarter.

The Vikings then added a score in the fourth quarter … before withstanding a furious Rams rally in the end.

The ’77 Rams (led by Jack Youngblood) ranked 1st in scoring differential, 2nd in overall scoring and 4th in total defense. And yet, the slippery, unrelenting mud in the Minnesota loss served as the great equalizer.

About The Managing Editor

Jay Clemons remains the only sports writer on the planet to capture Cynposis Media’s national award for Sports Blog Of The Year (beating out NBA.com, MLB.com, PGATour.com, The Players’ Tribune in 2015), along with the Fantasy Sports Writers Association’s pre-eminent award for Best Writer (2008). Through the years, Mr. Clemons has been a key figure with numerous blue-chip sports/media brands, namely the Detroit Lions, Sports Illustrated, FOX Sports, Bleacher Report and the NBC/Universal family. With Sports Illustrated (2006-11), Clemons served a triple role with SI.com‘s heralded football coverage—editing Peter King’s famed ‘Monday Morning Quarterback’ column, penning award-winning pieces for NFL and then writing/narrating scripted videos within the NFL and baseball realms. In 2013, Clemons’ first year with the company, FOX Sports South enjoyed a monumental increase of approximately 34 million Web hits in a 12-month cycle—merely posting 11 million hits the previous year. 

Then, over a two-month span in 2014, FOX Sports South amassed 19.5 million Web hits—a 60-day record for any FOX affiliate. And in 2015, Clemons claimed the aforementioned Cynopsis Media award on FOX Sports’ behalf, the company’s only national writing award during that period. Clemons, a graduate of Michigan State University  and Wayne State University, has been an on-camera Web-TV host for Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports. In 2015, he also became the first-ever sports journalism professor at Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta.

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